The weekend morning was crisp and pretty, and it had brought out a lively crowd for brunch in a popular Bethesda restaurant. The tables were full, and the noise was terrific.
Waiters and waitresses in white shirts, black aprons and pastel neckties moved between tables carrying great trays laden with quesadillas, tacos and chorizo-stuffed breakfast burritos. The distant thump of ambient music was only faintly audible over the cheerful cacophony.
A huge stuffed bull's head hung high on one wall. It gazed blindly through glass eyes at the pullulating scene, the only unmoving creature in the room.
No, wait -- there was one other unmoving creature. It seemed to be gazing through glass eyes of its own.
It was a small boy, who was oblivious to the bubbling conversation and laughter around him, unaware even of the crash as a tray flipped over a short distance away, scattering broken crockery and scrambled eggs across the floor.
At a tableful of gesticulating talkers, he was silent. He moved only slightly now and then, to maneuver a tortilla chip into a tub of molten cheese and then into his mouth. As family members around him sipped lemonade and passed the time, he kept his eyes trained on a screen. On it, teenagers were dancing around in funny hats.
The screen had a lime-green plastic frame. The grown-ups in the boy's party had propped it up to keep him entertained and quiet while the rest of the family enjoyed each other's company.
Like bulls, young children often have volatile natures that make them challenging company in china shops, or in restaurants. Unlike bulls, children cannot be stuffed and mounted on the wall to ensure that they are seen and not heard.
It is undoubtedly a mercy for parents more interested in compliance than in civilization that technology has come along to ease this difficult. Why engage a child in conversation, which might be tedious, when you can hogtie him with the moving image? Why endure whining or discontent, when there's a pixelated pacifier that he will be only too willing to accept? You're happy, he's happy -- everyone has a good time!
You might say the same for the bull, who gets to enjoy lunch and dinner every day at the popular Bethesda restaurant, except that you wouldn't because the bull isn't really there -- only his skin and his horns are present. The bull's interior life, assuming he had one, has been extinguished. He isn't a bull at all, but a decorative object. He has a seat at a restaurant table, so to speak, but he's not part of the life there -- no more than was the little boy of 5 or 6 who was plugged into a machine while his family dined around him.
Next time you are out, notice how many children are in the same situation, and for that matter, how many adults. The whole culture is turning to the screen for succor, and it is, if you stand back for a moment and look at it afresh, something quite remarkable -- and deeply sad.
Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.