Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Bread is an essential element in every society. I read somewhere that in almost every culture ever discovered evidence of bread making existed in some form. There are breads for every occasion: breakfast, dessert, dinner, midnight snacks, you name it there’s a bread for it. When I was a kid I loved coming home to the smell of baking bread. My mom baked bread at least one day a week, and she always did several loaves at once. I would hang around and wait until she had finished mixing all the ingredients and emptied the dough onto the kneading board and then pick out all the little pieces of dough that were left behind. When that bread came out of the oven I was right there. As soon as it was barely cool enough to touch I had a piece cut and buttered. There just wasn’t any substitute for homemade bread. It was also really good for French toast, and dipping in hot chocolate. Bread made up a major part of my diet, but mainly I think the greatest impact it had on my life was the association it had with my concept of home. The smell of fresh baked bread always meant a nice, warm and welcoming place to be.
Mom died and I grew up and I didn’t get to have that same association anymore. I tried making it a few times, but it just wasn’t quite the same. My sister Diane always made a good loaf though, but it was a lot of work and she didn’t have time to do it very often. So it was with a great deal of hopeful anticipation that my wife and I decided to purchase the latest technological kitchen wonder: a bread maker.
Some of our friends had bread machines and loved them. From the day we brought it home I faithfully put the ingredients in, and a few hours later it dutifully gave me a hot fresh loaf of bread. The aroma reached every room in the house. I adapted my mom’s bread recipe to work in the bread maker and it was just like coming home from school when I walked through the door as a child. Perfect.
I became accustomed to being able to use our bread machine on a regular basis. We eventually relied on it for all of our bread needs. We no longer bought any bread at the store, except for an occasional bag of sourdough rolls.
Then one day the unthinkable happened. I opened up the bread maker and pulled out a bread brick. It was so hard and dense I could have used it to construct a wall.
SOMETHING was WRONG. My connection to my childhood was damaged. The bread smelled the same, but it was as dense as, well, a brick. I stared at it for a good long minute trying to figure out what went wrong. I had done everything exactly as I had done it so many times before. I repeated the process with two more loaves of bread with the same result.
I thought again about anything I might have done differently. Nothing. Then I realized who the true culprit was: the manufacturer of the machine. My anger began to rise as I thought of all the anguish this would cause me. I ran to find the receipt to find out if it was still under warranty. I found I had two weeks left. HA! They thought they could beat me on this one! Well they didn’t know whom they were dealing with! No one stands between fresh bread and me and survives.
I found a box big enough to hold the bread maker and packed it ever so carefully. I then sat down to write a very heartfelt letter to the manufacturer explaining the problem and kindly requesting their assistance. The package was sent, and the waiting began.
Several weeks later the package came back. I opened up the box and pulled out the machine. I eagerly set it up and loaded the ingredients in expectation of the wonderful aroma. Three hours later I opened it up and pulled out … a brick.
Now I was really torqued. I pulled out the invoice to see what repairs had actually been done. I read the following: “Plugged machine in. It ran fine.”
Was I supposed to be impressed with their diagnostic capabilities? Sadly, they did not achieve their goal.
Once again I sat down to write a letter of explanation to the manufacturer, only this time I was not quite as calm and collected. I questioned the quality of their work. I questioned the intelligence of their technicians. I questioned whether they had even bothered to bake a loaf of bread in the machine. I threatened to call the president of the company and report their shoddy workmanship, and lack of attention to detail. It could almost be described as venomously poetic.
Once again I repacked the machine and sent it off. I sat back to await its return several weeks later.
In the mean time I had to buy store bought bread. It was a truly humbling experience. I watched others in the store buying their bread with no idea of what they were missing. I lived a tortured existence until the day came when I received the machine back.
I quickly tore open the box and found the invoice. It read: “Replaced motor. Baked two (2) loaves of bread. They came out perfect.”
OK! Finally someone had listened with compassion to my plight! Once again I was on the path to a state of bliss as I loaded all the ingredients in the machine. I turned it on and waited for three hours. The smell was wonderful. It had been so long! The machine beeped, signaling the end of the baking cycle. I ran into the kitchen and opened the machine. Reaching in with my oven mitt covered hands I pulled out…. a brick.
