This is water
You feel it coming, just like a storm. First, there's a moment of calm. Everyone has their own ritual: some check their mise en place, others stretch, some apply lipstick for the show. And then --whoosh-- it begins! You start slow and even, rarely does it happen all at once. The climb is, hopefully, steady. Eventually you hit a rhythm, a stride, dancing with your team.
Sometimes it's rough. Some nights the wave comes too fast and you can’t catch it. Other nights it's a monsoon and you flounder. There are even some nights you drown.
But no matter what happens, the feeling is the same: you are all in. You are there, and that is the only thing that's real. The rest of the universe falls away and all that's left is tonight - the guests facing you, the food that needs to be run, the next two tasks you have to accomplish, held tightly to the breast of your short term memory. They are the tickets that help you pass GO and move on to the next task, and without them you are lost. The adrenaline kicks in and you ride the wave of energy. As the room fills, the energy swells. At some point the lights dim - just a bit - and the music edges up in volume and tempo. This is all that is real. This is all that can be real or else someone will drop a ball, the illusion will be shattered and the whole damn thing will come crashing down.
It took me a while to realize that service had become a form of meditation for me. It's the only time in my life (other than sex, maybe...) when I am completely present. When I am able to let everything else fall away. I’ve come to understand that I need this space, that I rely on it.
Not that long ago, I did not work in restaurants. I worked a soul-crushing 9-5 staring at a computer screen and crunching numbers. After about two years of spinning my wheels I realized I needed to make a change. I’d heard about a girl I knew from college who worked at a big, well known restaurant downtown, and was surprised because I knew she didn’t have any industry experience, in NYC or elsewhere. I had both. How was it that she was making this alternative life work, when I was stuck in a boring office job? I reached out to her to ask for an informational interview, which is something they teach you to do at liberal arts schools. She offered me a job as a host, just to see how I liked it. I ended up working two full time jobs to save money, took over as Maitre d’, saved $10,000, quit my job, and then fought my way into management within six months of starting. I was hooked - it felt like I’d found a soulmate. I loved going to work, and I was good at it. Everything just clicked.
Meanwhile, I was also in the most unhealthy relationship of my life. I wanted so badly for us to be madly in love, to be soulmates, that I completely remade myself into what I thought he wanted - into what he was not shy about telling me he wanted. I lost myself in him - looking back I literally felt like I was in a cult. I was so terrified of losing him, of losing who I was because of him. But, once I made the choice to shift jobs I think it clicked for me that other things needed to change as well. Our relationship, despite being long and sincerely deep, was tenuous and, to me, felt constantly on the brink of disaster. I think I subconsciously had known for a while that I couldn’t continue with him, but I was only able to end things because I hadn’t looked at the problem directly. It was an impulse - like ripping off a bandaid without thinking about it. Shortly after starting full time at the restaurant, I left work one night and had this urgent need to be done. To end it now.
So I did.
Breaking up with him is still the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was like chewing off a part of my own body. I cried every day for months. I thought about him at least 50 times a day. Every morning there were a few seconds between sleeping and waking when I would blessedly forget, but then it would all come rushing back - all the more painful because of those few moments of emotional freedom…
The restaurant, and service, became a refuge. I remember that it dawned on me that when we were busy, I got a break from the pain. I would suddenly realize that I hadn’t thought about him in over an hour. Or that I hadn’t cried in two. Or that I’d laughed. Or that I’d forgotten. It was a revelation - those moments of peace. Of course those realizations always came, by necessity, with the return of the memories (like the mornings), so healing was slow going.
I remember one night feeling particularly devastated and alone, in my closet of an bedroom in a sublet on 23rd and 3rd - a short-term sublet I’d moved into in preparation for moving in with him in the fall once his lease was up, that I was now stuck in until I somehow gathered the pieces of my life back together. I called a dear friend and told him that I didn’t know if I would ever stop feeling this pain. That I truly didn’t know if I would ever not feel some level of devastatingly sad each and every day. He told me to YouTube a speech that David Foster Wallace gave at the Kenyon University commencement a few years before. He said he had just listened to it and that he didn’t really know what to say to me to make me feel better, but that maybe this would help.
AT THIS POINT I NEED YOU TO GO AND LISTEN TO THE SPEECH.
The link is provided below. It is a beautiful, thoughtful piece of both oratory and writing. DFW has a way of being painfully thoughtful, while also being wry. His use of silence and pause is just as intentional as his syntax - something I have come to appreciate in great orators (think Obama).
Regardless, to understand what I am writing about this is a necessary piece of the puzzle. Close your door, put on your headphones, and sink into his words for the next 22 minutes and 43 seconds.
NO, SERIOUSLY… DO IT.
