Marriage, Memorial Day, and the Kobayashi-Maru

In one of those trade-offs that all married people know about, I offered to do some grocery shopping while my wife went off with our daughter to do some girly things.

It was a Saturday.

On Memorial Day weekend.

I had the list with me, which meant at least an hour looking for items for our annual picnic. And true to form, when I got down near the end of the list, there it was: the mystery item.

I’m good with going grocery shopping. Ask me to pick up eggs and milk on the way home, no problem. Ask me to do the family shopping for the week, no problem. Ask me to pick up several things for a particular dish to be made… problem.

Every time my wife gives me the list there is always something vitally important on the list that she can’t do without. Sometimes it’s a particular food item, other times it’s a personal care item. Sometimes it’s a very specific brand, which has been proven by generations of women to be the only ingredient that will work – despite the fact that a dozen seemingly identical substitutes are readily available.

Today, the mystery item was broccoli slaw.

For those of you have have never been married or partnered, let me illustrate the situation. When we were first married, Mrs. Tom would give me the list, ranging from half a dozen to two dozen items. Invariably, one item – and always one of crucial necessity – would not be found at the grocery store. Early in our marriage, the resulting conversation went like this:

Her: “Where’s the ‘Auntie Em’ Anchovy Paste? I need that for the special recipe I’m making.”

Me: “They were out.”

Her: “They’re never out of ‘Auntie Em’ Anchovy Paste. You must not have been looking.”

Me: “I’m telling you, they were out of it. I looked in the canned tuna aisle, the fish aisle, and the sauce aisle. There wasn’t any.”

Her: (exasperated) “They don’t keep it in the fish aisle; It’s in the school supplies aisle.”

Me: (dumbfounded) “But… but… why the hell would it be in school supplies?”

Her: “Because the kids mix it with rubber cement for their construction paper projects. Everybody knows that. I knew I should have gone myself; you’re hopeless.”

And here she would treat me to a withering look of scorn and go off to buy a can herself.

After a few years of this, I suddenly realized that the one mystery item on the list represented a dragon quest of sorts; it was her way of testing my worth as a husband. So armed with this new insight, I eagerly awaited the next trial. It came – they always come – and once again I was on my way, determined not to return home without every single item on the list.

Nine hours later, the conversation went something like:

Her: (angrily) “Where the hell have you been? You were gone all day!”

Me: “I was looking for your ‘Auntie Em’ Anchovy Paste. ”

Her: (still angrily) “And that took you all day?”

Me: “Well, I went to Stop’n’Shop and it wasn’t in the school supply aisle, or in Notions or in the Ethnic Foods aisle. I even asked the assistant manager. He said that they haven’t carried that brand in years. So I went to Foodmart. Then, when they didn’t have it, I went to Foodtown. When they didn’t have it, I went to Shop’n’Save. When they didn’t have it, I went to Stop’n’Save. They didn’t have it, either.”

Her: “But you’ve got a whole bag of it! Where did this all come from?”

Me: “I went to Shoptown. When I found it, I bought a whole bunch so we’d have some on the shelf.”

Her: “Shoptown? But there’s no Shoptown stores in this state!”

Me: “Yeah, that was a bit of a problem…”

So, the “dragon quest” paradigm had mixed success; plus ten points for style and determination, but minus a hundred for practicality. But I persevered, each time hoping to figure out just what to do with the mystery item on the list. Hunt for it? Guess at a substitute? Or – last resort – call her from the store lobby and ask her what to do?

* shudders *

Such was my mindset on Saturday morning as I stared at the array of items in the Produce section, searching vainly for “broccoli slaw” so that my wife could make a particular salad for the upcoming picnic. Pawing through pre-wrapped packages of mixed greens and chopped celery (and c’mon, what’s with that? Is celery really that difficult to prepare that one needs to buy it pre-chopped?), I accidentally found a small package of organic broccoli slaw. Okay, it’s neither the size nor brand she had on the list, but it was slawed broccoli, and at the moment I wasn’t going to let it get away. I needed at least three packages this size to equal the two she asked for on the list. I combed the rest of the aisle, dodging the automatic spritzers.


