Martinis at the Opera House
You know when you do something embarrassing and it haunts you? Like, when a word appears in conversation during the normal pace of your day, it can transport you back into your shame? (No? Just me?) Here’s the story of one such haunting for me, involving the downfall of something I once loved – martinis.
When I started working at Google Research, I joined a team that was distributed across three offices: San Fransisco (where I worked), Seattle, and Sydney. Before COVID, we had a policy for everyone to meet in person once a quarter. This meant flying to Sydney twice a year. In fact, my second week on the job happened to be a quarterly meeting in Australia, which I was thrilled to attend on very short notice!
My second work summit to Sydney the whole team met up at the Opera House for a happy hour. We started chatting immediately, enjoying the spectacular view.
My boss Walter started walking around to gather people’s drink orders. He always did a spectacular job of planning our summits, and this evening was no exception. He turned to me first and asked what I would like. I wanted a gin martini. Walter then proceeded to get everyone else’s order, and I had returned to my conversation.
Much much later, Walter returned a while later holding only a martini. I wondered why he was gone from the party for so long. He tells me, “yeah, I had to go to a separate bar to get it.” I gave a blank stare as he laughed it off.
I felt mortified. I look around at other peoples drinks. Walter confirmed my impression: everyone else ordered wine or beer. I felt like I was wearing a tuxedo at the punk show.
It wasn’t just the martini among beers. Sure, I misunderstood the vibe and was unlucky to order first. Reflecting on the degree of my embarrassment now, I felt like I was really out of place. Like, too much of a lush, overstaying my welcome. I wasn’t proud of the conversations I was having either. I was deep into brainwashed-by-political-reddit phase of my life. The world was on fire and it was my business to make it the business of everyone who spoke to me. Donning a martini atop of my angry sophomorism, surrounded by grand reminders of my immense privilege, sits at the core of my shame in that moment.
For context, these were the Trump years. I was 26 and (in)decently online. Social media was mired in deeply decisive politics, and I was caught up in it. Inspired by a deep anxiety about climate change (in no small part fueled by two summers in a row of wildfires), I joined the Sunrise Movement. Living in the East Bay, a very left leaning and politically active place, I was surrounded by people in real life swept up in movements.
My experience in Sunrise involved a lot of burnout activism. This seemed to be the norm for everyone I knew in the movement. Sunrise really felt like a black hole for your time and life force. Can you blame people for giving their all to something they think is literally the only way to address global extinction? (Ironically, I bet I would have been a better advocate of the cause if I had a better sense of boundaries and enoughness.)
Caught in this activist treadmill, with all my free time invested, it was easy for it to take over my personality. Reflecting on this version of myself now, I feel like I was a big virtue signaler.
My conversations were all about how dire the news was, like, all the time. What was going on in the media pretty much predicted my state of wellness. I felt that like not being this annoying parrot was equivalent to being an ostrich, exercising a privilege of political ignorance. It’s apparent to me now that this is “chronically online” behavior. I lived Baudrillard’s definition of disaster porn: Doom scrolling and talking about it was a simulation of “addressing the problem” that I became addicted to. Martinis now represent a dissonance between the luxury I experience (due to many forms of privilege) and this righteous ungratefulness (related to virtue signaling).
Last week while in Sydney, I visited the Opera House. Camille and I got espresso martinis at the same bar overlooking the water front. We probably should have ordered beers since the drinks were pretty pricy, but I was thrilled with my order, if only to put an end to my negative memories. I sipped my afternoon pick-my-up, happy to know that I’ve grown a lot in the last five years. A big thing that’s helped me along the way is changing my media habits – or, changing what I pay attention to.
Just today, I listened to an excellent podcast by PJ Vogt. In an interview of Ezra Klein on the right way to use the internet today, PJ said something that perfectly encapsulated my experience:
The problem is, … I read essays that are not on twitter that are written entirely to an imaginary audience on twitter. I have conversations in real life with people who I know at bars, where I’m like, “you’re talking to twitter right now.” Like, is twitter really in the room right now? … It has so colonized one’s ability to speak even to one’s self without feeling that one will be misunderstood is, like, gone.
(~11 minutes into the episode)
Even off twitter, when you meet people in real life who use the platform, you’re basically talking to a continuum of that platform. Listening to this podcast made me feel so seen.
The big moral of the episode, which my experience underscores: be careful to what you pay attention to. I’ve made progress towards figuring out what I want to pay attention, in part by a digital detox and experimenting with my media diet. I hope this trip will help me stay grounded, and give me a better sense of how to mediate my attention.
I think a big part of the difference, to be totally frank, is just that I’ve gotten older. I care less about what other people think, have a better sense of social cues and, in general, taste. On affecting change in the world, I feel like I have a much better sense of what will actually have an impact vs what will just make me feel like I’m making a difference. And, while I’m certainly working on it, I have a good sense of what is enough.
I don’t know if I’ll get rid of all my shame memories, but at the very least, I can say that martinis are back on the menu.