When was the last time you ate a real meal alone — in a legit restaurant — with no companion, no phone, no magazine, no one else that you knew to talk to? For me, it was on my trip to New York (for book work).
I did it three times. No, wait. Four. Four? Yes, four. I ate by myself four times with my phone purposely zipped away in my purse. I’ve always been a fan of eating/shopping by myself, but this time it was harder because, yes, I’m much more addicted to my phone these days. It felt weird… until it felt liberating.
My gusto to do it came the second I walked into Mario Batali’s new downtown hotspot Eataly — a buzzing and deliciously-crowded jungle of marketplaces and restaurants with fresh Italian food, delis, drinks, lines for gelato scoops a mile long and boxes of cookies and crackers that demanded “eat me for breakfast with that burrata over there and a glass of rose…” Very NYC. (My heart was so happy.)
I scouted the spot that was serving up the trendy ‘cacio e pepe’ pasta (from Rome, apparently — basically it’s just a creamy cheese and pepper spaghetti that’s SO DAMN GOOD). I sat at the bar and looked around at the loud tables of families and pairs of couples.
EVERYONE WAS ON THEIR DAMN PHONE. EVERYONE. WITH A SCREEN IN FRONT OF THEM.
I know this isn’t surprising and you’re probably thinking I have a stick up my a$$, but I suddenly got really pissed off. What has happened to humanity??!?! (No, I wasn’t tipped from my spumante… yet.)
How is it so loud in here if no one’s really talking to each other?!?!
My eyes circled the place and I realized most of the echoing noise was coming from the open kitchen and people waiting trying to get tables from the hostesses.
But at the tables? Most everyone was involved with some kind of screen.
Whether we’re in denial about it or not, we’re degenerating. I sat there on my barstool — looking, searching, watching for parents having conversations with their kids (not just glances and random statements, but actual back-and-forth conversations), hoping that hipster group of 20-somethings would put a screen away and actually discuss something with a friend across the table. Nothing.
This is the world we live in. This is the reality my girls (and your kids too) are growing up in. This pathetic nonsense is what they’re going to think is normal. It’s NOT. (I know what you’re thinking — get over it, Jill. Sorry. Not gonna.)
I got angrier as I looked around. And when I get angry, I react. I zipped my phone in my purse. (Hey, it was the only statement I could think of.) My cacio e pepe arrived. I sipped my bubbly. I kept my eyes open, by myself without a screen to keep me company.
It wasn’t easy at first, but I forced myself to cope.
I was sitting right in front of the open kitchen, practically on top of the spot where the chefs put the freshly-made dishes on the shelf for the servers to scoop up and deliver to tables. I made small talk here and there with the kitchen manager as he organized the orders for the cooks to whip up. I watched the chefs toss and flip the noodles in the pans and arrange the finished plates as though they were choreographed — it was fascinating. I had a friendly, brief chat with a couple sitting next to me who asked about what I ordered — they probably pitied me that I was ‘alone.’
I loved it. As much as I relished solo dining before the digital age, doing it now involved flexing confidence muscles I forgot I had and it took me about 20 minutes to feel comfortable and remember, “Hey, this is nice.” The kitchen choreography was getting more and more impressive and fast-paced now…
With most of my spumante downed, it hit me:
Knowing how to be confidently comfortable by yourself — alone, in a busy restaurant, without looking at a screen — is something that very few people are doing or learning how to do it these days.
HOW SAD. PATHETIC.
Am I suggesting that very few folks are confident enough to eat in a busy place without a screen to make us feel happy and relevant? Yes. Our confidence pretty much sucks unless we’re armed with some kind of device. We’re doing this disservice to ourselves. Newsflash to all: It’s okay to feel a bit uncomfortable without social armor — it’s how we discover strength and security from the inside-out, as opposed to scrolling Instagram.
I’ll be damned if my daughters don’t learn how to sit by themselves to eat a meal and feel happiness with their future phones willingly zipped and temporarily locked away in their purses… even if everyone else around them is staring at their screens. Yeah, I want my girls to look at others acting like insecure idiots around them and think, “Get it together, people,” as opposed to feeling pressured into busting out their phones too.
THIS IS ON US.
Teaching our kids to exist without device-dependence, to entertain themselves, to notice and appreciate their surroundings, to feel insecure and work through it, to maybe learn something new (just by taking notice of others) is a lost art… which makes me simultaneously fume and feel sorry for this upcoming generation.
STOP MAKING EXCUSES ABOUT ‘THE TIME WE LIVE IN.’ I CALL BULL$HIT.
I dare us all — don’t give the toddler the iPad at a restaurant. Tell your spouse to put the damn phone away. (I do and I’m proud of it.) Unless you’re on-call for the ER and are waiting to get word about when you need to go in to operate on the latest emergency case rolling into the hospital, nothing is that important. Not Facebook, not that mindless text from your friend saying “What table are you at? (look around, you’ll find them fine).
Don’t say that putting away the phone with small kids is ‘hard’ — I know it’s hard, I had two kids under two at the same time and never gave them screens in restaurants. (That’s a fact.) If adults are talking and you want peace and quiet, teach your kids when it’s time to be quiet and how to entertain themselves with their imagination or conversation between themselves. (Again, ‘hard,’ but nobody said that worthwhile work wasn’t difficult.) Hell, I barely gave my daughters toys when I’d take them to restaurants as toddlers — and I’d take them out by myself. We’d talk, discuss how the waitress looked like Elsa from Frozen, count the swirls on the ceiling or draw on the napkins. It’s do-able, I promise. You can do it.
Remind ourselves how to JUST BE. Insist that our kids JUST BE.
All this connection to our phones when it’s not necessary is making us stupider…. it’s making our kids stupider too. (Ask any teacher about how many students have socialization issues and problems controlling themselves these days. The disappointing proof is alive, well and out of control in our classrooms.)
If we don’t raise our kids to feel untethered to devices and confident without them in immediate reach, we’re doomed. (Too dramatic? You didn’t see what I saw with my perfectly-decadent cacio e pepe that night.)
In between my smiles to the chef behind the counter, I shouted to him over the trays of lasagna about how much I’d enjoyed watching the kitchen choreography and how everything was absolutely delicious. He put his hand on his heart, tipped his head and said “Thank you, we try.” And then he couldn’t stop smiling. It was like I was the very first person who’d ever bothered to tell him that.
A few minutes later, he delivered me this as a gesture of his gratitude. I HEART NEW YORK.