My wife worried, when I worked out an Olive Garden write-off with the great Tommy Tomlinson, that I would poke fun at Marilyn Hagerty’s now famous Olive Garden review. This tells me that I did not explain the idea well enough to her. I loved that review.
In case you missed it, Marilyn Hagerty is the 85-year-old author of the Eatbeat column in the Grand Forks Herald, a newspaper in Grand Forks, N.D.*
*At about 50,000, it is the third-largest city in North Dakota behind after Fargo and Bismarck.
She wrote an earnest review of the new Olive Garden that appeared in the newspaper … a review so earnest, in fact, that it briefly blew up the Internet. This is part of what the Internet does — like Hemingway himself, the Internet destroys earnest.* As of Sunday morning, the Eatbeat Column was still the most clicked story on the Grand Forks paper Website. Second was a video featuring Marilyn talking to CBS This Morning. Third was a story about Marilyn saying that she had done a lot of things in her life but had never gone viral.
*That might be the most tortured wordplay I’ve ever attempted. My neck hurts now.
I loved that review. I really did. Oh sure, I’m not going to tell you that I didn’t get a chuckle out of some of the more impassioned parts, like when she wrote: “At length, I asked my server what she would recommend. She suggested chicken Alfredo, and I went with that. Instead of the raspberry lemonade she recommended, I drank water.”
But all in all, I loved it. And here’s why: I want to live in a world where someone in Grand Forks or anyplace else can enjoy the Olive Garden. I want to live in a world where people can like things unconditionally, without irony, without sarcasm.
Sure, I know: It’s the Olive Garden. I get the joke. And, hey, I enjoy poking fun at the Olive Garden’s excesses as much as the next person* — especially for their absurd, “When you’re here, you’re with family” commercials where people use terrible Italian accents or the pompous way their menus use “Pizze” instead of “Pizza,” like we’re supposed to somehow believe that the Tour of Italy menu item is actually, you know, a tour of Italy. I shake my head every time I pass the always full Olive Garden in Times Square — walk two blocks in any direction and you will blindly run into an authentic Italian restaurant infinitely better and cheaper.
*Unless that next person happens to be Keith Law.
But the world is not Times Square. And the Olive Garden breadsticks are warm.
There’s so much good, funny, smart writing available on the Internet these days that it’s easy to miss that there’s a certain kind of writing that isn’t much available: And that’s VULNERABLE writing. Could you imagine how much different “Catcher In The Rye” might have been if readers were allowed to write their immediate comments below it?
PsychoBrat: “Hey, Holden quit WHINING!!!!!”
StevieStevie: “Rye sanwichh. Mmmm.”
MarjorieM: “You guys totally missed the point. This was about the confusion of youth and the desire to find something real and authentic in a world changing too rapidly …”
BaseDuen2847: “Shut up Marjoarie. Maybe YOU missed the point.”
StevieStevie: “Rye sanldwiche. Mmmmm. Mmmm.”
Who wants to expose their hearts on the Internet? Who wants to admit — except in some deeply ironic way — that they really and truly like something? Who wants to lay bare their enthusiasm, open it up to the boots of cynics and skeptics and snarkers? Much better to start a “Fire Rex Ryan” Web site … or poke fun at Yuni Betancourt.
I think this is the really cool thing about little kids: They don’t know enough yet to be cynical or overprotective. A couple of weeks ago, we took our girls — ages 7 and 10 now — to Myrtle Beach for the second time. If you haven’t been, Myrtle Beach is kind of the Olive Garden of beaches. It is crowded and commercial and overstuffed with miniature golf courses with pirate and dinosaur themes and tee-shirt shops and gaudy seafood restaurants with giant inflatable lobsters on the rooftop.
The girls love it.* They do not love it in spite of all that commercialism. They love it BECAUSE of all that commercialism. They love the fake shark teeth necklaces. They love the inflatable shell fish. They love the small strips of sand. They love the miniature golf — wow, do they love the miniature golf. We played one of those pirate miniature golf courses where every other hole has a little spinner board that gives you rules for that hole (Hit off one leg; block your opponent for one shot; take one off your score, etc.). They could not have had more fun on the beach in Rio.
