Living Outside The Lines

Color Us Content ~ c. 1950
Apricot. Bittersweet. Burnt Sienna. Cornflower. Maize. Mahogany. Melon.

Those of us who grew up between 1949 and 1957 may remember those colors with special affection. Clear and vibrant as the bits of nature whose names they bear, they are classic Crayola colors: part of the box of forty-eight crayons that became one of my childhood’s greatest treasures.

Before 1958, the year the box containing sixty-four Crayolas was introduced, the forty-eight piece box was the big box: the box you received as a Christmas gift, or for a birthday, or because you’d contracted something like measles that would keep you in bed for a while.

I received my first big box of crayons for Christmas, with some coloring books thrown in for good measure. A photograph from that year shows me in pajamas and robe, my coloring book canvas spread before me and my father at my side. Our routine — I colored, he watched — continued for several years. He rarely offered advice, preferring instead to comment about my choice of colors, or the stories I made up as I worked.

My mother’s concerns were somewhat different. Each time I settled in to color, I’d hear her gentle, cautionary advice: “Be sure to stay inside the lines.”

Her advice was well-meant, and especially appropriate in my case. Coloring-book novices often stray, smudge, and straggle their way across the pages, but I seemed particularly unable to keep things tidy. My mother worked with me, as did my grandmother. Even a neighbor or two tried a little artistic coaching. Wanting to please, I did my best to keep my apricot, corn flower, and maize inside those little black lines. But every now and then, when no one was looking, I’d sneak a piece of typing paper and just draw.  

Eventually, coloring books were set aside for bigger and better art projects: a squirrel carved from ivory soap; a ghastly papier-mâché puppet with bright yellow hair and a calico dress; a Japanese lady wearing a kimono sketched onto a piece of wood.  I learned to cut paper snowflakes, sent coiled clay vases and ashtrays to the kiln, and once created a presentable corn field with tempera paints. 

But always there was a mold, a form, a pattern to guide my artistic efforts, and standards by which to judge. A “good” squirrel was properly proportioned, snowflakes were symmetrical, and corn fields were meant to look like corn, not fence posts. If I was going to produce art, it seemed I needed to learn the rules.

There were rules to spare. In 8th grade, I was taught that real poetry always rhymes.  Not long after, I learned that real music has no dissonance, and good art always is representational. Even though my coloring books had been set aside, the importance of remaining within the lines remained unquestioned.

Later in life, the consequences of not being able to  control my metaphorical crayons became more serious. My first full-time job, as a customer service representative for Southwestern Bell in Kansas City, involved taking calls from people wanting to connect, disconnect, or change their telephone service. In those days before computers, the information we obtained — names, addresses, employers — was transcribed by hand onto forms resembling graph paper. Each letter or numeral was to be placed precisely within its own 1/4″ square, with no smudges or stray lines straggling across the paper. 

At the end of a six week probationary period, several of us were advised to seek employment “where our talents might find a better fit.” The nicely-phrased suggestion avoided stating the obvious: idiots who couldn’t stay within the lines had no place in the world of Ma Bell.

After the firing, my relief knew no bounds. I’d hated the work, and every day had been a misery.  Despite understanding company guidelines and wanting to do things properly, I seemed incapable of doing so. When friends asked, “Why not do it their way?” I had no good answer, although it did occur to me that the wisdom of my mother’s advice during my coloring-book days had been confirmed. Stay within the lines, and you’ll be fine. Get distracted, lose focus, grow restless or bored, and your days are numbered. 

For the next few years, I did my best to keep within the lines. But by 1975, I was in London on holiday, and ready to hear what the Heptones had to say on the matter.

A reggae band from Jamaica, the Heptones recorded their hit single, “Book of Rules,” in 1973. Part of a musical wave overtaking London at the time, the song appealed as much to Bob Weir — guitarist, lyricist and founding member of the Grateful Dead — as it did to me. Weir told David Gans in 1981 how he came to record the song:

It had been one of my favorite reggae cuts for the last few years.   I finally found the record and copped the tune and recorded it.  Then a few weeks ago, after the record had been pressed up and everything was happening, a friend of Barlow’s found a compilation of verse, a collection of poems from the turn of the century to about 1930.

