Thursday, December 9, 2010

Jingle Bell, Jingle Bell, Jingle Bell Stop. Please, Just Stop.

The secret to eternal happiness is to never wish to be anywhere but where you are. Wherever you are, embrace it fully. Say yes to it unreservedly. For there is nothing more foolish than fighting the reality of what is.


If you do not like something, change it. If you cannot change it, change your attitude. Do not complain.

--Maya Angelou


For me, one of the single most annoying things about being in the service industry – more annoying than bad tips, rude guests, or loud children – is holiday music. Specifically, being forced to listen to holiday music six to eight hours a day for a month and a half straight. The normal music is bad enough; many years ago at one of my old jobs (before satellite radio) we had those cassette tapes that run on infinite loops, just replaying the same hour, hour-and-a-half of music over and over and over. One summer they replayed the same one tape for over a month straight; to this day I still can’t hear “Ironic” by Alanis Morisette without getting nauseous. But holiday music is in a class by itself. Part of it might be because I was raised Jewish, and so I really don’t have any fond memories associated with Christmas music (besides Vince Guaraldi's jazz score from “A Charlie Brown Christmas"). But I think the main reason is because Christmas music is almost universally shitty. “White Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” that awful, awful Paul McCartney song (“Simply, having, a wonderful Christmas time….”) and worst of all, “Jingle Bell Rock,” they all make me wretch. (“Jingle Bell Rock” I think deserves special mention just because of the way it lodges itself in your head, like a parasite burrowing underneath your skin, and you find yourself singing it – over and over). And the less said about that Barbara Streisand monstrosity (Jingle bells, jingle bells, jing, jangle! Jingle bells, jingle bells, jing, jangle!) the better. In my mind, there have really only been three good Christmas songs ever written: “Christmas in Hollis” by Run-DMC, The Jackson 5 version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and Prince’s “Another Lonely Christmas” (which, if you’ve never heard it, is beautiful albeit immensely depressing). Even the reliably cynical John Lennon could not withstand the Christmas schmaltz – “So This Is Christmas” is one of his most annoyingly cloying songs (a children’s choir John? Really?).

So, every year, between the day after Thanksgiving and the end of the first week of January, I bitch. I bitch relentlessly, over and over -- “Not Jingle Bell Rock again!”, “God I hate Paul McCartney!” and so forth. But what can I do? The Christmas music certainly isn’t going anywhere (and, for the time being, neither am I), and the end result of being constantly annoyed is pretty much that I'm walking around feeling constantly annoyed. It’s really not a good feeling. So why do I bitch? What’s to be gained? If I'm completely honest with myself I think on some level I like being annoyed; having something to bitch about is a nice little boost for the ego, it's the ego's way of saying, “I’m better than this music,” or "If I was running the show things would be different" (we’d only be listening to ‘A Motown Christmas’ for one). But it still doesn't feel good. So, as an experiment, the other night I just stopped bitching. I stopped bitching and accepted unreservedly that awful, awful Christmas music that could not be escaped. When “Jingle Bell Rock” got stuck in my head, I sang it and let myself sing it – I made myself really get into it, just belted it out. And you know what? I wasn’t annoyed anymore. I actually found myself in a good mood – whistling “Rudolph” and everything. Like a lot of things in life, it was a trade off. I had to trade in my temporary feelings of superiority for being in a good mood, and I found being in a good mood is vastly more enjoyable. Now we'll just see if I can keep it up when Streisand comes on.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving at Bennigan's: A Holiday Story

The following is a piece I wrote for Chicago's Newcity magazine. It's a little longer than my usual posts, I hope you enjoy it. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

There's an odd sort of camaraderie that develops in certain work environments, not unlike between soldiers during times of war. It's a camaraderie born out of shared suffering and hardship; you don't find it in every job, but I've definitely found it in waiting tables. Part of it comes from feeling banded together against a common enemy (the customer). Another part is being separated from "normal" society by the nature and hours of the job. For the majority of waiters (and bartenders, and restaurant managers), our living is made at nights and on weekends, i.e., the times when the rest of the country has off. Our weekends are Mondays and Tuesdays; our after-work drinks don't start until 1am. But the real separation is felt during the holidays, when everyone else is enjoying the heart and hearth of home and you're sharing your season with your co-workers, not your loved ones.

Don't get me wrong, I've had some wonderful holidays with my various crews - Near Year's Eve parties that, technically, didn't start until a couple of hours into New Year's Day, Christmas Day dinner in Chinatown followed by Karaoke - but one that stands out was the Thanksgiving I spent at Bennigan's in 2003.

Like with most restaurants at the chain-level, our staff was a diverse and somewhat motley assortment of individuals: musicians and college students, druggies and alcoholics, working moms and career servers. Chet was the lead singer of a not half-bad power pop/emo group (I think they were called "The Effect"); Jennifer was a recent journalism grad from U of I writing part-time for a leftist internet zine; Viktor was a part-time drug dealer who may or may not have had ties to the Hungarian mafia (he would later be arrested (and deported) for scamming customers' credit cards - he showed up to work one day and the FBI was waiting for him, I shit you not); Tom had been behind the bar for over half a decade with no plans beyond tomorrow night's pub crawl; and Maria, our manager, was a single mom who made a 3-hour roundtrip commute everyday from Rockford.

The good people at corporate, in their infinite wisdom, had decided that not only would we be open for Thanksgiving dinner that year, but that we would also be serving our very own "Bennigan's Thanksgiving Platter," "platter" in this case being used only in the loosest sense of the term. For $12.95 you got a processed turkey breast (white meat only) with something resembling gravy, powdered mash potatoes, stuffing (which had both the consistency and taste of a chopped-up cardboard mailer), frozen vegetables, and cranberry sauce straight from the can, which was pretty much the only thing about the meal that felt right.

You might be asking yourself, who exactly would be eating out at a Bennigan's for Thanksgiving dinner. The answer? Foreign tourists, and lots of 'em. Turns out Thanksgiving isn't as big a deal in Germany or the U.K. as it is here in America. Who knew? It wasn't like we were crazy busy or anything, but we weren't dead either - we had enough business to keep us occupied and keep our minds off of all the places we'd rather be. Of course, with foreign tourists come foreign tips, which are usually on the lower end of the spectrum (tipping 20%, like Thanksgiving and Monster Truck Rallies, seems to be a uniquely American practice). So no one's really making any decent money, we're all just stuck there, and we're pretty much spending every spare moment bitching incessantly. And then, after the dinner rush had died down, Doc came in.