As you now know, DFW discusses how after graduating from college (specifically with a liberal arts education) often the biggest struggles young people face, indeed the biggest struggles of life for all of us, are the day to day monotonous patterns - the ‘in between’ bits. It’s not the big project you’re diving into at work, or the uncertainty of asking your partner to get married. Instead, it’s getting the cart with the wonky back wheel when you go to the grocery store. It’s running down the steps as the subway doors are shutting. It’s having to sweep your kitchen when you just did it two days ago. These tiny moments grow and amass, they take on weight and we ascribe heavy meaning to them. They become devastating and huge. Part of this is because we humans, by default of the way we receive and process information and witness the world, are intrinsically selfish - we are literally always at the center of our own experiences. There is no way for me to every truly ‘walk in another man’s shoes’ or understand how another person thinks or feels at any given moment. Thus, the small stuff isn’t just happening, it’s happening directly to us and it’s just not fair. Every day generates another tiny moment of displeasure and hurt, adding to the perfect storm of negativity that can easily become a very large part of our existence, and often does if we aren’t careful.
DFW references the old cliche that a liberal arts education “teaches you how to think”, but argues that the more important skill and practice is to learn “what to think about”. To actually be intentional and aware - in control of one’s thoughts and experiences in the world. He argues that given the intrinsic selfishness of our experiential realities, this sort of awareness requires effort, practice. To illustrate how easy it is to be unaware, he employs a quippy parable (a ‘necessity of the college grad speech’) that quickly became the namesake of the speech and the central mantra:
TWO YOUNG FISH ARE SWIMMING ALONG WHEN AN OLDER ONE PASSES BY AND SAYS
“HEY BOYS, HOW’S THE WATER?”
AFTER A WHILE, ONE LOOKS AT THE OTHER AND SAYS
“WHAT THE HELL IS WATER?”
His point is that we should see the water - we should know it’s there, and we should strive to remind ourselves to check in with our experiences and not just accept them blindly as they appears to unfold around us. We are not the only person who missed the subway this morning - and the conductor wasn’t truly waiting to close the doors until we almost got there just to fuck with us. The guy on the road in the Hummer isn’t necessarily a terrible person - maybe he had a really bad car accident and driving that monstrosity is the only way he feels safe. Of course, DFW is generous with the reality of how difficult this daily practice is, and that sometimes our alternative ways of thinking aren’t necessarily true either. But the point is that altering how we perceive these tiny stressors (or not-so-tiny stressors) is the ultimate goal - the Capital-T-Truth or ‘reality’ of the situation is actually not particularly relevant. It’s more about the truth we are crafting for ourselves. This is really a daily practice - and it is sometimes successful and sometimes not. He acknowledges the amount of effort that goes into changing our default settings - and that there will be some days where the negativity won’t be overcome.
“This is water” became my life raft (so much so that I have it tattooed on my body). I’ll admit, the fact that DFW had committed suicide made me more willing to buy in to his “teachings”. I know that sounds perhaps inappropriate, but I’ve always had a hard time with enlightened leaders. There’s just such a big gap between them and me. I will never get close to their accomplishments. But DFW was just a man. A man who was broken. He said that there were some days when he awoke and simply didn’t want to deal - I identify with that hugely. And clearly there was one day when that was more true than ever. To me this practice was a generous enough for me to try - every day was sort of a clean slate, and maybe things got easier slowly over time, but I always knew that I could fail at it, and that I probably would.
While it wasn’t intentional, I’ve realized that working in restaurants has become a huge part of allowing me success in this kind of daily practice and helped me build my awareness in a much more methodical and consistent manner than I could have managed on my own (even while entering my 8th year of therapy!). By necessity, I cannot be in the center of my experience when I’m at work because it isn’t my experience. I am literally crafting an experience for another human being. Not even “I” - but “we” - it is always a team effort. All of my focus is outward: on the guests, on my coworkers, on the chef. I must be watching, listening, premeditating. I must feel another’s emotions and [re]act in kind, I must be generous and put myself second, even if I’ve had the worst day (or month, because I broke up with my boyfriend) and all the guests are terrible, because ultimately it’s not about me. And that’s ok. In fact, that’s beautiful. It’s a release. It’s refreshing. I find it amazing and hilarious that this glutenous, indulgent, monied business has been one of the things that has taught me the most about selflessness, outward awareness and being present. Maybe it’s because what we craft in service is so temporary? But we drive ourselves crazy to do it anyhow…? But that’s a topic for another day...
Ultimately, I am infinitely grateful for the dissolution of that relationship, which provided me an opportunity to grow, to my dear friend for showing me the speech, to the guests and teammates I have spent countless hours with, and to restaurants - for being my water.