Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Potential for Praise

"There is a couple in the lobby asking to speak to a manager."

I don't recall who exactly delivered these words to me in the kitchen last night, but whoever it was had to do so with a mixture of honest pain and guilty pleasure. The pain comes from knowing that this can't be good news for me and whomever the complaint is going to be about--that's being honest; the pleasure derives from that feeling we all get when we witness someone else's misery--hence the guilt.

I know what was going through the heads of all the waiters who heard the remark (except for the messenger): "That's got to be my table..."

Now, you'd like to think that we take care of all our customers in such a way that they could never, hopefully would never--complain. And yet when we hear the word that a guest is in the lobby with a complaint that requires the attention of the manager, we all quickly run the through the list--hopefully not a lengthy one--of the mistakes we've made with which tables and quickly calculate the odds of it being "one of mine".

As I left the kitchen, I even heard two waiters say something like "Oh that's probably mine..." as if this would lessen the likelihood of that being the case or mitigate the consequences if it actually is.

No matter. As the Manager, all the tables are mine. So, too, are the complaints. Now, to be fair, a complaint is not what I am forced to endure every--or even most--time I get the call to appear before a customer in the lobby. In fact, more often than not, it is a compliment, not a complaint that I am going to receive.

Sometimes, customers feel that the service they received was so good that even a sizable tip is not sufficient reward for the waiter. They feel compelled go to tell the manager about how good the service was because they value the experience so much that they want to share it, not simply reward it.

Happy customers can tell the waiter this of course, but by calling attention to the manager, the patrons feel as if they've done as the waiter just did for them, going above and beyond what is necessary. Now, if you ask me, good waiters do this for reasons that have more to do with the kind of person they are than the size of the tip that they expect. And the customer is right about one thing: the waiter won't get a lot of praise because, well, the tip is supposed to say it all.

There is an old saw that says that leaving a single penny on the table after the bill has been taken is a sign of exceptional service, but often it's just a penny that never got properly scooped up. No obscure symbol that that will really do, because the customer who wants to go the extra distance will almost certainly take the time to ask for the manager and tell him or her all about it.

So too, with even more certainty, will the customer at the other end of the spectrum--the complainer--take the time to tell the manager all about it.

This is precisely what was on my mind as I took a deep breath, moderated my resolve with a smile and headed for the lobby. I had no real reason to think it was going to be a complaint necessarily; just a good old 'gut' feeling. Man, I hate that feeling.

Now, this particular complaint was about gluten, and if I thought that the subject of the conversation was particularly important to this story, I would relate the details. But the details are not important to this thought. I want to address the mechanics, if you will, about receiving and processing a customer complaint.

While admittedly a work in progress, this method is born of hard won experience. Make no mistake about it: the proper response to a customer's complaint is critical for a restaurant's continued success.

There's an old saying that someone who's had a good time at your restaurant will tell three people, and one who's had a bad experience will tell ten. It's quite true. Think of your own experiences. When have you taken the time and effort to complain, and what did you expect? In other words, why did you complain?

I have to digress here to talk about the motives people seem to have for complaining. Ironically, I feel that just as we saw with the folks who take the time and effort to compliment their waiter, the folks who complain do so because they are considerate and caring about the restaurant.

Well, most of the time, anyway. I have had several--and this isn't a failure to disclose, for we just don't get many complaints of this variety, honestly--people tell me that I have to "fire" this or that waiter for this or that reason. I don't give this person, nor what they say much credence because their complaint is so crudely formed that it doesn't give me anything to work with, but I do listen and, where necessary respond with something non-confrontational but rational and hopefully, in defense of the restaurant.

On this last point, I'll be brutally honest. I don't care about the welfare of the waiter--especially when being harangued by an angry customer--but I do care about the welfare of the restaurant. By this I mean that I have no hesitation in calling a waiter to task, but I won't trash him or her or the restaurant just for the sake of making the customer happy.

I'll do everything in my power to make them happy. Of course, I apologize, but not excessively. Once or twice is enough. I'll say we'll do our best next time and that "you won't have that waiter" or "that dish prepared that way" again, but I won't say bad things in general about the chef or the waiter. I'm not going to stoop to name calling,and customers who do so are, in my mind, people to be heard but not to be reasoned with.

