Monday, February 9, 2015

A Love in Colours: Yellow

The blinding yellow sun cast an almost fluorescent glow upon the world around them. They walked, hand-in-hand, illuminated, almost as if in a dream. The sun, so bright on this early morning, embraced the two of them with in its yellow warmth as if to protect them and guide them. As if moving through a jar of golden molasses, he squeezed her hand as they ventured forth as if in slow motion into this highlighted dream, their reality, their future.

He was running after his buddies in the busy playground on one of those warm July afternoons that reminded him that summer was here. Everywhere there were kids laughing and playing, and amidst all of the arms and legs and glowing hair, he was aware of the girls on the swings in a way he never had been before. Up until that moment he had seen them as too complex or emotional or partronizing to try to figure out, but today something about them caught his eye, although it very well could have been his allergies acting up. He rubbed his eye. Of the three girls, the taller one with the long hair and braces was the boldest and increasingly the subject of conversation among the boys that made him blush though that could also have been allergies, while the shorter one had amazing naturally curly blonde hair and a sarcastic wit to match that she must have spent hours honing in front of a small gathering of adults in her living room every Tuesday at 7:30 for $2 a head. But for some reason, he found himself strangely drawn to the quiet, average, mostly non-descript girl in the middle who was spending a disconcerting amount of time twirling her hair out of either nervousness or boredom or a just overwhelming desire to twirl hair as her small way of giving back to society. He was racing after his friends trying to catch them, joking that he was going to either tickle them or trap them in a cage and feed them a diet of worms and leaves which was turning into a running theme in both his art work and journal writing that was starting to slightly concern his teachers and at the same time he just couldn't keep his eyes off of this young, plain 12 year old girl on the swings and he wanted to spend time with her for reasons he wasn't at all aware of at this point but which could include planning ahead for needing something twirled in the near future, a conscious decision to diversify his friendship group to include females and a wider array of ethnic and cultural groups and as a shot-in-the-dark potential treatment for the rapid palpitations he felt in his heart whenever he saw her. 

She knew he was watching her and her first reaction was somewhere between revulsion and joy except she wasn't at all sure where on that spectrum it lay. Not that he wasn't cute in that way that only pre-teen boys could be, and it was not that he wasn't exciting and daring in a way that her parents had expressly stated she was not allowed to be and it was not that she wasn't thrilled that he kept looking her way and almost repeatedly running head first into trees and playground equipment which she happened to oddly find quite attractive. Her friends swinging with her had already caught the eyes of boys and were gaining a confidence from that that she wanted to cram a sock into but she was always forgetting to pack extra socks in the morning. He was cute and he did like her and she briefly contemplated giving him a sign that she noticed, like a wave, or a bat of an eyelash or a roughly choreographed tap routine as she ran out of time to rehearse it enough last night because she had to study for her spelling test. Her friends made some comment about the boys, but she didn't hear it as she was lost in her thoughts about him. At least this was a reasonably enjoyable experience being lost somewhere she decided as opposed to all of the other times that seemed to involve deciduous trees. He wasn't the first boy who had looked her way and he wasn't the first boy she had considered seeking counselling support for, but there was just something about him and she couldn't put her finger on it at least not without drawing attention. She had never felt this way before, and while it was a strange and odd feeling, she was drawn to it and wanted more and more of it. Yes, her friends may laugh and others may talk, but she had to take the next step, whatever that was for a shy, quiet 12 year old girl who had never done something as bold as talk to a boy in public before aside from the time she kissed the mounted police horse on the mouth during the parade on Main Street.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Restaurant: Part 2

This is part two of three pieces documenting my nine years working in the restaurant industry. If you missed the first part it can be found here: The Restaurant: Part 1

I worked at the restaurant from the age of 15 to 23 under various club managers, food and beverage assistant managers and head chefs and this is the heavily-anticipated second part in a non-fictional, yet partially dramatized mostly for my own enjoyment, three-part series about my first job in my often-semi-fictional life. I use the term 'heavily-anticipated' in the hope that those of you who are reading don't mind me assigning you a certain level of anticipation - those that know me are used to it. And I refer to my life as 'semi-fictional' as the lines have been blurred so often and so consistently as to make the what-qualifies-as-fiction-or-nonfiction line somewhat permanently skewed or at least hard to even qualify as a line any longer unless you are farsighted.

