Human Connection: The Life Hack We Can’t Live Without

The fifth episode in the third and final season of the Netflix series Love written by Judd Apatow is titled “Bertie’s Birthday.”

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As the episode begins, we find Bertie waking up in the dark to Facetime with her family in the land down under. Bertie presents them with the illusion that she’s going to be doing lots of fun things with her friends in L.A. for her birthday. They’ll go to trendy bars and probably see famous people, but we soon learn that both her roommate and her boyfriend already have plans and Bertie spends most of her birthday desperately seeking someone to hang out with. Even her coworkers make excuses for why they can’t get a drink with her after work, and it isn’t until Chris, a friend of a friend, writes on her Facebook wall that she can get a free piece of cake at the restaurant where he waits tables, that she finds something to do.

Still, it’s a fairly sad picture when Bertie walks into the restaurant alone, sits at a table alone, and looks down at her single slice of cake with a single candle in it.

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{via Netflix}

So when Chris gets off work and invites her to join him for an underground wrestling tournament, obviously, she agrees to go. But first, they need to stop for gas.

For me, it’s this small scene at the gas station, this brief dialogue exchange, that made the episode memorable.

Chris steps outside of the car and closes the door. Popping his head back in through the opened window, he asks Bertie if she needs anything from inside, to which she jokingly answers, “Chewing tobacco. Lots of it.”

“Is this weird?” Chris asks. “I like to pay inside. I try to find human interaction wherever I can in L.A.”

Bertie tells Chris that she likes that idea, in fact, she might do it herself next time, to which Chris replies, “Right? Life Hack, Bitch!”

A few days after watching the show, I walked into the library to pick up a book I’d placed on hold that had come in. My husband had reminded me that the library called, which meant that there was an automated message on our answering machine from them.

I found the shelves that housed the holds, then searched alphabetically for the first two letters of my last name. Spotting the book, I grabbed it and walked to the circulation counter to check out.

I scanned my library card, got the book checked out myself, printed my receipt, and then said, “Thank you” to the two librarians behind the counter; one was doing something on her phone, the other was leaning against the wall, staring blankly at nothing.

Upon hearing my voice, the woman looked up from her device.

“Isn’t that nice?” She asked the other. “We didn’t even do anything and she thanked us.”

I smiled at them both, and as I carried my book in hand, I felt like I was in The Twilight Zone.

Was it really that unusual for someone to say thank you? It’s not just good manners, but it’s a part of our culture to thank someone when they are providing a service. True, they didn’t really do any of the work, but does that mean that we shouldn’t acknowledge one another? In fact, why hadn’t either of them greeted me?

Through the convenience of our digitalized world, we have become so inhuman that we fail to adhere to the norms of human interaction even when we are in one another’s presence.

We have self-checkout stands everywhere from the Home Depot to the Post Office. We have apps to make our dinner reservations and then we text our babysitter to find out if she’s free. We post our greatest joys and deepest sorrows on social media, and rather than picking up the phone, we IM or PM or DM. I teach to a room full of students who stare at a screen they keep hidden in their laps, and though sitting in the same class, they would rather send one another funny memes than actually talk.

In “Buddhism 101,” an episode of Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations, Jack Kornfield, one of America’s leading Buddhist teachers, talks about what it means to live an awakened life, which according to Kornfield, means to be here in the reality of the present, in the now, which is really all we have. He says, “We can go through our lives kind of half asleep, or we can be more present for one another, for our life, for what matters in our heart.”

What matters? People matter. But the only way that people are going to know that they matter is if we tell them. So we have to start by seeing them. By acknowledging that they’re there, we communicate that they matter.

Kornfield says that, “Our Western culture has produced a society suffering from epidemic loneliness.” Sadly, I think he’s right. We’re all connected online, but we’ve stopped connecting IRL.

“When you look at our culture… you see one person in a car, big houses with one person in a room. Instead of having extended families, villages, communities where people are really engaged with one another, we’re engaged by texting one another…[Our] distance from one another has grown over the years…In some ways we’re much more prosperous, but in other ways, we’re really more lonely and isolated.”

