Conversations For Transformation: Essays Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

Conversations For Transformation

Essays By Laurence Platt

Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

And More


A Game Worth Playing

Vintage House Senior Center, Sonoma, California, USA

Christmas Day, December 25, 2011



"I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve."
 ... Albert Schweitzer quoted by  
This essay, A Game Worth Playing, is the fifth in a group of eight written on Christmas Day:
  1. Holiday Service
  2. Out Of My Head
  3. How To Enroll The World
  4. Holiday Service II
  5. A Game Worth Playing
  6. Peace On Earth And Good Will To All People: A Possibility
  7. Five Star Restaurant
  8. Direct Experience
in that order.

I am indebted to Sondra Costello and to the volunteers and the staff of Vintage House Senior Center and to the assistants of the Holiday Hospital Project aka the Holiday Project and to the senior citizens of our planet who inspired this conversation.




It was three weeks before Christmas.

When my offer to volunteer preparing Christmas dinners at a local shelter was declined (it was declined because the shelter already had enough volunteers to perform all the tasks required), I wasn't concerned. I knew another three groups in my home town who prepare Christmas dinners for the hungry, for the homeless, and for the infirm, and another group who prepare and deliver Christmas dinners to those who can't prepare their own and / or who can't leave their home. I called the next group. Instead of spending a planned minute on the phone calling the shelter to offer to volunteer, it looked like I'd be spending two  minutes on the phone instead, now also calling the next group to offer to volunteer. I would volunteer with them instead.

I was wrong.

They also declined my offer. They also had enough volunteers. "Wow!" and "No problem" I thought simultaneously, then called the third group. The third group gave me the same response: "Thank You, but we already have enough volunteers.". So did the fourth group. And the fifth. Suddenly I was unexpectedly and surprisingly out of options to volunteer preparing Christmas dinners in my home town. Although it was frustrating, I resolved to search further afield. I would find an opportunity to volunteer, even if it meant driving a few extra miles to another town nearby.

I was wrong (and surprised) - again.

After searching the internet for all  groups who prepare Christmas dinners for the hungry, for the homeless, for the infirm, and for those who can't prepare their own and / or who can't leave their home, with whom I could volunteer in all the neighboring towns as well as in all the surrounding counties, I had developed an extensive list. Over the next three days (that's how long it took me, using every spare moment I had), I called them all, every single one of them, one after the other. And every single one of them responded to my request to volunteer (my erstwhile "offer" to volunteer had by then morphed  into a "request" to volunteer) in the same way: "Thank You, but we already have enough volunteers.". By the end of the third day, I was clear I had missed my chance to volunteer preparing Christmas dinners this year - not just in my home town but also in all the neighboring towns as well as in all the surrounding counties ie in the entire  San Francisco Bay Area. I had left it too late. This year it seemed there'd been such an outpouring of so many offers to volunteer preparing Christmas dinners that even St Anthony's Dining Room and Glide Memorial Church whose Christmas dinners for thousands  of people are legendary and which require hundreds  of volunteers to prepare, were turning down offers / requests like mine.

When the reality finally set in that I'd missed the opportunity to volunteer preparing Christmas dinners this year even though  I first offered to volunteer three weeks before Christmas, yes there was a moment of disappointment - I'd be lying to you if I denied it. But in the face of what I realized next, the disappointment vanished like a snowflake in a furnace. This is what I realized:

How great  it is that so many people volunteer to prepare Christmas dinners for those less fortunate than themselves! How great it is that so many people volunteer to prepare Christmas dinners for those less fortunate than themselves, that in three days  of calling groups who prepare Christmas dinners in my home town and in all the neighboring towns and in all the surrounding counties in the entire San Francisco Bay Area, I couldn't find one single  volunteering slot to fill! Wow!  What does this say about peoples' generosity? What does this say about peoples' magnanimity? Isn't this awesome?  How awesome is it that my offer  to volunteer was declined so many times that it morphed into a request  to volunteer ... which was then also declined many, many times  more throughout the entire  San Francisco Bay Area because there were already so many volunteers that there was no room for more!

You can see why my brief disappointment quickly to gave way to awe. No more room  to volunteer preparing Christmas dinners? All  spaces filled?? In the entire  San Francisco Bay Area??? How great is that?!  Clearly, volunteering (and in particular, volunteering to serve those less fortunate than ourselves) is a game worth playing.



