Deep Dives and Fine Dining

Valentine’s Day was my first day as a barback at the fancy restaurant. There was a lot to learn on Day 1, and given the nature of the establishment and the holiday, all space at the bar was reserved for the entirety of the time we were open. I got there a bit early so I had ample time to familiarize myself with the layout of the bar and ask some questions I had about any number of things that can come up during service at a bar.

Honestly, I’d say it went pretty well. Luckily, they were restricted to the tasting menu, so I just had to memorize the order of the menu, what silverware, plating, wine-pairing, etc. went with each course, and who was ready for what when. It certainly wasn’t a small task, but it was doable. By the end of the night, I had most of that down, and I was able to sneak away from time to time to help the folks downstairs polish glassware and silverware, then hall it back upstairs for immediate use.

It’s really just about letting yourself fall into a rhythm – check plates, check water glasses, check glassware, check faces, check bus tub, check with bartender, check with dishwashers, repeat. Stressful? Sure, but again, manageable. I mean, I only had one tiny breakdown where I had to crouch behind the bar and remind myself to breathe. Totally normal, right?

I woke up on Friday feeling ready to get back in there and kick some ass. I walked the dog, did 30 minutes of stretching and breathing meditation, and got myself ready for work. On the way to the bus, I always check the bus status on my phone to see if it’s necessary for me to run the two blocks to the bus stop, or if I can stroll leisurely. It said APPROACHING when I looked, so I put my phone in my pocket and ran. The bus did that thing where it sort of stops, then stops all the way on the other side of the street because the driver realizes there were people hoping to get on.

I ran a little faster, thanked the driver for stopping, then found my seat toward the back of the bus. I was glowing because I was going to be hugely early that day, which was good because I would get family meal and have plenty of time to fill out my new hire paperwork. I reached for my phone so I could schedule my dog’s walk for the evening, and it wasn’t in my pocket. I frantically patted all my pockets and looked all around me – nothing. I asked the people who got on after me, “Hey did you see my phone fall out of my pocket?” They said no.

I immediately pulled on the cord to request a stop (maybe four blocks from where I got on). I jogged briefly but thought, Meh, there’s no need to hurry – I’ve got plenty of time and I can just call a Lyft once I’ve got my phone.

I saw three or four people walking in the opposite direction, and I considered asking them if they saw a phone, but I thought, Meh, they wouldn’t have been looking for a phone. I’ll be there in a minute.

I retraced my steps, scanning back and forth along the sidewalk and the grass I had run through to catch the bus. No phone. I did one more back-and-forth, looking into potholes and small divots I might have overlooked the first time. Nothing. Well fuck. My phone was gone. I didn’t have time to brood – I needed to get to work. So I got on the next bus thinking, It’s just a phone. The most important thing is that I call Wag customer service and schedule Max’s walk when I get there.

I got to work on time for family meal, I ate, I filled out paperwork, then I got right to work cutting limes and lemons. I looked at my watch and realized it was already about the time I should be clocking in normally, so I rushed to the phone to call Wag. I sat on hold for eight minutes, tapping my foot impatiently, sighing heavily, and putting all my effort into not throwing the phone across the room every time the woman’s voice said, “Thank you for your patience.”

At the eight minute mark, I pressed 2 so that they’d call me back when a customer service rep was available, and ran back to the bar to help with setup. When I got there, the bartender said, “I just had to do all of the prep work by myself. I’m only going to say this once – that wasn’t cool.” I made a weak attempt to explain the situation, but it was too late – I had already fouled up the start of Day 2. I had a small panic attack right as the first customers of the day walked through the door, and the bartender sent me away so I wouldn’t be seen breaking composure.

I went out of sight and collected myself. It took fifty breaths, but I got my head back in the game. I went back in with a smile on my face, but I still got a talking to from the restaurant manager about how important it is to keep your cool. I assured him I could, then went behind the bar to get to work.