Most guys know that one of the last-ditch efforts is to ask for directions; the cousin to this is asking where to find items in a store. Sucking up my pride, I found a green-uniformed store employee nearby, and asked.

“Oh, we don’t have any this week.”

I pointed to the lone package of organic slaw in my carriage.

“Yeah, well, normally we get it every week, but that’s probably left over from last week. Whatever you happen to find here is it. Sorry.”

I walked back to the fresh, newly spritzed produce; a light sweat forming on my brow, my face taut with concentration. It’s a no-win situation, I thought to myself, she won’t believe that there was no broccoli slaw, and this little package just is not enough.

And suddenly it came to me – that flash of insight, the sudden loss of equilibrium as a paradigm shifts under your feet. This was not a “dragon quest” at all.

This was… the Kobayashi-Maru Scenario!

Star Trek aficionados will surely recognize the Kobayashi-Maru Scenario as the simulated no-win situation used by Star Fleet to test their flight officers – not for specific skills, but to see how they respond to impossible situations. It dawned on me that all those years of lists of very specific (and seemingly mythical) items was a test, but not the kind of test I’d thought. I wasn’t being tested for my ability to bring down a dragon, but rather for the way I handled myself while in these impossible situations.

My mind was suddenly clear.

Scanning the moist bags of chopped plant life, I selected a bag of carrot slaw, and a bag of chopped cabbage. Mixed together with the broccoli, they would change the recipe only slightly, but the interplay of colors would make this a very eye-catching salad, indeed.

I wrestled the food from the check-out lane into the re-usable grocery bags, and brought them home. With an air of serenity, as befits one who has attained enlightenment, I sorted out the contents of the bags on the kitchen table.

Her: “You got the little bag of organic broccoli slaw. I wrote down that I needed the larger bags.”

Me: “They were out…”

Her: “They’re never out of broccoli slaw. You must not have been looking in the right spot.”

Me: “I’m telling you, I checked with the produce guy. They didn’t get any in. But look…”

And here I pulled out the carrot slaw and the cabbage. “You can mix these, instead, and it’ll be very tasty and colorful,” I explained. “Besides, you’ve been making the broccoli slaw for years, now we can mix it up a bit. I got the big bag of sunflower seeds and some sliced almonds to make it crunchier. With a little balsamic vinegar dressing, it’ll be delicious.”

Her: “ What a man! You’re so imaginative and resourceful. In fact, I find myself strangely aroused...
Her: “Hmm. Yeah, that might work. Now go peel these onions for me.”

It only took me 17 years of marriage to figure that lesson out. The grocery store is totally owned.


Next, I plan to work on why there are 23 colors of pantyhose, all labeled as “beige.”

Learning Experience


When I read the news blurb the other day, it seemed so far-fetched that I figured there had to be a mistake. Or that the news was not reporting all of it, and there was some “rest of the story” that would, in context, help everything to make sense.

I was wrong.

In case anyone missed it, in Murfreesboro, Tennesee a group of middle-school children on a class trip were suddenly terrorized by their teachers subjected to a “learning experience:” they were told that a gunman was attempting to attack them, that it was “not a drill” and spent the next five minutes believing that a crazed killer was rattling the doors trying to get at them as they hid under tables, crying and pleading for their lives.

The Fox News report suggested that the teachers considered it to be “a prank,” as well as a “learning experience” because after they finished terrorizing the students, they explained that it was to foster a discussion on what they would do should it have been a real situation.

In what could well win the Understatement of the Year Award, CNN reported that some parents were “upset by the staff’s poor judgment.”

Over the last few years, we have seen dozens of reports of schoolchildren being disciplined for writing book reports or essays in which violence was suggested. Teenage frustration, expressed on web logs, MySpace accounts or in email has been used to subject students to suspension or expulsion, and even legal action. But so far, the Murfreesboro school board has not taken any disciplinary action against the so-called adults responsible for this “learning experience” that would have landed any other teenager in jail.

