Friday, July 30, 2010

Signing Up

What does it mean when your partner tells you that your life is "not exactly what I signed up for?" After more than three decades?

What DID we sign up for, exactly?

What did we know, at twenty and twenty-one, about a relationship that would span almost as many years as our combined ages?

I always thought we got married because we were too stupid not to. We were "in love." That's what people did when they were in love. They got married.

Were we signing up for something? I wouldn't have had a clue what to ask for or where to sign for it. And I've always believed that cluelessness, that naiveté, that "What the hell, let's just DO it!" …was mutual.

Evidently not.

After thirty-five years, I find I am not what he signed up for.

I have no idea where to go with that…

"Not what I signed up for…" I couldn't shake those words for days. Brooded about them almost non-stop. I thought I could bury them under work and other concerns, but they kept rising to the surface like a fresh corpse. For me, there is no such concept as, "Ignore it, and it will go away." I can set things aside until they lose their sting, and go back and deal with them later. But I can't just pretend they never existed and go merrily on my way.

The pronouncement that any endeavor, thirty years in, is not what one signed up for is, at best, grossly immature; at worst, blindly narcissistic. Either you went into the thing thinking you had no particular expectations, and now find that any vague picture of fulfillment and happiness you might have had in mind does not resemble what has actually come to pass… Or you had a specific agenda (that did not take into account any other person who might have been involved in the endeavor along with you…say, a life partner, for example…) which you suddenly realize has not been accomplished. And probably never will be. And time is running out.

So, what? Is the husband a hopeless Peter Pan? Or is he an unfeeling taskmaster ruled by schedules, goals, and quantifiable results? I don't think so. I think he's just feeling tired and old and a bit overmatched by his life. To say that we have a lot on our plates right now would be a laughable understatement.

We may have, in fact, "signed up for" a little more than we are actually capable of accomplishing, at this stage in our lives. At an age when most people are backing off the throttle and beginning to coast into retirement, we are working harder than we ever have. 

There is a physical and emotional cost to all this, which is harder on a couple of semi-centenarians than it would be on a pair of twenty-somethings. But there are two ways to look at it, really. Though it can be said that, after thirty-plus years together, we'd rather be relaxing in our side-by-side recliners than fending off challenges to the emotional well-being of our partnership; it might also be true that if our relationship did not have that thirty-year strong foundation, we may now be chucking everything, turning our backs on each other and on the challenge, and going off in search of something more fun and more immediately gratifying. Isn't that what children DO these days?

Part of the problem with the husband is that he is NOT the type of person to TAKE control of life. He is happy when he has the underpinnings of job, home and family, and then he kind of takes whatever life happens to build upon that foundation. Oh, he's a hard worker. Tireless and obsessive to the point of workaholism, in fact. But he's not particularly creative or idealistic when it comes to what the job is. His credo is that you do whatever your employer demands, and then some. And you never, NEVER ask for a favor, or preferential treatment, or even for some things you might have earned or deserve after a term of dedicated and faithful service. Which would make him anyone's dream employee. But which also makes him suck as an entrepreneur.

Because you have to realize when you work for yourself, you are not only your own employee, you are also your own boss. Which means you work hard, yes. But you are also the person responsible for rewarding that hard work. If you try to do one without the other, you burn out very quickly. Which, unfortunately, is the place where the husband finds himself at this moment. He still has his "day job," where he works very hard and has been consistently under-valued and under-compensated for sixteen years. But now, rather than coming home and going to the gym or puttering around the garage or whatever else he used to do to let off steam from work, he has the café to work at and worry about. To the point of obsession. And he can't put himself into the mindset that HE is the one who has to take control of some aspects of his life, to tweak it so that it doesn't turn him into a smoldering cinder. He just works and works and works, and then gets put out with me because our life is "not what he signed up for."

For my part, I believed him when he told me that he wanted to partner with me in owning the café. I believed we were setting ourselves up for the time when his job would go away. Which looked imminent four years ago, but these things have a way of dragging out way longer than seems possible. So he's still toiling away for the sinking ship AND trying to help me run the restaurant. Of course, this is an impossible situation for him. But it's just as impossible for ME to run the café without a partner. Especially now, when I don't think I could buy a decent employee with a winning lottery ticket.