The rest of the night went pretty smoothly. I did hit my back twice on the metal cover over the entrance to the bar, which makes a loud metal-on-metal noise that you can hear across the whole restaurant. And at some point, I asked a question with too many Um’s and Uh’s in it, and got reprimanded for not being concise.

A married couple (Cory and Lorie [you can’t make that kind of shit up]) who were regulars came in, and engaged me a little, which was my saving grace for the night. Rapport is my fucking wheelhouse – I can charm the shit out of just about anyone. I did, and it redeemed some of my mishaps.

The manager and the bartender were nice enough to let me go right at close because Wag never called back, so my dog was just stuck in my room the whole shift. I asked for notes on Day 2 before leaving, and initially the bartender just said, “Oof. I’m not ready for that, yet.” Finally he said, “My two main points are that you need to work on decisiveness and conciseness. Be confident in yourself. You’re a smart guy – we wouldn’t have hired you if you weren’t.”

That felt encouraging. I felt better. I got home as quickly as public transit would allow to clean up the urine and feces that were largely a result of how much time Max was in that room by himself.

Here I am a few days later, though, and I find myself questioning the value of my employment there. Can I learn a lot from those folks? Absolutely. Do I really need that information? I’m not sure. Given that I’m not planning on making bartending my lifelong career, I don’t know how good at this I really need to be. I can learn a fair amount from the folks at the rooftop bar about bartending, and I have the greatest potential for actually becoming a bartender there. I can learn a lot about bar management from the folks at the honkytonk pub, and I feel like I really fit in with those people.

I talked it out with a close friend, and she encouraged me to read my own blog – I’m overwhelmed by how quickly my life is changing. I’m not going to reread anything because writing it is hard enough, but thank goodness she’s reading it because I needed her insights. I’m stressed the fuck out a lot of the time as it is. Do I really need to add to that considerably just so I can say I’ve worked in fine dining for a bit? I can do this job, but should I? Maybe not.

Especially considering that none of this post was decisive or concise, and after rereading it, I have no edits.

Sitting and Breathing: Day 29

I know, I know – it was supposed to be a 28 day program, but I didn’t do anything yesterday so here we are. Happy Valentine’s Day to those who celebrate it.

As the photo here shows, I occasionally let my dog play too rough. I have fun, he has fun, but often I get a little damaged. That photo was taken about a week ago, right before I found out I was getting the barbacking gig at the fancy place (my first day is today, by the way). Since then, I’ve been careful to only use his tug-of-war rope so that my hand had time to heal. For the most part, it worked very well and he was very cooperative.

Then I got home from work last night, and after walking him around the block, where he both peed and pooped, I returned to my room to find a large poop in the middle of the floor. Now, I move my bed out of my room and lock up all my things each time I leave the house so he has a decent space to play in, and also to account for his mishaps. So really, this is kind of par for the course. But yesterday I was really looking forward to coming home, putting my bed back in my room, and getting a good night sleep in preparation for today’s shift, which I’ve been a little nervous about.

The poop in the middle of my floor meant that I had to clean the floor, but the smell clearly meant I was sleeping on the couch, and that pissed me off. I punched the wall and opened up two of my knuckles in the process. So now, not only was I not going to get a good night’s sleep, but my hand also had two fresh wounds on it because I couldn’t control my anger in that moment. I did not go to sleep in the best of moods.

I also did not wake up in the best of moods. The couch just isn’t as comfortable as my bed, and it smells like dog, and of course, Maximus woke me up like fives times this morning asking to go outside.

So! I finished reading the last bits of Real Happiness, and sat myself down for some good ol’ breathing. Holy crap did I need that. In the last bits of the book, she discusses how the point of continual meditation practice is not to become better at meditation, but to become better at life. I don’t sit and breath so that I can master sitting and breathing, I do it so that it connects me on a deeper level with myself, my emotions, and the events, people, and dogs in my life.

