Writing Center
Fall 2009 Edition

My Battle with Risk

Gwen Knight
Expressive 2010 1st Place
Professor: Toa Tawa

I would not describe myself as a risk-taker. I would never jump from an airplane with only a parachute. I am not brave enough. I would feel no sense of exhilaration or freedom as I soared, unfettered, in the great expanse of sky while patiently waiting until just the right moment to pull the rip cord of the chute. Instead, I would be tense with worry that the chute would malfunction, refuse to open, and I would plunge to an untimely death. I am not a gambler, either. I would not find enjoyment in rolling dice for hours in a smoke-filled casino in Las Vegas or betting on the ponies. The thrill of winning would not be my focus. My thoughts would be centered on losing my grocery money. Despite my long and stable history of avoiding risk, I abandoned the security of fourteen years of tenure in my government job as a Court Clerk; seduced by my desire to find increased happiness and self-fulfillment. This resulted in a battle where I gambled with who I had become to discover who I could possibly be.

I did not start this conflict intentionally. It began quite innocently and arose from necessity. I decided to get an additional job to pay for our youngest son's wedding. I know the cash outlay required for this occasion isn't nearly as astronomical for a son as it is a daughter, but there is still the groom's portion (or more accurately, the groom's parents portion) of the wedding announcements and flowers, and most importantly the rehearsal dinner—that at $20.00 a plate can really add up. After raising eleven children, our savings account was pretty much drained and the credit cards maxed out, so I got a job as a cashier after work and on the weekends at the neighborhood grocery store. I shopped at this particular market every week. I knew the cereal was on aisle 11 and the location of the restrooms. I felt right at home.

Cashiering is not easy. It involves standing on your feet for long periods of time, while asking the same question over and over…"Did you find everything you were shopping for today?" Most critically, it requires the ability to accurately count money. I pride myself on my honesty and accountability, so, at the end of the shift when I counted the till, my face would get hot, my palms sweaty and I would feel sick to my stomach until I learned I was only 3 cents short. One Saturday afternoon after completing my sweaty, nauseating ordeal, I noticed a flyer posted to the bulletin board announcing that there was a part-time position open in the deli. I ripped the flyer from the bulletin board and high-tailed it over to the deli at light speed. The manager was there, a thin, perky, rather glamorous looking woman and within minutes we had negotiated a deal resulting in a dollar an hour raise.

I was pretty excited to wear the deli uniform: black pants (which are naturally slimming), a white shirt with the store's logo, a burgundy apron, also with the store's logo, and a black chef's beret (I knew I would look fabulous in that hat). I reported for duty the next evening. I was immediately introduced to dangerous equipment; the slicer and the fryer. My introduction included cleaning them. I quickly learned that the slicer must be unplugged and that it came apart more easily than I could put it back together. The grease had to be drained from the fryer prior to cleaning. If its parts were not perfectly aligned, the grease would miss the bucket and the floor would soon become a slippery slide. Fortunately, I am a quick learner, and by the end of my first week, I could put the slicer back together with my eyes closed, and perfectly align all the fryer parts.

The evening shift also involved taking out the garbage and washing dishes, tasks I excelled at thanks to the chores my mother gave me as a child. I am an outstanding worker, also thanks to my mother, so by the end of my shift the deli was squeaky clean.

After mastering the cleaning, I was taught the fine art of slicing meat and cheese. The numbers on the slicer indicated the thickness of the product; the higher the number, the thinner the slice. This was simple compared to eye-balling the difference between the fifty plus varieties of meat and cheese. If a customer requested ham, the interrogation would begin. "Would you like honey, smoked, black forest, sweet sliced, chopped, or maple?" Then the customer would respond "What's the difference?" I would launch into the explanations and finally, after several taste tests, the customer would make a decision. Then came the next question, "How much would you like?" The customer would respond and yet another question would follow, "What thickness would you like?" The slicing would commence and the customer who was now obviously tired of talking would nod after the first slice was cut and presented to him with, you guessed it, another question… "Is this thickness okay?" After the ham was packaged and weighed (operation of the scale was another lesson), came the final question involving up-sell. "May I get you some cheese to go with your ham, or how about some of our freshly made potato salad?"

