Iteration III

The Diamond Fork

July 5, 2007

The most coveted and contested chore, perhaps the only coveted or contested chore, in all of the years that my brothers and I lived in the same house, was setting the table. We would argue over whose turn it was. We would do other chores to gain credibility with the adults. We would argue that those who had done other chores surely deserved a break, and kindly offer to take their places. It wasn’t the work that appealed to us, of course, but the opportunity. You see, the one who set the table got to choose his own fork.

There was a single fork in the silverware drawer that had a little diamond cutout between the two center tines. In our infinite creativity, we dubbed it “The Diamond fork.” I suppose this sounds fairly normal, much more so than Maude or Fredrick, but what may not be clear is that “The Diamond Fork” was not simply a description of what set it apart from the other forks. Even in a sea of forks with cut out diamonds, only one would ever be The Diamond Fork. I know this because my mom once tried to stop the nightly table-setting arguments by adding a new diamond fork to the mix. Like many of the things my parents tried over the years, it was interesting as a sociological experiment, but an utter failure as a means of securing the peace. After the impostor was introduced things got worse. Then there was The Real Diamond Fork and a fake diamond fork. Even the people with plain forks felt superior to the poor sap eating his hamburger helper with the fake diamond fork.

Life with my brothers was often a complex political game, with each of us trying to prove that we were more worthy than the others. I am tempted to lay the blame for this behavior at the feet of poverty. I could say that when you are eating a plain bowl of white rice for your tenth meal in a row it becomes more important that you at least have the pleasure of eating it out of the blue bowl. But the truth is that the real hard times, the times when we had a legitimate incentive to fight over resources, were not nearly as dramatic. The truly intense competition was a game, and we all knew we deserved to win.

At one point it was so bad that we had to have a written schedule for who got to sit in the passenger seat of the old jeep in the mornings, because otherwise the sullen enterprise of getting ready for school would fall apart completely as we each tried to justify (by volume, where logic failed) our god-given right not to have to sit on the squeaky plywood seat in the back. But even with the schedule we would get into complex deals and try to trade for an advantage. If you could give up a day now for two later, or if someone was sick on their day and you could convince them to bequeath it to you, you could get ahead. And once you had extra days you could really start to maneuver. You could even bribe the person setting the table.