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Washington Voices

Front Porch: It’s sure no accident how stuff works

Have you ever noticed that when you’re late for an appointment, you catch every red light, freight train at a railroad crossing and nearly all emergency vehicles out that day between your point of departure and intended destination?

Not to mention every granny driver, every stopped bus along the route, every crosswalk filled with pedestrians and every road repair detour in town. This might be a bit of an exaggeration, but only a slight one, as there are no road work projects to speak of in the winter – hence the old saying about the two driving seasons around here: winter and construction.

And the opposite is true, too. On a day recently when I had lots and lots of time before I had to be someplace, I drove from the Five Mile area to the upper South Hill without encountering one red (or even yellow) light and not one stop sign. Hence, I arrived a good 20 minutes early. Why is that?

It’s the universal law of how stuff works, that’s why.

And the law works in all places and circumstances. For example, I play a little computer Solitaire. There I am with three aces exposed – the ace of clubs, diamonds and hearts, let’s say – and desperately seeking a 2 to go with them. And, of course, one and only one emerges – the 2 of spades. And it doesn’t matter which aces are up and ready for their companion 2s, the only ones that show their merry faces will be the wrong ones.

Same thing with parking places. If I’m going on an errand downtown, I’ll have to hunt for a spot. We all do; that’s the nature of downtown – where, by the way, I love to shop. Oh, I’ll find a place to park, and it might actually be within reasonable walking distance of where I’m headed. But if I’m just passing through downtown on my way from here to there, I will always see a nice roomy parking place just outside the front door of one or probably all of my usual stopping places. I’ll bet there’s even time left on the meters.

That same law is in effect at video rental stores. My husband and I decided to resume watching “Breaking Bad,” needing to pick up disc 3 of Season 3 to start again where we’d left off. Eagerly I went to the video store. All of the DVDs for Season 1, 2 and 4 were on the shelf – as were discs 1, 2 and 4 of Season 3. And what was checked out (for days, it turned out), of course, was the very one I needed.

Have you noticed that when you’re buying something that costs, say $10.03 – by way of change in your wallet, you’ll have two pennies? If the thing costs $10.04, you’d be able to dig up just three cents, even if you scrounge around the bottom of your purse. And if you survey the checkout lines at the grocery store to estimate which one is moving the fastest, you’ll undoubtedly choose the one where the person immediately in front of you has a problem with his debit card or not enough cash for the purchase. “Manager to register 4, please.”

A variation of the universal law of how stuff works happens with cooking as well. I try to keep my spices well stocked along with other kitchen staples and am usually good to go with most kitchen projects. So there I’ll be working fervently on a recipe, with assorted items in stages of preparation, including something in the oven (necessitating that I not leave the house), and when I reach for … let’s say the milk … I’ll find either an empty carton or one with less in it than what the recipe calls for.

I know, I know – a good cook checks all this stuff ahead of time, and it’s possible to fudge a little and/or substitute. But when you see the milk in the refrigerator, is it wrong to assume that there will be enough there for whatever you’re doing? Martha Stewart may practice mise en place, but I’ve got an hour to put this puppy together, cooked and ready to serve – so it’s grab and measure and dispense from the original container. Faster and less stuff to wash up afterward. I call it real world cooking, which, apparently, also means coming-up-short-sometimes cooking.

I once called my husband under one of those circumstances and asked him to bring home three things from the store. Do you need to write it down, I asked? No, he said, he had it. Sigh. You know where this is going. Instead of Cool Whip, he arrived with Miracle Whip. I’m pretty good at improvising, but I could not quite bridge the gap between those two items.

And that brings us to the topic of sending the innocent unescorted into groceryworld, where the universal law of how stuff happens takes a funny turn. More on that another time.

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at Previous columns are available at

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