So, hearing them out is important, no matter who is complaining or what they are going on about. If the complainant is not being bellicose nor unreasonable, I will listen. More often than not, I am inclined to agree with them on the surface of things. They are usually right. So, I will be nodding my head as they talk, making sure to let them spill it all out the first time.

This is in itself not an easy task. It is quite tempting to dive in to 'explain' or 'defend' each point of criticism. I have the gathering sense that if I don't at least attempt to refute them point-by-point, I will miss a point or fail to address the complaint comprehensively.

This, however, is a false sense of logic, for in fact, it is better to allow the complainant have their say first, as fully and extensively as I am able. I say this because if this conversation is held at the end of the night, when it is fairly calm, I'll have plenty of time to absorb the initial blows and still keep working. If, however, the complaint is in the middle of the rush, it becomes harder by, oh, at least an order of magnitude to keep from simply interrupting at the first point--sensible or not--made.

The words, "Yes, but..." are struggling to escape from my lips. I deliberately avoid this phrasing as I force myself to wait. I must first allow the complainant to expend their initial energy in explanation.

Then, as I discern first the exact nature and reason for their complaint, I begin to work out in my head a scenario, filling in the details around the edges. I quickly deduce where they were sitting, what they ate, and, most importantly from my standpoint, when I learn this is not a complaint about the food but about the service, who the waiter was.

Nine times out of ten, just knowing who the waiter is will explain why the folks are complaining, regardless of the actual circumstances. It's true, of course, some waiters are just more likely to be complained about than others. Since being a waiter is in many way the same as being a stage actor, if the strength of the performance is not there on any give night, the audience will know. The first thing I tell waiters who get complaints and say, "But I was really nice to them!" is this:

"If you were really so very nice to them, them," I say, "Then they wouldn't have complained. The fact that they took the time to complain is proof, in and of itself, that they saw through your act."

So, I tell them to abandon the line "But I did everything I could" and start thinking about where and when the performance they were giving failed. At some point, like being in a bad play, their audience refused to suspend their disbelief. This confuses bad waiters--who don't see themselves as actors-- but it gets the good ones to thinking.

At this point, after hearing the complaint, I am thinking about how to best resolve the conversation and, quite frankly, get these folks on their way in a reasonable frame of mind and a reasonable amount of time.

This is where the art of compromise comes in. Clearly, we have differing ideas on how long the confrontation should take place. The complainant may be willing to go for twenty minutes or more, and the manager--speaking from personal experience--would love nothing more than for the whole thing to be over in about ten seconds. So somewhere between ten seconds and twenty minutes, there is a magic number. When and how it is reached is different every time, but the mechanics are fairly regular.

After hearing the complaint, the manager then has to explain what went wrong and promise some sort of action to repair the damage done. The first part of this resolution process is particularly tricky to navigate, for the natural tendency to defend one's colleagues and livelihood is hard to overcome.

It's unbelievably tempting to say that it wasn't even a mistake and that the customer is the one who is in the 'wrong'. It's also remarkably easy to avoid the temptation by imagining how we feel when someone tries to tell us that is is us, not them who are in the wrong. No logic in the world will prevail after such a gambit, and we know it from personal experience.

So, admitting that a 'wrong was done'--if I may adopt that most Reaganesque neutral phrasing--is the place to begin, even if we don't ultimately admit that anyone in particular did anything in particular wrong.

As I said, I apologize, but not excessively. I start by admitting that yes, the customer is right. Then, I move to the more nuanced position that, while we did all we could, the mistake still seems to have happened. This allows for the possibility that we didn't make it on purpose, and that our aims are not necessarily nefarious.

In other words, I want to let the people know that even though what happened can indeed happen, we are not in business to displease people. I mean really.

This is, then, the ultimate message I try to leave with people who are complaining: "It happens that, even and especially in the course of trying to please people, we occasionally fail. When we do, there is nothing to be said or done other than that we will try hard not to repeat the mistake."

The message is, I hope, a transparent one. While I really do regret that some people have not been pleased by our efforts, best or not, it is worth realizing that at that point, not much can be done to rectify it. Having offered at least an explanation of how it happened, I can hopefully move quickly into resolution by thanking the patron for taking the time and effort to complain and inviting them to come back and give us another chance.

