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Photograph by George Sakkestad

A Feeling of Connection: Dining out is a way of finding solace in times of tragedy.

Living Well Is the Best Revenge

Never afraid to state the obvious, our columnist slaps around anyone who's not dining out these days

By Christina Waters

WHAT'S THE POINT? many of us felt after the morning of Sept 11. Why bother trying to do anything productive? How could we possibly indulge in simple pleasures--laughter, a good movie or a favorite meal?

Well, how could we not? The point is that not to engage in these quintessential human expressions reduces our value system to something unrecognizable. To limit the space of our enjoyments, even those enjoyments that might be argued as nonessential, is to have been terrorized twice. Our collective sense of survivor guilt might lead us to a vital transformation, the next stage in the post-postmodern American Dream. Or it could perhaps more easily lead to a denial of that attitude of expansiveness, that spirit of shared enrichments that quite simply makes life worth living.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It's that "pursuit of happiness" part that often gets ditched, seen as somehow too self-involved, too trivial to maintain when things become breathtakingly real and mortal. Certainly I'm talking about that "quality of life" thing. Merely drawing breath isn't anyone's idea of living. But I'm also suggesting something more than making sure we don't sacrifice the full spectrum of experience in the name of fear and uncertainty.

A fundamental expression of our humanity is the seeking out of each other's company. The handshakes, yes, the embraces that have multiplied over the past two weeks. But also, simply, that solid, silent running sense of community. It got us through the earthquake a decade ago, this coming together as if to show each other that we were all still here, still alive and ready to craft a future. The feeling of connection and mostly the vibrant feeling of social communion that happens when you're dining in a room filled with people--these are not frivolous or unimportant concerns.

 

IT IS SURELY camaraderie that sustains many uncertain passages on the big river of life. Last week, we went out to eat at a small cafe. The sense of relief was palpable. We were relieved to see other people sitting and ordering dinner, raising glasses of wine, smiling over plates of freshly made food.

And the other diners, as well as the waitstaff and kitchen workers, were also relieved. They were relieved to see us. People still had appetites. Expectations were still in place. It was still important to show up and do a job. These are the deeply embedded patterns of community that keep us sane during even wildly unpredictable circumstances.

If anything, suddenly it all matters so much more. This showing up, greeting, allowing pleasure to unfurl, meeting social agreements. As you might have guessed, the meal we enjoyed last week tasted better than it might have in a world where every act is taken for granted. That world doesn't exist anymore. Now the very idea that a tomato could be so ripe, or that someone would greet a stranger at the next table, is priceless and incalculably reassuring.

My friend Angela, a sophisticated observer who works at a popular West Side restaurant, told me that it was very like after the 1989 earthquake. "People come together. They seem to need the camaraderie that a familiar restaurant gives them."

That is happening now. And yet a recent lunch in Palo Alto made me worry that too many people might be staying away in droves--out of fear. As sci-fi prophet Frank Herbert once observed, fear is the mind killer--the little death. Fear is that worst of adversaries. It can't be seen, it refuses to take any clear, crisp shape. But it haunts and taints everything it touches.

Afraid there will be no tomorrow, we stay at home, complain and vegetate. Afraid that our money will run out, we grasp and hoard what we have. Afraid that we will appear frivolous, we stick to pious pleasures--watching TV and watching TV. Nothing is wrong with any of these things, save that they cause us to abandon our neighbors. And our identities.

The math is fairly simple; even I can do it. America--growing fearful that lightning will strike twice, and in the same way--stops flying. The results are simple and devastating. Airlines fold. Airport concessions fold. People, lots of them, lose their jobs. Every single layoff over the past 10 days carries six other jobs with it--the taxi driver, the bus person, the sky cap, the parking-lot attendant, the hotel maid, and on and on.

And just as terribly we lose our freedom to move, to connect, to conduct business, to carry out long-made plans. The same can easily happen with restaurants, bakeries, cafes, butchers, farmers, shippers, wineries, field hands, truck drivers, the interlocking chain of people and businesses supporting food service.

When this is all over, this emotional blackmailing, this psychic kidnap we're all suffering--and it will be over--we'll be overjoyed and ready for some sensual pleasures. But will those restaurants, cafes and bakeries still be around?

Some will. Some won't. My point is simple. And, I hope, obvious. Now is not the time to stop going out to eat. If you fail to support the friend and neighbor who works hard as restaurateurs do, they simply will not be able to stay in business.

We've all reminisced, "There used to be so many good restaurants in Santa Cruz." The earthquake changed both the ecology and the landscape of dining in our county. I'm hoping out loud that the events of Sept. 11 won't have done the same. The quality of life matters. The quality of the future is in your hands.

A Modest Proposal

IF AIRLINES REALLY want to save money, increase security and do the dining public a real service, they should consider cutting out in-flight "meal" service altogether. Imagine a cross-country flight without that cloying, plastic imitation of food that is served as a pacifier to people who wouldn't otherwise touch that crap on a dare. Imagine that flight without all those disgusting calories. Airport concessions might blossom, actually offering fresh carry-out meals made of edible, tasty items. What a concept! You could choose to eat what you wanted--bring your favorite sandwich from home, or even dine before the flight and be free to sleep, read or watch the movie without having fumes of tomato-flavored sulfites in your face. I'm totally serious about this--and I'll explain more on "Travel Spot" with Gina DeSantis, next week--Friday (Oct. 12) at 1pm on KOMY-AM (1340).

Also you should know about the delightful Carmel Valley Wine Festival, which takes place Friday-Sunday (Oct. 5-7), a vintage bit of diversion now in its second year and just down the road. It happens this weekend at 55 W. Carmel Valley Road and offers exceptional tasting possibilities, food events and a gala wine auction. Music, terrific wine and major quality-of-life points. Many events are limited seating and priced accordingly. Call 659.1050 or find out the connoisseurial details at www.carmelvalleywinefestival.com.

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From the October 3-10, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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