“Do you folks have a reservation?” The haughty young man looked suspiciously at us, quite obviously assured of the reply he would get. We didn’t make him wait. “No. We heard that you had great food. Will it be a problem to get a table?” We glanced around. There was not another customer in the Italian restaurant at this early hour, but he dutifully checked his chart before replying. “No, I think we can get you in. I just need to see which table would be best.” In a moment, we were shepherded to a table in the back corner, clumsily situated in front of an alcove which held a shelf full of folded cloth napkins. There was also an electronic keyboard shoved willy-nilly back in the little cubbyhole.
The sign at the entrance had stated clearly, “Appropriate dress is required.” We, assuming that this was akin to the more common “no shirt, no shoes, no service” signs we were accustomed to, had walked right in–she in her blue jeans and I in my khakis, and both wearing reasonably clean shirts with no holes in them. We’re still not sure, but perhaps this wasn’t what was intended by “appropriate dress”. It could be that the corner was their way of shunning us, as well as hiding us from the other, non-existent customers. At any rate, it was so dark that one needed to use the ambient glow of the cell-phone’s screen to read the menu (prices all in a simple numeral, with no dollar signs). No one would notice us here, so we settled in to enjoy our meal.
Apart from an “excuse me” or two offered by wait-staff needing napkins from the shelf, we were largely undisturbed, except at proper intervals by our waiter. She, while not hopeful of much from us, was attentive. When we left, it seemed that her thanks indicated that we might have surpassed her meager expectation. I’ve always prided myself in the practice of under-promising and over-delivering in the business arena, but that hadn’t been my intention tonight. Alas, some things are simply out of our control.
I’m not going to give you a review of the food or the service at the restaurant; not going to suggest that you avoid going there if you are just plain folks like us. I only mention the occasion to spend a few moments speaking of uncomfortable circumstances. You see, I find myself more at ease in dining establishments where the waitresses call me “sweetie” and keep pouring coffee interminably into my empty cup with a “there you go, hon” and bringing the plastic pitcher to tip sidewise over the Lovely Lady’s tea glass, as they murmur a “happy to help, dear” to her. The light floods the tables and there are no dim corners or shadowy niches in which to hide unsavory characters. On this night, I am as uncomfortable in this restaurant as the staff seems to be to have me here.
The Lovely Lady and I have taken a weekend to go to the city and “relax”. I’d rather close the store and sleep late at home, but she knows that sooner or later I’d be back in the store working, so we go away. It is the first of several uncomfortable things we’ll endure. The meal in the dark corner is the last straw. I’m ready to go home and the gloomy thoughts begin to buzz around in my head. Then, I see him. The piano player. His name is Frank. Frank gets to sit in the corner, too. The odd fellow, about my age, slinks into the cubbyhole and begins shifting things around, after a few moments glancing apologetically at the back of the Lovely Lady’s head and then, looking at me, assures me that the speaker will be out in the hall, so it won’t be too loud for us. I smile and tell him that it will be fine either way. We like music. The momentary smile on his face is gone as quickly as it comes. He is uncomfortable here, too.
As Frank finally gets things situated and begins to play, his discomfort is made even more clear. He sets his glasses on his nose, with lenses as thick as the bottoms of old-fashioned coke bottles. Since it is an Italian restaurant, he seems to think that he should begin with a song from that country. As he commences, his music blows in the cold breeze which pushes through the corner every time the door on the other side of the partition is opened, the lamp he has situated beside the piano illuminates the pages almost not at all, and he squints through his coke-bottle glasses to see the unfamiliar music. After he struggles through the song, not skillfully, he almost angrily tosses the pages to the floor and then begins another tune, this time ignoring the necessity to stay within the geographical region of the world. Ah! Now the music flows from his fingertips, as he reminisces musically about his “huckleberry friend” and sails up “Moon River”. And so it goes for the whole time we are seated there. The obligatory Italian pieces are stilted and halting, pages of printed music blowing and slapped into place again throughout, and the music he knows and loves flows from his heart with no need of printed music, played smoothly and skillfully, as his fingers find their way unerringly to the right keys for the melodies and chords which make up the beautiful harmonies in the songs.
We walk out of the restaurant…I, amazed that I have avoided any obvious faux pas in the use of my silverware or napkin…the Lovely Lady probably happy about my avoidance of the same, and the music follows us out into the night. Frank has reminded me that we all, every one of us, have things which must be done even though they are out of our comfort zone. He had to play the unfamiliar and difficult tunes when he preferred the comfortable, old songs which he knew and loved. It wasn’t easy. He did it anyway.
Like our time away from our business and our visit to the posh restaurant, life is not always smooth sailing down familiar streams and river branches. At times, we make our way, cautiously (and not a little frightened) onto the wide ocean to venture, not where we will, but where we must.
I have no great spiritual gems to share tonight. Sometimes, all we have are the simple truths which have guided men for all of history. Stagnant waters are that way because they never go anywhere. Growth and progress occur as we move out of our accustomed paths, applying what we have learned and absorbing new lessons, to take on bigger and unfamiliar tasks. The Teacher made it plain as He told His followers the story of servants who were faithful in small things. Their reward was always to be given bigger and more difficult tasks, never to remain doing the small things again and again.
