Archives for the month of: August, 2014

Okay, everybody. It’s time to calm the fuck down.

I’m talking about cell phones.

And Facebook.

And Twitter.

And Instagram.

And “technology” in general.

It’s not evil. None of it. Not even close.

And it’s not ruining communication. Or writing. Or dinner.

It’s just not.

So chill out.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen several articles talking about a sweeter, simpler time. A time when people actually knew how to have face-to-face conversations, delved deeply into each others’ thoughts, desires, minds, and found a reflection of themselves staring back, trembling in the sudden light of their shared experiences and waiting, hoping, breathlessly anticipating an embrace from the sister soul of their companion.

This time of sweet connectivity and genuine friendship? I’m talking 2004.

Martha Stewart went to prison for insider trading.

George W. Bush was “reelected” as President.

And what else happened?

Facebook launched.

And apparently everything went to shit (and, no, I’m not talking about GW, okay? Not today).

First, I noticed the viral Craigslist “Upscale New York Restaurant” hoax. Yes, it’s a hoax. Anybody who has ever worked in a restaurant immediately knew that it was a hoax. Also, anybody who has recently eaten in a restaurant. Or walked inside one. Or driven slowly past one and glanced casually through the windows. Hoax. Hoaxy hoaxy Hoax McHoaxerson.

For those of you who were spared the constant “Wow, it really makes you think!” reposting and citing of this article, allow me to explain. A post appeared on Craigslist New York’s “Rants & Raves” section, claiming to have been written by an owner of a “popular” New York restaurant. The ranter claimed that they had received several negative online reviews, citing slow service. Even though “the number of customers we serve on a daily basis is almost the same today as it was 10 years ago, the service just seems super slow even though we added more staff and cut back on the menu items.” The ranter, in an effort to understand how such reviews could possibly exist, compared surveillance tapes from 2004 to today.

What he “found” was that people spend so much time on their cell phones that the average length of dinner had skyrocketed, from 60 minutes to 115 minutes.  Not only that, but the amount of meals having to be sent back to the kitchen for being “cold” quadrupled, because people were spending an average of “5 minutes” showing waiters “something on their phone” and an “average of 3 minutes taking photos of the food.” Over half of the people at the restaurant in 2014 also asked the waiter to take group pictures of them, then asked the waiter to take multiple pictures while “chit chatting” and taking up another 5 minutes of the waiter’s time.

Bullshit. And here’s why.

  1. If patrons in your restaurant are taking twice as long to eat their meals than they were ten years ago, then it is actually, physically impossible for you to serve “almost the same” number of customers per day as you did ten years ago. Unless you have doubled the size of your dining area. If that’s the case, then perhaps the longer wait times have something to do with an overworked kitchen staff as opposed to those evil cell phones.
  2. Speaking as a former waitress, I have to say that VERY rarely did customers send food back for being “cold.” Usually, it was because something was on the plate that shouldn’t have been (like, say, the time I told the kitchen that my customer had a severe peanut allergy, so they decided to place the spicy peanut sauce “on the side” instead of directly on the salad. What part of “anaphylaxic shock” don’t you understand?). Also, if you’re just looking at dining room surveillance footage, how on earth do you know that the food is being sent back because it’s cold? Do you also have footage of your kitchen? Complete with high quality microphones that will be able to pick up on the single waitress talking to an assistant chef over the noise and confusion of a busy kitchen during lunch rush?
  3. Does your restaurant only cater to 13 year old girls? Who shows their waiter something on their phone? Ever? Do you really expect me to believe that 27 out of 45 customers (over HALF) asked to get a photo taken? Have you been to a restaurant recently? You know who asks to get photos taken? Bachelorette parties and kids going to prom. What the hell kind of restaurant is this?
  4. Think about how long 3 minutes is. 3 whole minutes to photograph food? Here, try this. Sing “Happy Birthday.” Just sit still, and sing the whole thing. That was ten seconds. Now, do that EIGHTEEN more times. You don’t think anybody on the planet would be able to snap a picture of a double stuffed potato in that time? It’s an eternity!
  5. Why the anonymity? If this was a real “popular New York restaurant,” the owners and staff would be arranging interviews on Good Morning America and calling every online review place in the universe to get their story heard. It would be incredible, positive publicity for the restaurant. People would show up in droves (and maybe a few covered wagons) just to show off how efficiently they can eat in a restaurant without technology. If it was my restaurant, I’d hire a PR firm to make sure that my “rant,” name, address, picture, and GPS coordinates were on the front of the Huffington Post homepage for at least a week. But nobody did that.

