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 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 17

Prime numbers, amiright?! Today’s meditation was the flip of day 15, in that I was to call up positive emotions instead of negative ones, then focus on the sensations that those feelings begat.

Pretty much the moment I hit center and was able to focus on my breathing, my dog popped into my mind. My mind conjured an image of him hugging me, and of him holding his head against mine while I pet him. I felt my love for him and his for me in that moment. Warmth radiated out from my center and I felt my face contort in that kind of weird smile people do when they’re overwhelmed by happiness (it bares some similarities to sadness in that everything pulls back and you get teary-eyed).

Then I mentally meandered for a while, trying to imagine this thing or that thing to illicit the positive emotions I was shooting for. My mind flitted through the various women I’m currently interested in, and I imagined being with them, around them, near them, etc, but honestly most of the things I imagined were just daydreams, and not actual events from my past, so I feel like those didn’t count.

I tried thinking of different words for happiness. My usual self-speak kicked in, and I was reminded of my many failures recently and farther in the past. Finally I remembered that I made a bar for myself! I felt awash with accomplishment. It had a similar radiating warmth, and I felt myself sit up straighter, and a smile pulled itself onto my face.

I refocused on my breathing, and found myself putting a lot of mental attention on my alarm and when it would be going off. When I tried pinpointing the reason for my shift in attention, I realized I was anxious about it going off. I was worried that if it went off right then (or in the immediate future), I wouldn’t have really done today’s session right. I wouldn’t have maximized my Good Feels Meditation Day because I how could I? My life is largely in shambles and so on and so forth.

I caught myself before getting too far down that rabbit hole, then took a moment to be happy about that. It wasn’t elation, necessarily, but should elation be the standard for positive emotions? I don’t think so. I think that there’s a whole range of small pleasures worth paying attention to, and if you’re looking for them, you’ll find plenty peppered throughout your day. If I’m looking, they tend to be there.

Back to breathing. And this fuckin’ itch that wouldn’t go away on the left side of my face! I caved and scratched it, which was serendipitous in that it reminded me I just got a tattoo I’ve wanted for almost a decade! I felt giddy! Again, radiating warmth, but also the smile that pulled itself onto my face was tighter than the other ones. My shoulders hunched up and my hands clenched, and I rode the feeling back to my breath.

My alarm went off, and I was largely pleased with the way today’s practice went. I veered off course a few times, but I was able to bring myself back, which is the whole point. After my meditation, I was reminded of a number of other reasons why my life isn’t so bad right now. I’m doing a lot of things that I absolutely love, and I’m doing them with a passion I haven’t had in a while. This blog is a fine example of that, as are the subjects of my happy thoughts for today.

Pleasantness in its many forms sits around us all day just waiting to be noticed – we just have to be looking. I’m gonna look harder.

Sitting and Breathing: Day 1-ish

So this is sort of Day 2 in that I started reading Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation yesterday, but by the time I got through the first 60-some-odd pages, I learned that I would be meditating for 20 minutes each go-round, I should read the instructions a couple times before beginning, and I was only doing it thrice in the first week (every other day). Initially, I balked at the idea of reading the instructions over again, but then I thought, “If I’m gonna do this shit, I might as well do it all the way.”

So today, after my usual morning of walking the dog, making breakfast and coffee, and watching some random shit on Netflix, I sat back down with the book, finished the remainder of the material for Week 1, then reread the instructions on Breathing Meditation. Then I downloaded the audio files on my phone, and realized I didn’t have any software on my phone that would allow me to unzip the compressed file, so I downloaded the file on my computer.

Track 1 was a recitation of the directions I had now read twice, but I sat through those three minutes while I situated myself in the correct posture. Track 2 was the guided meditation portion, but I got about three minutes into that before I decided her voice was more distracting than it was helpful, so I opted in on my own practice (which sounds like a thing I should do, so I felt good about that). I went back to the dining room where I left my phone (I was encouraged to leave it elsewhere) to use it as a timer.

I put my phone on Do Not Disturb, and set an alarm on Pandora to play some classical musical after 21 minutes, then I watched my phone intently for the minute of setup I allowed myself to be up. When it hit 11:37 I threw my phone down, internally said, “Go!” and focused on my breathing. I felt the sensation of the air going into and out of my right nostril (apparently my left one is clogged or something). I centered myself with a few deep breaths, then fell into a more normal breathing pattern.