Scooping salad into the various-sized containers required practice. One had to be a contortionist, reaching over the crab salad to the coleslaw in the far corner of the case and then, having secured a sufficient portion in the large plastic spoon, maneuvering said coleslaw past the three-bean salad located directly behind it. Avoiding spills that would result in the unsatisfactory intermingling of salad, required true acrobatic talent; the type of skill that would qualify one to run away and join the circus.

Despite the bending and stretching and never ending questions, I loved waiting on the customers. Maybe it was because they were more pleasant than the customers I worked with as a Court Clerk. They were only ordering food, not being threatened with a law-suit. No worries

about telling them to have a nice day. They were just making a turkey sandwich for dinner, not reporting to jail by 6:00 p.m.

Next, I learned to use the fryer. I had mastered cleaning it, so what could be so difficult about frying corn dogs, tater babies and chicken? Forgetting to turn on the timer. Undercooked or over-cooked food is not acceptable. I quickly learned the art of calibrating and using the thermometers. Of course, you don't need to temp burned chicken, you can tell from the blackened skin that is garbage can fodder. I soon had crisscrossed burns on my forearms from the fryer basket and could cook a pretty tasty corn dog. I was sufficiently trained.

I showed up three nights a week and on Saturday and some Sundays for five months. The wedding passed and the financial obligation satisfied; however I liked having a little extra money, so I continued working. I felt like a kid playing "grocery store." I would slice meat, ask all the right questions, fry the chicken, and then clean it all up. I guess it was fun because it was something different from the daily grind of fourteen years. Did I mention I liked wearing the hat?

By the time one reaches middle-age, one pretty much knows who he or she is; but being honest with one's self about this reality can be difficult. For example, when I look in the mirror I see myself as young and vibrant; an attractive blonde with a winning smile; intelligent and witty. If I dare to linger at the mirror and look more closely, I discover that I am not so young. I can see wrinkles around my eyes and frown lines on my forehead (probably from over-scrutinizing all those potentially risky situations that I have so carefully avoided). I also see a double chin, somewhat saggy bosoms, and a roll of flesh where my waistline used to be. I realize that I am not so intelligent or I wouldn't have needed to be working two jobs. I would have already been independently wealthy. Likewise, if I were witty, I would probably have my own talk show and my winning smile would regularly appear on the cover of magazines like Ladies Home Journal and Good Housekeeping.

Since I am committed to lingering at the mirror and indulging in honest self reflection, I need to divulge that in addition to not being a risk taker, I have another personality wrinkle. I am a people pleaser. I need to feel that I am liked by everyone; that I am in complete harmony with all creatures of the universe. Realistically, I know that it is impossible to please everyone, but I ignore reality and keep trying anyway. I am not sure why I have such a desire to make everyone happy. Maybe it is because I am an only child. I am sure there is some psychological study somewhere about only children and how having no siblings can cause them to be dysfunctional. Perhaps I lacked nurture as a child (my mother would strongly disagree), or I have some issue with my self esteem. Whatever the reason, this desire for positive attention would contribute to the decision I was about to make.

One afternoon in May, all of the store employees were summoned to a meeting to learn that the structure of management was changing and the Deli Manager was being promoted to an Assistant Store Leader. A crazy thought began forming in my mind. Should I apply for her soon to be vacated job?

I wasn't having a mental breakdown, at least not at this point in time. This idea to become a food guru was not a new one for me. I had thought and verbalized about this before. I was a good cook, very creative and loved entertaining. More than once I had discussed with my family the possibility of opening a catering business. One reason that I had not pursued this notion was that I really didn't want to spend money opening a business that might not be a success resulting in a substantial financial loss; re: I am not a risk-taker. At one time, I had even strayed from my normally cautious behavior and had placed a call to an individual who was selling her ice cream store. Fortunately, the store had already been sold and I returned to my logical, stable self. Becoming the Deli Manager would allow me the opportunity of pursuing my desire to try my hand at this career with the financial backing of a corporation. Besides, I was a bored with my job; fourteen years of sitting at a computer, my view of life blocked by the walls of files stacked not so neatly on my desk.