Because it was made up.

So, please, stop reposting it.

Then, just today, I read an op ed piece from the New Yorker entitled “A Memoir is not a Status Update.” In this piece, memoirist and novelist Dani Shapiro worries:

[W]e’re confusing the small, sorry details—the ones that we post and read every day—for the work of memoir itself. I can’t tell you how many times people have thanked me for “sharing my story,” as if the books I’ve written are not chiseled and honed out of the hard and unforgiving material of a life but, rather, have been dashed off, as if a status update, a response to the question at the top of every Facebook feed: “What’s on your mind?”

Bitch, please.

Do you think that online capabilities and mindless scrolling through pictures of friends’ (or acquaintances’, or even strangers’) cute babies and puppies has somehow stripped all of us of our collective humanity? Shapiro bemoans the emergence of emoticons—symbols that serve to clarify tone, or emphasize a particular emotion without linguistic words—and while, as a writer, I tend to shy away from them (I stubbornly insist that my tone must always already be understood by my audience. I am a writer! I can never be misread or misunderstood!), I understand their broader appeal. The problem with online communication is that, without the human voice, or the human face, knowing when something is being said in jest, or satirically is sometimes hard to distinguish (my friends have often laughed that Facebook needs a “sarcasm font.” I would agree, but I do so love the drama that such tonal misunderstandings create). Most people aren’t writers. Most people are uncomfortable with communicating solely via the written word. Most people have come to believe at some point that they “just can’t ‘do’ English” (at least, that’s what I heard, over and over, from my students).  But nobody is mistaking a “heart” for a “phone call,” as Shapiro fears. Nobody is confusing the change in status from “Married” to “Single” as telling the “story” of a divorce. Even people who love social media (and I am one of them. Oh yes, I am) recognize that it is a representation of the self, another filter through which we strain out the unsavory and leave the humorous, the kind, the talented, the fashionable.  And a true reader will be able to see through the vapid “stories” that others post. We’ll be able to see that our friend whose status shifted, without additional comment, from “Married” to “Single” is making a statement with his silence. Perhaps a statement of denial. Perhaps one of self-preservation.  Perhaps one of masculinity and vulnerability. Perhaps one of unspeakable sadness. Perhaps one of embarrassment. Perhaps one of bravado.

It may be hidden.

It may feel digitized and manufactured.

But it’s still there.

Our humanity.

Our stories.

Yes, even our dinner.

It’s not going anywhere.

It can’t. A cell phone cannot take it away. Nothing in the hundred thousand or so years of human evolution has yet.

 

And, seriously, put the phone away during dinner. At least for date night.

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My Nana’s eyes were filling with tears, but she was still smiling.

“He agreed to fix all of the shoes for the women in the shop, and in exchange, they gave him silk stockings for all of his girls.  All three of us and my mother. Even though we didn’t have much money, I always had silk stockings. It felt so good. You can’t even find silk stockings anymore.”

Her eyes let me know that she was no longer sitting in the kitchen with me, in 2012. She was walking past seemingly endless rows of tract houses on Chicago’s south side, in a close knit, poor immigrant community. She was helping her mother butcher whole pigs and bake kolackys, but not in the traditional, wrapped way that her mother had learned growing up in Czechoslovakia. No. “We are in America now. We do things the American way. The easy way.” Instead of wrapping the sweet apricots or sesame seeds up in the flaky cream cheese dough until they looked like snug babushkas, my Nana watched her mother roll the dough out flat, and cut it into circles using one of her husband’s whiskey glasses. She pressed three fingers into the middle of the circle, making “puppy dog feet” in the center, and filled the indentation with apricots, baking the cookies flat.

