Friday, December 19, 2008

In Praise of Stripes


To the extent that the world is striped it is a happy place.

I call your attention to the following: awnings, beach umbrellas, cabana huts along the Riviera, gondolier's shirts, straw hats, tigers and zebras, barber poles, candy canes and silk pajamas, breton sweaters, skunk and raccoon tails, flags and bunting, bumble bees, circus tents, popcorn vending machines, racing cars, towels and ties, frogs and fish, Edwardian swimming costumes . . . 

Among striped objects it is possible to find things sad or ugly, but unlikely. Prisoners uniforms come to mind, as do guard houses and crossing gates. There is something admonishing or even of a warning nature in stripes, potentially, something that cautions, warns, shouts and screams. Why do prisoners wear stripes? Do the horizontal bands counterman the vertical bars? Is there some rhyme or reason there? Or are (were, for the custom has passed) a prisoner's stripes a mere attempt to inject some gaiety, charm and wit into their otherwise gray, dreary days? In which case why black and white stripes; why not red and yellow?

But I refuse to see stripes in a negative light. Stripes have always been my friends. Even the stripes on the American flag can arouse the patriot in me. 

I wrote a story once about stripes, about a boy searching for red and gray wide-striped pajamas like the ones his dead father used to wear. I wrote it fifteen years ago, or so. Just recently my brother shipped me a package for Christmas. I couldn't wait and tore it open. Inside, a lovely pair of English pajamas: pure silk, with red, gray and blue stripes. I put them on straightaway. They felt so soft. Silky. Silkier still for being striped, the vertical lines of color slithering cool over my flesh like bright tandem snakes.

Stripes were meant to be gay. Imagine the gay nineties without stripes! They embody the spirit of summer and celebration, of endless days soaked in sunlight, of shady awnings and umbrellas angled against blazing days. Sailors adorn their gray ships with striped uniforms; the blue and white stripes meant to symbolize, probably, the sea—but also to add a note of cheer between bouts of warfare and seasickness.

The gondolier's striped shirt is emblematic of his masculinity: he can get away with it, so he does. His cousin the pizza vendor also wears stripes, thinner ones of red to go with the pizza sauce. Butchers, too, wore stripes once upon a time, likewise red, though in their case the red stood for blood. But in all cases a note of joy is attached to servitude.

With pajamas, too, the case is such: for just as the gondolier is a prisoner of his gondola, and the pizza man must whirl his pies, and the butcher must wrestle with bone and gristle, and the prisoner serves time, the pajama wearer is a servant of sleep. 

Even awnings and umbrellas serve: so you see the bottom line as it pertains to stripes: joyful obedience. Any wonder a sergeant earns his stripes? Or that a tiger doesn't change his?

I say that a joyful obedience is all we can ask of life. It is what the religious prophets called for and what anyone who has lost his— or herself in servitude to a higher cause will claim as the source of bliss. As a writer, as an artist, I have known such blissful surrender, such gay and happy imprisonment. I have known the pain and pleasure of artistic discipline, the forces of creativity arranged in bright, regimented rows: inspiration, talent, craft, labor. 

Stripes are nothing if not enterprising.

So I invest in striped sheets, striped socks (I have two dozen pair), striped sweaters and shirts, striped tea and coffee mugs, striped bed sheets, towels, upholstery and linens. Color my world striped. Whatever happened to Stripe toothpaste? 

Civilization  should be striped: that is, it should be brightly disciplined, colorfully tame, cheerfully regimented. 

Like Tommy Steele's blazers in Half a Sixpense. 

1 comment:

Jung Hae said...

blissful surrender...very nice!