Yes Labels

Published in Dirt on 1.24.2024

“DYMO” is synonymous with labels. This brand name once edged toward the immortality of genericization, close to what Kleenex is to the tissue, almost a Band-Aid, nearly a Xerox. It fits the familiar two-syllable bill of a word creature jolted to life in the mid-20th century by a corporate brand agency, one of those that looks most comfortable and secure when followed by the ® of a registered trademark. But until I purchased my own humble labelmaker, the kind used to punch little capital letters into sticky tape, I knew these instruments and their creator only by vibe, not by name.

The aura of the labelmaker is not exactly glowing. First, there is its air of corporate efficiency and bullshit jobs, the kind of setting where something misfiled incites a low-stakes crisis. The labelmaker, the name itself a fusion of both output and executor, evinces an attempt at control. It recalls a tightly ordered shelf in elementary school lined with plastic bins—“CONSTRUCTION PAPER” next to “GLUE STICKS”—that more often than not returned from use discombobulated, the label unable to contain children’s disregard for a teacher’s carefully laid schema. And then there is its role in asserting ownership, a grabby mine backed up by a black or red strip bearing an embossed name on a calculator, or as ads from the 1960s recommend, pasted to the neck of a tennis racquet or fishing rod.

I’d avoided these labelmakers for much of my life, not because of my incompatibility with their purpose but because they stick a little too well with some of my more overbearing qualities. I am quite organized; I like clarity; I am often firmly on the side of ‘putting a label’ on things, from romantic relationships to roles in a group project. I like my labels legible. I treat my belongings well, and get frustrated when others don’t—the root of an embarrassing habit of not sharing my books that I’ve only broken free from in recent years. When I bought my DYMO two years back, I could see my wife’s concern at this cheap, flying saucer on a stand, wreathed in a keyboard. Would anything be safe from its—my—categorizing gaze?

But the labelmaker, like any tool, can be used for purposes other than its design. I’d bought one for its toylike air of authority, a quality I aimed to wield for fictional purposes. We had recently bought a 1998 beater of a car. Ours came standard with a defunct GPS unit with buttons in Japanese and a column lock on the passenger side whose operation was beyond me. Naturally, I sought to upgrade. I slapped a painted map with a date and lat/long coordinates onto the blank screen. And with the DYMO embossing in that classic labelmaker font, I recast the buttons—“Launch” in black and “Abort!” in red—and rebranded the lock as TimeLock. Voila. I had a time machine.

This kind of whimsy, abetted by a simple label, was something I was familiar with. With the satisfying clunk clunk clunk of its typing in ear, I could recast reality. I recalled a party from my early twenties where strips of masking tape stating “This Is Art” tagged almost everything in the house, humans included. I kept using, or misusing, my DYMO this way, at first uninterested in doing so for the purpose of describing anything as it actually was. It became a nice diversion as I struggled to draft the early chapters of a book. It was simple, this fun, born of the playful transformation of what is into something more, or something unexpected.

On one of many days when I eked out a couple hundred words on my manuscript and fed the internal demon that questioned whether I was, in fact, a writer, I fiddled with the labelmaker’s trigger. With not a little self-loathing, I punched out two strips, “Jonathan Tarleton” “Writer”, and stuck them to the upper-right corner of my desk. I wasn’t claiming the desk like the DYMO ad men encouraged. I was asserting a definition of self. This label, in its reflection of reality and subversion of doubt, was both affirmational and aspirational.

I run my hands over it sometimes. The label lacks the ostentatious self-promotion of a desk nameplate but still carries power, as if it was handed down by a respected outside source—or just plainly explains the world as it is. I thank the labelmaker and keep its embossing tapes stocked. Sometimes we need some help in the serious business of tricking ourselves.

Back to the Essays