Steamboat Springs: Far from home

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He couldn't have been older than 24.

He held the door as I walked into a building in Nashville, Tenn., but my plan was to simply reach into the foyer for a newspaper and leave.

I found a paper, turned on my heels and opened the door for myself on the way out. As the door swung open, I almost bumped right into the man's chest.

A look of horror came over his face as he saw me standing there holding the door for myself. He apologized for not realizing I was coming back out. He apologized for not opening the door for me.

And that's when I realized that I was 1,125 miles from Steamboat Springs. I was in the South.

I haven't spent much time in states like Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi or Georgia, so the politeness caught me off guard. For days, men were opening doors, calling me ma'am and generally being nice.

I've spent most of my life in places like Wyoming, Alaska and New England, cold places where people tend to be reclusive. It takes people awhile -- years even -- to warm up. So I am naturally suspicious of random niceness. I raised an eyebrow and thought, "What do these people want from me?"

But even people from Wyo--ming thaw eventually, and I began to warm to the gentle Southern friendliness and started to enjoy everyone's meticulous manners.

In comparison, my loud Northern accent and gruff responses felt like sandpaper next to a baby's back.

It seemed I had not only stepped into another culture, but I had stepped back in time to the days when my grandparents were young. My grandfather never would let a woman hold the door for him, and he doesn't think twice about the implications.

Men my age are in manners limbo. Guys of this ambiguous gender-role generation get yelled at for not opening the door for a woman and yelled at for having the audacity to open a door for a woman.

It's hard to know which way to go. I've noticed most guys have given up completely.

It was blowing snow and bitterly cold when we landed in Denver on Sunday. We walked to the bus stop for a shuttle ride to the parking lot.

As we boarded the bus, a woman in professionally distressed jeans struggled to get her oversized luggage up the steps of the shuttle. Her boyfriend already was inside and comfortably seated. She got one bag in and wrestled with the second until the driver stepped down to help her. She plopped into the seat next to her boyfriend, smiled and put her hand on his knee.

I thought, "Any Southern girl would have kicked his butt for not helping her." But that's the way things are now. If you want equal pay for equal work, you have to carry your own luggage, open the door for yourself and go Dutch on dates.

It's deeply ingrained in my head that I shouldn't want a man to help me put on my coat or pull out my seat at a restaurant.

Those were perks of my grandmother's era, before bra burning and Camille Paglia.

My generation doesn't have to fight for a place in the world. We work 40 hours, we buy our own shoes, and we make the first move.

I wouldn't want to go back to the days before Title IX and the Equal Rights Amendment, but I also couldn't help thinking as I watched that couple on the bus that we also lost something in the trade.

There must be a balance. These days, the interaction between the genders is less of a dance and more like two saw blades spinning next to each other.

I'm going to write a Ms. Manner's book for my ambiguous generation, and in its pages, men and women will be given permission to hold the door for one another. Through a few adjustments in the abandoned traditional etiquette, the confusing war zone created in the name of equality can become a polite place again.

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