A Table of One’s Own

The idea of it is so appealing to me. I’m out and about, on my own, in the world. Feeling happy…feeling secure…feeling strong….feeling hungry.

I decide to take myself to a nice meal in a nice restaurant. It starts off so well.

I consider different restaurants as I walk around. I check out their ambiance, their menus. I make a decision, and filled with joyful anticipation, I walk in. I approach the host or hostess with optimistic excitement.

And so it starts. It takes a bit longer than I’d like for them to address me. They make some kind of quick appraisal of me, and it is decided on some level that I do not measure immediate attention. They continue with whatever task they’ve decided they do not need to interrupt to greet little ole’ me.

So I wait politely until they get around to helping me. While I wait, I ponder the mysteries of this situation. This is not my first rodeo. I have been here before: the last time I attempted a meal out with myself. And the time before that. And the time before that. Ah yes. Nothing has improved.

What happens in that nano-second appraisal that leads to me being treated as an afterthought? Is it because I seem so amenable? Does my WASP-y middle-class upbringing resonate that I will tolerate a lot in the name of appearing in social good graces? Or is it because I am middle-aged and they do not actually really “see” me, because as studies show, people aged 45-65 are invisible in popular culture and media and therefore no one can really “see” them in life? That doesn’t explain every attempt to eat out on my own I have ever made in my adulthood…the many times prior to middle-age I went solo.

I tell myself it doesn’t matter, I push down the surge of anger that has risen up from my belly. I want to have a nice meal. They’ll deal with me soon enough. Calm down, Norma Rae. Let’s stay nice. Don’t stoop to their level. Maybe we are being a bit sensitive, dear. Don’t be THAT lady. (Yes, I do talk to myself like that. Even I have ingested the cultural attitude towards my own age and sex. That is perhaps the worst betrayal of all in the experience. That internal voice that judges me right along with their judgement of me. But I digress.)

Finally, the hostess or host comes over and with the enthusiasm of a gnat and asks anemically, “May I help you?”

“Uh, yes, you can. I just walked into your restaurant. What do you think I am doing here? I want a fucking table!”

Well, at least that is what I say in my head. To them I simply say, in my best I-am-woman-hear-me-roar-yet-still-non-chalent voice, head cocked in my best dignified angle: “Table for one, please.”

A tiny moment of something registers in their face. They’ve made some kind of judgement about my solo status. Sometimes there is the smallest trace of a slightly smug smile, usually from a much younger woman, as if they are thinking how pathetic I am, how superior they are, how assured they are that they will never be me. Sometimes, veiled contempt flickers across the man’s eyes, as if I will be wasting table space and time with my presence. Assumptions that I will not tip? That I will be, in addition to alone, cheap?

They set off ahead of me to show me to my table. We wind back through the restaurant, usually to some table in the back, in the corner, by the bathroom, facing the wall or server station. Thinking, I guess, that I, being alone, will prefer to be out of the limelight. That I will want to be alone in my shame. Or to hide me from the other, cooler diners? Don’t want to bring them all down with my aloneness?

I usually accept the offered table without a fight, though I have, at times in the past, insisted on a better table. The way I feel as a result of this action is usually more trouble to process than the bother of being seated at the lame duck table.

Then comes the longer-than-necessary wait for every part of the meal. For some reason, the lone diner is sort of relegated to being the low priority in terms of server values.

This really gets my blood boiling. What do they think? That because I am alone I won’t complain if I have to wait just a bit longer for them to come over and take a drink order? I would say it is because I am a middle-aged woman, and perhaps that is true, but I know other people have had the same issues dining out alone and they have been a variety of sexes and ages.

So I won’t make this a sex, age or gender-related issue. I will just call it the Mistreatment of the Solo Diner.

When I was traveling this summer, I walked out of three different restaurants in three different countries because of this phenomenon, so it is not just an American issue. I expected to be treated better in foreign countries for some reason. Nope.

Dining out alone has rarely been the real pleasure I always envision. Ethnic restaurants such as Indian or Japanese have tended to be better options as a solo diner. Not sure why. Maybe they are more used to solo diners. Because solo diners gave up on the other restaurants and started populating the ethnic restaurants? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

I welcome your own stories of dining out solo, good or bad, in the Comments section below. Is it just me? Or do you know exactly what I am writing about?

