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Not Prince Hamlet

"Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse."

The Waiter Chronicles: Coach Seth Godin

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Marketing Guru and blogger extraordinaire Seth Godin wrote a post awhile back about what waiters can teach marketers. I'm interested in what that post can teach me.

The essential point is that when a customer asks for something specific, they have a reason for it and should be listened to. Right now, for me, that's difficult because rather than listening for what they're asking I'm thinking ahead to the angry chef, how he's going to receive their request, and what kind of strain that's going to put on me.

But sometimes it's really simple. Like this guy, last night, who ordered a diet soda. I brought it to him, then, some time later, brought him another. He said to me, "I'm kind of an ice freak. Can you bring me just a glass of ice?"

Things were picking up. A party of 11 people was arriving all at once, and tasks were piling up in my mind. And this guy wants me to get him a glass of ice?

"Sure."

It was no problem, and he demonstrably appreciated it.

Listening is an important skill for a waiter, maybe even as important as for a pastor?

Naaaaahhh.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 8:19 AM | link | 0 comments |

Windell Middlebrooks Update

Let's take a quick break from the drama of learning to be a waiter to check in with our famous acquaintence, Windell Middlebrooks. The TV was on at the ristorante bar last night, and his commercial came on, so I looked for him on Facebook.

Friends, I give you the "Windell Middlebrooks Fan Club" on Facebook. Enjoy.

Windell will make an appearance on Entourage this Sunday, August 5th, if you're a fan.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 7:41 AM | link | 0 comments |

The Waiter Chronicles: The Week of Reckoning

Monday, July 30, 2007

With Grandpa on vacation, I'm going to get most of his tables, starting today.

Here's how the week looks: double shifts on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and dinner on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

I think it's safe to say that by the end of the week I'll either be a bona fide waiter or I'll be fired.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 7:51 AM | link | 3 comments |

The Waiter Chronicles: Grandpa's Vacation

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Grandpa leaves for a four-week vacation to Mexico tomorrow. After last night, I won't work with him again for a month.

The restaurant closed a couple of hours early last night, owing to an empty dining room and no reservations. As Son-of-Grandpa and I closed up shop, re-setting places and bringing tables and chairs back inside, I noticed that Grandpa was sitting at the bar. He had changed clothes already. He had been on his way out the door when the owner caught him and made him sit down, where the owner promptly fashioned a place setting for him and pulled up a chair.

A moment later I noticed the chef bringing a plate to serve Grandpa. He set it before him, then asked if he could get him anything else--"some bread? Anything?" Grandpa politely declined and enjoyed his dinner.

I paused in the midst of my busywork to take in the scene. But I quickly turned my glance away and got back to work, thinking only how much Grandpa, in 20 years as a waiter, had earned a moment like that.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 4:42 PM | link | 0 comments |

The Waiter Chronicles: Protected or Played

Thursday, July 26, 2007

I feel like I took a step backward in my quest to become an excellent waiter today.

During lunch, Grandpa explained to me that I would be the busser while he and the another waiter (his son) would wait the tables. After taking tables on my own for two nights in a row, this announcement burned me. And the more I thought about it, the worse it got. The more I listened to Grandpa and his son commiserate in Spanish, the worse it got.

Those two weasels are conspiring against me to get all the tips.

Now, Grandpa's explanation is that he doesn't want the owner to get upset at me. My recent table-waiting experience has come in his absence, and, now that he's back in the restaurant, Grandpa fears for what might happen if I try to take a table and screw it up. Grandpa says the owner would yell at him. Son-of-Grandpa says Grandpa just doesn't want the owner to yell at me.

So I'm either being protected or played.

If I'm being protected, then how unhealthy of a situation is this? I said to Son-of-Grandpa that there seems to be a pattern at this restaurant of waiters getting hired and fired; he corrects me that the patters is, instead, waiters getting hired and then quitting because they don't want to take the owner's abuse.

"He's Italian," Son-of-Grandpa explains. "He has those words, you know?" He rattles off a few, just in case I've never been sworn at.

I want to believe this scenario. I want to believe that Grandpa is looking out for me. I want to be the kind of person that assumes the best motive in people.

But there's a nagging lack of trust. That wasn't helped by Grandpa's announcement at the end of the night that he wold "pay" me tomorrow for tonight's tips (I helped with all his tables). Of course, I never got to see the checks from those tables, so I have no way of knowing what the tips actually were.