I was not only bored, I did not feel in harmony with my co-worker universe. You see, I was in middle management at the Court which meant that the happiness of many individuals rested on my shoulders, or so I thought. I needed to please those above me by ensuring the work was completed in the manner which they dictated and I needed to please those I supervised by helping them complete their work in the manner which was dictated from above. Those being supervised did not always feel that the dictator's demands were fair and reasonable.

I had worked with many of these individuals for lots of years. I tried to keep morale high; I remembered their birthdays, planned office parties, and sincerely complemented them on a daily basis. I made an effort to set a good example by completing an equal share of work and I thanked them endlessly for their efforts. I was continually filling the huge candy dish on my desk with candy bars for their consumption; but nothing I did seem to endear me to them. The same walls of files that surrounded me surrounded them also. There would never be enough complements, thank-yous or chocolate to free them from this drudgery. I knew their unhappiness was not my fault; but that knowledge did not make me feel better. I was not meeting their emotional needs and they were not meeting mine.

I was getting an emotional boost at the deli, however. When I arrived for my part-time job each day, I was greeted with genuine affection. My co-workers seemed to find me entertaining while we were slicing, scooping, and mopping. I was a new and fresh face; interested in what they had to tell me about themselves. They, in turn, were eager to learn about me, hanging on to my every word. I felt like a celebrity.

As is my custom, I discussed changing careers with my husband and with his acquiescence, I submitted my application. The interview went well and I was offered the position. Acceptance of the job would result in a pay increase and I would not have to continue to work two jobs. Also, there was my need for emotional fulfillment to be considered. The change seemed inevitable. Ignoring the little nagging voice in the back of my head which kept whispering, "this is too risky," I embraced the opportunity. I had a vision of what I could create. I imagined myself, looking striking in my uniform, moving confidently from customer to customer, welcoming them to the perfectly clean, perfectly stocked deli; inviting them to enjoy the perfectly prepared food being provided by my perfectly happy employees. I later learned the stark reality; to achieve my pictured level of perfection would require exceptionally long, hard hours of excruciating work resulting in physical and emotional exhaustion.

My battle began in May. I was determined to be the victor, to find the joy and personal growth which had eluded me for too long. I soon realized that working part time had not prepared me for the myriad of responsibilities that I was about to undertake. I met briefly with the former manager and began frantically writing notes concerning my duties. I was responsible for hiring, training, and scheduling employees, reviewing each week's specials and then ordering all of the product, stocking the Deli's cases and shelves, planning breakfast and lunch menus, preparing food, which included catering, doing quarterly inventories, managing the food court, and maintaining the food temperature log, constantly cleaning: the list went on and on. I wasn't "playing" store any longer, I was "living and breathing" store.

If I were to expound on every one of the harrowing aspects of the role of a deli manager, providing all the gory details, I could write a novel that would rival the thickness of Tolstoy's War and Peace, but since I am only writing an essay, I will focus on only one area of the battle which resulted in my eventual retreat: food preparation!

My typical day would begin with the preparation of coffee. This was relatively easy and involved putting the appropriate amount of the appropriate type in the appropriate pot and pushing the "brew" button. Since "Starbucks" was located on the west end of town, and my deli is in the center of our city, in close proximity to government offices, customers working nearby needing their morning "cup of Joe" began appearing as early as 6:00 a.m. It is a universal truth that coffee, or the lack thereof, can influence a person's behavior, so I soon learned to have it ready on time and to keep the pots filled to the brim to accommodate the stimulant seeking crowd.

While the coffee was brewing, I began preparing breakfast, which was pretty much home-made. It involved mixing and baking buttermilk biscuits, frying sausage and bacon, slicing ham and cheese and scrambling eggs, resulting in breakfast burritos and breakfast sandwiches. Bubbling gravy was prepared to accompany the biscuits. The fryers were turned on and chicken tenders and tater babies joined the other breakfast items in the hot case. By this time, my employees would start arriving for their shifts. We would begin making sandwiches, chef salads, and deviled eggs for the multi-taskers who would "grab and go"; eventually eating breakfast in their cars on the way to work or lunch at their desks while compiling a report that their supervisors needed "yesterday."