My practice itself hasn’t improved much over the course of the last month. I still get easily distracted, I still get washed away by torrents of emotion, I still get bored and restless just like I did on day one. But I will say that minus punching the wall yesterday, I have a much different way of interacting with my emotions. Meditation has, of course, made me no less of a human being – no less prone to the ups and downs of my own mind or less likely to experience positive and negative occurrences – but it has given me a powerful tool when it comes to my perception of those things.

So ends my series on Sitting and Breathing, but my journey on the road to better understanding the intricacies of my world feels like it’s just beginning, or at least beginning anew. Next up on the reading docket is Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Enlightenment by Joseph Goldstein. I will keep you abreast of what I learn there, and regale you with more tales of my nonsense going forward.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for taking the time to read about my journey thus far, and I look forward to continuing it with you.

Sitting and Breathing: Day 27

What a wonderfully chill morning! I mean, it’s fairly cold out, sure, but more in the “relaxed” sense of the word. I ate way too much for dinner last night and passed out on my couch watching SNL. I had very vivid dreams punctuated by my dog moving around or asking to be let out or fed. I went in and out of sleep until around 11am, then ate some leftovers, played with the pup, and did some personal grooming. I suppose I didn’t need to share any of that with you, but then, I don’t really have to share any of this with you, do I?

Today’s meditation was a combination of the walking meditation and the lovingkindness meditation. I skipped the bus and just walked to the train station. I repeated, May I be peaceful. May I be happy. May I be safe. Then as people came into my consciousness (seen by my actual eyes or my mind’s eye), I’d put my attention on them, May you be peaceful. May you be happy. May you be safe. The streets of Chicago are hectic at this time of day (wet, slushy roads and sidewalks be damned), and I happened to connect with a lot of good friends electronically today, so I had no shortage of other folks to rest my attention on.

Occasionally I’d catch myself caught up in the rhythm of the words, not putting any real intention behind them. I found it easier to hold the individual in my mind if I visualized myself holding their face and staring into their eyes as I imparted my words of lovingkindness. A little creepy? Sure, but it’s my head and I’ll love people how I want, dammit. Also, this method really allowed me the chance to connect to the words in a much deeper way.

By the time I got to the station, I had turned the words into a song resembling Tiny Bubbles. Singing it allowed me to focus on the pleasant tingling of the cold wind on my face. The light crunch of snow that had just fallen combined with the smush of the snow that had already melted became more satisfying under my heavy boots (like when you’re a kid hopping from puddle to puddle). I had a stupid smile on my lips that started somewhere in my toes and went through the entirety of me.

I came out of my meditation as I got to the station. There was a woman crying on the platform where I transfer to the Red Line. A guy who got onto the train next to me said into his phone, “Did you just tell me to suck a dick?!” I can see the gray of the outdoors on most the passengers’ faces around me, but I also see the curling of lips and the brightness of the smiles that persist in spite of the weather.

Dan Harris got me intrigued by saying meditation can make you about 10% happier, and as week 4 of my practice comes to a close, I’m starting to agree.

Sitting and Breathing: Day 26

Oof. Last night involved a lot of drinking. Well… The last two nights, I guess. Saturday was particularly hectic at the rooftop bar, so the whole staff drank together after we closed. Then I saw one of my coworkers at the bar on ground level, and he convinced me (it did not take a lot of convincing) to join him and the two ladies he just met at a late-night spot.

I spent much of my time hitting on the wait staff and ignoring the two women he brought with us. Interestingly, both of the ladies I was interested in had neon-colored hair – one was lavender and the other was lime green. Finally one of the two that my coworker was chatting up snapped and insisted that they go back to their hotel (they were staying at the hotel on top of which was our place of work).

In the Lyft on the way home, the one who snapped kept making drunk, biting commentary, and I found it very funny. She was, however, not trying to be funny, so her friend got mad at me for continuously chuckling at how ridiculous the situation was. I excused myself and made my way to the train station to go home.