I won't be surprised if he "forgets" about it completely.

Then what?

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 10:05 PM | link | 6 comments |

The Waiter Chronicles: Angry Chef

"Six months ago I would have kicked your [expletive deleted] ass. Then I would have kicked him out of the restaurant. I didn't train twenty years for this!"

The chef is gesticulating wildly, glaring at me and raising his voice, even as he excuses my taking of a bad order.

The gentleman wanted the antelope, which is served either with a nice porcini mushroom sauce or a lovely fig port wine sauce and comes with some roasted potatoes. The gentleman opted for the fig port wine sauce, only, he didn't want the potatoes, he wanted penne pasta. When asked what kind of sauce he would like on the pasta, he looked confused.

"I thought we decided on that. I said I wanted the fig port wine sauce."

"Oh," I explained, "that sauce comes on the antelope. You can pick a pasta sauce for the penne, like a pomodoro sauce or a carbonara--" he cut me off.

"Let's just do the same sauce on the pasta as is on the antelope."

Now, that seemed weird to me. But I figured I should give the guy what he wanted. Wrong move. As soon as I showed it to the chef, he clenched his fists and exclaimed, "F-ing disguisting!"

Chalk it up to learning: don't let people put a sweet sauce meant for meat on their pasta.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 7:12 AM | link | 3 comments |

The Waiter Chronicles: News of Note

Monday, July 23, 2007

Here's a story that applies to me.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 7:53 PM | link | 0 comments |

The Waiter Chronicles: Slave To The Schedule

I worked 34 hours last week over six days.

That's not that much. It's not even full-time. But the thing with a job in the service sector is that 36 hours feels like 70, because every one of those hours is an on-your-feet hour.

But this is not pity party. This is an observation about the schedule and the service sector. Not only do service sector hours seem more strenuous, physically, but they're also less constant. It had totally escaped me until last Monday that a waiter's hours are written on a schedule, a schedule that he/she does not create and into which he/she has only minimal input. So last week I worked six days. This week I work four. There are only so many hours to go around, and when you need to get paid . . . you know what I'm getting at.

Then there's this aspect of it: the owner called me this afternoon to tell me that the schedule had been changed. Now I'm working Thursday night, as well as Thursday lunch. I'm also "on call" for Friday night after working Friday lunch. I sounds inconsistent to point up the scarcity of hours in one paragraph and then complain about too many the next, but I've grown accustomed to a body of work that allows me to choose how and when it gets done. This is not that work. As a waiter, your work week gets set for you, and changes to it are to be expected.

What can you do? If you have no other job, how can you say no? I don't feel like I'm in that position, personally, but I'm acutely aware that most of my colleagues are.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 7:33 PM | link | 0 comments |

The Waiter Chronicles: Tips for An Off-Day

I don't work at the restaurant again until Wednesday night. This gives me some valuable time to reflect on my first week as a waiter and to offer some insight. I made the remark to Grandpa the other night that learning to be a waiter is like learning a language; there are rules and sequences that have to be observed, yet some of the most important nuggets fall outside those rules. Call them the "irregular verbs" of waiting.

All that being said, learning to be a waiter or learning a language has to be an immersion experience. You have to learn it by being in it and by doing it, not by reading about it. That's stressful. Here are some tips for how to handle learning something completely new, ala immersion.

1. Don't think so much.
it sounds counter-intuitive, but a lot of learning is hampered by your brain. If you can stop trying to analyze the how-to and the grammar of the thing, you'll find the learning happening on its own, without you even knowing it.

2. Go, Go, Go.
The less frequently you stop, the more you learn. This isn't just about diligence, though. It's about keeping your mind and body occupied with the task at hand and disengaging your cerebral cortex a little bit (see #1).

3. There are no stupid questions.
If you're afraid to ask questions, you're DOA. "I" before "E" except when? What's in the tomato sauce? Where do I put my hands? Seriously, if you don't know something, ask somebody. This does two things: first, it builds your knowledge base (slowly but surely); second, it builds relationships. People like to be helpful. Your questions give them an opportunity to do that.

