Pockets, part five

Yes, yes, this series is getting too long. I should realize that I am the only person in the world as interested in pockets as I am. However, with one more post we can bring it all up-to-date and cease (for now).

Bright and early in the 21st century, as the Banana Republic vest that I showed you earlier begin to die, I went on the Internet to see what was available when you searched “photojournalist’s vest.” I was delighted to discover a variety of options. A little searching, a little thinking, and I came up with a possible alternative to my old standby. And they ran about half or even one-third the price!

the original gray Fox Outdoor vest — I hope you all enjoy the various bookshelves I hung these vests upon, or that I will, looking back in future years, enjoy peering at the books

Several Internet sales sites featured vests that turned out to come from a manufacturer called Fox Outdoor and varied in price from $29-$45 (while the Banana Republic vests cost about $100). These even came in various colors, not just khaki (which is a color, younger generation, not a description or style!). Naturally, I went for the cheap end, choosing some cornily named Texas vendor (First Army?)—of probably deviously deep right-wing, gun-toting sympathies, as most of these outdoorsy joints are (and I am not exaggerating: I have shopped around in my PocketQuest where I was clearly unwelcome—that bullyingly violent, KKK-standard in-group exclusivity being one of the truly less endearing, omnipresent qualities of the neo-Right myrmidons of moral doom). However, being relatively anonymous on the internet, I ordered First Army’s photojournalist’s vest in gray. (Creating the link, I remember why they hadn’t gotten my business most recently—prices have hiked.)

I felt nervous about this Internet order, although I don’t know why I should have. Unlike my Banana Republic catalog days, I was looking at a photograph of the vest, not a drawing. The little JPEG from the website was nowhere near as clear as the catalog pictures from TravelSmith, but it still showed what I was after, and the description sounded a lot like a traditional photojournalist’s vest.

When it arrived, although the vest looked a bit olive-green to my eye (rather than true gray), Janet to the contrary to this day after many washings in the meantime, it was wonderful—just what I wanted. All the pockets were there, every one of them! It fit a little smaller (or shorter, really) than the Banana Republic version, but that actually made it feel more lightweight in the summertime. I wore it nonstop for five years, and it’s still in pretty good shape (the rear inside pocket has ripped out the “waterproof” lining long since, but that is the worst problem). I still wear it often.

black Fox Outdoor vest (the first of two) — note the expected sagging left pocket for books and notebook

Pretty quickly after getting that first one, I saved and followed up with two more—one in black and one in khaki. I was a little disappointed to discover that the pocket sizing had something to do with the dye batches, as both the black and khaki vests had various inadequacies in their smaller pockets (the three “shotgun-shell” pockets on the lower left and the pen pocket on the left bellows pocket above) so my Swiss Army knife no longer fit easily in place beside the highlighter and the Chapstick. But I adjusted.

And these babies are pretty sturdy. Both the black and original gray ones are still going (so is the khaki; I just don’t choose it as often). I wore the gray one pretty exclusively through 2006, keeping the black mostly for “dress” (Janet is writhing at that notion) until about 2004-05, since when it has become my everyday wear. I like the black (and the gray) because the colors seems less thoroughly geeky (I am wrong about that, I realize, but it’s how I feel). Both colors show wear, and for Prague I dragged out a stockpiled black vest I had bought since (summertime 2009) so I would look a little nicer. I still try to restrict the Prague vest for “good” although right now that newer one is the vest with the stuff actually stuffed into it (I must have thought I was dressing up sometime a while back, or at least decided to wash the older black one).

Thus, wherever I go, not only do I embarrass my wife (actually Janet has accustomed herself to my oddities pretty well for the most part) in public, but I can carry just about everything I want or should acquire while out and about. Pockets: they’re a splendid invention (and exploring that history might be the one last “pockets” post I have in me to present, especially since the Wikipedia article on the subject is so poor).

And that brings the history of pockets, with appropriate digressions and rants on the side, up to date. Tomorrow’s April Fool’s Day, and we shall have to see what I come up with for that holy day.

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Definately (sic) alot (sic)

This one may be short and sweet, or bitter, depending on how it comes out. For once the title says it all: “definately” “alot.”

I’m starting to feel that no one knows how to spell definitely. For the last twenty years in my teaching career, I think I corrected definately to definitely more than any other mistake except maybe student-creating one word of the phrase a lot. Both errors are omnipresent, apparently, on the Internet, at least in e-mail and on Facebook and any other post anybody makes electronically. Why is that? It’s an avoidable situation. I’ve got my computer programmed, using a little Mac app called Typinator, to auto-correct such foolish goofs. Doesn’t anybody else care? You can make Word do similar corrections, and I know some people at least do try out e-mails and posts in a word processor before sending or posting. Reading ill-conceived and ill edited e-mails and posts, I’m beginning to think everyone should proof their writing of every kind first in a word processor.

Unfortunately, even for me it’s just too easy to write and post right there in the browser. And I make typos myself. Boy, do I make typos. (And, of course, this MacSpeech Dictate software that I’ve gone back to using for today’s post can create some doozies by mishearing what I say.) So I probably should get off my high horse, but I won’t.

On to the grammar lecture (well, really it’s a spelling lecture). I am beginning to feel I definitely have a lot to say.

Both errors seem pretty ignorant to me. Taking the easier, second one first, “a lot” is a phrase not a single word, just like “a little.” And I don’t see anyone writing alittle, one word. So where does alot, one word, come from? And why? Are we all just stupid? Surely we see it in print correctly as two words, a lot.

Furthermore the phrase “a lot” says what it means. There’s this thing, this lot. Which lotA lot. That lot. This lot. A lot. The a is an adjective, modifying—or describing—the lot. So it’s two words, my friends and faithful readers, please.

And definitely definitely has no A in it. Never did, never will. I am quite definite about this. We all are. Aren’t we? And in my experience most people who use the word definite know that there is no A in that word, the adjective from which the adverb definitely derives.

Both the adjective and adverb (definite and definitely) come from finite, meaning “limited,” the opposite of infinite, “unlimited.” So to be definite means to be clearly limited about the point of view or opinion. And when one does something definitely, one does it in a clearly limited way.

Since finite is pronounced “fine•ite”  (with a definite long I in the second syllable), the spelling for its derivative definitely should definitely be easy.

I could go on—a lot, but I should definitely keep this finite. The End. (I just wish I could’ve thought of some pictures to illustrate these topics.)

(I hope you’re happy, Shark, because it was thinking of you partying with Janet in Milwaukee over the weekend that got me to think of doing a grammar post, your favorite.)

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Pockets, part four

Is everybody tired of pockets yet? I think I may be forcing the subject myself. On the other hand I’ve enjoyed all the rambles on which the basic topic has taken me off  into the ether—both visibly here in print and in the more ethereal realms of my mind. (I like that gliding of ether into ethereal, myself…).

And all my tightie-Rightie friends should note how superbly I have supported our American capitalists in my adult life, even to the extent of purchasing hugely overpriced items that I lusted to possess. But that’s getting ahead of myself somewhat…

We left off on Friday with my acquisition of a series of Banana Republic photojournalist’s vests. I even forced myself on topic sufficiently to describe the 22 pockets in a typical photojournalist’s vest.

the embarrassingly too-large (especially for a retired guy) collection of dress jackets—only some of which are TravelSmith or Orivs, some derive from second-hand stores for $5.00!, and some are thirty years old

I had bought some items that weren’t vests, including the shirts and shorts I had already mentioned. I even got a safari jacket and pocket pants (which look kind of Eighties nowadays), although I was disappointed that the safari jacket only featured the four exterior pockets. But the company got bought up, things changed, the sales weren’t very good any longer, and the company seemed to focus on women and fashion too much for me.

So Banana Republic began to suck. (Sorry, Gap, Inc., but it’s true: your high-end stores sell overpriced excessively fancy-dancy junk that I just don’t want. Besides, you stopped selling the photojournalist’s vest.) I had a stockpile of two or three of their vests by the mid-Nineties, but the quality wasn’t what it had been, and I knew they would wear out.

And then a new travel clothing catalog arrived in the mail. It was a new company (to me), TravelSmith, and they had all kinds of clothing with pockets! They were just as expensive as (Gap, Inc.’s) Banana Republic, but they also had great sales (not quite as good as some items I had gotten from BR). They sold cool travel dress suits with fifteen pockets, and I soon acquired two—one in blue and one in olive green, both great and both still going strong for me twenty years on, and their multitudinous pockets worked great (although Janet pointed out that I bulged frequently in odd places with the items I had crammed into my jacket). I gradually accumulated an embarrassingly large collection of TravelSmith suit jackets, which I wore regularly as my school clothes and which made dressing up on vacation nice for me. The company also featured some very nice shirts and pants with secret pockets, which I also liked. (I also own a TravelSmith safari jacket, fitted oddly, I admit, but with interior pockets!)

