Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Christmas Wish

If you wish to enter the mindset of the guest, it is crucial that you understand that the guest does not see you as an actual human being. This is the Second Noble Truth of Service.  If you were to press the guest on the question of whether or not the person in front of them was a living, breathing individual - one with his own life and cares, tragedies and triumphs - they would of course concur but, truthfully, only after some consideration. The default attitude of the guest is simply to see you as a means of conveyance - a conduit of their food and drink from the ether to the table. Do not take this personally. It is simply the nature of things. Would you take it personally if a scorpion were to sting you? It is the nature of the scorpion to do so - just as it is the nature of the guest to have the self-centeredness and self-importance of a two-year-old.

It's Christmas Eve and, after a pretty busy night, things are starting to slow down. The guests are beginning to trickle out, off to read "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" in front of a roaring fire and drift off to visions of sugar plums and whatnot (I assume that's what goes on, as for myself I had already gotten my visit from Hanukkah Harry). The waiters are starting to finish up their tables, the remaining guests are starting to get desserts and after-dinner drinks, but there's still one table who hasn't even started their meal yet (keep in mind we're talking fine-dining, where a meal generally takes about three hours).

It was a two top, a young couple in their early to mid thirties, who were the last reservation for the night; a reservation for which they had already been a half-hour late. And they sat, and drank (from the looks of it, they had already had a few drinks before dinner as well), and snuggled on the same side of the booth, and were quite obviously in no hurry whatsoever with absolutely nowhere else to be. Finally, at around 9:30, they order. The courses begin to come out and, once again, they're obviously in no hurry. The first course sits in front of them, barely touched, for what seems like an eternity. The server checks to make sure that the everything is alright, and the guests respond everything is wonderful, thank you, and continue to pick. This goes on pretty much for every course up until the main, where one of the guests decides she's not very fond of what she ordered, and sends it back - much to the dismay not only of the server but to the kitchen as well, who had started to close things down themselves.

She gets her new entree, everything is fine, but they continue to snuggle and talk and drink, and occasionally take a bite, and talk and drink some more. The food sits untouched for awhile, the server goes over to see if she can clear - No, they're still eating. The food continues to sit, they pick occasionally, the clock ticks, the captain gingerly venture back over. No, they're still eating...

You can see where this is all going. They stretch out the meal, they stretch out the dessert courses, they stretch out the after-dinner drinks, etc etc, and all the while the poor server is getting more and more agitated.

"It's Christmas Eve!" goes the familiar refrain. "Don't these a--holes think that I might possibly have a family to get home to?"

The other remaining servers joined in the chorus. I kept my mouth shut. I was closing as well but, again, for me it was just another Saturday night. I always expect to stay late and know, from experience, that Christmas Eve is no exception. By the time all is said and done, it's 1:30 in the morning.

As much as we want the guest to understand and think of us as actual people, people who they are keeping from getting on with their lives and seeing their families and, yes, having a Christmas, they do not. They are customers and, for that time, we are their employees. They're paying good money to have a meal out, and it's our job to provide it. And to a point, I can see where they're coming from. Our meals are not cheap, and if our restaurant didn't want to be open on Christmas Eve, it didn't have to be. If I didn't want to work in a profession where I might have to be at my job late on Christmas Eve, maybe I should have worked harder at finding another vocation.

It all comes down to how we treat each other, and how we see each other. When you go out to eat, do you consider that your waitress might have three small children waiting for her to get home? Do you think that maybe the barista at the Starbucks might have had better things to do Christmas Day then get up at 5am to make sure you didn't have to, God forbid, go one day without your precious pumpkin spice latte? I'm not saying I'm not often guilty of the same thing - it's human nature, I think, to lump people into categories and boxes. It's how our brains evolved, we see, we process, categorize, and move on. To step back and treat everyone you meet as an actual person, someone who has  a whole life outside of your very brief interaction with them, well, it makes it difficult to continue with business as usual.

Would it affect how you treat the grocery store clerk, or the bus driver, or the homeless man, or maybe someone you were not just indifferent to, but in conflict with, if you could step back and see the whole scope of their lives? See that they, too, have wept with grief over the loss of a loved one, perhaps looked down at a newborn baby and experienced the miracle of life, felt the sting of guilt and remorse, the pain of regret and failure, and yet also laughed until their sides ached, and perhaps occaisonally even performed some small act of selflessness or even heroism?

Not to get too religious or preachy but, in the spirit of the season, I think this was one of the things Jesus understood and tried to convey. He didn't see a sinner, or a tax collector - he saw a person, a child of God, surely no less than the priest or even the saint. What would the world be like, I wonder, if we could look at other people through those eyes.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

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

*Note: the following is a re-post from last year's holiday season. My new restaurant does not play Christmas music - or any popular music for that matter. Just a nice, subtle background of non-intrusive minimalist instrumentals. Just how grateful I am for this, I can not even begin to explain. 

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, Prince’s “Another Lonely Christmas” (which, if you’ve never heard it, is beautiful - albeit immensely depressing) and, of course, James Brown - "Soulful Christmas". 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.

Monday, December 12, 2011

"I felt sorry for myself because I was a waiter..."