4. Don't ask so many questions or Sin Boldly.
Here's the counterbalance to #3: asking questions can become a substitute for action. Don't let a lack of certainty keep you from diving in. Especially early on, your mistakes will be generously tolerated, especially if they come from a place of boldness and not timidity. The other day the owner lambasted me for the crappy coffee I made him, saying, "If you worked for me in Italy you'd be fired." But then he laughed it off and complemented the fact that I was gutsy enough to try.

5. Sell it, baby.
People don't know you're a novice until you tell them. And as long as you're not over-hyping your knowledge and ability, they won't care when they find out. So act like a pro, not a novice. Look like you know what you're doing. That starts with the most fundamental suspension of disbelief, your own. Convince yourself that you do speak Botswanian. You won't inspire the confidence of others if you don't have confidence in yourself, even if that confidence has no basis in reality. And, especially in the service industry, it's about the confidence of others. People might sympathize with a waiter who excuses himself--"Oh, I'm new at this"--but they won't like it.

If I can do it, so can you.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 8:14 AM | link | 2 comments |

The Waiter Chronicles Survey

Saturday, July 21, 2007

This weekend, I'd like to know the mind of NPH readers on a simple matter pertaining to the art of waiting tables:

What are the qualities that separate the good waiters/waitresses from the great ones?

Speed? Courtesy? Cool hair?

Let me know what you think!

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 8:16 AM | link | 14 comments |

The Waiter Chronicles (part 6)

Friday, July 20, 2007

Everybody is speaking Spanish and Italian. It cuts off a choice avenue of learning, the conversations of those who know what they're doing. But since they're not talking to each other in a language I can understand, it doesn't do me any good. Plus, it makes me feel like they're talking about me.

Broken glass count: holding steady at 2.

Most of my time was taken today in helping Grandpa attend to a table of 16. That's crazy enough, but these folks were from the local art museum. Let's say they were avant-garde in their ordering, like it would be pedestrian to order something exactly as it appears on the menu. One person doing that is to be expected, maybe even two or three in a group like that. But over half of them had some special request for their order. Needless to say, some of them got screwed up.

Towards the end of lunch, two guys came in for a business lunch. I waited on them the entire time, from beginning to end, collecting a nice $5 tip. I've lost my tip-innocence.

I work dinner tomorrow night, then I'm off for three straight days.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 3:20 PM | link | 0 comments |

The Waiter Chronicles (part 5) redux: Time on Waiters

Waiterrant.net links to this Time Magazine article written last month. Here's the money quote:
A new report from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, Unregulated Work in the Global City, documents a disturbing pattern of health and safety violations, wage inequities, and other indignities that plague a surprisingly broad swath of low-wage urban laborers.
The wage inequities interests me, because I don't have any idea what my co-workers make. The men and women who assist the chef in the kitchen and who wash the dishes--I don't even know their names, and I wouldn't be able to converse with them even if I did.

Apart from one of the owners, I am the only non-Mexican, non-Italian white person on the staff. That fact has already caused the other owner to have me checking phone messages and calling to confirm reservations (he also has taken to calling me "The Professor," seemingly because I went to grad. school).

The seedy side of restaurant staffing will not be far to find here, I'm afraid.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 9:40 AM | link | 0 comments |

The Waiter Chronicles (part 5): Google Search--Waiter

A simple Google search for the term waiter turns up a number of interesting and helpful entries:

The Wikipedia Waiter Entry: "Waiting on tables is one of the most common occupations in the U.S. (along with nursing, and teaching). The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that, as of May 2005, there are over 2.2 million persons employed as waiters and waitresses in the U.S."

The WikiHow Waiter Entry: "When starting out, you're lucky to be training with someone who takes the time to show you the ropes." Thank God for "Grandpa." Also this: "Don't let one mistake trip you up the whole night. If you let one bad thing get to you, you'll slip up more and more. Just shake it off, take a breather, and move on."

The SoYouWanna Waiter Entry: "It doesn't matter if you have to make six trips from the kitchen to the table. Your customers may get annoyed, but they'll be a lot more annoyed if you spill scalding New England clam chowder into their groins."

The California Employee Development Department Waiter Entry: "Over the next ten years, there will be more job opportunities for Waiters and Waitresses than for any other kind of job in California." That explains a lot.

The Workjoke.com Waiter Entry: "
A waiter brings the customer the steak he ordered with his thumb over the meat.
"Are you crazy?" yelled the customer, "with your hand on my steak?"
"What" answers the waiter, "You want it to fall on the floor again?"

