The Moment I Gave Up


37, day twenty two.
It took almost three decades and a single dirty plate for me to admit that dreams can be too powerful.

I have always looked on people who know what they want to do with their lives with a mixture of envy and superiority. On the one hand, people who know what they want to do with their lives get things done. It takes a lifetime to become a pilot or a heart surgeon. On the other hand, how can anyone settle on anything when so much more can be imagined?

I’ve been like this all my life. Some kids turned their couch into airplanes and flew around the world day after day. For me, on Monday I might tunnel through the earth to find the dinosaur people who had fled from the moon, and on Tuesday I might opt instead travel into the concept of infinity on a quest to view the face of God. For some reason, God always wore purple robes, and even when I was five had an indeterminate gender.

Growing up did not help much. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but the second half of the equation. I would be a spy, and write about my adventures spying. Or I would be an astrophysicist, and write about how the strong nuclear force saved the day from a nefarious decaying Uranium nucleus. For a brief time in high school, I decided I was going to study computers. That obsession lasted just long enough for me to realize computers were boring.

I scoffed at my high school girlfriend, who knew exactly what she was going to study in college. With all of the possibilities open to you, how could you slice so many of them away? While I was in college, I studied linguistics, and comparative religion, and philosophy, and biology, and writing. I had so little focus that I eventually dropped out. That, and I didn’t do many of the assignments. That was also a factor. How could I choose? Every subject was interesting, and they all had such enormous depth.

I settled on culinary school because food seemed to be the one field I could focus on for the rest of my life and not get bored. Even then, I told everyone that I did not know if I wanted to be a chef, or a food writer, or a cheese buyer, or a food scientist. I had narrowed down my focus, but it was still enormous. Besides, a career in food would not stop me from studying and learning what I wanted to understand, which was everything in the whole world.

My focus on food did not last long. I continued to attend school, and work in the field. But my secret, true goal shifted as soon as something awesome came along. There was a period during culinary school when I was convinced I was going to be a superhero. I was going to learn the skills and just do it. I did not even tell my wife about it. It was not that kind of secret. If it sounds ridiculous to say it now, I assure you I knew exactly how ridiculous it was then. It didn’t matter. The part of me that dreams like that has no grasp on reality. Maybe everyone has a part of them like that. Mine is huge.
It is wonderful to have dreams, but living that way is draining. It is frustrating knowing that the world does not contain what you desire. As bad as my superhero phase was, my Harry Potter phase was much worse. You can call it harmless fantasy if you want, but that time could have been spent developing a real skill. Even if that skill is writing fantasy, that is at least something real. I could not let any of it go. As frustrating as it was, the deep and wrenching desire to be something more than the universe offers made me feel special. Everyone else was willing to settle for the paltry crumbs of realism, when they was an enormous buffet of imagination laid out before us.

Until the moment it all ended.

It’s funny, the kind of things that lead to revelations in our lives. For me, they are never big or important moments. They are tiny little things that just happen to change my perspective. In this case it was a bus boy, a trash can, and a dirty plate.

I was working in a high-end steak house in downtown Seattle as a cook. The banquet was over and I was washing dishes. A busser walked in with a plate to put in the dish pit. The plate was covered in food scraps and silverware. He flicked his wrist to the left, and the food came off and fell into the trashcan, leaving the utensils on the plate. Then he flicked his wrist to the right, and the utensils fell off into the silverware soak tub. My jaw dropped open.

Apparently there was a technique for wrist flicking with the nuance to knock off the food scraps with enough force to send them several inches through the air, but not so much force than any of the slightly heavier silverware came off. I had done enough dishes to know this was not as easy as it looked. I asked the busser how long it had taken him to learn to do that consistently. He shrugged and said, “A couple of years?”

Of all of the unskilled positions in the kitchen, busser is at the bottom of the heap. Anyone can do it. Some people are better than others, but it is still anyone can do. What I did not realize until that moment was that there were skills specific to being a busser that took several years to master. If it took that long to learn the plate trick, how long would it take to learn everything in the universe? How much could I master even if I lived to be a thousand?

It would take longer than forever to learn everything in the universe. Even if I lived to be a thousand, the number of human skills that I did not have mastered would far, far exceed those I had mastered. It was a revelation.

It was probably a year before it entirely sank in. I am not going to claim the change happened over night. But the change was real. Slowly, I stopped having any real desire to be a superhero. I stopped wanting to learn everything there was possibly to know about ice caves just because I saw an awesome video about it. I know what I want to do now, and what I want to be. Better still, it is something the universe has in it. I still have big, fantastic, ridiculous dreams, of course. I hope those never go away. But they’re not chains, anymore. They’re just dreams.

It has been a lot of work, psychologically, to get to this point. But it started with that busser in that moment. That was the moment I gave up wanting to do and be everything. Who could have predicted so much insight could be hidden inside a dirty dish?

I’ll never clean a plate again.


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