Above all, remember the Seventh Noble Truth: It is only food. When you feel rage beginning to surface or exasperation threatening to submerge you, repeat this again and again. Let it be your mantra. It is only food. It is only food. It is only food. This applies to all areas.
 – Zen and the Art of Waitering


I felt sorry for myself because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.
 I felt sorry for myself because I was a waiter, until I met a waiter from Chili's.
 – Ancient Persian Proverb

There's a lot to be said for perspective. It's not something that comes naturally - our general course is to be caught up in the demands of the moment, and to see only what is immediately around us. Each of us has our own concept of reality, of what is “the norm” –  what is expected and unexpected, what is acceptable and what is not.

This occurred to me the other night at work; it was a pretty crazy night – very busy, lots of running around, some issues with the kitchen, both back and front of the house getting flustered and short-tempered, etc, etc. As I mentioned last week, I recently moved to the world of fine dining; just an absolutely wonderful restaurant with a wonderful crew. It was something I had been looking for for awhile, and when I got the job I was ecstatic. Yet here I was, not a month after so happily accepting the position, cursing the kitchen, and bitching about how “ridiculous” the night was. And I stopped, and I saw three things. One: just months ago, if someone told me I would have a full time position in a five-star, Michelin-rated restaurant, I would have been thrilled. To have the job, in and of itself, regardless of what silly crap I might have to put up with on any given night, I would have accepted in a heartbeat – and could not imagine a scenario where I wouldn't. So, that lead to a second insight – which is that this discontentment is inherent in the very nature of what is often referred to as “the world of form;" there is no point of having “made it,” every success and achievement, every thing gained, is appreciated and enjoyed for but a brief (often, very brief) window of time. That appreciation is quickly forgotten, as we now become used to it, and move on to the next thing.

The third, and most important thing, I think I realized was something that has actually been on my mind for awhile (this just helped coalesce it). Namely, the idea of our reality “bubbles,” that the context of our surroundings creates our sense of normalcy. What is normal to – and what is expected by –  someone born to an upper crust family in New England is probably somewhat different from the expected reality of someone born to a dirt poor family in the Appalachians. The waiters at my new restaurant are (thoroughly) disappointed if they make anything less than $200 a night. At my old job, we would have been thrilled to make $200 a night.

This all, of course, are the expectations of a First World lifestyle. We, anyone reading this, right now, are living a life in the upper 1% of everyone in the world. No matter how “bad” my night is at work, would I trade that with your average person in, say, Burma? Or Rwanda? Or, basically, anywhere that's not North America, Europe or the Industrialized East?

You can even extrapolate this idea further, when you realize that our lives would be considered pure magic by anyone else throughout history. When I wake up every morning, I have clean, hot water whenever I want. Think about that for a moment. My great-great grandfather would be astounded by that. We don't have to worry about Polio. Most of us probably didn't have a number of siblings die in childhood. To say nothing of leprosy and the Black Plague. Comedian Louis C.K. has an amazing bit that I appended below about how “everything's amazing and no one is happy,” and it's so true. And it's true because of the bubble we grew up in, of what our personal time and place tells us is the norm.

Now, whenever anyone asks me at work how my night was, or how I'm doing, my answer is – and I say this completely without sarcasm – amazing. Awesome. Wonderful. I make a living polishing silverware and running food to the ultra-rich in a posh, fine-dining restaurant in a tony neighborhood in a major metropolitan First World city. Seriously, how bad can my night be? What, I got a “bad” tip? We were running long ticket times? Not to sound like an asshole, but meet someone from Somalia and then try to tell them with a straight face how “bad” your night was because of long ticket times. That's the reality.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Trial and Error (and Trial and Error Again (and Again))

What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me – is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

- Ira Glass


If you shift your goal from the product you are trying to achieve to the process of achieving it, a wonderful phenomenon occurs. All the pressure drops away. This is because, if your goal is to pay attention to only what your are doing right now, then as long as you are doing just that, you are reaching your goal in each and every moment.

- Thomas M. Sterner

I realize it's been a (ridiculously) long while since my last post – but it's been a busy few months: Changes in my personal life, a move and, most notably for the purposes of this blog, a new job. I've moved on from the world of chain restaraunts and “upscale casual” to straight up, Michelin-rated fine dining. It's been pretty exciting. New tasks, new responsibilities, and a few new skill sets that I didn't even know I was missing.

In all honesty, it hasn't been the smoothest of transitions. I had forgotten exactly how much it sucks to be the new guy. It doesn't help that at this level of dining there isn't really any training per se; it's kind of incumbent on you to ask the questions and mostly figure things out for yourself (which is very odd, because there are very precise and specific ways you're supposed to do everything). So, there's a lot of messing up. Sometimes on the floor, in front of the guest. And a lot of irritated servers giving you irritated looks and sharp corrections. Over and over and over and over. (Side note – how often have you been in a service situation as the customer and the employee you're dealing with is clearly new, and not very skilled at their job. My initial thought is generally “Oh come on already, how hard can it be to ring up a coffee?! (or make a sandwich, or get a coke refill, or whatever it is). Let's go already!” I'm grateful to say my current experience has given me a little more patience and understanding in that area).

