This weekend, I went to the grocery store. As usual, my wife supplied me with a list of items to be purchased, but I was dismayed to find that it contained entries such as “frozen dinners (2-3)” and “cantaloupe.” The selection of such items requires the exercise of independent judgment, and in the context of a grocery store, this is simply beyond my powers.
It is easy to buy “15 oz bag of Herr’s Ripples potato chips (red bag).” One need only navigate to the aisle implied by the product description (in our supermarket, this would be the enticingly named “Snack Time” aisle), locate the shelves housing the appropriate family of products (i.e., potato chips), and then compare the characteristics of the products on the shelf with the characteristics of the target product until a suitable match has been found.
It is somewhat more challenging but still manageable to purchase “Pepsi.” When you aim to purchase “Pepsi,” the only thing up for grabs is the packaging. Whether you select a 2 liter, a 12-pack of cans, or a 6-pack of bottles, it’s all the same stuff inside. This is not to pooh-pooh the significant consequences that attend different packaging configurations (e.g., economics, portability, convenience, and prestige), but it is usually within my abilities to sort such matters out and make an appropriate selection.
What am I supposed to do when confronted with “cantaloupe”? The naive consumer might try to draw an analogy to the earlier packaging example, but there is much more at play here. While the size / shape of the cantaloupe corresponds roughly to its “packaging,” the internals of different cantaloupes matter greatly and gravely. There are issues of ripeness, firmness, fragrance, juiciness, and bruising to be considered here. Moreover, the opacity of the cantaloupe’s skin makes it decidedly difficult to discern the nature of what lies beneath. It is widely reported that some people possess the ability to shake, sniff and fondle cantaloupes in order to assess their merits. This is mysterious augury, and perhaps fodder for witch trials, but it exceeds my meager talents. In the past, I have tried to play at similar behaviors by gouging the fruits of the earth with my thumbs and nodding knowingly as their innards squirted into the air, but I was merely a pretender – a serial melon mangler in shopper’s clothing. Even if I knew what was underneath the skin, I would still be at a loss to say whether a given cantaloupe was suitably ripe, unsuitably stinky, appropriately juicy, or actually a grapefruit that had fallen errantly into the cantaloupe bin.
These difficulties are only compounded with the entrance of “frozen dinners (2-3)” onto the scene. You can imagine my chagrin. A dizzying array of products gathers beneath this heading, and yet the boundaries of the class remain ill-defined. Does a loaf of frozen garlic bread count as a frozen dinner? What about a bag of frozen peas? I would say yes on both counts, but my wife subscribes to different taxonomies, and hers constitute the bounds of reality for the purposes of this exercise. Even if we were to assume agreement on the class membership issue, I would still be at a loss as to which set of frozen dinners to select. Are these for me? If so, no problem — grab the first three Hungry Man boxes off the top of the pile and head for the checkout counter. If these are for my wife, however, I must take into account such issues as quality, taste, variety, and the present contents of our freezer. As someone who prefers the TV dinner versions of most entrees to their restaurant counterparts, eats the same soup for lunch every day, and scorns the refrigerator for the convenience of whatever happens to be sitting on the counter already (mmmmm . . . onion salt), I am ill-prepared to make such determinations.
I spend the better part of my days working in a software development organization, and I can tell you that computers are excellent, highly productive workers, assuming that they have been given maddeningly detailed instructions. They will execute such instructions with great speed and fidelity, but they get into a lot of trouble when they are asked to act in the absence of precise, unambiguous specifications. So it is with husbands in the grocery store, or at least this husband. I shop the list — the unadorned, unadulterated, unmitigated, and unambiguous list. When I pass through those automatic sliding doors, I lose all capacity for inspiration and interpretation. Do not ask me to buy “frozen dinners (2-3)” – neither of us will be satisfied with my selections. When I am in hunter-gatherer mode, “something tasty for when the Andersons come over” is no more instructive to me than “a tall building with lots of windows” is to a construction company. To get anything done, I need blueprints that leave nothing to the imagination. When I shop, I shop the list, the whole list, and nothing but the list. So help me God. All items on the list must be described down to their finest details. I recognize that some products, such as the dreaded cantaloupe, do not admit of such descriptions, and submit that a cantaloupe (or any equivalent piece of produce) will never be so direly needed that it can’t wait until someone else goes shopping.