Whole chickens with a variety of appetizing names like Mesquite, Sweet Barbeque and Lemon Pepper were placed in the convection oven so as to be perfectly roasted by 11:00 a.m. Preparing the salads was the next order of business. Some of the salads came readymade in large containers; others had to be prepared from a kit, and still others were made from fresh ingredients collected from around the store and combined by following the "secret" recipes filed alphabetically in the deli's recipe binder. The salads were transferred to their freshly washed yellow bowls, garnished, and carefully arranged in the previously mentioned salad case; the one so small that it was only accessible by an acrobat.

With coffee brewing, breakfast in the hot case, "grab and go" completed, chickens in the oven and freshly made salads, I would nervously glance at the clock; nine o'clock a.m. The day was just beginning and I was already exhausted. I had jumped out of the plane and was free-falling fast.

The rest of the day continued at the same frantic pace. There was chicken to be fried, and fried and fried. Lunch entrees replaced breakfast in the hot case; mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and more gravy. The afternoon continued in a frenzied blur of breading chicken, preparing more salads, roasting more of those specialty chickens and transitioning lunch to dinner.

This fever pitch routine could become even more complicated by catering orders. Orders for vegetable, fruit, and meat and cheese trays were periodically received. These were usually spaced sufficiently so as to not to cause me to panic. However, after I had been the manager for approximately three weeks, I received a call late one evening which nearly caused my heart to stop.

As the manager, I worked a variety of hours which included both opening and closing shifts and weekends and holidays. This was a challenge for me because in my previous government job I had worked 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, enjoying an additional fourteen Holidays per year as well. On this particular day I was closing the deli, when the phone rang 15 minutes prior to closing.

"This is Bill with the BLM (Bureau of Land Management). We've got a fire raging on Beaver Mountain, and I need 150 fire lunches by 6:00 a.m. tomorrow morning."

I had previously been warned concerning fire lunches, but just as the gambler, who continues to pump quarters into a slot machine until his credit is maxed out does not comprehend that he has a problem, I had refused to believe that preparing a few little sack lunches could impact my life. Being successful as the Deli Manager required that the deli contribute to the store's profits, so I immediately responded that they would be ready and hung up the phone. I had maxed out my credit. I had to take action.

I quickly realized that in order to keep playing on this particular evening, I would need to develop a plan—immediately. I frantically phoned some of my employees and promising them overtime pay, convinced them to report for duty.

Not waiting for them to appear, I gulped down a Coke (straight up, not diet) for energy and began circling the store retrieving brown paper sacks, French bread, juice boxes, individual packages of chips, tomatoes, lettuce, apples, and candy bars. By this time, my staff had arrived and I politely (because being nice matters to me) began barking orders just as I imagine the crew chief does when he is trying to get his fire under control.

"You, slice the meat and cheese for the sandwiches! You, there, wash the fresh produce and slice the tomatoes. I'll count and set up the brown bags. We don't have much time! Let's focus!"

My orders were obeyed; the sandwiches were created and wrapped. With the precision of a "bucket brigade," we placed a sandwich, drink, apple, candy bar, bag of chips, napkin and mayonnaise and mustard packet (in that order) in the sack. The sacks were painstakingly packed into boxes and hauled into the walk-in refrigerator ready for pickup at the appointed time which was now only few hours away. My clean deli was now as destroyed as the lands ravaged by the fire. Clean up began.

This scene was repeated on a regular basis throughout the summer. I was relieved when the autumn approached. Perhaps the catering would cool down like the fall weather. But just as the progression of the seasons, catering follows a pattern also: Thanksgiving followed by Christmas, followed by New Year's Eve!

During the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, the deli offered hot and cold complete turkey dinners as well as the standard variety of deli trays. Cheese balls were also a popular commodity during these days of merriment. Knowing how much product to order was like playing roulette. I would pick a number and spin the wheel, hoping my guess was a winner. I had become a gambler of sorts.

I managed to keep winning during November and December, due in fact to my organizational skills and ability to make lists; however there was one occasional that I thought I might have to "fold." We received a catering order for five hundred baked potatoes, ten turkeys and ten hams. This order presented a variety of challenges including baking the hams, turkeys, and potatoes and then keeping them hot. We only had one convection oven with 5 racks and a two-burner hot-plate. We could sometimes use the bakery oven, but of course we had to work around the baking of cookies, bread, rolls, etc.