No Stopping At No



If you know me, you'll know I make mistakes from time to time. And if you know me really well, you'll know I don't stay stoopid  for long. I left it too late this year. I got that. So I'm not going to leave it too late next  year before I offer to volunteer again preparing Christmas dinners. "Well" I think, "why not schedule your offer to volunteer preparing Christmas dinners next year, with more lead time than the three weeks you allowed yourself this year?". This seems like a good idea. Then I think "Hey! Why not make your offer to volunteer preparing Christmas dinners next year right now?".

Which is exactly what I do. I call back the shelter I originally called, the shelter whose volunteer spaces were already filled three days ago, and I ask to be put on their volunteer list for next year. "Sure" says the staffer in charge of volunteers, the same staffer who, three days ago, thanked me and declined my offer to volunteer this year. "Can you carve?" she asks. "Yes I can" I reply. "I'd be happy to carve the turkeys for you next year, as well as do anything else you require.". "Oh no" she says, "I'm not talking about next  year. I'm talking about this  year. The volunteer who offered to carve the turkeys for us this year, can no longer come. Would you like to come and prepare the Christmas dinners with us this year, and especially carve the turkeys?".

Would  I?

And that's how, having been declined by every group in my home town and in all the neighboring towns as well as in all the surrounding counties in the entire San Francisco Bay Area who prepare Christmas dinners for the hungry, for the homeless, for the infirm, and for those who can't prepare their own and / or who can't leave their home, I arrive - as intended - at 10:15am on Christmas morning along with about fifty other volunteers at the shelter I originally called, eagerly looking forward to the day ahead of me preparing Christmas dinners.



Assembly Line: From Nothing To Christmas Dinners To Nothing



With a dedicated team, it actually doesn't take much to make Christmas dinners for a lot  of people. Or is it that time flies when things work and there's no effort  in what you're doing? This is a different kind of Christmas, a different order  of the Christmas spirit, if you will. This is Christmas as giving rather than Christmas as receiving. And no, giving isn't better  than receiving. It's just a different order of things.

There are fifty pumpkin pies to be cut - into ten pieces each. Each piece is then placed in its own box. An assembly line of volunteers make short work of this task. Then large delivery boxes are laid out end to end on tables, and a pie box is placed in each. Next to each pie box in the delivery box, a bread roll, an apple, and a small tub of cranberry sauce (did I forget to say it took another assembly line of volunteers to fill the tubs with cranberry sauce?) is placed. Meanwhile in the kitchen, a team of chefs have prepared the main Christmas dinner. Another assembly line of volunteers adds turkey (which, as it turns out, I don't carve after all), mashed potato, beans, stuffing, gravy, and more to partitioned meal boxes, one of each of which are then placed by another  assembly line of volunteers into each delivery box.

The mood is jovial, happy - yet on purpose. I tell a joke while I'm sealing the delivery boxes in aluminum foil. A man goes out for breakfast on Christmas morning. He orders eggs benedict. The waiter brings his order in a hubcap. The man says "Why did you bring my eggs benedict in a hubcap?". The waiter says "There's no plates like chrome for the hollandaise"  ... (say it out loud - you'll get it). Everyone laughs (OK, a few groan), and we're one big family group just like any other big family group - except we're on a mission.

Half the meals are now packaged in delivery boxes. The other half are taken to the large dining room next to the kitchen where those who can bring themselves to the shelter are beginning to arrive. The delivery boxes are grouped together for each volunteer driver who, armed with a name list and a map, takes them out into the community and delivers them. Soon there's no more Christmas dinners or delivery boxes left in the kitchen and preparation area, at which point most of the volunteers, thinking their job is done, go home.



The Final Quarter Inch

Werner Erhard has taught me a lot of things. It's hard to choose any one of them to put at the top of a list of what makes the most difference - they all  do. But if I have  to choose one thing, it would be this: work isn't complete until it's complete.

The Christmas dinners are prepared, served, and delivered. The work we came here to do, is done. Most of the volunteers have gone home ... and  ... the work isn't complete.

I start folding tables (whose surfaces I first wash down) and stack them at the side of the preparation area. I take discarded serving utensils to the dishwasher (another volunteer is still there washing up). I pick up loose trash off the floor and discard it. There's still a lot of menial tasks like this left to do. I do them all. I keep going until the work is complete. By Werner's standard. And only then  do I stand back and admire what we've accomplished. I'm very pleased (inspired, in fact) with what I see.

I remove my disposable gloves (the hygenic courtesy volunteers wear when preparing food) and my Santa's elf  hat. I take off my apron, fold it and return it to the apron closet, and leave.

Outside, Christmas day is cold and crisp. Jack Frost nips at my nose.



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