Saturday, July 28, 2007

That Which We Do Not Understand...

When I first saw the little incidental story about Oscar  on the aol welcome screen, I immediately thought, " Oh! A spirit guide!"

Oscar the cat lives in a nursing home. He was raised among spirits spending their final hours, days, weeks on this plane of existence. He apparently is able to intuit which spirits are about to depart, and chooses to share those souls’ last earthly hours curled up beside them…leading them home, perhaps?

My first thought was, "What a comforting presence!" The story made me think—how little we really know about life, and the afterlife, and the spirits that may stand between the two.

Within a matter of hours, that little blurb of media attention—the story that quizzically contemplated the nature of Oscar’s talent—was distorted into the worst possible B-movie scripts. I saw him called everything from "Dr. Catvorkian" to "the feline Grim Reaper." News wires initially sympathetic to the significance of Oscar’s mission, have since portrayed him as the creepy star of some sci-fi horror fantasy.  Trust human beings to mock and ridicule things outside our realm of understanding! 

We just don’t (won’t?) get it, do we?

Friday, July 27, 2007

And So It Goes

I am sitting here in the final hour and twenty minutes of my official "day off." There is a never-ending laundry list of things I could be doing. Should be doing. I should be writing next week’s schedule. I could be unloading the aprons out of the dryer and folding them. I could be designing next month’s ad or the new menu. I should be sleeping; I have to be back at it in a little more than eight hours. But I’m not inclined to do any of those things, dammit. It’s still my day off. Neener neener.

So, how are things going, you ask? The very fact that I HAVE a day off indicates that things are going okay. Business is…well, up and down. Up two weeks ago (inexplicably) and down last week (though not as far down as last year.) Back up a bit again this week. Still frustrating, though, because there is absolutely no discernable rhyme or reason to the business patterns. One week, Tuesday will be our big day. The next week, it might be Thursday. Or Sunday. Or the whole week will suck. Or it will be busy all week for no reason whatsoever. I’ve given up trying to predict it; scheduling is nearly impossible. But I’m becoming accustomed to dealing with the impossible.

If I’ve learned anything in the past year, it’s that what I’m feeling today, at this moment, about my relationship to the restaurant and my level of success/failure in the whole venture, will not be the same five days, or even five minutes from now. It’s partly just me… I overthink everything. There’s no such thing as just having a bad week, or a bad day, or a bad hour. There’s always that surrounding angst: What am I doing wrong? What should I have done differently? Which of the three dozen balls I’m trying to keep in the air did I take my eye off of for a millisecond too long?

And then there’s the fatigue. To a certain extent, I’m beginning to leave that behind. The sleep-deprived haze in which I attempted to function for so many months has begun to abate somewhat; I’m not exhausted to the point of feeling half-drunk all the time. There are times I feel almost back to normal. But my reserves—emotional and physical—are nearly nonexistent. If I start feeling frisky and try to stretch the envelope, the exhaustion drags me down like a 100 lb. anchor. Like tonight. I know I will pay a heavy price for staying up past midnight when I have to be up at 6:00. But there are some things…some trade-offs I am willing to make in order to remain in contact with the outside world; to sustain a thread of my life as it was thirteen short months ago.

I have to laugh at my attempts to blog over this past year. Looking back at my posts, there is a definite pattern. It’s easy to tell when things were going well…lots of posts, even a political rant or two. When the going got rough, there were fewer posts, thrown out like SOS’s from a rapidly sinking ship. There was a time when I had an identity here in the blogosphere. A persona with which I was comfortable, and which I had no trouble maintaining—because it was, essentially, me. The "me" of that time, anyway. Then reality happened, and the ether had to take a back seat. Sort of.

But I still like it here. This is where my friends are. So I keep coming back. Even when I have barely an ounce left of…whatever it takes to maintain this relationship. It’s worth whatever it takes. Even forty-five minutes of much-needed sleep. J

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A Holiday Retrospective

I like to drive. I think while I drive. I like to listen to provocative things on the radio and let my mind chew on Big Issues. This past Independence Day, I found myself guiding my husband’s little red car through the paces of widely curving, forested Highway 30 on the way to Seaside to "do" our July 4th event; and I was tuned in to public radio.