The exterior zip pocket and patch pocket from TravelSmith

I only learned who their real competition might be from some of TravelSmith’s own advertising, but when I checked on the company mentioned as a provider of travelgear—including vests (actually outdoorsy stuff and hunting gear for rich executives, like Janet’s boss), Orvis—I realized I was out of my league (although Orvis also features deep sales to clear backstock, especially their Tent Sales, and I have picked up a jacket, a couple of pairs of pants and some shirts from Orvis). Overall, although I was aging into their evident target audience, TravelSmith had a more elite and successful clientele than I qualified as (meaning the stuff was/is just too expensive). Still, I supported them, sometimes a bit beyond my means, but almost exclusively from their sale pages (both physical in the old days and on their website more recently).

TravelSmith jacket—three interior pockets on the left

TravelSmith’s “Patented Pocket System” is illustrated in these pictures from a single suit jacket. Often on the left is a large in-the-lining zippered pocket on the outside, just above the normal patch pocket. Several coats, like this one, also feature handwarmer pockets concealed behind the patch ones. Inside on the left are three pockets, with another two—high and low—on the right. The chest one on one side or the other zips closed to hold your wallet, while the other side buttons—making it easy to store pens on the button side (since the zipper makes clipping the pen awkward). Of course, some of their coats feature special little pen pockets inside, usually just wide enough to hold the black and blue Zebra F-301s that I carry. Pockets galore, and the company was proud to advertise these features. Thus I had been lured into a whole new world of travel dress clothes.

TravelSmith jacket—two pockets inside on the right

There was only one problem: no photojournalist vests. Perhaps BR held a trademark on the notion or as Janet noted, maybe TravelSmith had better taste in clothing, although she never wanted anything from either company, except TravelSmith’s famous Little Black Dress (or I lacked the insight to investigate elsewhere on my own), but except for a couple of lapses, TS clothing remains more in the realm of her boss’s purchases than mine (although I just now got tempted once again among their men’s sale items). Janet bought a Field & Stream vest that TS was reselling (if that is the right term) for an anniversary present once, and although I have worn it, the vest remains in fairly immaculate shape because it just isn’t quite right (my most-used pockets are shades too small for say, paperbacks and my notebook).

Thus, although I had some dressy stuff that could hold more items than Janet was comfortable realizing I had sneaked along for a visit to her family or a weekend away on our own (or than I actually needed during a day at school), as the new century dawned, I was going to need a new travel vest supply.

So I went on the ’Net. (Maybe someday I should write a post on my internet shopping experiences; I never realized it at the time, but I was almost an Early Adopter of the commercial internet lifestyle). Looking back today, it seems surprising that it should have taken me so long to make that adjustment, but I think, as I have tried to show in this little series of posts, that my enjoyment (okay, love) of the rugged travel gear I liked from first Banana Republic and then TravelSmith instilled a powerful brand loyalty in me (that I still must feel somehow, or I wouldn’t fulminate so strongly against the contemporary BR or even be telling you about TravelSmith). However, I broke the box some time around the turn of the millennium and tried to find photojournalist’s vests on the internet. And succeeded.

But that development should, I think, comprise one final post in this series. Enough for today. Tomorrow is another break from the pocket packet of posts, as I have gotten annoyed at the semi-literacy of some of my internet friends.

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Wakdjunkaga in Cedar Rapids, continued

Wow. Hits tanked yesterday. I think I am getting my answer about the plausibility of continuing with this turkey. Do ye agree, faithful readers? However, since I have the material all ready (correct use of that phrase, by the way; already would be wrong) to post, you’re going to get more, continuing today.

Chapter 4 continues, as the narrator tries to provide a notion of Wakdjunkaga’s personality through some anecdotes…

I bet you can see my teacherly self poking through the fiction, especially in the choice of conversational topics.

The Book of Seasons

chapter four, continued

Once, when I was preparing a lesson in world lit on the Enlightenment, Wak intruded from his room (a story in itself, that room). He had been writing something.

“How do you spell judgment?” he demanded.

“Check the dictionary,” I laughed. “That’s what I always tell my students.”

He overlooked the chance to ask if I was unable to spell myself, referring everyone to the dictionary instead. “Got one?” I handed it to him, and he found the entry. “Damnation! Either way; with the ‘E’ or without. Why’d I bother?”

“Now you know,” I offered.

“Like hell! I’ll forget. I’m an old man. And senile. Or I’d’ve known already. I don’t have a head for rules. I know there are rules for these things, but I never can remember them.”

“I never learned them.” A fact I was discovering only too well as I encountered students each day.

“Never learned, and you an English teacher!”

“I spell all right.”

“But how does that help your students?”

“I’ll correct them,” I answered, more than a little piqued at his attack.

“That’s what got done to me. Look how I am now.”

“I never taught you. — Or will I? Besides, you’re the one who can’t remember the rules.”

“Were the exceptions,” he muttered. “It was always the exceptions that made learning the rules so damn silly.”

“That’s what we get,” I said, setting aside my notes, “for not setting the rules before the language evolved.”

“If we’d done that, you and I’d still be talking Anglo-Saxon or whatever it is. Language’d never grown up.”

It’s grown up now?”

æNot the way you use it, English teacher. Or me.” He paused, looking a little distant, and smiled. “I take consolation in the knowledge that it’s growing easier to write as time goes by. I remember that someday ‘night’ and ‘light’ and ’right’ — ”

“The unaspirated -gh- holdover.”

“Pedant! Anyway, by the next century ‘n-i-t-e’ and ‘l-i-t-e’ will be the ‘r-i-t-e’ way to spell them.”

“I like the old way better. More character.”

“Romantic,” he scoffed.

“I don’t know. I like the way the language doesn’t fit the rules. More like the way life really is.”

“Heresy for an English teacher.”

“I know. But ‘n-i-t-e’ bores me.”

“There’s hope for you yet,” he bellowed merrily. “You’ll come around to my way of seeing things yet, as long as you keep on thinking like that.”

“Like what?” I asked the closing door, beginning vaguely to realize that I thought I had locked it, and picking up my notes again before I followed that thought too far: “Let’s see. Diderot’s Encyclopedia.”

Obviously he could change his opinion in less than two days, within the scope of a single conversation.

This isn’t yet the end of Chapter 4, but Friday’s post was huge, and yesterday’s extended beyond a thousand words, so I thought I would keep this one brief to average. Besides this is where the anecdote ended. Also, now I have some more for next weekend! (And I had a bit of autobiography/personal update to add.)

Does he sound different than in the first three chapters? I would like him to read more naturally, more relaxed (more like me, too). But does he yet?

And is it any good? Do you think it’s worth trying to continue? Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

I hope you had a good weekend. I did overall, even though Janet deserted me on Thursday to travel to Milwaukee to visit her sister and a friend and enjoy a girls weekend. (They even got a hotel room downtown on Saturday night.) I tried to enjoy myself by working on the blog and other writing, staying up late reading, running (more on that ahead), and coming up with fun stuff to eat for supper.

Last week, I actually got up at 5:00 to run every day, and did the current-norm of four miles each time (unfortunately, it’s about time to get back up to six). I realize I do enjoy running in the predawn dark a lot more than I like having the sun beat on me as I pant and heave my way around town. If I can haul my ass out of bed, it also gets me to do the running. Since retiring, I had let myself sleep in after Janet awoke for about a half hour or so and then get up to help her load out for the day and get her breakfast. Then I was supposed to go out and run. And it worked that way for the first six months. then as winter closed its dark paw around us, I began to find it necessary to have a cup of coffee (usually with fat-free hot chocolate mix stirred in) and watch the news shows (I started to get addicted to CBS Early Show and latterly to ogling Savannah Guthrie on MSNBC The Daily Rundown). And all too often I would decide that perhaps I should just shower and get to “work” on the computer—even if “work” actually just meant checking e-mail and reviewing the past twelve or fourteen hours of my News Feed on Facebook (and not even writing in this blog, let alone potentially paying creations).

Getting up at 5:00 means I actually do the running (at least I hope so; I hope it continues).

I started on the early regimen last Tuesday because of having to sub (don’t I mean “getting to”?) sub in Andrew: I still wanted to get some exercise in (and considering how woebegone and weary I felt that afternoon and evening, good thing. I must continue tomorrow and Tuesday this week, at least, because I have two more substitute jobs at Andrew—one as the art teacher (that’ll be novel for me) and the other as the third grade sub (even more exciting—I have never taught elementary kids, even though everyone’s been assuring me I’ll be great at it; we’ll see).

