I recently wrote about the feeling of sadness I get when I pass up an opportunity to do something I either can’t do any more because now I am observant, or never even did but always wanted to and now that I can… I can’t. Here I want to, by focusing on one particular, persistent example of that in my life, come at the issue at a slightly different angle but, again, within the theme of understanding the difference between the sacrifices of becoming religious and just growing up.
When as a young person I imagined the successful future me I always had a vision of dining in a “fancy” restaurant, after the hours when regular people and families eat, with clients or colleagues or, I suppose, dukes and earls and magnates.
This fantasy was not entirely realistic for several reasons, most of them having to do with my own decidedly blue-collar bent at the trough. There is a fine euphemism for this – “meat and potatoes man” – but I had already experienced considerable class anxiety when out and about in groups where by virtue of some occasion we were eating in some sort of place where I wasn’t going to like anything on the menu. I don’t think it was a proletarian upbringing that was entirely to blame; others in my household had no problem with many of the things that I not only did not like, but the thought of which I found thoroughly nauseating. Then there was the whole wine thing… but ultimately I did not let this intrude on my fantasy.
Well, of course, by the time we got to what might have been just that fantasy scenario, considering the fortunate circumstances that sometimes attended my professional experiences, we had made the Change.
Notwithstanding a couple of attempts at going along for the ride – the fruit salad thing, the special order thing, etc. – it didn’t take long for all concerned to realize that this really was not going to work. Even when on the friendliest of turf, back home in New York City where there are plenty of perfectly fine “business restaurants,” it was never going to be that fantasy.
Of all the things one gives up based on a reasonable belief that it is what God wants one to do, this one is not too compelling, is it? I know it isn’t.
But I never really shook it. When I leave my office and walk to the bus station or the train station, I pass innumerable restaurants, be it 8, 9 or 10 in the evening, full of nattily-attired people glamorously quaffing their vintage je ne sais quois and elegantly appreciating their braised fillets of savoir faire. No, I don’t gawk at them in the windows as I walk by. But even peripherally I cannot avoid perceiving their suave enjoyment of the good life.
I was reminded of this as I attended a week-long conference far from home for lawyers who work in one of my areas of specialty. Each time, at the end of the day’s professional development activities, I head back to my hotel with a shopping bag full of generic groceries so I can make yummy sandwiches in my perfectly nice hotel room, passing on my way into the hotel all my colleagues attired in their fine-dining togs and waiting in line for cabs to whisk them to the most renounced and exotic temples of gustatory and social Nirvana the city of that year’s conference is known for.
Yes, when this happens, I feel a little sad.
But I do have an internal dialogue that is credible, and it helps, and it is to a large extent a function of adulthood as much as anything I might ever have seen in a mussar [ethics] book.
First, the low-hanging fruit: I always had a certain ambivalence about this fantasy, and in order to get past the many sources of anxiety that accompanied it, I had to deny them. That’s what makes fantasy work. But in reality, the person I saw in the restaurant window was never, and could never, be me. My dad never had cocktails at seven followed by dinner at 11, surrounded by charming, witty and arch colleagues. That doesn’t mean that I couldn’t, no, but wasn’t there something very right about where my dad had dinner every single night of my childhood: At our kitchen table, and finished by seven?
And yes, I don’t like fancy comestibles, though granted you can really gussy up a piece of beef if you are motivated enough. But why eat in a place where I’m going to be embarrassed not to try the special, which tonight is a poached something which is really just a large tick, or a flying thing that looks entirely too much as if it just landed on the plate, or part of an animal you thought they stopped serving some time after the Industrial Revolution?
Ok, so I am charming and erudite myself, don’t you know? But in reality, when I look in that restaurant window, do I think the swells enjoying each other’s swell company are talking about the things I would want to be charming and erudite about? Yes, sometimes they are; if I am in the company of lawyers, for example, I can count on a certain percentage of war stories, judge stories, money stories. But the conversation does not stay there; and I have heard the chatter. What do they talk about? Skiing. The latest movie. “Relationships.” Their children’s progress in prep school; on the varsity crew; in rehab. Kids today!
There was never a version of me that would have considered such prattle worth even a good steak dinner.
My conclusion is that I am not fantasizing about myself in that restaurant. I am fantasizing about someone else, just as when I read Dick and Jane in first grade I really though I would grow up to be a father like their father. Whom they called, unlike anyone I knew on East 12th Street, “Father.”
I mostly got past that, too.
Part of the issue is class insecurity, I admit it, but far more, to the extent it can be separated, is being a Jew and acting like a Jew, religious or otherwise. Jews can teach themselves to have these conversations, and certainly to eat these foods, but what they are doing is teaching themselves to be something other than, our tradition teaches, they really are.
He wasn’t religious, but my dad never wanted to do that.
So why would I?