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Commentary & Opinion

Ralph Gardner Jr: The Strange Magic Of A Favorite Mug

Ralph's favorite cup
Ralph Gardner Jr

There was nothing remarkable about my mug. It was white and tapered – wider at the top than the bottom – with a sturdy handle that offered a comfortable, confident grip as I sipped my morning coffee.

But now it’s gone and I’m in mourning. It developed a hairline fracture months if not years ago (it may not sound like it but I hadn’t devoted all much time to considering the vessel until it failed) the fissure seeming not to threaten the drinking experience until one recent morning when I poured a cup of coffee and noticed a puddle spreading across the kitchen counter.

I have other mugs, obviously, some of them more aesthetically pleasing than my now former favorite mug. For example, there’s a handsome blue one in the cupboard from the gift shop at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, NY.

Then there’s a bold red mug with a white cross, the colors and design of Switzerland’s national flag. I even have a Toblerone chocolate mug – the mug is ceramic, not chocolate, but the same color and decoration as the iconic triangular milk chocolate and nougat bar.

Mugs run in our family, particularly promotional mugs. Never one to pass up a freebie my father, who had an advertising agency, was the recipient of numerous sample mugs, as well as flashlights, key chains, rulers, etc. all of which were imprinted with some variation of the theme “Your message here.”

In other words, that was the space where you’d get to promote your company to favored clients if you ordered, say, fifty thousands ashtrays or, obviously, mugs.

That also explains the motley crew of mugs in our cupboard growing up – plastic mugs, metal mugs, mugs with foam cozies to prevent you from burning your fingers.

When I was cleaning out my parents’ apartment recently I even found a Middlebury College mug, circa 1975. Apparently, something about the mug so conjured my college experience that I swiped it upon graduation.

What I find interesting about mugs is how and why, for reasons I believe test the limits of language, we develop an attachment to some rather than others and generally one in particular.

I don’t want to minimize my affection for my wife and children but there’s a connection that one might almost, or definitely, describe as emotional associated with your favorite mug that replicates the experience, the familiarity, the ease and comfort that one feels towards beloved family members.

There’s probably also some sort of circadian element to it. When you pour your morning coffee or tea, your mind still muddled from sleep, you’re not in a state of mind where you want the responsibility of having hard choices thrust upon you.

You simply want to reach into the kitchen cabinet and spot your friendly mug sitting there waiting to be called into service.

If ever there was a moment where form follows function this is it. Frills and decoration are fine but only if they don’t interfere with your mug’s responsibilities as a caffeine delivery system.

On the occasions when my mug isn’t instantly accessible I’m thrown into confusion. Which actually happens fairly frequently. Because part of my wife’s charm is that she’s not habitual.

After emptying the dishwasher my mug may find itself on one of several different shelves, either staring me in the face or hidden behind a half dozen other mugs, cups, glasses, what have you. Unfortunately unless something is staring me flat in the face I generally find it impossible to locate.

I know my spouse isn’t doing this to torment me. Even though she grows impatient, if not occasionally disappointed and depressed, that she married an individual incapable of the mental dexterity required to believe that whatever it is you’re seeking can be found simply by moving other objects out of the way.

By the way, she has her own favorite mug, though it’s actually a classic coffee cup that looks like something from a Fifties TV ad.  

My attachment to my mug pales in comparison to hers towards her cup.

The tragic fact is that all such receptacles will eventually fail through use, through accidents, or just the daily trauma of being subjected to sinks and dishwashers followed by the rough and tumble of jockeying for position in the typically overcrowded kitchen cabinet.

My wife’s friends and family scour everything from garage sales to the Internet in search of duplicates in case some calamity wipes out her stock. If our marriage is stable at the moment part of the reason is that she has several identical coffee cups in reserve.

With me the situation is different and more dire. I owned two of the same beloved mug – one for the city, the other for the country. My country mug continues to function but has developed the same hairline fracture that sabotaged my city mug; probably the way that identical twins that share similar DNA have kindred spirits and are prone to the same diseases.

It’s only a matter of time until my country mug will also require burial.

By the way, is there anything more discouraging that a mug whose handle breaks while the rest of the vessel remains perfectly intact? As much as you want to save it you know that if you glue the handle back on it’s eventually going to crack, probably scalding you in the process.

I’m reasonably confident I’ll find a replacement mug. Or better yet find a copy of my favorite mug somewhere in the universe. I might even get over the loss eventually and graduate to a new, perhaps even better mug. But I’m not holding my breath.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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