At any rate (a phrase which I’m starting to write a lot lately), I created posts for the next three days while Janet was gone late last week, just because I wouldn’t be home during the day.

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Wakdjunkaga in Cedar Rapids

The opening of this chapter is fairly true to my own real life. I did write the first three chapters more or less at once, at least all in Ft. Madison in 1976 and 1977. Then I stopped. I revised the three chapters but got no further. Then around 1979 or ‘80 I added this fourth chapter (and notice the narrator says it got written three years after the others). I am not sure for my overall plot that it should arrive three years later (or not; I have a small idea now that would make the gap useful, if I could alter my narrator’s overly Lovecraftian tone). At any rate, he tries to continue the story…

The Book of Seasons

chapter four

Now I have reached the difficult part.

You must remember that what you are reading is not a novel. This book is not fiction. What I am telling you happened to me. Or, more precisely, I suppose, it happened to Wakdjunkaga, since most of what I have to say he told me in one roundabout and circumstantial manner or another.

I don’t say this because of what you have already read, although you may have begun to suspect the unusual nature of the story. What I’ve told you is not my problem. Those three chapters — begun so long ago, as I write this fourth — are natural enough, really. They were relatively easy to record, once I made myself begin. (It is beginning which is the hardest in any effort, I think. After a start one must only maintain the exertion, not easy in itself, I know, but that is because one keeps encountering smaller little beginnings in the process. Like writing: it is vilely hard to get started, but once begun, that first sentence, perhaps even the first paragraph comes without much additional strain. But then, like an entirely new beginning, that second paragraph presents itself to be written, and there it becomes so easy to stop, having not yet fully commenced.)

The first three chapters are like the first paragraph in my acquaintance with Wakdjunkaga. Once I actually forced words to, often literally, drip from my pen (I found typewriters demoralizing) that much came easily. But there I balked, barely begun. He had only arrived; I had the whole story to tell yet.

I did not exactly know how to go on. And so, between composing the end of the last chapter and setting this down now, three years quietly elapsed.

I got the chapters typed. I did revision on revision of those pages, precisely as I taught my students to write essays. All in my spare time. For I had become a high school teacher a year after my stint in Cedar Rapids, and I was busy dealing with the youth of mid-America. I worked often on the story of Wakdjunkaga, updating all my personal references, which caused me so much initial embarrassment to record. But, although I tried as many as thirteen times, I could not proceed any farther.

It was Wakdjunkaga who stopped me, not in person, but in personality. How could I go on? How could I explain him?

You’re not reading a novel. Understand that. I don’t have everything neatly plotted in my mind, with outlines for each chapter, the action developed with appropriate conflicts, complications and character changes. Neither Wakdjunkaga nor his life fit well to outlining.

However, I have noticed that already I am beginning to forget individual details and events, important to recall if this story is to be told correctly. That time that the Allison is growing hazier to me each time I try to remember.

It’s not so much what I’ve written as what I have to write. How can I explain Wakdjunkaga to you? He is not likable, not really. You won’t appreciate him; you’ll think me crazy for calling him a friend, for telling his story, for allowing him this book. We like to find heroes in our books, and I’m not sure he was much of a hero at all. I’d be closer if I called him a clown.

He was a sissy about pain: I never noticed afterward that his ankle bothered him, despite his initial assertion. He preferred ease, comfort and warmth to any other conditions.

A coward, he had deserted friends to save himself, avoided facing crises at any cost. I remember once we were in a bar downtown where I had never been before. We entered at Wak’s insistence. Exactly as I had feared, it was a rough place where we did not belong, and Wak was already drunk, quite loud and, as we sat at the bar, beginning to be a little abusive. Not that anyone would bother him. Most people are very cautious about hitting an old man like him, even if he did not look his full age (in my initial estimate that first night I had grossly underestimated). Eventually one large and meaty character who had overheard Wak’s comments to me took offense, as I had dreaded and, speaking beer into my face as insults and threats, got so carried away he could not stand my presence any longer and took a heavy swing at the side of my head. I clearly recall my other ear ringing sharply onto the bar and then, from the floor barely noticing Wak’s feet scurry quietly passed as he subtly departed. I was stranded and in trouble. My ear was bleeding, so I rolled with that side up and pretended unconsciousness, reviving only when I was sure that the two orangutans who deposited me in the garbage behind the establishment had been gone for at least ten minutes. Wakdjunkaga never apologized or afterward mentioned the incident.

A liar and a fake, he had stolen everything he was, almost, from others, mostly to impress women — his favorite pastime, even past eighty, followed by drinking, spinning stories, fabricating fabulous philosophies and playing practical jokes. He would rather sit than do anything active, and I was always amazed he was no fatter or flabbier than he was.

But these are virtues to some, I suppose. He was moreover a hypocrite, pretending thoroughly, perhaps even to himself, to be what he was not — Byronic, noble, athletic, wise, and everything anyone he might be with would admire. His world-wearied, quixotic, craggy countenance and expression helped him most in this. But I don’t think he ever fooled anyone for long: a failure sham.

And wordy. He probably talked from birth. He babbled constantly. About anything. But mostly about himself or his ideas — he was expert, or it least informed, on any subject ever conceived. Frequently, however, when he became excited or overly involved in what he was saying, he grew associative and incoherent and hard to follow.

He did know a good deal. His references and allusions often stymied me. But his opinions could change faster than Time magazine’s. He’d blithely contradict himself the day after expounding one position and then establish a third stance on the third day. And laugh at you if you pointed it out to him, and prove that he had held a fourth conciliatory opinion, which you were just too simple to comprehend, all the time. He was certainly never above insult or innuendo.

“Damn protestants,” he said once, “purifying the religion. Took everything interesting or challenging and threw it out. Made Christianity boring as hell. History’s gone downhill ever since the Reformation. Killed in the Renaissance anyway. Puritans and methodites — hate them all. Empty air and vacant gestures — that’s all they are.”

On another occasion: “Catholics? Ha! Them and their hodgepodge of a religion — patchwork little devotional empire founded in ignorance, Imperial Rome, Mithraism, anti-naturism and everything but the New Testament. I never could have imagined such an irrational, half-baked conglomeration if I had to.”

I expected him to tackle Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Communists, Buddhists, Taoists, psychologists, Republicans, sports fans and any other group of True Believers in the same way, but he never got around to it. I did ask him one time what he believed in. Anything? “Of course,” he sputtered gloriously, and then smiled, “but damned if I’ll ever tell you.” And he swilled a beer. He never told me, either.

More tomorrow…

Is it any good, readers? Although I never intended to finish this when I dictated from the xerox copy and decided to start posting it, I have been getting ideas. What do you say? Interesting? At all readable? What?

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Pockets (maybe, sort of)

my Yuppie hell—Gap-era Banana Republic

Strange to admit, I used to look forward to the arrival of the old Banana Republic catalogs. Remember, this was back in the Eighties, before/as the Zieglers sold the name to Old Navy and Banana Republic degenerated into the overpriced urban fluff it is today (and in my experience not very well manufactured fluff at that, although I gave up on them a long while back, perhaps about ‘93 when I tried looking for a vest in the downtown Chicago store [not the main one, three floors right on the street, but the one in Water Tower Place] and was carefully avoided for being probably too old and too bald and too Iowan by their hip, urban metrosexual—although that term was still at least a decade into the future—carefully coiffed and manicured twenty-something staff).

But I Digress…

—Wow, some sentence there. Sorry. I guess you can tell: I don’t care much for the direction the Gap, Inc. (actual owners of Banana Republic and Old Navy) headed the brand once they acquired it. Ah yes, American capitalism, realm of the woefully mediocre (and so hugely supported by us corporate serfs with our hard-earned bucks). —One Gap-era Banana Republic vest I purchased started unravelling at the seams within a week (sure, it was on sale—that’s about the only way I ever bought anything at Banana Republic), and several shirts and shorts of the later era barely survived a year, if that; and none of them had pockets (the really useful kind).