Now, I’ve been guilty of poor judgment in my life – we all have. But on a trip with 69 students, we know that there must have been more than one adult. Could one adult have dreamed up a stunt gone wrong? Sure. But out of the several other teachers on this trip, how is it possible that the other adults did not intervene, to point out the flaws in the plan?

Apparently, it’s because they were all crazy. What are the odds?

Tech Chatting

There is an old Urban Legend that some people have particularly odd personal magnetic fields around them that cause breakdowns in mechanical wristwatches. When electronic watches became more popular in the 80s, I didn’t hear it as often, and even less so in the 90s as the technology to produce small, cheap watches got better and better.

My wife is one of those people, who, in a similar vein, manages to wreak havoc on any nearby personal computer. I can use the same PC for weeks or even months without rebooting, never see a Blue Screen of Death, and never need to stretch my fingers for the dreaded Three-finger salute. My wife sits down at the same PC for twenty minutes, and passers-by will be treated to an interesting display of raw emotion mixed with near-incessant profanity.

For years, I built my own PCs for home and work, but for the last few years I’ve just been buying them complete. Now that my wife has become a part-time telecommuter, and now that my daughter is becoming a young net geek, our up-time needs have become more critical, so yesterday I finally broke down and bought a Dell through their on-line store. I did this mainly because I no longer have the time to be the house tech-support guy. So by next week we should have a dual-core 64 AMD 4 GHz speedster running Vista installed in the family room. I overbought because I’m hoping that this much power will serve the family computing needs for the next few years. The old machine will be moved up to my new office, and we’ll network the house so we won’t have to arm-wrestle over who gets PC time.

Yes, I do win the arm-wrestling itself. Experience, however, has shown me that one rarely “wins” any such contest with one’s wife.

Anyway, I’m not posting this to brag; rather, I’m writing because I just discovered a fantastic tech support feature.

I placed the order just before leaving work. On the way home, however, I realized that I should have had the PC shipped to my work instead of my house, so I could be assured of getting the boxes without worrying about going to the UPS center to pick them up, or needing somebody to sign for them. A perusal of the Dell site didn’t have any easy method for this, and I resigned myself to 45 minutes on hold with Customer Service. Digging through the Dell menus, however, I saw a feature that I’d never heard of in the past: instead of calling Tech Support, I could sign in for a Chat, i.e., an IM session to resolve the issue.

My few experiences with customer service calls have not been idyllic, and anyone who has hit an accent barrier knows the potential for frustration on both sides of the telephone, so I was thrilled at the opportunity to communicate my desire for a change of shipping address with minimal fuss.
I logged into the chat server, which promptly crashed my FireFox 2.0 browser session.

You know, I love FireFox; it’s the default browser on my work machine, and until recently, it was the default browser at home. Unfortunately, there are still some websites that my wife and daughter frequent which, tweak though I might, just won’t cooperate. Reluctantly, I recently downloaded and installed IE7 for them. So I recalled FireFox and copied the web address from the browser history, pasted it into the IE7 address bar and went right into the queue. The Dell site even had an updater that showed where I was in the queue (third) and approximately how long I needed to wait (three minutes). Amazingly, I waited less than five minutes to be connected with a service rep, and after a few minutes to recall my account information, we were getting the issue resolved.

The time from being connected with the rep to completion was about 20 minutes, including some lag time while he did things on his end. I suspect that he had several chats going at once, but my wait was mitigated by being able to surf other websites (yes, with FireFox), check my email, etc., so it’s not like I had non-productive time while I was waiting. And, after completing the session, I stayed on to fill out a survey, in which I gave very positive remarks.

I love technology! I only hope that my wife loves the computer… do you think that I could call it her birthday present and get away with it?

… and so it went.

