Mercury, dirty dishes and how I survived WalMart and lived to tell about it—a skeptic’s journal.

Mercury in Retrograde :: A Skeptic's Journal

I don’t believe in astrology because I try to be a rational, reasonable person. That said, I swear I can predict when Mercury has gone retrograde.

For you uninitiated who may not be familiar, the term “Mercury going retrograde” refers to a celestial phenomenon wherein 3 or 4 times a year the planet Mercury appears to “catch-up” to the Earth’s orbit and appears to be moving in an opposite, or retrograde orbital direction in relation to Earth. It’s really just an optical illusion. That’s the science part. The rest of it, like the disasters that inevitable follow,  is just astrological clap trap. Suffice to say Mercury went “retro” on January 21 and will probably be a pain in my ass until around February 11.

As mentioned, I don’t believe in astrology, or past lives, tarot cards, or most of the other crap theories you’ll find in the New Age/Occult aisle of Barnes and Noble. I am however on the fence about the Mercury thing. And here’s just one more example why…

I woke up last Saturday morning to a broken dishwasher—admittedly a first-world problem and I feel slightly embarrassed about even calling it a problem. But, as I do a lot of cooking and it’s an appliance I rely on every day,  let’s call it a ‘serious inconvenience’. Less of a thing maybe than a tree falling through your roof but more of a thing than say, a crack in your car windshield.

Like any responsible DIY homeowner on a Saturday faced with a broken appliance, Plan A is always to try to fix it myself. In other words I started pushing the same combination of buttons over and over hoping for a different result. No joy. I deep-Google the problem. No joy. So like most DIY homeowners I give up on Plan A within a few minutes and proceed straight to Plan B—call an appliance repairman/woman on Monday•.

*I’m careful to say “repairman/woman because I recently called a plumbing company to send someone out to unclog a sewer line and they sent a female plumber, which was both a reminder that I lived in the SF Bay Area and, made me wish my grandfather were alive just to see how long it would take him to ask her, “so when is the plumber coming?” What can I say? it was a different era. For the record, honestly, given a choice, I prefer female plumbers. But I digress…

Having accepted that I would be manually washing dishes for a while, I set about to attack the pile I assumed had been cleaned by my otherwise reliable German-made dishwasher 24-hours prior but in fact had just been sitting there in a steamy metal cabinet culturing strains of god-knows-what kind of lethal pathogen.

So fearing for my family’s health and safety, I grabbed the stopper device from under the sink and started to fill it up with hot water. At that moment the sink stopper contraption came apart in three pieces in my hand. At this point I would normally just chuckle benignly and chalk this up to coincidence but whenever something breaks—then something else breaks right afterward, I get a little nervous. A little back story may explain why…

Me and Merc go way back

A few years ago during a Mercury retrograde cycle, within a period of two days—and this is not just true but all too typical—my watch bezel broke, then my office phone, then my internet connection went down while uploading a clients’ website files, then I went completly blank on my ATM PIN number while at the Trader Joe’s checkout stand with 10 people in line behind me. These are not disasters—clearly—just a little chaos in a short amount of time. But wait there’s more…

Mi cepillo con muerte (my brush with death)

During a retrograde cycle that same year..and again, true story…while on an up-and-back hike with my sister in a local state park—on the “up” leg , minding my own business, just walking side by side along a hot dusty fire road, talking away, I stepped on a rattlesnake as it was crossing the trail in front of us. Never even saw it until my sister let out a screech that dislodged pine cones from the trees as I simultaneously stepped on the snake and executed a Cirque du Soleil-quality-never-before-seen bit of spastic maneuvering to avoid being bitten, as it slithered away, annoyed but unharmed. I, on the other hand, was traumatized, embarrassed, and already wondering what legal remedies I might seek to enjoin my sister from ever describing the dance I’d just done to any other living human. But it gets better…

On the way “back” up the trail, just when my adrenaline had reached close to normal levels, I was again, minding my own business, albeit more conscious of “moving sticks” ahead on the trail, discussing my previous near-brush with death, when I stepped squarely, precisely and pretty fucking perfectly, on another rattlesnake in the middle of the trail. Again…screech, bizarre dance moves like Jagger grabbing a downed power line, heart rate reaching hummingbird-on-espresso levels. But, we both live to tell about it (me and Snake #2, not my sister, who may choose to “tell about it” but not live long after that).

