Thursday, February 9, 2012

Some things I have learned

[Ed. Note - I'm taking a break from my usual format this week to list some things that have been on my mind lately, not necessarily related to waiting tables. Things I've been told, things I've been shown, things I've just been lucky enough to learn; just wanted to pass them along]


Do not say anything behind someone's back you would not say to their face. Along the same lines, do not do anything in secret that you would be embarrassed or shamed should you be found out. Life is much, much simpler this way.


Be a man (or woman) of your word. Good intentions are meaningless without action behind them. If you doubt whether you have the time, energy, or means to follow through on a commitment, say so.


Do not pretend to be someone you are not to be accepted by another. Even if you are successful, the person they have accepted isn't actually you, and you will end up feeling even less fulfilled and loved than before.


Do not loan out a CD, DVD or a book if you ever intend on seeing it again. If you truly want to share a piece of art you love with someone, buy a used copy and give it to them as a present.


By the same token, when someone wants to share a piece of art with you that is important to them or that they think you'll like, what they are really sharing with you is a piece of themselves. Take the time to honor that.


Be skeptical, but not closed minded. Be open to the possibility that you may not have it all figured out. At the end of the day, a fundamentalist Atheist can be just as intolerant and presumptive as a the most ardent Westboro Baptist. Remember this quote from Herbert Spencer:
“There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance – that principle is contempt prior to investigation.”


Say what you mean, mean what you say, and don't be mean when you say it.


Every day we take for granted things that our ancestors would have considered miraculous. Forget smart phones, forget modern medicine, forget air travel, forget the Internet... If you are reading this, very likely you have hot water. Whenever you want. You have clean, drinkable water. Whenever you want. Your great-great-grandparents would have been blown away by that.


When you say things like “I'd really like to do this or that,” or “I really should do that,” that thing, whatever it is (changing your diet, planning a trip, writing that novel, going out more, whatever) will most likely never, ever happen. Make a decision. When exactly are you going to do it? What exactly does that look like? What would you have to change in what you are doing right now to make sure that more important thing gets done? Unless you are very specific about how and when you are going to actually do those things you'll never live the life you want to live.


If not now, when?


Do not fear making mistakes, just make sure to learn from them when they (inevitably) happen. Good judgment comes from experience, experience comes from bad judgment.


“If you do not like something, change it. If you can not change it, change your attitude. Do not complain.”
Maya Angelou 


Scientists now believe that everything we consider to be the “observable” Universe (up to and including quarks and all the fun, crazy quantum stuff) is, in actuality, only about 4.6% of the actual Universe. The rest is made up of Dark Matter (23%) and Dark Energy (72%). What exactly is Dark Matter and Dark Energy? They're not really sure. I find this helpful to remember.


The way to show appreciation for a gift is to use it. This applies just as much to whatever talents and passions your Creator has blessed you with. This applies to Life itself.


When writing an important email, be it business or personal, save your draft, walk away from your computer to do something else, and come back to it 20 minutes later to review it before sending.


What you consider “normal” is entirely shaped by how and where (and when) you were raised. If you were born in a small town in Kentucky, odds are very good you would be a conservative Christian. If you were born to a liberal humanist family in Chicago, odds are very good you would be a liberal humanist. If you were born in Tehran, odds are very good you would be a Muslim. The next time you find yourself in opposition with someone, try to ask yourself “If I were born to their family and raised how they were raised, what would I believe?” Most of what separates you from someone else is only a small combination of genetics and environment.


No one wants to hear your excuses. What is impressive is the person who can admit they made a mistake, accept responsibility for it, and do what is necessary to make sure it doesn't happen again.


Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.
- Rumi


If you keep doing what you've always done, you'll keep getting what you've always got.


Worry is not just useless, it is legitimately harmful. All that energy spent worrying only serves to eat away at you from the inside and take energy away from acting in the present. Think of all the things you've ever worried about that never came to pass. Now think of those few things that did come to pass and how even those failed to undo you.


Enjoy all the richness that life has to offer, but don't try to hold on to that which you cannot keep (which is to say, everything). Strive to savor, not to dwell.


Spirituality without practicality is empty. If you can not be just as much at peace in a traffic jam as you are in a meadow, what is it really worth?


Life is very much about perspective: in the immediacy of the moment, every setback or conflict becomes a catastrophe. In the span of eons, everything becomes meaningless. A good measuring stick seems to be one human lifespan. When judged against that, what is truly meaningful becomes clear and what is inconsequential falls away.


The overwhelming majority of drama is, in actuality, self-created and self-sustained.


The next time you start complaining about what a “shitty” day you had, try to keep in mind that your life as a Westerner is better, safer, and more affluent than about 99% of the people in the world. The next time you feel the need to append “FML” to a Facebook comment you are typing on your iPad, try to imagine switching places with the Chinese factory worker who built your iPad.


