There’s an inexplicable joy to be found in eating alone. The experience is heightened when you can feast without wanting to be somewhere else. A phoneless-free meal is becoming a foreign act.
Do not mistake me, however. There are few things I’d rather do than share a meal with my Charlie, or a few good friends. But, when a Saturday morning rolls around and I have a few hours to myself, I appreciate the simple indulgence of breakfast in solitude.
On this particular Saturday, I choose Mother’s Market Cafe. The operation reminds me of dining in Europe. Instead of waiting to be seated, they expect you to claim your own autonomy and seat yourself. I’ve been here plenty of times, but I still hesitantly wait for someone to greet me and walk me to my table.
After I stop being awkward and put some purpose in my step, I find a table that will suffice. The corner spot I usually opt for is occupied by an older man. He’s wearing a gray shirt buttoned to the top with a crisp, black, flat-billed baseball cap. For some reason, I glance at his plate; a handsome stack of pancakes. My mind throws an invisible salute. If he would have looked at me, I would have given him that nod runners give each other when their paths meet in opposite direction.
The table is moist; someone probably just wiped it with a filthy rag. I assume this only because I worked in the service industry for years. So I leave my arms off the table. My body is still, but my mind is like a race-horse tied too tight its reigns. It wants to run. I reach for my phone, and then I pump the breaks saying to myself, “C’mon Brian. You don’t need to look at your phone.”
Fortunately, my waitress appeared at my side faster than a bat’s wing. Her speediness saved me from distracting myself with distraction.
She was shaped like black bowling bowl. Her hair was the color of a boiled beet. And instantly, I noticed her wrist was wrapped in a bracelet of tattoos. The black framed glasses sat low on the bridge of her nose. Her head tilted to my right which was then followed by a small little step – something like the cadence of a plié – and then asked me, “Hello, how are you today?”
The timbre of her voice was unarming. It was like being in the home of your favorite aunt.
“I’m good, thank you,” I replied.
“Can I get you something to drink?”
“Yes. I’m also ready to order if that’s okay?”
“Sure. Absolutely. What can I get you, my dear?”
This wasn’t my first rodeo; I relayed my memorized answer: “Three buckwheat solo-flapjacks. A sixteen-ounce juice—apple based with spinach, cucumber, ginger, lemon and kale—and a side of fresh berries please.”
After my infusion of health arrived, what looked like a dad and his two kids rumbled their way in the cafe. They choose to sit across the way from me; far enough to think that I didn’t notice them, but close enough to where I could hear every word.
The dad crashed into the booth, looked up at the ceiling, took a deep breath and then settled in by saying, “Okay kids, what you want?” It seemed as though the kids didn’t hear him.
The girl was a precious little thing. Her long curly hair fell down the sides of her face with a volume I couldn’t understand. She reached for the pink and sky blue crayons to work away on the one-page coloring sheet that was given to her. The boy was being the harmless savage that he wanted to be. Climbing on the back of the booth, making faces at passersby, and firing off imaginary missiles.
They were blessed to have the same waitress as me who approached them with the same posture. “Hello, how are y’all today. Can I get you something to drink to start?”
The Dad looked up, widened his eyes in search of empathy and said, “Yes. I would loooove a coffee.” The emphasis on the “o” made me believe that getting to the cafe this morning with two kids under the age of six required the energy of 1,000 generators.
I don’t have kids, so maybe I’m way off.
I worked through my meal happily. These buckwheat pancakes never disappoint. Each bite makes me smile with no teeth. By the time I’m almost done eating, the Dad and his two kids get their food. They spare no time digging in.
Between bites, the Dad asks the boy, “Are you excited for your game today?” The boy is dressed in soccer gear and says, “Yaaaa.” The little brute has a thought and then violently yells across the table to his dad, “HOW DO WE MAKE THEM PLAY BAD?”
An introspective thought for a young lad I thought. I’m assuming his curiosity was grounded in the idea that if he could make the other team play under their potential it would increase his (and his team’s) chance of winning.
The Dad chuckled and quickly said, “You can’t make them play bad—the only thing you can do is show up and play your best.”
I don’t know if it the subtle wisdom landed with the kid. He went on to throw two fistsfulls of eggs and yogurt into his mouth. But that moment transcends youth soccer.
It’s a lesson for life.
Our lifestyle in the West has been built on individualism. While the virtue has served us in miraculous ways, it has also forged an obsession for more.
No longer does it feel like it’s enough to prepare and show up—we must also attempt to control things we have no power in controlling.
In sport, we attack the competition’s character which is recklessness masked as philosophy.
In business, we fret about what the “others” are doing and engage in a battle without bullets to take them down.
In relationships, we try to fix people by prescribing them directives masked as a gift.
In life, substitute planning for actually doing something about our dream in hopes to control every pivot.
Showing up in this manner—in sport, business, relationships or life—doesn’t work in the long term. That’s also why we are so vulnerable to fall for it. We’ve crafted a society fueled by immediate gratification. Our actions are determined by impulses which are a dangerous taste to acquire.
It reminds of the story about the Israelite’s who were dispatched from Egypt. The journey from delivery to freedom was supposed to take 11 days. Instead, they wandered the wilderness for 40 years.
We too can get stuck aimlessly wandering in the wilderness for decades.
The lesson itself isn’t difficult to understand: Prepare, show up and do your best. Everything else is out of your control.
But it often takes far too long to internalize the wisdom.
Societal messaging tells us otherwise and pumps us up with over-inflated ambition; encouraging us to bulldoze everything in our path. Over time it becomes like an animal on the inside of our minds scratching to get out at every moment. When we feed this beast, it only gets harder to see our way out of the wilderness.
In our society driven by deep scarcity, it takes courage to accept that we don’t control everything. Maybe even more difficult is to accept that our preparation and the simple act of doing our best is enough. This type of surrender is one that must be taken up daily. By my understanding, this strategy is remarkably efficacious – it’s how you win the game of anything.
I sign my name to the bill with blue ink and leave 20 percent for my waitress. As I close the black book, I look up and lock eyes with the older man wearing a gray shirt button all the way to the top with black, flat-billed baseball cap. He nods at me the way runners do when they cross paths.
Photo: Getty Images