March 16, 2008

Redefining moments

It's been an interesting two weeks since I wrote about Shaharazade's being up for sale. A handful of days in Florida for a work-related software convention gave me the opportunity to visit family and talk to my parents about the situation. They were very encourgaging and proved to be a good sounding board off of which to bounce my thoughts. I came away with an extensive list of questions to ask the current owners, and a feeling of confidence that I might actually be able to handle such a potentially crazy enterprise. At this point, it all hinges on the question at the top of that list I've put together: What was the current owner's personal income from the restaurant last year? If it's an amount I could comfortably live on, then I'm going to begin the process of pursuing this. Trouble is, these people are hard to get ahold of. Messages to the e-mail address at the shop's website have all bounced back and phone messages left with staff have been slow to be passed on. Through a few conversations this morning, though, I learned the following:

-- The owners apparently don't spend much time in the shop, as their daughter runs it for them. I know that the husband/owner usually stops in on Sunday mornings, so I planned to have breakfast there today. Of course, I just missed him and his daughter wasn't working, but I was told that my phone messages had been passed on.
-- The owner of a store down the street gave me the low-down on the restaurant's kitchen-- It's supposedly so tiny that they have propane-powered heating elements instead of a stove. Considering the quality of their food, that knowledge (if it's accurate) gives me profound admiration for the kitchen staff. It also tipped me off to what's probably one of the greatest challenges of running the place.
-- Another shop owner, of the awesomely funky Lost Dog coffee shop (my second favorite place in Shepherdstown), informed me that the husband/owner of Shaharazade's is also the town mayor, which gives me another possible avenue of contact.

I also made sure to walk past the realty office that's advertising the restaurant and get their phone number. So, I'm hopeful of talking to someone this week. With my luck, I'll find out that they've already accepted another offer, but at this point even that would be a relief. See, I'm following my typical pattern on this: Once I get an idea or a desire in my head, I grasp it tenaciously and become obsessed and impatient to see it through to fruition. And if that impatience goes on too long, I either become excited and slip into irrationality, or discouraged and blow the whole thing off. Since talking to my parents, it's been more of the former than the latter. I've been allowing myself to visualize life as the owner of Shaharazade's, and to wonder about such things as where I'd end up living if this comes to pass (and yes, I've already googled rental properties in the area). At the moment, I can feel the physical manifestation of that anxious excitement-- an intermittent tightness in my chest as if a fist were wrapped around my sternum and trying to yank it out from between my ribs. It's unsettling, to say the least. No wonder I have such issues with dukkha. But I'm trying my damndest to squelch the grasping and remain calm until I can get enough information to rationally decide whether to move forward or just let go.

In the meantime, I've been exploring that feeling of confidence that began in Florida, as well as just where I am at this point in my life. It's not that I'm generally lacking in confidence (I've been known to occasionally border on arrogance. Yes, me. Really!), but the growing realization that I'm at a crossroads and that I need to step out of complacency into something unknown has led me to a questioning state of soul-searching that challenges my self-assurance. I'm a slave to stability. I've had only three full-time jobs in my life. I spent 7 years at the first and only left because the company went bankrupt. After 9 years at the second job, I faced a situation similar to what I'm experiencing now, except that I ended up completely despising that job and crying in the car during morning commutes until I found my current position. In September I'll have been at this job for 9 years, so I'm apparently coming up on my version of the "Seven (or so) Year Itch". That's apparently my life-change cycle. Roughly every seven to nine years, I go through the same round of questions: What and how much can I handle? What and how much am I willing to handle? Is this [idea that I'm pursuing] the right direction for me? If I decide that it's not, or if it just doesn't work out, what else do I want to/am able to do? Will this choice drag me to the depths, or will it bring out latent strengths buried by complacency? Just how do I want to re-define myself?


Imagine your brain as a canister filled with ink,
now think of your body as the pen where the ink resides.
Fuse the two, KAPOW! What are you now?
You're the human magic marker, won't you please surprise my eyes?
It's in your nature, you can paint whatever picture you like,
no matter what Ted Koppel says on channel 4 tonight.
So modify this third rock from the sun,
by painting myriads of pictures with the colors of the one.

I'm sick of painting in black and white
My pen is dry and I'm all uptight
So sick of limiting myself to fit your definition

Picture the scene, where whatever you thought
would, in the blink of an eye, manifest and become illustrated.
You'd be sure, man, that every line drawn reflected a life that you loved
not an existence that you hated.
So, must we demonstrate that we can't get it straight?
We've painted a picture, now we're drowning in the paint.
Figure out what the fuck it's about,
before the picture we painted chews us up and spits us out.

I'm sick of painting in black and white
My pen is dry and I'm all uptight
So sick of limiting myself to fit your definition

All of this has put my head in a whirl and created a hell of a distraction, which is obvious by the way I've just been babbling. And of course, it's affecting me at work. It was very hard to focus at the convention in Florida. There were moments when I was seriously interested in what I was learning and how I could apply it at work, but just as many others when I was day-dreaming and thinking of questions to ask the owners of Shaharazade's.

I did have one moment of peace, though. The convention takes place at a resort/convention center in St. Pete Beach, which is not a bad spot considering that it's Florida. It's right on the beach (and I lucked into a room with a view) about a mile and a half up from the somewhat fabulous Don Cesar hotel. Tradition at this convention includes an after-dinner stroll down the beach for drinks at the Don's swanky bar. Up till this year I'd resisted that tradition, but this time around I decided that I should finally see the place. If you're into 100 year old cognac and expensive cigars, it's your kinda place. Me, I had two ginger ales, said my goodnights to the group, and headed out to the beach to stroll back to the resort alone.

