Coffee just doesn't taste right in anything else

A MUG WITH MEANING

October 14, 1990

Try to get Pat Jablecki to drink coffee out of anything but her "How To Get Along at the Office" mug and you're playing with fire.

"If that mug's dirty, or if someone tries to get me to use some-thing else, the coffee just doesn't taste right," insisted Ms. Jablecki, a health administrator at Bio-Medix Diagnostic Center in Essex. "There's just something about it."

Her attachment to her mug is "for me, just a natural thing, I've always been this way," Ms. Jablecki said, adding, "Lord, don't ever give me Styrofoam." She said she's never really given much thought to her feelings about her mug, which she has used for about four years and features a picture of a six-armed office worker simultaneously typing, answering the phone, filing and talking to her boss.

And if there's something about her behavior that brings to mind the phrase "obsessive-compulsive," Ms. Jablecki isn't going to argue with the diagnosis. She added only this comment: "There's a lot of compulsives like me out there."

* "Habit and ritual are important in reducing stress and maintaining equanimity in our lives," Diane Gibson, director of rehabilitation at Sheppard Pratt Hospital, said in explanation of coffee mug compulsives like Pat Jablecki.

James McGee, director of psychology at Sheppard Pratt, found the idea of intellectualizing about coffee mugs humorous -- until he stopped to think about it.

"I shouldn't laugh because I'm very attached to my coffee mug," Dr. McGee said. "It's a great big red, white and blue thing with a heart that says 'I love my dad.' It was given to me by my son for Father's Day and I'm nutty about it. Sometimes our cleaning lady makes it disappear, and when I can't find it, I can't drink my damned coffee."

Dr. McGee traces coffee mug attachment to our animal ancestors.

"Human beings are much more like animals than we care to admit," he explained. "Look how attached dogs become to their food bowls."

Doug Nielson, spokesman for the Baltimore City school systems, knows about such attachments. "I have my glass coffee cup at home that I won't let anyone else use," he said. "I used to have six of them and this is the last. I love a glass coffee cup. To watch the light cream swirl through the dark coffee -- that's really a wonderful experience."

"I have quite a few mugs, but I tend to latch on to one for several months," said Robert Caret, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Towson State University. The mug he is now using, he added, "reflects a certain statement of feeling." It says, "Because I'm the boss -- that's why," a comment that he regards as cynical "in the academic atmosphere, where nobody is the boss."

Dr. Caret has found that "people who fixate on other accouterments of life tend to fixate on their coffee mugs. I tend to fixate on my neckties, my shoes -- and my coffee mugs. I think you could say I'm an obsessive-compulsive. I tried to fight that for a long time, but I've accepted it."

Advertisers are certainly aware of how people can fixate on coffee mugs. "There's a great deal of appeal" in using a mug to get across an advertising message, said Rick Ebel, vice president for marketing and communications for the Specialty Advertising Association International, a Texas-based trade organization.

"It's an item that people generally do not discard," Mr. Ebel explained. "People use them, they don't stick them in drawers. I'm sitting here right now looking at my coffee mug. Desk-top visibility is preferred by most marketers, because it's at the desk where most purchasing decisions are made."

Mug messages can run the gamut from the humorous to the profound. You can find a mug that features the stern face of Karl Marx (available at Highgate Cemetery in London, where he is buried) or the grinning visage of Garfield (available just about everywhere). A mug might proclaim simply "My Mug" or it might boast "World's Best Mommy." It might be romantically eloquent with hearts and flowers in delicate pastels; it might tell of the end of the world (as in a "Far Side" cartoon mug featuring two fishermen in a small boat gazing inland at the mushroom clouds erupting over three nuclear towers; "I'll tell you what this means Norm," one fisherman is saying to the other. "No size restrictions and screw the limit.")

"Coffee mugs basically attest to one's inner nature," said Michael Wingard, owner of Coffee, Tea & Thee, a Hunt Valley Mall coffee shop that features a wall of mugs for sale. "The guy who has a brass belt buckle that says USA and rides a Harley buys a mug with a big eagle on it. The professional middle management woman in her mid- to late-40s will buy a neoclassical mug with a shell motif in pastels. The one with the flying ducks, the male yuppie will buy this mug. Ducks are in and it says, 'I've made it and I want you to know it.' "

Although mugs are frequently bought for gifts, Mr. Wingard estimated that "up to two thirds" of mugs are bought by people for themselves. "It's an individual process," he said. "It's like buying yourself a saddle."

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