I have a thing about coffee mugs. They have to feel right in
my hand. How the mug’s ear forms in my grip is as important as how it looks.
I was recently in a gift store in Petoskey, Michigan. The
sign on the door said: “All products made in Michigan,” and that fact alone
drew me inside. A little bell mounted on the old wooden door rang as I opened
it. Along the wall to my left was a wide
selection of artisan mugs and plates. Entire shelves were stocked with coordinated
pieces that could be purchased individually or as sets. Each mug was generally
the same design but being hand-made they varied slightly in shape, grip, and glazing.
No two were alike.
I began putting each mug in my grasp as if holding a cup of
coffee, working my way from the front to the back of the long shelf. I did not
notice that the young man behind the counter was watching. After a few minutes,
he said, “Can I help you find what you’re looking for?”
The query sounded more like a bewildered comment than a
question. From his perspective, it must have looked as if I were searching for
a lost coin under each mug in his entire inventory.
“No, thank you. I’m just testing the feel of these mugs.
They’re each a little different, but I think I have found the one I want.”
I had actually only narrowed the choice down between two
mugs. They both felt equally “right,” and now it was a question of appearance.
The coloration was the same, but the glaze created different
drips and lines and horizons forever fused to the fired clay. Having made some
things of clay myself in high school, I knew enough about the process to
appreciate each step. It is the final step, when the glaze meets the fire of the
kiln, that the artist’s intentions take on their final form. It is after the
final cooling, that even the hands and eyes that made the thing look at it with
The difference between amateur artists and professionals
is the latter have the ability to part with their best work in exchange for a
livable income. There on the shelf before me were countless hours of countless
days beautifully displayed in stoneware, but I had to choose between the two
mugs that felt equally right in my hand. Which one would most engage the eye while transferring the heat of fresh-brewed coffee to the hand? Which would most capture
my imagination as the smell provided a prelude to my first sip?
Stepping from behind the counter, the young man said again, “Are
you sure, I can’t help you?”
“I’m just about done…” I said, staring intently at the two
mugs like Robert Frost contemplating two divergent roads in a yellow wood. Then
with equal uncertainty, I chose the mug “less traveled by” and stepped up to
the counter with a sheepish smile.
“Are you sure?” The young man said.
“I think so….“
"It’s a big decision,” he said with a slight smile.
Was he mocking me? Holding back a laugh as his subtle sarcasm, I said, “About every
five years I get a mug to mark a special occasion, and as you can see, I make
way to big a deal of it. I have this
thing about mugs. They have to feel right in my hand. Sounds crazy, but there
really is a method to my madness.”
“Oh, I don’t think you’re crazy. I could tell the wheels
were turning. It was kind of fun to watch you pick a winner. So what’s the
“Pick a winner?” I thought. Not even in classroom of middle-schoolers
would Frost’s two roads be equated to “picking
a winner” as if pulling rubber ducks from the table-top pond. For one thing,
Frost had no spectators watching him at the fork in the road. If he had, his
poem may have illustrated the fine line between deliberation and delirium.
“So what’s the occasion?” the clerk asked again.
“Yes, the occasion for buying the mug.”
“Oh, that… Yes. It’s our 35th Anniversary. It was
actually last week, but we couldn’t come until today. My wife is at the shop
next door. We’re staying at a Bed and Breakfast in Charlevoix, and …”
“Well, congratulations,” he said as if he feared further
details. “I hope you enjoy the mug. A lady in Ann Arbor makes these for us.”
He carefully rolled the mug in paper, nestled it into a
paper bag, and put the twine handles in my clasp with a smile. “Come again,” he
“Next time I'm here, I will. You have a nice shop.” I replied.
As I walked to the exit, I thought, “Ann Arbor. That’s cool,”
and my mind turned for a moment to the town of maze and blue. Tugging on the wooden
door, the same little bell chimed again, and there on the sidewalk stood my
"Find anything you like?" She asked.
"A coffee mug," I smiled.
She returned the smile and took my hand, "Been another five years has it?"
This is clearly not the mug I purchased last week, but we are camping as I write this post, and the new mug is at home. This one stays in our camper. It is not hand-made, but it has great "heft" and feels good in my hand. I purchased it 15 years ago in Colorado, and it brings back very special memories. If time allows, I'll explain in a future post.