I’m over it. The next time I go to eat solo, I am going to speak up at every turn when I feel I am not being treated well. Just as an experiment. As neutrally as I can muster. Though I expect to feel awful having to do that (with that Protestant, female upbringing, any such speaking out brings with it a pretty potent mix of guilt and shame no matter what the outcome,)  I am just going to see what unfolds as a result. I have nothing to lose.

Don’t forget. As Johnny says at the end of the movie “Dirty Dancing,” “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.”

On Selfies, and Vulnerability

I’ll admit it. I’ve been a secret selfie-judger for some time.

Since “selfie” became an official word by being added to the Oxford Dictionary in 2013, much has been written about the selfie and its effect on culture.  Tina Issa wrote in The Huffington Post that they should be renamed “selfshie.” She writes, “It has created the selfie monster — people who seem to want to scream ‘look at me’ or ‘look at what I have’ every minute of the day.” And while I do see her points, this isn’t about that.

In the New York Times, James Franco defended the selfie, calling it the “Mini-Me’s that we send out to give others a sense of who we are…the new way to look someone right in the eye and say, ‘Hello, this is me.'”

Hmmm, even though I am an actor and understand his points about the ever-growing role that social media has in our industry, I do not agree with that. He says he’s turned off by someone who doesn’t post selfies, because he wants to know who he’s dealing with. That viewpoint both fascinates and alarms me, because it truly reflects how much selfie-taking and posting has begun to shape the way we take in and reflect back the world around us. That’s the thinking of someone so deep into the world of selfies that it has become the norm from which to measure reality. Yikes.

I avoid posting selfies as much as possible. I HAVE done it, guilty as charged. But I can literally count the times I posted them on-line with two hands. Yes, I DO post. I am ok with posting (or having others post) a group picture (or a “groupfie” as my sister-in-law coined them.) I will post new headshots or stills from film sets – those are solo shots of me.

But a selfie? That just feels so gross to me. So self-absorbed. Pathetic. (Yes, that word really crosses my mind.) I tend to post sunsets, landscapes and pictures that avoid looking like selfies, but I am still posting. (Is that even that different, really? I am still participating in the “look at what I’m doing/just did/am doing…” So am I really just a passive-aggressive selfie-ist?)

Do I judge friend’s selfies? Honestly, yes, I do sometimes. Not the cute pics of them with their children or friends or family or partners. I love those. But when they post a picture of just them, I admit it, I DO judge them sometimes.

What is the root of this judgement? Am I afraid of being judged as selfish, of being a narcissist, in the way that Tina Issa judges selfie-ists? Or, following Franco’s logic,  am I afraid of being vulnerable, of being seen as I really am? Am I hiding who I really am because I do not post selfies?! This has been kicking around in my head and causing me to have sleepless nights.

(OK, that is not true. I only recently found Franco’s essay, but it did get me thinking and these are great questions to explore, but that is not exactly what I want to write about…)

What IS true and what I DO want to write about in regards to selfies is that I am concerned about selfie-taking and its effect on our society’s future art. Hell, I am concerned about its effect on our society’s future.

Let me explain.

This summer, I was away traveling and working for three months, July through September. It was glorious for so many reasons. I was out of my routines, comfort zones and the structures of my NYC life. This shook up my internal sense of the world in amazing ways. I gathered information and inspiration and took in so much I felt on sensory overload most of the time, in the best of ways. It was fantastic.

Except. For. The. Selfie-Taking. Going. On. Everywhere.

For two weeks out of the three months, I traveled with my niece and sister-in-law to London and then Paris. We visited all of the usual top tourist attractions, and I can tell you this: for the most part, though everyone still goes to see all of these wonderful places, no one is actually really looking at them anymore. The London Tower, Parliament, the cathedrals, the London Bridge, the British Museum and its artifacts, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triumph, the Louvre and all of its treasures…all now just check-mark locations from which to get a selfie so that you can post and show to the internet world that you were there.

Full disclosure: yes, we took groupfies, many of which I posted. My niece took selfies. Once or twice I tried to take selfies. Not sure why. I think sometimes we just got swept up in the frenzied, competitive selfie-taking vibe and took more than we needed. (There’s a sort of “selfie mob mentality” at these places.) Mostly though, for us, a picture together was a natural extension of the moment.