Waiterrant.net: A great Q&A blog about all things waiter-related.

"My Week As A Waiter" by Frank Bruni of the New York Times: "In addition to dexterity, poise and a good memory, a server apparently needs to be able to read minds."

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 8:54 AM | link | 0 comments |

The Waiter Chronicles (Part 4)

Thursday, July 19, 2007

There's a waiter at the restaurant that everybody calls "Grandpa." He's been a waiter for over 20 years in Italian restaurants and has even run his own. He lets me follow him around, taking drink orders at his tables. I did that for awhile today, but when it started to get busy near the end of lunch, with people coming and going at the same time, I drifted away from him and focused on getting the tables cleared and re-set. There's another relatively new guy who's been showing me how that all works, so I jumped in to help him.

After lunch was over, Grandpa approached me and said, "Let me ask you this: do you want to be a waiter in training or a bus boy?" I put my hand on his shoulder and looked straight into his face to answer.

"A waiter. Definitely a waiter."

"Then you need to stay with me and let [the other new guy] bus the tables."

A little confused, I asked, "Isn't he a waiter in training too?"

"Yes, but . . ." his voiced trailed off. I picked it up again as he was stressing, "You have to tell [the owner], 'I'm ready. Give me some tables.'"

It seems like Grandpa is trying to take me under his wing and then push me out of the nest. Tomorrow I stick to his side and mimic his every move.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 4:14 PM | link | 2 comments |

It's A Good Sign, But . . .

Alana Semuels has a story in today's LA Times about junk food companies, including Coca-Cola and Hershey, who have publicly taken a voluntary pledge to stop advertising their products to kids. Sort of.

The pledge restricts television ads on shows aimed at kids 12 and younger. The problem is that kids watch a lot more on TV than those shows.

Critics of the move have no faith in food companies to look out for the wellbeing of kids at all. here's the money quote:
"We shouldn't be counting on the food industry to safeguard public health," said Susan Linn, a Harvard professor and co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. "Corporations are bound by law to increase shareholder profits, not to promote the well-being of children."

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 9:22 AM | link | 1 comments |

The Waiter Chronicles (part 3)

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Broken glass count: 2.

Ahhhh . . .

Today is a double shift, so I worked lunch and I have to go back in an hour and a half. Nothing broken, no humiliating mistakes today--so far.

The owner of this restaurant has me torn. One minute his Italian accent and machismo is hilarious and endearing, the next minute he's demeaning. I'm not worried about staying on his good side as an employee at all; he's an adult, and I'm adult, so we're peers. I'm just trying to figure out if spending this time in his employ is making me a better person or a bitter one (hat tip: Alan Wang).

I stopped at the Maxi Foods on my walk home just now for some tortilla chips. When I came out of the store there were cop cars speeding down the street toward my apartment. I got within a block from home, and the whole street was full of police cars, fire trucks, and an ambulance. There was a helicopter circling overheard and police officers with handguns drawn surrounding a house not 100 yards from my front door. Some kind of shooting had taken place, and the shooter was still in the house and armed.

I stared for a moment, but then was shaken out of it by the officer on the porch of the house next door. He was squatting with an M4 rifle and he said to me and the other lookers on, "You guys better get back a bit. We're not hiding here with big guns for nothing."

That was all I needed. I crossed the street and walked the rest of the way home. Don't they know I have another shift in less than two hours? I got to get off my feet, eat some chips and guacamole, check my email to see if that editor is going to publish my article, and watch an episode of 30 Rock.

Can somebody tell that helicopter to keep it down?

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 2:58 PM | link | 3 comments |

The Waiter Chronicles (part 2)

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Let's start with the broken glass count, which is now at a smashing 2. Luckily, this one went cascading off a tray right square in the middle of the dining room. In an effort to grab it, I knocked the whole tray over, sending glass bottles and silverware onto the floor. How they didn't break I'll never know.

I avoided eye contact for the rest of the day.

Here's what's good about a community: when you're a part of a community, you can do things like drop glasses and smear red tapenade on clean napkins, things that reveal you to be a hopeless clutz, and people simply accept it as part of who you are. Okay, maybe it's not that simple, but it's exponentially better than making a fool of yourself in front of complete strangers. Because with those people, what you just did is just about all they know about you. They have no reason not to think you're a jackass.