If you have trouble getting places on time, start getting ready about 20 to 30 minutes before you think you actually have to.


The pursuit of pleasure and the pursuit of happiness are not the same thing. Happiness is a byproduct of living the right kind of life.


Treat yourself with the same compassion you would a loved one or a dear friend.


Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.”
- Max Ehrmann


Despite much evidence to the contrary, people can and do change for the better. What it takes is an acknowledgment and acceptance that the way one has been doing things isn't working, a willingness to try to do things differently, and a commitment to accept the cost of following through and to do so no matter what.


Forgiveness is something you do for yourself, not the other person.


A negative world view is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Dare to be positive, and see what happens.


Above all, try not to take yourself so seriously. No one else does.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Parable: The Serpent and the Server

There was once a young handmaiden who went down to the river to wash her clothes, where she found a poisonous snake drowning. “Please,” begged the snake, “please save me, I can not swim.”
Do you think me stupid?” the maiden replied. “If I take you out of the water, you will be sure to bite me.”
No,” the snake pleaded, “You have my word I will not. Please, I beg of you, save me and I promise I will not bite you.”
The handmaiden relented and lifted the snake up out onto the banks of the river. After a few minutes, when the snake had recovered his breath, he promptly bit the handmaiden on the ankle and started to slither away.
You said you would not bite me!” gasped the handmaiden, as she lay dying.
I am a snake,” he replied. “What did you think I was going to do?”

There was once a young server who was waiting on a couple out for a date at the beginning of the dinner rush. The meal went splendidly and the couple thanked the server profusely for his wonderful service, and promised that when they returned they would ask for him again. The couple lingered over coffee and desert and the server thought nothing of it. However, the couple continued to linger long after the last cup of coffee had been drunk. As the server approached to refill their coffee once more, the guests replied that they knew they were overstaying their welcome, but that the server would be taken care of. And so the night passed; table after table was turned during the dinner rush, and still they remained. They stayed throughout the night, and were one of the very last tables in the restaurant to leave. As the server looked over his meager sales receipts, reduced severely by the loss of the table, he went to retrieve the check presenter to see what had been left him: it was $16 on $75. The server, emboldened, ran to catch up with the departing guests and asked how they could be so clueless as to think that $16 made up for the lost table the entire night. The guests paused for a moment to think about the question and replied, “We are guests. What did you think we were going to do?”

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Hey, did you hear about...

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

I've written before on the subject of Right Speech – namely as it relates to bitching and complaining: something waiters are exceptionally good at. If complaining is the number one pastime of service staff, then gossip and shit talking are probably numbers two and three, respectively. Especially when it's slow, and servers have little to do but hang out in the side station waiting for tables to arrive (and therefore no customers yet to complain about), conversation inevitably turns to who did what with whom, or what an idiot/weirdo/a-hole so-and-so is.

Not that this is unique to service world: gossip and shit talking can certainly be found in all jobs in all walks of life. (Indeed, gossip, insulting and judging others can all be found in Donald Brown's List of Cultural Universals. Shit talking, I think, can be inferred from the other three). Something about the service industry, in particular, though – maybe the stress, the age of staff, maybe the slight tendency towards inter-office “romance” I don't know. What I do know is that it's extremely difficult to get through a shift without finding yourself drawn into a conversation saying something about someone else who isn't there.

One of my latest goals, both in work and in life, is to not say anything behind someone's back I wouldn't say to their face. If I'm having a problem with a co-worker, then it's up to me to either talk with him/her directly, or just shut up about it. Bitching about them behind their back may temporarily help me to “let off some steam,” but it generally only fans the flames of my negativity even more, and further entrenches it, not removes it. Also, I probably wouldn't like it if people were talking that way about me, so that whole stupid “Golden Rule” thing kind of comes into play. [Side Note here: part of all this is accepting that people are probably gossiping and talking shit about me behind my back as well. And you know, that's okay. Lord knows I give them enough ammunition].

It's a tall order but, as with pretty much everything in the Buddhist world view – the proscription is not intended as a moral judgement – that I'm a “bad” person for gossiping (again, it's a human universal), but rather as an observation that the behavior inevitably leads to my own suffering, not someone else's. When I talk about someone behind their back I'm, first of all, instantly creating the potential for the added drama that will ensue if and when said person finds out (which, knowing how waitstaff like to gossip, is probably inevitable). Add on to that, that now whenever I'm around that person I'm kind of worrying in the back of my mind if they know what I said or what would happen if they found out.... But mainly, my doing this only serves to reinforce the idea of separation between self and other, a division the ego loves but which ultimately takes me away from wholeness, equanimity, and all that other inner-peace crap.