I got home when the sun came up on Sunday, went right to sleep, and got to work only slightly late yesterday afternoon. I dutifully stood in the doorway of the pub until around 8pm (taking only brief pauses in professionalism to chat up the attractive campaign manager for the alderman who was having a fundraiser there), then my manager and I had a few drinks after clocking out.

Well, it was karaoke night at the pub, and my thought was, “I’ll just sing one song, then I’ll get out of here.” I sang California Love by 2Pac, but the words were wrong on the screen, which distracted me, and fucked up my performance. I couldn’t leave on a bad note, right?! So I signed up for another one. A few more drinks later, I was flitting around from table to table buying shots for small groups of customers with my employee discount.

At one point my coworker thought, “Man, Sean knows everybody in here!” Then he listened in on one of my conversations and realized that I didn’t really know anybody and I was just starting conversations with people at random. Before I knew it, the bar was closing and it was time for me to go home.

Fastforward to today: after tending to my rather severe hangover with some greasy Colombian food and strong coffee, I decided I had better do that whole meditating thing I’ve been doing lately. Luckily, today’s meditation was on quieting the inner critic, which was serendipitous because he’s particularly loud on days after some drinking goes on. The goal was to focus on a recent negative emotion (I chose regret), and sit with it and work through what it feels like and what comprises the list of associated concerns.

So I played out the worst-case scenario: I get fired from this job. I don’t think it’ll happen (my other coworkers drink rather heavily, so I’m in good company there), but what if it did? Well, I’d be down to just two jobs. I’d up my availability at both of them, and I’d be just fine. The takeaway from any real deep diving on failure is, “Life keeps going.”

Again, I ended up crying during the meditation. I’m finding that I spend most of my days when I’m upset just being marginally upset. I hold the emotions on the fringes of my mind while I focus on getting things done, and they just sort of sit there gnawing at my awareness the whole day. Meditation gives me the opportunity to stare them directly in the face, take them in fully, and profile them so I better understand them.

So much of my time is spent trying to be or look happy that I don’t get the opportunity to sit with my feelings, and it turns out there are a lot of them eating away at me. It’s relieving to confront them. It’s so very necessary to feel. Ultimately, I’m more happy because I let myself be sad or angry or whatever more fully. Meditation doesn’t make me emotionless, it helps me be at peace with the fact that I’m going to have unpleasant emotions sometimes, and that’s okay.

I could definitely stand to drink a little less, though. I’ll give you that one.

Sitting and Breathing: Day 24

I got home from work around 6am this morning, walked and fed my dog, had some concentrated petting time so he knows I love him, then passed out. I woke up at 2:30 this afternoon (also 10:30am to feed him and take him out again), and in order to make it to work by 6pm, I need to leave the house around 4:45pm (a bus and two trains, and a little bit of time buffer to account for how temperamental public transit can be). After showering and getting dressed for work, I took him on a 30 minute walk, and handled some finance nonsense.

Given that this is my schedule much of the time, I feel like I am usually in a sort of waking dream state. I also feel like I don’t have a whole lot of me time, no less time to read instructions and meditate. So today I decided to break away from the guided meditation laid out in my book, and do a little mindfulness session of my own making.

There’s a little hipster coffee shop right next to the station where I catch the train, and I’m a big fan of it. The coffee is artisanal, the food is clearly made with a passion, and the staff is always friendly, but my favorite part about it is the atmosphere created by whatever interior designer that these folks had the good sense to employ.

All of the light fixtures are the kind I chose for my bedroom – modern LED lights made to look antique that give off a soft, yellow light that’s even pleasing to look at directly. Tens of them hang from the ceilings on long wires, and some are arranged in two fan-like sculptures with long bulbs that have helical innards.