Doc was one of our regulars. To be more specific, he was my regular. He was, as his name suggests, a doctor - now retired - around his late sixties, early seventies. He came in several times a month; not every week, but thereabouts, always alone. Like many regulars, he had a "usual," a somewhat complicated special order that was uniquely his, pretty much a dinner of his own creation made up of various bits and pieces of the menu put together. I'd be lying if I said I still remembered it (I think it involved the Pan Seared Tilapia, sauce on the side, with plain steamed broccoli and shrimp skewers no spice, side of 3 slices of lemon and two sides of butter, but I might be making all that up), the point is that I was the only one who could keep it straight at the time, and as such I was the only one he trusted with his dinner, so he would sit in my section every time. He was a good tipper and nice enough guy - a little demanding and, shall we say, specific - but at least he appreciated the service.

I hadn't been expecting to see him; I would have thought (had I bothered to think about it) that he would be with his family. I said hello, and wished him a Happy Thanksgiving. He responded in kind and it was clear, as the words hung in the air, that we both thought better of it too late after the words had come out of our mouths. A little embarrassed, I went to our usual routine: me asking him what he was in the mood for tonight and him pretending to hem and haw before ordering the exact same thing he gets every damn time he comes in. This time though, he asked if we were doing anything special for Thanksgiving. I mentioned the "Platter," and immediately followed up with "But Doc, it looks awful, you really don't want it." He said that he was in the mood for turkey and, what the hell, he would give it a try.

Things had slowed to the point where I could hang out for a bit. It's something we would do sometimes if it was slow, we'd shoot the shit a little before I went on to the next thing. I don't usually like to get too personal with my tables, even my regulars. It's such an awkward dynamic; I'm not completely free to be myself and I'm still in a subservient position, I'd rather just stick to surface politeness and keep it at that. But it was Thanksgiving and there really wasn't much to do, and the man just seemed so damn lonely. He asked me what my family was doing for dinner and would I be seeing them - I said I'd be getting the leftovers tomorrow. I asked him in turn if he'd be seeing anyone and he replied that, no, his children were both in California and he hadn't spoken to them recently. As the conversation was turning in a somewhat uncomfortable direction, I excused myself saying I had to check on something in the kitchen.

I did have a couple of other tables to tend to, which provided me with a distraction while Doc waited for his food and read the paper, like he usually did. I went out for a smoke and when I came back he had gotten his dinner.

"How is it?" I asked.

He looked glumly down at the plate and poked at the turkey with his fork.

"It's shit," he replied.

"I told you," I said, not really surprised. "Do you want the usual?"

"No," he said. "Thanksgiving you should have turkey. My ex-wife couldn't cook for shit, and I ate her turkey every year. This actually kind of reminds me of it."

I laughed, and told him all right then; if he needed anything let me know. He ate the whole thing, including the mixed vegetables - which surprised me since I'd never seen him eat any vegetable that wasn't plain steamed broccoli. He read his paper and finished with his usual dessert of two cups of half-caf coffee and an Apple Sizzler. He left me his usual $8 on $35 and said goodnight.

Things were winding down and I was getting hungry myself - it was getting to be dinnertime for us, i.e, around 10 o' clock. That's when Maria, the manager, came up to the front and told us not to order any food for ourselves but to meet up in the back in five minutes. We went to the back of the restaurant and saw that she had set up a little buffet with several casserole trays covered in aluminum foil.

"I know how much it stinks that we all have to be here," she said, "So I brought some stuff from home to share, and some others people pitched in some things in too."

To her end there was jalapeno corn bread and arroz con gandules (rice with pidgeon peas); Charlene, from the A.M. staff, had brought in a huge tray of homemade macaroni and cheese earlier that day. George, our senior manager, had contributed a couple of Jewel-brand pumpkin pies. There were also a whole bunch of unsold "Bennigan's Thanksgiving Platters."

And so we sat, and ate our crappy turkey alongside some really good mac n' cheese, and joked and bitched, and made lewd comments about what the gravy looked like, and had bad coffee and store-bought pumpkin pie. And it was actually a lot of fun. In retrospect, my favorite part about it was that the company didn't kick in a single thing except for the unsold turkey dinners. It was that Maria had taken it upon herself to make corn bread and rice for her staff while her sons were having their Thanksgiving at her mother's house, or that Charlene had brought in the mac n' cheese for a meal for her coworkers that she wouldn't even be at, or that, as I found out later, George (a somewhat surly gay man in his late fifties who could at times be incredibly, dryly, hilarious) had used the office's petty cash to buy the pies. It was a weird, quasi-family atmosphere, the kind that can only come about between people sharing in a uniformly shitty situation and trying to make the best out of it.

A coda: I worked at that Bennigan's for just under another year. Near the end of that time, Doc had started to come in less and less, and the last few times I saw him, he did not look well. And then, nothing. I never saw him again. Months after I left I heard from a friend of mine that was still working there that his children had actually contacted the Bennigan's wondering if we had seen him recently; they hadn't been able to get in contact with him for awhile and somehow knew that he had frequented there. The idea that in what may have been the last two years of his life I, just some punk kid waiter at a Bennigan's, may have known their father better than they did (and I certainly didn't know him well), it was just one of the saddest fucking things I could think of, and I still don't quite know what to make of it.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Harmony, Counterpoint, or Discord?

All of nature is song. Sometimes the song is in a minor key, with purple tones that stir the soul, bursting the heart with pent-up emotions. Sometimes it is joyous, full of rich melodies and grand chords that bring electric thrills. Sometimes it descends into strange modes, guttural chants, and obscure dissonances.

It is up to each of us to sing as we feel moved by the overall song of life. Do we harmonize with it? Do we sing a counterpoint? Do we purposefully sound discordant tones?

Perhaps a student first encountering Tao endeavors to harmonize with it, but that isn't all that there is to having a relationship with Tao. Tao gives us the background, the broad circumstances. It is up to us to fit into it, go against it, or even flutter off on oblique angles. Don't look at Tao as one big inexorable stream in which we float like dead logs. What could that lead to except logjams?

No, let us be like the birds. Who sing when Tao sends them rain. Who know what to do when winter comes. Who embroider the sky with their own unique paths. Who will sing a counterpoint when they need to. Who will sing poetry that is discordant when it must be and rhymes when it is proper.

--From 365 Tao: Daily Meditations by Ming-dao Deng

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Time is money, but sometimes it's worth a lot more then that...

Do or do not. There is no try.



I realize it's been awhile (a long while) since my last post, and that's kind of what I've wanted to talk about it. I got a new job, at a much, much nicer restaurant - I used to work at an "upscale casual" chain restaurant (think Bennigans, but with marble), I've moved on to a high-end steak house - but it's been kind of a mixed blessing. The money is better (like, really better), the clientele is (vastly) better and, once they kick in, the benefits (401(k)!) are better.