But there was a moment of experience from which to extend out from, you know? Between us and the place or the piece of art. Most people literally walked up to a place, took selfies, and ran to the next selfie spot.

From a safe distance, I watched. People pushed in a frenzy, fought to get close, but not to actually look at these works of art or places of beauty. They fought to stand their ground and get their selfie with the work of art.

But for the most part, no one was actually experiencing these places anymore. No one was taking them in and allowing themselves to be affected by, informed, inspired, moved by them. If you are a person who still remembers how and is able to let something affect you, you are in trouble, because you are going to be in danger of pissing off the selfie-takers when you try to experience these sights.

While in Paris, we actually witnessed several arguments between people traveling together over the quality of the selfies they were taking. It was the strangest thing. In one case, one person seemed to feel that they had not yet gotten the best shot, while the other wanted to move on. In the other, someone felt that their selfie was better than the other’s. These were not quiet disagreements. These were heated, high stakes, loud, public fights. The psychology behind such an argument is fascinating to postulate. The pressure some people must be feeling to get the perfect shots of themselves to show off to the world must be pretty serious.

We also witnessed two times where within the throngs of people pushing to get their selfies in front of the most popular attractions in the Louvre, people had to be physically restrained by their friends because they were about to get in physical fights with other people over selfie-taking issues…someone’s wife was too tall and staying too long in one place and blocking the view…someone pushed someone else….

I found it all exhausting and depressing. (And slightly scary — that mob mentality is no joke.) People have always taken photos of tourist places, but over the years since the selfie and the selfie stick have become the predominant norm, something has been changing. I was in the Louvre only three ago, and it was not as bad as it was this past summer.

What does this all mean? And why am I so afraid?

I don’t know what it means. But I do know why I am afraid.

I thought the one big point of travel is to leave one’s known environment to be exposed to new and stimulating sights and sounds, tastes and cultures in order to expand one’s self. If you go somewhere exotic and only spend 2 minutes with some amazing piece of art or in front of one of one of the wonders of the world trying to take the ideal selfie so that you can post it on-line and everyone knows that you were someplace fabulous, how does that change you in any way?

Yes, there are still people who are taking in and being affected by these artworks and wonders. But they are few and far between. Often they simply cannot get to some of the places and sights because it is either literally too dangerous to try to stand and look at the something, or because everything is now revolving around the selfie-taking culture and there is simply no way to spend time looking. (Museums and tourist spots structure traffic to support selfie-taking because it is the norm, not the art-gazer who wants to experience the art.)

I know because I was one of those people trying. I was shoved several times when I wanted to stand and take in the treasures of these places. At the Louvre, an older man literally almost knocked me down to get in front of Venus de Milo. I was stunned.

I truly wonder, if picture-taking was banned at such sites,  two things. 1) Would people comply? Or refuse, outraged, claiming their rights were being messed with (the right to bear selfie sticks?) And 2) would people still care to go look if they could not document that they had been there for their friends?

Or would it feel empty and worthless to them without being able to have that connection with the internet and the social media network as they move through the experience at hand. If they are left with just themselves and the piece of art or the building or the historical place, would they be able to tolerate the anxiety of that kind of true intimacy with themselves and their own experience? Or would they be so uncomfortable with this ever-decreasing sensation in today’s world, the sensation of being alone with one’s own experience, that they would just have to shut it down rather than live with it and see what is underneath it, what it sparks, what it creates.

What will our future art look like then? Art is the interpretation of the world. Will art one day all revolve around and reflect selfie-taking? What will that look like then?

It used to be that someone would take in and experience the Mona Lisa and perhaps be inspired to look at their world a bit differently, and then perhaps actually see things in a different way. It might lead them to become artists, or it might lead them to parent differently. Or to daydream, and to end up inventing a machine that manufactures a pollutant-free form of energy.

If no one is really looking at anything except themselves in front of other things, won’t we then only be seeing more of ourselves in relation to everything else in the world, and less and less of the actual everything else in the world? So then how will grow? If we are not putting ourselves in new situations (actually entering into those new experiences, not just taking a picture of ourselves standing in front of them) how can we gain new information? So then how can we become more than we are?