At my old job I was one of most senior staff, and I certainly did my share of eye-rolling and, “How can he not get this already?” when new employees would get hired. So to be that new guy, to be the one always a step or two behind, who has to take those extra few seconds to process everything, it's been a humbling experience to say the least. (And a few seconds may not seem like a lot, but when you're on the floor and you're supposed to be executing flawless, synchronized service with the other servers in front of the guest, it's pretty noticeable. You know when you bump into someone going in the opposite direction, and then there's that awkward dance where you both try to step out of each other's way but you do it in the same direction, and then maybe go back and forth a couple more times? Yeah, it's like that, but with meals the guests are forking over $200 a head for).

I think one of the main reasons it can be so frustrating in trying to learn a new skill, or to grow in an unfamiliar area – creatively, professionally, whatever – is because we have the ideal in our mind; we know what the end result is supposed to look like, so each and every time we fall short of that result (which is going to happen, and going to happen a lot when we're in the process of learning) the natural inclination for a lot of us, I think, is to criticize ourselves for not “getting it” fast enough and we get frustrated, and start to maybe think "well, I guess this just isn't for me."

Of course, this is ridiculous. Yes, we all have certain innate talents or leanings, but even those in the tops of their fields didn't get there without making lots of mistakes along the way. The main thing I've had to remember is just to be observant, to learn from those mistakes, and try to be aware and not do them again. We recently had a new sommelier come on, someone with years in the business, and he had a great introductory speech to the crew where he basically said, “I know wine, but obviously I don't 100% know your system or how you operate. I'm going to make a lot of mistakes – hopefully not too many the guest will notice – so just correct me as we go and I'll do my best to get acclimated and have things running smoothly as fast as possible.” That was such a great attitude (especially fom someone in a senior position) – just the knowledge and acceptance that, yep, things are going to be a little choppy at first. I especially love that he didn't say “I may make some mistakes,” but rather “I'm going to make a lot of mistakes.” Because that's how it is at first for a lot of us. There may be some people who only need to be shown something once, and then they do it perfectly each and every time after that. But that's not me. The key is to pay attention to the moment, and to continue to learn. As long as we continue to do that, growth is inevitable.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

I never said I was the Dalai f*cking Lama...

When an ordinary waiter attains knowledge, he is a sage. When a sage attains understanding, he is an ordinary waiter. Both have to tip out the bar.

I asked my friend Peter a couple of weeks ago what he thought of my recent blog post, and he replied by saying that he liked it (at least, that's how I'm choosing to remember it), but that it was similar to some of my other posts in the past in that a) it was fairly negative, and b) I sounded really, really bitter. My response: "I never said I was the Dalai f*cking Lama." My attempt with this blog has always been to relate the challenges this somewhat bizarre profession throws up against me, and my attempts to navigate those challenges - hopefully growing and/or learning something along the way. To that end (or, more truthfully, calling me on my bullsh*t), Peter challenged me to write a positive blog entry next time - so that's what this (hopefully) will be.

One of the most crucial aspects with any practice, be it spiritual, sports, music, whatever, is to make notes of your improvements along the way. We're going to fall short of our ideals - that's why it's a practice. But occasionally though, there are some markers along the way. Some recent ones for me...

A little while ago, one of my co-workers asked me how my night was going: if I was making decent money, how my tips were, etc. I paused to respond, and realized I had absolutely no idea. I had no idea what my sales were, I had no idea what my tips had been like, I hadn't been paying attention to any of those things at all. I was just going through my night, providing service, navigating the waters, and taking in whatever I got. This is not the norm; usually, if you were to ask me that question, my response would have been something like, "Pretty good, I'm at about $850/ $875 in sales right now, gotten some pretty decent tips - couple of $15 on $70s, mostly 18-20%, but this one table, uch, they left me $15 on $125; and I ran my ass off for them - how hard is it to leave 15%?!" But that night, and really, almost every night since then, I just haven't cared. It doesn't matter. Keeping track of those things in no way, shape, or form helps me to do my job any better - if anything, it lessens my effectiveness because I'm steaming about a 10% tip or how crappy my sales are or whatnot.

Another example: just this past Sunday I was working a dinner shift and had an extremely slow start. The server I was relieving was keeping all of her tables, which then proceeded to camp out, so it was about an hour before I got my first table. After that, some of the tables from my section were removed to give to another server for a party he was working (this actually happened on two sides of me simultaneously, basically halving my section to just two tables). In the past my normal reaction would have been to immediately start bitching ("G-damnit, it's hard enough to make money here without losing half my section..." etc, etc). But I didn't. I didn't care. I was able to look past the immediacy of the moment and just accept and allow what the restaurant was giving me, trusting that it would probably even out in the end. Sure enough, because of the way the parties had played out my neighbors on both ends ending up giving me a 5 and a 6 top respectively, so for the next turn I was running three 6-tops and a 5 (translation for non-waiters: Good money). The point being, I was able to look past the immediacy of the moment (I'm getting screwed) and just trust the universe to deliver on its own timetable.

