Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The Master.

Years ago, I was a barman, at a popular sports bar near a populous university, a Big Ten school that ran wild with fervent ardor whenever its sports teams competed. In the rung-climbing wilderness that is the progression up a ladder in a bar, I began as a doorman, advanced to afternoon bar shifts, and matriculated as that angry guy slinging cocktails in your direction during frantic evening sporting events and open-mike night: I was, in short, a college bartender. Such is an experience that cannot so much be described as it has to be lived; it was, like all jobs entailing direct service to an inebriated public, a tiny, ripe, slice of hell.

Hell, in its middling form, had reprieves. In the days of the afternoon shifts, I ran across a man, unassuming as vanilla, humble, patient, and kind. His name was John Haze. John was, and probably still is, a supervisor at the local United Dairy Farmers, a convenient store much akin to the one I work in now. What I did not know was that I had discovered my teacher, my guru, my sensei—the first person to show me the rules of mastering this world

John was about 43 years old, with thick blond hair usually needing a cut and black-framed, badly unfashionable bifocals. He was, sartorially, quite unremarkable: sweat pants, tees, and sneakers made up the bulk of his attire—appropriate gear for the bicycle he rode in place of a car. John would sit at my bar most happy hours on his off days, drinking his draft Bud, smoking his Marlboro Reds, occasionally watching sports, always tipping well—and kicking the crap out of everybody at NTN trivia for hours on end. He was, on more than one occasion that I watched him, the top-scoring player in the nation for an individual game.

It seemed natural enough to wonder what a guy who knew everything like it was his job was doing working at UDF, mostly because I had a whole different outlook on things at the time. But there was, as there is with everyone, a lot more to John than people cared to notice. He had spent a year in law school, before dropping out because he took no joy in it, despite the fact that his grades had been excellent and he was progressing toward his J.D. That made no sense to me, of course. Why would anyone work in a convenient store who could have been a lawyer? Had he no…oh, I don’t know…ambition?

He didn’t, though, by any means, because he’d figured out something in those days of law school that I wouldn’t figure out until some time later: ambition is not a noble human quality. He’d seen, up close and personal, the madness of greed and the cruelty of competition, the grasping and scheming that was law school and would almost certainly be the practice of law. And so rather than enter into a life of elevated blood pressure, unkindness, stress and servitude in exchange for something as tawdry as a fat paycheck, he simply walked off into his simple, contented little life without ever looking back. He had committed an arch-heresy, performed a tiny insurrection against the very rules which govern our society. He had looked the Man straight in the eye and said, “I will not play your game; your game is no fun. I will play my game instead.”

John did have another game, though, besides NTN and the figurative one just described. It is a very old game that is played by hundreds of millions of people, but played exceptionally well by very, very few. John’s game was chess, and he was wickedly good, a ranked Master who at his peak had won regional tournaments and was probably among the top several thousand players in the United States. I found this out, like I had found out about the law school bit, from somebody else. John didn’t talk about himself unless you asked, because along with his lack of ambition he simply had no ego whatsoever. I later had the privilege of watching him win nine, lose three, and draw one of thirteen chess games at the bar next door. That might not sound too impressive, until one considers that he was playing all thirteen opponents simultaneously, rapidly moving in a circle from one board and opponent to the next, allowing the opposing players thirteen times his amount of time to consider their moves. And he worked at UDF. What on earth was I dealing with here? A madman?

What I realize now, each night as I stand behind the counter of my little shop, years later on these beautiful Summer nights, is that I was dealing with one of the one people in about ten thousand that I would actually consider sane. He had figured out a truth so profoundly obvious and yet so painful for the rest of our vain, silly selves to accept: we are not truly defined by the things that we allow ourselves to be defined by. We are not our jobs, we are not our clothes, we are not our cars, we are not the opinions of others, or even our own opinions of ourselves. These things are ephemeral and shifting, chess pawns to be traded and sacrificed before the king that is the higher Self. These things do not have the power to make or break our happiness any more than we allow them to do so. They are labels which we were taught to adhere to early in our lives, in order to make us obedient and hence less difficult to control; they are sticks and carrots treating us as pack mules, and the truly daft thing is that we allow our lives, nay, demand that our lives be led this way, thinking that the better sticks and bigger carrots of promotions and new cars and home refurbishments will make us more than pack mules.