I’m not sure I like that a lot. I’m working at applying it in my life anyway.
Push out away from the shore! It’s what the Builder designed your vessel to do. You’ll never realize your potential until you move out of the place of comfort and into the place of opportunity.
Oh. You might want to keep your coat and tie or formal frock handy to be able to get into the places you’ll need to go, too. Sometimes, appropriate dress is required.
“The person who goes farthest is generally the one who is willing to do and dare. The sure-thing boat never gets far from shore.”
(Dale Carnegie~American lecturer~1888-1955)
“The master said, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!'”
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.
The problem started about five or six years ago. Most people I know with this affliction have it when they are children and then it lessens in severity as they age, but leave it to me to wait until my waning years to acquire an infirmity that I should have outgrown instead of grown into. I have asthma. Oh, not the full-blown, struggle to inhale, think you’re going to black out, wheezing asthma, but enough to cause shortness of breath and an annoying tight cough, which can’t be relieved by regular cough medicines.
I’ve got my father to thank for it…well really, his father…come to think of it, I shared it with my son too, so there’s enough paternal blame to go around on this one. Heredity seems to have played its part here. My father had to take an early retirement due to respiratory problems brought on by allergens in the workplace. Long before that, his dad (my Grandpa Phillips) was stricken with emphysema, a lung disease far more serious than my touch of bronchial asthma.
I thought about Grandpa recently. I had helped the Lovely Lady with a reception for a friend of ours and was carrying boxes out to the car. The extreme change in temperature from inside the building to the frosty air outside, was enough to bring on another attack and before I knew it, I was straining to breathe. I felt a kinship with Grandpa that I had never thought about before, as I saw him in my mind’s eye, struggling to breathe from the exertion of walking 10 feet across the room. He would stop and lean against a table, or chair, or desk, with his chest heaving, the over-developed chest muscles forcing air in and out of the diseased lungs. I must admit that as a child, I didn’t empathize well. This was just how he had always been in my memory, and I assumed that it was his own fault. Grandpa had been a heavy smoker, first rolling his own and then as the hands became shaky, purchasing them in the pack–his brand of choice, filter-less Camels. A he-man’s cigarette if ever there was one. But for a person predisposed to breathing issues, as seems likely, the habit was a slow killer. I’m not a smoker and my problem doesn’t begin to approach the gravity of his, but just for a few moments this evening, I felt an empathy, a bond with my Grandpa that I never considered when he was living. And, I missed him again.
Grandma and Grandpa lived across the street from me when I was a kid. What a great blessing, to be able to grow up so close to your grandparents that you can run across the street and sit with them on the screened-in front porch, or maybe watch an episode of “I Love Lucy” or “Gunsmoke” on television with them. Two channels on TV then, with the signal literally coming through the airwaves and being picked up by a pair of “rabbit ears” on top of the tiny black & white set. Every time an airplane would approach the local airport (we were in the flight path), the static and wavy lines across the screen would interrupt the program. But the best thing was listening to Grandpa tell stories about people he knew. He loved to talk–even talked about talking…“So, I says to him, says I, …”, was one of my favorite phrases I heard him use when describing a conversation with someone else. If I weren’t such a language snob, I would incorporate that into my own speaking. Maybe it’s best to keep that as a memory instead. But I think I get my penchant for story-telling from him and, from where I’m standing, that’s not a bad legacy. The reader is free to agree or not…
The asthma won’t go away, but I carry an inhaler with me when it flares up and a couple of puffs on it usually relieve the symptoms within a minute or two. I’m not happy to have the problem, but tonight, I’m actually a little grateful for the walk down memory lane. We’ve all got memories that live in our heads and hearts; some sad, like Grandpa’s ultimately fatal affliction, but also some happy ones too, like my memories of life with him so close. There are times when I think it would be great if all our memories were like the latter, but then again, I’m reminded of a song I heard as a teenager which reminded us that hardships make us value the good times more; just as we cherish coming home because we had to be away in the first place. I think memories are often like that, the bittersweet giving way to the heartwarming, actually making the happy occasions seem more bright.
In a day or two, we’ll celebrate Thanksgiving, another of the memory-fraught times of the year for most of us. I’m going to be remembering my Grandpa’s dinner prayer as we approach this holiday. “Our Gracious Heavenly Father, we thank thee for the many blessings which Thou hast bestowed upon us…” When I was a boy, it was only remarkable in that the language never changed. As an aging man, now a grandfather myself, the message of those words has lasted well beyond his mortal years and still resonates today.
“Many blessings” indeed.
“To live in hearts we leave behind, is not to die”
(Thomas Campbell, from his poem “Hallowed Ground”)
Edited from a post originally published in November, 2010.
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.
The red-headed lady of the house wasn’t in any mood to be sassed. Today was cleaning day and already, the servants were revolting. Especially that young loud-mouthed one. The tow-headed boy appeared once again in her presence, this time with a complaint that he knew would do the trick. “Every single one of us has tried to clean that spot and it just won’t come out. Can’t we just move on to something else?”
