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February 2006

My Kitchen Wars

"I should have purchased a new one, shouldn't I?"

"That's always a tough call," said the repairman, who was standing over my disemboweled dishwasher. It was the third visit in three weeks and I had been without a working dishwasher for five weeks. Let it be understood that I had always expected the repair would take at least two visits. (Scroll down.) After all, if parts are needed, they have to be ordered. No, what I hadn't bargained for was a repairman who, on visit #1, would arrive two hours past the four-hour "window" allocated, pronounce my dishwasher repaired after thirty minutes of fiddling and some insulting questions ("Did you let it run through the cycle?") and leave it in exactly the same state in which he found it, with three inches of water pooling in the bottom when I tried to run it. As it happened, the same repairman came back for visit #2, informed me that parts would have to be ordered, then left. It fell to a different repairman to tell me that repairman #1 had failed to order all the parts, so I would have to make a fourth appointment.

And then things really got ugly.

My fourth visit had to be rescheduled, which I did through the website. That appointment was lost and when I finally tracked down a human via the 800 number -- they don't make it easy -- there was only one mutually agreeable time left for Sears and me in all of 2005. However, it fell in the 8 a.m.-noon "window" of Dec. 21st, and I needed to work the annual Christmas Dinner at Viva House, a Baltimore soup kitchen, that afternoon. If the appointment fell at the end of the window, I'd be screwed. And while soup kitchens seldom have any problem finding people to work holiday dinners, I'm a regular at Viva House and feel obligated to be there every week. No problem, the woman on the phone said, she could guarantee me the first appointment of the day, 8 a.m. sharp.

And then things really got ugly.

At 8:45 a.m. on Dec. 21st, I worked my way through the byzantine automated phone system -- keep shouting "Human! Human! Human!" over and over again -- and found a woman in Texas, who told me I could expect a visit about 11:30 a.m.

I told her I had been promised the first appointment of the day.

She called me a liar. ("We don't do that.")

I asked if I could speak to the local person who scheduled the repairs. It seemed to me that, under the circumstances -- four visits, one lost appointment, gross incompetence on the part of repairman #1, the lost appointment, the soup kitchen Christmas dinner, etc. -- that I could be bumped up in the order.

No, she said.

I said if I could talk to the manager, I could probably use my superior knowledge of Baltimore to re-arrange the route, get everybody in, but still give my call priority.

No, she said.

I asked if I could speak to her supervisor.

No, she said.

And then things really got ugly.

I asked for her name. I asked four times and she refused to tell me. The fifth time, she paused and said something utterly implausible. (It wasn't Jane Doe, but it might as well have been.) Is that really your name? "No," she said, "but you won't stop asking me."

I called Sears headquarters in Hoffman Estates, Ill. I said I was a freelance writer with a website and I planned to write about this in detail. I'm sure they thought that the kind and solicitous attention I received from that moment on would keep me from living up to that promise, but I'm a woman of my word. A real journalist can't even make such threats, not ethically. But as the sole proprietress of, I had the authority to use it as I saw fit and I thought it would be unethical not to write something. Meanwhile, for an even funnier take on how to talk to an automated phone system, check out Julie Snyder's MCI war at This American Life's website.

The thing is, I need my dishwasher. I'm cooking a lot these days. In the ten weeks I went without a working dishwasher, I made for the first time: mozzarella en carozza, stove-top croutons, chickpea and sausage soup, squash soup, seafood chowder, Katherine Hepburn's brownies, miniature chocolate chip cookies, homemade pita chips, mushroom barley soup, eggplant caviar, cheddar cheese scones, white pizza, Thai shrimp, and oven-baked potato chips. Some of these recipes have been out-and-out failures. (My pizza crust puffed up like something in a horror film.) Some have been boondoggles; the seafood chowder required crabmeat AND rockfish, yielding a stew that was only marginally better than what comes in a Progresso can -- and about twenty times more expensive. And some things required new equipment and skills -- a mandoline for the potato chips, for example, and I still have all my fingers just through dumb luck. (I didn't use the pusher the first time, just raked that potato back and forth with my bare hand.)

Nora Ephron once wrote that the thing she likes best about cooking is that it's not creative. (Nancy Nall may have said the same thing.) But it's a good way to decompress at the end of the day. Plus, preparing food heightens one's enjoyment of it. I find it remarkably satisfying to make the simplest things. The fact that I went to my cupboards last night and made a wild mushroom tomato sauce for pasta seems nothing less than miraculous.

Cooking also is a great metaphor for writers. I suspect it's a great metaphor for just about anyone. You will have failures. You will have triumphs. You will have things that just aren't as enticing as they seemed on the page. But Jean Kerr captured this best, in an essay called "Out of Town With the Show."

"One Easter [a friend] had to prepare dinner for fifteen people, counting children and relatives. For reasons of economy she decided to make a ham loaf instead of the traditional baked ham. Obviously it was going to be four times the trouble, since the recipe for the ham loaf was extremely elaborate: there were a dozen different ingredients and the whole thing had to be made in advance and allowed to 'set' overnight in pineapple juice. But she went gamely ahead, convinced that she was going to produce something tastier than baked ham, if not indeed a gourmet's dish. As she took the pink square loaf out of the oven, a sinister thought crossed her mind. She cut off a little slice and tasted it, her worst suspicions confirmed. In tears she flew out of the kitchen to find her husband. 'Oh, Frank,' she said, 'do you know what I've got? I've got Spam!'

"All I can say is God love you, honey, if you're in Philadelphia and you've got Spam."
© Jean Kerr

The kicker is that my dishwasher still didn't work, even after the fourth visit. And that nasty woman's contention to the contrary, I really had been promised the first visit of the day. You know the old adage of taking names and kicking butt? Well, you can't kick butt if you don't have the names. The primary thing I learned from my experience is to deal with humans whenever possible, get full names before the relationship goes south, and keep a file with everyone's name and number. Sears gave me a credit, giving me the equivalent of what a new comparable dishwasher would cost. I decided to go a little higher hog and get something nicer. Perfect for Orthodox families, the salesman told me and I wished I'd had that detail when I wrote By a Spider's Thread. There was one more screw-up along the way, but it was handled pretty readily. (Remember, I had a little file of names and numbers.) Based on its inaugural run, it seems to be working. I also got first appointment of the day for delivery and installation, without even asking. Coincidence?

Meanwhile, I know a day will come when a novel-in-progress will be metaphorically disemboweled in my office and the only recourse will be starting over. I hope when that day comes -- not if, when -- I'm as tough on myself as I was with various people in the Sears chain-of-command. I also hope I never have Spam in Philadelphia, or anywhere else for that matter.

Free Books

I didn't realize there were so many needy cases out there. I've chosen two correspondents for ON BEAUTY and WHATEVER MAKES YOU HAPPY, but I'm offering several more titles for February: THE WOMAN AT THE WASHINGTON ZOO (a book that might have changed my life); a trade paperback of THE KINGS OF INFINITE SPACE (for fans of OFFICE SPACE); and an ARC of GIRL SLEUTH, the recently Edgar® nominated book by Melanie Rehak. I've also got some ARCs for NO GOOD DEEDS, but I think that requires a quiz. Keep those cards and letters coming.

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