“I am not your father,” said Redwine. “Rather call me brother. But I am not your brother. Rather call me son. But I am not your son. Rather call me a dog. But I am not your dog. Rather call me a flea on your dog. But I am not a flea. Rather call me a germ on a flea on your dog. As a germ on a flea on your dog, I am eager to serve you in any way I can, just as you are willing to serve God Almighty, Creator of the Universe.”
“O Lord Most High, Creator of the Cosmos, Spinner of Galaxies, Soul of Electromagnetic Waves, Inhaler and Exhaler of Inconceivable Volumes of Vacuum, Spitter of Fire and Rock, Trifler with Millennia – what could we do for Thee that Thou couldst not do for Thyself one octillion times better? Nothing. What could we do or say that could possibly interest Thee? Nothing.”
“Oh, Mankind, rejoice in the apathy of our Creator, for it makes us free and truthful and dignified at last. No longer can a fool like Malachi Constant point to a ridiculous accident of good luck and say, ‘Somebody up there likes me.’ And no longer can a tyrant say, ‘God wants this or that to happen, and anybody who doesn’t help this or that to happen is against God.’ O Lord Most High, what a glorious weapon is Thy Apathy, for we have unsheathed it, have thrust and slashed mightily with it, and the claptrap that has so often enslaved us or driven us into the madhouse lies slain!”- THE REVEREND C. HORNER REDWINE

Kurt Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan

By now, anybody who’d be interested in reading this blog probably has heard of the death of author Kurt Vonnegut. I was not a huge fan, and I’m sure that others have written – or will be writing – more eloquent soliloquies than I, a casual reader.

I was just out of high school when a college friend gave me a copy of The Sirens of Titan. I read it. And again. And again. I must have read that book five times, each time gleaning a little more, and each time wondering if I were missing some hidden meaning. It took me all that time before I really noticed the “quote” from Rev. C. Horner Redwine, about 2/3 of the way through the book, and my eighteen year old mind nearly exploded. It was, to me, a fantastic concept, somewhere between religion and atheism. A God that doesn’t need men to do His work? Amazing!

Why do I bring this up? Because there is a synchronicity (not to be confused with a Chrono-Synclastic Infundibulum) in that one of my Masonic brothers has a discussion going on in which he quotes yet another esteemed author from the Sci-Fi genre, Robert Heinlein, and introduces a concept not unlike the one that prefaces this blog article.

From the Comments in The Burning Taper:

“The most preposterous notion that H. sapiens have ever dreamed up is that the Lord God of Creation, Shaper and Ruler of all the Universes, wants the saccharine adoration of His creatures, can be swayed by their prayers, and becomes petulant if He does not receive this flattery. Yet this absurd fantasy, without a shred of evidence to bolster it, pays all the expenses of the oldest, largest, and least productive industry in all history.” — Robert A. Heinlein in Time Enough for Love.

Widow’s Son replied with this because of a recent spate of posts from religious fundamentalists (all of them seeming to be of some brand of the Christian faith) who for some unknown reason believe that the best place to make their views known about Masonry would be on a blog authored by a Mason. Actually, I’m writing all of them, but it’s quite possible that it’s the same person. Some of those opposed to the fraternity seem to believe that they should use any means possible, even morally wrong ones, to achieve their goal of promoting goodness.

Perhaps a sign of my own naivete, I’m always taken aback when somebody suggests that my belonging to an organization that promotes tolerance for those of different faiths is not only misguided, but is actually making me a tool of evil.

I don’t know what the anonymous commentators who feel the need to prevaricate about Freemasonry are trying to accomplish. Scaring me? Spreading the Good Word by showing me their virtue and morality? Leading me to the path of righteousness by demonstrating their ethical behavior?

I never know quite what to say to accusations that some demon hijacks my prayers, as if it were as easy to steal as cable tv. But now, thanks to Rev. Redwine, I know how to respond to those who believe that only their own particular, narrow-minded interpretation of ancient scriptures.

For that, God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut.

Blogster Against Idiocracy

Some of my brother Freemasons have joined the online movement “Blog Against Theocracy,” which ostensibly supports the ideals of maintaining the political firewall between church and state. I write “ostensibly” because in backtracking the various links, I’ve noticed a few things that gave me pause for reflection.