Early on the new ownership stuck to the same stuff the Zieglers had sold. When Janet and I were in Honolulu in about ‘85 or ‘86, I bought a pair of button-fly canvas-khaki pants for five dollars (on sale, of course; if you used to shop at BR, you know about the sales area hidden away toward the rear of their stores) that I love, even though they were size 36+ at the waist (useful for me in these later years…). In Carmel in the mid-Eighties I picked up cotton pocket-Tees in about three earth-tone of colors (later augmented with blues and purple and green…), all of which are still sturdy and still worn, although the green one, on which I dropped a cigarette while running lights for Peace Pipe Players at Kirchhoff Theatre about ‘88, has become the “clean, smooth cloth” I use to wipe my glasses around the house—since it hangs so nicely on the knob of a door for easy access, much to Janet’s chagrin, I am sure). But possibly we should return to the subject, the Zeiglers’ memorable catalogs…

What Were We Talking About? Oh, yes, Catalogs…

my own still-extant copy of the de Camps’ book, purchased in Des Moines, at Reader’s World on 13 June 1975; I assume I bought it to celebrate my college graduation a month earlier and the beginning of my new adult life

Those catalogs were a trip into adventure (before adventure and eco-tourism became jargon) in strange and distant, exotic lands I would like to but probably will never be able to afford to visit. The Zieglers even went to Macchu Picchu! (And that was before it became the overrun site my sister Margaret and brother David tell me it is today.) Ever since I read about the Andean ruins in high school (complete with cover photo on L. Sprague and Catherine C. de Camp’s long-forgotten Ballantine Books paperback Citadels of Mystery, originally entitled Ancient Ruins and Archaeology. (There’s a lengthy and unfavorable review of the book available if you click on the scanned image.) I had received de Camp’s Lost Continents as a graduation gift a month earlier from the then-girlfriend (thanks still, Ruthie—a great gift, recently reread) and had begun a lifelong quest for de Camp’s science writing and his historical novels.

the mountains of the Macchu Picchu region is the rear-cover photo

Archaeology and distant places have haunted my imagination and my life before and since. One of the first books I spent a whole night reading as an adult (I’d done that with ERB and other wild fiction as a kid too many times to recount) was the American heritage Discovery of Lost Worlds (and later two companion, and very similar, volumes) that same summer of 1975 in Ft. Madison, in the spaceship-over-the-city upstairs apartment on Avenue D. From all that came purchases of the Time-Life Emergence of Man series (all nineteen volumes), Golden Books’ Echoes of an Ancient World series (nine volumes), most of the Facts on File Atlas of.. series (i.e. Atlas of the Jewish World—currently consulted for my Sepharad heroic fantasy story/series—and Atlas of Mesopotamia, Atlas of China, Atlas of North American Indians…) and through the Nineties Time-Life’s What Life Was Like series (eighteen volumes) and… Not to mention the science-in-general stuff and subscribing to far too many magazines (including Archaeology—I even joined the Archaeological Institute of America as a full member for thirty years) for most of my life.

I think the archaeology interest began with Indians/Native Americans, all the way back in elementary with the Fleetfoot character I told you about before and other nonfiction kid-books I acquired at the Rock Island Public Library to which I clearly recall biking on summer days and awkwardly returning, laden with books (but also including a fondly remembered book on Old Ironsides and a novel about the Mongols invading everywhere and butchering everybody that I first encountered read-aloud in fourth grade,and another book I wish I could still find among my possessions about lone man adventuring against evil Communists in the Himalayas, in which I first encountered the words “jerry-can” and “petrol”…) and possibly almost-infant memories of Mesa Verde with my family. Strange how it all connects and intersects in one’s mind and personality…

But Isn’t the Real Subject Pockets?

—Ummm, I guess you can see that the Banana Republic catalogs fit into an already established interest. Janet arriving in my life in 1981 provided the impetus to travel and begin to see at least some of those faraway lands and lost cities (although none of de Camp’s… yet). I first flew in an airplane with her to Texas to stay for several days on vacation with friends in Brownsville, and although our Bermuda honeymoon the next year evaporated into a week in Minneapolis (a lovely week, never forgotten), we started real travel in 1983 with three weeks in Europe. (Is there are series of posts ahead on our travels? Hmmm…) —And he’s off on a tangent again!

So back to pockets (supposedly our topic for the day and yesterday and the day before).

the embarrassingly worn-out Banana Republic vest —I provided a hideously large JPEG so if you wish you can click on it and examine some of the books on one bookshelf…

Banana Republic photojournalist’s vests vanished for me by the early Nineties. But fortunately, two factors kept me in pockets and travel gear (although Janet might not agree about how fortunate it all was). I can still wear one of the second-generation BR vests today because I stockpiled them, and one is still in decent shape. The one I wore through the late Eighties and into the Nineties, however, although I will throw it on to carry stuff (like a notebook or a wallet or some books or a camera or whatever; perhaps those ors should be ands) when I go out on my bike, is in pretty poor shape. Note the picture. Can you see the collar with the white padding material hanging out? Fans of the blue denim vest should appreciate the baggy left, lower pocket(s) where paperback and my smaller notebooks resided.

Oh, the second factor is the subject of our next pockets post—another travel-gear company arriving just in time in the early to mid-Nineties: TravelSmith.

The Twenty-Two Pockets: an annotated and analytical listing

The Banana Republic original vest had a plastic window on the upper right side, where you can see two D-rings hanging in the picture to the left. That pocket was divided into two, a front area (for the journalist ID and a rear area for stuff (like a packet of Kleenex, which is still what I put in the newer version of that pocket). On the pictured vest, that pocket is one, large expandable container. I nowadays keep my tissue packet (infrequently used), a small pocket calculator and a plastic holder for a spectacles cloth and whatever business cards I collect (they make great bookmarks). Beside that one, right on the lapel is a zippered pocket extending underneath and down into the lining that usually goes empty but on vacations holds our passports and other vital documents or stuff like foreign cash. Below the Kleenex pocket are three velcro-topped pockets, one on top of another, the lowest fronted with mesh. Intended for film and lenses, I store a baggy of aspirin in one, packets of lens-cleaning wipes in another, and in the mesh Listerine pocket packs of dissolving mint papers and a flash drive (you never know…).

Below those is a horizontal zipper into a hidden side pocket (sometimes used for books, sometimes for something valuable; usually empty). In front of that pocket are two expandable pockets covered by a shared flap closed by separate velcro snaps. One often holds my checkbook while the other always contains my sunglasses (or the regular ones if I’m wearing the sunglasses, pretty obviously).

my notebook—from Harrods in 2002—which contains the complete handwritten original version of “Underground” as well as a new Tourist story, the Villon text, notes and reminders, blood pressure records (ah, getting old sucks), extra papers and loose notes, sticky notes, a London Underground map glued in the back cover (for reference for “Underground”) and even some poems and blank pages yet

On the left side (your right in the picture, of course) at the top is a zippered pocket with a key ring hanging out in the picture. My digital camera can fit there along with other not-too-bulky smaller item (a deck of cards, not usually carried by me, would be the ideal size). Below it is a large bellows pocket that can hold pretty big items, if I wish (like a couple of paperbacks or souvenirs bought on vacation). On its lower right side of the big expandable pocket is a long, thin pen pocket (it can actually hold three pens and usually does for me—a black ballpoint, a blue ballpoint and a fine-line felt-tip). Toward the bottom is a complicated arrangement of six pockets—a book-sized large bellows pocket closed with a velcroed flap (normally empty except sometimes on vacation) in front of two open-topped pockets of the same size (into which go my notebook and a paperback novel normally). Three small narrow pockets sewn on the front of the bellows pocket (which reveal the vest’s origin as a hunting vest—those would be where shotgun shells went) always hold: a highlighter, two Chapstick (one on top of the other) and my Swiss Army knife.

This is a scan rather than a photo; yes, I was having some fun with the digital contraptions

Right side interior pocket; you can see what I had in mind in Book of Seasons for the two, deep interior pockets—Banana Republic got it exactly right!

There are two long inner pockets on each side, like in a man’s suit jacket, only larger, that work well for a variety of books and other things. I usually carry a volume of poetry on one side (currently the Bonnard dual-language translation of François Villon’s complete verse; I am trying to work on a novel about Villon) and some days another novel (just for variety/avoidance-of-boredom’s sake).

Inside and outside of the lower back of the vest are two wide and deep horizontal pockets. The outer one closes with snaps, while the interior one, which can only be accessed from the inside of the vest, is zippered. I keep a cloth bag (compressed into itself and zipped up as a small square) and two cheap plastic rain ponchos inside, while the outer one works well for extra travel guides on vacation (the most used travel guides go in the lower left book pocket and one or both of the interior pockets while vacationing with too many guidebooks).

Finally, two handwarmer pockets fit underneath the other pockets on the lower right and left, and my hands go in them often. (I think I remembered to mention all of the pockets.)

The zippered pockets are lined with a silky waterproof material, as is the lower left-side bellows pocket, and that waterproof-lining has been of value often (and explains why I put the passports where I usually do).

On the later versions of the BR vests, I guess considering that we consumers are idiots (which is of course how corporations treat us), the company printed on the interior pockets maps of the pockets with suggested uses, as you can see in the pictures.  People other than me get fascinated by the instructions.