And just when you think that was all the deadly reptile one person deserves in one day….when I got home, and even before I could tell my wife the tale of my twin brushes with death…the gardner I had hired to clear some brush from the backyard called me over. He was clearly agitated and as his English was limited, employed dramatic hand gestures to aid the following story; apparently while weeding the back yard he had spooked “un grande serpiente” ,(at this he spread his arms and leaned back a little like he was about to hug a side-by-side refrigerator) and then he grabbed his pinky with his thumb and forefinger and wiggled it back and forth while making a “chickachickachicka” sound. I knew exactly what he was describing. It was Mercury in retrograde.

The bottom line is, since then my Merc radar is pretty much always set to sensitive and Saturday, as I surveyed the pile of fetid, bacteria-laden, unwashed dishes sitting on my kitchen counter, and the sink stopper in three pieces, little pings were starting to go off.

Two disasters do not a Merc-ing make

I repaired the sink stopper well enough to prevent drainage and went to squirt some dish soap into the sink from the sink-mounted soap dispenser. It was empty. When you have a fully functioning automatic German dishwasher, you don’t need a lot of dish soap, hence I don’t check it that often, hence it ran dry. But, not to worry. I have a bottomless, drum-sized, emergency bottle of Dawn I bought at Costco during the Clinton administration that I keep in my pantry closet. It was gone. The Dawn was, say it with me…gone.

Sense of humor still in tact there was no cursing or throwing dish towels at the cat. I simply informed my wife I was going down to CVS to buy some dish washing supplies before our kitchen became a Superfund site. Done and done. 

So let’s review (bear in mind I don’t know for certain at this point that Mercury is in retrograde but the evidence is mounting). First, a fairly new, top quality German engineered dishwasher breaks suddenly. b) sink stopper falls apart,  c) giant bottle of dish soap just vanishes. A flurry of admittedly pretty minor league problems, but this is exactly what Merc likes to do. Oh yes, I could smell a planetary plot unfolding. 

So I prepare to execute suburban homeowner Plan C— Step 1: go to CVS for dish soap and a drying rack (also missing), Step 2: rent a RedBox movie while there. Step 3: come home, cook a lovely garlic-dill salmon dinner, do dishes by hand (no problem), watch a movie, call repair person on Monday. It’s simple, it’s quick, it involves lots of no snakes.

I go down to the garage, get in the car and immediately notice a 12” crack in the windshield—and not just the little spidery, quarter-sized crack from a piece of random highway shrapnel but a crack traveling left to right in real time in a gentle downward arc. Spelling out in cursive, “you now need a new windshield—Love, Merc”.

Now I’m pissed. I pick up my phone.

“Siri…call Sara”.

“Calling Sara, James.”

“Hi, hon’.” my wife answers. 

“Hi…hey…what’s up with this crack in the windshield?” I’m on speaker while backing out of the garage.

“Oh right…I noticed that yesterday. Bummer, huh? “

‘Soooo you don’t remember how it happened?” I ask, partially aware that this may be a useless and potentially hazardous line of questioning.

“Well, no. Not really.” I could sense her blame radar was fully engaged but in that special way where even if I stupidly accused her of some kind of negligence, she would find it more amusing than insulting, knowing that the phrase “shit happens” was invented for exactly this type of event.

“Oh, okay. Geezus. Crazy, right? First the dishwasher, now we suddenly need a new windshield. Holy crap…you don’t think…”

“Hon…just breathe.” She senses my increasing agitation.

“Right, sure. Okay, I’m good. One thing at a time. Shit happens. Off to CVS. Back in a flash.”

Hardware. A guy thing.

On the way to CVS I remind myself that even a full windshield replacement is a first-world problem and nothing I can’t handle. Insurance will probably cover all or part of it anyway. It’s not life or death. No harm, no foul. And the dishwasher repair—okay maybe $100-200, plus a new windshield…I continue to take long, slow breaths as previously instructed.

I get to CVS. I buy a small, temporary replacement bottle of dish soap. But CVS has no sink stopper thingy, no drying rack. I go to the RedBox, rent a “feel good” movie, for obvious reasons. I still need dishwashing supplies so I go to the Home Depot about a mile away.