In my nine years at the restaurant, I was a busboy, dishwasher, cashier, line cook, bartender and assistant chef as well as playing a poor boy on crutches who would sing for his supper if time allowed. I worked with so many really compelling and interesting characters. and while these years are so far in the distant past, I still vividly remember the people and the stories probably thanks to Dr. Hong and her rapid eye-movement therapy. I'm not sure why but the restaurant I worked at attracted such amazing characters which is even more impressive due to the application process which mostly involved an empty tin can and some assorted-sized paper weights. Even though the work was unusually arduous and often psychologically mind-numbing, the people were so unique and entertaining that they helped the hours pass by which they continue to do at present day.

All of the following stories are true, albeit retold in my voice that is often a bit scratchy and phlegmy this time of the year, but feels quite soothed after a nice cup of apple cinnamon tea. In fact, that gives me a wonderful idea! Tea please! Not that the original stories wouldn't hold up on their own, but I did just go out and buy a huge amount of the tea and...that didn't make much sense now did it? Look, I have to editorialize and make things "funny" or else I may as well be a monkey typing away and not even one of those hyper-intelligent-could-be-easily-confused-for-a-smart-grade-four-monkeys - I'm talking regular monkey here. As in my last piece on The Restaurant, I have opted to abandon the common convention of changing the names to protect the innocent as February is "Opt to Abandon Common Convention" month around the Paley house. Let me tell you, it is one exciting month culminating in the roasting of a suckling pig purely for the excuse to type the word suckling twice in this sentence

After spending the first few years as a dishwasher and busboy and being subjected to a constant stream of demands often barked out lacking even the smallest amount of euphemistic language, I was upgraded to cashier where I was still subjected to demand, just by far fewer people, and, as an added bonus, I now got to be the one inflicting pain and anguish, often euphemistic, on the young dish pigs and busboys. 

What do you think, reader, did I? Now, before you answer that, there have been so many examples of post-colonial age countries  where those who were prevoously treated so poorly, once given the reigns, became no better than the previous tortuous regime. Well, I was better than that- many of the young guys were my friends. I was cut from the same figurative cloth as them as well as spending our afterwork hours drinking sparkling apple juice, eating over seasoned curly fries and cutting strips of actual cloth for some arts and crafts to unwind with after a busy dinner rush where only arts and crafts involving scissors could relax us. And, very recently, I was also once one of them - I once dripped sweat as they did, I once cried inside barely holding on to my composure as they did; I once tried deep-frying random food objects out of boredom/science as all of us did once upon the time if bored enough and in front of a deep fry lacking supervision. I would never betray or forget where I came from, unless I was offered a huge signing bonus and at least one dog of a rare breed.

Long had I yearned to be a cashier and once in the position I made a mental note to go see my family doctor to ensure whatever made me yearn wasn't permanently out of whack. Don't get me wrong, it was far better than dishwashing or bussing, in that I was no longer being bossed around by everyone, but being a cashier wasn't the top rung on the ladder I was climbing. The top rung of this made up ladder was either permanently obscured by clouds or still to be built. My ascension to cashiering was a welcome move for all of the dishwashers and busboys as they felt that they had one of their own on the inside; someone who would look out for them and reduce the verbal abuse. There was only so much I could do as the cooks were in charge and they had no patience for anything; it was almost if they were bullfrogs who wanted more flies now! You don't want to mess with angry bullfrogs I found out the hard way the summer before last when I just bothered the wrong frog on the wrong day about both the expanded size of his cheeks and how my sister jumps further than him (totally a guess on my part and I thought he could tell I was being sarcastic but how was I supposed to know I accidentally selected the one gullible and sensitive l frog?) 

I was settling down into my new role dealing directly with often irate and impatient customers,working with the hard-of-hearing, English-language-challenged, constantly-in-pain-face-due-to-the-combination-of-not-quite-understanding-my-order-and-the-accumulation-of-not-understanding-orders-and-pain-both-real-and-imagined line cooks. I saw myself as part translator, part deep fryer and turning-bread-into-toast specialist, and the link between the older generation cooks and the youthful rough-around-what-few-edges-they-had-since-they-didn' busboys and dishwashers. 