The woman hadn’t lived to her advanced age (all of thirty-six or so) without learning a thing or two about cleaning. She grabbed the scrub brush which the youngster was holding and marched over to the bucket, dipping it a time or two into the sudsy water. Kneeling down and holding tightly to the handle, she plopped the brush onto the floor and, bearing down, began to scrub. Magically, the stain, which “every single one” of the unpaid staff had attempted to remove, was gone when she again lifted the brush from the surface.
“Wow!” The boy’s voice was a mixture of awe and disappointment. Awe, because he really had tried to remove the stain himself before offering the complaint; disappointment, because he now realized that he would have to continue with the unhappy chore. “How did you do that?”
The lady’s answer was limited to just two words–two words which didn’t clarify the issue at all for him.
“Elbow grease.” She dropped the brush into the water again, stood up and demanded, as she headed back to her command station in the living room, “Now, use some yourself and get back to work!”
It took another hour or two, but the floor was spot free and ready for the wax, which the next crew was to apply. The fun part of the job, polishing the floor by sliding on it in stocking feet, would come hours later.
The boy was still curious, so he headed for her location. Approaching the recliner in the living room, the question on the tip of his tongue was blurted out. “Mom, what is elbow grease?”
She muttered something about it just being hard work and using the muscles that God had given to you. It wasn’t a satisfactory answer, but it was all he was likely to get. He headed out for the orange trees to snag one or two of the brilliantly colored and sugar-sweet spheres off the low-hanging branches and promptly forgot about the subject.
But, I still want to know. What is elbow grease?
Oh, I’ve heard about the jokes played on young apprentices; the journeymen telling them to get a container of the stuff for them, only to laugh at their naivety as they seek for it earnestly, like someone searching for the non-existent snipe in the forest. I’ve used the term myself for years, to mean just what my mother indicated…hard work. But the word-nerd in me wants to have a definitive answer. Where did this obscure phrase come from? What strange brain concocted such a term?
As it happens, the answer is so simple, I should have thought of it myself. One has only to go to the “New Dictionary of the Canting Crew”, published in 1699, to find the meaning. The Canting Crew refers to ruffians and thieves, the real source of slang and street language in those ancient days. The entry therein for elbow grease reads thus: “Elbow grease, a derisory term for sweat.” There is nothing further.
Sweat. Of course!
When you do physical work in your shirt sleeves, you perspire and the sweat runs down the smooth surface of your upper arms to your elbows, lubricating them, almost annoyingly so. Elbow grease. As happy as I am to finally have the answer, I am embarrassed that I couldn’t work it out for myself long ago. Ah, well. Ofttimes the answer stares us in the face for a lifetime and we still don’t discern it. I now know it, anyway. I am content.
As my father-in-law used to say, in his quirky manner, “Well, I learned something new today. Now, I can go back to bed.”
I’m thinking tonight about how important elbow grease is to our lives. Oh, we have labor saving devices, better lubricants, and stronger cleaning agents, but we still have to, every once in awhile, find the elbow grease and just power through the task in front of us. Life wasn’t intended to be easy, we weren’t meant to achieve easy victories. Sometimes, we have to scrape the paint or scrub the sidewalk, with nothing but a basic tool and our muscle.
We work up a sweat and get the job done. Two things happen when we do that.
First, we learn that hard work gets the job done. It’s not about talent, or good looks, or our social station. Hard work pays off.
Second, we have that feeling that nothing else can inspire in us; the feeling of achieving our goals for ourselves. I would call it pride, only some wit will retort that “pride goes before a fall” and try to take away the God-given sense of accomplishment. This is a different sort of pride, the sort that leads to more hard work, and more achievement. I’m thinking that it is indeed, a good thing.
The young man stood in front of me at the music store the other day, showing me his sore fingers. He had his guitar with him and wanted me to repair it. “It hurts my fingers when I play,” was the complaint.
I examined the guitar, finding it to be properly adjusted, with a set of strings which were well suited to the beginning student. I handed it back to the boy and said, almost hardheartedly, “It’s supposed to hurt your fingers when you play. Keep working at it.”
You see, the only way to become a guitar player is to work through the discomfort and the softness of disuse, developing calluses on the tips of the fingers. Practice, practice, practice isn’t only a phrase in a joke, it’s the way of life for any aspiring musician. Hard work…elbow grease, is required for any achievement worth talking about.
I’m not sure, but it is possible that the words the Creator spoke to Adam, as his punishment was meted out for disobedience in the Garden of Eden, could be paraphrased from “By the sweat of your brow…” to “Everything you need to accomplish to live on this earth will be done with elbow grease.” I finally comprehend the red-head’s words, nearly fifty years later.
Couldn’t quite conquer that problem that faced you yesterday? Try it again today, only this time, use a little more elbow grease. You’ll get it done. I’ll keep working, too.
Let’s bear down! There is still a lot to accomplish.
“By the sweat of your brow will you have food to eat until you return to the ground from which you were made. For you were made from dust, and to dust you will return.”
“Both tears and sweat are salty, but they render a different result. Tears will get you sympathy; Sweat will get you change.”
(Jesse Jackson~American civil rights leader)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.