Uninspired about the holiday itself, I preferred to anticipate the fireworks, and the picnic, and the time away from work. I couldn’t go any deeper than that. Somewhere in the course of the last seven years, mindless, enthusiastic flag-waving lost its appeal for me. The McCarthy-esque fervor that followed 9/11 put me completely off the concept of patriotism; and the hideous debacle of the Iraq War has rekindled my Vietnam-Era distaste for anything remotely connected with the military. I can’t stand at attention and, without giving them any thought, belt out the words to our impossible national anthem…that song born of war, which iconizes a scrap of cloth flapping above the carnage and surviving a night afire with rockets and bombs. I shrink from the idea that human beings can wreak such violence upon one another, and then have the audacity to immortalize it in song.

The Bush Administration policy of "attack now and come up with the reasons later" did our military, our nation, and our "Office of the President" no favors whatsoever. The President wanted a war, so he made one. On the international stage, irreparable damage has been wrought upon our national reputation. And on the home front, cries of "support the troops!" are beginning to ring false.  The Administration doesn't support them.  Why are the rest of us commanded to do so?  I have come to view our troops as an inept, ill-equipped group of "Ugly Americans," sent halfway across the world completely unprepared for a mission that was never fully fleshed-out to begin with.

So I was not really in a receptive mood when the story came on the radio. The one about the soldiers. The soldiers who wrote poetry. In particular, the soldier who wrote the poem about "The Cat." A pregnant calico appears out of the dust of battle and teaches a young man lessons about life, and the end of life, that he desperately needs to learn in order to make peace with the death he has chosen to court and cheat.

A combatant turned poet. Or perhaps it was the other way ‘round. I’ll never know. But his lovely poem, his important poem, his very personal poem, made this young man—someone I might have thought of as brainwashed beyond redemption, perhaps lacking softer human emotions like compassion—suddenly real to me. He exhibited such stark humanity that I was moved to tears.

Confused, embarrassed tears. Why was I crying?  For him? For the cat? For those legions of faceless young men and women who all at once resolved into individual faces with names, with fears and hopes and questions much like the ones with which I struggle every day.? Or maybe not so much…as I don’t live with the ever-present specter of an IED waiting behind every rock, abandoned vehicle, garbage can…or cat…in my path..

It was haunting, that poem. So much so that I think of it still, many days later. I consider all the things that it tells me. About myself. About young people caught up in events over which they have no control. About a species which could fabricate such violence, yet be so touched by the spirit of one small, incidental creature.

I won’t say there is hope for us. But perhaps there is understanding, which is the first step.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

walks in the wild

i go out
to visit the spirits
and soothe my own

he was a kestrel
and she a swallowtail butterfly

they met me
at the gate
hovered a moment
then tipped wings
and returned to heaven

Yet Another Special Day...

I shouldn't have taken today off.  I should have spent the day joyously immersed in my new life.  I should not be sitting here feeling the old hurts.

 I don’t know why I’m melancholy today. I can’t exactly look back at the past year and think it wasted, or boring, or unchallenging. It has been a great year, a year of mires and pits and lots of holes in the road and yet I have made amazing progress along that road.

But it’s my birthday. And I’m all alone. Away from my family…which is nothing new. But this is the year that the separation was completed. Those last remaining ties—the ones that were so painful and so strong, and seemed like they would never come loose—have been neglected into oblivion.  Buried under the crazy busyness of making a dream come true.

I should be happy. It doesn’t hurt anymore. At least, not every day.

Only on days like today.


Thursday, July 12, 2007

It HAS Been a Year...

That was a rough couple of weeks. Beginning with the meteoric rise and fall of Hawaiian Shirt Cook, then slogging through the last few days of Cook-in-Training #1’s three-week vacation, the last gasp of June and early days of July nearly did me in. The piece de resistance was when one of my fresh-out-of-high-school summer hires decided she no longer needed the job (apparently, the Credit Union at last came through with the full-time position for which she had been angling) and no-showed last Sunday. Necessitating a cancellation of my personal plans for my longed-for half day off, and nearly causing me to lock the doors of the restaurant in utter frustration.