But I'm working a lot. Like, 8 shifts a week - usually about 3 doubles, a lunch and a night. It's over 50 hours a week waiting tables, which is a lot. I'm used to a workweek of about 32-40 - at my old job they wouldn't let you go into overtime. I realize for a lot of non-waiters, 50+ hour workweeks (or 60 or 70) are not uncommon, but for waiting tables it's a lot. First of all, waiting tables is physically demanding - I'm basically on my feet for ten to twelve hours a day (and, unlike some jobs, I don't get to break for Farmville or I've been so drained that in my off time it's really hard to get motivated to do anything except sleep in and waste time on the internet. Secondly, I'm not moving up any company ladder any time soon. To be a waiter is to have a job where the only real advancement is better sections and priority in scheduling (unless you want to work your way up to management, and I have zero interest in doing that). There are no raises and no promotions. So to sacrifice 50 hours a week is to do so with no carrot at the end of the stick - it's simply for the money made. And granted, the money is good. But is it a trade off I'm happy to make?

One of the reasons I've always liked waiting as a profession is because it allows you the time to do other things (like write blogs and promote e-books, for instance). So when you take that away, you're left with just this job, and it's looking less and less appealing. It's a real catch-22: I've taken this job to make more money so I can have more freedom (and God forbid put together a savings, retirement fund, and pay off my credit cards), but because of all the time spent at the job I have less freedom than ever (I'm sure this scenario is not unfamiliar to many of you).

The whole thing has got me thinking about the trade-offs we make in life, the sacrifices we're forced to make in choosing one thing or another. There's only so much time in a day (or in a life), and you can only divide it up so much. At my old job I had free time and flexibility, but I was also not saving anything and continually paying the minimum on my credit cards. So it was limiting my future free time and flexibility.

One of the main things I've learned from Buddhism is to try to see the situation as it truly is, without fear or desire or regret or prejudice getting in the way. We have to look at our lives and ask ourselves, time and time again: is this working? And if it's not, what's to be done about it: is it something I can change, or is it something I need to accept? If my current path is preventing me from living the life I want, I have the responsibility for figuring out what I need to do to get to the other place - and then do everything in my power to get there. I've said it before: Buddhism is not about passively accepting everything that comes your way; it's about seeing reality as it is and acting accordingly. If you're absolutely powerless over a situation and acceptance is the only thing you can do, then that's all you can do - that's reality. However, if there is something you can do about it, you have to commit yourself to that action fully and without hesitation. If you do make a mistake, or take a wrong turn, at least then you can learn from that experience and redirect yourself. If you never take any chances, you'll never learn anything and never move from where you are.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Has worrying ever changed the future?

Anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strength.

--Charles Spurgeon


So, for the last few months I've been involved in a job search; a process that, as I'm sure you'll all agree, can be very frustrating. I was very fortunate that I was not job-hunting out of necessity - I've been gainfully employed the entire time and I can only imagine that the frustration of not finding the right situation would have been magnified a thousand-fold otherwise.

Still, sending out resume after resume and going on interview after interview has been a learning experience to say the least. It seemed that, much like that great line from Seinfeld, the ones I liked didn't like me, and the ones that liked me I didn't like. I began to despair that I would ever find the right job and find it in time. In the restaurant industry there's a definite hiring window (especially in the Midwest): the ideal time to come on is between March and May so you'll be there for the start of the busy summer season, then you'll be slightly established to carry you through the slower fall, you'll be busy again for the holidays, and then when the dead zone of January through March rolls around hopefully you won't be low man on the totem pole anymore and you'll have a decent enough schedule to make a living while it's lean. If you miss the summer and get hired for the holidays you'll make money for those two months but you'll be kind of screwed come the New Year.

The whole process taught me a lot about letting go of attachment to outcome. I'd go on interviews, think they went well, then sweat it out waiting to hear back. I had a lot of promising leads that looked like they were headed in a definite direction and then abruptly wouldn't pan out. A couple of times in particular were especially frustrating - on one occasion I made it through three interviews with a hotel restaurant and was sure, absolutely sure, that I had nailed them. It was the perfect situation: an ultra high-end luxury hotel that also got an extremely well to do clientele from the tony neigborhood it was located in. Expensive menu, nice wine list and, since it was a hotel gig, great benefits (unlike the rest of the service industry, hotel staff are unionized). When I didn't get the job I was crushed - mostly because I was so sure that I had it. In my mind I was already hired and writing my resignation letter (okay, I'm a waiter - we don't really do resignation letters. Still, you get the point).

It was becoming a seemingly endless chain of getting my hopes up only to see them dashed just as quickly. To add to the frustration I was getting job offers - but all from places that for one reason or another I didn't want to work at (on the other hand, I guess it was encouraging that I was getting any offers at all). I was beginning to understand very clearly the Buddhist axiom that desire and attachment are the causes of suffering. It's not because you might not get what you want (though that doesn't help): it's the desire and attachment themselves. It's the obsessing: wondering whether or not they'll call back; the constant replaying of the interview over and over again in your head - a question you mishandled, an opportunity you missed, that one key thing you forgot to say; the worry about what's going to happen if you get rejected again, the feeling that if you don't get this one you may never find anything.

And then, last week, it happened. I got the call back. This was, of course, after days of fretting and worrying and obsessing. So I got the job. I was thrilled, absolutely thrilled. I felt amazing, like a thousand pound weight had been lifted off my shoulders. And then what happens? Almost immediately I start to worry again. What if I can't hack it? What if I f up in my first week and dump a plate on an important guest or drop a three hundred dollar bottle of wine? What if I have to come crawling back to my present job with my tail between my legs?

I saw that it is the nature of the mind (at least my mind) to be constantly worrying about something, it doesn't matter what. I worry and worry and worry, what I'm worrying about doesn't happen or ends up working out in my favor, I'm okay for an hour, then my mind moves right on to worrying about something else. And worry is hands down one of the most useless (if not harmful) thought processes. Think about it - have you ever successfully worried your way into a solution? You can sit down and map out your options - but worrying isn't ever going to change anything. But the mind sees worrying as somehow helpful, like it will help you prepare for or even affect the outcome.

Going back to my discussion last week on the power of choice, I understood that worry too is a choice. Buddhist philosophy states that upon seeing clearly the suffering caused by a thought or choice you will simply let it go, as naturally as you would drop a hot coal - but first you have to be absolutely clear in your head that the thought or action is not beneficial in any way shape or form. First is the understanding: This is not helpful at all. This is 100% harmful. Then you're free to make the choice: Breathing in I see clearly that worry is not helpful, breathing out I see clearly the suffering worry creates. Breathing in I know that worrying is a choice I make, breathing out I choose not to worry. The next time you find yourself obsessing about something, give that a try. The freedom is indescribable.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

...and then the Buddha said, "Put up or shut up."