This is really the final piece of the interaction, one that can usually take place as we are finally moving toward the door. Handshakes and earnest promises to do better accompany this final piece of the ritual. Nothing can replace a sincere look in the eye and the direct acknowledgment that we hear the complaint. Sometimes, the patron may walk away thinking that nothing will come of it, but only if that's what they wanted to hear in the first place.

The fact is, as far as I am concerned, that change in response to a complaint will indeed happen, even it it is merely to make me more aware of the potential for praise at every table.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Every Player Counts

Well, it was a good game, but alas, the Longhorns lost in the final game of the College Championship series in Omaha Nebraska last night. For those following along at home, this was a momentary big deal for me because I have been a long time UT basefall fan and this was the year that I finally fulfilled one of my longstanding dreams and actually went to Omaha to see UT play in the first game.

The experience in Omaha was like none other that I've had. I described it as the quintessential American experience for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that it was held in the most classic 'old school' style of ball parks, Ronseblatt Stadium, and the day itself was like something out of a movie. Our drive to and from Omaha, as well as our action-packed hours at the stadium are well documented in other posts and the photo gallery that I posted online last week, so what I want to write about today has to do with fathers, sons, baseball and the relationship of the three.

First of all, a good friend forwarded to me a wonderfully well written essay by UT Sports Information Director and one-time voice of the Longhorns, Bill Little. Little writes about all UT sports, and he seems to know the story of every player and certainly every coach in every program in UT athletics. And, though it should go without saying, it always bears repeating: UT has athletes of every kind at the very highest level in the world. Our football, baseball and basketball players get al ot of the recognition, but UT is consistently at a very high level in track and field, swimming and diving, golf and tennis, just to name a few others.

I love sports and watching sports, and that is what this essay is about. Some might find it contradictory for someone like me who is and has never been anything but an academic (and not a particularly distinguished one at that, but that's another story) to be such a big fan of UT athletics. It is quite popular, among academics, to bash the athletics program as too big, too wasteful and disconnected from (at the least) or detrimental to (at the worst) the 'real' mission of the University: to educate and change the lives of young people.

Though I believe that I could actually make a case for the life changing and educating aspects of athletics (and not just for the athletes), the purpose of this essay is not to address that issue. The reason I am moved to write; what is of enough interest to me, and hopefully to one or the other of my Dear Readers, is how I came to be in this unusual position of being a sports fan despite a background that was not supportive of that ambition.

Consider if you will that one of the pastimes at our dinner table was to identify which composer's music was being played on the classical FM station, KMFA, that my father insisted on listening to whenever he was at home, especially during the dinner hour. I always guessed 'Rachmaninoff', because I liked saying his name--still do--and was rewarded occasionally as one who guess the time of a stopped clock. Twice a day you might just get it.

To say that I came from a non-sporting family is a considerable understatement. Without trying to sound as if I was deprived or abused in any manner, nonetheless one of the greatest gaps in my life has to do with the fact that I was never able to, or for that matter, even allowed to play organized sports.

There were several reasons for this, not the least of which was the fact that I was, as you might expect from a geeky kid raised in a bookstore, about as uncoordinated physically as I could get and still manage to walk. There was no question about the whole walking and gum chewing thing. For me, it was one or the other. That's no exaggeration, for the simple reason that I was and still am double jointed. Consequently, my fingers and elbows and knees all move in ways that they are not supposed to, and in some cases those involuntary muscle arrangements result in contradictory actions.

In other words, I sucked.

This would have been ok, I guess, if I had not somehow gotten the crazy idea through my head that I didn't have to suck, at least not forever. For some reason--and here begins the mystery, for it certainly didn't come from home--I had this crazy, irrational thought: if I just played more, I could and would get better.

Now, when I was in elementary school in Abilene, I used to walk to and from from school. Every afternoon after school a bunch of guys would get up a sandlot baseball game in a dusty corner lot not far from the school, and I would tag along.