The wall opposite the coffee bar is lined with a fake ivy, giving it a natural and calming feel. The tables are all dark wood, and they’re fit tightly (but not too tightly) in the small space so even when you sit by yourself, you feel like you’re in a small community.

The bar itself is tiled along the bottom in a way reminiscent of the mosques-turned-cathedrals-or-palaces that dot southern Spain (and other places, but I’ve seen those ones, so that’s what they remind me of). The ornate patterns are supposed to replicate the are starry skies, and were used as meditative inspirations by their designers and whoever hired those designers. Along the top is a two-foot wall of glass, and a lineup of small indoor plants blocking the pipes and wires of all the coffee-making machines.

I ordered a little loaf of bread with feta cheese, tomato, and egg, and a cold brew coffee. I sat at a table at the back of the dining area that looked out at the other guests and the street beyond (interestingly, this is the same spot I sat in last time I was there, and it was the only spot open that time, too). I shed my many layers of winter clothing, set down my backpack, read a little of Real Happiness, then just focused on being there.

I set my fork down between bites. I chewed with awareness of the texture of the bread and sesame seeds along its top. I sipped my coffee, then set it down and closed my eyes, swishing it around I’m my mouth. If I breathed out while chewing on the bread, I got delightful coffee aromas to mix with the savory flavors of the bread.

Occasionally my mind drifted to the other things going on in my life. Occasionally I thought about how cute the young women were in there, some studying, some chatting amongst themselves, the younger ones snapping pictures and giggling loudly. Occasionally I thought about how weird I must look with my hands on my knees, chewing with my eyes closed. But mainly, I was calm, I was relaxed, and I was present, and it was beautiful.

Snap! I finished writing this RIGHT as I arrived at my stop for work. How cool is that shit?

Sitting and Breathing: Day 23

I skipped over Lovingkindness Meditation for Caregivers because, well, I’m not one. So today’s practice was a Meditation On Seeing The Good, which I honestly feel like I do much of the time already, but I felt like it couldn’t hurt to have some dedicated time for it in my day. As evidence of my regular use of this tactic, I was able to come up with multiple examples for each of the types of person I was to focus on (I’m not sure if that’s what I was supposed to do, but it’s what I did).

First up was me, and some of the good things I did for others yesterday. I didn’t really go anywhere or do anything outside of my home yesterday, so I mainly focused on things like taking the trash out, cleaning my apartment, taking my dog on a longer walk than usual, and doing this whole meditation and writing thing.

Next up was a benefactor. The obvious candidate was my mother, who regularly helps me both as a financial safety net and confidant when I’m angry or sad or happy about something. My focus flitted around to some of my other family members – suffice it to say, I get a lot of help from my family, so it was easy for me to come up with some names on the quickness.

Next on my Lovingkindness To-Do List was a good friend. Three names came to mind almost simultaneously (well five, but I focused on three): Greg, Bryan, and Monica. All of them took time out of their busy schedules to help me edit, revise, and rewrite a recent short story I submitted for a contest, and provide meaningful and insightful feedback. I think that’s why they all came to mind at once, but there are a litany of other ways they’ve been wonderful people to me, and I was happy to spend time today sending some positive energy in their direction. Between this bit and the benefactor bit, I was feeling a lot of gratitude today.

“Someone you know who’s having a difficult time” and “someone you have a bit of difficulty with” were the same person for me today: my aunt. She’s had a lifelong struggle with addiction (the alcohol and heroin kinds, mainly), and as a result, I’d say she isn’t the easiest person to deal with. It’s hard to know when she’ll be where and if what she’s saying is true or not. But! My grandmother recently passed away, and while I haven’t checked in with her personally, I can’t imagine she’s having the easiest time in dealing with that.

I’m not going to pat myself on the back for sending her lovingkindness today because I think I’ll need a few more sessions with her as the direct object of my meditation before I’m ready to cross that bridge and reach out to her. I can, however, now see that that is a bridge I must cross sooner than later because who knows how much longer it’s going to be there?