Just as I was feeling comfortable and in a groove, the management decided that sweeping changes were necessary and I'm not talking about repainting the kitchen walls a different and less offensive shade of beige- no, the kitchen was changing from a cafeteria-style menu to something slightly more elegant (with elegant being completely the wrong adjective bordering on neglect on my part) complete with an actually trained head chef, a food and beverage manager and a massive upgrade in kitchen equipment, staff training and a wider array of hats and matching warm up jackets. While not everyone liked the changes and not all of the members wanted to shell out the higher prices for better food and service, on the whole the moves were positive. Under-performing employees were turfed (rumour is that the manager had to take those fired on a long bus ride complete with three transfers to find sufficiently green enough turf as his car was in the shop and it had been a surprisingly dry fall.) I survived, what with my can-do spirit and my ability to roll with the punches, mostly because the punches thrown either missed a huge majority of the time or were delivered with a smile. I am such a sucker for a nice smile even if it occurs while I am being punched.

So, out went the old cooks and in came Michael, our first culinary school-trained chef. It was clear from the start that things were going to be different. To start, Michael was friendly and respectful - it was so weird as we were used to being treated horribly by the previous cooks. Michael actually seemed to care about us as people and wanted to earn our respect. For the honeymoon period of his reign spirits were lifted and great food was produced. Unfortunately, honeymoons are not meant to last and once we all returned from that amazing romantic trip down to Cabo complete with tans, bug bites and slight emotional scars, the kitchen staff settled into their old roles with the new set of expectations. We learned the new procedures, the new menu items and the new methods for our prep. It wasn't as if the new ways were harder to comprehend, but it was just that everyone was being held to a much higher standard as the kitchen was attempting to become more fine-dining by any means necessary including high treason and cycling under duress.

What became clear to all, was that although Michael was clearly well trained and a good chef, he was quite lacking in a number of other key areas, with the main ones being leadership and delegation. It was clear that he could cook, but he insisted on doing everything himself to the extreme of forcibly tying all of our shoe laces and responding for us when he asked as questions which made for some comically nonsensical conversations in a busy kitchen. He just had a really hard time splitting up the various tasks in the kitchen and I never thought it was because he didn't trust us, but more that he had no concept of either the word trust or it's meaning. Not to say that he didn't assign us jobs - I remember one time he had me peeling potatoes for what seemed like hours because it was and when I was done he not only refused to give me credit but he stood frozen over the bucket of recently-peeled potatoes and then had me attempt to reattach the peels as he felt some remorse. 

He insisted on perfection and would attempt to motivate us using bizarre tactics that were equal parts cliche and French. And we did work hard for our chef and for the new management, although after hours we created improv scenes that were intelligently satirical about those who were leading us. From day 1, Michael's command was doomed to fail. He ordered the priciest ingredients, expected the highest level of cooking and was unable to mold us into the team he needed to carry out his plan. He didn't train the staff to carry out his expectations and instead we were akin to a body with a head that wasn't totally attached and badly in need of either severing or some sort of elective surgery but only if the head was going to agree to treat the body as somewhat equals which up-to-the moment hadn't been true.

While the patrons were loving the new menu and cuisine and praise was lavished upon us daily, inside the bowels of the kitchen we were hemorrhaging money and Michael was burning bridges both actual miniature models of famous bridges throughout the world that was quite a nice collection and confusing why he wanted to take the effort to lug them to work considering how busy we were only to burn them and also figuratively with the staff. He never figured out that he needed us until it was too late. I'll never forget the look on his sad face the day he left and his tired, slumped body and perfectly coiffed hair that was o-so-French as he walked slowly away from the kitchen the last time over a perfectly-selected piano and violin concerto. The whole thing was like a scene out of a movie which, on second thought, it might have been.

With Michael gone, his second in command Drew, was placed in charge. Drew was a fun guy who was nearly the antithesis of his predecessor. While Michael was a strict perfectionist who wanted to do everything himself, Drew was super relaxed and looking to be a team player and one of the guys. Drew always meant well, but he was seriously lacking in the leadership category and the ability to organize himself or others. Drew was flat out organizationally challenged and would have been a hilarious character on a sitcom with the situations he painted himself into. For starters, we were constantly either running out of food items or having way too much which rendered even the most calm service crazy - "what do you mean we have no romaine for Caesar's Salad, we just opened?!?", "Why do we need a bucket full of Alfredo sauce - that would last a month if it wasn't going to expire sooner!?!?", "do we really need 5 pounds of tripe?"

