Product packaging in the Western world has become a literary genre all its own. Like any art, it inspires reaction in its audience.
Sometimes the reaction is astonishment. My husband, John, used to be amazed at the general stupidity of the population if we need, "for external use only" printed on a tube of skin lotion. We have long agreed that if shampoo bottles really need instructions printed on them, then bathroom mirrors should also come with small print that reads, "Objects in mirror are less intelligent than they appear."
The other main reaction to product packaging is spontaneous acts of cheesiness. Who hasn't held up a carton of orange juice to a loved one and wiggled vigorously all over in compliance with the fine print that says, "Shake Well"? My personal favorite is the little cold and flu capsules that come in plastic cards with the instructions, "Push through back". I still remember the look on my dad's face when I showed that to him and asked if it wouldn't be easier just to swallow the pills instead. I think it was the only time he ever regretted meeting my mother.
Most of the newness fades from misinterpreting package instructions by the time you hit about ten years of age, but I was pleasantly surprised to have a new product packaging experience just the other day.
John was refilling the plastic cat food container with fresh kitty kibble from a paper bag. He went to put the lid back on the plastic container when he suddenly stopped and pointed ot the fine print on the lid. It said (and I quote), "To help ensure the safety of your pet, DO NOT REMOVE LID."
"Oh, no! I took the lid off!" John said. "Go out on the patio and make sure the cat is all right!"
"I didn't even know the cat had a lid," was my response.
Finished supplying evidence that it was a crime against nature for us to have passed our genetic material on to a child, our next step was to contemplate what that warning really meant.
I peered at the container. "Are there any little plastic parts on here that could break off and get into the food if you remove the lid?"
"No, no, no," my husband shook his head sagely. "Don't you remember the Pickle Jar?"
I looked at the round, cat-head-sized hole that would gape if the lid were removed, and suddenly I understood. You are perhaps skeptical that a cat would be stupid enough to injure itself in such a manner, but I assure you, our cat is indeed that stupid. We came close to being able to replace him with a more intelligent representative of the species once, but we saved his life in time.
Keep in mind that, at the time, we had a reservoir water dispenser for our cat, Fourmyle. We had a leaky faucet in the tub, we had a bowl of goldfish, and we usually left the toilet seat up, all of which were desirable venues of refreshment for kitty. But Fourmyle favors ice water. Even to this day, he will beg at the refrigerator for ice cubes in his water bowl.
We also favor ice water. John in particular finds that a washed out pickle jar is a very pleasing size for a nice, frosty glass of ice water.
Fourmyle's head is, minus fur, exactly the diameter of the mouth of a jar of Vlassic Dill Spears.
John had placed a jar with the remnants of his ice water nightcap on the bookcase beside the bed one night before we went to sleep. We were awakened not long after by a bump. Then another bump. Then bump-bump-bump-bump CRASH bonketybonketybonkbonkbonk. We leapt out of bed and flipped the lights on, only to see Fourmyle, head trapped in the pickle jar, scooting backwards around the room in utter panic.
It was easy to determine what had happened. He had stuck his face in -- a tight squeeze -- to take a drink. The water level was tantalizingly out of his reach, so he pushed his head ju-u-ust a little further.
Perhaps some dim glimmer of common sense had occurred to him. Perhaps he had just finished with his drink. Whatever the reason, he had tried to pull his face out. . . and found that he was stuck. So he backed up. Still stuck. So he backed up further. And promptly ran out of bookcase.
The fall drove his head completely inside the jar. Every time he tried to lift his head up, the water splashed him in the face. Luckily for him, as he went scooting tail first around the room in a panic, he had backed into the door and pushed it shut, trapping him in easy reach, because he was in very real danger of drowning himself every time he tried to lift his head.
His tail was puffed up four miles wide as we caught him. There was a perfectly comic, "slurrrrrp POP!" sound as we pulled the jar off his head. I saw with him and tried to soothe him, drying him off with a towel as John went to get a regular glass with unpolluted ice water. Exhausted and shaken, Fourmyle curled up at the foot of the bed to sleep off the traumatic experience.
"At least he's learned his lesson," John said.
Ten minutes later, in the darkness, we could hear the telltale, "schlepschlepschlep" of cat tongue helping itself, uninvited, to John's ice water.
To this day, we still have to watch where we put our drinks, lest we turn around and find Fourmyle with his head wedged in the glass.
That's why neither of us are particularly surprised at the instructions on packaging any more. The fast food coffee cups that say, "Warning -- contents are hot!", the desiccating beads in the bottles of vitamins that say, "Not a food product, do not eat", the tubes of sunscreen that say "Do not put in eyes", -- all of those could just as well be paraphrased to say, "Don't laugh. You'd be surprised."
Now, if you'll excuse me, John just pointed out to me that you're supposed to take the wrapper off freezer burritos before you eat them and I'm eager to see how they taste without the plastic.
This article first appeared in the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin.