A tale of man versus machine

One of my favorite snacks, despite my mother’s insistence that it’s poisonous and has no business being allowed FDA approval, is an Orville Redenbacher single-serving bag of microwave popcorn. It’s just the perfect amount for one sitting and formulated exactly to my preference (the right amount of sodium, pronounced taste of actual corn, great crunch paired with a melty fluffiness, and no dripping “butter” or greasy fingers). It’s also warm and fresh but requires obscenely little effort to prepare, which is a bonus for people who spend a lot of time preparing food for others. Furthermore, for the first time in memory, we own a microwave on which the “popcorn” button actually worked, and though I have no idea how such a device can intuit how much time and power it needs to administer to yield perfect results every time, somehow it did.

Please notice the use of past tense in that last clause. For whatever reason, despite continuing to function optimally for larger bags of popcorn, one day the microwave just decided that the “popcorn” button, if used to cook a mini bag, would just incinerate its contents. I’m not talking a bit too brown, or a couple of burnt kernels. I’m talking blackened popcorn-shaped embers of carbon, accompanied by the kind of acrid smoke that smells like a reason to buy shares of stock in Yankee Candle. I thought perhaps it was a one-off, a weird glitch, but no; each time I tried to cook a mini bag of popcorn, the microwave came on way too strong. It was a little sad to realize that I’d already consumed my final perfect bag of popcorn without knowing it at the time. If only microwave would’ve bowed out gracefully, if not giving two weeks’ notice, at least flashing across its control panel some words of finality so I’d have known to savor the moment as such.

Anyway, I tried all sorts of different formulae to try to get results close to what once had been, finally settling on one minute and fifty-two seconds on high power as a benchmark for satisfactoriness (which, oddly enough, feels like a a word that’s barely adequate as a word). And then, one night, after one minute and fifty-two seconds, I took a bag of burned popcorn out of the microwave and googled “Yankee Candle market value”. From there, the variation continued, and it began to seem that the microwave cooked differently depending on how much use it had gotten that day. I started to think that if it were used a lot prior to popcorn-making, perhaps that would account for the amplified intensity when handling my delicate little mini bags, causing them to burn.

Enter Brian, fellow popcorn enthusiast, whose appetite is hearty enough to handle a full-sized bag. One night he went to make popcorn, and I asked him to let me make mine first so it would be less likely to burn. I bemoaned that the night before I’d tried one minute and fifty seconds, which underpopped it enough to render the amount slightly less than satisfying but not so small as to warrant cooking a second bag. Then he pointed out that a few nights earlier, he’d made his bag first and mine had come out better than usual afterward, positing a completely contrary theory to mine: maybe the microwave’s optimal functionality as it relates to my popcorn is actually favored by recently having been run for a full-sized bag. I told him to have at it, then, and guess what? Every time since, after he makes his bag then puts mine in directly, it cooks almost perfectly on one minute and fifty-one seconds.

This is really a reflection on how it feels to be married sometimes. Despite the annoyances and frustrations, the difficult conversations and disagreements, the confusions and contradictions and conflagrations, the seemingly endless laundry list of things we do that drive each other crazy, there is also symbiosis. In the maelstrom of figuring out how to cohabitate and coparent with a person who is your safe place to the point that it’s easy to treat him like a whipping boy, there are oases wherein thrives a reciprocity of personal betterment. Sometimes we need the counterpoint of each others’ perspectives and creative thinking to find solutions. Sometimes we need to troubleshoot and work through trial and error to settle on best practice. Sometimes we need to collectively skin our knees on circumstance to teach us a gentler way to walk through life together. And sometimes it’s enough to step back and realize that one person’s popcorn makes the other person’s popcorn so much better. In a world of inhospitable microwaves, which time after time over-promise and under-deliver, I’m grateful to have found a way past the popcorn button. But I never would’ve figured out how to get there on my own.

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