The Zen of Marshmallows
A gadget's deeper lessons
by Leonard Bass
A few years back, my mother mailed my wife, son, and me a gift for Hanukkah. It was the dead of winter, snow on the ground, so it made absolute sense to receive from her a three-pronged, battery-operated, rotating marshmallow roaster. As far as I know, we were the first on our block to have one!
I understood the sentiment that prompted her to send it. My mom knows we love camping, and who wouldn't want to be relieved of the torturous task of actually having to cut a stick out of a tree branch and twist a half-ounce marshmallow on it--by hand, no less? With deep gratitude, we decided to "store" the gadget in our basement, back by the ten-plagues finger puppets she sent my son for Passover when he was five ("Hi, I'm Mr. Boils! What's your name?" "I'm Mr. Cattle Plague! Wanna ruin a nation together?").
For three long years, the marshmallow roaster sat in our basement gathering dust. It's not that we didn't appreciate the spirit in which it was given; it's just that my mother, like so many of us, confuses processes with outcomes, believing that the latter outweigh the former. Like when she sent my wife a bread making machine. My wife likes making bread; she finds the process meditative and healing. The fact that we wind up with fresh bread at the end is a huge bonus but not entirely the point. Shoving ingredients into a slot, going to bed, and awakening to fresh bread misses the essence of the experience. And the same goes for roasting marshmallows. Part of the experience is to learn the fine art of cutting the right stick out of a tree or a shrub and whittling the end to a fine, thin point.
For the past fifteen years, I have helped to organize a huge benefit yard sale for the Zen Buddhist Temple of Ann Arbor. The sale is held on Labor Day weekend (this
year, Sept. 5-7) and is geared towards returning university students looking to outfit their apartments. Many of us who belong to the temple use the yard sale as an opportunity to sift through our things to determine what is integral to our lives and what is expendable. This is, in fact, one of the advantages of the meditative path; the further we go, the more we realize how little we really do need. With the yard sale, we can support a worthy cause while unloading the vast excesses from our lives.
Last fall, we decided to do a bit of clutter gleaning in our basement. Needless to say, the three-pronged, battery-operated, rotating marshmallow roaster made its way to the sale. It soon became a big hit--as well as the butt of many a joke as I and a group of hardworking volunteers labored tirelessly to get the sale off the ground.
"Thank God for this," said one eager volunteer, eyeing the specimen. "Who knows what kind of carpal tunnel trouble awaits someone who would roast a marshmallow by hand?"
"Oh, but wait," said another. "I don't think the university students who would buy this thing would have roasting marshmallows in mind, do you? Come on, a long spinning thing with prongs?"
"The thing's not even two feet long, " still another pointed out. "Wouldn't you fry your hand off roasting a marshmallow on it? What were they thinking?" And on it went.
An Ann Arbor News article helped generate the largest first-day crowd I'd witnessed in all my years of running the sale. The place was swarming, and, in my traditionally neurotic Buddhist way, I was running from thing to thing, lifting couches here, taking apart bed frames there, answering questions, and slapping "sold" tags on dressers and desks. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted an elderly woman standing in the long line in front of the cashier, her arms filled with purchases. On top of the pile was the three-pronged, battery-operated, rotating marshmallow roaster.
I had to know. I grabbed a box for her finds and took it over to her. "So, you found the three-pronged, battery-operated, rotating marshmallow roaster, did ya?" I asked. Her face lit up. "Isn't it wonderful?" she said, putting her items into the box. "My kids out in California love camping! They are going to be sooooo happy!"
[Originally published in September, 2009.]