“I never knew very much Czechoslovakian, because my mother refused to speak it once she got to America. ‘We are American now!’ Steve was the one who was fluent. He taught me so much.” She ran her hands along her dented and scratched kitchen table. “He used to say that he would have to work forever just to keep me in silk stockings! He and my father would laugh about it. My father would tell him, ‘Keep her in silk stockings,’” finally, she smiled up at me. A small jolt ran through her as she looked at me, saw me, her grown granddaughter, breastfeeding a newborn great-granddaughter to sleep. She paused.

“I can’t believe it’s been ten years.”

I nodded. “I miss Dedo.”

A familiar look crossed her face. I never knew if it was sadness, or worry, or some combination of both, but we all recognized it when we saw it. Her brows wrinkled together, and she placed her fingertips up against her lips, lightly patting them, almost trembling. Soon, she’ll start picking her nails. She’s always so anxious. Dedo was the only one who knew how to calm her down.

“Is there anything you wish you could still say to him? Or do for him?”

The second I asked the question, I was sorry for it. Why am I trying to make this 87-year-old woman remember her loss?  Her loneliness? Am I trying to make her feel the guilt of her regrets? I wanted to get closer to my memory of Dedo, but did I have to do it by torturing her? I looked down, and forced a chuckle, “I mean, Dedo was the first adult to swear at me. He called me a little shit. Do you remember that? He was such a hard ass . . .”

“Eggs.”

“Huh?”

“I never made him over easy eggs.” The worried look was gone. There was a calmness, a solidity to her expression that I rarely saw. “After his heart attack—you know, that was back in 1968—all of the doctors told you to stay away from eggs. He loved breakfast. He’d eat it for every meal if he could. Every morning, I’d wake up, pour us some juice, get the paper, and we’d have our breakfast together. Drink coffee. Read the paper. And he loved runny eggs. He would beg me, ‘Helen, please. Just one egg.’ He loved to dip his toast in it.” Rye toast. Another nod to the old country. Nana has only ever had rye bread in her house. White bread just doesn’t have enough flavor for her. “But I never made him an egg. I made him eat these awful, powdered eggs. You had to add water to them, and then cook them. They only came scrambled.  They were like rubber.” She stared down at the well-worn kitchen table, running her fingertips along the deep scratches and roughness. She whispered, “I could have made him an egg. Just one egg.” She looked up at me. Solid once again. “It would have made him so happy. And I could have done it. But I never did. I never did. Just that little thing. It would have made him happy all day. And what would it have mattered? Just one egg. You know, now they say that you can have eggs, even with a bad heart. I kept arguing with him and arguing with him. ‘Steve,’ I’d say, ‘You have to follow doctor’s orders!’”

She smiled a little. My grandparents were almost always engaged in loud, lengthy power struggles. Both were too stubborn to admit defeat.  Too proud to apologize.  Dedo was an adventurous spirit. A tinkerer who never read the directions. Nana was a dutiful daughter, close to her family. Dedo made sure she left the house every now and then, and Nana made sure he didn’t electrocute himself. They both were determined to do it on their own, and they both could never admit that they were lost without each other.

“Just one egg. It would have made him so happy. I could have made him so happy. And I didn’t.”

My mind flickered back to a conversation I once had with an Iraq veteran. We were splitting a six pack while crashing at a friend’s house, and I once again couldn’t stop myself from asking the wrong question, “So, what was it like over there?”

His beer stopped halfway to his mouth. Our friend’s orange kitten jumped on the couch next to him, and he scratched her small head for awhile before answering.

“You couldn’t get good eggs over there.”

“Huh?”

“None of the eggs are pasteurized over there, so you have to cook them all the way through. The scrambled eggs would be brown on one side. They’d just cook the shit outta the eggs. You couldn’t get good eggs.”

Then, we watched Jeopardy.

That was all he would say.

 

Love, and family, and home. Those all sound like really big things. Things that need big gestures, or big structures, or big people, or big moments.  As I spoke with my grandmother, holding my new daughter, I kept waiting for, looking for, anticipating, something big.

But maybe all of those things are actually very small.

Maybe home is that scratch on the counter where your husband sliced the rye bread without a cutting board.

Maybe family is baking kolackys the “easy” way.

Maybe love is pair of silk stockings.

Maybe love is bickering for hours, then splitting a glass of orange juice over the morning paper.

Maybe love is watching every single Cubs game together for fifty years.

Maybe love is a single, runny egg.