Dealing with the guests is only half the matter; the other half is dealing with your restaurant. Maybe the problem is a particular jackass of a manager, maybe it is a bar that is constantly weeded, or hosts that routinely triple-seat you. Understand that the law of restaurants is that no restaurant is perfect (and the ones that actually are, are not actively hiring, since no one in their right mind would ever leave there). Know that the only choice you really have is which particular pain-in-the-ass you will have to deal with. It could be a large tip-out, ridiculously belabored side-work, an inflexible schedule, incompetent co-workers, a constant lack of plate and glassware, etc, etc. No one has put a gun to your head and demanded you wait tables for a living nor that you do it at your particular restaurant. You are free to leave at any time. The question you have to ask yourself is: do the pros of this job outweigh the cons? If the answer is no, seek other employment immediately. If the answer is yes, than cease your bitching – odds are it would be no better anywhere else. As the poet Maya Angelou has said, “If you do not like something, change it. If you can not change it, change your attitude. Do not complain.”


How many times have you found yourself stuck in a situation that you're continually not happy with - job, relationship, your own bad habits, whatever - but you haven't stopped it because it's not that bad? You just maintain a low level of discontent: you gripe about it, you complain to anyone who will listen, but you don't actually ever do anything about it - you just keep repeating the same patterns and the complaints day in and day out.

I think it's part of the human condition that one our biggest fears is change. We can be miserable all day long, but so long as that misery is tolerable we really won't do anything about it. Things usually have to be really awful to snap us out of our routine and force us to do something different - it's why recovering alcoholics talk about "hitting bottom." We usually don't change unless the situation gets so bad that we don't have any choice.

Why is this? Why when faced with a choice between the known and the unknown, we choose the known ninety-nine times out of a hundred, even when the known is awful? Maybe it's because even if we're unhappy now, we're afraid that if we change anything we risk becoming more unhappy. That even if we're in a bad situation, at least it's a situation we're familiar with - we're prepared for it. With the unknown we just kind of have to trust that we'll be able to deal with whatever happens when it comes. And I think a lot of us are afraid we won't be able to do that. But think about it - haven't you really dealt with everything that's happened to you in some form or another? You're still here, right? And even if you've made bad decisions - haven't you learned from them in one way or another?

But that's the thing - how much of our lives are the results of actual decisions, good or bad? Isn't most of our life the result of not really deciding anything - of just kind of going along without offering much resistance, until you find yourself where you are? How much of our life is a result of conscious choice, and how much is stuff that just happened to us?

We may not always have the power to change a bad situation, but we always have the power of choice. It's a power that we don't really believe we have, it's a power that we're often afraid to use, but it is our power. If we can't change something, we can choose to accept it, and upon accepting it life seems to open up different avenues. But a lot of times, those things we're complaining about are things we can change, we just don't. Zen is not about passively accepting everything that comes your way - if you can change something that needs to be changed, then do it quickly and without hesitation. It's usually the hemming and hawing that's more destructive than the decision itself. It's a lesson I'm very slowly learning: how to change without having to hit bottom first.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A brief thought on attitude and compassion...

Not to pat myself on the back, but it always feels great when I actually succeed in putting these principles I talk about into practice. The other day I was dealing with this woman who, from the very get-go, was giving me serious attitude. She was immediately demanding and antagonistic - combative, like she was expecting to get screwed over, expecting to hate her meal, and generally getting ready for a fight. I noticed that I found myself with a slight attitude back to her; my responses were suddenly becoming more and more curt, with a slight harshness my voice doesn't usually have. It occurred to me that this woman probably doesn't realize that she's the one initiating all this negative energy out at people, an energy that creates an equally negative response in kind. So, in her world, everyone is negative towards her - she's the victim - so she gears up in anticipation of the conflict and immediately takes a combative stance from the very beginning, not realizing that it is this attitude that is creating all the hostility in the first place. It really is a vicious cycle, and on understanding it I suddenly had compassion for her, not anger. I saw the only way to break through would be to be as kind and gracious as I possibly could - to give her extra attention, to really make her feel like I cared about her and whether or not she enjoyed her meal. So that's exactly what I did, and by the end of the meal she was smiling and full of thank-you's. The checks for the table were separated, and out of all the other guests she left the best tip.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

When you can do nothing, what can you do?

Sometimes people just have to wait. Do what you can: ask for help, consolidate your steps, but in the end there is only so much even the gods can do. Accepting limitations is an important part of growth. Often we become stressed or agitated, as the chattering mind thinks that somehow this means you are “doing” something about it, something productive. It cannot abide relaxing, because it is convinced this means you are giving up. Indeed you are giving up - you are giving up the illusion of control. Being upset or stressed does not make the kitchen move faster nor does it make you any more able to do your job; if anything, it lessens your effectiveness. So relax. Be the calm in the eye of the storm.


Not to use a pun, but a good deal of waiting tables does actually involve, well, waiting. I have to wait on hot fries, I have to wait on the bar to make my chocolate espresso martini, I have to wait on bread to be sliced, I have to wait on the bakery to plate my desserts, I have to wait on the barista to make my cappuccino, etc., etc. And when you're busy, every second you're stuck waiting feels like an eternity. You know that while you're waiting for that cappuccino someone at one of your tables needs something, and odds are they're getting kind of pissed off wondering just where the f you are (I think guests subconsciously think that if I'm not immediately at their beck and call it's because I'm off just dicking around somewhere, talking with my friends or flirting with the hostesses or something. I don't think it would ever register with someone that isn't already in the industry that there are things out of my control too). And just as every second you're waiting feels like an eternity, every second the guest doesn't have that extra sauce or soda refill or whatever feels like an eternity to them too. The thing is, when you're busy it's probably because the restaurant's full, so it's very likely that the cook or the baker or the barista or whomever else is busy too. So it's pretty likely you'll be kept waiting for something.

Of all the things that can stress me out at work, waiting probably tops the list. The main things is because of the disconnect between where I want/need to be and where I am. I need to be over there, and I'm stuck here. It's like waiting in line at the movies or waiting for the elevator to the nth degree (at least when I'm waiting for the elevator someone else isn't complaining to my boss that they don't have a fresh diet coke). What I've gradually learned to do is to just embrace it, to accept that if I need that bread I have two choices: continue to wait, or go back to my table and tell them that it's going to be a few minutes while they slice some fresh bread (of course, there are some times when, because the guest has already been waiting so long, you absolutely can not return to your section without that bread (or martini, or dessert, or whatever). You still have a course of action though, and that's to ask for help. While you're waiting for that latte one of your coworkers (or, God forbid, a manager) can swing through your section to see if anyone needs anything).