At first, I just watched. Eventually, when they chose up sides, I lined up too. I didn't get picked because I didn't have a glove and probably couldn't have used it even if I had. I did get to 'umpire', which meant standing in the outfield to retrieve balls that went into the street. Sometimes someone would lend me a glove and play catch with me while we waited for enough guys to show up for a game. The act of throwing and catching a baseball is not hard and is one of the most satisfying feelings I have ever known. So, for that and other reasons still unknown, I had developed the notion that even if I sucked, playing baseball was something I desperately wanted to do.

Somehow, and I don't recall the specifics, I managed to convince my parents to buy me a baseball and a glove. I can recall the glove with almost perfect clarity. It was a light yellow color and already so worn out that the webbing had been repaired in a couple of places with big knots that distorted the arc of the mitt.

While most boys spend weeks rubbing their brand new gloves down with neats foot oil and breaking in their glove with repeated pounding with a ball, mine came already broken in. That is to say, it was used, which doesn't surprise me, knowing how 'frugal' my parents were in those days. Lynda probably picked it up at a garage sale or from a friend or neighbor. I remember putting the ball in the heart of the glove so it would 'get used' to it. That first week or so, I put it under my pillow; waking surprised see that it was still there.

I can also recall the mockery of the other boys whose gloves were either new or hardly in such a state of disrepair. Believe it or not, this was not especially daunting to me, however, because once I had a glove, I could actually line up to get chosen for a team.

I needed more than a glove and desire, though. Skill comes into play in the game, and very early. Boys just know. Well, at least most of them did, I did not. Invariably, I was chosen last and put in the outfield where it was determined that I could do the least harm. The strategy didn't necessarily work to the advantage of our team, however, as I can only recall dropping fly balls and running to retrieve ground balls that either bounced over my head or went between my legs. There was nothing surprising about this, when you think about it, because I had never actually practiced.

The reason I never practiced had much to do with my home life. Bill was simply uninterested in sports of any kind, and had no desire to get outside in the Texas heat and throws baseballs with his son. To his credit, he was always willing to read to me, tried to teach me how to play guitar and was never critical of my desire to play baseball. He just wasn't into it, as we would say today. I can recall only one time that he came outside to throw the ball around, but because he didn't have a mitt, he just threw some balls into the air for me to catch and allowed me to roll them back to his feet. Even this was so thrilling that I begged him to do it many times after, but he always had some excuse for not doing it.

Eventually, I got the message and took to practicing by myself. I spent hours tossing the ball up into the air to practice catching fly balls and bouncing it off the back fence to practice ground balls. As for batting, forget it. I would have to have had a bat for that.

Despite the lack of equipment and the poor practice facilities, I had a goal in mind.

One of my friends at school was a guy named Charlie Taylor, and he was in Little League. One day he brought a flyer to school inviting boys to sign up, and I took it home to my parents. Now, to their credit, they didn't tell me no (which they did a few years later when I asked if I could play football) but made it plain that if I was interested in doing this, I would have to work out the details on my own. I kept the flyer and practiced like mad in the back yard for a couple of weeks.

When it came time for the tryouts, I convinced Bill to take me.

When we arrived at the school grounds, there must have been a hundred boys there with their dads. Most had uniforms already and belonged to a team. They hung out in tight knots, playing catch, laughing and chasing one another around the base paths. I was electrified with desire to play, and even thought for a moment that I actually had a chance.

I chose to try out for Charlie's team, the Dodgers, but it was apparent that I was out of my league already, and this was just Little League! I recall doing very poorly but was, for whatever reason, not convinced by my failure that I couldn't play. All I needed, I thought, was to get on a team, watch, learn and soon I'd be playing. When the coach came to tell us that I hadn't made it, he saw the disappointment on my face. He told me that there was a team who would take anyone: The Yellow Jackets.

The Yellow Jackets did indeed take anyone, and that meant me too. I was thrilled, but looking back I realize that my parents were less so. For one thing, it meant shelling out money for a uniform. No special shoes or a new glove, though, at least until I had proved to them that I was going to go through with it. For another, it meant taking me to practices and to games. They took turns doing this, waiting in the car for me to finish. They didn't have a lot it common with the other parents, I'm guessing.

So, with their modest help and my foolish passion, go through with it I did. Well, one season, anyway. I actually played a whole season with the Yellow Jackets. Though I never started a game, I did get to play. Though we had a losing season, we did win a game. It was one of the best and one of the worst times of my life. Three things happened that I can recall.

