When My Coffee Mug Spoke for Me

What am I doing with Salvador Dali on the banner of this article, you say? Bear with me, all will be revealed.

I’ve been a long time between postings, and this post is just a transitional filler whose purpose is to cut through the cobwebs, evict the dust-bunnies, and let my poor, neglected blog know that I plan to return when my ‘opus’ is completed. I hadn’t intended to write an opus, but I don’t think that I’m in the driver’s seat anymore.

It’s not just that summertime distractions kept me away from writing blog articles, although that was part of it. It happens that in a silly (and somewhat uncharacteristic) moment of single-mindedness, I said to myself that I would post nothing else until my genealogy article was completed. That was an unnecessarily restrictive rule to set, because it ought to be possible to dash off a few random thoughts on other things while “the great masterwork” is in production.

Oh dear, now I’m fearful of having raised your hopes that there will be something momentous soon to follow.

Let me hasten to disabuse you of that notion…“my masterwork” is more apt to bore than fascinate, so I wouldn’t want to excite anyone’s anticipation. Genealogical records are generally of marginal interest to anyone other than the writer, even when the reader is hanging off a very substantial branch of that same family tree. Unless the family story is being told by a particularly skillful writer–like David Macfarlane in “The Danger Tree”–it is reduced to a mere exercise in record-keeping:  ruthless self-indulgence of the names-and-dates variety. I will indulge, in spite of that, because I feel that my family history needs to be recorded for the edification of future generations of our family. With any luck, one day a skillful writer of the David-Macfarlane variety will take the bones of it and add some flesh and blood.

But I’m here for the moment to blether on about my favourite ‘statement’ coffee mugs…one that I outgrew and one that I will never outgrow. They were my workplace coffee mugs, relics of a bygone era, and used for periods of years at a time when I worked in an office.

I’m inclined to think that a workplace coffee mug can speak for one surreptitiously, because few people would imagine that it reflects anything of importance about a person’s general attitude to life or work–should they care to know.  I like to think that my coffee mugs reflected a wry sense of humour, which I cultivated at every opportunity, and very much needed at times. If your home décor or your fashion sense reflect aspects of your personality, why wouldn’t the coffee mug that you use throughout the day—every day—at work also say something about you? If somebody is using a chipped and stained “I-heart-NY” mug every day, maybe that says something, too…that perhaps the person doesn’t really care what holds their java. (What else don’t they care about at work, we wonder?)

My first mug had a cartoon figure of a woman in a typical 1980’s woman’s ‘power suit’, facing straight forward. Projecting towards her on a diagonal from both her right and left sides are two arms in pinstriped suit jacket sleeves (distinctly masculine). The index fingers on the hands extending beyond the sleeves are holding up the corners of her mouth to form a smile.   The caption on the mug is “I Love My Job.” That was during my career-building days, when my relationships with the predominantly male hierarchy at the company were both good-humoured and mildly antagonistic.   I was subjected to the usual acts of unfairness and inequity, but I still liked the people. I suppose I realized that it was their ‘conditioning,’ and that they were not essentially bad people. The cartoon woman even looked like me at the time, being fair-haired and spectacled. I still have the mug, and will add a photo of it to this article at some point.

That was the mug I outgrew.

I outgrew it because times changed and I changed. The job was not just a job, it was a career–a work in progress–and so I didn’t think it was appropriate to advertise in even a humorously sarcastic way whether I loved it or not.  It was something I walked into as the new technology (computers) were introduced to offices in the mid-1980s.  I was in on the ground floor, and welcomed the opportunity.

I also outgrew that mug because the ‘dress for success’ fad passed on, and perhaps the only good it did was to give a surface indication of an office worker’s serious desire for career promotion. If wearing the appropriate clothing signalled that, then we would wear the appropriate clothing. Blue suits! Everyone knew what you were talking about when you said, ‘blue suits.’ Blue suits were de rigueur male attire in the office in those days. Women had to think about suits as well if they expected to be taken seriously. In those days (the 80’s) it was of almost exaggerated importance. We wore shoulder pads like NFL-players.

“Dress for Success” was (and is) a book by John T. Molloy, and it was all about dressing to project a professional image.  It was good in its day, because I suppose some people really had no idea how their appearance affected people’s perceptions of their competence and professionalism.

I recently had to take my father to an appointment with a geriatrician at the hospital, and I got a preview of the doctor when she came into the waiting area to speak to the receptionist.  I didn’t know who she was at the time, and I remember thinking, “The doctor really ought to have a quiet word with that woman about her appearance; she looks like she ought to be sitting on a beach in Jamaica with a glass of rum punch instead of working in a hospital.”