And we have exceeded 2000 words for today. Sorry about that. I got excited, I suppose. I have later vests and other stories of pockets to discuss, but later. This weekend you get more (if not all the rest) of The Book of Seasons draft, meaning chapter 4. Will you ever read more of “Mantorville” (I really don’t like that title—thanks for nothing, folks)? I have been writing my first Sepharad story mostly of late, but I do have at least one post almost done extending the story of Quetzal County past Frank Long’s football “accident.”

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Pockets, continued

I fear my glorious content for this post may have been somewhat anticipated by my friend Colleen’s enthusiastic comment to yesterday’s segment. (Go back and read what she had to say; she expresses the wonder for an innocent Iowan of the original Banana Republic’s exotic gallery of travel couture exquisitely.)

I, too, somehow received a catalog from the original Banana Republic some time in the middle or late Eighties, and like Colleen something about the drawn images of their products combined with the really interesting anecdotes of the Zieglers’ travel experiences (was this the company being satirized by Elaine’s self-important boss J. Peterman on Seinfeld? —No, the real J. Peterman ripped off the Zeiglers) gripped me with excitement. That and the fact that all their men’s clothing featured plenty of pockets…

It was in the pages of that catalog that I first encountered a photojournalist’s vest, and my destiny, as I am sure multitudes of students have mocked me for ever since, arrived. Unfortunately for me, the photojournalist’s vest was really rather expensive, up toward one hundred dollars! I really couldn’t afford that. Still it looked wonderful, and I knew I had seen its like on actual journalists on the evening news, usually in places like Africa, Afghanistan, Nicaragua or Southeast Asia. I know Dan Rather wore one when he sneaked into Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion that provided the Regan-era CIA opportunity to train and arm the Taliban, including Osama bin Laden. (Oh, the irony, the genuine sorrow. And we couldn’t even learn the lesson of history from the Soviet experience, or possibly in our arrogance we believe their humiliation in Afghanistan was entirely our doing. Regardless it has all come home to roost, sadly.) My fantasies of an exciting alternative career aside, I really wanted a photojournalist’s vest. I just couldn’t afford one.

Eventually, however the lure of Banana Republic’s exotic and practical travel garments overwhelmed my caution at ordering through the mail clothing I had never actually seen even in a photograph, and I determined to buy something. Fortunately, when the next catalog arrived a sale was occurring. I found an interesting olive-green pair of traveler’s shorts, which were only about $25 and featured—excitement of excitements—two large button-down pockets on the outside of each leg. I know that such things have become really popular since, but back in 1985-6-7 or whenever, I hadn’t seen the like. When the shorts arrived just ten days later, I was delighted at how well they fit (then, they are a size 34 waist) and how practical I thought those pockets on the sides were. We were off to Hawaii that year, I think, and I dreamed of jamming those pockets with all sorts of wondrous things. In truth, they’ve only been used a few times, but I still love that pair of shorts. And I still own them all these years later, dreaming of someday being able to fit back into them. Unfortunately that dream day is not yet today.

The Tree of Life — The Emanations of the Deity, according to the Lurianic Kabbalah

But visions of that wonderful, exciting photojournalist’s vest tickled my mind and troubled my imagination. I began saving. Eventually, maybe a year later, I placed my order. My delight with the shorts paled to insignificance when the vest arrived. Although that original item passed long ago as an honor to a fellow director in Peace Pipe Players who at least said she believed my constantly worn vest was the mark of a true director, the garment lives forever in my memory. It had at least 15 pockets (contemporary versions from other companies have even more today), and I found a use for every one. Even for the little plastic upper chest pocket, clear in front to hold my press pass (what a joke), where I secured a laminated copy of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, I guess as my unique insignia.

I wore that vest constantly and everywhere. Except during the day at school. Students got to know it very well, however, as I always donned it for play practice. It went to the mall, it went on vacation, it never hung in a closet. I kept that same vest for five or six years, as I gradually acquired other Banana Republic garments. And I don’t exaggerate: every pocket was filled. I could carry more than one paperback book, more than one notebook for writing or notes or addresses, my Swiss Army knife, a highlighter, Chapstick, Kleenex, a calculator, extra strings or pieces of rope to tie big things to myself… I forget all the things I carried in that first vest.

Eventually, perhaps predictably after the constant wear, it started to wear out. So I saved again and ordered a new vest; it was somewhat different from the original, lacking in particular the plastic pocket for my identification. But that was actually a relief: more than once even I was a bit embarrassed at the attention my Kabbalistic insignia attracted. Once at the Minnesota Renaissance Fair it seemed as though every person among the thousands when we passed or bumped into kept staring at the tiny black-and-white Tree of Life. I think perhaps the only person who really appreciated the emblem was beloved brother-in-law Brian, about whom I told you earlier. It certainly wasn’t my much-beleaguered but long-suffering, beloved wife, Janet, who’s been gracious enough to tolerate the vests for 25 years.

But I’m afraid I shall have to extend this entirely too long disquisition on garments with pockets for yet another day. I got the opportunity to substitute at Andrew again on Tuesday, and once I got home, a strong, weary exhaustion or lethargy overwhelmed me for the rest of the evening, and I got absolutely nothing accomplished—definitely no worthwhile writing, not even a start on today’s blog. Then on Wednesday, as the house was getting cleaned, I had to clear out for my now-usual biweekly lunch in Dubuque with Janet. I still didn’t feel particularly well, and upon returning home and trying to write this post through dictation, the damned MacSpeech Dictate software insisted on mishearing nearly half of what I would say repeatedly, particularly the word vest, which it interpreted as fast, best, past, over and over with other exotic inappropriacies injected. To get these thousand words as accurate (or inaccurate) as they are took more time and energy than I wished. So the saga will continue, probably tomorrow.

I know I already riffed on politics inappropriately above, but in working out the links I got to thinking about the wonders of capitalism (oops, pardon me—how wongheadedly “liberal” to use that perfectly correct word, according to the nut-hut Right and Fox News; I mean “free-enterprise” system—talk about jaw-crunching jargon!). A true capitalist (like the Zieglers) invents something new, interesting and worth buying; but the way the system really works is: others and more others imitate and get imitated. Little or no originality or invention or commercial value (thus the need to endlessly advertise). And what’s worth buying then?

Much does remain to get off my chest, clearly — freedom, the wacko Right and its dupes and stooges (and its hidden Masters unseen behind the scenes, dishing out the cash), capitalism, how it’s our government since we chose them (not our enemy, regardless what the wacko Right believes), group identity (and how that’s not freedom), the pointlessly strident polarization of American political thought…

All to come. Later. Pockets are so much more pleasant.

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Pockets, part one

I had so much fun free-associating yesterday that I was very tempted to simply find another poem I could release my mind to fly on. However, I have had a topic in mind for some time that I haven’t fully developed yet. The title says it all: “Pockets.”

Various factors have got me thinking about this peculiar subject, both personally and historically. I would hope that faithful readers recall in The Book of Seasons, when Durwood Wakdjunkaga magically arrived in the  Hotel Allison on a late autumn evening in 1974 (geez, if you talk and think about this stuff enough, and lived through the real events that inspired your imagination, you can almost begin to think it was all real—not), he was wearing a strange vest unfamiliar to the pompous and naïve narrator. If you can’t remember, the descriptive passage went like this: “His clothing surprised me. He was wearing a brown polo shirt, blue denim jeans, a green vest-like garment which hung as long as a sports coat with several pockets in it, and red tennis shoes. His costume, for it certainly did not suit his age, distinguished him in my mind from the Allison. …The vest had six pockets in all: two at chest level in front, two side pockets, and within two deep inner compartments.” I knew clearly just what that vest should look like when I wrote those words, even though it did not exist nor had not ever, to my knowledge. And not because I have such a vivid and creative imagination (I begin to fear that I do not—on either adjectival count).

a blue chore coat from Theisen’s: it’s about 35 years old now… Notice the left side pocket bagged out from carrying paperbacks.

Back in college I had worn several Army-green cloth coats that hung the length I described that eventually I cut the sleeves from for summer wear late in college. (Yes, we are the witless slaves of fashion in every era, and it is always so embarrassing later, albeit I think the kids of the Eighties are going to writhe in humiliation a lot more, assuming they/you all have the necessary sensitivity and personal awkwardness to suffer such pangs, and for much longer than my generation—although I still blush to even think of my pompous, self-important high school senior photo in a military-style coat with my “Think Peace” button added without my parents’—especially my mother’s—knoweldge once I got to the photographer’s studio. Strange to think: we used to just take about five or ten possible shots and pick just one.)  Later, I acquired a couple of blue-denim chore coats at Theisen’s once I moved here to Maquoketa. One or more of them suffered the same descent into vestness, but I recently discovered I still had a complete one. Notice the photo. At least by this draft of The Book of Seasons which I have transcribed for the blog the vest had become a formal imitation of what I haphazardly created, although I kept the vest green as originally invented.