Learning how to wait properly has been one of the healthiest things I've ever done for myself, mainly because I get so many opportunities to practice it. Not just at work, but when I'm waiting for the bus, while I'm stuck in traffic, waiting for my girlfriend to do her hair and makeup, etc. The next time you're stuck waiting somewhere try just allowing yourself to wait. Accept that you can not be anywhere else but here right now, and that stressing out about it is going to succeed in nothing but raising your blood pressure. If you need that bus to get there or you're going to be late, you can either take a cab or just accept that you're going to be late. Frantically looking down the street every 30 seconds to see if the bus is coming doesn't make it come any faster (and while we're at it, re-pushing the elevator button doesn't seem to help much either). There's a wonderful freedom that comes from letting go, of just accepting your powerlessness in the situation and going with it. You should always do whatever is in your power to do but, at the end of the day, we only have control over so much.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Detaching From the Result (Especially If the Result is 12%)

You must discipline yourself to let go of desire and attachment to outcome. What does this mean? It means that when we service a table we begin to develop expectations of what gratuity we will receive, based on such factors as the amount of the check, the amount of attention given to the table, the temperament of the guests, etc. And what usually happens? The gratuity does not match our expectation and we become frustrated and resentful. “Did they not appreciate all the attention I gave them? The extra sauces, the constant refills of water and coffee?” It matters not. There is little to no correlation between the work performed and the money received. The Ninth, and final, Rule of Service: The size of the tip is inversely proportional to the demands of the guest. If you judge your job on a check-by-check basis, you will never be at peace - it never balances out at a one-to-one ratio. Even if you judge on a night-by-night basis, you will not be at peace – every waiter has had both the experiences of a night where one worked exceedingly hard for poor tips and the night where very little was done and all guests were tipping with the generosity of the Buddha himself. Perhaps judging by a week-by-week basis, or month-by-month it will start to even out. But better still not to look for any correlation at all. Divest yourself of any personal stake in the table, discipline yourself to not even look at the tip. If you approach your job with the attitude that your duty is simply to try to get your guests what they want, and then you will walk away with some random amount of money that bears little correlation to what you actually did that night, you will have serenity in your work and in your life. To be at peace, one must relinquish what they feel they are “entitled” to. The question you must ask yourself: would you rather be right, or at peace? Because the two seldom go hand in hand.


Do not compare the tip to the total. Then, and only then, will you be free.

--His Holiness the Dali Lama


One of the hardest parts of waiting tables is letting go of the idea of “deserving.” In a perfect world, the table that had you walk them through every item on the menu, needed their diet cokes refilled a dozen times, had an immensely convoluted order that required a five-minute conversation with the kitchen manager, asked for a plate of bar fruit to snack on (and not be charged for it) and generally just ran you into the ground, would tip 25% at the absolute minimum. But that’s not how this job works (the best tippers, in fact, usually seem to be those who require the least attention).

It’s a job where the actual amount of work you do doesn’t really have much to do with the money you make (if it were, a cup of tea would cost $6.95). Sometimes that works in our favor: There’s nothing inherently more difficult about waiting on a table that had two filets and a bottle of wine vs. a table that had two salads and some iced tea, but for some reason I’ll make $20 more for the table with the filets. So I guess it doesn’t make much sense from the guest’s perspective either.

The truth is, I have little to no control over my tips. All I can do is give the best service I can give, time and time again, and hopefully the good tippers will tip even better, and the horrible tippers will at least leave a few dollars more than they usually do. Other than that, it’s out of my hands. Once you’ve said to yourself, “How could they only leave me (insert shitty tip here)?! After all that work!” so many times, at a certain point you have to ask yourself if it even makes sense to ask that question anymore.

A large component of Eastern philosophy is detaching from the results of your actions. In Christianity it would be taking the action and turning the results over to God. The point is the same: at the end of the day we really have little to no control over the specific outcomes of what we do, and that’s true with so much of life beyond just waiting tables. We have to let go of our ideas of what’s “fair.” All we can do is our best, and hope that if we do our best enough times eventually we’ll get better results than someone who only gave a half-hearted effort or didn’t try at all.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Campers, Death and Taxes

Occasionally, you will encounter guests that stay well past the length of their meal. It is natural to become angered – do they not know that they are taking up your section and preventing you from turning a table? The answer is: No, they do not. It would never occur to a guest that you make your money by turning tables, and that their presence is actually costing you money. All they see is that they have paid good money for their meal, and have thus earned the right to stay as long as they please. After all, are they not paying customers? (Never mind the fact that no, they are not paying customers - they ar
e customers who have paid and are now just taking advantage. A thousand suns could rise and set and still the guest would not see the distinction).

It does one no good be angered by this; again, what is the sense in being angered by something you cannot change? Do whatever it is you can to hasten their exit, of course (clearing away from the table every bit of plate and flatware aside from water glasses) but, beyond that, best to accept it. If you judge only by the immediacy of the moment (they are costing you money) you will be angered. This is only because you view it as something outside the norm, as if you always turned tables rapidly and always had a constant flow of guests. However, you should know from experience this is not the case. It is not now and never has been. If you accept from the outset that part of your job is entertaining the occasional camper, that it will and does happen from time to time, you will be at peace.


Once in awhile, I actually do practice what I preach. The other lunch I had camper, after camper, after camper, and it really didn’t faze me at all (okay, I did complain once – but that was it!). For those who aren’t familiar with restaurant lingo, a “camper” is a table who, after finishing their meal, just hangs out. And hangs out. And then usually hangs out a little more. They don’t want anything else to eat, they’re not drinking any more coffee, they’re probably not even touching their waters. They just want to talk (and for those of you who are not waiters, odds are you have been this table once or twice). Why is this an issue? Well, we make our money on tips – and we can’t get a tip without a check. And we can’t get a check without you leaving and someone else sitting down.

Usually this is something that, unless they have worked in the industry themselves, the guest would never think to consider. Only once or twice in eight years has a table apologized for taking up my section and then actually compensated me for it – leaving me an extra ten or twenty depending on how long they were there for. What usually happens, if the table is aware enough in the first place to recognize what they are doing, is they will say something along the lines of, “We’re sorry, we’re just going to hang out a little bit. Is that okay?” as if I actually had some sort of choice in the matter. Really, what can I say – “Actually I would really prefer it if you got up and went to the bar (or, better yet, the Starbucks across the street)”? Maybe in some restaurants you can get away with that, but in my establishment one guest complaint can mean my job, so it’s just not worth the risk.

Getting back to the other day – I had at least three tables (possibly more, I can’t remember) that were camped out for an hour-and-a-half to two hours each (at one point, two at the same time - and one of those table's bills was $15). So, figuring at lunch I average anywhere from four to twelve dollars a table I lost about $25-$30. But, and here’s the main point, it didn’t bother me. And the reason it didn’t bother me is because I have fully accepted that campers are part of the job, that they’re a hazard that can’t be avoided. It used to piss me off to no end, it used to make me absolutely furious. That’s because I was mistakenly viewing it as an exception to the job rather than as a part of the job. Like so many things, when you’re dealing with situations you can’t change the only thing you can really change is how you look at it. When you start to see the negative things as parts of the whole rather than as deviations of it – when you fully accept them as part of the total package, you can be at peace with them.

Extrapolating out, we do the same things with so many “tragedies” of life: illness, loss, death – we can’t abide by them because we view them as aberrations. When really, loss, misfortune and death are completely unavoidable – they’re some of the few things we can actually count on; things that, without a doubt, are going to happen. One of my favorite Buddhist meditations:

Knowing I will get old, I breathe in.

Knowing I can’t escape old age,

I breathe out.

Knowing I will get sick, I breathe in.

Knowing I can’t escape sickness,

I breathe out.

Knowing I will die, I breathe in.

Knowing I can’t escape death,

I breathe out.

Knowing that one day, I will have to abandon all that I cherish today, I breathe in.

Knowing I can’t escape having to abandon all that I cherish,

I breathe out.

Knowing that my actions are my only belongings, I breathe in.

Knowing that I can’t escape the consequences of my actions,

I breathe out.

Determined to live my days deeply in mindfulness, I breathe in.

Seeing the joy and the benefit of living mindfully,

I breathe out

(from The Blooming of the Lotus by Thich Nhat Hanh)

What might strike you initially as immensely morbid is, upon practice, immensely freeing.

Knowing that I will wait on campers, I breathe in.

Knowing that I can’t escape waiting on campers,

I breathe out.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Bitch, bitch, bitch.

And what is Right Speech? Abstaining from telling lies or deceiving, from slander and divisive speech, from rude, impolite or abusive language, and from idle chatter and gossip: This is called Right Speech. If your speech is not useful or beneficial it is best to keep silent.

-The Pali Cannon


If you do not like something, change it. If you cannot change it, change your attitude. Do not complain.

-Maya Angelou

I don’t know about you, but I love to bitch. I bitch about the guests, I bitch about my GM, I bitch about the kitchen and the bar and the bussers, I bitch about lousy tippers, campers, people that come in 5 minutes before close, people with ridiculously special orders (chopped salad: dressing on the side (house vinegarette and honey-lime vinegarette), bacon, blue cheese, egg and avocado on the side plus an additional side of cheddar; cucumbers and shredded carrots added, and please separate onto two plates - Actual order), my coworkers (specifically, a-holes that kill the coffee and don’t re-brew it) and just about everything and anything that isn’t the way it should be.

For those of you not familiar with Buddhism, one of its core teachings is the Noble Eightfold Path. It’s kind of like the Buddhist Ten Commandments except that they’re more like suggestions (Buddhism doesn’t really have any “Thou Shalt’s…,” it’s more like “It might be helpful if you…”). One of the eight elements of the path is Right Speech (“Right” in this usage meaning not “morally” right but more like “ideal”). The principle behind it is that one should not only speak truthfully and honestly but also that your speech should actively promote harmony and good will; as it says: if what you say is not useful or beneficial don’t say anything at all. So while it may be true that table 6 has been camping for over an hour or a foreigner just left me ten percent, is it useful or beneficial to complain about it? Is my bitching promoting harmony and good will?

It’s a high standard, and it’s only when you start actively trying to practice it do you realize exactly how much of what we talk about at work is completely negative (and this is just complaining - forget about gossip, which is a definitely the unofficial sport of wait-staff everywhere). Part of the problem I’ve found in trying to practice this is that it seems to cut me off from my co-workers; complaining is the main way we relate to each other – it’s the way we bond. It’s us against them, “them” being the guests, the kitchen, the managers, the bussers, or anyone else getting in the way of our night and our tips . Bitching in the side station over shared irritations is fun, it lets of steam. It’s why the “waiter-rant” blog is so popular. It’s why when waiters go out for drinks after work almost all they can talk about is work.

But does it really let off steam? If it did, why is it that I feel the need to bitch about the same thing multiple times to different co-workers? Far from dissipating the gripe, I think the complaining just keeps it alive; there may be a temporary relief but what really seems to happen is that the annoyances just accumulate and accumulate, and by the end of the shift all I can think about was how awful the night was and how glad I am to be done.

I think inherent in any complaint is a boost for the ego – they are wrong, I’m/we’re in the right. We like to be pissed off because it means that we know better than they do – that we are better. Guests do it all the time – any waiter will tell you that some guests come in just actively looking for something to be upset about. To wit: at my restaurant we have this ridiculously gigantic burger: 10oz angus beef, plus bacon, short ribs of beef(!), cheddar cheese, mushrooms and sautéed onions (it’s phenomenal). So I’m bringing this to a table the other day, and rather than the oohs and ahs that usually greet it the guest just kind of stares at it and then starts poking at it with her fork. I ask if everything looks all right and I get back “It looks a little small.” I assure her it’s 10oz, plus all the toppings and she replies, “No, I get this here all the time, this is too small. I want to see a manager.” I apologize, and go grab a manager. Well, it turns out that we just recently (like, the day before) changed the way we press the patty – it’s still 10oz, just thicker instead of wider. The manager goes to explain this to her, that it is the exact same burger, just the proportions are slightly different, and the guest is still angry, still doesn’t want it. We offer to get her something else and she says no, she doesn’t want anything now. So here is someone who took such personal offense at not getting what they wanted (even though they did get it, it just looked a little different) that they would rather miss their own meal than let it go. I mean, we weren’t even asking them to admit that they were wrong - we offered to freaking get them something else when there was absolutely 100% nothing wrong with the meal in front of them, and they basically decided they would rather be indignant than eat. It’s an extreme example, but don’t we all sometimes go around looking for things to be pissed off about?

And I should clarify – Right Speech doesn’t mean that you don’t stick up for yourself when you’re being mistreated or that you don’t speak out against injustice when you see it. It’s not saying that you should walk around being super sunny and positive all the time, or that you should pretend everything’s okay when it’s not. What it is saying is not to complain just for the sake of complaining. Either do something about it, or don’t. One of the side-effects I’ve found from the few times I’ve actually managed to make it through a shift practicing Right Speech is that not complaining forces me to accept whatever slight it is I’ve suffered. Because if you can’t bitch about it, you can either keep rehashing it in your mind over and over again (which is essentially just bitching to yourself) or you have to let it go. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given is that if you have to bitch, you get five minutes to bitch as much as you want. After that, don’t ever mention it again. What do you think? Is it possible to get through an entire shift without complaining once? Outside of restaurants, can you go a day without complaining? Moreover, even if it is possible, is it something you’d even want to do?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

When what "shouldn't be," is.