We are stuck, he and I, in this protracted limbo…responsible for almost more than the two of us can physically handle. I don't think either of us would have signed up for this had we known it was going to play out this way. But it is what it is, and we have to not only work, but THINK our way through it. It's the thinking part, the planning part, the pro-active "I have to fix this so that it can work for me" part that the husband is not so good at. And, truth be told, he gets pissed off at me when I try to do that part for him. Or suggest that he do it. "This is the only part of my life that I have control over!" he whined to me the other night during the discussion that spawned the whole" signing up" remark.

Fine. Then control it, goddammit. If you won't let me help you fix it, then deal with it yourself. But don't whine to me about what you did and did not sign up for.

Fix. It.

Wow. That was amazingly unsupportive, wasn't it? 

But it felt SO good…!

Whatever. I'm pretty sure we'll ride out this storm, as we have so many over the years. But sometimes, feeling exhausted, partnerless and friendless all at the same time just…sucks. And this, this blog, is the only place I have to go with this stuff. So I won't even apologize for whining.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Wrap-Up

Monday morning, and I feel like today is the first day of the rest of my life. That giant catering job has been strapped to my back since mid-May when my chef crapped out on me. Now, I wish I hadn't worried about it so much. The facility we worked in was huge and well-stocked, we got all our prep done handily a few days before, and things came together quickly and beautifully (thanks to Chef Hope) the day of the wedding. Not only did we NOT run out of food, we have tons of leftovers. Which, as a business owner, I should be unhappy about…but all I wanted to do was make sure everybody got some and that it was good. And it was!

But of course, the day could not have gone off without some kind of attack by the Bullshit Squad. It would have been too much to ask for my staffing woes—which have gone from annoying to scary to unbelievable to ridiculous—to abate for just this one day. The "experienced breakfast cook" I hired three weeks ago ( pretty much so that I would have someone to run Saturday breakfast while Chef and I concentrated on this catering job) got her nose out of joint when she received her first paycheck on Friday and decided to terminate her employment with us by no-show, no-calling on the day she knew I needed her most—the day of the catering job. Classy. Very classy.

I ended up having to stay at the restaurant through breakfast, and then going out to the catering site. Which, in the end, was just as well, because we were SO well prepped that there was a lot of "hurry up and wait" going on. I had sent Chef and her assistant over to the church kitchen at 8 am, service was at about 3:30, and there were really only a couple of hours of real work to be done. As it turned out, our very capable lady Chef had everything well in hand, and all I had to do was throw a couple of chicken breasts around at the very end, serve the guests at the buffet line, and clean up.

So now, on this gray, yucky, cloudy day that seems to be part and parcel of summer 2010 in northwest Oregon, I'm ready to start MY summer in earnest. I have no idea what that means, really. But I just want to suspend the work and worry and planning and scheming for a couple of weeks, and grab a little gusto out of whatever the rest of this summer has to offer.

How about it?

Friday, July 9, 2010

Learning to Trust

Tomorrow is going to be a big day for us. Another "first" for the café. We'll be catering entrees for a wedding reception. To the tune of 250 guests. Wow.

I made this commitment way back in late winter, when I was counting on the services of the lately departed California Chef. (Who, by the way, bounced back handily from his unfortunate experience with his succeeding position, and is now employed by the restaurant right across the street from his most recent ex-employer. Sigh!) Believe me; when California Chef flew the coop, I was more than a little cowed by the scope of the job. But since CC left us a mere six weeks before the wedding date, I didn't feel comfortable telling the customer (who is also my hairdresser and a friend) that she would have to make other arrangements. So I sucked it up and decided, come hell or high water, we were going to make this happen. And do a good job of it, too.

So, tomorrow is the big day. And, truthfully, I'm feeling (perhaps uncharacteristically) confident. The food is simple—things that I personally know how to make, rather than the slightly off-the-wall hairball haute cuisine that California Chef often came up with. I'll be assisted by the Dear Husband, Chef Hope and an intern from a Portland culinary school. Everything's good. Right now, I'm sitting on my deck enjoying a glass of wine and engaging in my alternate passion. Tomorrow morning, everything will fall into place. And by this time tomorrow evening, it will all be history.

Dear husband, on the other hand, is completely unglued by the enormity of the commitment, and is fussing in every direction possible. He feels like a helium balloon with a defective gyroscope, and I'm trying to keep him from flying off in weird directions, or flying away altogether. Tonight, sitting in the car returning from a short buying trip, he confessed he was really freaking out about this whole thing. (No, duh?) And I said, "What's the big deal? It's easy stuff, we have most of it prepared already, it's not something we can't do. Do you see ME freaking out?" "No," he said. "And that's what freaking me out."

"That's silly," I scoffed. "Sometimes, you just have to trust yourself."

