Weebles Wobble, But I Don’t Fall Down

For a significant time in my life, I tended bar and waited tables and eventually reached a level of mastery that only comes after years in the profession.  In order to get and stay employed at upper tier establishments, you must meet demanding criteria with excellence, and make it look second nature.  Once, a fellow apron-in-the-trenches, Raven, observed that while it may seem to someone peering in from outside or to a server-in-training all graceful and effortless, it’s actually harder than it appears, and can be interpreted as a more accessible job than it really is.  Cultivating an efficient, hospitable presence in the midst of crying babies, hungry diners, first dates, and VIP business deals calls for a complex recipe.  Oenophilic knowledge, reflexive prioritization, vast patience, and a fluid physicality with an intimately choreographed and fast-paced dance among tables, swinging kitchen doors and moving human targets are all ingredients that create an illusion of a seamless, well-edited film.  She was right, we made it look easy, and we earned our Oscar every single night.

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Despite proficiency and agility, it’s not always wine and roses.  Steve, another veteran colleague, adds one crucial perspective that can make the difference between a shift feeling like an Amazonian jungle drive with no struts or shocks, and cruising the Autobahn in a cushy, air-conditioned Beemer. In industry jargon, being ‘in the weeds’ means you’re on a sinking ship, you NEED HELP NOW, all hell’s breaking loose, and the wreckage is piling up.  Sometimes no amount of technical ability can save you from this kind of disaster.  With his signature wry wit, he offers this wise salve, “Kellie, you can’t be in the weeds, if you just. don’t. care.”

Contemplate that for a moment.

When pressure mounts – a raucous table tries to flag you down for their third bottle of wine, another wants to send back undercooked steak that they ordered rare, the chef is yelling for you to pick up hot plates, crema on an espresso is fading at the counter and your barista won’t be too pleased to make it over, and the host just seated an ornery family of eight in your station – it’s hard to all hold hands and sing Kumbaya.  The last thing that will help is grasping for perfection and squeeeeezing tight.  Instead, give up.  Stop caring about the mess, the stress, doing your best.  Embrace chaos and move through the madness.  Keep humor in your pocket; toss the-sky-is-falling panic.  Once you stop caring that you’re in the weeds, sanity and order swiftly return.

This is how I finally came to write.  For too long, I harbored lofty views of what writing should be – gazed up on vaunted writers as gods – Faulkner, Dickens, Hemingway, Twain – as anyone with literary ambitions would.  I intensely pulsed with visions of grand words and clever turns of phrase like the masters.  I toted high ideals, yet felt low and too intimidated to put pen to paper for fear that I could nary craft as expert a sentence as theirs.  Nothing I wrote would be good enough, much less perfect, so why even try?  In essence, my wish to be a great writer actually prevented me from ever seriously commiting.  What use is that?  So I alternated between fits of private prose and artistic abstinence, but always ended up disappointed in myself.  Journals got filled, shelved, forgotten.  Yes, Mr. Famous Author, follow me right this way to your corner table.

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Then I remembered how I did what I did for a living, and the philosophies of Raven and Steve.  There was the answer, the road to freedom. I acknowledged that it would take years to achieve mastery, if ever, and I stopped caring about being top-notch.  I didn’t need to be a great writer.  I didn’t even need to be a good writer.  I laid down striving for perfection.  Starving for expression, all I had to do was write.

At once, my first gig waiting tables, back when I was far from competent, came rushing into memory.  One night early on I dropped an entire tray of frozen pina coladas and other frou-frou drinks all over a poor little girl who had the misfortune of sitting beneath me.  Out of mortifying embarrassment I laughed uncontrollably, while she burst into frightened tears.  It was all so horrible, but I cleaned up the mess, got on with the shift, and went back to work the next night and then the night after that.  I persevered, got less clumsy, and built up skills.

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We’re rarely good straight out of the gate;  so when I ask a friend, a best-selling author, for beginning writerly advice he offers up the same, wise morsel – make as many mistakes as I can.  So I do, continually, and it’s OK because now I’ve learned not to care about looking foolish or amateur.  All I want to do is write and have fun doing it.

