We have a fair number of pieces of furniture in our house that have come from those stores that provide the experience of allowing me to assemble the furniture once we get the box home. The furniture is usually made in Indonesia or Thailand, comes with instructions that are illustration than illumination, and involve the use of an Allen wrench. Today, it was a chest of drawers, which meant I put together each of the six drawers and then the frame that would hold them. When I got through, the chest was sturdy, looked like it was supposed to look, and I had a handful of screws, washers, and tiny wooden dowels left over. Though I knew I had put the thing together well and that they probably sent extra stuff just in case, I couldn’t help but second guess myself and wonder what I missed because there is a certain level of precision necessary for the chest to be usable. Then I imagined some underpaid assembly line worker in Indonesia smiling to himself (more probably herself) at the thought of my bewilderment.
I smiled, too and decided what mattered was we had a chest of drawers that worked.
Tonight, I started reading Kitchens: The Culture of Restaurant Work by Gary Alan Fine, a book I picked up simply because I’ve never seen a sociological study of my workplace and it looked interesting. It is. He begins by talking about the pace of the kitchen line during service and the necessity for good preparation
The challenge of cooking (and much work) is less what is done than the relationship among acts . . . The nearly impossible is routine because cooks are experienced enough to adjust their speed and sequencing to meet demands of the arc of work – the totality of tasks . . . Cooking under pressure demands attention to an internal agenda. (21-22)
He went on to define three ways that cooks get the job done under pressure: approximations (techniques that “defy the primacy of formal rules”), shortcuts (“improper” that bend or break the rules), and tricks of the trade (contained within the boundaries of the occupation as “subcultural knowledge”). As he continued describing approximations, Fine talked about the idiosyncratic changes in a recipe from one batch to the next is not discernable to most customers.
The evanescent character of cooking, distinguishing it from most other arts that are either material or can be captured in written, auditory, or visual record, allows for imprecision that is not possible elsewhere. Memory is a capricious judge.
That I spend my days in the kitchen rather than the woodshop makes it no surprise that cooking is a more accessible metaphor than carpentry, so I’ve been intrigued with the thought of approximations, shortcuts, and tricks of the trade being part of the way we put our lives together. I understand Fine’s distinctions between the three in this way:
- approximation: what we have to change when we don’t have everything we need to accomplish what we need to do;
- short cut: what we do when we allow ourselves to believe the end justifies the means;
- tricks of the trade: the things we’ve handed down about how to get through this thing we call life
I find it interesting that he lists all three as if equal (or at least I read it that way) and yet only two of them feel legitimate to me. Life lived well relies on intentionality more than precision, so there is room for approximating and knowledge passed along, but there’s not room for shortcuts because they undermine our integrity. Some things you just have to do.
One of the most intriguing details around Jesus’ death is what happens to the disciples. They were, understandably, grief stricken and scared. They didn’t know Easter Sunday was only a couple of days away. So they went back to their old jobs: they went fishing. In the face of their despair, they leaned into their muscle memory, to the things their bodies could do without thinking, got in their boats and went back to their old jobs. They were not prepared for the change of circumstance and had little, if anything at all, to lean into as far as precedent. They had hung their lives on Jesus’ words and actions and he was dead. They were left with handfuls of pieces that didn’t fit anywhere and, as far as anything they had built, they only had each other.
As we mark these days when Jesus lay dead, it seems we, like the disciples and the cooks Fine describes, have to come to terms with “the relationship among acts” and how we move from the shadow of the Cross to being Resurrection People. In faith, too, we are faced with the prospects of accommodations, short cuts, and tricks of the trade, with much the same consequences I described earlier. There are no shortcuts from Friday to Sunday that are worthy of making. Our faith has been handed down to us in the sharing of Communion and the singing of hymns, in the smiles and hugs and words exchanged in parish halls and parking lots. We live lives of accommodation because we live our faith out in relationship to God and to one another. That we gather together in these days to await the Resurrection in the face of a world that knows mostly of death, well, sometimes it causes me to tremble.