Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Pay Attention

The ancient Roman poet Ovid listed Four Ages of Man: Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Iron. From where I sit, it looks like we are now living in the Age of Distraction. Admittedly not a metal but an important component of our society. We have available to us an endless array of devices that feed us information, entertainment, and the only means of keeping in touch with our kids.

No, I’m not going to bore you with my views on social media. Even though much of it isn’t social. What’s on my mind today is Conversation. The old-fashioned kind, face-to-face, eye-to-eye. With no distractions. 

Here’s what brought this to mind. Recently my wife and I had Sunday brunch with another couple at a local restaurant. I emphasize “restaurant” because it was not a “sports bar.” However, this restaurant was festooned with TV screens. On the walls, hanging from the ceiling. The other couple are long-time friends. They’re trying to sell their house after 35 years accumulation of stuff. (He has over a thousand movies on videotape, which he wants to keep.) She, on the other hand, is not a pack-rat. So there was much to discuss and resolve.

As we sat there, I found my eyes drifting over to one of the many Hi-Def monitors. A football game was on. I didn’t know who was playing. I really didn’t care. But there were large, helmeted men in colorful outfits knocking each other to the ground and stomping on them. How can you not watch that? I bounced in and out of the conversation. I struggled to maintain eye contact. My attention kept shifting back to one of the screens, hoping to catch a long pass or a remarkable run or even the cheerleaders cheering.   Before I knew it, brunch was over, and we never did resolve what to do with his videotapes. 

There  must be a new category of Interior Designer for restaurants. Call it Strategic Screen Placement Director. First prerequisite: Put a screen in every line of sight. So wherever the customer sits, they can still catch all the action. The “Post-Installation” phase of this service is also critical. Selecting which screens carry baseball, hockey, figure skating, the Final Four, the Triple Crown, the Masters, Wimbledon. And how about that delightful sport called Extreme Boxing? The “no rules” version, where guys use their feet, their fists, their heads, even their teeth and bad breath as weapons of pain. It reminds me of the “Mad Max” movies.

I understand the concept of a Sports Bar. You need lots of screens for that. But why does a restaurant think we need continuous entertainment? My favorite Chinese restaurant installed a really huge screen last year. It rivals the Galaxy IMAX. You can see it from everywhere, even the parking lot. What little atmosphere they had is gone. As I enjoy my egg foo young or curry shrimp, I find myself hanging on “the next play,” hoping they sink the putt or slash a single to right. You’d think they could at least show scenes of a Yangtze River Cruise, a hike along The Great Wall, even Ching-He Huang on the Cooking Channel.

I miss the fine art of uninterrupted conversation, of minimum distraction from your food and your partner. If not a lost art, then one that is quickly disappearing. Of course I’m talking about most mid-level and below restaurants, the kind I usually patronize. Your upscale joints may have one screen in the bar. Probably not, if they’re really upscale (aka expensive). The only distraction may be the bill.

Next time you go out, take this test. No pencil or paper required. Simply focus on the menu, the waiter, the food, the beverage of choice, and - most importantly - the person seated across from you. Whether you’re talking or listening, make every effort to maintain eye contact. You can do it, but it won’t be easy. Especially if the bases are loaded in the bottom of the ninth. 

(Originally published in County Living Magazine, Winter/Early Spring, 2016)