This week, I sit cross-legged in yoga class, prayerful hands in front of my heart, post-OM, pre-asanas and the instructor, about to lead the group in a series of balancing poses, suggests we set an intention for our evening’s practice.  Before I can think up one, she shares hers – to wobble.  She actually intends to sway, to teeter.

Let go, whispers the universe!

Kapow!  I finally get it… Validity exists in shakiness as much as in stability.  When we’re trying to ground, find steadiness on one foot, arms akimbo, torso bent forward, and we falter – indeed, that is exactly when to accept imbalance – it’s integral to the pose, and not as I’ve long thought, failing.  I’ll never be in the weeds again.

As soon as I embrace the wobble, the imperfection, I stop falling down, and finally begin.

Empty cup

We all know the ancient Zen koan:

A Japanese Zen master was visited by a university professor to inquire about Zen.  While serving tea to the professor, he poured the tea into the professor’s cup until it reached the brim then kept on pouring.  When the tea spilled over, the professor said, “The cup is overflowing.  No more will go in!”  The Zen master said, “Like this cup, you are full of your own ideas and opinions.  How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Embarking on this writerly life, with its requisite lexicon, mindset and lifestyle has been a gradual process.  Maybe too gradual, considering it was birthed back when Soft Cell’s Tainted Love was on the radio and I had feathered hair.  Now that I’ve finally grabbed the snail by horns, and my habits are catching up with my dream, I’m pretty sure I’ve emptied all the damn cups in the house.  Twice.  The past seems so far away now;  New York already is dusty in my mind’s attic.

But a blank slate doesn’t always get you the corner table.

Last night, after attending a reading at the Rockland library, I decide to forgo the gym and treat myself to dinner out for the first time since moving up here.  Suzuki’s, the area’s only sushi restaurant, has more than its monopoly on Nippon cuisine to recommend it.  One, it’s owned by Keiko Suzuki, a woman.  Two, she sources Maine seafood for her menu.  I’d eaten here over the summer, and knew it would be up to par.  What I didn’t realize was, despite my years in the restaurant business along with my tendency to eat out most meals when I lived in New York, that I might not be up to par.  An evening of errors ensued.

The PLEASE WAIT TO BE SEATED sign greeted me and I sauntered right by it on my way to the vacant sushi bar.  I was intercepted by a server who needed to check the reservation book first, and then graciously waved me on.  My first faux pas.  I ordered the cold sake, but from the wrong part of the menu, so it came out in a carafe instead of the smaller vessel I was expecting.  My server patiently accommodated me.  Settling in, I examined the menu for any specialities and decided on a (local) crabmeat and cucumber roll, one unagi roll (smoked eel) and one ama ebi roll (sweet shrimp).  Looking forward to a small meal of Penobscot Bay seafood, I was confused when I was presented with a large tray.  I had ordered the wrong shrimp and twice as much sushi as I had thought.  I tried to blame it on fatigue, or the fact I’d forgotten my reading glasses, but either way I didn’t read the menu properly.  Everything, however, was beautifully presented and satisfying;  especially the single scoop of wild blueberry and yuzu sorbet I finished with.  After paying the check and leaving, it wasn’t until I got to my car that I realized I hadn’t thanked my server or the chef, who prepared my food right in front of me.   At least I left 20%.

Sophisticated diner to inept customer in 6 weeks flat.  I think I emptied my cup too much.

Now upon reflection, I am transported back to my transition from server to restaurant manager, 7 years ago.  One day during training, I was walking through the familiar dining room, carrying hot plates to a table.  But en route, my mind went blank.  Table thirty-five?  Which one was that?  I CAN’T REMEMBER!  With food cooling fast, I had no choice but to actually ask someone.  How embarrassing, just like last night’s graceless evening.  It wasn’t until later on that I had my realization ~ in order to take in all this information for my new role, my mind was like a Zen master, helping me by temporarily clearing out some space.

Let’s hope I regain my dining-out chops before I crave sashimi again.

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