That, my friends, truly terrifies me. I am all for healthy self-involvement, do not get me wrong. I do not believe in selflessness as the ultimate attribute or that self-love or self-attention is selfish. Anyone who knows me well knows that I practice radical self-acceptance and believe that healthy self-awareness and self-love is crucial.

While I do see selfie-taking as narcissistic, I don’t see that as a dirty word as Tina Issa used it in her article. I side with Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, who has spent the past thirteen years studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. Brown is the author of three #1 New York Times Bestsellers: Rising Strong, Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection.

Brown suggests we look at narcissism through the lens of vulnerability. Through that lens, she sees in narcissism “the shame-based fear of being ordinary…of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong, or to cultivate a sense of purpose.”

Wow. That resonates so truthfully for me.

I wonder if the urge to take selfies in front of extraordinary places and things and people actually stems from a fear that we are so ordinary and so lacking that we will never really be seen, so we take selfie after selfie, stacking up evidence to ourselves and to the virtual world that we actually exist. Typing that sentence fills me with sadness and knowing. I felt that frenzied, desperate feeling from the people around me in those museums and at those amazing places. These were people trying to fill an empty, angry, sad hole with something that can never fill it. All the selfies in the world will not help a person feel truly “a part of” or connected to others in a meaningful, truly gratifying way. It’s like eating bag after bag of Cheetos to feel full. It may feel good at the time, but you end up feeling hungry anyway.

I think at this point in our evolution we actually need more practice at being self-involved. But in a different way. We need to practice how to become intimate with ourselves again. To tolerate the discomfort of the vulnerability of revealing who we really are even to our own selves. Not the virtual-vulnerability that social media and the internet affords. Exposure does not equal vulnerability. We have truly developed that muscle as a society and now it is in danger of being over-developed, like those guys at the gym who have over-worked their lats or their chest and left their legs out of the picture. A little less selfie-taking and a little more actual living the experiences of our lives is what I prescribe.

I urge you to go to a museum, or a park, or some place beautiful and NOT take a pic of yourself (or anything) to post. Just be there. Really be there. Just live those moments and let that be enough. Tolerate the discomfort of not satisfying that urge to reach out via social media to seek meaning in your experience by seeing it reflected in the number of likes it garners. Dare to walk through that fear of “disappearing” into nothingness. Let yourself feel that “ordinary.” Enter into the ordinary and really live there.

That is where the extraordinary is born.

#lessselfiesmoreliving #brenebrown #vulnerability #jamesfranco

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Girl with a Pearl Necklace

My niece just graduated from high school and turned 18 on the very same day.

She is very special to me, as is her brother, who is a few years younger. They are my remaining older brother’s children, and our little family of my husband and I and my brother and his family have become more and more important to me with each passing year.

More so I think since the deaths of my mother, father and other brother several years ago. Losses sharpen and intensify the remaining connections. It is one of the sweet gifts such losses contain.

I decided to continue a family tradition and take my niece on a trip in honor of her graduation. My Grandma FitzGerald (who I was named after) began the tradition when my oldest brother (the one who remains) and our cousin (my mom’s twin sister’s eldest daughter who was my eldest brother’s age) graduated from high school. She took them on a two week trip to Europe. She did the same when my middle brother and our only other cousin (my mom’s twin sister’s other child who was John’s age) graduated from high school.

When my high school graduation came, Grandma and I went alone as there was no cousin there to join me. (That trip is a whole other blog post. Being a namesake can be complicated. I was also a bit wild. Gran was a bit of a force to be reckoned with. We were an interesting combo on a trip to Ireland, England and Scotland at the height of “the Struggles” in Ireland and when, politically, Europe was not too keen on Americans. Gran eschewed social norms and loved to talk politics and religion upon meeting strangers. At seventeen, I found this incredibly embarrassing, and a lot of eye-rolling and running off with the only other young person on the tour to sneak beers in pubs to meet boys ensued.)

Back to my niece and our trip.

I had come up with the idea to carry on this tradition: I knew that if my mom were alive, she would have done for my niece what her own mother had done for her children. So now I will do this for her, for all of us who remain. I cannot wait for our trip this summer, to have that time together and to perhaps tell stories about my memories of my mother and her mother and her mother’s mother.