So much of the job is acceptance, time and time again. The guest does not treat you how you should be treated, the tip received is not as large as it should have been, the kitchen/bakery/bar is not running how it should run. As long as you insist on what should be rather than what is, you will know only disappointment and frustration. If you say “yes” to every moment, say “yes” to the reality of what is, you will never be frustrated. It is the discrepancy between the way you wish reality would be and the way it actually is that causes you pain. The solution: do not wish for anything. Simply embrace reality as it stands, meet it on its own terms. The secret to eternal happiness is to never wish to be anywhere but where you are. Wherever you are, embrace it fully. Say yes to it unreservedly. For there is nothing more foolish than fighting the reality of what is. Disappointment is a function of expectation. It is not an issue of lowering your expectations; it is a matter of not having them at all.


So, I totally almost flipped out the other morning, and we hadn’t even been open for an hour. In fact, it was because we had just opened that I was so pissed off. To explain: I had one of the very first tables and they ordered an appetizer and two entrees. Since the appetizer was one of the first orders of the day I (wrongly) assumed that it would be out quickly. Add to that the fact that this particular appetizer – a sashimi style tuna dish – doesn’t even have to be cooked, and I figured five to ten minutes max. Max. And, since I know this is not a very large appetizer (more like a tapas dish) and would be eaten quickly, I sent the entrees a little after the five-minute mark.

So what happens? At ten minutes and no appetizer I went into the kitchen to check on it. The expediter goes to ask the cook about it, and the cook doesn’t have any tuna. So a) what should have been a five minute appetizer is now going to take over fifteen , b) my timing on the entrées is all f’d up, and c) I can not f’ing believe that the cook didn’t say something the minute he saw the order. And I’m livid. Absolutely livid. If it had been in the middle of the lunch rush and the kitchen was slammed, I might have taken it in stride. But because it wasn’t busy – because there were almost no other tickets whatsoever, I was furious. Part of it was because it really doesn’t reflect too well on us when we can’t execute a ticket with an empty restaurant. Also, even though it could not be less my fault it’s certainly not going to help my tip any. But mostly I was furious because it shouldn’t have happened.

That’s the crux of it. I was hung up on it because it shouldn’t be, and yet there it was. The more I kept thinking about it (and I kept thinking about it) the madder I got. Then, when the entrées took over twenty minutes it just stoked the fire (even though it was kind of a good thing they took so long since it somewhat mitigated the timing problem (they still managed to came out too late though)). Lastly, my pre-ordered desserts took five to ten minutes too long (dealing with our AM baker is a whole other entry in itself) – so we had managed to keep the guests waiting on appetizers, lunch and dessert. And it wasn’t even twelve o’clock. The thing is, the guests didn’t seem to care at all. They were just hanging out, enjoying each other’s company, in no hurry to get anywhere. If it had been another type of table it might have been a big deal, but these people were totally chill. I got the same 10 on 60 I probably would have gotten regardless, and they left with zero complaint.

But I was still mad. I was still mad well into my second turn, and I just couldn’t let it go. I kept trying to get back into the present moment, to just forget about it and let it slide, but I couldn’t shake it. It was frustrating because I knew I was being stupid about it, I knew what the “Zen” thing to do was, and I still couldn’t do it. And it was all because it just shouldn’t have been. And that’s a huge lesson: to let go of what “should” be. Should the cook have alerted someone right away when he saw he didn’t have the ingredients necessary to make the order? Of course – but all I can do is make sure the Kitchen Manager knows about what happened and hope he’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again. Beyond that, I just need to let it go. Deal with what’s right in front of you and move on to the next thing. That’s one of the great things about waiting tables: every new table is an opportunity for a fresh start – if you let it. A big struggle for a lot of servers is not letting that one rude table or bad tip (or kitchen mistake) affect the rest of their night. Guests can tell when we’re in a bad mood, and while our negativity and/or frustration may have nothing to do with the tables we’re dealing with now, it still comes out - the guest can still sense it. And they don’t like it. It would never occur to the guest that maybe we’re having a bad day; they just think that they have a rude and surly waiter (and will tip accordingly). Also, as long as your mind is still dwelling on the past you’re not present – and much more likely to make a mistake.

But knowing all this and putting it into practice are two different things – and actually putting it into practice is what this whole Zen thing is all about. It’s not enough just to know it; what does that help if you can’t apply it your life? That’s what I love about Zen, it’s entirely practical. It’s all about dealing with reality as it is. I wish I could just flip a switch and turn it on, but anger and negativity have a certain moment all their own – once you start it up they build up steam and become harder to disengage from. Yelling at yourself, “Stop it! Be Zen!” doesn’t seem to work too well. I finally realized when I was doing that that I was still denying the present moment: I was denying the fact that I was upset. I shouldn’t be this upset, and yet I was. So, again with the “shoulds.” When I finally accepted that I was upset and unable to turn it off – when I made that my point of entry – I started to calm down. I was able to step outside myself and see that even though I wasn’t at peace now it was just a mood that would dissipate if I let it. So I let it, and it did. Within ten minutes I was out of it. So I got two lessons out of yesterday morning: let go of what you think reality should be and just meet it on its own terms, and when you’re not at peace accept that reality as well. We’ll just have to see if I remember all this the next time my apps take twenty minutes.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

(Servers) How to deal with rudeness or (Guests) How not to get your food messed with: a cautionary tale

One of the most difficult tasks in waiting, as in life, is to have patience for those you serve, especially when they are demonstrably rude. How does one have patience for those that are antagonistic, demanding and short-tempered? If a guest comes in with an attitude, or is untenably rude, above all do not take it personally. For, though it may feel that way, it is not personal; the guest does not know you, nor you them. For whatever reason - a bad day, frustration, a poor childhood - the guest is cranky and taking it out on you. You need not be affected by this. The master waiter allows rudeness to slide off him as water off the back of a crane. Be grateful: in most jobs when you have a difficult client you must work with them for months. Yours will be gone from your life in an hour, hour-and-a-half.


Soften your self.

Do not take things personally.

You cannot be annoyed or frustrated if there is no “you” to frustrate.

Become as water.

We all act out roles in our day-to-day lives; to a certain extent we all play a part. There are socially defined norms that determine how we behave - roles like husband and father, son and daughter, employee, employer, even artist and “individualist” come with certain expected behaviors attached. In service, there is a very clear delineation between server and served – as a waiter I am a guide, a facilitator, and sometimes somewhat an entertainer. But the one commonality is that my guests have a certain power over me. That’s not to say I let my guests run me, or that I don’t have control over my tables, but at the end of the day what the guest wants the guest gets, and it’s my job to get it for them. I really don’t ever get to say no (how I sometimes envy waiters and bartenders who work at those kind of jobs where they can be openly rude to the guest, and tell them straight to their face that their tip or behavior was inappropriate, or have managers that will tell guests not to come back. But alas, that is not the path I have chosen. It’s definitely not very “Zen” of me, but I absolutely revel in those rare times I get to tell a guest “no.” One time a guest asked if he could substitute his vegetables for extra short ribs(!), to which I was able to reply, “I’m sorry sir, absolutely not.” It made me so happy).