I began formulating a plan. Needless to say the logistics of this large order began to consume my thoughts. This wasn't the first time that I had made a foolish bet. I had filled a 500 piece fried chicken order once during the summer, and had collected the jackpot. I knew I could do it again, but not without some trepidation.

In the next few days that followed, I did not sleep well. Frozen turkeys and whole hams grew arms and legs and were chasing me around the deli, refusing to enter the oven. I would search for hours for aluminum foil to wrap the potatoes and a headless man wearing a store apron would tell me that there was no such thing as aluminum foil and then would laugh wickedly (quite a feat without a head). The oven timer buzzer would then ring insistently, transforming itself into my alarm clock and I would wake up. I would nervously realize that I had only been dreaming.

My plan came together despite all of my trauma, thanks to the availability of the bakery oven, and the ingenious use of 12 picnic coolers which make good warming ovens when their lids were shut tightly after having been loaded with hot baked potatoes. Every Thursday, the managers of the different departments of the store met together and were given their numbers for the week. These were computed with the following equation: Sales minus purchases minus labor equals profit. This is known as the "retail game." Each day, often reluctantly, I showed up to play and by the end of each week my gain was positive. In nine months, I had become a full-fledged gambler, and I was winning! I was pulling the rip cord and my chute was opening. I had conquered my fear of taking a risk!

Even though I had been winning the retail game, I soon realized that I was losing the popularity contest. This group of individuals was more diverse than my previous co-workers and most of them were part-time employees. Four of them were University students working their way through school; two were retired from the catering business and were just working so as not to be board and two were full-time moms forced to return to the workplace because of financial necessity. My full-time employees consisted of three individuals who had made a career of food preparation and now I could be the obstacle standing in the way of their advancing careers. I was keenly aware of all of their various motivations. Prior to becoming Deli Manager, I had been the object of their affection and I was determined to remain so.

I immediately implemented my nurturing behaviors to ensure that I would continue to be well-liked, maybe even revered, as leader of my army of employees. I celebrated their birthdays with balloons and treats. I adjusted their schedules to allow them the time off they requested, repeatedly thanked them for their efforts and did more than my share of the workload. I listened intently to their stories of too much homework, unrequited love, unruly children, and impending financial disaster, but my status had changed. No matter how patient I was when hormones were raging, I was their boss, their authority figure and they all felt they could do a better job managing the deli than I could. I continued to like them anyway.

I may have conquered the food prep battle, but I was not going to win my emotional war. I was not happy. I saw who I could become, and I was not too pleased. I was exhausted from pushing the "brew button," from wrestling with the salad case, from fighting fires. My appearance had become haggard. I longed to free my hair of the chef's beret and return to my professional appearance, tired of food stains on my apron. I despised the crisscrossed burns on my forearms and smelling like fried chicken. I no longer wished to become a food guru, I wanted to return to what I was, a Court Clerk, with a secure job, working regular hours; enjoying my weekends and fourteen yearly holidays. I recognized that while it is important to genuinely be concerned about others, people are ultimately responsible for their own happiness, myself included.

It was at this point that I knew I must surrender. A clerical position opened and I was welcomed back to the Court system. I fried my last chicken, tearfully bid farewell to my employees, and hung up my apron. My battle had been bittersweet. I was both winner and loser. I had been successful at learning a new career and had overcome my fear of taking a risk. I felt that I was unsuccessful because I had failed to find the increased happiness or self-fulfillment that I had been seeking. I did learn, however, that you cannot care for others if you do not care for yourself. I still believe strongly that it is unwise to trade long term happiness for a momentary thrill, but, on the other hand, how can we know what makes us truly happy unless we take the risk of exploring what makes us unhappy? I still have no desire to parachute from a plane and the only activity I enjoy at a casino is dining at the buffet; however, because of this experience I will continue to risk change in further pursuit of personal discovery.

Kudos to the food gurus of the world who find joy in preparing and serving food; if not for them, I would starve.