Friday, February 16, 2007

still trying to figure the Bell curve

I have a long history of losing in competition. Occasionally, it is true, I have sabotaged myself by not practicing or being otherwise unprepared. Most of the time, though, I miss the prize because gosh darn it, I just don't know how to be mediocre.

Case in point: we had a Sweet Treats Bake-Off at work this week. Categories were Cakes, Cookies/brownies, Pies, and Other. I entered my S'mores Pie as a Chocolate Ganache Torte, in the pies category. My competition consisted of a chocolate meringue pie made with pudding mix; a "key lime-pineapple" pie made with Jell-O, Cool Whip, and canned pineapple (I'm not kidding--I tasted it, and it was unbelievably bad); and a peach pie with a homemade-looking crust that was actually pretty decent although I don't care for cinnamon with my peaches.

The chocolate meringue pie won. The "key lime" got second.

I wasn't shocked. I just smiled and shook my head. I'm used to it. I derive my own satisfaction from little things. For example, after the judging, the rest of the office was invited to sample the treats, and my ganache torte was wiped out long before anything else. Also, two of the judges came by my cube this afternoon and asked for the recipe; they claim it was the best dessert entered. "That was the last thing I tasted," one of them said, "so I was all sugared out, and I was still like, Wow, that's good!"

I find that statement somewhat revealing. It is true, after you've eaten five or six bites of artificially sweetened vegetable shortening, a mouthful of real cream and moderate amounts of sugar is going to seem pretty bland. But I remember, also, Sit complaining about the judges at tai chi competitions: "If you give the first person 9.2, (on a scale of 8.5-9.5) what you going to give the next person? Nine-point-three, nine-point-four? You going all the way to ten? Because I guarantee the winner not going to be perfect. You don't give a grand master nine-point eight. Nobody that perfect!"

Judges at office functions are always volunteers, they don't have a set criteria for evaluating and they don't want to give offense. They give everybody middling grades until they run across something that really stands out, and then they don't know what to do with it. I've read that in test studies, people will rate a song higher if they think everyone else likes it, so I'd guess that dessert-judging works on a similar groupthink. Everybody "knows" that Jell-O desserts are what people want and like, so they choose an "appropriate" winner as opposed to a deserving one.

This is why I snort when people say the cream will always rise to the top. Yes, good work will usually be recognized, but not necessarily rewarded. People have an odd sort of reverse snobbery, particularly in the midwest: they want things that are mostly just like what everyone else has. Nobody wants to stand out too much. They don't want to have things that are too nice, or eat foods that are too rich, or perform too well at their given hobby, lest someone else's feelings be hurt.

The SP turned out a perfectly lovely raised-panel door yesterday, for a client; when I left for work he was taking the center panel downstairs to router it, and when I came home the whole thing was glued up in a frame, clamped together in the middle of the living room floor. I hunkered down and admired it for a long time. It's a real backhanded compliment to say it looked store-bought, and it did, but better. It was tighter, heavier, more solid work than anything you can buy at Home Depot. There were no staples in the wood, no cheap veneer, no splices of short ends. Had I not known better, I would have assumed it had been purchased from a very expensive cabinetmaker. And I realized that I, too, am used to seeing handwork that's rough and amateurish--except from my husband, of whose work I have actually seen very little. I haven't lived with him long enough yet to really appreciate what he can do.

A friend once told me, "When you first said you were a writer I was like, 'oh, right,' because everybody says they write... and then when you showed me some of your work I was like, 'Oh, you were serious.'" I found this funny, and flattering, and sad. There are a lot of amateur writers/ spinners/ woodworkers/ sewers/ martial artists out there, most of them blissfully ignorent of how bad they are, or else embracing their mediocrity as a sort of badge of (misguided) authenticity. (I may be cribbing Abby's Yarns, here, she had a very similar rant awhile back.)

Perhaps because I knew the SP long before I a) married him or b) knew what he did for a living, it's still a little hard for me to accept that someone from my world and my generation can be so skilled. (I've known "professional" costume designers who didn't know a pelisse from a petticoat, and the SP will tell you horror stories of the hacks he meets in his line of work.) But when he shows me a finished piece he's done, I'm struck by the seriousness of it. Or maybe sincerity is a better word. When he does something, it works. It's not merely good, it's right. And regardless of how good I think it looks, he knows there's always room for improvement. When he came home he pointed out all the rough spots in the door, how he didn't like sanding things but there are some places a plane can't go, and I just smiled because I always know where the gaffes are in my work, too. Maybe the real hallmark of a master is that he no longer makes allowances for himself--or at least makes his mistakes look deliberate.

I had enough chocolate ganache left over from the competition pie to make us a small Valentine's day dessert, just big enough for two kung-fu students to scarf down before running off to class on Wednesday night. It was the first time my new husband had had that particular concoction of mine. "Oh my God, this is good," he exclaimed.

"I put too much butter in the chocolate," I demurred.

"Well it tastes fine to me. You can make this any time you want. I can't believe they picked that pie with the Jell-O in it."

What can I say? Better the approval of one's peers than the adulation of the masses.


AJ Milne said...

When he came home he pointed out all the rough spots in the door, how he didn't like sanding things but there are some places a plane can't go...

That's just awesome.

Holly said...

I think so, too. Actually, I think it's sexy, but then competence has always appealed to me.