This is a disastrous way to live, involving a cornucopia of suffering, as most people are partly aware by the size of their pharmacy co-pays and Xanax prescriptions, yet most people never look to any other way, thinking instead that incremental adjustments to an inherently defective model will make it work, that you can turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. But you can’t, and John got that. John understood that a man’s greatness flows forth from the confines of his heart, that it is to be found nowhere outside, and certainly not on any line of an IRS 1040 form. Perhaps he even understood, like Jesus and Lao-tzu and Buddha, that he could change more people into good and great people by leading with his quiet, dignified example than with the soapboxes and megaphones that are the trade-tools of loud, blathering, discontented fools everywhere. He certainly knew that finding a job you loved involved not a better job, but rather learning to infuse love into whatever job it is you do. A lot of lawyers are detestable, angry, bitter, avaricious people, despite the fact that they make eight times as much money as convenient store clerks. A few convenient store clerks are really somewhat content being unimportant. At the end of the day, who’s really better off?

I once asked John, before moving away and losing touch with him, if he would give me a chess lesson. He agreed, as it was not in his nature to refuse a small kindness, but we somehow never got around to it. As I try so very hard these days to live the lessons of his example, though, I realize that that’s quite alright. He taught me plenty else.


At Tuesday, August 09, 2005 9:59:00 PM, Blogger bunnygirl said...

Wow, thank you for this! There really is no price you can put on serenity.

There's a reason all those rich and famous people go traipsing off to Tibet, Kaballah centers, Scientology classes and Indian gurus. The latest model Benz won't give you what your soul needs.

You have great insight, Gas Guy, and I wish you luck holding on to it in our bling-oriented society. The world isn't kind to those who won't play the game.

At Tuesday, August 09, 2005 10:12:00 PM, Anonymous rvc said...

the second law of theromodynamics is perhaps one of the most depressing. Energy flows from high to low-- entropy describes the cosmos we live in. We prance our daily lives around a premise of decay. At our best, we are crusaders against the advent of chaos, forging our own little bastions of peace. and these are things of power, felt by those who see them. Some see such a person and scoff into their mocchiato, but somewhere inside, they say 'you can do that?' The sad thing to me is to watch so many people say 'you can do that?' and then, 'I couldn't.'

I'm just another gas station attendant, up after my shift.

At Wednesday, August 10, 2005 12:20:00 AM, Blogger Hawaiianmark said...

I gotta learn to play chess.

Trying to reach around, right now, and peel the label off.

Reflective, immersing, beautiful post.

Thanks again, good to see you survived the brutality off the mega-shifts.


At Wednesday, August 10, 2005 5:43:00 AM, Blogger St. Dickeybird said...

Wow, you're lucky to have met a guy like that. And to have left with such an impressive revelation.

At Wednesday, August 10, 2005 5:58:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ambition is a horrible, dangerous thing when we allow others to dictate that which we aspire to. John had plenty of ambition, but he himself chose that which he would focus on and reach for. That, in my mind, is the sign not only of a content person, but a confident and brave person, who can look society in the eye and say "I will not play your game . . . I will play my game instead." That is what I hope my sons and all my students aspire to.

At Wednesday, August 10, 2005 6:05:00 AM, Blogger bornfool said...

What a great awesome post. Really, one of the best I've ever read. To think, I came here for a laugh. What I got was much better.

At Wednesday, August 10, 2005 6:18:00 AM, Blogger Kristine said...


At Wednesday, August 10, 2005 6:55:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is nothing quite like looking into the face of an authentic individual: no games, no impostor self following the script, and no defiance.

At Wednesday, August 10, 2005 7:22:00 AM, Blogger bbsgirl said...

Very nice read today gas guy. Thanks for sharing and adding some thought as to how I'm living my life. I would love to have met a "John" like you have to inspire you and pass on to all of us.

At Wednesday, August 10, 2005 11:30:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This man was/is a taoist. A condensed and very readable version of his philosophy can be found in the book "The Tao of Pooh." Very recommended reading, whatever your aspirations.

At Wednesday, August 10, 2005 12:25:00 PM, Anonymous C_Navin@msn.com said...

I too was in law school, and was doing well, and left.

The design is so simple yet so effective: it is boot camp for your mind.

And it is a game, one of the most challenging and complex games we have, requiring a very good mind, great physical and intellectual stamina, and uncanny ability to always stay ahead of the pack.

There will always be games, and anyone who chooses to think about this truth will be in a peculiar position.

Personally, having witnessed the potential ugliness of ambition, the disregard for others it engenders, and the lack of awareness it requires, I too find a bend in myself toward the spiritual.

So, I read Plato. And think of dear Socrates. Socrates who went to the agora and found himself a curiousity, a strange old man among the nobles, and future leaders of Athens.
Dear Socrates who would engage with anyone who chose to engage him in dialectical discussions of the good, of justice, of honor, truth and of beauty.