So with these two defined roles of server and served comes a certain agreed-upon relationship. In acknowledgement of their power over me I am granted a certain level of respect, since it's understood that I am in a position where if I am disrespected, I’m pretty much powerless to say anything or respond in any way. One guest complaint, even if I’m completely in the right, can cost me my job. So when a guest is rude, it puts me in a very awkward position of having an insulted ego and not being able to do anything about it. I simply have to swallow my pride and go about my business.

One of the most important things I’ve learned over the years is how not to take rudeness personally – if a guest is a jackass they’re just jackass and I usually let it go at that. Sometimes the guest pretty much just refuses to acknowledge me, and I’m fine with that. I know a lot of servers can’t put up with this but I understand that sometimes guests just want the bare minimum of service necessary and don’t want to be bothered: they don’t want my personality, they just want their food and drink in a timely fashion. And that’s fine. I’m not going to force service or social interaction on someone that doesn’t want it – I’m usually pretty outgoing with my tables but if the guest wants unobtrusive and reserved I give them unobtrusive and reserved. And sometimes guests are not very forgiving of any delay whatsoever – and that’s fine too. It’s nice when guests understand that there are things out of my control, or that I’ve got more to deal with than just them, but I don’t necessarily expect it. Sometimes the behavior is so rude I find it amusing – like when a guest snaps their fingers at me, it just makes me laugh (though it’s definitely taken me awhile to get to that point. And to all the non-servers reading this, let me give you a little insight: I have access to your food and drink before you do. And in that interim, all sorts of things can happen. Some rather foul and disgusting things. Not to say that I would ever do such things, but let’s just say that in the industry as a whole it’s not unheard of. So when a guest is that rude it just makes me think to myself – do you really think I’m not going to mess with your food now? (I don’t of course, but it makes me chuckle)).

But there are certain behaviors that are just really, really hard to swallow. Because the very nature of my job is a subservient position where I can’t fight back, to be pointedly insulted with no means to respond is almost untenable. Example: one of the little “finer points of service” my restaurant requires is that I say the guest’s last name when I’m handing back their credit card after payment – e.g., “Thank you very much Mr. Simon, have a nice day.” I think it’s a little cheesy, but the company wants me to do it, so I do it. Sometimes, however, it’s not completely clear how the guest’s last name is pronounced (I’m actually pretty good at this – a basic understanding of phonetics and the rules and tendencies of different nationalities/ethnic backgrounds is key). This was one of those situations. I can’t remember for the life of me what this guest’s name was – but point being it could have been properly pronounced at least three different ways. So I did what I always do in that situation: when returning the card I said, “Here you are sir and, if you’ll forgive me, how do I pronounce your last name correctly?” Then, 99.99% of the time the guest will tell me the correct pronunciation, and I respond in kind, “Thank you Mr. So-and-So, I always prefer to ask rather than to butcher someone’s last name.” And, usually having their last name regularly butchered in these situations, they laugh (again, going back to roles - the guest subconsciously understands that this is a part of my job: that while Jonas the server cares about the pronunciation of their name Jonas Simon the actual person probably couldn't care less. I'm just doing my job).

Well, this time when I did my usual spiel the guest responded, with a palpable air of contempt: “How do I pronounce my name correctly?” Taken a little aback, I threw out my line about not butchering the name and the guest rolled his eyes and turned away from me, not responding. The entire exchange made me feel about three inches tall. I wanted to grab him by the collar and shout, "Hey (expletive), do you think I actually give two (expletives) what the (expletive) your name is? Go (expletive) yourself with a garden hose!" But of course, valuing my job more than my pride, I said nothing and slunk away.

So, the Zen response to all this clearly is to divorce myself from my ego – to not allow one man’s rudeness to injure me in any way or make me feel any differently about myself. His arrogance and self-importance are a reflection of the qualities he is lacking, not mine. The “self” I feel the need to defend against insult so vehemently is just a mental construct - it’s not who I really am, it’s just an ego. And, as I said, I’ve gotten pretty good at this.

However if I ever see this guy again, he might be getting my (expletive) in his water.

Just saying.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"Just" a waiter.

How fortunate the waiter who knows who he is - he knows he is not just a waiter. How unfortunate the waiter who does not know who he is - he thinks he is not just a waiter.

--Sammaditthi Sutta (Discourse on Right View)


Do not look to your job to make you happy. Look to be happy while you are doing your job.

One of the most common questions I get from guests is “Are you an actor?” or “Are you in school?” (actually, since I turned thirty not so much that one any more) or also “Do you do anything else besides this?” (sometimes it’s an even more presumptive “What else do you do besides this?”). I can’t think of any other profession where this is the case. No one would think to ask a teacher or a banker what else it is they do, even though waiters on average have a comparable if not higher income than those professions.

Through most of my twenties I suffered from “just a waiter” syndrome. I had dropped out of college and had no desire to rack up any more student loans until I could figure out what it was I wanted to do with my life. Whenever I stopped too long to look at where I was at, I’d get depressed because I was nearing thirty and still “just a waiter.” Whenever anyone asked me what I do for a living and I told them I wait tables, I would immediately follow up with “But I’m also a writer.” Forget the fact that I hadn’t had anything published, I was still a writer first, waiter second. But since I actually paid my bills waiting tables and hadn’t earned a dime writing, which one was I really?

We live in a society where what you do defines who you are. And if you don’t do something that’s viewed as socially acceptable than you must be either a student working towards a job that is socially acceptable or some sort of artist trying to “make it.” But can a person ever really be summed up that way? I am not just a waiter - waiting tables is what I do to earn a living. But I’m not a writer either - writing is just something I do because I enjoy it. Is waiting tables totally fulfilling and it’s what I want to do the rest of my life? Probably not. But the idea that we should have some sort of career that is both a status symbol and personally fulfilling is a relatively new concept (and primarily a western one). In our grandparents generation they took pride in simply having a job, any job, and in doing an honest day’s work (my grandfather ran a pawn shop – I highly doubt that was his passion in life). I think it’s a mistake to look for a job, or anything external to ourselves, to make us happy. I think the point is to try to be happy while we’re doing those external things. So what do you think? Do you feel the need to be doing something else, something “more” with your life? Are you embarrassed to tell people what you do for a living? Is it possible to be happy and be “just a waiter?”