First, my anger started to flare, but then I actually decided to think about the situation – quite a novel idea on my part. Okay, they said they baked two (2) loaves and they came out perfect. They get loaves, I get bricks. Hmmm. I looked at my ingredients. The flour looked fine, the sugar looked fine. I knew the water was ok, well as ok as tap water can be anyway. The only thing left was the yeast.
When I was in grade school I had done an experiment with yeast. I forget what the point of the experiment was, but it required mixing a spoonful of sugar into some warm water and then adding yeast to watch it grow. I, of course, couldn’t do exactly what directions said to do. If I was going to grow something I wanted it to grow more than anyone else’s did. To achieve that end I added extra sugar and extra yeast. The yeast grew and grew and grew. It grew right out of its container and all over the kitchen counter. The house smelled like a beer brewery. That was good yeast.
You know how you always asked your teacher the question: “When am I ever going to use this in real life?” Well, here’s a case in point. Of course, I usually asked this question in algebra, which I honestly don’t think I have actually used in real life yet but that’s beside the point.
Anyway, I readied my experiment. I got out a container and put some warm water mixed with sugar in it. I took a few spoonfuls of yeast and added it to the mix. The water turned a light brown. I waited a few minutes waiting for the telltale bubbles to form and fill the container. The water stayed brown. There were no bubbles.
I was a victim of bad yeast.
Now as I sat thinking of this it occurred to me that I had put a lot of effort into placing blame on the people that worked in the repair shop, and their apparent lack of ability.
I thought about writing them a nice note of reconciliation and apologizing for my incorrect assumptions, and being a stand-up guy and taking the blame for my mistakes. I thought about it for quite a while, as a matter of fact. Then I forgot about it until just now.
I don’t have that bread maker anymore and it’s been several years now. I don’t think anyone there remembers me anymore, so for the sake of keeping the peace I think I’ll just let sleeping dogs lie, and pay tribute to their fortitude and technical skill with a silent prayer of thanks whenever I smell the aroma of fresh baked bread.
©Dan Bode 1998

Thursday, December 4, 2008


It has been said that if you name your fears they are easier to deal with.
I fear electrical work, so I named it Beelzebub.
I do love the benefits of having electricity in my home, and pretty much everywhere I go, but I’d really much rather leave having to work with it to the experts. The problem with that is every time I’ve needed someone to work on an electrical problem I can’t afford to pay the experts to do it. And every time (and I do mean EVERY time) that I have done any remodeling work in my home, when I encounter any portion of the electrical system that needs to be worked on, it just doesn’t look right.
Our house was built in 1952. It’s not big, but it has always served our purposes. On the other hand it had some properties that, when viewed with kindness, are described as contributing to the “character” of the house. When viewed by my eyes the description that came to mind was “demo project”.
My wife insists that I am having fun when I swing the hammer or crowbar to break through the drywall. Probably because of the maniacal grin that appears on my face while I’m doing it. I have to admit there is some satisfaction in the release of destructive force; however, it is tempered by the thought of what I will find on the other side of that drywall. It can be like opening a time capsule sometimes. This is a space that hasn’t seen the light of day in 56 years after all. The phrase “they don’t make them like they used to” always comes to mind when I start one if these projects.
Several years ago we remodeled our kitchen. I had some friends helping me on that one, and I learned a lot from them in doing that.
Things like “measure twice cut once”. I’ve modified that to “measure 10 times, cut once an inch more than measured, and then trim down by 1 millimeter at a time until you get the right length, and then when it’s still a millimeter too long, force it in to the desired space.”
Or, “Plan out your project ahead of time”. I revised this one to “plan it out in general terms and then run to the big box hardware store 20 times in the course of the project for other materials and always, always make sure you buy a new tool before you leave”.
A little while after we finished the kitchen I started on one of our bathrooms. It wasn’t in bad shape or anything, but our house is short on cabinet space and this bathroom had no cabinets whatsoever. So we ordered cabinets and I started pulling everything out of the bathroom.
I also needed to replace the shower walls as well so I was ripping out tiles that were made of aluminum. I had never seen anything like that before.
In order to put the new cabinets in I had to relocate the light switch. I was also installing a fan and another set of outlets.
I read all the books on wiring your own house. They had great pictures.
I like pictures. Just show me what it’s supposed to look like in the end and I’m good.