Why did I like these garments? I wanted pockets, places to put things so I would have them with me, what the Seinfeld program suggested by the term “man-purse.” Except I wasn’t carrying no darned purse! Even today, I feel uncomfortable carrying my cloth bag to the grocery store.

So Wakdjunkaga’s vest helps him to carry all the items of his magical existence. I suppose it’s another way that he is me, except there’s nothing particularly magical about my possessions. (I know, grammatically that should be “he is I.”) What it really shows is the importance of pockets. And, as Janet will quickly assert, pockets are important to me.

I was still wearing the blue chore coats when we met and got married. She did try to lure me off those, and she had a good chance because of one issue—they didn’t have enough pockets. You can see all the pockets they have in the photo: four. I always wanted to sew extra material inside each lapel to create those two extra “deep, inner pockets” that Wakdjunkaga has.

In 1984 or ‘85 I did create some inner pockets with my own stitchery on a lightweight gray windbreaker/cloth jacket I bought the summer we went to Fiji. Janet made me toss that to Maquoketa Community Services last summer or earlier, or I’d show you a picture of it. It was made with tons of extra material flapping on the inside from the zippers, so I just sewed those loose, four- or five-inch wide interior lapels (what would you call it?) across in several places and created two (weirdly shaped) pockets on each side—four total interior pockets. My creation worked not very great for our seventeen-hour flight across the Pacific and back for that ideal vacation. (Sorrowfully, Fiji got hammered last week by typhoon winds and rains, horrible.)

I tried wearing that coat, but all the self-created pockets were almost uselessly awkward, especially for holding books (my principal stuff to carry, although sometime in the mid or late Eighties I bought a Walkman for portable music, which I also wanted to carry in some pockets). So I remained frustrated…

This post topped 800 words a while ago, so I think I will break what I had imagined as one post into at least two, and tell you (too much) more about my PocketQuest tomorrow.

For then I discover Banana Republic! (No, the original California company before the owners sold it to Old Navy or whoever owns those hoity-toity urban metrosexual Banana Republic worthless joints now.)

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.


First a Little Life Update

Will they still want me after this?

So I took my Census test yesterday. It was a fairly low-key event. I ran a full four miles solidly starting right after Janet left (I think I ran it all because I wanted to get home in time to shower and get ready and get my ID all set with enough extra time to walk over to the Clinton Community College building on the Maquoketa High School campus, where the test was held). The woman in charge was very nice, friendly and familiar, a local person I recognized. Only two other people took the test—a couple I also knew, having taught for years with one of their lovely daughters. So we all talked a lot—even me to some extent—as everyone filled out our paperwork, and then it was test time. My actual version seemed somewhat easier than the practice test, on which I missed three question by hurrying too fast. Unfortunately, I missed two on the actual test, and I don’t get to know which ones, so I am not sure what I did wrong. Now I am stuck wondering if 92% is good enough to anticipate getting some work or if I should retake the test this Friday…

Then later on, about noon, I froze my knuckles digging at length through our freezer, searching for a partial bag of frozen meatballs I knew was there. I had seen it several times before. But I could not find it yesterday. Essentially, I not-quite-emptied the freezer three times before I located the apparently invisible bag lurking, of course, in the very bottom. Naturally, if I’d actually emptied the darn thing I would’ve found the meatballs much more quickly. The process, however, had several benefits besides providing the appetizing (though ill-nutritious) dish I was supposed to create for supper. As yesterday was also garbage day, I placed about half a dozen years-and-years-old never-consumed items in the trash; freezer burn is a terrible taste to inflict on oneself.

But enough of this diary work…

Today’s Bit of Poetry

Here’s a later poem from the most productive period (about 1975 until 1982 in case you hadn’t figured that out for yourselves yet). I remember working on this quite a lot, so it must have considerable meaning for me. I recently found another poem that I annotated with cryptic notes like those I wrote for “Freya’s Steel” a few years after I had written that poem. At the time I felt pretty pretentious pointing out such things to myself, but now, sundered by decades from that younger person I was, it intrigues me how my mind worked and how much I thought I was packing into a poem (perhaps I should post that poem one day soon, although I have been striving to reduce the amount of old poems I reproduce with commentary here).

cosmic spheres

Like all of the poems I’ve presented here, at least so far, I like this one. And for once it’s not a romance poem. Not even romance of the imaginary sort. In 1980 I was on my own without any live female in my love life. So I guess I got thoughtful because this is a philosophical poem, considering the wide chasm between a mystical reality and our mundane lives. It takes its inspiration from the medieval concept of “the music of the spheres.”

As I learned early in my youthful efforts to read Dante, medieval astronomical scholars believed, since the world was the center of the universe, the moon and the sun and planets and the stars all revolved around our earth, the Aristotelian or Ptolemaic system. What held the astronomical bodies out in space were invisible crystalline spheres, the quintessence or the fifth element (other than the ancient earth, water, air and fire “elements”) of which everything in Heaven was made. The apparent motion of the moon and the sun and the planets and the stars resulted from angels rotating these spheres (and as astronomical observations got better and better, the subordinate motions of various planets on their own little tiny crystal spheres attached to the large sphere that marked an orbit). The motion of each crystalline sphere created a sound, and the combined harmony of all the spheres was the heavenly music which we never hear down here on earth.

My poem particularizes this lovely quantity of bad science…




Bright hidden music fills and rings us all
liveslong in amber oboes, stringed lutes and
piccolos. Quick harpsichord and chimes call
continually while hidden drums beat unscanned
in the blood: between the pulse feel silence stall
the colored melodies rising round us in a grand
polyphonic tumult. We deaf ones crawl,
bereft of all but what we understand.
And die, and never know the actual song.

Birdcall, churchbell, windwhistle, symphony,
still fugues of heartache summon constantly—
sad bitter mirrors of unsubstantial threnody.
Such homely shreds seem that for which we long,
while, still, the unheard musics sound. We’re wrong.

also entitled “Bright Hidden Musics”

25 August 1980

I don’t recall any particular biographical events inspiring this sonnet, a disciplined form I feel very fond of. Trying to get any clear meaning compressed into fourteen lines while adhering to any rhyme scheme at all—whether the really restrictive Italianate or the more liberal Shakespearian pattern—is an excellent way to discipline your writing. I especially enjoy how relatively smoothly this one speaks. Even Shakespeare frequently had to bend his syntax and mangle his diction to get those rhymes and rhythms perfect (or as perfect as he wished). I was pleased at how little I had to contort as this poem evolved.

The rhyme scheme is a-b-a-b-a-b-a-b-c d-d-d-c-c.

Sonnets traditionally, especially in English, fall into two large parts, the octet or first eight lines, and the sestet or the final six lines. Frequently the poet expresses and elaborates a problem or situation in the octet which is resolved in the sestet. Shakespeare, ever the most cunning of us all, liked to develop a problem in the first eight lines then completely complicate matters beyond belief in the next four and then in a rhyming couplet resolve everything neatly, quickly and stunningly. If you count, my sonnet breaks into nine lines and five lines. Today I’d like to think I chose to make the first part nine lines long in honor of the nine planets (of course in 1980 Pluto was still a planet, and that’s still the way this old-fashioned codger thinks of it); in reality I think it just took nine lines to say what I had to say. And five is the number of visible planets to the naked eye, as well as (like nine) a longtime magical number, like the fingers on my hand.

Those first nine lines describe the heavenly music percussed by the pulse of our blood. I had been listening (and still do) to a lot of Johann Sebastian Bach in those days, particularly the Brandenburg Concertos, so you may, if you wish, imagine, say, the Third or the Fifth (any of the fast movements) accompanying this poem. Today, thanks to buying a complete Bach CD set, I can listen to a lot more of his work. My opening section ends grimly, as we mundane mortals, crawling in mud, never hear the heavenly symphonies because we only accept our own science or our own personal understandings.

In the closing five lines, various earthly sounds faintly echo the celestial music, and we mistake such earthly noise/music for the sublime. Incorrectly, tragically.

Medieval science was of course wrong. The earth is anything but the center of the universe, and we with the other planets orbit the sun. Only the moon orbits us, and I already wrote a poem or two on that topic. So I guess the ultimate sorrow in the poem is that there is no heavenly music whatsoever. But then we are “bereft of all but what we understand…” So can we trust what we understand?

Deep, ain’t it, though?