Still, enough of my brain remains intact to understand that the best place to leave the crap is behind. I was determined to start this week off on a fresh, more positive note. After all, the one-year anniversary of our acquisition of this life-force-sucking black hole…um, I mean, this Lifelong Dream J …came and went during this particularly trying time. It was unfortunate, because I was in no mood to look back over the past year and analyze how far we had come. When I did visit the issue, it seemed that we had gotten nowhere at all, except a year older, fifteen pounds fatter, and well on the way to an ulcer.

Of course that is not true, and a couple of days of gliding over less tempestuous waters have put things back in the proper perspective. My two Cooks-in-Training are rising to the challenge and providing me with some opportunities to disentangle myself from the kitchen and start acting like an owner. I’m feeling almost human, having got a few nights of decent sleep, despite the withering heat of the last couple of days. I’m enjoying an actual Day Off today; the weather is pleasant, and I’m going to take my butt (and my husband’s butt) over the hill for a little shopping and dinner out this afternoon.

Now that my glasses are more rose-colored and less toxic tar-tinted, I have given myself permission to climb a ladder and look back over the past year. What I see is not what I would have expected to see after a year at the helm of my own enterprise. It just goes to show that I really didn’t have the slightest idea what I was getting into when I jumped into it, body and soul, one year ago. I’m absolutely convinced—if I had known, I wouldn’t have jumped.

But it also shows me that I have amazing resilience, for an old goat. That I still have the ability to roll with the punches, think on my feet, change direction when necessary, and make no changes that aren’t called for. I’m learning (grudgingly) the realities of the twenty-first-century American labor force, and trying to utilize them to my best advantage. There are so many intangibles…adjustments I’ve made in my heart and my mind that prove to me, at least, that I’ve grown to meet the challenge. Even though it has threatened to kick my butt, at times…

But the real proof is in the numbers, which looked absolutely dismal at the outset. Last July, I was handed the keys to a restaurant that was, basically, tanking…though I didn’t know it at the time. When I look back at the numbers, now, I understand that the previous regime had been chasing customers away in droves for months by the time I took over. The inmates were running the prison, there was no leadership, no direction, and no actual cook. And between the previous owner’s penchant for spreading too much information far and wide, and the soon-to-be-jobless manager’s disgruntled smearing of incoming ownership, we had some ponderous obstacles to overcome.

Last summer, we were fortunate if we showed less than a 25% drop in sales from the previous year. It was usually more like thirty-five to forty percent. We labored, we learned, we hired new help, we tweaked…but we didn’t get much of anywhere for many months. February was our most dismal showing. Between the grand opening of a new dinner house up the road and the natural lag in business during the winter, our numbers tumbled 20% from the previous regimes "terrible" numbers of that same month a year earlier. I look back at that and wonder how I managed to get out of bed in the morning…

But we soldiered on…what else could we do? And, with the unbelievable staffing problems I faced daily, I had no time to scheme or invent or plan ways to improve business. It was everything I could do just to open the doors every day. Open them on time, close them when they’re supposed to be closed—not a minute earlier. Get the food out, makeit good, make it fast. Get to know the few familiar faces that hung with us throughout the long, cold, winter nights. Find out what they liked, what they didn’t. Smile and shake some hands. Doesn’t sound like much of a business plan. But it seems to have worked.

March brought the turn-around. The end of the skid…the about-face. A mere 8% drop in sales from last year. And then in April and May, we missed the previous year’s sales numbers by only a couple hundred dollars each month. Were we catching up, or were they falling to meet us? I choose to believe the former…

Come June, I noticed that the sales numbers from the last ten days of the previous regime’s tenure were…missing. I strongly suspect they were so bad, they were intentionally kept from me. The performances of Mr. Previous Owner and his pissed-off manager had begun eroding the numbers a few weeks before they were supposed to, I guess. But WE had a month last month. The best sales month in the history of the restaurant since September of ’05, at which time they were still riding the edge of the Grand-Opening Wave. And July can’t help but be an upper, because our numbers were SO bad last year, we can’t help but show some amazing improvement. I could hurt myself with all of the patting myself on the back I’m going to be doing.