It occurred to me as I walked home this afternoon that I don't need this. Ten years ago I would have seen it as a test of character. I would have regarded the breaking glasses and the raging inferiority complex as a sort of challenge to be overcome. To ingratiate myself to those people by proving myself minimally competent, even good, at what I was hired to do would have become a measure of my abilities. I would endure it to prove to myself that I could. But I don't need to do that anymore. I don't need to prove anything to myself, at least not as it pertains to balancing dishes on a tray. I so don't need this.

Only I do. Because otherwise I'm unemployed, and somehow that seems worse than this. But not by much.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 3:54 PM | link | 1 comments |

The Waiter Chronicles (part 1)

Monday, July 16, 2007

Six hours on your feet, setting and clearing tables, cutting bread to arrange with butter and tapanade, polishing glasses (official broken glass count: 1), clearing, moving, then re-setting tables: welcome to the life of a wannabe waiter.

I say wannabe because it hit me today, somewhere between the crashing class and aching back, that this will not be the semi-glamorous gig I figured it would be. This will be eeking out a living through aches and pains and sweat, not to mention constant demoralizing and a little bit of good company.

Also, I am the token white guy.

Pardon the pseudo-Marxist, this-is-how-the-worker-lives tone that is sure to follow, but I couldn't help the feeling all day that I was experiencing a class division. In my brief career as a pastor I went out to lunch all the time--with colleagues, with parishoners, with friends. Because I had job that allowed lots of leeway in how I spent my time. As long as congregants were cared for and the sermon was ready on Sunday and the administration of the church wasn't grinding to a halt, I could take a couple of hours on almost any given day to break for lunch.

Today that looked like a blessed privilege. Today I gulped down a salad at around 2:30 between commands to "move this" and "get that," never uttering a word, always just doing. Just doing is the oxygen of the service sector. As a pastor I fretted over what was going to happen next Sunday, next year, five years from now; today I was sick with anxiety over the next 15 minutes. And, driven by that anxiety, you just do.

The schedule I happened upon (nobody pointed it out to me) about two hours into my shift shows me working every day this week except Sunday. It shows me working Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night. Yet another element of the hourly wage job: the tyranny of the schedule.

I hope this is making me a better person.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 6:42 PM | link | 3 comments |

The LA Times on Riverside's Free WiFi

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Press Enterprise wrote it on Monday. The Times wrote it on Wednesday. The actual launch was on Tuesday. Take your pick.

Here's the best part of the Times story, a quote from a downtown coffeeshop owner:
"It makes the city kind of cool and cutting-edge. I think a lot of other cities are going to be really jealous."


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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 7:27 AM | link | 1 comments |

Job #1

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The editor who emailed me yesterday emailed me again today to say that he wants my idea in 1,000 words.

Uh-oh.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 6:52 AM | link | 3 comments |

Writer's Market 2008

Monday, July 09, 2007


Life is full of gifts.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 2:06 PM | link | 0 comments |

First Query Response

I just got an email response to my first query for a freelance story. It came from the Associate Editor of a bi-weekly magazine. The response was not a "yes" or a "no," but rather a "tell me more." There was good feedback about the idea in there too.

It's much more than I expected, whatever it is.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 2:02 PM | link | 0 comments |

Volunteerism

In a conversation with a trusted adviser last week, I was told that to go volunteer. Not only is volunteer service a good thing to do in it's own right, it also connects you to people and organizations where employment opportunities may be hiding.

So it's interesting that the Corporation for National and Community Service study on volunteer rates across the country is coming out today. Among it's key findings are that higher rates of home ownership and longer commuting times both relate to the rate at which people in a given area volunteer; more home owners means more volunteers, longer commutes means fewer volunteers.

The report is already being covered as a referendum on different regions of the country, since it found that places like Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, and Austin have far higher rates of volunteers than cities like New York and Los Angeles. The implication is that people in coastal metropolii are self-involved and not altruistic. But that's hardly the whole story.