The last thing I'll mention is a bit of satori I experienced a while back, and have gratefully been able to call upon regularly since then ("satori" is a Buddhist term meaning "a sudden flash of insight or awakening"). Have you ever had a dream where you became lucid in the middle of it? As in, you woke up in the dream, were able to look around and realize, "Oh, hey, I'm dreaming. None of this is real"? The same thing happened to me at work. The kitchen was running long on ticket times, I was running around looking for serving spoons or something and, just as I was starting to get all worked up about it, it suddenly occurred to me that absolutely none of this really mattered. None of this was actually "real" in the sense of being the least bit important; certainly not in the Big Picture, but also not in any Picture beyond that brief turn of tables. Aside from just saying "It's only food," I actually believed it. I'm not sure how or why that finally sunk in, I'm just grateful it did.

Okay, glad that's done. Back to being bitter.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Being weeded is a choice...

When you are rushed you must slow down. When you are pressed you must pause. Weeded is a state of mind.

-Zen Master Ichi

Table 31 is being sat, food is arriving at 25. Dessert will be coming out shortly for table 32 and the leftovers from their main course have yet to be boxed and their table reset (let alone have been offered coffee). Most egregious of all, it has been almost 10 minutes and still no sign of drinks for 24.

It is easy to become overwhelmed; to feel as helpless in the onslaught of these tasks as if staring into the face of an approaching tsunami. If you allow yourself, you will be destroyed. But the choice to succeed or fail is yours to make.

The apprentice cries, “Master, it is not my fault; there is too much for me to do at once!” And indeed, you are correct: there is too much to be accomplished at once. Even the great waiter Sanyo, who would run three six-tops and a party of twelve Russians without batting an eye, would be unable to accomplish all such tasks at one time. The solution lies solely in a shift in perception – whereas the apprentice will feel as if drowning in a sea of demands, the master sees not one overwhelming force but a series of individual tasks which, when taken one at a time, can be surmounted. The most important thing to remember when faced with such an onslaught is to maintain your calm. Slow down, even though the natural inclination is to hurry. Do not tally, but do not rush. The guest will sense your distress and will become worried that their meal is in jeopardy. This is the Sixth Noble Truth: If you appear in control, the guest will assume that you are in control, and will be more inclined to wait without griping. Understand that the guest dines in a constant, subconscious state of near-panic - if anything is the least bit askew, they assume the worst. Show no weakness in front of the guest. As long as you maintain the appearance of calm, the guest will take waiting in stride.

Do not be afraid to ask one of your fellow waiters (or, may the heavens forbid, a manager) for help. It is the wise man who knows he cannot run a restaurant by himself and enlists others for aid - do not allow pride to take over and so detract from the guest’s experience. There is always a point where you are free to help and your co-worker is being slaughtered as the spring lamb, and vice-versa. It is said that during the time of the Xang dynasty, waiters were so wise and learned that they freely and actively gave aid to one another, often pointedly seeking to do so. Seers declare that when all waiters return to this discipline, a new golden age will begin.

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. This understanding applies to all things. It is a sad truth that the busier one is, the less money one receives. The secret: do not be busy. As Lao Tzu wrote, “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” When facing an onslaught of tasks, become as nature.

Slow down, maintain calm

Being weeded is a choice

So do not choose it

-Zen and the Art of Waitering

Monday, August 15, 2011

When it rains, it pours

There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you will still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything.

--Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai


When you can do nothing, what can you do?

--Zen Koan

For the past few months or so work has been, to put it bluntly, an absolute sh*t show. Labor cuts, lack of supplies, problems in the kitchen, new staff, and just general all-around mismanagement have combined to create a work environment where just getting through an average shift – I don't even want to talk about Friday through Sunday – requires a Herculean effort for what is an increasingly Sisyphean task. I can pretty much count on something going wrong – a late ticket, a missing entree, something made wrong, getting weeded because I'm stuck waiting on the bakery – at least once a turn, and it's often left me feeling like I'm keeping my station from collapsing into pure chaos on the strength of will alone.

I try to hold fast to a general rule, which is that unless I'm doing anything about a situation – in this case, looking desperately for a new job so I can get the hell off of this sinking ship before it fully capsizes – I have absolutely no right to complain. I've written before about the allure of complaining; how addictive it can be and how inescapable it seems on any given shift (like moths to a flame, so are servers to bitching). The truth is, there's definitely a small rush that comes from letting loose in a full-on bitch session. Not just the energy of the anger but also a temporary (and completely illusory) feeling of power; some scrap of control over a situation where you are, in reality, totally powerless. But it's an inherently negative energy; as good as it may feel at the time, engaging in it always seems to leave me feeling drained, exasperated and, ultimately, defeated.

When it comes down to it, I can't make sure we have enough trays or steak knives or whatever it is in stock all I can do is let a manager know when we don't have what we need (and continue to let them know, over and over). I can't make the kitchen not have 30-minute ticket times, I can just send my food as fast as possible and course a lot tighter than I normally would (translation for non-waiters: send the dinner order five minutes after I send the appetizer order). And I can't do anything about having to work with a glut of green servers with little to no experience, all I can do there is to offer my help and to make a (strongly) concerted effort to not be as condescending and bitter as possible.

Like so much in life, it just comes down to acceptance, time and time again. The above quote from the Hagakure is one of my all-time favorites, because it really does extend “to everything.” Right now when I go into work most nights, odds are it's going to be a rainstorm. I can attempt to run and duck under the eaves of houses all I want, but I'm still going to get soaked. Or, I can walk calmly and peacefully through the storm: still drenched, but at least with some small measure of serenity.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"It's only food, it's only food, it's only food..."