The “doctor” (for such she was, in spite of my apostrophes) was somewhere in her late 50s.  She had over-bleached, medium-length blond hair tortured into kinks, makeup ladled on, and she sported an outfit consisting of eye-gouging, acid-toned colours in a bombastic print that wouldn’t look out of place in the tropics.  Lime-green shoes were a feature.   Her personality matched her outfit, so perhaps I should have been thankful that appearances, in this case, were not deceptive.  I didn’t feel that we were in the hands of a competent medical professional, and I was not wrong.

Today there’s an organization called “Dress for Success.” It started up in 1997, and the following is their mission statement:

“Dress for Success is an international not-for-profit organization that empowers women to achieve economic independence by providing a network of support, professional attire and the development tools to help women thrive in work and in life.”

Well, the doctor’s career might not have been seriously hampered by her flamboyant dress sense, but I confess that I’m a bit ‘old school’ where medical professionals are concerned.   In a hospital, the only way to tell who is a nurse and who is a member of the cleaning staff these days is if one of them is pushing a mop.

In any case, there seemed to be a little too much emphasis on surface appearances in the office of those days.  That’s my recollection, in any event.  It’s changed radically over the years since then, as we all know.

My next office mug was one I used for many years as well, but it was more for the late 1990’s, when I was working exclusively with computers, networking and office communications equipment. I remember saying to people (in fun) that one day they would find me hanging from a Cat 5 cable in the wiring closet. Those wires had a life of their own, and somehow managed to get into a tangled rat’s nest despite my continual efforts to keep them organized. Troubleshooting problems was always a challenge when there were so many things to think about–not only cables and wires, but networking equipment, mainframe terminals, standalone computers, squirrels…

Yes, you heard correctly, one time a squirrel ran along the roof beam in the plant, and decided to stop for a nibble on my fibre optic cable.

Pretty much everyone has experienced the frustration of a malfunctioning computer or internet communications device. Just imagine experiencing everyone else’s frustration of malfunctioning computers or communications devices. Sometimes by the time I heard about problems the person was beyond frustrated and fit to be tied—understandably, of course. They were under pressure to get things done, and their office tool had transmogrified into a monumental obstacle.  My career choice sometimes seemed to be a test of mental fortitude.

So my next mug reflected that daily workplace reality for me. My sister had bought it for me when she visited the Salvador Dali museum in Florida. The mug had a black schematic drawing of Salvador Dali on it, and the caption was, “La seule différence entre moi et un fou, c’est que je ne suis pas fou!” Dali actually said, “L’unique différence entre un fou et moi, c’est que moi je ne suis pas fou!”


Near enough. For non-French speakers, what Dali said was, “The only difference between a crazy person and me, is that I am not crazy!”

Working daily with computers as I was, I never failed to be amused at that.  It just never got old.

Anyhow, in a retrospective view of those 28.5 years of working in an office I can say that the good balances-out the bad. I still have those two coffee mugs in my kitchen cupboard at home, and they each recall to memory my circumstances in those two phases of my career.   More than anything else, those mugs remind me that the way I coped with difficulty was (eventually) with humour. I won’t say that my coping mechanism was always immediately successful, but it never completely deserted me. When I left the workplace, I left with my sense of humour intact. Wish I had known the full value of that in the early days, and perhaps how to have used it to better advantage. I used humour in a defensive way, but Mark Twain evidently felt it also made an effective weapon…

“[Humanity] has unquestionably one really effective weapon—laughter. Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution—these can lift at a colossal humbug—push it a little—weaken it a little, century by century, but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.” — Mark Twain

Well, I suppose that laughter could be an effective weapon against humbug in the wider world. Blowing humbug to rags and atoms with laughter in an office could potentially inflict serious collateral damage, unless used very judiciously indeed. It would require a finely tuned sensibility to know when it was likely to be effective. I think it was safer to reserve the belly laughs for Scott Adams’s Dilbert cartoon.

My favourite Dilbert had to be Dogbert’s Tech Support. He answers the phone to the pointy-haired boss with, “This is Dogbert. How may I abuse you?” Dogbert represented ‘the dark side’ in which we never indulged, but he was cathartic in that there were times when I would have loved to have exerted a similar, flagrant advantage over certain people—the small minority of people, thankfully. Those people weren’t funny, not then and not now.

At the very least, I can say that my Salvador Dali coffee mug was instrumental in helping me to maintain my equilibrium on the more challenging days just by making me smile.  On another level, Dali’s statement gives us to understand that being crazy and appearing crazy can be two entirely different things, and so surface appearances can occasionally be deceptive.  And if perception and reality sometimes differ, then things, on a bad day, might not be as bad as they seem…?  In any case, my Dali coffee mug appealed to my sense of humour and to my preference for substance over surface, and I’m sure it will be one that I will never outgrow.

I can still look at it today, and smile.



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