With a cancelled luncheon I faced the prospect of a meal alone. I'm usually not hungry enough for that, but the thought of sushi changed my mind. I chose a Japanese steak house I had never been to before, and showed up at the peak of business, high noon.
When I'm with someone I usually concentrate on them, and ignore my surroundings for the most part. But sitting alone in a crowded restaurant, however, one has a tendency to glance around, and at times skeptically, and what I saw was spellbinding. Though I might be considered somewhat of a voyeur in my reserved observations, more possibly a critic of a kind, but I consider myself a student of life, life off the proverbial cuff, and I mean no harm. My type of mind is constantly trying to frame a picture, with a camera or a pen, and I can make no apologies for being me.
It started with a young man and girl of about 19 leaving through the heavy front entry. He pushed through without holding the door, walking ahead of her to the foyer, and continued on without any regard for her at all. As he pushed through the second one, he disappear into the sparkling sunlight. To me, she though little of it while texting on her phone, and just before she pushed on the closing front door, she stopped to adjust her bra. Seemingly, she thought she was not being observed, but she didn't look around. It indicated, to me that all of it was somehow subconscious, a part of her virtual makeup, with no conscience though to the appearance at all.
To my left was a man with his back to me digging in his ear with his little finger. He actually looked at what he had dug out before wiping it on his pants. His wife ate her meal without a glance up, whether oblivious, or conditioned, I could not tell.
Just beyond them were three men dressed in oilfield gray, casually sitting together as men do. One yawned with a large gaping mouth, not hiding it with a hand, and the others took no notice, so it seemed. As one got up to go to the restroom he scratched himself down below, a mannerism gained from offshore.
A six year old child walked around and around the table of a couple, and could not be coaxed to sit down.
Next to them sat four at a table full of iced tea and food, older couples who must have known each other well. Another couple approached them in the middle of their meal, and the man came forward all the way to the edge with a big smile on his face, evident that he knew the men. His wife did not come close enough to be noticed, but stood directly behind him out of the table's view. The men remained sitting, and looked up in unison. Their wives continued to eat and chat together, completely ignoring him and his lady who resembled his squaw. No introductions were made... The situation, to me, seemed both chaotic and confused, but appeared to be quite normal for them, and they didn't seem the least bit concerned or embarrassed. Yes, normal, ...what a concept.
As time went on, I saw one amazing eye-opener after another: a woman dropping her napkin on the floor and picked it up to be used again, a woman picking the sleep from her eyes with long manicured nails over her plate, a man shoveling a great salad leaf into his wide opened mouth, pushed the rest of it in, delicately, with his fingers, and then eating with his mouth open as he talked. A woman using her middle finger pushed rice pilaf on-to her fork, and I began to feel like a character in a book. A book I had read very long ago.
In High School I liked SF, and loved Robert Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land," and after all of these years still see the relevance of it in our society. It was about a boy who was the last survivor of a Mars settlement, saved, he was raised by indigenous Martians, rescued, he was then forced to come to earth to learn the ways of men. I remember he called these observational attempts to understand "groking," and one of his prime difficulties was trying to understand why men, seemingly out of the blue, would start shuttering, almost into convulsions. He found out it was called laughter, and realized, after much surveillance, and scrutiny, that it was a method men had subconsciously chosen to keep their sanity in a world of ciaos. They laughed at the wrongness they perceived in a situation, and somehow it acted as a kind of pressure valve.
Indeed, I felt like laughing too.
Etiquette is something not readily taught in school. It is learned early by trial and error, by lessons, a training, of sorts, by family and friends, and by observation. Observation, i.e., a good example. Most likely it is set in place by the age of seven, and from my point of view, constantly corrected throughout one's life. It is called good breeding. It is called an education.
Of course etiquette is somewhat different everyplace I've traveled. My wife has consciously chosen to adapt to the French way of using utensils, as she has spent one third of her adult life there. And though I distinguish it to be far more functional, I can't seem to make the switch. What I originally learned is hard- wired, and so too are all of the subtle nuances that have followed me from the time I sat on phone books at the kitchen table.
Similarities in bad taste however, are universal, and the utilitarian differences are little but methods for accomplishing what is considered good taste. Even in India, where eating local cuisine with one's fingers is acceptable, no child would use a napkin that had fallen to the floor without being corrected. And here I was, observing what I considered the most civilized country on earth.
Perhaps I'm going to have to "grok" this a bit more, and laugh too. Yes I see changes, and I wonder emphatically how we could have come to this. Values that gave us honor, loyalty, respect, and responsibility are dissolving right before my eyes. Etiquette is just a small portion of an overall portrait we are painting of our culture.
I have my ideas as to why, but the outcome is what really matters, and it is nothing short of decadence. Indeed, I now find myself a stranger in a strange land, as every senior since time immemorial has most likely felt. And those old folks who were most able to come to grips with what they perceived to be the end of humanity, laughed the most about it. After all, what can you do but teach our own children, and hope for the best?
So next time you are having lunch and hear someone in the background laughing hysterically, look around. It might be me. Come on over. I promise to stand up, shake your hand firmly, and make a proper introduction. I will also give you a genuinely warm smile looking you in the eyes, as I was taught to do long before I can remember it. After all, it is not the end of the world, but only what we thought it was, and should be. Who is to say that picking your nose in public isn't the proper way to express the new age of Progressive enlightenment. lol
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“Jealousy is a disease, love is a healthy condition. The immature mind often mistakes one for the other, or assumes that the greater the love, the greater the jealousy - in fact, they are almost incompatible; one emotion hardly leaves room for the other.”
― Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land