But that's thing. It's not crap. It's actually very real. By making a decision not to engage – again not judging anyone for it, because I do it all the time – I inevitably end up free from a lot of bullshit and useless drama. Which, I know, sounds weird – the ego feeds off drama, craves it. I've always thought that a life without drama sounds kind of, well, boring. Drama equals excitement and passion and lust for life and all that great stuff. Except, it doesn't. Excitement and passion and lust for life are all there for the taking, and when you cut away the drama from the equation, they actually become a lot more enjoyable.

All that aside, did you hear about __ and ___ in the walk-in? And God, does ___ have his head up his ass or what?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Parable

It was five minutes till close, and the manager approached the learned server reluctantly.
"I am sorry my friend," said the manager, "but a party of twelve just came in and I have to give them to you."
The server replied, "Who is to say what is good and what is bad?"

Shortly later, the manager returned to the floor to ask the server how the party was going. The server answered that all twelve guests had ordered steaks and cocktails.
"How wonderful!" said the manager. "At least you will make some money out of this."
The server replied, "Who is to say what is good and what is bad?"

Near the end of the meal the manager came by to see how the party was wrapping up. The server answered that all twelve guests demanded separate checks.
"How awful!" said the manager. "You will be here another twenty minutes just sorting this out."
The server replied, "Who is to say what is good and what is bad?"

After the guests had finally gone, the manager asked how everything ended up. It turned out that because of the separated checks, the guests had not noticed the included gratuity and had left extra.
"That is great!" said the manager. "You made some real money. What good fortune!"
"Who is to say what is good and what is bad?" replied the server.

"Shut the hell up," said the manager.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

"Polish the silverware to polish the silverware..."

While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance, that might seem a little silly:

Why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that's precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality. I'm being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There's no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves....

There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.

If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as they were a nuisance, then we are not "washing the dishes to wash the dishes." What's more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can't wash the dishes, the chances are we won't be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus, we are sucked away into the future -- and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.


I remember a number of years ago, when [my friend] Jim and I were first traveling together in the United States, we sat under a tree and shared a tangerine. He began to talk about what we would be doing in the future. Whenever we thought about a project that seemed attractive or inspiring, Jim became so immersed in it that he literally forgot about what he was doing in the present. He popped a section of tangerine in his mouth and, before he had begun chewing it, had another slice ready to pop into his mouth again. He was hardly aware he was eating a tangerine. All I had to say was, "You ought to eat the tangerine section you've already taken." Jim was startled into realizing what he was doing.

It was as if he hadn't been eating the tangerine at all. If he had been eating anything, he was "eating" his future plans.

--Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness


With each spoon polished in mindfulness, the Buddha smiles.

 --Zen and the Art of Waitering

In all my time as a server, I've never been a fan of banquet service. I know a lot of waiters who vastly prefer it to the normal grind – there are set menus, not a lot of guest interaction, and it's usually not quite as hectic as just running a normal station. The main reason I've always shied away from it is that much of it consists of things I really don't consider “waiting tables”: moving tables, place setting, ironing tablecloths, polishing silverware, etc. I gravitated towards the service industry for a number of reasons, chief among them that I like being busy. Waiting tables demands your constant attention – it's task management, it's prioritizing, it's a constant flow. One of my favorite things about the job is when I look down at my watch and realize that 3 hours have flown by without my noticing; there's not much time for your mind to wander.

All that being said, in my new job (as a server assistant at a fine-dining restaurant), my night usually involves nothing but those types of “not waiting tables” tasks. I polish silverware, I polish wine glasses, I run food, I vacuum. When I'm serving the food I occasionally get to interact with the guests, where I explain the dishes, but that's only if the captain (the front waiter) is busy with another table.

The more I (try to) practice Zen though, the more in love with my new job I become. Every night gives me ample, ample opportunity to practice (and practice and practice) mindfulness in all my tasks. The best analogy I can give to a non-server about what waiting tables is like are those plate-spinners on the old Ed Sullivan show. You greet table 21 over here, take an order for table 11 over there, get a couple of drink refills for 22, the food should have been out by now for 12 so I'm going to run to the kitchen to see what's going on, now I've got to get back to 21 to see if they want any drinks, etc. You're constantly planning two or three steps ahead while at the same time attending to the demands of the moment and adjusting on the fly. We're continuously triaging the section, juggling the amount of attention and time given to each table and when.

As a server assistant, I have absolutely nothing to do but what I am doing right then. When I'm vacuuming, there is absolutely nothing else I can do but vacuum. When I'm running food to a table, there's nothing else for me to do but that, and nothing else to think about or plan for. Often when the restaurant is full all I can attend to is running food non-stop for most of the night, ending up when it slows down with a huge backlog of glasses and silverware to polish. I'll be standing there with a giant mound of silverware in front of me, and one of the other assistants will bring over yet another rack from the dishwasher to add to the pile, inevitably making some comment about how discouraging it all looks. For me, it doesn't matter. I know the only way the job is done is one spoon at a time, they'll all be polished eventually. And in that, there is peace.

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.