Anniversary afterthoughts

I knew that I would be expected to say a few words at the anniversary party. I spent some time thinking about what to say; should I be funny? Pithy? Should I look for quotes from famous people like Bacall and Bogart? Read a poem? Present a Powerpoint slide show?

While I was thinking about it, I happened to be talking to a young man who did some landscaping and handyman work around their house. We were chatting and out of the blue he mentioned “Your mom and dad must really be in love… I hope that I’m that lucky when I’m their age.” He went on to describe how one day he was working in the yard and my mother drove in from shopping. She carried a few items from the local flea market, remarking that she knew my father would appreciate them. Anyone who know my father knows that he practically lives at the flea market in Woodbury; and in fact, has been known to do his Christmas and birthday shopping from there.

I thought about this for a while and it occurred to me that perhaps the secret to a long marriage is not big houses, vacations, cars, or New York shopping sprees; rather, it’s about those little things that we do every day to show our partners how much we appreciate them. Sprinkling a little cinnamon in their coffee, picking up dinner on the way home, tossing in a load of laundry or doing the dishes, or doing any other of those dozens of little things that help to lubricate a relationship.

Anyone can buy a dozen roses on Valentine’s Day or take you out to a fancy restaurant for a birthday dinner. But once a year expressions aren’t enough to sustain; it takes a more serious commitment to get up twenty minutes before your partner six or seven days a week to make coffee or turn up the thermostat so the bathroom is warm when they head for the shower, or pick up a package of their favorite items (be it food, tools, or underwear) when you notice that something needs replacing.

Maybe the secret to any good relationship isn’t about the big things at all, but about the little, everyday things, because that’s where most of us live – not in the dozen or so holidays, but in the other 350-odd days, year in and year out.

‘Twas grilling and the slithy toves…

From Movable Jewel comes part of the secret to Bro. Don’s “Top Secret” ribs:

“It starts the day before with selecting the best meat I can find.”

From Ashida Kim’s “Zen Koans:

31. Everything Is Best

When Banzan was walking through a market he overheard a conversation between a butcher and his customer.

“Give me the best piece of meat you have,” said the customer.

“Everything in my shop is the best,” replied the butcher. “You cannot find here any piece of meat that is not the best.”

At these words Banzan became enlightened.

It’s interesting to hear a bunch of middle-aged guys talk cooking. Invariably, it involves grilling.

This is a picture of the birthday present I bought myself last year. All stainless – although you’d hardly know it after a solid year of use; right now it’s pretty black inside. Black, however, is much better than how my twelve previous grills have ended up. I’m one of those guys who grills all year – summer, winter, monsoon season, dust storms, blizzards, plagues of locusts – and predictably I’d end up replacing the inner parts by the end of the year. Last year, I decided that I needed a more professional model.

I shopped for a month before deciding on this grill from Costco. It is very well made, and when compared to grills in a similar price range, the workmanship was superior to some of the better known brands. So I grabbed the shop pickup truck and went to Costco on a Friday afternoon. I wheeled a cart down to the outdoor department, and tried to drag one of the boxes onto the cart.

It wouldn’t budge.

I figured that it was hung up on the skid, so I tried the next box.

It moved about two inches and stopped.

A guy behind me who had previously voiced some good-natured jealousy that I was buying the rather pricey piece of cookware, pitched in to help. A third guy saw us struggling, and joined the battle. We managed to drag the box onto the cart. Just as we got the box situated, I saw the shipping label. Remembering that there are 2.2 lbs. in a kilo, I did the math in my head.

“Holy c*w!” I exclaimed, “No wonder we couldn’t drag it. The grill weighs 300 pounds!”

The two guys shook their head and wished me luck. At the checkout, I asked for help getting it on the truck, and after securing it in the bed, I drove home.

That’s where the fun began. The pickup has big tires and high springs. There was no way that I was going to lift it off the bed. I managed to drop the tailgate, and used a piece of plywood as a ramp and slid it to the ground. My wife was smart enough to come out just as I finished.

“How the hell are you going to get that up to the deck?” she asked.

Good question. The deck was in the back of the house, up seven steps, then up another two.

“No problem,” I assured her, “I’ll open the carton and just bring the pieces up and assemble it on the deck.”

I cut the metal straps and pried open the crate.

The grill was already assembled.

That’s right; in an age in which one needs an engineering degree to put together bookshelves and magazine racks from Ikea, my new grill was almost completely put together. I actually had to dismantle it in order to get the weight low enough to manage it up the stairs. For a half hour I undid screws and bolts, and managed to drag the now-200 pound behemoth around the back of the house. My wife, ever resourceful, remembered that she needed to clean the kitchen. I, stuck on the bottom stair to the deck, balanced the grill with one hand and called the house phone from my cell phone.

“I’m stuck,” I told her, “I need your help.” She reminded me that moving heavy objects was not in the wedding vows – her way of hinting that I was going to owe her a vacation, or at least a weekend painting the closets. She came out to the deck and while I held the back end of the crate, she lifted the front up one stair at a time. At the top of the first deck, she declared her part of the process finished, and retreated to the safety of the kitchen. Somehow I managed to get the crate up two more stairs and across the deck.

By that time it was 6:30 pm, and she poked her head out to ask if I could fire it up to cook some burgers for dinner. I reminded her that one third of the grill was still in the garage; we sent out for pizza and ate outside. That is, she and our daughter ate while watching the floor show called “Daddy trying to reassemble the grill before it’s too dark to see.”

By 9:00 pm, the grill was finally reassembled, the gas hooked up (I have not one, not two, but three tanks of propane – as I wrote, I do a lot of grilling), and the bugs were biting. I fired up the grill and admired the ceramic searing burner and the smooth, shiny stainless grill. I rummaged through the freezer and found a few frozen hot dogs; moments later they were sizzling… well, mainly that was the sound of the ice melting.

That’s when I discovered that “stainless” does not mean “immune to discoloration.”

And if anyone knows how to clean a stainless steel grill, I’d appreciate any advice – as I mentioned earlier, it’s beginning to look like it came out of an old diner. But that’s okay – after well over a year of near-continuous use, nothing has burned out, worn out or broken off.

I wish I could say as much about the griller as I can about the grill.

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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.

Nothing.

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.

Almost.

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