And yet Drew was such a smiley, fun, lovable, mustachioed guy who just wanted to make everyone happy. He would often stop in the middle of the busiest evenings and have a long animated conversation with a customer while flames rose and plates crashed behind him. He would have a gleam in his eye as he made fun of another kitchen worker almost as if he was intentionally trying to distract you from the task at hand. But, no one, including management or customers who, on multiple occasions, received the wrong meal, could stay angry with him for long as he had a disarming smile and laugh that made everyone feel as if they were in on some sort of joke or prank. When he would lose track of how many specials he had remaining, or how many prawns go with the pasta or how to do inventory without a series of elementary-level pictograms all he would have to do is twirl his mustache and playfully wink and then all would be forgotten. He comped tons of meals when mistakes were made and he created the most amazing (and free) staff dinners. He never blamed anyone for anything he was involved in and he loved joking around even in the heat of a busy kitchen on a busy evening. I loved Drew and he was the first chef who started allowing me to cook an occasional dish thus allowing me to eventually transition into being an assistant chef. His lackadaisical and carefree personality was not the best for a hectic restaurant and he made things more complicated than he had too, but he was a gas to be around and to work with and I was sad to see him go.

But he had to go.

It was inevitable. The kitchen was losing more money than before mostly because Drew was so comically bad with numbers and keeping track of things not to mention all of the food that was either wasted or given away. I remember the morning he trained me to make hollandaise and I whisked hot, melted butter into bowl after bowl of eggs over boiling water until I got it right. I eventually learned, but was glad I didn't have to show the trash to any chickens or cows that day as they may have felt even more inner conflict than they already did. I often wished that he could have brought in his new casual and friendly vibe into the kitchen that Michael did not have, while also being in charge and financially responsible, but Drew could only be Drew. 

We all braced ourselves for who would be next as management everywhere tries to hire what they think the kitchen or their business needs. What did we need, we wondered in advance? With the hiring of Carl, it turned out that we needed someone who could both relate to the staff as well as hold as all accountable. Of course! That is what we needed, we said as we slapped each other on the back while walking slowly on the beach creating a picture perfect for the cover of some soon-to-be-out-of-print local magazine. Carl was a great balance between Michael and Drew; he had the drive and focus of Michael with the humour and ability to make relationships of Drew. And, unlike either of them, he was a combination of extreme confidence, brutal sarcasm and patient teacher. He expected a lot of hard work from the rest of us and we, at least initially, dove into our positions with a new-found focus. For starters, Carl was on it financially and he immediately scrapped the old menu and designed both a new ordering system as well as a new menu in an effort to greatly reduce the amount of waste and increase profits all the while wearing the starchiest white chef's jacket, mesmerizingly checkered pants and tallest hat imaginable. 

Life under Carl was not great for all of the staff as some of the busboys and dishwashers were literally and figuratively kicked in the butt and made to actually really work hard. Under Drew, dirty fry pans could sit in the dish pit for hours and he would either improvise, say we were "sold out" of the items that were cooked in that pan or wouldn't notice as he was laughing and distracted talking to a customer who had bought him a drink. If Carl threw a dirty pan towards the dishwasher, he expected it back faster than a person could conceivably return it, especially considering that the person in question has either half-asleep, hungover,  or pre-occupied with his Dungeons & Dragons characters that were in peril. 

Those that were constantly behind were bombarded with an endless, unique and often off-colour stream of sarcasm that was most likely meant to motivate. Those that shaped up and worked hard, like myself, were not totally immune to the playfully-harsh joking, but I was able to confidently give him back some of his own medicine as I was bolstered by both his reactions and his giving me more and more responsibilities as well as my sneaking into his work locker and stealing small amounts of his medicine. Carl and I became buddies and were quite the odd couple. He was a chain-smoking, beer-guzzling, take-no-prisoners-smart ass and I was a male equivalent of Heidi. But we had so many fun days at work in the heat of that kitchen; he the brazen, egotistical, maybe-we-should-either-question-his-judgement-or-sanity-and-are-you-guys-free-to-discuss-the-pros-and-cons-of-mutiny-this-Thursday-after-breakfast general and I was his bespectacled, Rubik's Cube-solving, nerdy-looking, when's-the-last-time-you-used-a-comb lieutenant. After work, we invariably shared a meal, a pint or two, a game of pool and I was exposed to a tremendous amount of humour that a boy of my innocent upbringing had never been exposed to before. Imagine dipping a white or tan piece of paper into a vat of red paint. If it helps, you can actually go ahead and buy the paper and the paint if you are more of a hands-on learner. 

