How My Butcher Helped Me Teach My Son The Unexpected Virtue Of Boredom
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In line at the supermarket the other day, I saw a butcher get, uh, grilled.
“Can I have that rib-eye right there?” No. 80 asked, her pointer aimed in the general direction of the rib-eye row reclining vertically in the pythonic display case.
“This one?” the butcher replied, his hand hovering over a pink slab somewhere in the middle.
“Nooo,” No. 80 whinnied, the word rising at the end interrogatively. She inched closer to the case and bent over on one side. Her shoulder-length black hair reached for the stylishly unsealed-concrete floor. With her pointer she poked the glass. “That one.”
The butcher, eyes still locked on her eyes, which were still locked on the slabs, even as she unfolded herself slowly, scooched his hand forward.
“Nooo,” No. 80 sang. She bent over again and poked the glass. Twice. “Right! There!”
The butcher’s hand crept back.
“That one!” she yelped. “Yeah.”
The butcher picked up what we rubberneckers believed was the initial slab. (It was the initial slab.)
“Great,” she continued, now upright again, “and how about the one right next to it?”
The butcher quietly retrieved her order, but before the first steak could land on the scale in front of him, No. 80 became vocal again.
“Can I …,” she began, “can I hold them?”
I left with one freshly wrapped divorce request.
The line was enormous. I was No. 87, and there were about a dozen people behind me and my 5-year-old, who was doing that slouching/leaning thing against my legs, the nonverbal equivalent of whining and just as annoying. From my spot right behind the aspiring steak handler, I tried to straighten out my Apollo, verbally and with limply rendered stern looks. I also shifted in place. This side, then that, then this side again. I think I even growled a few times. Who in the hell did this woman think she was?!
Before parenthood, I just would have left, would have taken my business elsewhere, not out of disrespect for the hard-working butchers but because my attitude back then was that anything that was not (in order of importance) sex, writing, reading, sleeping, or drinking struck me as a major waste of time. But now that I’ve been a dad for the past 4 years, and now that I’m in my 40s and should know better, waiting in line (and I’m paraphrasing my wife here) is a “teaching moment.”
“You can’t shield Apollo from everything, Anthony, including boredom,” Dana says. “He needs to know that the world doesn’t revolve around him.”
But don’t only boring people get bored?
Who in the hell did this woman think she was?!
“Gosh,” my wife replies, pinching the bridge of her nose and closing her eyes for a moment. “He’s a kid, Anth! He’s not ‘people.’ He needs to learn to make the best out of less-than-ideal situations. He can use his imagination. He can sing a song. He needs to be more resourceful. And tougher.” (This is also true. I tend to baby him.)
Eventually, and after neither Apollo nor I had died or worse from boredom (it’s a Festivus miracle!), “87!” was called. I made sure I was simple, plainspoken, polite. Borderline hilarious.
“May I have a porterhouse, please?” I said, loud enough for Apollo and our fellow waiting customers to hear. “I really don’t care which one. They’re all basically the same. Hahaha!”
See? Simple. Polite. Easy. Life is complicated enough. And overly gritty and dirty. Life is also way too short, especially for getting handsy with meat on a beautiful December day.
Or is it? The steak handler walked out of the supermarket with precisely what she wanted, my huffing and puffing be damned. Me? I left with one freshly wrapped divorce request.
I made sure I was simple, plainspoken, polite. Borderline hilarious.
“I can’t believe you paid $31 for one steak!” Dana snarled at me on the way out, her voice a hush to protect our son from yet another methodical takedown of his old man. “You could’ve gotten 3 of the same thing at Kroger for that price! You need to use your brain!”
“Use your brain.” It’s a recurring theme in my marriage, and it’s not entirely unwarranted. I spend most of life wondering, worrying about what’s next instead of living in the moment, instead embracing The Now, man. As a result, details slip away from me, which is a problem. Parenting young ones is almost all details. The big picture is important, yes, but if we can agree that the big picture is the future, what we parents do now is akin to painting portraits of the adults we want our children to become.
In my painting of adult Apollo, he is wearing scrubs and has a stethoscope around his neck. However. I will be totally ok with seeing him in a butcher’s apron. As long as he is happy and healthy, I will be grateful.
Not sure I can say the same for the blue-collar 25-year-old who squats in my consciousness like an 800-pound gorilla.
Service industry workers are among the most miserable on Earth. Of 2016’s “10 Unhappiest Jobs in America,” according to CareerBliss, at least half could be considered service-related. Their many-splendored misery, write the coauthors of a 2015 paper, is undoubtedly fueled by “emotional labor,” a.k.a. “service with a smile.” Clocking in and then smiling though your heart is aching, even though it’s breaking, they write, requires “positive emotions” from you, the service industry worker, that induce “dissonance and depleted resources, which hinders task performance and threatens wellbeing.”
As long as he is happy and healthy, I will be grateful.
Having spent nearly 15 years as a paperboy, busboy, waiter, stock boy, and bellhop (in chronological order), in addition to more time than that or that is recommended by common sense in construction (concrete, drywall, roofing), I know what it’s like to stand on your head and spit nickels to please a customer. And always while showin’ them pearly whites. I now pity the help. Partly to ameliorate my guilt, partly to impart an important message to my son, I go out of my way to make my flight attendants and servers, my medical professionals and Uber drivers, feel that we’re all equals, all fellow passengers aboard the S.S. Life, and that they are important despite their present occupation: pampering a self-entitled child in adult form who has been taught since birth that when paying for service he is always right. At my office when the cleanup crew arrives at the end of every day, I can’t help but pitch in.