Above all, remember the Seventh Noble Truth: It is only food. When you feel rage beginning to surface or exasperation threatening to submerge you, repeat this again and again. Let it be your mantra. It is only food. It is only food. It is only food. This applies to all areas.

--Zen and the Art of Waitering


Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

--Steve Jobs

The above quote is from a commencement speech address Steve Jobs gave to the Stanford graduating class of 2005 (like me, Steve Jobs is a college dropout. Unlike me, Steve Jobs is worth $6.1 billion). In it, Jobs reflects on his decision to follow the path less chosen, the blessing in disguise of being fired by the company he co-founded (in the interim, he founded Pixar studios and created the technology that would be at the heart of Apple's late 00's renaissance), and his brush with cancer, an event that would forever change his perspective on what matters in life. Far from being depressing or nihilistic, being ever mindful of one's own mortality is an amazingly positive and transformative tool. There's a thousands-years-old practice of Buddhist corpse meditation where you literally meditate on yourself become a corpse: the body bloating with gas, maggots eating your flesh, decomposing into the earth, the bones eventually turning to dust, etc. Practiced regularly, it greatly helps to establish a clarity about priorities in life and keep things in their true perspective.

Navigating life effectively for me really is all about perspective, and it's certainly not something that comes easily or naturally. My natural instinct is to be constantly caught up in the crisis of the moment, usually freaking out to varying degrees about 30-minute ticket times or misrun food or whatever particular nonsense is going on during that turn of tables. Stepping back from that immediate "worm's -eye view" not only helps to facilitate peace in an otherwise frustrating and stressful situation, it also has the added benefit of increasing my effectiveness. Trying to keep in mind that “is is only food” helps you to detach from the situation, and detaching from the situation leads to less wasted energy and a much more efficient use of your time and resources. It's a vastly better way of doing things than running around like a maniac swearing under your breath (or swearing loudly and pointedly, as I have also been guilty of).

From my friends in the white-collar world, or with parenting, or just life goals in general, I know that perspective can be a sticky issue for all of us. We get so used to putting out those fires that are right in front of us that those big things, the really important things, those never get done. If you spend all your time responding to the emails and the phone calls of whatever crisis is going on right now you'll never have the time or energy to work on the larger, more important projects, let alone the even larger (and much more important) life goals. I don't know if it's a function of our evolutionary design, or the pressures of the modern world, but with each new problem that comes along that's all we can see. For that period of time, that specific problem becomes our entire world. And, of course, there's always another problem right behind that. When you are driven only by the crisis of the moment, you have no power to move and shape your life, your life moves and shapes you – and then you tend to end up wherever momentum has carried you.

Seeing things from that whole-life perspective not only clarifies personal priorities, it severely alters how we interact with each other. When you know that not only you are going to die, but the people around you are too, resentments and petty disputes, and even long standing bitterness, tend to just fall away. As a society we are unfortunately locked in a perpetually short-sighted perspective, and it's looking more and more to me like it's going to lead us to disaster. Industry only cares about the next fiscal quarter and government only cares about the next election cycle, so anything that could be remotely detrimental to profit in the short term or temporarily unpopular never gets done. The Native Americans used to adhere to a seven-generation philosophy for their tribal government – namely any action had to be judged on how it would effect the lives of the tribe seven generations into the future. If we started applying that kind of wide-ranging perspective to our society, I wonder what kind of world we would create?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Parable

Nan-in, a Japanese master server during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served iced tea. He poured his visitor's cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. "It is overfull. No more will go in!"

"Like this cup," Nan-in said, "you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"

“You idiot!” cried the professor. “You got iced tea all over me! You’re going to pay for my dry cleaning.”

Moral: It does not matter how enlightened you are; as a server you are still subject to those who are not.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

To avoid killing your guests, envision them as already dead.

If you wish to enter the mindset of the guest, it is crucial that you understand that the guest does not see you as an actual human being. This is the Second Noble Truth of Service. If you were to press the guest on the question of whether or not the person in front of them was a living, breathing individual - one with his own life and cares, tragedies and triumphs - they would of course concur but, truthfully, only after some consideration. The default attitude of the guest is simply to see you as a means of conveyance - a conduit of their food and drink from the ether to the table. Do not take this personally. It is simply the nature of things. Would you take it personally if a scorpion were to sting you? It is the nature of the scorpion to do so - just as it is the nature of the guest to have the self-centeredness and self-importance of a two-year-old.


To avoid killing your guests, envision them as already dead.


When we look at the world around us, very rarely do see things as they truly are. What we usually see is a conglomeration of images, assumptions and categorizations made by the mind. In other words, we don't usually see reality but rather our ideas about reality. For prehistoric man this was no doubt a helpful adaptive trait; it's much more useful to see lion = danger/run & hide, then to see the complex interplay of past and present, environment, ecosystem and co-dependent arising that is the actual "lion" (and I have to put "lion" in quotes because we're still just talking about an agreed-upon concept. In Reality, this thing called "lion" is actually its mother and its father, and the antelope it eats, and the water it drinks, and the earth, and the sun and the air and the entire universe itself. Again, not really useful when you're running for your life).

