One terrible coffee mug and democracy

November 17, 2022 4:25 am

Replica of the United States Bill of Rights, documenting the 10 amendments to the US Constitution.

My spouse is a potter. She makes objects of beauty for the everyday world.

You might think our house is full of her work, but she enjoys the works of fellow potters more than hers, which leads to a collection of cups, vases and bowls from other people.

When we were visiting a nearby pottery store recently, her eyes set on one of the absolutely most pathetic cups I had ever seen at a price considerably more expensive than most of her things.

I chided her for such a ridiculous and inelegant mug. It was silly, misshapen and generally speaking, awful – especially when compared to the more graceful, stylish options.

But she had met the budding potter, and her heart set on such an inadequate object, which, probably more than anything, explains her love for me.

Our tastes dovetail so nicely and so often that it’s a rare moment when she finds something that I also don’t love, which also, more than anything, explains why we work so well together.

However, finding this horrible object and then paying way too much for it, I instantly developed a friendly hatred for it, nicknaming it “Slumpy.” The mug’s artist may have had another title in mind, and it’s certainly better than what I could produce on a potter’s wheel, but I took relish in mocking it whenever it came out of the cupboard and into use.

A few weeks – heck, maybe even months – have passed and I didn’t notice Slumpy being toted around for coffee or water or wine. I suddenly felt a pang of sadness that it may have broken.

“Hey hon,” I asked. “Where’s Slumpy?”

She said she couldn’t remember, but did recall breaking a mug a few weeks ago. Since mugs are ubiquitous in a potter’s life like pens and notepads are in mine, I gasped.

“Slumpy’s dead?”

“Maybe,” she replied.

Quickly, I went to the cabinet, surprised that I cared that much for such a terrible object. But because she loved it and I love her, my love – somewhere, somehow – got transferred. Sitting toward the back, right next to the other coffee mugs with smart-assed sayings, was that slouching coffee mug.

Relieved, I left it back there to sit its turn.

In so many ways, our imperfect, slouching republic is not unlike that stupid coffee mug.

We take so many things for granted that we hardly consider what their absence would mean to us. When President Joe Biden said before the election that democracy itself was on the ballot, it’s a lot like looking in the cupboard and seeing that there are other mugs there, just as there are other forms of government and countries out there in this big, old world.

However imperfect our government is or has become, it’s ours and something that has been cherished by the people we love most – that alone has to be worth something. And though at times we’ve mocked it – even hated it – for its imperfections or shortcomings, it is indeed a meaningful “object,” even if often taken for granted.

I sincerely hope our mug, so to speak, hasn’t quite shattered. I hope that before we decide to discard this system and this government that has served us for so long, we consider that, functionally, it has done all we have asked it to do, including being the vessel for unequaled peace and prosperity for nearly three centuries.

We’ll see if Slumpy makes it that long.

I hope the kids like ugly pottery.

And imperfect government.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.