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.