We do this every day, especially in the myriad of social interactions that make up life in the Industrialized World of the 21st century. When you check out at the grocery store, or get on the bus, or order a drink at the bar, your mind is constantly sorting and categorizing, putting everything and everyone you see into neat little organizable boxes. You might see Black Guy, or Gay Guy, or Hot Chick, or Zitface, or Bum, or even Slightly Surly Indie Coffeehouse Barista and Thinks He's So Cool Hipster DBag etc, etc. It's immensely rare that we look past our first impressions to the actual flesh and blood human being beneath (mainly because it'd be pretty hard to get anything done). So it should come as no surprise that guests do this all the time with their servers, and we do it all the time with them.

All this may make our social interactions slightly more efficient, but it has the added cost of fostering and supporting misunderstandings and prejudice. It's the dirty little secret of the service industry that a lot of us have some not so nice assumptions about our clientele based on things like race, and nationality, and class, and many servers do allow this to affect their service and their attitude. Of course, when a server approaches a table with a preconditioned hostility the guest is usually going to pick up on it - at least subconsciously - no matter how well the server thinks they are hiding it. Then the guest has some hostility in response - again, maybe just subconsciously - which the server picks up on, which only serves to "confirm" the original bias. I can't tell you how many times I've heard a server say "I can't believe I have to deal with these [fill in the blank]; they want all these refills and extra sauces and all this stuff - I know they're not going to tip me anything, so I'm sure not going to hurry at all. They can wait." And then, after the bill is paid, "See, they stiffed me! What'd I tell you?!" The worst example of this was when I overheard a server say that a table had accidentally left a fifty dollar bill with the check where they clearly meant to leave a twenty (and he still had a chance to correct the mistake before they left). The thing is, the twenty would have made it a clear 20% tip and when I asked him if he didn't feel guilty taking advantage of someone who was nice enough to leave him a good tip in the first place, he responded, "Oh, those people screw me over all the time. It's about time I got something back." And by "those people" he didn't mean the four-top he had just waited on.

What's the solution? Our brains just so naturally default to putting people in boxes. For my part, I really try to be mindful when approaching a table, to be aware of how my mind is instantly sizing them up and try to replace that with at least an understanding of them as an actual person. It's especially hard when a guest is rude, to not immediately think "rich pr*ck" or "stuck-up _____" etc, instead of looking through that to see someone who themselves may be hurting, or unhappy, or had a really bad day or maybe even a bad childhood. Maybe they are being a jerk right now, or self-centered, or demanding, but they also were once an innocent, smiling one-year old. At some point in their life they too have suffered tragedy and loss - they've had or will have a loved one die, and they themselves will face sickness and death. They have known fear, and sadness, and disappointment, as well as joy and love. That is not to say we allow ourselves to be doormats, or continue to put up with unacceptable behavior, but that we look through that to the flawed and fragile human being that lies beneath.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

In Memoriam...

Prepare yourself physically and mentally for the task ahead. If you have not slept or eaten properly (or are hung over) you will surely suffer. Draw your focus to your breath. Attune your senses into the now. A waiter must be quick but not frenzied; calm, yet alert. If you have any problems outside of work that is where you must leave them; in service, as in war, grief has no place on the battlefield.


One of my friends, and coworkers, passed away last month. It was completely out of the blue; he had been having some medical problems - serious, but not terminally serious - but was out of the hospital and planning on moving cross country with his wife at the end of the week. He actually met up with a bunch of us at a Cubs game just a couple of days beforehand - a little haggard but, by all accounts, in good spirits. Then overnight, at home, there was a complication and all of a sudden he was in the hospital in with “minimal brain activity” and in critical condition. When I came in to work the next day for the lunch shift the staff was walking around like zombies. The latest news was that the doctors were going to try a “hail-mary” surgery but the prognosis, obviously, wasn't very hopeful. But the world didn't stop just because our friend was all of a sudden probably about to die. The restaurant was still open, people were still coming in for lunch, the kitchen was still backed up, guests were still occasionally rude. And I still had to be friendly and give good service.

When word that he had passed made it around to me (and that's how it happened, the information wasn't announced so much as spread in whispers and asides from server to server) I was in the middle of getting an iced tea refill for table 106, had to go take an order for 107, check on the food (which was over twenty minutes) for table 108, and run a credit card at table 105. There simply wasn't time to process anything, much less grieve. Food still had to go out, orders still had to be taken, and iced teas still needed to be refilled.

The next 36 hours stood as a testament to the humanity and grace of our management and coworkers that, quite frankly, I would never have expected. Because of religious reasons Patrick's family was holding the funeral service just two days after his death - on a Saturday no less - making it nearly impossible for any of us to attend. Our GM and managers immediately started working with the floor plan: adjusting in-times, getting reliefs to come in early, running a couple of servers or food runners short, whatever they could do to free up those of us who were close to Patrick (and there were a lot of us, Pat was a career server and had been with the company 14 years) to attend the service. Newer employees who weren't as close to the man picked up doubles, came in early or stayed late without complaining, just so his friends could pay their respects and grieve in peace. Our former GM actually flew in from California the morning of the service so he could attend and I later heard through the grapevine that our current GM personally had helped out with Patrick's hospital costs

