Friday, May 24, 2013

The Other Side . . .

Throughout city college, I worked at Starbucks located in a bookstore. I grew up in a working-class city. I had an incompetent boss who was inching for his retirement package and co-workers who were nice enough and though had good hearts competed for the few-hour shifts that were available. I was making $7/hr. If I bought coffee from my own store at retail value, that was more than half my hourly wage. Many of the barista girls including myself were schooling ourselves through college. At the end of the night when the company ordered us to throw away 2-day old pastries, we snuck them home to our families. Most of my dinner when I came home at 1am after closing shift was stale, brick-hard croissants. One of my good friends from high school studied for his college exam at the cafe there, but pretended not to know me. A random date my friends set me up on for homecoming years ago would repeatedly come in with his prized girlfriend and gave me the sleaziest wink, then asked me to microwave his Tupperware in the company breakroom. At that time, the biggest dream I could believe in was that someday I would be standing on the other side of the counter and able to afford coffee whenever I wanted.

You have to start somewhere.

After my first day of work as a barista and messing up on orders since there were several recipes to remember, I asked to take home the company manual along with its recipes. During breaks, I would memorize. I learned drinks had to made within certain minutes or the customers get it free. During down times, I practiced the recipes and rearranged the area to make it more efficient and systematic. The bookstore manager noticed. I was trained to be a bookseller. I wasn't very fast in math, so I borrowed a few math books from the library and copied the practice sheets and did the exercises during my other odd jobs of being a stage hand for the local theater. I became very proficient in numbers and alphabetizing all the books. It became much faster to find the books and serve the customers in the check-out line. I was generating more sales than average and co-workers couldn't figure out how. If you fix the root of the problem, the surface becomes clearer. I was handed the vault key. Because other booksellers didn't want to deal with customers they often sent them to me. I ran a lot of my co-workers errands and came to know both the bookstore and cafe better than the managers. When the cafe manager retired, I became a trainer for new employees. But the booksellers needed more experienced employees so I was offered lead position in both. As a lead, my new pay afforded to buy "fancy coffee" now and then. Though I couldn't buy one every day or whenever I wanted, I stood on the other side of the counter. The new pay afforded my books and tuition at city college where I eventually transfered to UC Berkeley.

Watching my dad work odd jobs, I learned that it doesn't matter what you are doing, as long as you do it well. You can make any job into a craft. And it would be even better if that job is exactly what you love.

When I graduated art school, I learned quickly that my skills in art were still lacking. When you are no longer a "student" you are now competing with other professionals in your industry, including your former teachers. I had to start at the beginning again. I had to put in "my dues" - though I caution, it was not in a disciplinary way, but came of love of the craft and curiosity. (Only resentment comes from disciplined practice.) "I wonder what would happen if I did this . . . " or "how can I get better at x? I really want to learn . . ."

A lot of my paintings now have robots and trees. Funny, those were the things I couldn't paint when I was in school. My landscapes looked like shit and I couldn't paint metal and didn't know how to mix color. So after I graduated, during job searches, I practiced. I practiced out of love and wonderment.

It doesn't take away from the frustrations of being a small fish at times, but it helps to see that life is a bit of cycle. You'll always be a beginner and you'll always be a master in something. You don't have to master everything, especially the things you don't like to do (leave that to other masters of that field)

But the point is, you have to start someplace. You have to have a vision of where you want to go, even if it is just a step towards the other side of the counter. And you have to take actions to manifest your vision and enjoy the process. Because sometimes it's short and sometimes it's a long road between your dream and its reality and your life is made up of the spaces in between here and the "other side."