Friday, April 22, 2011

Shaving Ice, One Hopper At a Time

My new job entails a lot of prep work, which I enjoy a great deal.  When you're a server there's side work to do that can be similar, but the biggest difference is that it's done on the side, as in while you're still waiting tables. 

In the kitchen, your attention is almost entirely on just what's in front of you.  In the dining room it's a little different. Waiting tables requires a lot more multitasking so the monotonous aspects of the side work require you to always keep your mind on your tables while you're doing it, forcing you to split your attention.  How un-Zen is that?

Now don't get me wrong, the way I did side work, at least in attitude, was altered by my practice, but it was still difficult to throw myself into cutting lemon wedges if I had to keep track of whether or not table 24's entree is up and if it was timed right that they're just finishing their appetizer so that I can use the same tray to bus those plates that I'm bringing the new food on.

In the kitchen there's a list.  It's always waiting, but nothing demands your attention more than the one item on that list you're doing now.  Everything else will be there for you when you're ready for it.  There's still a sense of urgency since you are getting paid by the hour and it's all got to be done before you can leave, but it's still just patiently awaiting its turn.

This is something I'd missed, fondly remembering assembling the collapsed boxes for chicken strips while watching the South Texas Sunset out a window at another job I held long ago.

I find myself peeling and deveining a lot of shrimp.  Today they were cooked first so I had to peel off their dorsal side and remove all the guts inside.  I noticed that as soon as I let my mind wander, what was supposed to go in the trash was going in with the shrimp, oops.  A split second was all that it took for me to make a mistake.

The restaurant I work at now serves oysters on the half shell, a lot of them.  So in anticipation for tonight's business I was asked to shave ice for their plating.  There's a sno-cone machine in the wonderfully brisk 32 degree walk in cooler where I stood for the better part of an hour cramming about a half gallon of ice at a time into the hopper and pushing down the frozen plunger.

I knew about how much I was going to need, but the cold was getting to me and my thinking mind kept going for ways of making the process go faster.  There was nothing I could do though as the hopper was only so big and it had to be loaded by hand each time.

Dishwasher and prep cook are usually the two entry level positions in a kitchen for a good reason.  The results of the work is usually taken for granted and almost always boring.  The skill level is relatively low and so is the pay.

But as I was grinding away, I wasn't reminded of the tenzo dutifully drying mushrooms in the hot sun because someone had to.  I was reminded instead of Huineng pounding away at rice for years until he realized the Truth.  I embraced it as an opportunity for enlightenment, not as just something that needed to get done.

After the first few minutes my arm and shoulder were getting tired from trying to push the plunger down from above my shoulders, so I relaxed and let my Aikido earn its keep by connecting with it and dropping my weight, letting the heaviness of my body do the work instead of my shoulder and upper arm.  This of course is connected with the breath and as I exhaled with each stroke, I saw each load as a breath and a moment in my life to be present in and enjoy.  So I did.

Every now and then that impatience popped up, prompted by the numbing cold in my fingers and diminishing amount left to do.  But I took a breath and enjoyed it, not only for the sake of enlightenment, but just because I could.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Avoidance, Pity, then Compassion

Last weekend, I went with my girlfriend to visit her parents north of San Antonio in the Hill Country for the first time in year.  Not having my parents there anymore has made getting there trickier.

For two and half years I worked on building my sail boat on their property and nearly every moment their outdoor cat was roaming somewhere just out of view.  He's very friendly and used to defend his wooded turf from other cats fiercely.

This last visit he weighed maybe two-thirds what he did last time I saw him as time is slowly wearing him down.  He's always sat outside the patio door waiting for someone to give him some food which he happily chows down on, sometimes not wanting to wait for it to get in the bowl.

I'd never really been all that affectionate with him, never seeking him out to pet, but if he came by for a stroke or two I was always happy to oblige him.  With his new condition, I was startled.  I've never had a pet die of old age and only really known of others' pets dying by accident so this was a new experience.

I wrote this in my notebook the evening after we arrived, exploring my feelings with how I felt about it:

At first I felt fear and aversion towards dealing with this poor sick and gradually dying animal.  Such a pale skeleton of the cat I remember from just a year ago.  I shrank from further divesting any emotion in something so obviously at the end of its life.  My very self hesitated to look into his tired eyes or stroke his bony body with its thinning hair.

But something changed as I gave in and went to feed him.  It was slow and is still somewhat incomplete.  The eagerness and pleasure with which he consumed this gift touched me as if it was a demonstration of gratitude for my act of kindness.

As I sat with him he placed his paws on my thigh to jump into my lap, but failed, lacking the strength and agility so stereotypical of his kind.  So instead he resigned himself to purring and rubbing my legs, doing what he could.

