Tag Archives: philosophy

Water Chestnuts

Water chestnuts, throughout most of the American Midwest, usually come in cans. They appear as one of the many “vegetable” items in certain Asian dishes and, to the untrained palate, seem to offer little more than extra crunch to any given entree.

I like crunch, thus I like water chestnuts. To my way of thinking and in the context of Asian cuisine, water chestnuts have always been relatively mild cousins to the likes of canned bamboo shoots—positively crunchy and fairly innocuous in terms of taste.

A friend of mine tells a story from his childhood, not about canned water chestnuts but about canned peas. At the home of a relative, the hostess was in the process of serving up a side of peas (another non-vegetable vegetable) for him when he declared quite diplomatically, “I am not a pea fan.”

Spirituality
Spirituality

This simple statement, from the perspective of a child, underscores the fact that canned peas are a distant and somewhat challenged cousin—in terms of flavor and texture—to both flash frozen peas or the Vanderbilt of legumes fresh peas.

Fresh, flash frozen or canned? My own relationship with water chestnuts changed radically one year, after our family moved to a Big-Ten-University town. This university’s extensive Asian population supported not one Asian specialty supermarket—but four large, dedicated Asian grocers, where water chestnuts were flown-in regularly and could be purchased fresh.

Fresh water chestnuts are a completely different animal, as the expression goes, when compared to their canned cousins. Fresh water chestnuts are incredibly nutty, with a delightful depth of flavor that is not replicated in any other “vegetable” I know. And, they are crisp and ungrainy—like some of the very best fall, apple varieties. I fell in love. Who knew that an issue of processing could so radically change the nature of a simple “vegetable”—water chestnut or pea?

In thinking about this issue of changed states with processing—whether meeting a food item for the first time or, in a cataclysmic mental leap, acquainting ourselves with the personality of an individual for the first time—I wonder about what we are actually experiencing when we encounter something or someone who is not in their most authentic state of Being—not fresh.

It could be that the person we are encountering for the first time has been flash frozen by life circumstances. Flash frozen is close to fresh, but it is not fresh. And, life processing is going to change the metaphorical flavor, texture, appearance and nutritive value of any sentient being.

Or, what if—after ten years of being “canned” in the pressure cooker of her parents’ home—the hardened child has had the natural vibrancy drained from her character and/or her contributory capacities compromised to the extent that she causes problems in a classroom?

I bring this up because, when we come to encounter that person on the street who makes us want to turn away, we must behave like we know that that person is relating to the world in a processed state. Each of us should be wondering or at least curious about what another person (or we) might be like, if he (we) were able to return to an unprocessed, fresh state.

A canned water chestnut or pea can never turn back into a fresh version of itself. And, yet, the miraculous thing about people is that there are opportunities in every one of our lives to do just that—to become fresh, authentic, true. But that journey of reverse processing, if you will, in order to return to one’s freshest state is sometimes a long, challenging or seemingly impossible.

So, we need to be here for one another—with patience, kindness, good listening skills and compassion. Each one of us is in possession of a depth and breadth and set of  gifts, our unique flavors, which would benefit us all, if only they could be tasted and shared.

The Kitchen Door Effect & the Spirit

“The monster on table six with his tight-wad wife and bratty kids doesn’t look like he’s going to tip tonight,” Tina’s smoke-seasoned voice cracks the peace of a smoothly running kitchen machine with her crude complaint.

The padded door, upholstered in leather, is still swinging between the kitchen and dining room.  I feel my heart seize with the harsh tone of her words and delivery.  My stomach follows reactive suit with the social inappropriateness and radical shift in her personality.  Moments ago, I stood two tables away from Tina as she billed and cooed over the same four people.

“What a little gentleman and young lady we have here,” she syruped over the children.  “How old are they?  You two look like you should be on a date. You can’t be old enough to have children.”

This is my third or fourth seasonal stint as a server.  Waiting tables is one of the best short-term positions for earning reliable money during college summers.

Spirituality
Spirituality

This particular restaurant is the most exclusive place I have ever served, featuring a full lakefront view and a classic American dining menu (e.g. steak and lobster).  The regulars are fewer in number, while the more pervasive, non-regular clientele comes to celebrate special occasions.  It is an event for people who dine here.  Tables with children are exceptions.  And, although I am accustomed to some degree of back chat in restaurant kitchens—where frustrated servers occasionally let off steam—this place raises the bar on contradictions when I consider my previous working environments.  It also has more “lifers”—the term applied to wait staff who are not using this form of employment to transition into other lines of work.