A couple of years ago, I could no more have said that than I could have quoted the Koran in Arabic.

Maybe I have learned something.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Losses, Foundations and Lessons

I've been having a rough time of it, the past six weeks, raking myself over the coals for my inability to retain employees. Good, bad, or indifferent, they all seem to have decided they don't want to work for ME.

But of course, in this small town, it's an ongoing drama. I can't help but hear accounts—sometimes told With Great Relish—of the exploits of my former employees. The juvenile delinquent is going to nursing school now. Cook In Training #2 bombed out of her medical assistant training, went to work at McDonald's for awhile, drama-ed herself out of that job…I pretty much could have called it all at the time she left us, though I had hoped so much more for her.

Former counter girl is still plugging away with my competitor up the road, but the story is she is no happier there than she was here. Gotta think her problems go deeper than that she just couldn't get along with California Chef.

And, speaking of California Chef, I got the latest news on him yesterday. (This is one of those stories passed on to me With Great Relish…)

Seems Chef is no longer employed at Pizza Restaurant cum brew pub cum comedy club etc. etc. His problems began on Father's day, evidently. ( How apt, since he left us just after Mother's Day. So that gives him, what…five weeks of uneventful association with his new employer?)

The story starts with California Chef choosing to serve Cornish game hens for a Father's Day special, which he proceeds to undercook and then refuses to re-cook. Necessitating that disenchanted restaurant owner throw away fifty unservable Cornish game hens. Thereby not particularly endearing Chef to boss.

Shortly thereafter, Chef is running a dinner service, with one other cook and a dish washer assisting. Early in the service, a plate is sent back to the kitchen (not clear to me whether the customer sent it back or the server refused to take it out.) Chef throws one of his "Wait-staff-is-the-source-of-all-bad-things" hissy fits and makes a big issue out of the remaking of this particular plate. (He threw one or two of those during his tenure at the Hot Flash Café. And they are not pretty.)

This one, however, seems to be the straw that broke some camel's back—whether his or the wait staff's, I don't know. Whatever the reason, Chef chooses to embark upon a course of action calculated to have the greatest possible negative effect on those he believes have wronged him. He plugs along for a little while, by and by telling his assistant cook and the dish washer that, since it's not busy, they can go home and he'll take care of the kitchen by himself. He then proceeds to let the dining room fill up with guests before he walks out , leaving the restaurant with no one at all manning the kitchen.

Wow. The boy knows how to make a point.

So now I wonder.

Should I really be beating myself up over the fact that employees are deserting the Hot Flash Cafe like rats from a sinking ship? Or should I be patting myself on the back that I managed to hold together a rag-tag band of misfits and turn them into at least a semi-functional, mildly effective team, for as long as I did? After all, I held Chef in check for almost a year, and he did give proper notice when he decided to leave. Cook #2 worked for me for almost 2 years, which is by far the longest period in her young life that she has ever stuck with anything.

I think I don't give myself enough credit. When everything started to fall apart, I began to believe we had merely been lucky that we'd enjoyed that stretch of time—nearly two years!—where we had amassed a group of a half-dozen long-term employees. Now, though, I think it was more than just luck. It took plenty of skill: choosing battles, soothing egos, playing up strengths, maneuvering around weaknesses, walking the fine line between managing people and letting the inmates run the prison.

I like to think I haven't lost the knack…but there is a certain amount of bringing the right people together before we can make it happen again. And I think that's getting harder, especially in the tiny, shallow labor pool of this small town. Once you shoot through the available talent (such as it is), it takes a while for the pool to refill. We experienced the "empty labor pool" phenomenon right after we bought the restaurant. Maybe we'll just have to go through that same cycle, over and over, every x-number of years.

Won't that be fun?

But perhaps the problem was, to a certain extent, my own fault. I rocked the boat. I made the mistake of trying to change things too much. Perhaps I would still have most of the people I've lost in the past year if I had never tried to haul my quirky little business to the "next level." If I had never entertained those fantasies of what the presence of California Chef could do for us. My staff was perfectly content with the level we were on. I knew that…and it drove me crazy. But in the end, maybe they were right. As it turned out, the "next level" chewed us up and spit us out. Because here we are, perched squarely back on that same old level, feeling lucky to be here at all…and with almost no staff left to tell the tale. Sigh!

So maybe I've learned something.

And maybe The Universe will be kind enough to send me two or three good people upon whom I can test my newfound knowledge. The knowledge that change is not always necessary. Or good. Or even possible.

I get it.