While nearly every cat does these things whether out of affection of self-seeking attention, this had an odd urgency about it.  It was almost as if he knows his time is running out and has surrendered that feline aloofness, instead seeking affection and graciously returning it, not letting that particular sense of ego get in the way.

I felt compelled to pet him and change his water, stopping short of, though wanting to brush what hair he has left to remove the dirt and debris.  Anything to make him more comfortable.

It's not hard to imagine this scenario with another human being instead, but it is hard to understand and accept as something other than fantasy.  For those that do these things everyday, I think I understand why a little more.

This cat has lived a very long and hard life outdoors so different from not just my own cat, but myself as well.  I'm sure I won't ever see him again after this trip, but I hope he will live on in this memory and in who I treat my own cat as well as my myself and others; living fully in the moment enjoying it for what it is no matter how fleeting while manifesting gratitude for it the whole time.  This fate comes to us all and for those who have time to see it approach , many see the truth as it truly is, not just as an idea, too late.

This very second is all we have.  The past is gone and the future is never guaranteed, but joy can still be right here, right where we are.  This is life right here, right now.
                                                                                         - 4/15/11

Monday, April 18, 2011

On the Clock Again, Finally

After nearly a year, I finally clocked into work today.  For the last two weeks I've been working on nailing down this job that I was told was a sure thing halfway through my first interview.  It's been a little bit of a rollercoaster to get it finalized as the management has been super busy, but today it was official.

My varied experience in the several jobs that I've more or less suffered through over the last 12 years will serve me well as versatility in this small kitchen is desired.  I couldn't have imagined a better fit for me.  Just to begin with the schedule is perfect, weekdays 10a-3/4p.  I'll still have time for Aikido and weekends for any obligations or activities at the Zen Center as well as weekends to spend with my girlfriend.  I have the option of picking up other shifts, but this is what they hired me for.

What I'm most excited about is seeing what effect my practice will have on job performance.  I'd just barely begun my adventure in sitting when I'd quit my last job and I'd seen a difference in how I dealt with other people and different situations but now I've been practicing intensely without the backdrop of the professional setting save the few lab classes at school and my cooking as tenzo which are a little different than "real life" kitchen work.

I'm excited to learn new things at this job and the management is excited to teach me.  It will be different than school though since I'm used to knowing more than my fellow classmates and am usually ahead of the curve.  Here I'm the only student so the pace will be faster and much more hands on.  There will be no time to fall behind.

The management is interested in food in the same ways that I am.  Learning new cuisines, techniques and ingredients isn't about knowing more than others or being cutting edge, they want to absorb the information because it's there, they want to experiment because they can.  Their explorations of vegetarian and vegan cooking is not to exclude meat but to see the things that pop up out of necessity in meatless cooking to share it with people who would otherwise shrug away from vegetarian meals.

Cooking in the Zen setting is different than professionally cooking as everyone is at least trying to keep their egos in check.  In the professional kitchen, the ego serves to get you noticed and is how you advance.  From what I've learned of this kitchen, that shouldn't be an issue as the crew is small and the management is most interested in team building so this should be a friendlier work environment.

Another thing I noticed while cleaning today is how long it's been since I spoke freely while doing kitchen work.  Zen kitchens are like zendos in that right speech functions not in total silence, but only on what is at hand.  It should be interesting to at least have the option of idle chatter to pass the time.

It's so odd, after nine months of off and on job hunting to be getting settled, that pressure is no longer there but I'm still squished from it sitting on my shoulders for so long.

Let's see what happens.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Dhamma Brothers Review and Other Stuff in My Life

Posted this review/preview of the documentary The Dhamma Brothers in preparation for the Prison Reform Film Festival this Sunday afternoon.  Read it here.

I've been asked to sit on a discussion panel after the film which will be an interesting experience.  I'll post something here about that eventually.

My plate's pretty full right now as I'm expecting to start what I hope is my dream job Monday.  I've also been making some custom meditation cushions for my Aikido teacher so that we can dive a little deeper into sharing my meditation experience with the school.

I'm also preparing menus for both a visit from Kaz Tanahashi at the end of this month and Brad Warner at the end May.  I'm hoping to spend some time with Kaz talking about his Aikido practice with O-Sensei so long ago.  Brad's visit will happen during our summer practice period when he'll conduct a 1-day sitting for the Houston Dharma Punx group.

Last weekend, I finished sewing my rakusu and presented to Vicki, our wonderful sewing teacher.  As far as I know jukai for me is scheduled along with several others May 21 during the practice period.  That'll be followed up at the end of June with our summer sesshin where I'm expecting that I'll have full control over the kitchen.

Now that some of the aspects of my life that have been drifting have anchors, I should be able to get back into my routine of posting more regularly.  Thanks for reading!