Grammatically Speaking…

By the way, at the start of this blue commentary section, did you notice that I used a preposition at the end of a sentence (“of”)? Although traditional grammar/usage directives condemn that particular choice (and I usually follow, so that the final clause above would become “a disciplined form of which I am very fond,” the pattern I have usually chosen to adopt in these posts), I have decided to play around with a looser, more colloquial tone—originally inspired by the use of dictation to create text (although I am typing this one; the MacSpeech Dictate software has gotten remarkably creative in its misunderstandings of what I clearly say, and I notice that the prudes who created it make it incredibly dense about cuss words—even after training it to know my voice saying various “unacceptable” words it renders as shipped or talk, for instance). The old-fashioned rule has inspired such famous witticisms in rebellion as Winston Churchill’s “That is the sort of thing up with which I will not put” (quite clever really) and the more recent “No prepositions at the end, huh? Then make it a disciplined form I feel very fond of, jerk.” The modern abusive crudity is not quite so clever as Winston’s indelible remark.

Regardless, someone told me while ago that reading the old-fashioned correctly-placed-preposition constructions is actually too challenging for many people to figure out these days. Strange. The whole intent of the evidently now-antiquated rule was to make one’s meaning clearer. However, time passes and things change. So I am making the effort to awkwardize my style for clarity.

And Now for a Little FoxHunt

I know the students I’ve taught for a long time now seem to think every verb requires a prepositional adverb. The model would be “clean up” or “pick up.” Everyone seems to choose a short, one-syllable, unclear verb with a preposition following after rather than a multi-syllable verb that requires no modification of that sort. (Personally, I wonder if it all may be an ultra-Right wing plot to undermine our language and dumb us all down, thereby simplifying the brainwashing of the public that seems to be Fox News’ dire purpose. — And I’m not sure if I should attach an LOL to that…)

Speaking of lambasting the moronic Right (not the whole Right, the moronic wing—or has the entire Right gone idiot, thanks to Fox News and corporate don’t-think advocacy?), sadly my Facebook page recently has much more excitement, debate, discussion and insight than I’ve mustered the will or time to enshrine here.

Regardless, the House passed the old Senate health care bill for reconciliation, historically, on Sunday night. Today I am proud to be an American.

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

A Hundred Bucks

Things have been a little desperate around here lately. Lots going on, so here’s a lengthy post to fill a day—one with which Advanced English veterans should be familiar. In the Nineties, I submitted the following essay to the University of Northern Iowa’s Young Writers Conference (teacher section) and actually won the prize for best educator essay that year, the same year that a student, Tracey (née Cornelius) Till won with her jab at the most self-centered hero-figure in American Lit (yep, she didn’t like A Catcher in the Rye, and I didn’t think the UNI profs would like her attacking such a beloved and treasured “classic” or a character with whom so many of my generation identified too strongly). I actually wrote my essay to complement the students’ reading of the one-page piece of nonfiction it’s written about, and its use in class is why so many will probably remember it, vaguely.

The essay marks a highlight for me in that it represents one time I actually got paid for my writing (let’s hope, so far). The top prize (for both Tracey and me) was a hundred bucks apiece.

Rock Solid Certainty

Naming the Ills in “Tergvinder’s Stone”

Supposedly, literature is important in a school’s curriculum not merely as reading practice but because, as art, real literature somehow profoundly touches or reflects life. However, students don’t always read cleverly or skillfully enough to explore or appreciate the multiplex relationships between what a teacher has assigned and their own existences. Therefore, every summer, like most other English teachers I spend time searching for new (presumably more “relevant”) selections to replace stories that have bombed with my classes. When the fourth edition of the The Norton Reader appeared, I perused a copy from our local public library and was pleasantly surprised to discover about a dozen pieces that appealed to me (at least) immediately and directly. Leading the pack was a very short, provocative so-called parable near the end of the volume–W. S. Merwin’s “Tergvinder’s Stone,” which appeared to allow boundless opportunities for close readings, class discussions, and examinations of the nature of art and life.

Its appeal, although rooted in brevity (five short paragraphs), was nourished by the bizarre, but intensely realistic events narrated. Tergvinder, a friend of the author, has placed a large stone in his living room for no apparent reason except, as Tergvinder repeatedly said, “It belonged there.” The rock was not an ultranaturalist’s coffee table nor a useful addition to the Tergvinder family’s life: the pets urinated on it, and the wife frequently found it an unexpected and exasperating obstruction. However, Tergvinder remained complacent about his stone, confiding to the author that it provided mystical comfort to an aching void in the living room. Tergvinder had noticed the “mournful dissatisfied” hole while walking, naked, at night through his home, “troubled by the ancient, nameless ills of the planet.” He could sense “low sounds like breathing” that indicated pain, an absence, a yearning “for something it had never seen and could not conceive of, but without which it could not rest.” Secretly, Tergvinder resolved to assuage that pain. At length, he noticed the rock at the foot of his driveway, which he recognized suddenly for what it was–the fulfillment for the absence he had felt at night in his living room. And now, when walking at night, Tergvinder can visit the peace he has created by filling the void with the stone, a peace with definite size, weight, and touch (all of which he knows personally). He and the stone commune for hours in silence.

I hoped the story would intrigue my students. They could laugh at the strange situation (especially the dog “peeing” and cat “squirting” the stone) yet would identify easily with Tergvinder’s eerie nocturnal awareness “how some shapes in the darkness emitted low sounds, like breathing, as they never did by day.” Although I felt the strange events recounted had to be fictitious, the piece is clearly presented as an essay–including a thesis statement at the end of the first, introductory paragraph, indicating Tergvinder’s belief that the stone “belonged” in his living room. A constructive section summarizes the public reaction to what others called his stone (and Tergvinder’s denial of a public role for the boulder: “he made no claims at all for it, he said”). A contrary paragraph details the unpleasant side-effects of this adjustment to the order of things. A long supporting argument, Tergvinder’s confidence to his friend, explains the reason for the stone’s replacement; and finally a moving conclusion opens the question of Tergvinder’s problem-solving success and his sanity.

Merwin’s essay neatly moves from a public view of the situation in the living room, expressed in the first three paragraphs, to the private, internal life of the protagonist. The first sentence flatly begins with what any neighbor would have noticed: “. . . Tergvinder brought a large round boulder into his living room.” The second paragraph–continuing in short, literal statements–focuses on the appearance of the stone (an external quality) and how it was not like Plymouth Rock, having no “big shaky promotional campaign to support.” More blunt remarks about the pets’ and wife’s reactions to this new intrusion on “their already strained marriage” allows the third paragraph to turn from the glare of social scrutiny to the darkness of Tergvinder’s secret night walks and his heartfelt awareness of the aching void in the living room.

The narrative develops from the concrete and materialistic details of rolling the rock along two-by-fours to the abstract, emotional, even spiritual statements of Tergvinder’s motivations. The reader is guided from an outsider’s awkward amusement at overturned social propriety (a rock in the living room–that most public place in any home–is hardly decorous) to an appreciation for a sensitive soul’s anguished struggle to reconcile himself with the universe. The internalizing of the action develops subtly. Although the first three paragraphs are ostensibly external, what Tergvinder said is repeated seven times in those fifteen short sentences–quietly emphasizing his point of view, which is the only subject for the last half of the story (told in another fifteen sentences, but these are long and complex webs of figurative syntax).

From the beginning, Tergvinder is not like other people. His stone is jarringly unique, placed where “most people have coffee tables (though he never had one there himself).” He walks his house naked at night. Furthermore, but according to his statements, Tergvinder seems to have some special handle on the secrets of the cosmos: in defending his stone, “he said that was where it belonged.” When his estranged wife tripped over the intrusive object, he declared that “there was nothing to be done about it. It was in the order of things.” I wonder how many of us would confide to any friend (especially one who might write an essay for publication) that we walk in tormented nakedness through darkness breathing to express a wordless pain. And no one acceptably in his or her right mind would believe a rock can silence pain and establish peace.

Obviously what Tergvinder has done is bizarre, not normal, disturbed. However, once we are privileged to share his confidence, we can no longer judge him at face value. Those long, winding sentences lure us into Tergvinder’s thoughts and seduce us to reevaluate our initial, standard, laughing reaction to his strangeness. We are led to doubt that it is possible to judge him wrong in his peculiar actions. However, a more distanced and objective reevaluation determines just that view: Tergvinder is wrong.

First, he says he is awakened at night, “troubled by the ancient nameless ills of the planet.” What are these ills? Apparently we can’t know: they’re unidentifiable–they haven’t any name. These nameless ills are somehow connected the with the breathing in the living room (which touches Tergvinder with “fellow-feeling”), that mournful yearning for still unidentified resolution (“waiting for what belonged to it, for something it had never seen and could not conceive of, but without which it could not rest”). Tergvinder’s internal life seems to be a mushy, vague, Romantic fog. Or is he himself simply keeping the issue unclear?