And it's that - that coming together of people working around the system, doing what needs to be done so that the business could keep running but that we, the actual human beings, could have our time - that makes me well up just sitting here writing about it, even over a month after it happened. Because the world doesn't stop for pain, or for tragedy, or for loss. We stop. The world itself is fairly indifferent. It's we who care, it's we who make the meaning. Tragedy takes us out of the world, makes us take stock and, hopefully, wakes us up to what's really important. And the days pass, and the earth keeps turning, and the tables do too. Before you know it you're right back to complaining about your shitty section, or the or the bad tip, or your managers or your coworkers or whatever whatever. But for a few days last month each of us knew what was really important, and each of us treated each other with genuine warmth and grace and care – like actual human beings.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Ignorance may not be bliss, but at least it's a handy excuse

To see what is right, and not to do it, is want of courage or of principle


One of the greatest abilities of the human mind seems to be the ability to completely ignore that which we know to be true, especially if we believe that accepting that truth and acting appropriately will cause any pain, anxiety or stress (and sometimes just minor inconvenience). To wit: over the weekend I finally got around to watching the documentary Food, Inc. For those not familiar, it's a documentary about the business of food in America, and isn't very pretty. Basically if you eat anything from a grocery store, fast food outlet, or most restaurants, you're participating in a system that not only causes tremendous amounts of suffering for animals, but is responsible for destroying small farms, harming the environment, contributing to the oil crisis, putting all kinds of chemicals (including poisons) in what we eat and drink, and creating food that is not just unhealthy but can be downright dangerous. It's also a system that perpetuates government corruption, gives billions of dollars to a very small handful of corporations who are only gaining more and more control over what we eat and drink, and it's all only getting worse. It's one of those documentaries where you can't help but be outraged, and more than a little sick. It makes you want to change everything - which is exactly why I've been purposefully avoiding it since it came out in 2008.

To really change my behavior the way the facts of the matter tell me I should basically means completely changing how and what I eat. First of all, forget about all fast-food/casual dining restaurants, and pretty much all sit-down restaurants as well. Secondly, any beef I eat is going to have to be grass-fed, and any chicken has to be free-range. That's not cheap. I can eat fish, but there are so many toxins in our fish now that you're only supposed to have it a couple of times a week. Also, all my produce (and the meat too, for that matter) should only be sourced locally or come from farmers' markets (did I mention I live in Chicago?) because of the amount of gas needed to drive our food everywhere (the average meal takes about 1500 miles to get from the farm to your plate). Taken all together, that's an immense shift in my day-to-day life, and I honestly don't know if I'm up for it.

The same thing happened a couple of years ago, when I spent a week at a Buddhist monastery in upstate New York. Buddhist views on diet vary, but for the most part practicing Buddhists tend to be vegetarians or vegans. This is not because the Buddha said "Thou Shalt Not Eat Meat," because he didn't (Buddhism really isn’t about "Thou Shalt's" so much as it is "it might be helpful if…" or "you might want to consider…"). It's because almost everything in Buddhism revolves around and comes out of the continued practice of mindfulness, of being completely present and aware at all times. When you work, you work mindfully; when you walk, you walk mindfully; and when you eat, you eat mindfully. And when you truly eat mindfully, you can't help but think about the suffering that the animal went through and the fear they must have felt (let alone all the chemicals and toxins and the environmental stuff), and it immediately makes it impossible to continue. I really can't describe the sensation accurately, it's like actually tasting pain and fear (it tastes a little like a McRib (Zing!)).

Near the end of my stay there, I began to wonder if I was actually going to be able to go back to consuming meat and animal products, of being an active participant in the torture of my animal brothers and sisters and the continued destruction of our shared environment. I strongly considered turning vegan for all of about 48 hours, but the minute I got to the airport to fly home, where do you think was the first place I hit after I got through security? Wendy's. For a double hamburger. There was a brief outcry from my conscience of "This is wrong! You know you can't be doing this!" which I promptly, and consciously, ignored. I simply turned it off. Which I do a lot of. I really try to be mindful, as long as it's not too inconvenient. I did it for years as a smoker (I finally quit a little over two years ago, which I attribute greatly to practicing mindfulness), and I'm doing it with the food thing now and, to a certain extent, I do it with my employment.

Right Livelihood is one of the eight elements of Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path, and it is loosely defined as not engaging in a trade or occupation that, directly or indirectly, results in harm for other living beings. Well, not only does working in the restaurant industry mean I'm an active participant in the whole U.S. corporate-food monstrosity, I'm also contributing to obesity, diabetes and heart disease (especially the chain-restaurant where I work, which is basically little more than a fat and sugar meth lab), let alone the obscene amount of food we waste. But what am I supposed to do? Drop out of the system? Completely change everything about how I live? If everyone who had a job that indirectly caused harm to any other living being stopped working, it would destroy the world economy. All of mankind would have to completely rethink how we relate to each other and the way we structure society. It would do nothing short of change the world. And I don't know about you, but I'm not ready for that. I want my McRib.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Happy Happy Joy Joy

"I'm not happy, I'm not happy," nobody's happy OK? Happiness comes in small doses folks; it's a cigarette or a chocolate chip cookie or a 5 second orgasm. You c**, you eat the cookie, you smoke the butt, you go to sleep, you get up in the morning and go to f***ing work. That is it, end of f***ing list.