First, I got hit in the eye with a baseball. I was sent in to play third base, and when a throw from second came in head of the runner, I dropped my glove to keep an eye on the ball. I kept my eye on it all the way in, busting open a gash below it (I still can feel the scar) and knocking me out of the game.

Second, though obviously not in the same game, I was allowed--for still unknown reasons--to come up to bat and promptly got hit in the chest by the very first pitch. All I can remember was getting up and choking out "Do I get to take my base?" I did. That was the only time I was ever on base.

Finally, and most importantly, I can recall celebrating with my teammates after we won our first and only game of the season. It came late in the season, a night game against the Dodgers--Charlie's team. Though I didn't actually get to play in the game, I proudly wore the uniform and was there at the end when we cheered and dogpiled at the pitchers mound. Now whenever I see that ridiculous scene on TV, I can't help but recall that moment when I did that too. I was part of a team. It's kinda fun.

Every player counts.

Monday, June 22, 2009

A Thousand Foot Fall

I look down at my legs
Dangling over the edge
Of a thousand foot cliff.

Falling
Backward through space and time
Past my own birth
And death
A thousand times
I see myself
I pass myself
So many times
The river reverses.

The dead return
Swelling the ranks
Of the living dead
With the merely living.

They dance in the darkness
That is my swollen iris.
With morning light
The stage is extinguished.

The sun comes up angry
Burning
Turning
It will deny
Food to the hungry
Water for thirst.

Rainbows in bubbles
Lift up and burst.

Friday, June 19, 2009

My American Dream

Last weekend, Henry and I made the trip up to Omaha Nebraska to see the Texas Longhorns compete in the College World Series. Though I have already managed to post up a couple of pictures, I can't go without at least a brief account of our time.

It was, to my mind, the quintessential American experience. As we stood for the national anthem in the literal heartland of America, I felt tears running down my cheeks. From where we stood in the left-field bleachers, the perfectly manicured green grass of the field spread out like a magnificent carpet and the infield dirt was flawlessly groomed and carefully watered down before the first pitch.

Fans trickled in for hours before the game, finding their seats and, like me, pausing briefly before sitting to take it all in once in place. For me, it took more than a moment of just standing there, surveying the field and the rest of the stands to come to the realization that I was actually there.

All around us were Americans of every walk of life, literally. There were elementary and high school kids, baseball teams with their coaches, husbands and wives, families with babies and a lot of Omaha natives who just "came for a good game".

Most were dressed in their school colors, but there was no sense of competition between the fans, only love for the game itself and a sense of grace at being in that special place at that time. People were smiling and waving, watching the players taking batting practice and occasionally jumping up for a fly ball that made it all the way out to left field.

What was the most amazing part of the experience, though, was watching all the various rituals and processes that baseball players, coaches and fans must go through to get ready for and then the play the game. They have a specific place to stand, a specific way of running and a magical way of coming together as a team that goes beyond the fact that they are wearing uniforms or play for the University of Texas.

It is, in fact, a tribute to the Texas coach, Augie Garrido, that he can take such a diverse group of young men, and with the power of his words and actions, inspire and motivate them to reach above and beyond what they thought they were capable of.

This was my American dream.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

I'll Take it All

I'll take it all.

I want
your strip malls
your cheap beer
your dirty bars
your ugly hookers
your bad boys.

I want
your broken hypodermic needles
your shameless porn
your processed cheese
your fast food fat
your nuclear waste.

Bring me
vivisected rabbits,
a million tons of dead man-flesh,
rotting in No Man's Land
morning noon and night.

I'll take it.

I want
your dark streets
your angry mobs
your serial killers
your hidden paedophiles
your deserted ideals.

Torture me with soft lies
Spit out pleasantries
Like hearts on fire
And smile.

I can take that.

You don't have
enough litter
enough shit
enough disease
To make me gag.
Why do you retch?

There isn't
enough violence
enough sex
enough fear
To make me blink.
Why do you close your eyes?

In one drop of
my tears
my blood
my shit
There is
more here than gone
more now than then.

I'll take it all.

Now is not the time for fear.
Come for me,
Tooth and claw.

Time. Terror. Tears.