Whatever the case, I'm off to visit the site of my local United Way to find a good volunteer opportunity.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 8:51 AM | link | 0 comments |

City-Wide WiFi

The city of Riverside is launching a city-wide wireless internet network tomorrow. The network is run by AT&T, and has been under a "test" period in certain neighborhoods for several weeks now. The Press Enterprise has a piece about it here. Here's the money quote:
AT&T and its partner, MetroFi, will own and operate the Riverside network. MetroFi is supplying the free service, which is supported by advertising. AT and T is providing a higher-speed service for which customers must buy a $7.99 day pass or $15.99 weekly pass.
That the service is supported by advertising
isn't good, and there's no way I'll ever pay $16 for a week's worth of it. Still, it's pretty cool.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 7:22 AM | link | 0 comments |

Go Read Kairos Blog

Friday, July 06, 2007

It's been a while since I HT'd one of my favorite blogs. Here ya go.

Much love.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 11:32 PM | link | 0 comments |

Customer (non)Service

About a week before our move, I called the local cable company, Charter Communications, and arranged to have cable internet connected a few days after our arrival. I was disappointed that our previous provider, Time Warner, didn't service this area and that we were going to have to essentially pay more for less with this new company. But when it comes to cable, you take what's available. So I made the call.

However, after the moving expenses piled up (as they do), we decided it best to hold off on the cable for awhile. So, on the day the service was to be installed (the first business day after our arrival), I called Charter to request the technician not come. The woman I spoke with said that the technician was already on his route and that he couldn't be reached, so we would just have to be there when he arrived to, basically, send him away.

I did that. I met him at our gate and apologetically told him we'd decided against installing the service. He was very gracious about it.

A few days ago, during dinner, I got a call from someone at Charter wanting to know how we were enjoying our service. That's a good, classy thing to do. Only I didn't have the service, and told the caller as much. They apologized, and I went on with my dinner.

But then yesterday the bill arrived. It's a bill for the full installation and one month's service. So now I've just got off the phone with Charter, after being transferred to three different people, and they have to send out a technician to verify that I in fact do not have the service they say I have. I have to be here on a certain day at a certain time for that technician, else I'm still on the hook for the bill.

It's a good lesson in how not to treat non-customers.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 1:25 PM | link | 0 comments |

Finding Your Alternative News Weekly

Among other important facts one must collect upon arriving to live in a new locale, there is the matter of the alternative news weekly. These papers are a noxious blend of valuable community information and unadulterated smut. You can do a lot worse than the free alt weekly for finding the best cheap eats in your part of town or a solid live music venue. When I lived in Kansas City, The Pitch Weekly was my go-to-guy when I wanted to find some place off the beaten path.

And while the Pitch was not-too-recently added to entourage of alternative news weeklies owned by The New Times, resulting in a noticeable downturn in the smut and just as noticeable up tick in national advertising, there are no New Times publications in the Inland Empire. There's one in Los Angeles, but not here. Here it's Southland Publishing, Inc. that runs that show, including, most importantly, Inland Empire Weekly.

Yesterday we had our first exposure to IE weekly, and it didn't disappoint. Here is a return to the pre-conglomerate levels of half-page, half-naked ads for "personal" services. And here is the exhaustive, angry journalism so savored by those who, as they say, read it for the articles.

The cover story for this week, written by David Silva, is about the city of Riverside's use of Eminant Domain suits to acquire property for developers. It's a classic piece of advocacy journalism, delicious to read as a sort of guilty pleasure. The villain in the story is Riverside City Council member Dom Betro, the man practically marching low-income families out of their homes in the middle of the night to have a strip mall in place by morning. Here's the money quote:

First a quotation of Betro:
First of all, we have gone as far as we can possibly go to say that we in the city of Riverside will not take a privately owned residence under any circumstance. You need to separate that out, the private home, which is what most citizens are concerned about. We passed a resolution of necessity—we have about 20 properties that we passed a resolution of necessity on. We said we want this property; we want to enter into negotiations with the owners. If the negotiations fail, we'll go into court to get it. Every single one of those has sold. We have not had to go to court to enact an eminent domain decision. We do not have one property that has been taken as a result of legal court action.

Then Silva's editorial addition:

Respectfully to Mr. Betro—who at least had the courage to return our call—but that's absolute bullshit.

That, my friends, is what you read the alt weekly for. Silva goes on to rebut Betro's "Betrospeak," but in a manner that didn't really convince this newbie reader. But the value in the IE Weekly and papers like it is not its ability to coerce and persuade readers. It's the ability to put community issues on the map and to inform the citizenry of the players involved in a way that the dailies don't do as well.

