A few weeks ago I broke the quasi-bakelite handle of my stovetop coffee-maker. Rather, it broke by itself: as I poured the hot, steaming liquor into my mug the handle snapped and the coffee-maker crashed to the counter-top, spilling some coffee, but mercifully, not scalding or burning anyone. I have some affection for this venerable appliance; I could not bear to condemn it to the trash. So I continued to use it, handling its burning hot metallic surface–now devoid of a handle–with a kitchen rag or a pair of oven gloves. Sometimes my handling is clumsy; sometimes it is expert. I fretted and worried about whether it was safe to continue to use the maker in such fashion. I took especial care to never pour coffee out while my little daughter was in the kitchen.
This coffee-maker is not the only one my family owns. As middle-class aspirants to the good life we own a second coffee-maker, this one with a smaller capacity. It is pressed into service when only one of us wants to make a coffee (like I just did a few minutes ago). This one still has its handle intact. When I first used it after breaking the larger one’s handle, I picked it up as I always did, with its safe, cool, bakelite grip.
As I did so, without relying on protective cloth or glove, without the acute care I need to exercise when using the handle-free counterpart, without the slight edge of anxiety that marks my efforts in that domain, with a sudden facility and ease I had not experienced in quite a while, I felt curiously exhilarated. A simple touch, a contact with, and employment of, an object made of plastic, a lowly handle, had served to remind me of several dimensions of my daily interaction with the physical world around me. It was also an acute reminder of the contextualized nature of deprivation and indulgence.
In a few short weeks, I had come to regard a previously unchallenging domain of physical exertion–pouring coffee–as one requiring just a little expertise, attention, and care. A task I could perform with little thought, with a conditioned dexterity, had become considerably less facile. The affordances of the coffee-maker had changed; it had changed my relationship to the space of the morning kitchen, my bodily awareness of myself in my only partially wakened state.
As I used the smaller coffee-maker, I was only using a previously utterly unremarkable object, one whose features had always been taken for granted. But now it was distinctive; it provided a luxury the deprivation from which had made me more sensitive to its offerings. A coffee-maker with a functioning handle felt like a rare indulgence; I could simply approach the object, grip it with ease, and get to using it, not worrying in the least about cloth slipping, boiling hot coffee, scalding and burning me as it cascaded to the floor below.
A simple, short deprivation; an acute change in my embedding in my environment; an elevation of the ordinary to the sublime; new pleasures discovered; a quick lesson in the mediated relationship to the world through the physical objects that populate it.
All because a coffee-maker’s handle broke and I was too lazy to get a new one.