Aaaaand then my focus was back on me and a difficulty I had in my day. Specifically, I got mad at my dog on our walk yesterday which resulted in some leash jerking. I’m not proud of it, but I also don’t know how to deal with his unmitigated energy expulsion when he sees a squirrel or another dog or a human in winter clothes or some shit blowing in the wind. I spend some time focusing on how that was only a moment in time, and it has passed, and I love my dog and I always will (the adorable bastard).

Finally, I sent some lovingkindess to everybody like this, All beings want to be happy, may all beings be happy. I inhaled deeply on the first part, taking in the weight of the desire of all beings to be happy, then exhaled on the second part, pushing my positive energy out with the breath.

I finished early and my mind did some wandering. I got mad with myself for not being able to stay with the breath right when my alarm went off. I couldn’t help but laugh, because there I was, sitting in a meditative pose, huffing and puffing, pissed about not being able to focus on the good for just 20 minutes, RIGHT when the soft bird chirping and water noises that I have for my alarm started in. That’s just funny.

Week 4 involves practicing 6 out of 7 days, so we’ll be back for more tomorrow. Stay tuned.

Sitting and Breathing: Day 22

Slow start today. I’ve been trying to take advantage of the fact that my cousin is out of town for the month to catch up on some deep cleaning. The apartment looks great, but – in part due to his absence, and in part due to the fact that I was busy and on my feet all day – my dog has been particularly anxious.

When I decided to take advantage of a short break in today’s rain, so too did every other dog owner in the neighborhood, so we did a lot of turning around and my body ached from trying to restrain him. Also, he was already amped up because there’s this rabbit that lives right outside the apartment next door, and once Maximus spots that little bastard, it’s nearly impossible to get him to wind back down.

I’m totally gonna kill that fucking rabbit, you guys/gals. I haven’t decided how, though. I don’t want to put out poison because I don’t want my dog or any other household pets getting ahold of it, and I don’t think bringing a gun out into the streets of Chicago is a good idea. Still brainstorming. Feel free to put in some suggestions.

Luckily, today’s meditation session was titled Lovingkindness Meditation for Times of Emotional or Physical Pain, so I got to pretty directly deal with some of the emotions that cropped up earlier in the day. There were a few different options for mantras, but I chose, “May I accept my anger, fear, and worry, knowing that my heart is not limited by them.” I was to start by repeating that for ten minutes or so, then switch to breathing meditation.

As I meditated, I customized the phrase bit by bit until I felt like it fit me a little better.

First, it became, “May I accept my anger, fear, and worry, knowing that they do not define me and my heart is not limited by them.”

Then, “My anger does not define me. My fear does not define me. My worry does not define me. I am not limited by them.”

Then I added sadness to the mix. I repeated the mantra again, but got overtaken first by anger, then immediately by sadness. Sadness took hold, and it took me about a minute to bring my body out of its physical response to the feeling. This seems to be a recurrent theme – the “sadness underlying my anger” thing.

I read an interesting article recently about how angry outbursts can be an indicator of depression. Apparently, nobody’s really been looking at anger as a marker for depression, but there’s a fair amount of evidence correlating the two. I can say with certainty that I related to the subjects in the article as I was reading it, and the things I’m digging up in this meditation practice seem to support the main point of the article (at least for me).

After I pulled my body back into the proper position for some intentional breathing things evened out again.

Earlier today I heard back from the admissions folks at the University in Vienna, and they seem to have confirmed that many of my plans are viable (still not assuredly in, but it was good news). I also got a job offer to barback at a Michelin Star restaurant on the weekends, so that’s pretty fuckin’ cool. As I write this, I’m sipping scotch and thawing a steak to enjoy in my clean apartment.

Life is alright, but clearly there’s some stuff that needs sorting out. More tomorrow, probably. And the next day. And the day after that.

And probably the day after that, too.