For example, through the article I learned about a website dedicated to opposing the city's Eminent Domain efforts. The publisher of the site hosts protests around town in a gorilla costume. Now, when I see that spectacle, I'll know what's going on.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 9:49 AM | link | 3 comments |

What Did You Do Today?

It's a question these past days have caused me to dread. There really is no dignified way to say that you spent the day getting turned down for waiter jobs. There just isn't.

So here's what I did yesterday: in addition to the standard practice mentioned above, I completed and mailed a resume, cover letter, salary history, and references to a local university for an academic advising job. I also wrote and mailed two queries to magazine publishers for stories I'd like to write.

I trotted down to the local bookstore to find a copy of Writer's Market, which is the Bible of freelance writing. Both Borders and Barnes and Noble have only the "deluxe" edition of the book's 2007 edition, and it costs $50. I held off on buying it. I've always tried to avoid being one of those people who goes overboard about something before he really understands what he's getting in to.

But maybe overboard is where I need to be. The ship itself may be sinking.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 6:50 AM | link | 4 comments |

On Simplicity

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Before we moved we got rid of our TV. It's not that we were looking to go TV-free on some kind of principle, but rather that the thing was big and clunky and we just didn't want to move it again. We've never been cable subscribers, and so the majority of what we watch is the major broadcast channels. And since those channels are making their content available online, there's really no need for a TV.

So here's our living room, sans television. It's an interesting layout quandry, because the typical American living room is organized around the tube. Instead we have a stereo on one of the bookcase shelves. It's pretty amazing how the space opens up.

Finally, we're still watching TV shows, only on the computer. You might say, "What's the difference?" The difference is that online viewing eliminates surfing. There's very little browsing to be done when you simply go to abc.com or cbs.com; you go there looking for something, and when you find it, you watch it. When it's over you turn the computer off.

So what have we been watching? Rules of Engagement, Last Comic Standing, Age of Love, and American Inventor.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 8:43 AM | link | 0 comments |

Fireworks, Inland Empire Style

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

A couple of days ago our neighbor invited us out to the parking lot of our apartment complex for fireworks. We had to balance that against an earlier invitation, one from the ladies at Calvary church to go to their church parking lot. That's what people in Riverside do: gather in parking lots and watch the fireworks display atop Mount Rubidoux.

We decided to stay home and join our neighbors. Well, a few of our neighbors and about twenty relatives of a specific neighbor. Somebody made a bowl of popcorn to pass around, and people sat in their lawn chairs, "oohing" and "aahing" at the display. It was all very neighborly and almost, even, communal.

Then the display ended with a grand finale and people started setting off their own fireworks. In our parking lot. Feet from our car. Even now, preparing to go to bed, Black Cats and Bottle Rockets are popping and screeching outside our door.

As of 9:52 pm, though, no fires have been reported. We'll sleep with our fingers crossed.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 9:44 PM | link | 0 comments |

The Bottom of A Black, Black Hole

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The guy I handed my application to was white and pot-bellied, not unlike the pigs his restaurant smokes. His grey hair stood in a ridiculous two-inch spike pattern, and his thick wire-rimmed glasses kept sliding down his nose from the sweat. It was 110 degrees in the Inland Empire today, and I had walked all over downtown Riverside, ducking into coffeeshops and restaurants with the standard inquiry.

But I'm done with all that now. I'm done because this manager, in his striped short-sleeved shirt, looked over my application and suggested I could start as a busser. He looked at the front and the back of his restaurant's poorly copied application, saw my masters degree, saw the salary of my last job, and suggested that I could work for him bussing tables.

I offered that I had waiter experience, grandly overstating what it is to work in Princeton Seminary's private dining room. "Yeah," he said. "But we're high volume." The six people presently patronizing his establishment cast no little doubt on that assertion, but to point that out would have been foolish. So I thanked him for his time and stepped outside.

I think I'm done with this. I'm still waiting to hear from a handful of places, but this is a very bad use of my time, and it's making me miserable.

Next plan of attack: get a copy of Writer's Market 2007 and start working on my freelance writing career.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 7:32 PM | link | 3 comments |

On Self-Marketing

Driving back from the Santa Monica Pier on Friday, Meredith and I listened to a This American Life piece, an excerpt from a memoir about growing up in California during the aerospace industry boom. The theme running through the piece was reinvention: California is a place where people come to reinvent themselves, to make up something about themselves that was not true before they arrived and to live into that something as if it had always been true.