I remember when I felt like that at Cedar Point, an amusement park in Ohio. Everything felt new and thrilling and so alive. The cotton candy tasted better than anything I’d ever eaten. The rides felt like the edge of adventure. The games of chance felt like Vegas. The shows felt like Broadway. Only later, much later, did I go back and see that it was all so much smaller and grittier than I had remembered.
*The girls also love the Olive Garden. Elizabeth, our oldest, has loved olives since she was a toddler, and I remember one time an Olive Garden waitress brought her an entire plate of sliced olives. She thought this was the greatest thing ever.
Our girls will get older and lose much of that, I know. It’s already happening with my oldest daughter, and it hurts to watch that joy get stomped. Last year we were at Disney World, and they were having that parade down Main Street where all the Disney characters come out in these giant floats. There’s dancing. There’s singing. The girls loved that so much. Well, I saw Elizabeth dancing happily and then I saw another girl, maybe the same age maybe a year older, walk by, look at Elizabeth and kind of roll her eyes and maybe even mouth something like “grow up.” It was like watching Internet snark in real life.
Well, Elizabeth immediately stopped dancing and looked horribly embarrassed. And I was sick. I’d had a similar experience when I was maybe her age at the Ohio State Fair — it had to do with show featuring Ronald McDonald and a boy my age who thought everyone watching was lame (especially me). Well, we all have similar experiences, right? I immediately pulled Elizabeth aside and told her, “Don’t worry about what that that girl did. What does she know? You’re at Disney World. Look around: There are people in costumes dancing everywhere. Enjoy yourself. Dance — that girl is not having fun. You’re the one having fun.” She smiled a little and nodded, but something small and meaningful had changed. She wouldn’t dance as freely. I never did.
That’s why I loved Marilyn Hagerty’s review — there is not one cynical, sarcastic, ironic or satirical word in it. She liked the Olive Garden. She appreciated the way the servers were dressed; she noticed the flower display; she thought the fireplace added warmth. She wrote about it all with vigor and enthusiasm, not only unconcerned that it might become snarked up on the Internet but clearly unaware that such things happen. You know that quote from the author William Purkey: “You’ve gotta dance like there’s nobody watching.”
Inspired by that, Tommy and I went to the Olive Garden in Charlotte late last week. Tommy said he had not been there in years. I have eaten at Olive Garden many, many times — as a traveling sportswriter, the Olive Garden is often the easiest option.
As soon as we sat down, a woman sitting in the booth across from us — as if she knew what we were doing and wanted to appear in both our columns — suggested that Tommy try the chicken. “It’s WONDERFUL,” she said in the most sincere voice imaginable, as if she was talking about the latest Josh Groban album or the traveling show of “Wicked” or Meryl Streep’s performance in her last movie. It would be easy to jab at that sort of euphoria over Olive Garden chicken, and it might be funny too — I sort of did in that follow up line, didn’t I?
But snark wasn’t how I felt. Instead, I felt happy. And, for some strange reason, I remembered a promise I made myself many years ago. I did not take my first flight until I was in college — all of our family trips were by car. I was fairly nervous on that first flight, but I remember looking out the window as the plane took off. And I was blown away by the beauty of it, that feeling of being a few thousand feet above the ground, looking down on the rooftops and the trees that look like broccoli and the tiny little cars that seem to be inching along linguini thin ribbons of highway. It was thrilling.
Then I looked around the plane and noticed that hardly anybody was looking out the window. Some were sleeping. Some were talking. Some were reading books. Some were just staring straight ahead, into the back of the seat in front of them, not unlike Puddy from “Seinfeld.” And right then, I promised myself that every flight I ever took I would — even for only a second — look out the window and appreciate the remarkable view from above.
I have now flown countless times … and I haven’t kept that promise. Not even close. I sleep on planes. I work. I read. I watch videos. I play this stupid “Line Runner” iPhone game that, sooner or later, will break my spirit. Sometimes, I don’t even lift the shade the whole flight. Somewhere along the way, flying went from modern miracle to mode of transportation. I don’t regret that exactly — you can’t fake wonder.
But, it is also true, that every so often I do remember and look out the window and see the scene and try to feel a bit like that scared college kid who wanted to enjoy every moment. Sometimes I don’t. But sometimes I do. Tommy and I ate breadsticks and salad, I had the spaghetti and meatballs, we talked about many things, laughed a lot, and got free refills on our drinks. I’m not going to tell you the food was wonderful. But the meal was.