For one thing, the logo proposed for the “Blogswarm Against Theocracy”, designed by Mock, Paper, Scissors shows the US Statue of Liberty holding a large cross, with the international red “No” crossed circle around it. Okay, that’s cool, but what this tells me is that this is not about theocracy in general. Nobody is protesting the Sharia in the various middle-Eastern or Asian countries. I live in an area of the US with a lot of Jewish citizens, but I never hear the term “right-wing Jewish Fundamentalist”. Rather, this is about keeping (presumably) fundamentalist Christians out of American politics. Fair enough. I guess “Blogswarm Against Theocracy” is a catchier, umm, catch-phrase thingy then “Keep the Christian Fundies out of Government.”

I keep seeing the term “Democracy” bandied about, but I think that some of us miss the point: If a number of people in an area get together, vote en masse to elect politicians in agreement with their cause, and manage to change local laws to reflect their beliefs, well, isn’t that democracy?

Yes, this is not a perfect analogy, but the point is that people tend to get the government that they deserve. If you and the other people in your area do not make your views known to the local politicians – loudly and clearly, then the politicians will listen to those who do manage. No, it’s not “fair” in the sense that we would like to think that people have a reasonable expectation to not have repressive laws passed without representation, but it is fair in another sense to the people in a community who manage to make their views known to the legislature. That’s the problem with a democracy – it’s meant to be a form of representative government, but politicians themselves keep tweaking the system to get the votes. The only groups that can “win” are those who manage to tweak the politicians.

Look, I have nothing against the general concept of what “Blogswarm Against Theocracy” is trying to portray. In fact, I agree with the concept. I would like to see religious fundamentalists keep their ideals where they belong – in their communities. But by the same token, I also would like to see most other groups not force their personal ideals on the general populace. I maintain that the BAT people have got it slightly wrong; the real threat to our liberty is from those who are already infiltrated into our political system.

By that, I mean the politicians and their supporters. More specifically, the politicians who get elected and re-elected by promising things to voters that can only be given by taking things from one group and giving to another.

You’re worried about religious intolerance? Barely a week goes by without a news report of an innocent civilian wounded during a police raid on the wrong home. Recently, a 70-something woman was shot because she brandished a shotgun at what she thought were intruders during a drug raid gone bad. Another home was raided twice in the same day as police got both the address and the name wrong.

You’re worried about your neighbors having a problem with your views on religion? The “war against terror” has made business and vacation travel more costly and inconvenient as middle-aged suburbanites are hauled out of lines to be stripped of their nail-clippers and cork screws. The “war” has led to laws and edicts that tighten up on public security at the expense of the privacy of law-abiding citizens.

You’re concerned about your children having to study Intelligent Design? In several large US cities, the food police have outlawed certain food products, not because they are poisonous, but because over-indulgence can lead to heart disease.

You don’t want religious-based morals to interfere with a woman’s right to choose? Your right to choose what to do with your body has already been compromised in Orwellian ways. Most states have passed anti-smoking laws for public places, and some states have now passed anti-smoking laws for private places, as well. Not content to stop there, some towns have banned smoking in your home if you live in a multi-family dwelling. Some areas are even passing legislation to ban smoking in your car.

You don’t want certain religious groups vilifying your way of life? The perils of smoking and high-fat diets are being vilified in much the same way that alcohol was done right before the Prohibition. But more than that, some communities are looking toward regulating cell phone use, or the hours that teenagers can be at the local mall, or your the colors that you can paint your house. The color? Hell, thanks to the city of New London, CT, some people are now worried that the local government will simply take their house and hand over the land to any developer that promises to “benefit the community” by way of increased tax revenues.

Instead of protesting against minority religious groups, I’d like to see those energies directed toward blogging about the situations in which our freedom is already compromised.

To that end, I propose a blogswarm against idiocracy.

Anybody out there interested?