-Dennis Leary


There is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way.

-The Buddha


I've been on a hot streak at work lately: lots of good tips and smooth shifts, to the point where I've really enjoyed being at work. Don't get me wrong, I don't hate waiting tables, but I usually don't actively enjoy it either. It's something I do to earn a living - I show up, I do my job, I go home. And sometimes it can be incredibly frustrating. It often feels like the bad days outweigh the good, mainly because it's so easy for things to go wrong. In-between days are the rule, but the "great" shift, the shifts where you walk away saying what a great day you had, those are rare.

So I started wondering what had to occur for me to have that "great" shift, what elements had to come together. This is how it broke down:

Smoothness: By this I mean all my support systems, the things I rely on to get my job done, are getting done. Food is coming out of the kitchen in a timely fashion, bread is sliced and ready to go, the bakery and bar aren't weeded themselves, clean glasses, plateware and silverware are readily available, etc. I have all the tools I need to do my job, and I'm not kept waiting for anything - I can grab what I need and go.

Clientele: Everyone's nice and friendly. To clarify: I'm not looking to be best friends with my guests - I've never been one of those "So, what have you got planned for the weekend?" type of servers. I don't care. I don't want to get involved, I just bring the food. I just mean people treat me with a modicum of respect and aren't demonstrably rude. That's enough.

Tips: Here's the thing, it's not just about money. I've had very lucrative shifts that were an absolute shit show to get through; shifts where I was running my ass and one step behind all night. Yeah, I made money, but I had to kill myself to get it. It all comes down to the B/D ratio (Bullshit to Dollar). There is a certain amount of bullshit I will put up with for a certain amount of money. Kitchen's crashed and I can't get bread? If I make $200, I can overlook that. If I get run all night and only make $120, it's a lot harder to swallow than if I do nothing and make $100, even though I'm making less money. Of course, if I make anything less than $120 on a dinner shift, it's still hard to qualify as a good night.

So, if it takes all these elements coming together: the kitchen, support systems, clientele, tips, etc, for me to have a "great" shift, how many great shifts do you think I have? Not very many. Odds are, some element is going to be missing. So is that a good recipe for happiness? Not really, especially considering how many elements are outside of my control. When we pin our happiness on anything outside of ourselves and our own attitude, we're just setting ourselves up for disappointment, time and time again. What's the solution? I think it's to make happiness itself the priority, rather than these other things that need to happen for me to be happy. It's an experiment I've been trying with varying degrees of success - going into my shift with the attitude that come hell or high water, I'm going to stay in a good mood, that that's the most important thing. Because when you get right down to it, wouldn't you rather be in a good mood than a bad one? Not to sound Pollyanna, but doesn't it make you happier to, well, be happy? It takes a lot acceptance and a lot of letting go. Shitty tip? Let it go. 10-minute margarita? Let it go. Dirty silverware, mis-run food, rude guests? Let it all go. At the end of the day, it's only food. I spend 32-40 hours of my life a week at work, between 1500 and 2000 hours a year. That's the equivalent of 80 24-hour days, or 125 days of 16-hour waking time per calendar year. That's waaaay too much of life to just write off.

Happy Happy Joy Joy
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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"Pray for patience, God puts you in a traffic jam."



The above quote is one of my favorite sayings because I find it to be so true, time and time again. When you're really trying to change, the Universe has a way of throwing you into the fire to see how much you really mean it. And it makes sense - it's easy to be Zen sitting in a field on a calm sunny day; the real test comes when you're in that bumper to bumper traffic, or stuck in line at the grocery store, or trying to get your food out of the kitchen at 20 minutes when you realize Sauté hasn't even started your Picatta. Because that's where it matters. Unfortunately, we don't get to spend our whole lives in the sunny field - that's just not the way life seems to work. We can cultivate pleasant environments and situations, we can seek out respite, but at the end of the day there will always be turmoil and loss. It's just part of the package.

That brings me to my current situation: we're over two weeks into the New Year, which is a pretty good time to check in with those New Year's Resolutions. Flossing? Check. Not letting crap pile up around the house? Doing okay, could be better. Maintaining Zen Master calm and tranquility throughout every workday no matter what the situation? Well….

It seems that no sooner had I made maintaining calm a priority then I was hit with a rapid succession of mis-run food, quadruple seating, horrible tips (with some flat-out stiffs), and a myriad of other assorted annoyances. And that's when you get to see how much (or how little) you've grown. Some nights I've been able to laugh it off. Some nights I've been running around cursing fiercely under my breath. And some nights it's been a little of both. Part of my whole point with Zen and the Art of Waitering is that there are definitely actions we can take, preparations and organizing, to prevent problems before they occur or to mitigate them as they come up. That's one part. The other part is accepting those things you cannot change, and then letting them go - completely, and without looking back. It's that combination of action and acceptance that makes Zen such an effective way of dealing with the world. But it's not a mystical state of being that we magically attain after meditating x-number of hours (at least, it hasn't been for me yet). Action is a choice. Acceptance is a choice. Zen is a choice. They are choices we must make again and again, no matter what the situation. Easier said then done, but that doesn't mean we should stop trying.