I’m sorry this is such a long post. But I’m not sorry I wrote it, because, to tell the truth, I hadn’t actually sat down and looked at the numbers until today. I hadn’t allowed myself to absorb how BAD the numbers had been through February, and I’d been too afraid to acknowledge how GOOD they were looking now, especially last month. So this has been a day-brightening exercise.

Thanks for sharing it with me.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

I Want to Write...

I want to write. I sit down and tap away for what seems like hours (but is actually frustrating minutes protracted by my dull, depleted brain) and end up with nothing that makes any sense—even to me.

I want to write about Scooter Libby skating out of prison with an administration "Get Out of Jail Free" card, and the GOP spin machine pointing the finger at Bill Clinton (!?) when the nation cries, "Foul!"

I want to write about country songs, right-wing radio nazis and chain emails that encourage us to "never forget" the horror of 9/11, to keep it a festering boil soothed only by hatred and vengeance. Oh, I feel horror all right…horror that there are people—legions, apparently—who believe that crap; who hang on every lying word of the administration propaganda engine as if it issued forth from the mouth of the Almighty Itself.

I want to write about being "Proud" to be an American… I was born here. My citizenship is a gift…for which I am grateful, for which I feel blessed. But proud? Is pride not named as one of the seven deadly sins? And for excellent reason, if the behavior of "proud" Americans is adequate demonstration of what pride causes people to do and be.

I want to write about the characters that people my new world: "Meals-on-Wheels" –the cafĂ© cat, and Mamie, our 94-year-old regular who drives herself to the restaurant a couple of times a week for her mushroom burger and "a few fries."

And the high-maintenance patrons whose next request, I swear, will be for us to chew their food for them…maybe digest it, too; and Dick, who comes in at least once and sometimes twice or three times a day…brings his wife from time to time, who knows I will make her soup for breakfast or a half-order of French toast (with no cinnamon!) because she reminds me so much of my own mother whom I can’t spoil because she is far away.

I want to write about more than just the excrement that regularly makes forceful contact with the oscillator.

There is so much more to my world. At least, I think there is. Yes, I’m sure there is. It is there. Somewhere…


Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Owning It

I did indeed have to terminate Mr. Hawaiian Shirt.

I arrived at work a half-hour before the start of his shift, half-thinking I might as well get an early start on the work he was not likely to show up to do.

For a hot minute, I thought I was going to dodge the bullet. I thought I had finally called something right, and that he really was going to blow me off.

But at 7:29 am, his car pulled up across the street. Sigh!

He walked up to the front door, spatula* in one hand, coffee cup in the other. (*All "real" cooks have their own personal utensils… He didn’t come with a set of fancy knives, but he did have his own perfectly-weighted, expensive grill tool…)

I pulled him aside to one of the outside tables. "We have to talk…"

Have I said how much I hate having to do this kind of thing? Hate, hate, HATE it! Did I mention that is why I had got about a half-hour of sleep the previous night?

I had purposely not rehearsed a whole scenario, because I figured it would be a waste to obsess about THAT (and I would have…) if he didn’t show up for his shift. And as it turns out, it was probably best that I hadn’t planned anything to say, because I was much more able to just…go with the flow.

It was all over in a very few minutes, and I was safely back in my kitchen feeling relieved, and yet like shit. He had been so apologetic…so willing to change. So, "Oh my gosh, I can be whatever you need me to be." Though I knew that he couldn’t—he’d demonstrated that clearly enough in the seven days he had worked for me.

In the end, the conversation was a peculiar flashback to one I’d had more than thirty years ago…the one and only time I had ever broken up with a boy (rather than being dumped.) It was the whole, "It’s not you, it’s me !" line of crap. I told him his skills were just too prodigious for our little operation (though I didn’t use that particular word—"prodigious"—since he probably wouldn’t have had the slightest idea what I was talking about.) I told him that rather than trying to change his way of doing things for us, he needed to find someplace that was bigger and busier and could really put his skills to good use.

I think he bought it. And, as a matter of fact, it was mostly the truth. I shook his hand, we parted ways; it is to be hoped, on a slightly positive note. (See, Robin? I didn’t write, "hopefully…")

But I still felt like I’d been run over by a truck…