After a recent Aikido class I indulged my sushi addiction at a restaurant that offers 50% off on weekends. With a pencil, I marked a few boxes on the nigiri menu and handed it to the server, a young, cacao skinned woman who looked like she had stepped out of a fashion magazine. While confirming my order in unaccented English, she pronounced the “l” in “salmon” followed by “stripped bass”, saying the second word as if referring to a musical instrument.
“That’s striped bass,” I said, unable let that one slide. Bass, in this case, rhymed with “ass”. Was I being one by correcting her? Her mispronunciation would not alter the taste of the food unless I allowed it to ruin my appetite.
“Thank you,” she said, flashing a bright smile. “I’m new and I’m still learning.”
Thanks to my Feldenkrais studies, my mind perked up at the word “learning”, a dynamic process that feels very different from the static certainty of “knowing”. As I walked to the restroom to wash my hands, I directed my mind to travel along the track of curiosity rather than kvetchiness. I wondered where she was on her learning curve. Had she eaten sushi before? Maybe she had never ordered striped bass or heard the two words together. Maybe her supervisor had not insisted she memorize the names of the foods (and what if her boss didn’t speak English well enough to help her?). What if, in the restaurant’s dim light, she couldn’t see the menu clearly? I marveled that she received the correction so easily and gracefully, without a flicker of embarrassment. Then again, I had spoken matter of factly, without any edge or intent to shame. Perhaps her response had been evoked by my neutral tone, a spillover of the harmony I’d just experienced in Aikido. Perhaps I could chalk up the whole exchange as a “win” for spiritual practice rather than the “demerit” that my erstwhile Yelp reviewer self would have claimed.
Still, had I been in her shoes, I would have felt mortified. Not only do I place importance on words and language, but I internalized early in life the need to appear competent and “know it all”, as if that were even possible. In Aikido, it pains me when I forget the Japanese names of the techniques we’re doing, or I can’t match the name to the movements, even though I know I have heard and practiced them before. It’s an opportunity to practice compassion with myself as my brain is likely not as agile as it once was and it doesn’t latch onto the unfamiliar as easily. When I was the sushi server’s age, I rapidly memorized vocabulary and grammar rules of foreign languages. I took pride in proper pronunciation and in getting things “right”. I cringed when others, even native speakers, butchered their language and even compulsively corrected them. Yet I no longer wish to be so fixated on exactitude, or reinforce it as a cornerstone of my identity. Precision can be important, but there are many situations where, contrary to what I once believed, it doesn’t matter enough to focus on it. As Moshe Feldenkrais wrote in the preface to The Elusive Obvious, “We carry over from one activity to another attitudes of mind that do not make life what it could be…..it is not so obvious that good habits can make us unhappy.” Expecting strangers to meet that standard feels more inappropriate if not bizarre than before, especially in a low stakes situation. Better to have a server err than a surgeon! Her slip up also forced me to confront the fact that while I appreciate top notch food and service, I am not always willing to pay top dollar, a situation that Feldenkrais would call a “cross motivation”. What could I reasonably expect from an establishment that discounts their menu by half? Hmm. About half.
About five weeks ago, on a raw drizzly day, my borrowed car broke down for the third time in a matter of months, eerily mimicking the death throes of my Subaru. I called AAA to jumpstart the battery. The vehicle I drive, my younger brother’s decade-old BMW, has a charging terminal under the hood but the battery is cleverly and counterintuitively tucked out of sight, thanks to the manufacturer’s “engineering perfection.” The AAA technician wanted to check the battery level first. We looked for it beneath the trunk, where the spare tire is, and underneath the middle seat cushion. No luck. I checked the user manual. Bizarrely, the index lacked an entry for battery location. As rain blurred my iPhone screen, I Googled the information but no immediate answer popped up. Since we were both shivering in the cold, I told him to not worry about it and just jump start the car.
Before driving away, the AAA employee thanked me for being patient with his inability to find the battery. Since I did not know where it was, either, even though I’ve been driving the car for a while and it would have been wise to familiarize myself with its whereabouts, I couldn’t fault him. It’s possible he’d never met a BMW before or hadn’t dealt with such a strange animal in a long time. Yet, that he felt the need to thank me made me aware of how someone else, including myself at another point in life or even on a different day, might have taken out their stress and frustration on him, just as a prickly diner might have chastised the sushi server. When I was younger, I frequently experienced (but didn’t always express) irritation when people didn’t live up to my expectations of accuracy. While it’s a profound pleasure and a relief to be in the presence of highly skilled, knowledgeable and attentive people, irritation or shaming don’t help others come up to speed, assuming they want to. Patience and humor might. Curiosity can be useful, too, and a willingness to be present.
After lunch, the car’s dashboard flashed a familiar and stark alert: Oil level is below the minimum! Add oil immediately to avoid damaging the engine! Because the BMW is perfectly engineered, it doesn’t have a dipstick, saving the driver from getting their hands dirty checking the oil. Only the car’s computer can perform the task. Although the user manual claims that a message on the dashboard will notify the driver when the car needs extra oil before the level dips dangerously low, it has not yet performed such a courtesy. Rather, the warning of imminent disaster freaks me out each time. I drove to a service station I’d visited twice in recent weeks, once for oil issues and to inflate the tires (which, even though I’m no stranger to air pumps, required a lesson). When I pulled up, the owner sat on a bench in front, cheeks hollowed as he sucked on a cigarette.
“You’re back,” he said, his expression unchanged.
“I am,” I said. “The warning light went on. I am dangerously low on oil.”
He asked me to pop open the hood. Mistakenly, I pressed the button for the hatchback. He then opened the hood without making me feel foolish for not figuring it out myself. He asked an employee to get a quart of oil. The employee tried to unscrew the cover to the oil tank with his bare hands but had no luck. The owner found a cloth to create more traction. He noticed that a piece of the cover had broken off, making it harder to untwist. Eventually they removed it. The employee poured in the oil. This time, I bought a quart for the road, just in case. I am learning.
Thank you, Ilona, for demonstrating with your usual exquisitely precise prose that learning can be an intimately relational act – and the kinder we are to ourselves and each other about making mistakes, the happier that learning can be. Maybe that sushi lady knows something about being kind to herself that we could all do with a little more of!
Thanks for commenting! Yes, the sushi server was a remarkable teacher in that regard.