Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Barstools

This post is going to make me sound like an alcoholic if I'm not careful. But the thing to remember is that this is not a blog about drinking, or indeed about bars. Rather it is a blog about a particular arrangement of people, furniture, and objects.

That said, drinking will figure in to it, but feel free to make that coffee, water, or a smoothie if you prefer. Move it out of a drinking establishment and into a coffee house or

Picture 3.jpgWhat, in my roundabout way, I am trying to get to is this: I love sitting on a barstool, at a bar, watching the world go by (or participating in it -- barstool does not mandate or even imply passivity). The personal geography of the stool and the bartop are nearly perfect. A great height (if it is not too tall) for working on laptop. A great height for a book or magazine or some old fashioned pen-and-ink notepaper. There is enough space to spread out -- but not so much as to enable uncontrolled sprawling. A plate, a drink, and a book/laptop/magazine fit perfectly. This forces a tidy work habit and the selection of essential resources. The height of the surface also enables a pleasant multitasking -- the sharing of time between food and drink and whatever form of work (or recreation -- for a laptop computer or a book or some notepaper could imply either for me) is at hand.

Picture 5.jpgBut almost all of this could happen at a table. The relationship between the tabletop and the body is not too different from that between the bartop and the body. But it is a significant difference. The bartop encourages a leaning, relaxed, elbows-on-the-table mood. The table is a rigorous place, both by arrangement and psychology, where posture must be maintained, children should be seen but not heard, and knife and fork must be used properly.

There is something else about the bar that works well, and that is the back bar and the (almost) inevitable TV playing the news or a sports show. First, the back bar, that glorious collection of multicolored, multistyled bottles against a mirrored backdrop. Cognacs, Scotch whiskies, and super-premium vodkas and bourbons on the top row. Then the blended whiskies, the more commonplace vodkas and bourbons and a necessary range of tequila. Finally, one step above the well, the more ordinary vodkas and rums as well as the additives: the vermouths and the liquors.

I'll admit, right now, that your favorite bar may not exactly mirror that arrangement. This is just (roughly) how I'd do mine.

It is a wonderful visual stimulus -- something to gaze at when you need to look up. Unlike other diners across (or at an adjacent) table, it never looks back (if it ever does, seek help). Unlike an office wall, it is more than eighteen inches away and gives your eyes some sort of a break from the relentlessly myopic staring of the modern knowledge worker.

The TV plays the same role. A quick look away to Larry King or Wolf Blitzer or Keith Olbermann can refresh a stuck thought process or just provide a break from a monotonous task. The intermezzo of a highlight reel can provide a quick break between catching up on work email and diving into the framework of an intricately planned project.

Picture 4.jpgAnd here, for the first time, we will also encounter the alcohol. From ancient Sumer on, people have found that properly treated fermented grains can produce a relaxed state, inducing of creativity, conversation, risk taking, and even, in the right situations, considerable productivity. In the classic pattern of the "if you mean whisky" fallacy, it can also produce excessively abrupt emails, poor proofreading, a tendency for summary resignations, misuse of Britney Spears crotch shots in PowerPoint presentations, and worst of all corporate Karaoke. But a little self restraint, here, and the benefits out weigh the risk of accidentally showing board members a photograph of Brit's underwear.

Here is a place where you can sit and work and take a moment to rest and someone will bring you (almost) everything you need. What, then, of the noise and the other people there? For starters, I'm the kind of guy who has no problem grabbing a spot at the bar, pulling out his laptop, ordering a beer, and getting to work. If the rest of the patrons are all meeting up and actually watching the game or flirting, so what! If they think I'm an oddball, then that is their problem and not mine -- and if you are uncomfortable with this sort of attitude then you might actually find this whole working-at-a-bar thing isn't for you. But read on, we'll get on to this interpersonal contact stuff soon enough.

The crowd, though, becomes another optional distraction, something to take your interest away when you need (or choose) to let it do so. The rest of the time, it is white noise. Stare at an overly complex scene -- say one of those ultra-hard German crossword puzzles based around an oil painting of a cluttered used bookstore or else a day care center. Then let your eyes loose focus for a moment and suddenly the visual stimulus retreats to manageability. Crowd noise does the same thing. It helps focus by forcing you into yourself. And when you want to, look at the bored girl and the desperate guy hitting on her, or the bachelor party group, or the silent couple, or the would-be executives or... And if you catch enough of one of the conversations, and it should be sufficiently close by, say hi, drop in, offer some advice, tell them the easiest way to the freeway or what you thought of Mama Mia. It is (to gracefully paraphrase Fight Club) a single serving friendship. If you laugh and they laugh, great, everyone wins. If you laugh and they laugh -- at you -- then at least you brought a little joy to the world and you will never meet these people again.

But we do not always come to bars solitary, with laptop. Sometimes we come with another person or even a people. And then the whole barstool thing takes on a new role. It is splendidly isolating -- the crowd noise again. You can say anything, things you wouldn't say at a quiet restaurant, things about each other and what you'd like to do later, things about your friends, things about your co-workers, the economy, or the Large Hadron Collider. Which, by the way, will completely fail to destroy the Earth or even the universe when it switches on. The Large Hadron Collider, that is. But when the things to say run out or need refreshing, there is the full spectrum of human drama there, from the TV screens to the other patrons (tastefully watched in the back bar mirror if there is one). Take a break, look around.

The posture -- remember the posture? Perch in couples holding hands, turn your wonderfully swivelable barstools towards each other for intimacy, turn back to the bartop for food or to read the menu or new magazines or to stare at the liquor bottles. If you are there in a group, lean in, lean out, arrange yourself as needed to talk to the person next to you, or n+1 spaces away. Raise your voice if necessary, scrum together as four for a laughing and shouting shared comment. Its all good, it all goes.

When you're on a barstool.

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