8/30/10

Lazyphones

I was supposed to meet him in the park at 3:00 pm.  At 2:15 I got a voice message; he was running late.  Was it alright if we met at 4:00?  I happened to be running late as well, so I texted back “OK, no prob.”  When I arrived at the prearranged location, there was a new text from him: “Sorry...taking longer than I thought...will b there at 4:20.”  Finally at 4:30 he showed up--out of breath and very apologetic.  I was unfazed, even sanguine.  He had called, after all.  Thanks to the miracle of cell phones, there was no “Where the hell is he?” moment.  I never had to suffer, even fleetingly, from the notion that I had been stood up, nor did I worry that something might have happened to him. 

But then I started thinking: Without cell phones, might not our meeting have been more efficiently carried off?  Without the inexorable reliability of wireless communication, would we all be as late as often as we are nowadays?  And would we be so very loosey-goosey about our plan-making?  Don't cell phones, in fact, make us socially lazy? 

For one thing we have all completely lost the habit of remembering phone numbers, so that when we forget or lose our phone we are immediately cut off from everyone we know.  But more important, cell phones breed in us a tendency to be noncommittal.  Never before have we been able to get away with being so vague about the details of our rendezvous.  Modern communication technology provides us with the luxurious freedom to “zero in on things” later.  We are always reachable, so we have total flexibility (or the illusion, at least, of total flexibility).   And total flexibility equals total wishy-washyness.

For example, if you are making a plan to meet someone at the museum, why bother setting up a specific place and time, when you can simply call each other when you get close?  As a result, what seems like an efficient way to operate ends up being incredibly inefficient, by the time you have both called each other six or seven times (“Where are you?” “Over by the gift shop.”  “The gift shop?  But I’m in the gift shop.” “Wait, not the big gift shop--I’m in the small gift shop… hold on, I’m getting another call…”)   If you had just set a time and place in advance, you could have had one conversation about it, and then spent the rest of the time actually looking at the art. 

Now, with foursquare and similar applications, we can take our personal plasticity one step further.  We can make no plans at all, but simply show up somewhere and then use our mobile devices to figure out who’s around.  (Foursquare lets users "check in" to a place when they're there, tell friends where they are and track the history of where they've been and who they've been there with.)  Maybe this is a good thing.  Maybe this is the ultimate “being in the moment” experience that Buddhists and similar truth-seekers have been talking about for centuries.  Maybe humanity has merely been waiting for the smartphone to attain spiritual enlightenment. 

I myself am dying for Verizon to offer the iPhone.  I am practically salivating for it.  However, there is a part of me that longs for the old days of appointment books.  You would open your soft, leather-bound book, with a pink silk ribbon marking the day.  “Algonquin at 5:00, drinks,” would be written there in dark blue ink.  And you had to show up.  If you were late, you hurried.  If you had changed your mind, too bad.  Some times you waited, and wondered where he was.  Sometimes you met someone else while you were waiting.  It was all part of the fun.

8/23/10

The Foot-in-Mouth Diet

Forget the Zone, the Cooler Cleanse, the Carb Lovers Diet and other trendy weight loss programs.  I have a plan that really works: The Foot-in-Mouth Diet.

The inspiration for this new diet came to me one night a couple weeks ago at a friend’s birthday party.  I was an hour late--due to the combination of a blown fuse, a cat leap/broken glass incident and a paralyzing case of clothing indecision (which frequently strikes me in the summer when I am feeling a bit over-ample in the upper arm area.)  By the time I arrived at the party I was flustered and completely out of sorts.

I headed for the food table, eying the Brie and what looked like some very fattening meatballs.  When I got there I greeted a woman I had met several times in the past but had not seen for a while.

“And how is your husband?”  I asked her, after the initial pleasantries were over.  I began reaching for a meatball.

Suddenly I had a bad feeling, as if all the air in the room had turned to poison gas.  It was then that I remembered with horror that the husband had left her the year before--for the daughter of someone I knew!  The worst part was that the woman who was now standing in front of me with a frozen look on her face knew that I was acquainted with the woman who had stolen her husband.

“OH! -- Oh god, I’m so sorry.  I….didn’t……I....I guess my memory must be going the way of your husband,”  I heard myself saying with a failed attempt at a laugh.  (It was really more of a bray.)

Right then I lost my appetite.  I excused myself and moved away from the food table and never went back.  I nibbled on some celery and nuts by the bar, and drank two glasses of white wine.  Hmm, I thought to myself.  Keep this kind of thing up and a person could really lose some weight.