A few weeks ago, we hosted Mary Latham, a former student of mine who is traveling the country collecting stories of human kindness. For the five days she stayed with us, we talked…and talked…and talked.

We talked while on a walk in a spring snow shower. We talked in the car as we drove to Lake Tahoe and Virginia City and home from dinner. And on Saturday night, we talked on my couch till one in the morning.

My husband, who had gone to sleep long before us, asked me the next morning what time I had come to bed.

“Wow. When was the last time you did that?”

It had been far too long.

I remember being in high school, attending a youth group ski trip for a church I didn’t belong to. All of us stayed up late into the night talking about things I thought at the time were deeply philosophical and profound. It was real conversation—without awkwardness, without judgement, without offense.

I remember spending hours upon hours on the phone with my high school boyfriend. I’d wake up with the receiver still cradled under my head without remembrance of the last thing either of us had said.

Growing up, I remember the playful banter between me and my girlfriends—over bonfires, in a college dorm room, at the beach.

Long before LOL and the emoji face with tears of joy, there was real laughter, real tears, real joy.

After Mary left us, she went on to talk to more people. In California. In Oregon. In Washington. Her entire mission revolves around connecting with people through talk. And while I hope that she got some good stories from visiting Reno, the person who really benefitted from her visit was me.

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Author Steve Almond said in one of his Dear Sugar podcasts that, “your purpose in life is to establish human connection with people who are important to you.” But I’d argue, that our purpose is just to establish human connection. Period.

The other day, I got a text from a friend I work with. Not a super close friend, but a friend nonetheless. I knew I shouldn’t text her back since I was already driving home, but I also knew that she’d recently experienced a loss, that she was going through a lot, and so, I did the unimaginable: I called her instead.

As may be expected these days, she didn’t answer, but I left her a voicemail and she eventually called back. The next day, she popped her head in my classroom and we chatted some more. Before she left, I told her we should get together one of these days. Take a walk. Talk.

“I’d like that,” she said.

A life hack can be a way to do things more efficiently, but it can also be a clever solution to a tricky problem. If, as Kornfield says, the problem is epidemic loneliness, then the solution—the life hack—is human interaction. Luckily, people are everywhere. All we really need to do is get them to look up. Sometimes, that’s as simple as going inside to pay for your gas, as simple as picking up the phone, as simple as saying Thank You.

at the end of the day all this
means nothing
this page
where you’re sitting
your degree
your job
the money
nothing even matters
except love and human connection

                                                                                        -Rupi Kaur, Milk and Honey

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We Took Our Kids to a Fancy Restaurant, and Here’s What Happened

Our oldest daughter was turning 10 and this seemed like cause for a celebration. As parents, we had managed to keep her alive and well for an entire decade. I haven’t been able to keep a houseplant alive that long, and they require much less than a child, so as my husband and I exchanged high-fives, we were likely feeling a little smug which would explain the momentary lapse of judgement we experienced when we suggested going out to a “fancy” restaurant for her birthday dinner.

Our children eat at restaurants frequently enough. At ten and six, they possess a modicum of self-control and basic table manners. Sure, they fart and burp during dinner at home, but we’d remind them enough times to act like princesses. And this was a special occasion, after all.

In my mind, we were all going to dress up nice, have a delicious meal, and make a wonderful memory. But over the course of our parenting, there have been a lot of those Expectation vs. Reality moments, and this was no exception.

Red flag number one appeared when I was leaving work and mentioned to a co-worker that we were taking our daughter to the steakhouse for her birthday dinner. He commented that she must have a sophisticated palate, and I chuckled.

No. She’s quite picky, actually, I answered in my head, but it was too late to second-guess our decision. Our reservation was in a few hours and I wasn’t even home from work yet.