Looking to return to my internal equilibrium I think, “They are paying guests.  Don’t they deserve better treatment?”  There is no way for me to put this question to Tina or for her to hear what is going on in my head.  As a junior server, I am in no position to vocalize anything to turn the situation around.  So, I swallow what has been dished up, returning to the dining room while acknowledging, in compassionate fairness to Tina, the fact that she has been on staff for years.  I have not.  She is burned-out.  I am not.  Still, the environment is toxic.  I feel like an egg in a carton of cracked, borderline personalities.

Trying to keep things light in my internal world, I amuse myself with the following silent observation, “Maybe this is why I am now working next to the only padded  kitchen-to-dining-room door I have ever encountered in the ‘hospitality’ industry.”  The trained pedagogue in me would simply send everyone for a long counseling retreat.

Choosing to move on, I remain at the lakeside restaurant only a short time.  But, the experience gives me a clear picture of what I term the Kitchen Door Effect, where things are one way in the dining room (exterior) and another way in the kitchen (interior).  This phenomenon exists—to some degree or another— in virtually every industry, circumstance and personality I have encountered.  Additional life experience causes me to note that the more exclusive or carefully polished an exterior appearance is the greater the gap (or heavier the door) may be between the two realms.

I cannot turn the clock back to adjust working conditions at that restaurant.  Neither can I improve the mental health of the personalities I met there nor was it my place to do so.  What I do have the ability to address is the integration between the kitchen and dining room aspects of my own personality.  And, in terms of a single personality, there is far more than one door or two realms at play.

Doors are what separate us from our highest Light, the sacred Self.  In truth, our external world is only as unified in the Light as our discrete internal world.  This is one of the primary teachings that restaurant position provided.  To work on removing these doors, over time, is to become whole, gracious, kind and compassionate, while growing in the knowledge that each living creature possesses a divine Light of its own.  So, no matter what the external appearances, concerns, attachments, fiscal arrangements or social structures may be in a given situation, we have the opportunity to unify our personality around our highest Light.  This is a tall order requiring commitment, bravery and tenacity.

So, while I cannot change the falseness of certain social environments or the craziness in the kitchen environments of the world, I am focusing on “unhinging” my own bent toward duality and contradiction—searching out and removing my own doors—in favor of table-side food preparation with a full view of the Lake.

The Dalai Lama, Spirituality & Pilgrimage

When I enter the cosmetology school, the young woman who greets me wears a baseball cap covering her closely cropped hair.

“It looks like we are well matched,” I comment.

“Do you want a Mohawk?” her face brightens with surprise.

“No, not a Mohawk, but I need my hair cut close to my head, except for the very front. I need to be able to wear a head scarf around town without having to answer questions. I am preparing to see the Dalai Lama in a few weeks.”

Newly covered by a fresh apron and with my neck snugly encircled by tissue-paper and the apron’s neckband, my student barber begins fishing through her drawer of possibilities. She is lamenting that she rarely, if ever, gets to go on any adventures. Then, her head pops up.

“How about an eighth of an inch?” she queries with the clippers already in her hand.

“Let’s do it.”

“I’ll give you the full barbershop treatment—with a hot towel.”

The metal blades on the clippers grow searingly hot, cutting through my hair. The top of my now naked ear meets with them once, which is enough. After she finishes, I comment on my long side curls.

“Yes, but to make it an authentic cut for Yeshiva School, I would have to clip your bangs off as well. I’m from New York. I grew up next to the largest Jewish community in the country. I plan to go back after I’m finished here and give haircuts kind of like yours.”

Moving to the sink to rinse away the clippings that evaded her assertive brushing, I experience an incredible lightness at leaving all of that hair behind. I feel closer to being ready to travel. The freedom and joy I feel at the loss of my hair makes me wonder, “Where does a person’s strength lie?” For me at least, dakini power is not found in a pile of hair.

Spirituality

My mind trips home to the book on my nightstand, Michaela Haas’ Dakini Power. It is waiting to be finished, another component in the preparations for my trip. With my hair rinsed, I watch as the student barber swings the steaming towel rhythmically through the air.

Water particles form billowing clouds. Next, my face is swathed in the moist folds of the towel. I rest with my thoughts: questions of strength, of things sacred and acts of devotion. Too soon my warm skin meets with the cold air of the school’s salon, and I am back in my own chair at the student’s station.

“You are going to meet the Dalai Lama?” the cosmetology school’s instructor asks quietly and respectfully. Reverence and awe are embedded in the tone of his voice and the question itself. Taking a seat in the empty barber’s chair adjacent to my own, I realize I have become part of the salon’s game of telephone.

My going to see the Dalai Lama has turned into meeting the Dalai Lama. I explain to the instructor that my haircut is an act of devotional preparation for going to hear the Dalai Lama speak. I am engaging in a ritual act of respect for my ensuing pilgrimage.