Planes flew by overhead. My dog started dreaming and growling in his sleep. This made me laugh, as it usually does. I returned to my attention breath. In… Out… I thought about how much easier this would be if I were simultaneously doing physical activity. Like yoga. Which I should really get back into. I bet I can find videos online and do those. I should also do an ab routine after this, followed by some stretching. Actually, the yoga would probably serve both of those purposes. Shit. Breath. In… Out…

Every time my attention wandered, I forgave the intrusion, and thanked myself for recognizing it and returning to my breath. My back started hurting. My legs started hurting. My new tattoo started hurting. I felt tension in my jaw, and when I relaxed that, I somehow felt tension in my tongue. I let all of them go. I adjusted my sitting position. I started to get antsy. I started to feel lightheaded for some reason.

“There is no alarm. There is only this breath,” I told myself. In… Out… My attention kept returning to my phone sitting next to me. When would I hear the sweet relief of classical music? In… Out… “Okay, we’ve gotta be getting close now.” In… Out…

Finally, it was too much for me in some way or another, and I almost jolted out of it. Funnily enough, I did that at exactly 11:57. The alarm was silent (apparently Do Not Disturb extends to Pandora), but I had made it the full 20 minutes. “Fuck yeah! That’s what’s up!” I said out loud.

I have the day off from Sitting and Breathing tomorrow, but I’m back at it again Saturday. I feel good for having done the thing today, but I’ve clearly got a lot of room to get better at this. I guess that’s why it’s called a “practice” – there’s pretty much always room to get better.

I’ve already noticed a shift in the way I interpret the goings-on in my day, and I’m excited to see what changes (if any) come about in my view of the world over the course of the next month. Stay tuned. More sitting and breathing to come.

Reaching for Ten Percent

I listen to a lot of audiobooks. I listen to them while I’m driving, while I’m walking the dog, while I’m on the train or bus, while I’m doing dishes… You get it. I listen to them a lot. A little over a year ago, I stumbled upon a book called Stealing Fire, which looks at the potential therapeutic value of altered states of consciousness (as brought about by psychoactive drugs, exercise, meditation, watching TV, etc.). It’s great – I strongly suggest you check it out on your own.

I was so intrigued by their research, that here I am a year and some change later, and I’m revisiting it with the intention of pursuing higher learning in the same vein. I want to know what these people know. I want to be responsible for teaching them some of the things that they don’t know. So where do I start?

Well, I went to their website, and shot them an email outlining my plan and asking if there were any institutions already actively engaged in this type of research. I don’t expect to hear back any time soon, but while I was on their website, I took the liberty of reading what they already took the time to type up. They (not exactly sure who “they” is in this instance) recommended that someone with my particular set of ongoing foibles check out 10% Happier, written by Dan Harris.

In line with my impulsivity and hunger for information of this ilk, I downloaded the book for immediate consumption. It chronicles the TV journalist’s journey through the Woo Woo world of conquering one’s inner demon’s by striving toward “enlightenment.” You get the narration of a skeptic as he chats with leading self-help gurus, religious figureheads, psychologists and neuroscientists, and peppers them with questions driven by his own quest for inner peace (he’d probably object to some of that verbiage). I love and strongly recommend this book, as well.

As a result of this book (and probably partly as a result of me choosing not to drink alcohol for the remainder of January), I’ve decided to embark on some meditative shit. Dan did a video with meditation expert Sharon Salzberg, giving me the chance to do a quick trial run before making this choice. So what did I learn in my very first session?

I’m angry. I’m not sure exactly what I’m angry about. It comes out as anger at my cousin for not doing the dishes, or anger with my dog for being distracted by squirrels and conveniently forgetting that we went outside because he had to poop, which he doesn’t remember until we’re back at the top of the stairs and in the apartment. Max (my dog) barked within the first minute and a half of starting the meditation session, prompting me to get up and put him in his kennel so I could start over.

Other than that, I’d say it went well. As they say in the video, the whole point of meditation is repeated failure. You’re supposed to continuously be distracted by whatever, then refocus your attention on your breath. Each time you catch yourself, and bring your consciousness back to your breath, it’s the equivalent of a brain-bicep curl. I enjoy regular bicep curls and the idea of conquering my wandering mind, so this all seems like a good fit.

Goal time: I’ve ordered Sharon Salzberg’s book, which includes a 28 day program of guided meditation. I’m gonna do that. Why? Hopefully I’ll be able to shed some light on why so many people I respect seem to really dig it. Hopefully I’ll gain some insight as to why I have a tendency to fly off the handle about little shit in my life. Hopefully I’ll be able to eek out a percentage point or two while I’m reaching toward that 10%.

Like Mr. Harris, I’m skeptical, but I’m approaching it with an open mind. After just my first attempt, I can see how this might be tough at the get-go, but how it’s ultimately doable. Oh, and I’ll tell you about it. And probably some other things I’ve been meaning to tell you. We’ll see.

Namaste, motherfuckers.