You and Who Else?

(Dreamstime image: Rolfgeorg Brenner)
A pronoun, and a peek into the modern soul

‘And are we doing okay?”

Waiters have all started talking like preschool teachers in the past several years. It is perplexing. It makes me want to do something shocking and violent, but instead I usually just reply with something like:

“Well, we are, last we checked, not, in fact, plural. And we are therefore slightly confused by our insistence upon addressing us as though we had a mouse — or mice? — in our pocket.”

(I only do this if I am alone, inasmuch as it tends to make dinner conversation awkward when your date shrinks into her seat in mortification.)

Americans are sort of funny about social hierarchies, even temporary and formal ones like the relationship between waiter and customer in a restaurant. I am not immune from this myself, which is why I will go out of my way — literally miles out of my way, if needed — to avoid my housekeepers. Housekeeping is a perfectly honorable way of making a living and is, properly understood, a skilled occupation. They are a lot better at this than I am, which I why I hire them.

I am as pro-capitalism as it gets, but those who criticize the modern mass consumer society as being atomistic have a point, though it isn’t quite the one they think they have. Economic factors drive some social changes: My habitual advice to unemployed or underemployed people living in economically stagnant communities — move! — is excellent advice, but there are trade-offs for the modern mobile society, as there are to anything. I have had about 20 mailing addresses since I was graduated from high school, in two countries and seven states.

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The same is probably true, or will be true, of that waiter who has been trained to speak to me like a very kind nurse in a hospital for very special children who will be dead soon. We do not put down very deep roots. Sometimes we put down deeper roots than we wish we had. Neither condition is satisfying. Sometimes we are John Denver’s “Country Roads,” lamenting our deracination and desiring to return to a sentimentally scrubbed home town. Sometimes we are Tom Waits’s “Whistle Down the Wind”:

I’m not all I thought I’d be.

I’ve always stayed around.

I’ve been as far as Mercy and Grand,

Frozen to the ground.

. . . I yelled and I cursed,

“If I stay here I’ll rust.”

And I’m stuck like a shipwreck

Out here in the dust.

In some contexts, we try to make up for that with a shallow, fake intimacy, which, if you think about it too much, will only make you sad.

Some restaurants are sadder than others, of course, and some occasions are sadder than others. The people in cafeterias and diners on Thanksgiving and Christmas, either alone and lonely or simply having given up on the ancient rituals of home and hearth. It is almost unbearable to be in public on Valentine’s Day or New Year’s Eve in the presence of people struggling, desperately, to convince themselves they are having a good time.

(I am writing this, inevitably, in an airport lounge.)

Our manners — acting and speaking as though everyone were our best friend — speak, quietly, to that loneliness. I myself have a very formal way of speaking, which sometimes leaves people who do not know me with the impression that I am angry with them or annoyed. I have noticed that the more polite the sentence is, the more likely I am to be misunderstood, as though “Yes, please,” were Sanskrit. Like many men of my temperament, I grow more formal the more fraught the situation is with the potential for conflict, for instance when being pulled over outside Fresno for driving a 73 mph in a 50-mph zone. California has nicer highway patrolmen than you’d imagine.

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The protagonist in Fight Club refers to the people he meets on airplanes as “single-serving friends.” But we are not friends, or family, or neighbors. We are people thrown together by commercial forces in a world that provides us with amazing opportunities and experiences that would have been difficult for our grandparents to imagine or comprehend. But it does so at a price. There is always a price.

Much of the current political energy directed against things like international trade, immigration, and other turbochargers of social change is a reaction to that. Yuval Levin expertly dismantles this nostalgia in The Fractured Republic, but I do not think that even many of our most imaginative and forward-looking social thinkers — and Levin certainly is one — have much contemplated the way those changes are going to unfold over the next 20 years or so. Many people have thought and written a great deal about how those changes are likely to unfold in economic, technological, and even political terms, but not much attention has been given to how that will feel, that question having been largely ceded to science-fiction novelists.

My nightmare is that it feels like a TGI Fridays, with a lot of shallow talk about a “we” that does not, after all, exist.

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