I guess the next red flag should have been that my youngest daughter didn’t even have an appropriate coat to wear. I might have remembered the last time she dressed up for the daddy-daughter dance and we made her wear her velvet cape from her Little Red Riding Hood Halloween costume. I might have remembered that her winter jacket was a puffy neon-pink hand-me-down from her sister that was two sizes too big and that most days she ran around the house naked. As we were all scrambling to get out the door, I didn’t notice her choice in outerwear till we were already in the car.

“You can’t wear that jean jacket to the restaurant.”

“Daddy said I could.”

“Well, you can’t. The sleeves are filthy. And what’s that green stuff?”

She looked down and answered matter-of-factly, “Avocado.”

“You’re just going to not wear a coat, I guess.”

“But I’m cold.” She whined.

“You won’t be cold in the restaurant. Daddy will drop us off out front.”

As it turned out, she was cold in the restaurant, and she didn’t fail to remind us of it. All… Night… Long. 

After arriving at the steakhouse, we were led to a round table in a candlelit corner of the restaurant. It had booth-style seating that circled around half of the table, and the bouncy cushion pleased the birthday girl to no end. She promptly plopped herself down on it again and again. I had a flashback to my old roommate’s waterbed before I gave her my best mom-glare to get her to stop.

In fact, I spent most of the evening telling my children what to do and, more importantly, what not to do. Don’t grab the parmesan cheese with your fingers. Put your napkin in you lap. Don’t put your elbows on the table. Use your knife. Be careful. Don’t spill that drink. 

I was tense and it wasn’t relaxing. Then the waiter came over to greet us.

“Would anyone care for a cocktail?”

Me! Me! Me! I was going to need one a few.

As is their custom, because we were celebrating a special event, a photographer snapped our picture.

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After which, the birthday girl leaned toward me and whispered, “This isn’t what I was expecting.”

“What were you expecting?” I asked.

“I thought it was going to be like that place we went before the basketball game where I got that burger.”

The sports bar?

“Yeah, that place. Do they have any burgers here?”

They did, in fact, have a burger on their menu. The Wagyu beef burger topped with a short rib served with bone marrow butter, truffle brie, and bacon onion jam. It was 24 dollars and that’s what she ordered, minus the bacon onion jam, which I asked them to put on the side and ate with a spoon. It was seriously the best condiment I have ever tasted in my life.

“Try it,” I begged her.

She refused.

Her father and I were fighting over it now.

“It’s bacon. You love bacon. Try it.” He put a small schmear of it on her plate.

She pursed her lips and shook her head.

“How’s your burger?” I asked.

“Meh. I prefer In and Out.”

FML.

I looked towards my youngest who had stopped eating her special order of pasta, since ya know, there wasn’t a children’s menu.

“How’s yours?”

“There’s too much sauce. I don’t like it.”

I rolled my eyes and downed the rest of my wine.

For dessert, we were served Bananas Foster. We watched the rum catch fire and the orange flames leap higher as they prepared it tableside.

Our daughter doesn’t like bananas.

Or caramel.

My husband and I devoured it while the birthday girl picked at her complimentary cheesecake. (She doesn’t like cheesecake either.)

Throughout the meal, I kept wondering why we hadn’t hired a babysitter for the night. Then I’d remember that this wasn’t our date night. It was her birthday and we’d done this to ourselves. We could have been at Red Robin with balloons and crayons and a kids’ menu that includes Kraft mac and cheese, but we were foolish and naïve.

Still, it wasn’t a total fail. During the evening, an elderly woman came over to our table and complimented us on our well-behaved children. She even paid the photographer to take another photo of us.

I whispered to the birthday girl to make a funny face, and aside from palate cleansing sorbet and the hot hand towels, this is what they’ll have to remember.

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the little one finally managed to snag her sister’s coat

In the wake of that compliment (and my second glass of wine), I looked at my children and realized that they are pretty amazing little humans—but they’re still just kids. Filet mignon and lobster tails aren’t their thing just yet, and that’s okay.

Of course, the next time we’re in the mood for fine dining, we’re leaving the kids at home.

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and just like that, she’s 10

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