Some small problems are just universal

We were sitting down to our favorite family dessert: hot chocolate pudding made from scratch, with a touch of Mexican chili pepper.

The chili pepper was my son Erik's idea. He thought it up about a year ago, when he discovered that cooking was like chemistry, just with less broken glassware.

"I think I've finally figured out the things that make us human, the things that truly bind us all together, no matter our nationality or creed," I announced proudly.

"Cornstarch?" Erik said, thinking of the pudding.

"Saran Wrap," I answered. Or rather, the fact that no person on this Earth can open a package of plastic wrap and trust it to rip neatly, as it does in commercials.

The tube falls out. The cheap blades on the cardboard bend. The stuff sticks to itself. Every human being who has ever tried to tear a bit of Saran Wrap off knows what I mean. All humanity faces the same dilemma, regardless of faith, ethnicity, or class when confronted with a package of plastic wrap.

Ralf looked at me and smiled. "It's just a fact of life."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

He smiled. "Que Saran, Saran,' he warbled. "Whatever will be, will be."


"Then there are the migratory pencils," I said. "Buy a package of pencils, and you can count on it: Whether you live in the Sahara Desert or in Paris, France, within one month you will be hunting pencils, as in, 'Does anyone know where the heck a pencil could be in this house?' "

"Are you sure they don't migrate south in the winter?" Erik asked. "Face it. If you are a pencil and someone leaves you on the sidewalk in the middle of December, you are not going to be sticking around."

"Look, the dilemma of lost pencils unifies us all, from Mongolia to Mexico."

Erik began waving his forefinger in the air with great energy.

"No," he said. "In Mexico pencils migrate north in the summer."


"No one likes sweating pencils," Erik said firmly. "They are warm and disgusting. Think about it. You are sitting in an exam, filling out your multiple choice, and your hand is all clammy and gross. That's not just your perspiration; the pencil is as nervous as you are."


"Bad things happen to pencils in exams," Erik explained. "They get chewed on, they get snapped in half. ..."

"You have a point," I said.

Ralf weighed in.

"The most universal problem for humanity is a wet newspaper."

"Honey, honestly. How big a problem is that in the Sahara?"

"Yeah," Erik said, "but you have to take into account the monsoon season in India. It balances out. Besides, how did the newspaper get soaked in the first place? It doesn't have to be rain. A dog could have slobbered all over it."

"Or worse," I said, darkly.

Ralf was musing.

"Yes?" I asked.

"We hear talk about newspapers going to the dogs," he said, "but sometimes the dogs go on the newspaper."

"We could talk about the serious problems in the world," Erik said. "Like starvation."

"The Middle East," I added.

"Sudden beehive collapse," Ralf said.

"I don't want to," I said. "I can't take it just now. For one thing, I used up the last of the Saran Wrap. On itself. It stuck to itself!" I wailed. "And I can't find a pencil, either. I can never find a pencil."

Ralf and Erik know just what to do in these circumstances.

They offered me more pudding.