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.