The disappointment I should warn you about came to my attention on a frigid and stressful January night when I decided I wasn’t going to cook. It was a hectic, overscheduled day and the entire family was tired, cranky and hungry. Dinner was going to be late. The boy said he wasn’t going to eat it, anyway. The teenager wondered why it wasn’t ready NOW because she was “staaaarrrrving”. I finally gave up in frustration and told the husband to go start the car because we were going out to eat. I was sure that a couple of nice, juicy fast food burgers would solve all of our problems. I knew that the restaurant would help me escape the stress and the whining and the drudgery of cooking. That cheap, quick meal would be just the escape I needed from the crazy, dinnertime chaos. Little did I know how wrong I was.
Over the years, in my infinite aged wisdom, I’ve learned that there are 10 essential things that every human being needs to be happy. They need food, water, shelter, love, clean air, a virus free computer, an indoor toilet, cats who always use their litter box, nice abs and finally, some way to escape when things get crazy. Of course, this ability to escape the everyday stresses of life just might be the most important one of all.
When I was a kid there was a commercial on television that showed a hectic household full of screaming children. The exasperated and overwhelmed mother would throw her hands up in the air and pray to the God of Stress Free Bathing, “Calgon, take me away!” In the final shot of the commercial, the mother had escaped to her bathtub filled with Calgon products, that were undoubtedly responsible for her current relaxed and Zen-like state.
I was 11 years old when I first heard Rupert Holmes sing about “the same old dull routine” in his “Pina Colada” song, “Escape”. I didn’t fully understand the lyrics of the song at the time, but it was clear to me that he definitely needed an escape from something.
When I graduated from both high school and college, my peers always talked of taking trips to Mexico or Europe. They claimed they were looking to escape the real world just a little bit longer before they were off to college or their first job. These days it’s quite common to escape the stress of work and kids and daily life with exotic vacations or quaint weekend get-aways. It’s easy to escape into a 55 inch flat screen television when you have 212 channels to choose from. Video games, the internet, beer, the treadmill, gambling, iPods, cell phones and a plate of nachos all offer their own form of escape from the stressful parts of daily life.
My personal first escape of choice has always been books. For instance, I spent last week shadowing covert CIA operatives with questionable motives who were immersed in the Tet Offensive. I found myself suffocating in the stifling humidity of the Vietnamese jungle as I dodged Viet Cong bullets. When I left Vietnam I hitched a ride with some East Indian immigrants on their way to Boston and New York. I even learned a few new Bengali words. And just yesterday I started on a new adventure to rural Afghanistan. Some people escape to a concert or to a Hawaiian beach or to the World of Warcraft on their computer. I happily escape to page 342 of my book.
And of course, when family life gets crazy, like it did on that cold, January night, my 2nd escape of choice is the occasional meal out at a restaurant. As my family debated what they were going to order, I already knew that I would order my usual--a nice loaded burger, no fries and a big water. I never order the fries or the soda in my own admirable effort to cut a few calories. This time however, when I looked up at the menu to find my burger choice, I could see that something was different.
The number of calories for each item on the menu were now listed right next to that item. In big, bold black numbers. That everyone could plainly see.
My preference for denial in these matters began to uncomfortably confront me.
I feel I must warn you now. I have found that the restaurant meal may no longer be a place for escape. My burger, even without the fries and a soda, was certainly no longer an escape. Calorie denial was no longer an option. That new menu began to taunt me with numbers like 680 and 745. The menu dared me to order the dry chicken breast salad with no dressing. That new menu was most depressing and quite possibly slightly evil.
I cannot say strongly enough that if a meal out is your preferred form of escape from the everyday stresses of life you are in serious trouble. I would recommend that you begin to develop an alternative preferred escape like gambling or drinking or training for a marathon. Because the restaurant is no longer fun. It is no longer an escape.
As for me, I begrudgingly ate my salad. And then I went back home to my books. Afghanistan never looked so good.
Check This Out!
If you would like to escape to the Vietnam war, try reading Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson. I didn’t think I would like this book because it’s like nothing I usually read. But I did like it and so have a lot of other people. It’s won a ton of awards including the National Book Award for fiction and was on numerous Top 10 Books of 2007 lists. If you’d prefer to immerse yourself in the Indian culture then try The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. Ms. Lahiri is a Pulitzer Prize winning author who paints a compelling picture of the struggle many immigrants to the United States face. If you’d like to escape to Dairy Queen I highly recommend the Flamethrower burger. Order a ¼ pound version instead of a ½ pound version and tell them to leave off the bacon. Oh, and scrape off half of the sauce before you eat it. As long as you don’t look at the calories posted on the menu you should be able to eat it without too much guilt.