I'll take it. All.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Archiving Their Art

Lately I have been--with the assistance of Valery and Madelaine--engaged in the task of cataloging and archiving Lynda's artwork and Bill's photographs. What I have discovered as part of this process is that Lynda was far more prolific and significantly more interesting than I had realized, whereas Bill's work was far narrower in both it's volume and scope than I had expected.

Lynda's work was all around me for many years and still is, so it should come as no surprise that she was remarkably prolific. As I undertake the task of archiving her paintings, however, it becomes obvious in a very physical sort of way.

After the fire that essentially destroyed her studio in 2005, we faced the arduous job of sorting through all of her now blackened materials and supplies, stacks of drawings and the dozens of soot-covered canvases that had lined the walls of her one-room studio and the halls outside. They were stacked against the walls and filled one third of the studio. Those that were not too badly damaged we removed the paintings, drawings and boxes of supplies to a storage unit. That was a job for Stephen and me, as Lynda was clearly not up to the task, physically or emotionally.

The supplies were not simply not salvageable. It was heartbreaking to throw away all the paint, brushes and pencils that she'd collected for years. We filled sack after sack with the soot-covered remains of a lifetime of craft. I saw pencils that I recognized from days when her 'studio' was nothing more than part of the kitchen after supper, simply thrown away with a dozen others. It's just stuff after all, but it was impossible to escape the sense of loss.

Though there was very little serious damage to the paintings, that damn soot was, to say the least, insidious. It was--still is--everywhere. It had settled onto the top edge of every painting; those stacked in the back merely had soot there, while those on the wall were subject to the forces of gravity and thus came out covered in a fine black film that still obscures them. it is enough to notice but not enough to justify destroying them.

Destruction is, I guess, a relative term. Certainly Lynda--natural pessimist that she was--held out no hope for salvaging the body of her work, but I was convinced otherwise, and still am.

Many of her drawings--especially the ones actually sitting out on the table or in a bin by the wall--were beyond hope and thus were lost to the trash bags. Other drawings--the majority, thankfully--that were piled up in books and journals were untouched.

Most of the paintings offered some hope of recovery. We gave it our best effort, in any case. Over the next six to eight months or so, Lynda and I spent several hours on Sundays cleaning each and every painting with baby wipes and paper towels. Some didn't make it. Most did, however just to remain in storage from that point on.

They are still in storage, but as I said, we are now engaged in the process of archiving her work. This means one last pass through the stacks of canvasses. Our goal is to move the entire batch into a smaller--thus more affordable in the long run--and climate-controlled storage unit.

Before that can happen however, we have to photograph and measure each work, wrap it first in plastic and then in paper to protect it from the elements and insects. Each painting takes about fifteen minutes to half an hour to process. Even though we've already done twenty-eight of them, we still have more than seventy five canvasses to go.

Bill's photographs, on the other hand, pose less of a problem when it comes to the issue of archiving. For one thing, although there are far more photographs of Bill's than Lynda's paintings, the photographs are not nearly as compelling as objects worth the effort of saving and thus may be sooner lost to history.

Why? In the box of his photos that was handed down to me after his death in 1981, although there were literally dozens of series of photographs that he took over the years, most of the fading Kodachrome images have simply lost their reason for being. Without him here to explain to us where and why he took these photos, the images are vapid, cluttered and ultimately, meaningless. Honestly, unless someone appears in the image that I can recognize there is no reason I can think of to save these fading pieces of paper.

The negatives are another matter. These are being carefully sorted, numbered and saved. For now that's all I have the time or inclination to do. Eventually they should be digitized, cataloged and properly archived, but that is a task I am not sure I am up for. At that point I'd be faced with similar questions about what to keep and what to throw away.

Even though digitizing Bill's negatives minimizes, literally, the need for culling the work, surely not all of them deserve saving. Is it really possible to imagine a situation in which all of his work might be considered a valuable archive? Does his body of work really constitute sufficient value for the future in the way that Lynda's art might?

This is not to say that Bill was not a good photographer or that Lynda was a great painter. This is an observation about my encounter with my parents' art as extensions of their personalities, even and especially now, after death.

I am surprised to find how little of Bill's vision was captured on film and how much of Lynda's still emerges from soot-shrouded paint.