Entering the Home Depot I reflexively assume the  “don’t ask for help because you’re a guy in  a hardware store” posture, especially since I’m looking for a dish drying rack, which is just short of admitting I have no testosterone. I’m wishing I had a more masculine hardware need, like if a tree had fallen through my roof and I needed chainsaw oil and 200 board feet of rough “2-by’s” or really anything requiring an arcane knowledge of tools and several bags of cement.

Finally, I must have looked pathetic and lost enough to attract a Home Depot employee who asks me if I need help. With a hint of a southern drawl that seems to only emerge in hardware and auto repair establishments, I say, “yeah…my dishwasher broke and I need a dryin’ rack until I can fix it…do you have those?” I try awkwardly to mime “drying rack” but it comes out more like “me make sandwich”.

The Home Depot guy looks bemused. “No-o-o-o…I…don’t…think…we…carry…those.” he says, injecting enough ellipses between words to augment his over-the-top incredulity. “You might try Walmart for that”. He smiles a half smile. I think…”pretty smug for a guy named Bryce wearing an orange apron.” 

No please…not Walmart

“Oh sure, okay.” I reply.  “I’m trying to avoid Walmart, but thanks.” Which is actually true. I’ve never shopped there. Ever. I’m a good liberal progressive and I don’t like WalMart. I don’t support their business model which is centered around the false premise that cheap is good. Not to mention how they exploit their workers. I could go on. Bryce says, “I know what you mean. I quit WalMart in October. I hated it there. How about Target? They must have dish racks.”

Instantly Bryce becomes more likable. We probably hate Walmart for different reasons, but he’s now an ally in my quest to find manual dish washing equipment. I make some offhanded crack about not being able to “swipe your card at Target “ but he’s already disengaged and moving on to assist more qualified customers with their more pressing and manly, first-world problems.

So now I’m standing outside Home Depot on the horns of a real consumer dilemma wrapped up in a crisis of conscience and stuffed inside an unfolding cosmic clusterfuck. I can suck it up and go across the parking lot to WalMart, compromise my principles but probably buy a dish rack, or drive 10 miles down the freeway to Target and risk having my dinner at 10 p.m. and my personal data compromised.

And damn if this isn’t just the kind of chaotic conundrum that means Mercury must be in full, unabashed, retro-freakin-grade. I look skyward into the heavens, shake a fist at Mercury (later I learned the actual planet Mercury was actually 180 degrees behind me) and begrudgingly, and sheepishly, start walking across the parking lot, toward WalMart.

“Welcome to Walmart”

As I prepare to enter Walmart for the first time. Ever. I am chagrined but resolute. I immediately pass one of the infamous, elderly greeters sitting on a stool near the shopping carts who looks like he’s been there since I bought that mega bottle of Dawn dish soap. He says in a scratchy monotone, “Welcome to WalMart”  for the 16,000th time that day, no doubt. I return a scowly but sympathetic, “Thanks, man”.

The first thing I notice about WalMart is that it smells like a freshly unwrapped, plastic outdoor table cloth with just a hint of gym bag. The lighting is fluorescent on steroids, slightly chartreuse and a lot brighter than natural daylight, which added to the soft-rock soundtrack being piped in from my dead Aunt’s hi-fi in heaven, explains the overall sense that we may be in Kansas or some other flat, expansive, hellish netherworld. 

I head for the giant sign that says “Household” in Helvetica Bold. The aisles are stacked head-height on both sides, they’re maze-like, disorderly but containing a surprising mix of top brands along with obvious knock-offs. But, I know my kitchen tools and frankly, I’m a little impressed.

“Focus”, I mutter under my breath. “Dish rack. Sink stopper. Scrubber thingy. Back across the parking lot. Get in windshield-crack car. Hope nothing else breaks on way home. First, swallow pride, ask for help cuz not finding dish racks. Also losing articles and conjunctions at alarming rate.”

I spy an older Walmart employee milling about with a yellow cart full of “go backs”. I ask, “Excuse me, where can I find dish drying racks?” He drops his head, tilts it to one side, an eye skewed in my direction. He speaks very little English.

“Who…dish pack?”.

“No, Dish…rack. For drying dishes?” I enunciate but not too much. I’m careful not to insult. It’s a liberal thing—“show no impatience with ESL speakers”.

Finally, he understands and scuttles off ahead of me flicking his finger to follow. Success. I arrive at a loosely organized wall of all things “kitchen sink”.

