In which dishes are scrubbed vigorously, tonalities are destabilized and society commands us to make money, per usual.
To my dear reader,
Of all the adventures I had this summer, the most significant was time spent working as a kitchen assistant at a Sur La Table in North Carolina. For three months, I assisted the store’s chefs with their cooking classes by washing dishes, preparing ingredients, helping to teach the children’s and teens’ cooking camps, and learning bits of culinary technique. It was repetitive, exhausting, boring work. It was also perfect and magical and everything I’ve ever wanted. Because teaching and children and so much free food. Duh.
It was at this time that I came across Waitress: The Musical, a recent Broadway venture of my favorite singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles. Concerning Jenna, an unhappily married waitress with a talent for pie making, the show’s songs are not groundbreaking but exceedingly charming. Bareilles’ diverse musical palette allows her to give quirky tonal instability to the nervous song “When He Sees Me” and delicate vocal harmonies to the intimate ballad “You Matter to Me.” It was, however, the opening number “What’s Inside/Opening Up” that first caught my attention, because its cynically cheery depiction of waitress life – with lyrics like “I don’t know what I wish I had/But there’s no time now for thinking things like that/We’ve got too much to do” – echoed my experience as a kitchen assistant.
The fact that this job didn’t fit in my professional trajectory toward music and writing was in turns relieving and frightening. Some days I’d think “Praise the Lord I’m taking a break from those things” and some days I’d think “What am I doing my entire life is collapsing I need to be doing work relevant to my goals I’m a failure AAAH.” But it got me thinking about how much I, like so many others, define myself by my current job in two ways: firstly, by how related it is to my long term goals, and secondly, by how much I earn. It’s a mindset that has arisen in my life with increasing frequency, and it is Americans, I’ve been told by people from around the world, that subscribe to it most thoroughly – always first to ask at parties “What do you do for a living?”
I won’t say this is intrinsically bad, but I do wonder how healthy our American obsession with our professions are. I sense society’s omnipresent voice saying that we must always be at work on our professional trajectories, and that, should we not enjoy every minute of it, we are failures. To be fair, if my job made me absolutely miserable, I would quit. But it strikes me as unrealistic to expect to always have perfect jobs clearly on our career trajectory, and unhealthy to define ourselves entirely by what we get paid for. Working as a kitchen assistant wasn’t close to what I want to do in the long run, but I don’t see it as a failure. I made friends and learned about cooking and when I got to prepare ingredients for the chefs, I’d happily think, like Jenna in the show’s opening number, “My whole life is in here/In this kitchen baking/What a mess I’m making.”
And yes, at least I made some money.
Are you happy, society?
With all due respect,