To those who seek sweeping condemnations of greed, ambition, and game-playing, you shall often find places but no ultimate truth, only truths.

To those seeking the wise man among us sleepwalkers, yours is a quest that will not end, and I do not know if it is the best you can do with your lives.

At Wednesday, August 10, 2005 1:20:00 PM, Blogger zilla said...


At Wednesday, August 10, 2005 2:03:00 PM, Blogger Kit Is Knitting said...

He certainly knew that finding a job you loved involved not a better job, but rather learning to infuse love into whatever job it is you do.

As I work my various nursing jobs, moving from one to the next, I do indeed find this to be very very true.

At Wednesday, August 10, 2005 2:57:00 PM, Blogger Ryan said...

I cannot put it any better than Hamel has put it above.

At Wednesday, August 10, 2005 4:06:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I quit law school long ago for exactly the same reason, but rather than working for a convenience store I eventually ended up getting a master's degree in library science. The atmosphere was completely different, while law school and the practice of law is all about tearing your opponents (other students, other associates, opposing parties) down, librarianship is about cooperation with colleagues and helping build people up.

Too bad the pay sucks.

At Wednesday, August 10, 2005 9:20:00 PM, Blogger Hawaiianmark said...

la mortadella-

Ho'opuni wale ka mea i ka po'e heluhelu, paha kakau mo'oleo?


Definition open -

Just a fucking selfish firefighter.


At Thursday, August 11, 2005 4:14:00 AM, Blogger Night Angel said...

Hi Gas Guy,

While I was reading your last comment, it reminded me a bit of what I went through myself lately. I was a realtor until this June, making big bucks. But with that money came bigger responsabilities. I had difficult working hours, clients sueing me for trivalties because they figured I had the money to pay for it, bigger bills. But what hurt me the most about this line of work was that I barely made it to my grandmother's funeral, then I didn't make it in time to tell my grandfather that I loved him before he died. A few months later I quit. I also went bankrupt and lost my vehicle, but at least I'm happy now as a secratary. I can be myself and not have to worry about pleasing (bootlicking) all my clients.

After reading your last blog, you've made me feel better about who I am.

Thanks a bundle!

At Thursday, August 11, 2005 7:25:00 AM, Blogger The Gas Guy said...

A quick update, folks: you're all free to disagree with me, as long as you can be even reasonably polite about it, or at least leave an email where I can tell you what I think of your comments if you can't. But henceforth, people anonymously leaving belligerent, rude, troll-droppings in my comments, people with neither the ability to write anything noteworthy themselves nor the courage to deal with my reply in private, will simply be deleted. Trolls don't warrant the attention, which is all they are looking for in the first place by trying to highjack these threads. Write your own blog if you want responses, La Mortadella; you aren't getting anymore here.

At Thursday, August 11, 2005 7:36:00 AM, Blogger J said...

Awesome post, GG. For me, it is a timely thing, as I find myself traveling down this very road in search of simplified ... enlightenment? Maybe.

At Thursday, August 11, 2005 8:28:00 AM, Anonymous Kris said...

Thank you for the post, Gas Guy. I cannot think of an intelligent comment to make in response, but I still wanted to let you know I enjoyed reading it. Parts of it bugged me, and parts of it delighted me.

Do you have any friends in your life right now who live as John did? I can't think of one in my life. Not one.

At Thursday, August 11, 2005 1:44:00 PM, Anonymous Sandra said...

It's ironic that I read this today...I was talking to a friend last night about how my perception of the value of a "career" has changed in the past 5 years or so (as long as I've been out of college). I was brought up to think - a la LA Law - that having a "high-powered" career was the thing to do, and that longer hours and lots of work really meant that you were...well, something special.

What I've learned? The people I most admire love - or at least like - their job(s). I'm materialistic enough to want to earn a decent living - I like taking trips and buying nice things occasionally - but there has to be a balance. Sacrificing your life for your job...not the way to go.

At Thursday, August 11, 2005 7:24:00 PM, Anonymous nameless said...

He certainly knew that finding a job you loved involved not a better job, but rather learning to infuse love into whatever job it is you do.

Then why not practice law, & infuse love into that?

as most people are partly aware by the size of their pharmacy co-pays and Xanax prescriptions

Or bar tabs, perhaps? Or does that not fit into your all sages must be underachievers philosophy? I see no difference in a Dr prescribed crutch and a bartender administered one.

It sounds like John Haze saw his true potential in life, and it scared the shit out of him. So instead of being a lawyer, he decided to swim in a small pond where the fish are more easily impressed

At Friday, August 12, 2005 12:37:00 AM, Blogger The Gas Guy said...