But I wanted my niece to have something to open on her birthday, and after racking my brain and scouring the internet for all the usual grad gift ideas, I still felt at a loss. Then an idea occurred to me. I have a beautiful, sweet pearl necklace that my mother gave me when I graduated from high school. What if I passed it on to my niece?

When she gave it to me, my Mom had told me that her grandmother had given it to her when she graduated from high school. I think I remember feeling special when she gave it to me. I know I loved wearing it.

I had the great luck to have actually known my Great Grandma Burns. She had been a world traveller, and incredibly sophisticated. She had beautiful taste, and a style that was quite European-seeming that she had passed along to my Grandma. Originally from Kansas City, the daughter of a fairly well-to-do flour miller, Great Grandma Burns had been all over the world and had an elegance that she had imparted to Gran Fitz that was way bigger than Texas, where our family had eventually relocated as a result of my Grandma’s marriage to a traveling salesman.

Great Grandma Burns had bright, sparkly eyes and though she was intimidating, she was warm and funny, and I loved her. My mom, my Grandma FitzGerald and Grandma Burns and I would go to have luncheons in department store tea rooms together, four generations of women. She and my Gran Fitz would dress to the nines, as did women in those days, replete with a hat, pumps, a skirt suit and matching bag and gloves. I, being the youngest, would run to open doors for them. “Age before beauty,” they would say, if I ever made a face at this task.

I remember liking the necklace, but at 18 I doubt I really thought all that much about it then, being much more concerned with parties and boys and my friends.

As I grew older, the meaning of the necklace deepened and changed. We lived through both my Great Grandma Burns and my Gran FitzGerald’s decent into dementia, and eventual death. Life began to shape and change me, as She does to us all.

Later, when my own mother moved through her two cancers, and after her death, that pearl necklace remained, a symbol of her love of me, and of the love of the women who came before me. Whose hearts and dreams brought me into creation. I am the living embodiment of their imaginations and wishes and hopes and desires.

It has brought me such joy throughout my life. I truly treasure it. As I treasure my niece.

I was so excited when the idea of giving it to her came to me. It felt like divine inspiration.

So it surprises me that now that I am actually giving to her, I feel sadness around it for some reason. A strange mix of emotions have taken me completely by surprise. Sadness, fear, anxiety…I do not want to give it from this space. So I have to unravel what is going on.

Is this sadness because I do not have a daughter to give it to? Hmmm, I don’t think that’s it. I’m ok with that, at least for today. (More on being child-free another time. That too is at least a whole other blog post.)

Is it that I am letting it go? Ahhhh, yes, that’s it…I am sad to let it go…as if it somehow holds the actual love my mother had for me and by giving it away I will lose touch with it or something. That is the odd fear-panic I am feeling. Attachment is deep y’all. Damn.

And what if she doesn’t treasure it as I have? What if she hocks it for beer money someday (ok, this is probably projection and totally revelatory of my own wild youth — I did do that once but it was a bracelet an ex-boyfriend had given me, not a family heirloom, and she is very level-headed and not at all like me at her age, so that’s definitely a reach.) If I give it, I have to really let it go, and that means giving it without expectation or any strings attached to the receiver. She is free to feel about it and do what she wishes with it. I have to be willing to actually let it go to her.

I have loved that necklace so much. Cherished it. But I don’t actually wear it much. Isn’t it better is it is given to possibly be worn by someone my mother and I both adore?

I wonder if my mom felt pangs of sadness when she gave it to me? Don’t get me wrong, the overriding feeling I have is one of joy and love in thinking of giving it to my niece. I am just examining the other complicated things that it has brought up.

There’s something in here too, I think, about the passage of time…maybe the necklace, without me realizing it, has been a symbol of my own youth? A rite of passage, anointing the next young woman of my family…and giving it to her hits home that I am no longer that girl at the cusp of the start of her adult life. I am deep in the middle of mine, heading towards the transition to the later years. Yep, that definitely rings some bells.

Realizing these layers inside, I can be more clear and clean around this. And so I give it to her without expectation, but with some hope. I hope she appreciates it and loves it as I have, but that is all literally out of my hands.

As for it being a symbol of my mom’s love, I have beautiful memories that do not require a physical object to live.

No matter where the necklace ends up, may it resonate love and dreams and family and new life. May it bring whomever wears it in its remaining lifetime great joy in the wearing.