WITH THE holiday season comes one of the most severe tests faced by modern Americans: Can they make it through the traditional family feast without resort to printed matter?
In the days when families ate together regularly, my mother, who was bred in southern gentility, had rules about what you could and could not do at the table. Once you sat down, for example, you weren't supposed to get up again to run into the kitchen and get butter, and you were supposed to be as pleasant as possible at suppertime. Most importantly, you weren't allowed to have reading material at the table, including anything with words on it, such as cereal boxes, ketchup bottles or milk cartons.
This was Mom's attempt at protecting us from the highly addictive Eating/Reading syndrome, which the children in TV cereal commercials seemed to suffer from. With cereal packages in front of them, they sat in a kind of glazed trance, shoveling food to the mouth while their eyes consumed print. Years later I too developed this acquired trait of modern, urban man: When I eat I automatically read.
Early man looked at his food to make sure it was dead and that it didn't have any bugs in it. But 20th Century man no longer looks at the food itself; he looks at the package. When no package exists, he roams the room for reading matter. Hence, the truly odd, uncomfortable feeling you get when you go out to dinner with someone and you actually have to talk to them because the biographical sketches on the back of the sugar packages aren't long enough to sustain you through dinner.
At both ends of the digestive process, man seeks to read.
For all their insistence on truth-in-packaging, it wasn't consumer advocates who got America reading labels. That happened when corporate America discovered that man could become addicted to package reading in almost any situation -- in the shower, while brushing teeth, while waiting for a waiter -- and that, in a media-age where form invariably overpowers function, a product wrapped in the proper words eased our consumer souls. Spinach in a bag with words on it and avocados with a "ripe" label seem more like something we have control over than naked produce. Cheap generic products were offered with the full knowledge that no one would buy wordless cardboard and risk suffering Packaging Deprivation.
An unfortunate fact of the human brain is that once it knows how to read, it cannot not read. In small moments of contemplation, people all over America are involuntarily getting caught up in stories even shorter than a USA Today article, such as "Refrigerate after opening." When they could be thinking about what to do about the National Debt, they find their eyes attached to "serving suggestion" -- the "In God We Trust" of macaroni boxes and frozen foods.
With the take-it-anywhere-even-in-the-shower package, Madison Avenue can accomplish what might take a politician at least three speech writers and a policy analyst. A well-structured label can: 1) Make you feel inadequate, scared or stupid -- "Your hair is. . .made up of nonliving material and therefore, unlike the rest of your body, incapable of repairing itself. Shampooing your hair causes damage because shampoo is designed to clean;" 2) Reassure you that this product will save even a klutz like you -- "However, AUSSIE MEGA SHAMPOO with a special Papaya cleaning enzyme will clean your hair without destroying the amino acids . . . ; " and 3) Guarantee a permanant change in your life through Miracles -- ". . .you will probably eliminate your hair problems -- Forever!" This is the prose of the makers of "Aussie Mega Shampoo with Papaya" ( a real product, made by the same American manufacturers who make "AUSTRALIAN HAIR SALAD, an Endoplasmic Hair Remoisturizer")
The labels I like best are the Hey-there's-a-non-technical-person-here ones. This technique starts off with the familiar list of multi-syllabic words -- nitrocellulose, toluenesulfonamide, and tocopheryl acetate. Then, just as you're getting into the rhythmn with diehtelytriamlonine, it breaks off, as if someone suddenly remembered that there were lay people at this convention,to explain its raison d'etre -- "to insure tartness" -- before resuming the chant with stearalkomium hectorite, dibutyl phthalate . . .
Then there are the "Mr. Feel Good" labels. These assure you a position in lefty heaven because you have bought yogurt from Fred, "made with loving care and pure Jersey milk from a nearby farm" or politically-correct coffee beans made by workers in Nicaragua who will never use Hair Salad on contras.
"If you have questions or comments," says the toothpaste box, "Please call us toll-free." How pleasant to know that operators are standing by to hear my comments on toothpaste.
None of this subliminal indoctrination prepares us for the congenial small talk of the holiday table. But the effort to adjust to the demands of oral communication may confer benefits beyond the avoidance of family strife. Southern gentility kept the labels off our table, but perhaps my mother's practice was an antidote to the Future Shock of too many free-floating words.Writer Pope Brock, who tells of a woman who had to be carried out of a grocery store because she became obsessed with the cooking instructions on a frozen turkey label, advocates package-reading discretion. "To forestall I.O. (information overload) attacks, you must be selective," writes Brock. "Marginal facts like 'Ruffles have ridges' take up just as much space in your head as a bit of I Ching. If you want wisdom, leave room." Maybe it's just as well that, at periodic intervals throughout the year, the demands of custom and courtesy require us to interrupt our fixation with the fine-printed word, and turn our attention to the spoken words of kith and kin.
Marta Vogel is a Takoma Park writer.