Nameless, I'm glad that you stopped by; you illustrate the difference between a rude troll and an intelligent dissenter. I will address your points at a future interval.

At Friday, August 12, 2005 6:52:00 AM, Blogger RichD said...

This is an incredibly eloquent summation of something I've been thinking about for a long time. Thanks! I wrote a song along similar lines:


PS - Nameless, you entirely miss the point, surely. The whole reason behind the opting out was to avoid the whole process of competition, not to rephrase that competition somewhere else.

At Friday, August 12, 2005 11:54:00 PM, Blogger Nightcrawler said...

There is nothing wrong with ambition (wanting to achieve material success) provided that such ambition benefits others as well as the self. It is the ambition that enriches only the self that is destructive.

I've often said that the best job is one that you'd be doing even in the absence of pay. If you don't love what you're doing, you're doing the wrong thing.

At Saturday, August 13, 2005 6:32:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nameless: He wasn't scared, he found no joy in it. That was made clear, I thought.

At Saturday, August 13, 2005 9:24:00 PM, Blogger Hawaiianmark said...

Just in case you didnt get a chance to decipher the meaning.

The hawaiian language was never written. Oral history only. So that being said, and after reading cretin's diatribe-

If the speaker was speaking a heart felt truth, and the listener truly taking in what was being said, all are in unison. But if the listener only wishes to express venom, or disdain in a way not appropriate, one might say the following -

"Who is the bigger fool? The speaker, or the one who does not understand the truth that is being said?"

You deal, in a much better way.

Absolutely no offense to you.


At Monday, August 15, 2005 7:11:00 AM, Blogger R.M. Bass said...

You see it all the time. This law school drop-out/chess wizard/bar fly you describe just couldn’t hack it. What you’ve done in this post is simply provide him with an excuse, and made it a validation of your own choices in life. You've the best excuse in the world for losing; no trouble losing when you got a good excuse. Winning. That can be heavy on your back, like a monkey. You'll drop that load too when you got an excuse. All you’ve got to do is learn to feel sorry for yourself. One of the best indoor sports, feeling sorry for yourself. A sport enjoyed by all, especially the born losers.

At Monday, August 15, 2005 11:49:00 AM, Blogger The Gas Guy said...


Thank you for illustrating my frequently made point about unhappy people wishing to infect others with their greed and discontent. I feel sorry for you and your miserable existence, your need to view riches, which bring little happiness, as "winning." You have almost certainly ruined your day with your belligerent comment, but you aren't ruining mine.

Bye now.

At Monday, August 15, 2005 1:02:00 PM, Anonymous gasgal said...

He's 26, an investment banker, lives in New York and his name is Dick. Need I say more?

I sit down to dine on my Kraft Dinner (macaroni and cheese to you Americans) with a clear conscience.

At Thursday, August 18, 2005 8:38:00 PM, Blogger Chickadee said...

Wow!!! You put into words perfectly this very lesson I have recently learned and am struggling with. I have recently quit two jobs because I was unhappy...I wasn't being true to myself, I was doing something that I didn't like and I was playing the "game" in a half-hearted manner. I've never really been good at the "game"...I guess you could say that I walk the road less traveled and instead of celebrating my uniqueness, I've tried to fit in with our society and have gotten depressed when it just didn't fit.

So I'm home now, blogging and trying to figure out what it is I'm meant to do. I'm through with the game.

Thanks...I read that post at the perfect time.

At Friday, August 19, 2005 10:37:00 AM, Blogger Jason said...

Nice post and all, but step down off your soapbox a bit GasGuy (and posters), because for all your salt-of-the-earth rhetoric, you sure sound like a bunch of condescending pr!cks.

What you miss, fundamentally, is that ambition is, like many words in English, a word with several, sometime contradictory meanings. Miriam-Webster online cites these two definitions: a : an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power; b : desire to achieve a particular end. Of course, the word is commonly used – particularly by the average investment banker – in the former sense. But the latter version, well, I’d rather be labeled as that sort of ambition than suffer through being painted with its antonym, sloth.

I believe that the word “ambition,” in its true sense, does refer merely to the desire to achieve a particular end. However, in a capitalist, modern society, people generally seek “rank, fame or power”: the reason that the word has unfortunately taken on the first convention. If you want to pat someone on the back for failing to seek those things, that’s fine, but we should all take a very long look in the mirror before embarking on our own trip of moral superiority.

Are you sure that this person that you loathe, this lawyer or banker or whatever, doesn’t find fulfillment in his job? Do you praise the 80-hour-weeks social worker, while slamming the 80-hour-weeks corporate executive, without asking which one is more content? Of course it’s better to be happy than be rich, but there is a segment of the population, through nature, nurture or ignorance believes that they are happy when the are rich. What problem is that of yours?