The poem within the collection that caught Weir’s attention was “A Bag of Tools,” written by R.L. Sharpe (1870-1950).  It was included by Hazel Felleman in her 1936 volume, Best Loved Poems of the American People.

A Bag of Tools

Isn’t it strange how princes and kings,
and clowns that caper in sawdust rings,
and common people like you and me
are builders for eternity?

Each is given a list of rules;
a shapeless mass; a bag of tools.
And each must fashion, ere life is flown,
A stumbling block, or a stepping-stone.

By the time the Heptones’ Barry Llewellyn and Harry Johnson finished setting Sharpe’s words to music, the lyrics had changed a bit, but the reggae flavor of the newly titled “Book of Rules” was memorable.


The Heptones’ “Book Of Rules”

Isn’t it strange how princesses and kings
In clown-ragged capers in a sawdust ring,
Just like common people like you and me
Will be builders for eternity.
Each is given a bag of tools,
Shapeless mass and the book of rules.

And each must make in life his flowing in
Stumbling block ** or a stepping stone,
Just like common people like you and me
We’ll be builders for eternity
Each is given a bag of tools,
Shapeless mass and the book of rules.

I say it’s common people like you and me
We’ll be builders for eternity
Each is given a bag of tools,
Shapeless mass and the book of rules.

Look when the rain is falling from the sky
I know the sun will be only missing for a while
I say it’s common people like you and me
We’ll be builders for eternity
Each is given a bag of tools,
Shapeless mass and the book of rules. 

In the Heptones’ lyrics, as in Sharpe’s poem, the shapeless mass, the indeterminate tools, and the mysteriously veiled rules appear both ambiguous and compelling. The only certainty seems to be that our final creation — steppingstone, stumbling block, or surprising alternative — will depend upon which tools we choose, and which rules we choose to follow.

Letting go of predetermined forms and patterns isn’t easy.  Without obvious lines to guide us, the need for decision, discipline, and structure increases exponentially.  The blank canvas, the silent practice room, or the empty page can induce paralysis as easily as a decision to move outside commonly accepted life-limits induces vertigo.

But that strange combination of joy and terror lies at the very heart of the creative process. As we confront the shapeless mass of our personal vision, in life or in art, we’d do well to look into our bag, and open our book. It may be that the tools and the rules with which we’ve been supplied differ considerably from those received by others.

After all, Sharpe never said there was only a hammer in the bag, and the Heptones never suggested that one rule fits all.

Comments always are welcome.
**In “Book of Rules,” the phrase “stumbling block” sounds like “tumbling black” in Jamaican patois.

 

Seeing With A Grateful Eye

Flower Garden and Bungalow, Bermuda ~ Winslow Homer (1899)

Years before I encountered my first palm tree — decades before I dove into the watery azure, lapis, and turquoise ribbons connecting tiny and often unnamed Caribbean islands — I lingered in shadows of tangled bougainvillea and tumbling poinciana: a world of tropical dreams limned by Winslow Homer’s art.

One of America’s premier watercolorists, Homer moved from New York to Prout’s Neck, Maine in the summer of 1883. While his love of the New England coastline is obvious from his paintings, he often vacationed in Florida, Bermuda and the Caribbean. His unique vision of the islands, combined with mastery of his medium, resulted in exquisite renderings of sun-drenched homes, synchronized palms, and great, vivid falls of blossoms that seem to scent even the printed page. Continue reading

Remembering Ismael

Becoming a varnish worker isn’t difficult. With a vehicle to serve as a combined company headquarters, warehouse, and service fleet, about $200 to invest in sandpaper, varnish, and brushes, and a wardrobe of stylish, second-hand tees, you could start today.