“Here’s my trash!” I hark, scooping up my wastebasket with one hand while waving the other like an idiot. “No, no, no. I got it. Want me to dump the recyclables for ya, too?”
If I’m at my desk “working” (read: Facebooking, texting friends/family), I at least have the common decency to look busy when the crew swings by.
“Thanks so much!” I gush, invariably now typing a very important, very vital sports opinion on one of my friend’s timelines, my computer screen facing away from my office door to further insulate me from utter shame. “It really means a lot to me!”
I take heart that service-industry PTSD might not afflict my son, though maybe by no choice of his own. In a 2015 study, CareerBuilder discovered that the number of jobs held by teens (14-18 years old) shriveled up by 33 percent between 2001 and 2014.
You don’t have to be right. You just need to realize that it’s ok to take your time.
“There’s this new competitive dynamic that teens have to deal with today that they didn’t have to deal with before,” Jennifer Grasz, vice president of corporate communications at CareerBuilder, told U.S. News & World Report. “Teenagers are now having to compete with college students and even retirees or other workers that are more seasoned for opportunities because people just need to earn a paycheck.”
Don’t misunderstand. Service-industry PTSD is still going strong for a lot of us. The internet’s cup runneth over with horror stories of absurd to just plain mean customers. And horrible, despicable bosses. In my warped mind, I believe the service industry folks whom I regularly encounter love me for being so nice, so agreeable. They probably throw parties in my honor every night after I leave.
I am not advocating being an a-hole. Contrary to common perception, the paying person is not always right.
“Not all customers deserve your company’s best efforts,” writes Peter Fader in his 2011 book Customer Centricity. “There are good customers … and then there is everybody else.”
I’m a customer, and I know that I am not always right. Why would I dare to believe that I’m right at the supermarket – or at the car lot or at the bookstore or at Dino’s Bar & Grill, where the drinks will flow and the toddler tears will spill – when, based on my wife’s and my son’s data, I am right at home – 14 percent of the time? I’m right at work even less than that, according to my jerky coworkers. (On the subject of sports, however, I am infallible. Just ask my Facebook friends.)
I know what it’s like to stand on your head and spit nickels to please a customer.
The key is: You don’t have to be right. You just need to realize that it’s ok to take your time, to weigh your options, sometimes literally, while the world waits or while your child pushes all your damn buttons. Aside from the occasional bit of the ol’ ultra-violence, death is not a common outcome of waiting in line. Even if everyone in front of you is a possibly impoverished senior citizen with poor eyesight, you could probably stand to … stand a little longer. Plus, the folks behind you aren’t going to expire while you take a couple of extra seconds to make a simple financial, possibly marital decision. In the not-so-immortal words of Thomas Bernhard: “Everything is ridiculous if one thinks of death.”
Before my number was called at the supermarket, I used my imagination. I’m not saying I was Mary freaking Poppins, but I came up with, y’know, something.
“Hey, Apollo!” I sang, my voice as sweet as a spoonful of sugar. “You wanna play a game?”
“Let’s count how many things are in my basket! And you tell me, uh, you say which colors are, y’know, what the predominant colors of the objects are. Each object.”
As customers, we are expected to be polite. There’s never any excuse for coming on rude, at the supermarket or in life. What we aren’t expected to be is deliberative. We all know how sucky waiting in line can be. Especially if a little one’s bouncing all around you. Waiting in line isn’t only one of the suckiest parts about shopping. It is the suckiest, based on various studies. Why put your fellow customers through what you wouldn’t want them to put you through? Be a simple, polite, easygoing little boy or girl, pay for your stuff, and move along, please. (And take your horrible child with you.) You’re no more important than the rest of us.
Plus, your kid, like mine, could probably bear to come face to face with a little boredom.
The chances that the average customer has picked the slowest line to stand in are very good.
The problem is that for those among us with either an acute sense of empathy or a deep fear of offending strangers in person, we end up cursing ourselves on our ways out of supermarkets – and restaurants and hotels and “massage” parlors – simply because we allowed other customers, specifically the people in line behind us, to essentially bully us into making way for them. Or bully us into keeping our offspring out of their hair. Instead, we should remain in place, excellently. “Hic manebimus optime” and all that.
Also know that the chances that the average customer has picked the slowest line to stand in are very good. They can just get comfy. Or occupy themselves. You are not to blame.
And if you can’t control your kid in line, you’ve got bigger problems.
On the evening of the supermarket fiasco, I did not share my $31 steak with either member of my family – Dana is a vegetarian, and Apollo doesn’t particularly care for red meat. I did offer to make my wife a grilled cheese.
The guilt was just eating away at me.
Anthony Mariani, a former freelancer for The Village Voice, the Oxford American, and Paste magazine, a regular contributor to the Fatherly Forum, and the editor of and art critic for the Fort Worth Weekly, recently finished writing a parenthood/adulthood/boozehood memoir that is obviously “too real, man!” (his words) for any U.S. publisher, reputable or otherwise. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org