The kitchen flourished. Our profits were there highest ever and customers and management could not have been happier unless someone gave them a spontaneous kiss on the cheek and tended to their owies. The new menu was smart, well-priced and we were turning out some tasty food. After a few years of being a cashier, I was very proficient at the position. I had the menu items memorized inside and out and I also could quickly recall member numbers before they told me, but I was growing increasingly bored with the repetition. Thankfully, Carl had slowly been giving me more and more responsibilities for some time due to my job performance and our friendship and possibly because I was extorting him for money and had kidnapped his dog.....scratch that last part, probably better you don't know. It was Carl's idea to start to train me as a cook and, when he thought I was fully ready and wouldn't burn the food, myself or the restaurant down, he went to the manager and asked for me to be moved out of cashiering and to be hired as a cook. I was nervous, thrilled and tired as I'd had a particularly late night the previous day. I was actually going to be cooking in a real kitchen?!? I was as proud as a young man could be in that day and age without getting egged. I also occasionally was egged.

But I was on my way up again.

to be continued in Part 3....

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Stop Being Such a Princess!

When people tell me to stop being such a princess, it only makes me dig in and resolve to be even more of a princess tomorrow.

I have been told that if I am not following anyone I won't see anything and I counter by continuing to stare into the abyss.

Interestingly, people that claim they are too cool to dance almost always create the most stylish fruit platters.

Yes, I will continue to split hairs all evening, or split all hairs this evening, or split the evening up by recreating hairdos from different eras.

I was raised to believe that there is no such thing as too much leavening in unleavened bread. I was also raised to never look up the word leavening in the dictionary.

I can't stop monitoring my daughters while they sleep which has kept them safe but has drastically effected both mine and my wife's sleep as to collect and analyze the data I had to convert our bedroom into a high-tech work space complete with....

Since I was a little boy I have been told that "you are what you eat" and I know! Thank you peanut butter, pickle, cheese and banana sandwiches I owe everything to you (plus you've been such a great friend all of these years as well)!

I have been known to sharpen pencils obsessively, never quite being satisfied with the level of sharpness obtained.

I am always hearing the sound of hands clapping off in the distance growing louder and louder, almost as if I am a prize fighter coming down the tunnel with glittered confetti raining down on me from the rafters except that I am actually just sitting in my room playing with stuffed animals that are acting really immaturely.

I want to bake a loaf of bread that is so dense, so heavy, so thick that it nearly collapses into itself, but not quite.

I sometimes wonder if the only reason I am always melting wax onto my arms and legs causing burns and welts is because of the huge amount of wax I was given on my 25th birthday.

I am so fortunate that the symptoms I have are so asymptomatic that my doctor dropped everything he was doing and gave me a standing ovation.

To speed things up, I have decided to only read every fifth word in my book, which helps me complete the required reading much faster and greatly increases the chance of me completely misunderstanding the intent and focus of the author. For example, the spring I read a book that appeared from it's cover to be on tending flower gardens in the Pacific Northwest, but came across much more pro-fascist with a hint towards using flowers as a means towards repressing the masses.

I can imagine that cows must feel ultra-weird when they walk down the dairy aisle at the store and at least slightly conflicted when they enjoy the milk and cheese they bought as secretly as they could.

I really want to click an actual mouse.

I really want to find more opportunities in life to utilize my brining skills outside of making olives as my wife's tolerance for having many nooks and crannies in our house filled with jars and jars of olives is running thin to say the least.

I love indirect contact not because it is safe (which it is) and not because I have slightly sweaty hands (I do) and not because I am afraid of actual contact with other human beings as just one more example of being slightly paranoid and antisocial (I'm not), no, I love indirect contact because of the beautiful and stunning abstract art that naturally is derived from it.

I often go against my best judgement as part of a mostly imagined agreement I have made with the judge who is actually my roommate who just enjoys wearing black robes wherever he goes.

When I choose to share my toys with others, the joke is actually on them because what they don't realize is that the stock in the toy company has recently plummeted rendering these used toys mostly worthless outside of any misplaced sentimentality which is easily countered by my rental fee which is bordering on usury.

They say that no man is an island, but I beg to differ as I am fairly certain that "they" have no idea who I really am.