8/9/10

Dumb Diners

The tiny banquet-style tables in the trendy Upper East Side restaurant were difficult to squeeze into, especially when there were other diners already seated at the tables on either side of us.  After we ordered our drinks, and we had begun to discuss my friend’s most recent horrible experience with her dentist--who unfortunately she can’t ever leave because he is also her in-law--both of us began to get an odd feeling.  What was it?  What was weird?  Was there something wrong with the lighting?  The music?  Then we realized what it was.  The couple besides us was not talking.  Like, at all.  A staid-looking couple in their late 60’s, they were calmly eating their entrees, occasionally sipping wine or water, and simply staring off into space.

Let’s face it: At a restaurant where tables are this close together, there is only the illusion of privacy.  One of the things that makes up the imaginary “wall” between diners is the conversation that the other people are having.  If people are talking and listening to each other, then they are not, in all probability, listening to you.  On the other hand if no one at the neighboring table is talking, then--unless they are actual deaf people--they are going to be listening to you--to one degree or another. 

I always wonder what is behind this mealtime mum-ness.  Are the two people angry at each other and can’t bare to speak to each other?  (I have yet to see three people in a restaurant not speaking.)  Are they on their 40th year of eating at restaurants together and are simply too bored to communicate out loud anymore?  Or are they really just purposefully eavesdropping, because eavesdropping at restaurants is one of their favorite hobbies? 

I don’t think this kind of silent communal eating is a very common occurrence, at least not at New York restaurants.  (If anything people here tend to talk too, too loudly and too long.)  But it does happen. A friend told me she went to a restaurant in her neighborhood in Brooklyn where the couple beside her was eating together but was each involved in his own, separate silent pastime--one with a book and the other with an iPhone.  Even though they were occupied, and not just staring into space, she said it was off-putting. Sometimes a diner is alone, of course.  With one person sitting alone, you can’t blame him or her for being quiet.  Can they help it if they have no one to talk to?  Often a singleton has a book or paper to read; he is probably still listening to some of your conversation, but you can all pretend he is not.

But how do you deal with it if you can’t forget you’ve got dumb people beside you?  I have one friend who uses code words for such situations.  Paranoid about being overheard talking about people in his industry (he has a high-profile media job) he’ll refer to his boss as “Big Balloon,”  his nemesis as “Devil Dog” and the head of the company as “Elephant.”  (If anyone is actually listening to us during one of these discussions, it might sound like a Disney drug deal.)  I myself always want to step in as the “therapist” when I see these no-talkers.  “Let me see if I might be able to help you two sort this thing out,”  I would say, “You guys must have plenty left to talk about!  Who wants to say 'I’m sorry' first?  Come on…..you can do it!”

Occasionally I have the impulse (which so far I have managed to squelch) to turn to the non-talkers and ask them to voice their opinion on what we are discussing.  “You two look like sensible people, did you hear what my friend here said about my new apartment?  What do you think I should do?   And by the way, is the lamb any good?”

It’s a free country.  If you and your spouse want to go out, eat dinner sitting across from one another without saying one word, that’s your choice.  But the very next time I find myself with dumb diners I swear I am going to start talking to them, and I won’t stop until I have discovered the secret of their silent repast.  You never know, maybe it’ll make me shut up too.

8/2/10

This Seat's Taken

I was just putting the finishing touches on an entirely other piece I was going to do for this Monday’s "Miss Mingle Blogs," when I discovered to my dismay that a friend and colleague was writing almost the exact same thing--and had even come up with the same title!  What could I do?  It’s not that surprising really, we are all fed by the same sources--Facebook, The New York Times, TV, Twitter.  Original ideas are few and far between.  After a moment (okay maybe two) of hesitation I took the high road and left the piece for my friend, though it left me high and dry.

But it got me thinking about all those times when you make a bee line for a seat at the movies (or a taxi) and suddenly find that your rear end and the rear end of a stranger are both trying to occupy the space.  Or when you and your dinner companion both decide you just must have the soft shell crab special before the waiter informs you there is only one order left.  Or the momentary confusion two people experience in the grocery store when they are both reaching for the same last loaf of pumpernickel. 

Obviously, if the thing in question is not sharable, you should always try to let the other person have it--especially if it is a friend.  This may not be so easy, because whether it’s a creative idea or a piece of fruit, we tend to feel ownership over something we have chosen; we feel invested in some way.  But yielding is the noble act of an enlightened human and will end up making you feel better.  (Unless of course doing so involves the loss of a lot of money or it will hurt your career and then I am afraid the gloves are off, and may the best man win.)  You never know, you may find the other person fighting with you to let you have it--as when two people argue over the check at dinner.

Of course, you can always try to find a way to capitalize on your loss--for example, by using it as the subject of a blog.