The restaurant where I work at Duke serves dinner Monday through Thursday, which means we do our best to run out of everything on Thursday night and we have to recreate most everything on Monday. I go in on Monday mornings (I get there about eleven) and start working my way down the list. Abel, my partner on the line, comes in around one and Arnaldo, our dishwasher and helper in most any way we can teach him, gets there about three-thirty. Billy and Chris are the lunch cooks who, along with Jorge, the daytime dishwasher, take care of the lunch buffet and help me out with dinner prep when they can. They know Mondays are crazy, so they usually get a couple of things started, but today when I walked in they only had news that a major accident on I-40 had kept the produce truck from making its appointed rounds and we didn’t have what we needed to work down our list. Instead of getting started at eleven, it was closer to one-thirty or two before we got into full swing. Monday, Monday: can’t trust that day.
“How do you eat an elephant?” the old joke asks. “One bite at a time.”
And so it is with prep work. I must have been standing and staring into nowhere when Abel said, “So, Milty (I wish I knew how to write that with a Guatemalan accent), what you gonna do next?” He timed his repetition of the question perfectly throughout the afternoon and, by the time service started at five, we were putting the finishing touches on our final projects. No one who came to dinner knew of the accident in Raleigh or the purposefulness of our preparation. They sat down, they ordered, and we cooked for them, as if it were any other night, which, of course, we our intention.
We had a good afternoon and evening because we worked hard and stayed focused and because we let some things not get made. I had time to make the chocolate chip pan cookies, the brownies, the apple crisp, and the blueberry bread pudding, but I had to let the sweet potato pound cake wait until tomorrow, along with a couple of other entrée things I wanted to do. Perhaps I could have gotten it all done, but Abel and I decided we were going to work hard, make sure we were well prepared, and enjoy our day at work. Letting the pound cake go was part of completing the third objective. The folks in the dining room could live without pound cake easier than I could live without my sanity.
I didn’t get it all done is not the same as I failed to get it all done.
Yesterday afternoon, I watched the USA-Canada Olympic Hockey Final, with most of North America, I understand. After the game, Ryan Miller, who was both the losing goaltender and the MVP of the entire tournament, was rather ruthlessly interviewed by someone from NBC who kept asking him what the game meant. Miller kept saying something along the lines of, “It was just another hockey game,” which flew all over one of my colleagues at work who is a huge hockey fan.
“It wasn’t just another game. It was the Olympics. But he had to say something like that because the real problem is you win to get the gold and the bronze medals, but you lose to get the silver.”
I’d never thought of it that way. When you have to win a tournament to get a medal, first and third places are won; you get second by losing. However well the entire tournament went, second place comes out of a final defeat. Maybe Miller’s words were a way of choosing to get up off the ice and see the medal around his neck as an accomplishment rather than a defeat. Maybe not. As someone who is an amazing average athlete and who has never been in contention for a gold medal of any sort on any level, I don’t know what it feels like to turn in the kind of effort worthy of being named MVP only to miss first place by a fraction of an inch or a second.
I do, however, know what it’s like to be one of two people up for a job that I really wanted and end up being the one not hired. There was no silver medal involved, nor was I given any credit for how I participated. They just sent me an email note to let me know I didn’t get the job. As I look back on it, I responded a little like the goalie, acting as though it was one job among many and I would have other opportunities, which I knew to be true but didn’t feel very much in that moment.
We read Job’s words Saturday, as he came to terms with all the bad news from his various servants. “The Lord gives,” he said, “and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Though, theologically, I’m not one to ascribe every aspect of our existence as being caused by God, I love the sentiment in the statement. Job was a rich and prosperous and comfortable and powerful man and yet he saw something deeper than his net worth, or even his grief at losing it all.
As we were cleaning up the line after dinner tonight, Abel said, “This was a good day, Milty.” He said it at the end of a day that began at 4 a. m. for him, taking one of his brothers to the airport to return to Guatemala for good. Arnaldo kept his spirit and his sense of humor even though his son is in ICU at Duke Medical Center. Getting worked up over pound cake didn’t make much sense.
It never does.