There is a woman blocking my access and muttering to herself, “Damn. Should have measured first.” She’s obviously seeking similar quarry. She adds to the 3 or 4 dish racks in various sizes, colors and quality levels nested in her cart and realizes I have a similar objective by the antsy vibe I must be giving off. She sheepishly backs off as I pluck the first likely, stainless steel wire dish rack from the lower shelf and check the price tag.

Holy freakin’ crap…so cheap!

To a seasoned “WalMartian”, the reaction that followed is probably considered a normal  thing for a WalVirgin. I’m talking about the incredulous, gobsmacked “What the hell? Only $insert lowlow price?. Seriously?!” always uttered out loud, involuntarily, as the light of reason slowly fades from our eyes and we go a little dead inside.

With newborn fascination I return to the disheveled display of kitchen accoutrements to see what else I could score for almost no money. Two dish scrubbers for $1.67. A sink supper thingy for $1.19. A rubber mat for under the dish rack for $.99. I could pay for all of this with the lost meter change between my car seats, with what I spent yesterday at Starbucks! I find myself at a crossroads staring into Sam Walton’s big blue-eyed, American “Always Low Prices” abyss, mixing metaphors uncontrollably.

I look around at the carts of my fellow shoppers—14 cans of Stagg’s chile, a floor mop and a pressboard shelf unit. Another cart …2 cases of Red Bull on the bottom level, a dozen jars of sauerkraut on a bed of  polyester pajamas the color of an irradiated flamingo, and a blister pack of screwdrivers in the kid carrier. No rhyme, no reason. It’s so cheap. It must be good. Cheap is good. Is cheap good? Cheap IS good. I feel a flood of dopamine release in my brain. No wonder people shop here. Then a voice from deep down said…

“Run, you fool!”

After my self-inflicted dope slap, I lose no time choosing the closest of 82 register lines and anxiously await my turn, ATM card out of wallet and poised to swipe. A woman ahead of me in line and dressed in sweats and 50’s glasses is accusing the checker of charging her twice for a bottle of water. She clearly has two bottles of water on the bagging table, which is pointed out matter-of-factly by the emotionless Walmart checker (or Guest Services Attendant, or whatever). I nervously tap my ATM card on the conveyor belt as the terse transaction ahead eats up precious seconds I could be NOT spending in this place where consumers go to blissfully die, having spent their kid’s inheritance on crap they don’t need but might need so they buy ten of them because it’s sooooo cheap…it must be good.

“Get out of my head,” I almost say aloud. 

It’s finally my turn. I swipe. I pay. The checker is careful to ask, or declare (I’m not sure which) “You don’t need a bag, do you.” in accord with the new California plastic bag law that went into effect just days before. I reply “Nopethanks” and move my body in one smooth motion toward the exit. When for a moment…I experience what is at first a mere flutter, then a murmur of self-doubt, followed by a feral, maniacal, gravitational pull toward that vortex of “SaveMoneyLiveBetter” material euphoria. “Should I get a few more things since I’m already here and everything is soooooo cheap?” I suddenly realize I’m the grip of a power greater than myself, namely Sam Walton and the planet Mercury, together in an unholy alliance.

I dodge the gaze of the elderly Greeter on the way out the double doors as he utters a mechanical, “Thank you for shopping at Walmart”, on cue, like a tripped garage door sensor.

I retrace my steps, get in my car, cracked windshield refracting parking lot lights, and re-focus on the task ahead. “First, install new dish rack, then re-fill dish soap squirt thingy, replace sink stopper, wash fetid pile of disgusting dishes, make salmon if still edible (stop, reverse those…cook salmon then clean fetid dishes), watch “feel food” movie, call dishwasher repair person on Monday, mobile windshield repair person right after that. First-world problems.” All that matters now is that I had once again barely escaped a death of a different kind, sidestepped another species of venomous serpent and eluded the gravitational pull of Mercury…and Walmart, at least for now. Or until around February 11. 

Update on Mercury in Retrograde – Day 7

Here’s the thing about Mercury in retrograde that isn’t often discussed and I often neglect to mention. It’s now been a week since my dishwasher broke and I haven’t called a repair person. My wife and I now have a little ritual whereby we finish watching TV, I give the cats a massage  and a salmon treat on the little carpet by the front door (I know…I’ll explain the cat thing in another post), and we both go into the kitchen, sometimes without a word, start filling up the sink with hot water, she washes, I dry. We’re side by side, we talk about the day. It’s kinda freakin’ lovely.

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