Things will go even more smoothly if you already possess some important personal qualities: infinite patience, a tolerance for frustration, and a sense of humor. The humor’s especially important. It helps to keep things in perspective when fresh varnish is ruined by fog, pollen, wind, rain,  insects, or The Yard Crew From Hell: that charming band of brothers given to revving up their leaf blowers just as you’re putting away your brush.  Continue reading

As For the Front of the Fridge…


The Poem on the Fridge
Paul Hostovsky

The refrigerator is the highest honor
a poem can aspire to. The ultimate
publication. As close to food as words
can come. And this refrigerator poem
is honored to be here beneath its own
refrigerator magnet, which feels like a medal
pinned to its lapel. Stop here a moment
and listen to the poem humming to itself,
like a refrigerator itself, the song in its head
full of crisp, perishable notes that wither in air,
the words to the song lined up here like
a dispensary full of indispensable details:
a jar of corrugated green pickles, an array
of headless shrimp, fiery maraschino cherries,
a fruit salad, veggie platter, assortments of
cheeses and chilled French wines, a pink
bottle of amoxicillin: the poem is infectious.
It’s having a party. The music, the revelry,
is seeping through this white door.

Comments always are welcome.
For more information on poet Paul Hostovsky, please click HERE. 
For Allan Burns’s “Refrigerator Haiku,”  more illustrations by his wife Theresa, whose cover art is shown above, and information about the Haiku Foundation,  please click HERE.

Einstein’s Slippers

I couldn’t help laughing when I saw the photo. Helmeted and harnessed for the occasion, a friend’s sister had thrown English caution to the winds and was celebrating a local festival by zip-lining past the village church.

What caught my attention and made me laugh wasn’t so much the pair of lines stretching down from the steeple, or the absurdity of what seemed to be less-than-hefty pulleys. It was the woman’s footwear — ankle boots, with high heels.

Questioned about her sister’s decision to combine high heels and zip lines, my friend explained that her sister is shorter than many women, and wears heels everywhere. “In fact,” she said, “she may even have heels on her bedroom slippers.”
Continue reading

The Tale of Godot & Godette

Readers know the truth. Closing the cover on a well-told tale is one of the most satisfying experiences in the world. 

Breathing a sigh, caught between worlds, still oblivious to the clamor of unmade beds and untended gardens vying for their attention, readers linger at the threshhold of half-remembered lives, hesitant to turn from the vibrant, constructed world they entered with such anticipation, happy to have discovered all the pleasures of diversion, insight and beauty it once allowed.

Still, as I set aside the story of Godot, my self-effacing little cactus with the extravagant blossoms, I was content. The history of his rescue, the drama of his against-all-odds determination to bloom and the glory of his flowering had been recounted, and it was time to move on.

From all appearances, Godot was equally satisfied. As his blossoms faded and fell, he didn’t fuss or complain but re-dedicated himself to growing quietly in his corner. Life went on, as life does, and all was at peace on the porch. Continue reading

Kaleidoscope Minds

Snow-envy is easy when you’re not the one shoveling a path through five-foot drifts or having to thaw door locks on a car.

Even so, when the photos arrive, sent along by friends determined to gloat or complain about their shimmering worlds, I’m surprised by how quickly I become transfixed. Glinting in the sunlight, piled high along fenceposts and streets, whorled into intricate, complex patterns against window and shed, the still-pristine drifts of freshly-fallen snow dazzle my eyes and my imagination. Always, they make me envious.

My envy is partly nostalgia, the remembered pleasure of snow angels and sledding. But snow also stirs to life a favorite fantasy – the possibility that life might be willing to grant us, if only occasionally, a perfectly clean slate. By reducing the physical world to the twin realities of sunlight and shadow, snow creates an illusion of  purity and simplicity, tempting us to imagine a human world equally free of complication and regrets. Watching snow cover the remains of desiccated autumn with a blanket of perfection, it’s easy to imagine life’s disappointment, pain, conflict and loss blanketed with similar layers of beauty and peace. Continue reading