I'm pestered by the thought that perhaps I should take that approach to my present vocational fecklessness. Maybe I need to market myself as something I've never been before, something I'm really not, but something that I could convince others I am and so maybe become.

A church consultant? An expert on some topic related to religion, the church, or society? A master teacher?

A good friend talked with me the day before our move about possibly creating a training or a retreat for churches around media literacy. He suggested assembling an audience of friendly faces and videotaping a run through of that presentation, then burning to do a DVD for marketing purposes. He had actually done this himself once.

I might try to do that (if I ever find some friendly faces). It may be the only viable response to the reality that I'm only now seeing, even though I'd read and talked about it for years: the culture is changing and the position of the church is becoming marginal. That's for the good. But it was a lot easier to say when I had a secure position and role as a professional within the church. Now that marginality demands of me some creativity and a bit of enterprising gumption to figure out how to use my gifts and exercise my ordination.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 1:25 PM | link | 0 comments |

Notes on A Job Search

"Incontinence."
"Feminine Hygiene."

These are the words occupying my attention while Becki, the very friendly HR manager at Vons grocery store in Riverside, is explaining to me that the position in the store's Starbucks kiosk has already been filled. She's more detailed and courteous than she needs to be, because all the while I keep looking over her shoulder at the labels protruding from the shelves of aisle 3.

"It's over. This is stupid. Why did I even come in here? Why have I gone any of these places? What am I doing?"

I can't quite decide if this is a needed serving of humble pie or it actually is the humiliation it feels like. To have a Masters of Divinity degree and to be an ordained minister are not credentials that mean much outside of certain ecclesial or academic contexts; as my friend has put it, "We're uniquely unqualified" for anything but ministry. So I don't expect that the people at these restaurants and coffeeshops where I'm looking for quick part-time work will be impressed, it's still very hard to take.

Because I thought this part of my life was over. I thought I was done asking complete strangers, "Are you guys doing any hiring right now?" And what's worse is that these strangers are now uniformly my juniors by five, even 10, years. They are cordial and polite, but all the while I know they're thinking, "God, I hope I'm not that guy when I'm old."

Meanwhile I'm waiting for the phone to ring, and for church people to be on the other end. But I've been waiting for that since well before we moved. But it's not happening. It's funny, because as I left the church I was serving in Kansas City it was amidst a chorus of positivity, with friends and congregants affirming gifts and saying things like, "Some church in California is going to be lucky to have you." I knew what was really going on, though, how this place is full of people just like me and so every church out here is lucky to have somebody else. I smiled politely and was genuinely thankful for the compliments then. Now they echo like a taunt.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 1:08 PM | link | 0 comments |

Rising To The Surface

It's Tuesday of the first week in Southern California. Today marks exactly one week since we arrived. It's a new place, a new challenge, and a new set of opportunities, all of which calls for a new approach.

I haven't known what to blog about these past seven days. They've been an avalanche of events and tasks, and I haven't had the confidence or the energy to sort them out. But amidst the unpacking, the applying for restaurant jobs, and the phone calls to denominational personnel, there have been a couple of beautiful experiences.

There was lunch on Friday with a good friend at a great Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills. It's an oft-patronized spot for our friend, so the owner knows him well and treats his accordingly. He sat us outside and personally took care of us, bringing us free appetizers we didn't order, cracking jokes, and treating us to a dessert that wasn't on the menu but that they were "cooking up just for-a you." It was the proverbial red carpet treatment, and we are very grateful to our friend for it. We couldn't have felt more welcomed to California if the Governor himself had met us at the state line.

Then on Sunday we worshiped at one of three Presbyterian churches in Riverside, the one closest to our apartment. We went to their "contemporary" service, which was only contemporary in that they served coffee, used a projector, and played a guitar; most of the roughly 20 worshipers were over 50. But the three women who sat at our table (the room was arranged into circular tables) greeted us warmly. They were all lifelong friends and lifelong residents of Riverside, except for the short stint when they all went to Park College in Parkville, MO. It's little coincidences like that that make you say, "This place isn't so different. We can handle this."

By the end of our hour with them they had invited us to the church's 4th of July picnic and had drawn us a map to the best deli in town.

This is going to be tough, I have no doubt. But I'm hopeful.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 6:55 AM | link | 2 comments |