The story has already told us the real difficulty, the problem which Tergvinder (in whose point of view we are trapped for those final fifteen sentences) cannot admit to himself: his already strained marriage. The poor man has fallen into the most primitive of psychological self-adjustments identified by Jung, projection. Tergvinder has denied his own personal unhappiness and pushed it onto his physical surroundings. Unwilling or unable to admit to himself the depth of his real problems, he cannot sleep, disturbed by an amorphous, impersonal (“of the planet”) angst. He avoids waking his wife and flees to the living room, where the breathing pain (that “fellow-feeling”) arises again, this time displaced to a void in the darkness. According to Jungian psychology, projected feelings typically expand in emotional depth but blur in definition, becoming vague externalized yearnings, just like Tergvinder’s absence in his living room.

Projecting problems does not resolve real issues. The patient may find pseudo-solutions to the perceived projection, but the real problem remains; and the story reveals exactly this psychological truth. According to the final paragraph, now when Tergvinder walks at night, he finds the stone and the peace he believes he has created in his living room. He knows the size, weight and feel of this peace (the stone itself), and he believes “some hint of that peace touches him too.” But the original problem remains.

Often . . . he steps down into the living room and goes and kneels beside the stone and they converse for hours in silence–a silence broken only by the sound of his own breathing.” Breathing, as Tergvinder confided already, is the sound of pain, of yearning. If the fact he still feels compelled to walk at night is not evidence enough, Tergvinder’s own ideas reveal his unsolved problem: he is still breathing; therefore he is still in pain. Such a view may deny the apparent authority of Tergvinder’s own feelings, but the psychological community has long known the dangers of accepting patients’ self-deceiving rationalizations at face value.

Tergvinder is still in trouble. The marriage is more strained than ever, now that a rock sits in the living room (regardless what it may mean to Tergvinder), and the poor man himself is probably the laughing-stock of the neighborhood, of the English-speaking world once Merwin’s essay was published. Such is the price of ignoring or rejecting one’s real problems and misplacing solutions. The story, when read closely and rationally, provides a clear, if indirect moral about facing our lives.

That Jungian reading is neat, psychologically acceptable, objective, and appropriate to the story itself. However, it just doesn’t feel completely satisfying, even to me. Any interpretation involves creating a mental model of the original work, supported by the interpreter’s own observations, organizing of evidence, personal knowledge and experience. The variables of differing skills and styles of close reading and of background knowledge and life experiences account for variations between interpreters’ views. Exchanging interpretations through discussion and scholarly discourse helps to broaden one’s own and others’ limitations, but any interpretation, even developed over centuries (and the passage of time creates its own complications), remains only a model. Any model can only be a simplification of the original; it must be simplified to allow understanding and cannot avoid being distorted by the interpreter’s personality. Effectively, the original will always elude complete interpretation, even if readings were not influenced by oversights and critical fashions, because any reading must always be somehow less, somehow other than the real work.

In the case of “Tergvinder’s Stone,” my psychological reading elucidates a reason for the emphasis on the protagonist’s continued insomnia and breathing/pain. But a psychological perspective is–no matter how sympathetic or generous in spirit–an external judgement, a public case; and the essay seeks valiantly to validate Tergvinder’s private reality. Admittedly his marriage may be bad; certainly his wife should be part of his whole world and not be left out of the nightly journeys. But what if the husband is not simply projecting his marital woes? What if he truly is, as he believes, awakened by profound if unnameable ancient agonies? What if his own personal problems have deepened his awareness to greater issues? In other words, what are those “ancient nameless ills of the planet”?

To answer the question, we need a clue to follow out of the labyrinth of Tergvinder’s emotion. The essay provides many suggestive indications. Tergvinder selects a stone. His nocturnal angst looks to the whole planet. And the silence of peace is broken by breathing, the final comment in the essay. To construct a model, the interpreter seeks a pattern, an arrangement of themes (of ideas and their expression in the actual words of the text). Our three clues form such a pattern.

Merwin says “stone” as opposed to “rock” in the essay, and “stone” carries connotations infinitely more profound than “rock.” Stones have an aura of importance (jewels are stones, only vulgarly, humorously rocks), even of spirituality (consider Stonehenge, other ancient sacred stones worldwide, or New Agers’ crystals). However, alternatively, stones are cold, not alive; and Tergvinder places the stone of peace in the breathing living room. The low sounds of breathing indicate the dissatisfaction, the pain he locates in the darkness, and his own final breathing reveals his own unresolved woe. The room, at peace, no longer breathes. Tergvinder, alive, breathes yet. His only peace will come when he, like the rock, is dead. So the pattern of the essay suggests.

We are ready to identify those planetary ills that trouble his sleep. Ancient peoples raised stones to worship when they were troubled by the same nameless confusions, and those paradoxes haunted them constantly, in particular every time they sat down to eat. A vital problem does trouble the whole Earth as a planet, yet only the problem itself can contemplate the issue: life, conscious life. To live we must eat, and to eat we must kill. Life feeds on death. For me to breathe, other life repeatedly must die. And the paradox is unresolvable.

Vegetarians may personally avoid slaying other animals, but simple logic reveals that vegetarianism still requires plant foods. The plants themselves may suck nourishment from the soil and air alone, but we are not plants and the plants are life like us. When we die, as Hamlet noted, we decay to minerals and feed the soil to feed the plants. Life is parasitic, and that fact is very unhappy.

However, stating “life needs death” flatly, directly, in public, in writing, is distinctly unsatisfying. The bald statement almost instantly raises imaginary science-fictional specters of solution to the paradox (an all-mineral diet, perhaps) which are ridiculous, mundane. Maybe Tergvinder was right not to name the ancient ills he felt, to keep his awareness and resolution secret, private, personal. Something about the paradox reaches beyond a simple statement, which may be why those ancient peoples worshipped, rather than experimented at eating, stones. Whole aspects of the true problem elude words, doubt practical solutions, question the very nature of life.

In the essay, Tergvinder knows the breathing wants more than a name, “something it had never seen and could not conceive of, but without which it could not rest.” Those words are not revealing the nightwalker’s limited intelligence or imagination but the supramundane depths of his understanding. The woe he felt was not accessible to reasonable treatment, so he discovered an unreasonable solution. Yes, putting a sacred stone in his living room appears crazy, but insanity is a public judgement not a private reality. Tergvinder boldly reached beyond our materialistic proprieties and accepted an other value, a spiritual, religious experience.

And that paradox is vital to Merwin’s art. The public/private conflict shapes the whole essay. Publicly, psychologically, rationally we must judge he is disturbed, but our objective judgement is not his reality. The psychologist’s conclusions are at best just a model, an interpretation, of Tergvinder’s original experience–just as this or any formal reading is not Merwin’s creation. Although shaped like an essay (and that nonfictional appearance is vital, raising the question of such a public revelation of the protagonist’s private experience), “Tergvinder’s Stone” is not a flatly literal exposition (such as this composition) but a complex and delicate work of art. It is figurative and imaginative, extending far beyond the objective scope of an ordinary essay. After all, Mr. Merwin said all that I have stretched to express, far more entertainingly and in one-tenth the words.

Shakespeare made Hamlet advise the players (as if they needed his princely guidance) that art holds the mirror up to nature, and modern artists, seeking new ways to express the reflections, have contorted art’s glass into funhouse configurations of sometimes unreadable difficulty. However, in any era art remains completely more wonderful than exposition, like life itself, and figuratively captures more than plodding literalists can comprehend, reaching fingers of understanding into realms best left for Hamlet himself to identify within the moment of his death. “The rest is silence.”

So, finally, should we follow Tergvinder’s example and embrace the spiritual, the agonized Romantic yearning for that unnameable, inexpressibly paradoxically unworldly Otherness? I don’t know. After all, how good a solution to a spiritual quest is a rock?

Work Cited

Merwin, W. S. “Tergvinder’s Stone.” The Norton Reader: An Anthology of Expository Prose. Fourth Edition. Ed. Arthur M. Eastman and others. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1977. 1128.

Many, many thanks to the Advanced English students whose discussion, arguments and insights—which may even appear, varied and changed, here—provided grist for the mill of this essay (and who made teaching such fun for me for all those years).

I don’t know any way in HTML to get that second line of the bibliography entry to indent five spaces or half an inch (my utmost apologies for that, having criticized students on that issue for generations), so I will just point out that it should indent.

I wish I could include the actual Merwin essay, since it is really good, but I just have to refer those interested to The Norton Reader, 3rd edition. I hope it’s still available at the Maquoketa Public Library, which is where I found it and Merwin’s essay. I also wonder if the then-vegetarian student who inspired the second section recognizes herself…

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.