lenten journal: benchmarks


    I spent my day in restaurants.

    I drove into Boston this morning for breakfast because my friend Patty was passing through on her way back to Michigan. We ate at Mul’s Diner, which is a South Boston landmark and the real thing, as far as diners go. I went for the basics: eggs over easy, bacon, wheat toast, home fries, and coffee. We ate in about ten minutes and then sat and talked and drank more coffee for another hour and a half before it was time to take her to the airport. We even stayed long enough for our server to warm up to us, which, in any Boston restaurant, is no small achievement.

    I drove back down Route 3 and stopped at Panera, our usual Thursday hangout, to use their free wifi to send a copy of the bulletin for our Darfur service to the church. I was going to get a cup of coffee, but the lunch line was already happening and I didn’t have any time to lose. From there I went to the gym (hooray for me) to spend some time on the ellipsis machine, distracting myself by watching NCAA basketball.

    The next event on my calendar was lunch with my friend Doug for yet another gathering of the Pastoral Spouses’ Support Group. I had some time before he was out of his meeting, so I went to Kiskadee, another coffee shop with free wifi, to get a cup of coffee and wait for his call. While I was there, I took time to listen to some clips of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s new album and chase down a few other music links. (Did any of you know Delbert McClinton has a son who makes records?)

    Doug and I met about two at Asian C, a Japanese/Chinese restaurant, where we tried six different kinds of sushi and a couple of Chinese beers. Lunch took up most of the afternoon. We ordered our maki rolls two at a time and each plate was delivered by a different server. A meal with Doug is always both fun and educational. Today’s lesson had to do with benchmarks, which grew out of a discussion of my use of surveying as a metaphor in an earlier post. I knew a benchmark was a standard by which something could be measured; what I didn’t know is it is a surveying term. According to Dictionary.com, it is “a surveyor’s mark on a permanent object of predetermined position and elevation used as a reference point.” The other thing I learned from Doug is any benchmark is arbitrary. He said, for example, when surveyors measure elevation they do so using “mean sea level” (I think that’s the term he used) as the benchmark. But what sea level actually is cannot be definitively determined. The tides were measured and averaged and then mean sea level was set – in 1929, sort of the surveyors’ version of “you must be as tall as my hand to get on this ride.” One could just as easily draw a line in the sand and measure from there. We opened our fortune cookies (mine said, “Soon you will be sitting on top of the world”), but we didn’t have coffee.

    I went back to Panera to meet Ginger and another friend we haven’t seen for a while. I got another cup of coffee (and a couple of free refills) and read until Ginger arrived. Our friend came soon after and we caught up on each other’s lives. Her son is in high school and is a really good athlete. Last fall, he intercepted a pass on the last play of the game and ran it back for a touchdown and the win for Marshfield. He is also a bright kid who is not particularly enamored of academics, even though he makes good grades. He asked if he could move out of Honors English next year into the regular class. His folks are cool with it, but the English department at the high school is having a hard time. Their benchmark for excellence is Honors and they can’t imagine why anyone would not want to measure up.

    I taught high school English for a decade in both urban and suburban high schools and there was a significant disparity in the benchmarks of the two institutions. They did share one thing in common: high school is hard on most everyone. One day, after talking with a colleague about a student who was fighting to survive his sophomore year, I wrote this poem:

    high school

    say you start with
    a thousand candles

    tiny little beacons
    beaming together
    in brilliance

    say you blow out
    no one will
    this one
    on the edge
    in the back

    say you blow out
    no one will
    one each
    just one
    how could it matter

    come back in a thousand nights

    only the light over
    the kitchen sink

    goes out
    with the flick
    of a switch
    the light
    inside dies incrementally

    I loved the way our friend talked about her son. For her, the benchmark that mattered was that he was content with the choice he was making. “So he won’t make A’s like his sister,” she said. “He’ll make B’s.” And she laughed. She’s a good benchmark for a mom.

    The last section of The Soul of a Chef is centered on The French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley. Ruhlman begins by summarizing his quest for what it means to be a chef. After an amazing meal, he says:

    Everything had been perfect, and perfect in a way I had learned about and talked about and written about but had never experienced. Here it was. Providence had intervened and carried me aloft clear across the continent. This was it. I was here. I’d penetrated to the very core of the profession. (223)

    The meal he described at the Laundry feels like it’s in another league from what we do at the Inn, and yet, when I looked at the recipes on the web site, one was for Parmigiano Reggiano Crisps with Goat Cheese Mousse. We make the same kind of parmesan crisps to garnish our Caesar salads and have a variation on the mousse as one of our function appetizers. Tonight, as I finish one more cup of coffee before bedtime, I realize how easy it is to beat ourselves up with benchmarks, even if high school is a distant memory. Whatever is for dinner, I want to keep lighting candles.



    1. It sounds like a delicious, caffeine-powered day. And what a pleasant realization that you and Ruhlman seem to have not so different instincts.

    2. Love the poem.

      Just found out about the new MCC record yesterday; I am planning a special trip to town tomorrow just to buy it, and a few hours afterwards to digest it…can’t wait for Amazon and a digital download just seems wrong. I want this one in my hand.

    3. Gordon. Man, I’m digging your blog. I tinker a bit in the kitchen, though I’m hadly a chef. (In Louisiana, where I grew up, most men cook regularly. In Maryland, where I live now, I’m a freak and my wife is lazy because I still love to cook . . . it’s therapy for me.)

      Anyway, your blog reminds me of a book a read a while ago, The Supper of the Lamb, by Robert Capon. I find it beautiful that God can be seen in the things each of us are most passionate about.

      Thanks for the insights. And the recipes!


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