And all this New Age-y hostility towards someone who might want a few nice things, why does each of us work? You want to move to a commune, or resettled in a Ugandan village, more power to you, but until then do each of you live on the most meager means you can? Our UDF clerk works to afford to get drunk at the sportsbar, and our investment banker works to buy his sportscar, who are each of you to pass judgment on one over the other, you smug, self-righteous keystrokers.

At what point does "comfort" morph into "ostentatiousness"? And who the fck are you to make that decision for someone, no everyone, else? Is John a hypocrite if he picks up an extra shift at the UDF so he can drink imported beer for the next month? Because that’s ambition, my friends.

As for those who left law school before completion of your JD, I sincerely congratulate you on figuring out that law wasn't for you before you spent more money on your education. But as for the suggestion that all lawyers are egomaniacal, money-hungry, cut throat monsters, I humbly suggest that you left too early in the process to have the credibility to make that assertion. From Amnesty International lawyers, to civil servants, to solo practitioner's who do nothing but basic estate planning, there are a lot of lawyers out there who don't fit that stereotype, so save the facile lawyer-bashing for one of the endless (and endlessly useless) political blogs out there. Stating that “the practice of law is all about tearing your opponents” demonstrates a remarkable ignorance to the breadth of areas governed by the law, and the diversity of perspectives of those practicing it. If you thought law school was like that as well, perhaps you didn’t spend enough time seeking out others who broke from the stereotypes you so enjoy flinging at others.

Ambition, properly so, just means striving to get what you want in life. Knowing want you want is a struggle that many of us endure, but once I know what I want, I’m damned sure going after it, with or without GasGuy’s approval.

At Friday, August 19, 2005 12:42:00 PM, Blogger The Gas Guy said...

Jason, you make exellent points. Ambition is but a word, and like any word can mean different things in different situations. I have a friend who is a public defender, a lawyer who enjoys what he does, and hence my broad brush strokes, if not being preachy, are at least oversimplyfying. John, specifically, took no joy in law school. Perhaps you did. Not all lawyers are bad people and not all convenience store clerks are good people.

But do note from the anger of your tone how upset you're getting over nothing, just silly words from a man whose approval you hardly need at all. Take a breath, and dismiss the words if they don't apply to you or suit you. I'm just a guy, working in a gas station, writing things as I see them. I'm probably wrong most of the time. This is really no cause for hurt feelings.

At Friday, August 19, 2005 1:54:00 PM, Anonymous gasgal said...

Look out! Jason's got a dictionary and he's not afraid to use it.

At Saturday, August 20, 2005 11:44:00 PM, Anonymous dave said...

sounds like your personal socrates (as per "way of the peaceful warrior"). a diamond in the ruff.

At Monday, August 22, 2005 7:50:00 AM, Blogger Jason said...

GasGuy, no harm meant. I think much of my causticity was actually directed at the GG Posters, rather that the original post. Perhaps if I could just accept things the way that they are, and spent my days sitting at a bar playing chess, I'd have the necessary serenity in my life, and not have to go after service employees' blogs. Or maybe I just hadn't had my tea for the day on Friday.

At Tuesday, August 23, 2005 7:35:00 AM, Blogger xanadian said...

You are lucky to have encountered such an individual. I have encountered people who tout themselves a such, then require payment for their wisdom. Finding a true guru or master is next to impossible, and I feel a sense of malaise when I think about it. "Malaise" has almost become a byword in my life. No...it feels worse than malaise. There are times I feel like I'm about to fall apart, for no apparent reason.

I have a great job (for the most part) with excellent benefits--but that is not always enough. For sure, I don't HATE my job; far from it. But after chasing the "perfect" job through 4 years of un- and under-employment (and a bankruptcy), I still feel unfulfilled.

This post helped me realize why (or at least part of the reason why). Oh, how I wish I could find a true master. I see myself as an intelligent and wise person--but it's like I heard someone once say, "he knows enough to just cause enough damage." That's how it feels for me.

PS. How did you get that word verification thing? I'll have to search blogger to find it, I guess.

Anyway, an enlightening post, and I'm sure I'll be back.

At Tuesday, August 23, 2005 8:18:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm so glad the J-Walk Blog linked to you today. You're a fascinating person and a brilliant writer, and I look forward to reading your archived posts as one would look forward to reading an excellent book by a favorite author. Thank you.

As to this post, and your friend, I think one of the good things in getting older (me, not you!) is being able to look back and remember those very few, very right connections to others that dramatically changed my life. I'm glad you two got to walk together for awhile.


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