After the chaos of three days with family, a whirlwind of software seminars, and the Big Issue I've been pondering, that solitary night-time walk along the Gulf of Mexico was wonderfully refreshing. I passed a few other people, but none walked as close to the water as I chose to. About halfway along, I caught up with a group of sandpipers scuttling along the edge of the surf. I followed them for a while, losing sight of them against the water in the dim light, then glimpsing them again as they ran from the tide flowing up the beach. Farther along, just before the spot where I needed to turn away and head up to the resort, was a heron stalking along through the breakers. He was engrossed in hunting and ignored me as I squatted on the sand to watch him. How he was able to see anything in that dark water is beyond me. To me, he was barely more than a long, pale silhouette against the grey and black gradients of flat sea, horizon, and midnight sky above. But observing his focus and determination served to center me, however briefly, and I hope to hold on to the image when I feel that damned fist closing around my sternum.

March 2, 2008

Synchronicity, or just a pipe dream?

Main Entry: pipe dream
Function: noun
Etymology: 1896, from the fantasies brought about by the smoking of opium
Definition: an illusory or fantastic plan, hope, or story

So, a few weeks ago I followed one of my favorite routines of cruising up to Shepherdstown, WV, for tea and breakfast at Shaharazade's. Afterwards, I went for a stroll through town. Shep'town appears at first glance to be just one more tiny little historic country town, with a tiny little main street of slightly crumbling historic buildings. But a closer look reveals that the street-level of those buildings is full of some pretty chi-chi shops and restaurants, and at least three of those store-fronts are home to realty offices that plaster their windows with very expensive listings, which I normally ignore because I think it's disgusting that housing should cost that much, even if it is historic. I have the impression that much of the staff of Shepherd University (after which the town is named) and the visiting parents of many of the students apparently have significant disposable income, and the town seems happy to oblige them.

So, anyway, after breakfast on that particular day a few weeks ago, one of those listings jumped out and grabbed my attention as I was walking by. Being offered for a mere (relatively speaking) $75,000 was my beloved Shaharazade's! In the following weeks, I inquired of the staff when I was there and left phone messages for the owners, but got no information. This morning, though, I was there again and one of the owners came in just as I was finishing my meal. I had been hoping for just such an opportunity and chatted with him for a bit. It seems that, even though the business is doing just fine, there are too many other issues going on in his and his wife's lives and something had to give. They're apparently semi-retired and decided to take away the "semi-" part in order to have time to deal with things.

I've been thinking about this a lot. I probably wouldn't be if I weren't going through this phase of being dissatisfied with both my job and where I live, but I am fed up with both and so very ready for a change. But...

1) I'd have to sell my condo to have the money to do this. I could probably, possibly, find a place to rent for a decent price out thataways (an hour or so farther west of DC), but to get a decent price for my condo I'd have to throw several thousand dollars into fixing it up. Even then, the current housing market situation means that I wouldn't get anywhere near what I could have a few years ago, or what I might if I waited for this economic slump to end. I'm guessing, in it's current state, I could get more than double the price of the restaurant, but less than triple. Would that be enough to buy the business, find a place to live, and make the venture successful? And then there's the timing of it all to consider. Who knows how long my condo would take to sell? Would the owners of Shaharazade's wait that long? Or would I have to take out a loan and then pray that the condo sold quickly? Could I even take out a loan for that amount before selling the condo?

2) Even more importantly, I know jack-shit about the restaurant industry. I've got a quarter-century in luxury retailing under my belt, including sales, management and administration, and I'm sure some portion of that knowledge and experience would translate into running a restaurant. But what about the rest? There's so much I don't know, and that's the part that scares the bejeezus out of me. The place comes with all equipment, inventory, staff, etc, and the current owner is willing to assist whomever takes over. But I have no idea how long the learning curve would be. I've read Anthony Bourdain's books, and I've heard the horror stories from that industry. What if I were to take this plunge and have it fail in less than a year? What the hell would I do then?

Not to mention the fact that Shaharazade's is my sanctuary, the place that I've run to these many months when I've needed a serene, comfortable place to read, write, think, and escape. If I were to take over the business, how long would it take for it to turn from calm sanctuary to stressful nightmare?

So I've spent the past couple of weeks wondering whether this is one of those synchronous opportunities I wrote about so recently, or just a crazy, unrealistic, impractical pipe dream. How the hell to tell? There are just too many questions. Could someone out there please tell me whether or not I'm a lunatic to consider this with any degree of seriousness? Or could I actually make this work? Is this a leap I should take, or would I just end up screwing myself?

Where's a fucking Magic 8-Ball when I need it?

While I'm stuck here driving myself to distraction over this little fantasy of mine, here's some Incubus for y'all to chew on:

Pendulous Threads

Mend this careless thread, it’s gone askew.
(Thread on my sweater is pendulous, step back & pull it.
Watch it unravel faster than a speeding bullet.)

Or pull & see how much we can undo.
(Thread on my sweater is pendulous, step back & pull it.
Watch it unravel faster than a speeding bullet.)

On a burning bridge, your options are minimal at best.
Depending on where you’re standing
& how much breath is in your chest.
If it came down to it
would you high-tail home & hide?
Or dance on fire & enjoy the ride?

Mend this careless thread, it’s gone askew.
(Thread on my sweater is pendulous, step back & pull it.
Watch it unravel faster than a speeding bullet!)
Or pull & see how much we can undo.
(Thread on my sweater is pendulous, step back & pull it.
Watch it unravel faster than a speeding bullet!)

At the heart of it all,
that innermost, your fiery core,
there’s an amassing armor
& it’s building you into a bore.
Life’s a match in a gas tank,
don’t ever mourn the ebbing tide,
just dance on fire & enjoy the ride!