The Can Opener
This essay is a part of unMUTE, a collection of pieces written by participants in the 2020 Design Writing and Research Summer Intensive Online.
The first aisle to clear out at the local Kroger was the canned food aisle. We never ate much canned food, but when we stocked up for the COVID-19 shelter in place, we started looking for our can opener. Before we moved, we had two: an archaic-looking one made entirely of metal, the other slightly more modern with a seventies’ aesthetic. The old-fashioned one somehow got lost in the move. So, we were left with the newer one, which is often called a swing-a-way opener. Swing-A-Way is a brand name turned generic, which means we have a swing-a-way type, not an actual Swing-A-Way opener.
Our opener is from the EZ-DUZ-IT brand and it has a swing-arm mechanism—apparently the most viable alternative to a genuine Swing-A-Way, which was picked by NASA to travel to the Skylab space station in the seventies. Swing-arm can openers come in a variety of handle materials and colorways, but the basic mechanism remains the same: a sharpened wheel cuts through the top of the can, driven by gears that are set in motion by turning a knob.
Besides swing-arm can openers, there are several other types that cut through the can’s top, leaving a sharp edge on its inside rim. One old-fashioned model functions similarly, but it cuts by dragging a fixed blade—instead of a sharpened metal wheel—around the lid.
For the more adventurous and survival-oriented canned-food enthusiasts, there are the military-issued openers P-38 and P-51. Apart from designating their respective lengths in millimeters, the numbers are also rumored to identify the number of times one has to plunge the opener into the can to get to its contents. Both models work exactly the same: by repeatedly puncturing the can, sinking the opener’s blade into its lid over and over. One slipup and the P-38 might pierce flesh instead of tin. This element of danger makes the P-38 and P-51 especially attractive to survivalists.
For the more timid canned-food enthusiast, the market provides safety can openers.
These usually cut the can from the side, leaving a dull, smooth edge that makes it almost impossible to injure oneself. On the other hand, safety can openers are known for being unreliable and finicky, and who wants to go shopping for a replacement can opener in the midst of a pandemic.
The humble can opener is easily overlooked in times when food is just a quick restaurant trip away, or when grocery stores are open twenty-four hours a day, or when supply chains work perfectly. But, when these things break, one might need an EZ-DUZ-IT, Swing-A-Way, or P-31 to make it through weeks of lockdown.
unMUTE Group Statement
Take a moment to think about how strange a video chat is. You can see and hear someone, but all the nuance of body language is lost—flattened into two dimensions and reduced in resolution. Conversation starts and stops, unaided by technology cuts and lags. How do you even know when someone is about to speak?
Now take that single moment of video chat and multiply it by sixteen, each tiny square on the screen filled by a student hoping to mentally escape the 2020 pandemic.. Norms need to be created so that everyone feels comfortable contributing, and group dynamics have to be explicitly established so no ideas or experiences—indicated sometimes by only the slightest wave—go unshared.
On the surface, a large group video conversation seems unwieldy. It morphs into something entirely new when the meeting happens every weekday for two weeks, pressurized by rapid-fire lectures, readings, and assignments. It’s hard to imagine, but what if—in the midst of a global health crisis and nationwide protests over racial inequality—those sixteen people created bonds so deep and discovered things about themselves so profound that they left the meeting changed? What if they wrote prose so revealing you stole a glimpse into who they are?
If you’re curious, please unMUTE.