Every morning, as I wait impatiently for my coffee to percolate, I study the warnings printed on the side of the coffeemaker’s glass carafe. “Do not bump, scratch or boil liquid dry in this carafe. Do not use on open flame. Do not hold over people.”
Sure, they sound like simple demands, but I often wonder: Do these product safety warnings always have consumers’ best interests at heart, or might they be attempts to make us conform to some arbitrary notion of ideal behavior? Before you answer that question, consider the following samples of dialogue, all concerning imaginary situations in which it might be wise to ignore the warning printed on the side of my coffee maker’s glass carafe, “Do not hold over people.”
(Setting: the average home.)
Woman: I’ve cleaned everything in this kitchen except for the bottom of the coffee carafe, and I’m not sure whether that’s dirty or not. I hate to waste good cleaning fluid on a not-dirty surface.
Man: Well, turn it over and look.
Woman: I can’t! It’s full of coffee, and I don’t want to waste good coffee, either.
Man: I see. Well, then, hold the carafe up high, and I’ll stand under it and look.
Woman: (elevating carafe) Is this high enough?
Man: (standing beneath carafe) Perfect! And you’ll be glad to know, it’s spotless. Your cleaning is over!
Woman: I’m glad you suggested that I hold the coffee pot aloft. Otherwise I might have stood here all day, trying to decide whether to clean it or not.
Man: And instead I simply had to stand beneath the pot for a brief, not-at-all dangerous period of time.
(Setting: John Adams middle school faculty lounge, suspected of harboring a dangerous criminal. Police officers kick down the door.)
Police Officer #1: Attention, John Adams Middle School faculty members! Freeze! Now, slowly raise your hands above your heads, without stopping to put down any objects you might be holding.
(A teacher, in the midst of pouring coffee, freezes. He is clearly torn between obeying the orders of the police and the rules printed on the carafe.)
Police Officer #2: You, with the coffee pot! That means you, too!
Teacher: (raising coffee pot above his head) Don’t shoot, officers!
Police Officer #1: Well, we were going to, but now that your hands are above your head, we won’t.
Teacher: How fortunate that I was able to maintain enough clarity of thought to choose the greater of two competing authorities.
Police Officer #2: (brandishing gun) Shut up!
Teacher: (still holding coffee pot) Yes, sir.
(Setting: A hair salon.)
Hairdresser: I’m thinking a high bouffant would go really well with your wedding veil.
Bride: Well, I don’t know. I’ve never really worn my hair up. Just how high off my head would it be?
Hairdresser: Oh, about five and a half inches or so? I assure you, it will really accent your cheekbones.
Bride: Five and a half inches? I’m afraid I still can’t picture it. If I just had some way to visualize how high that is . . .
Hairdresser: (looking around room) It’s about the height of . . . that coffee pot! (Grabs coffee pot and holds it above Bride.) Now look in the mirror. Your hair would be just that high off your head.
Bride: Wow, now I can picture it clearly! I think that will look great. I’m so glad you thought to hold the coffee pot over me. I’ll be giving you a big tip.
(Setting: the average couple’s bedroom.)
Woman: Good morning, honey! Boy, did I sleep well. . . . How long have you been awake? And what are you doing standing by the bed like that?
Man: Well, when I woke up I realized it was raining, and there’s a leak in our ceiling, just above your bed. I didn’t want to wake you, and I couldn’t let you get all wet, so I ran to the kitchen and grabbed this coffee pot.
Woman: And you’ve been holding it over me ever since? Aw, honey, that’s so sweet! I’m going to give you a big kiss.
Man: Just let me put down the coffee pot first!
(They laugh merrily.)
LAW ENFORCEMENT #2
(Setting: a roadside diner.)
Detective: Ma’am, we understand that the notorious mafia don we’re pursuing is eating in this diner right now.
Waitress: That’s right, detective. He’s one of my regulars. I heard him admit to killing those poor men just yesterday.
Detective: Well, we appreciate your cooperation, but we certainly don’t want to put you in any danger.
Detective #2: I wonder if there’s a way you could indicate which one he is without pointing or making any other obvious gesture.
Waitress: How about if, when I refill their coffee, I just hold the pot over his head for a moment?
Detective: Perfect! We’ll be watching from here, and when you’re clear, we’ll move in and arrest him.
Detective #2: I know it seems like a small gesture, but simply by holding the coffee pot over that man’s head, you will be contributing to the safety of the entire community. We salute your bravery.
Detective #1: Yes, not everyone would be willing to set aside conventional safety rules in order to confront a dangerous criminal.
Waitress: Hadn’t we better put the plan into action, before the gangsters decide to leave?
Detective #2: Good point! And ma’am, before you go, can I get some more decaf?
(They all laugh, although the waitress seems to be forcing it.)
(Setting: the average home.)
Man: (looking out window) The zombies! They’re scaling the walls!
Woman: Quick – take the coffee carafe! It just finished brewing.
Man: (Brandishes full carafe.) They’re climbing back down! They’re running away!
Woman: And you didn’t even have to pour the coffee out of the carafe!
Man: No, just holding it over them was enough.
Woman: (holding full coffee carafe over man’s head) Are you sleeping with that blonde woman?
Man: Yes, I am. What are you going to do about it?
Woman: (Pours coffee on man’s head.)
(The woman laughs.)
These are just some of the situations in which it might be advantageous to break Mr. Coffee’s rules. Sure, we’d all like to “avoid breakage or injury,” as my coffeemaker puts it, but at what cost? Is it worth sacrificing the potential for self defense, domestic tranquility or revenge that may present itself at any time? The lesson is clear: You don’t have to be an obedient drone just because you enjoy a home-brewed cup of coffee now and then. Don’t let your appliances trump your common sense!