So I tore out the drywall to get to the wiring.
It didn’t look anything like the pictures.
I got a weird feeling in the pit of my stomach, and things inside of me started to seize up, but I had unfortunately already torn out the toilet.
I looked at the pictures again.
I held the book up to the wall and tried to identify what I saw.
No luck.
So I turned off the light and shut the door to the bathroom and went to bed.
Surprisingly, it was all still there the next morning.
I looked at the book and found that the pictures were still the same too.
I had no choices left to me so I went out to the electrical box in the back yard and I turned off the electricity to the bathroom. Then I went in and cut a couple of wires.
No sparks, no fires.
That’s one of the things about electricity that I don’t like: if there’s not a little light attached to whatever you’re working on you never know if it’s there or not. It’s an invisible menace waiting to jump out and grab you just as you get comfortable in its presence.
As I got more comfortable with it I cut a few more wires until there was basically nothing left of the original wiring in the bathroom. Then I got out my picture book and put in new wiring to make it look like the pictures. Then came the moment of truth: it was time to turn the electricity back on.
So I went out to the box in the back and flipped the switch.
I was gratified that there were no explosions, and that the electricity did indeed stay on for the rest of the west coast. I was worried about that.
I went back inside to see what was happening.
Everything looked ok.
I approached the light switch that I installed and very cautiously flipped it on.
Both the light and the fan came on. I only wanted the light to come on.
I turned that switch off and flipped the fan switch on.
The fan and the light in the hallway came on.
I went into the hallway and flipped the hallway light switch (which, by the way, I hadn’t even touched) and the hallway light and the bathroom fan went off.
So I went back outside and turned off the electricity, and then I cut some more wires and started over again. Eventually I got it right. Or at least as right as I had a right to expect it to be right.
It has been a few years since that happened and the time came when the other bathroom had to be torn apart. I approached it with more confidence than the last time for the simple fact that I now had more experience, and the pictures in the book still hadn’t changed.
I got out the hammer and the crowbar and started in again.
I knew what I thought should be there, but when I stepped back and let the dust settle I found that I was looking at the same nightmare as before.
It didn’t match the pictures!
I really hate it when that happens.
There was extra stuff. Why do you need extra stuff in a bathroom?
So I did what I always do.
I shut the door and went to bed. I knew without a doubt that it would still be there when I woke up.
The next day I called my good friend Dave Nelson.
Dave is an electrical genius.
He is the high priest of electrical knowledge.
He is the one with all the electrical answers.
Dave is also one of those guys who are always on a quest for knowledge. When he wants to know about something he just jumps right in and finds out what is needed and does it. He is always working on something at his house. I can pretty much guarantee that if you walk into his house at any given time there is a project being worked on. I expect that the worst form of torture you could inflict on Dave would be to tell him that he had to sit down and relax and never visit another hardware store again.
So I called Dave and sent him a picture of what I was looking at. He looked at the picture and we talked about it, and he concluded that in this case everything appeared to be the way it was supposed to be.
He concluded his remarks with, “I don’t really see a problem. I think you’ll do fine with it.”
That’s another thing about Dave; he’s an eternal optimist.
In my head I was saying, “YOU don’t see a problem? I still see a problem! This is BEELZEBUB we’re talking about here!”
With my mouth I was saying, “Yeah, I think I understand it now. I should be ok.”
So I turned the electricity off and cut some wires. No explosions.
I finally got it finished and went on to finish the drywall, install the sink and paint everything.
Now that it’s done I have a new issue.
When we were deciding on the color my wife wanted yellow.
I did not want yellow.
We compromised on a kind of golden brownish color that seemed to fit the room. So we got the paint and I finished the job.
Then the paint dried.
It’s yellow.
In fact it’s actually YELLOW!
It’s so YELLOW! that you don’t even have to turn on the light to see at night because it pretty much glows in the dark! And if you turn on the light you're gonna go blind.
YELLOW! does not belong in a bathroom. It’s too strongly associated with something else that you will find in a bathroom that is also yellow which I shall not name here to save those of sensitive dispositions. It is also often associated with the number 1.
After having to sit in the YELLOW! room for a while I have now discovered that I truly hate YELLOW!
On the other hand, the light switch only turns on the light in the bathroom so maybe I’ll just leave it that for now.
©Dan Bode 2008