Some warning signs spur obvious action, while others only spur unnecessary fear.
I cling to the curb when the sign says “don’t walk.”
I wash the indigo jeans separate from the light-pink undies, just as the laundry tag instructs.
But what to make of this cautionary koan, writ large inside the plane that was about to carry me home from San Jose:
“This area contains chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer, or birth defects, or other reproductive harm.”
Some warning signs spur obvious action (or inaction): Don’t light a cigarette while dousing yourself in hairspray. Don’t nibble the sunscreen, the lubricant eye drops, or the “pure natural” deodorant that smells like summer apricots.
These patronizing messages offer the possibility of self-protection: Follow the instructions, and you’ll be okay. Even the lurid yellow sign near the airport bathroom — the one warning me that the floor was slippery when wet — gave me a sense of agency: Okay, I won’t race for my gate, roll-aboard zigzagging behind me, lest I end up like the poor flailing figure in the picture.
But what was I to do in the jetway, once I knew the area might be awash in carcinogens or endocrine disrupters? Avoid licking the wall? Dry-clean my clothes after I got home? Hold my breath all the way to Philadelphia?
I did not feel reassured to know that someone in California was apprised of dangerous chemicals in the air; I’d feel better if the sign said she or he was working 24/7 to do something about it. And the cynic in me figured the sign was a bulwark against future lawsuits: Oh, you fly every month for work, and you inhale en route, and your baby was born with 11 toes? So sorry, but we warned you.
WARNING: More words below. Read carefully.
I’m all for consumer protections, when they actually protect us. Information can be power; if I know (because the package insert reminds me) that tampons are associated with toxic shock syndrome, I can weigh the convenience of using one against the possible risk. If you suffer a lethal nut allergy, you count on Tastykake to tell you that the jelly Krimpets were packaged right next to the Peanut Butter Kandy Kakes.
But the airplane sign just stirred a cloud of paranoia. What other hazards did the state know about? What else were the Powers that Be holding back?
At home, I conducted a scavenger hunt, reading the fine print on over-the-counter medications, personal hygiene products, appliances and food. Some of what I found was laughably obvious: the raspberry fruit spread that, according to the label, “contains seeds,” the crunchy peanut butter that—oh, you guessed it—”contains peanuts.”
“Blades are SHARP,” warned the instruction sheet for my Cuisinart hand blender, while the booklet for the cordless drill insisted, bizarrely, that I “not abuse the cord.” It also urged me to “dress properly” and “not overreach,” which sounded like something the dowager countess of “Downton Abbey,” in her starchiest tone, might tell the maid.
Some companies seem to think we’re idiots: Don’t use the blow-dryer while bathing. Don’t use the hair straightener when sleeping (believe me, I’m barely deft enough to use it while awake). Don’t put lighted candles on the mini-stereo components or spritz canola cooking spray into your eyes.
But others speak right to our inner eight-year-old. “Do not try to defeat the cover interlock mechanism,” says the Cuisinart food processor manual. Hadn’t occurred to me, but hmm, now that you mention it …
When the Sunbeam iron insert warns, ominously, “Only use an iron for its intended use,” the contrarian in me gleefully contemplates how I might repurpose the thing: Egg-fryer? Foot-warmer? Panini press?
Then there are the pantiliners, with fine print noting, “If irritation develops, discontinue use.” I assume they’re not talking about my irritation at still having to buy pantiliners at the age of 53, or my frustration when trying to find some that don’t smell like tea roses.
CAUTION: Life is dangerous
Read enough of the fine print, and everything starts to feel a little dangerous. The Elmer’s glue stick is a choking hazard, the nail polish remover might strip the shine from my coffee table and the tea tree body wash is not, under any circumstances, to get near my face.
My favorite is the Gaggia espresso maker booklet, with its Babel of languages including Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese. “Non toccare superfici calde,” it croons in Italian, so much more lyrical than the English scold, “Don’t touch hot surfaces.”
What about the labels that are meant to reassure our dietary or ethical sensibilities? The “gluten free” carrots? The “non GMO verified” Grape-Nuts? There is, in my refrigerator at this very moment, a package of Empire kosher chicken that promises to contain poultry “raised on family farms in a stress free environment.” Really? That’s more than I can say of my own kid. And the Baccardi rum label urges me to “enjoy responsibly” (unless, of course, I’m knocked up, planning a road trip or about to operate a forklift).
I know, I know. Legislators and lawyers dreamed up this stuff; some of my best friends (and relatives) are of the litigating set. But after reading label upon label, I start to wonder whose butts they’re attempting to cover: the manufacturers’ or our own.
I worry that tiny, pointless warnings can numb us to authentic dangers, and that information comes to sub for action. It’s one thing for governments to duly tell us—”just sayin’, people”—and another to actually move the needle on climate change, the refugee crisis, the widening chasm between rich and poor. A deluge of cautions, like the boy’s fabled cries of “wolf,” can have the opposite of their intended effect, yielding passivity instead of empowerment. Air quality poor today? Ha ha, guess it’s a good morning not to breathe.
That day on the plane, I boarded along with the rest of Zone 4 and buckled myself into seat 32A. I listened to the flight attendant point out the exit doors, the compartments from which oxygen masks would drop and the seat cushions’ buoyant properties “in the unlikely event of a water landing.”
And as we rose into the sky over San Jose, I half-expected to see a banner, like one of those sani-strips on a motel toilet, big enough to girdle the lead-laced water, the hydrocarbon-tainted earth, the glaciers melting like lozenges in the warming saliva of the sea: Caution: Contents Under Pressure. Choking hazard. Small parts. Enjoy responsibly. Do not abuse.