The Ninth Best Email We Wrote This Past Weekend
The Ninth Best Email We Wrote This Past Weekend: HMM WEEKLY PREMIUM
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LAST WEEK ON HMM DAILY
Athleisure! The great Jia Tolentino wrote a likewise great and frighteningly elastic article about the sportswear company Outdoor Voices for the New Yorker magazine, in the Style Issue, which maybe more issues of the New Yorker magazine issue should be. But on the way into the delightful journey with Tolentino through the horrors of the collapse of selfhood via consumerized self-actualization, one New Yorker-ism stopped me dead:
The store was packed with shoppers who radiated the energy of recently hatched New Year’s resolutions. A knot of guys in eighties-style Windbreakers sat on a pouf and contemplated fleeces.
Look, performative fussiness is part of the charm of the New Yorker magazine, and if you want to spell "80s" in letters with a lowercase E, great, but what was that capital W doing on the windbreakers? This is a usage that has been infuriating me for more than 20 years now, since the first time I incredulously spotted it in a dictionary. It's like "Dumpster" or "Styrofoam," which are both also wrong, but it's even worse.
The premise is that the word "windbreaker" originates from—and remains under the semantic control of—the Windbreaker® garment produced by the John Rissman & Son Company in the 1940s. As someone who was wearing windbreakers in the, um, eighties, I can testify that I did not have the slightest awareness that John Rissman & Son had ever existed. A windbreaker was a lightweight jacket, so named because it stopped the wind. If anyone's windbreaker had a brand, it was Members Only®.
It is not a publication's job to help the holders or would-be holders of intellectual property to fence off their claims from the linguistic commons. Xerox and Kleenex may have lawyered up to successfully fight off genericization, but dumpster is a dumpster.
A Windbreaker®, meanwhile, according to the United States Patent and Trademark Office's Trademark Electronic Search System, could be a shower curtain or a shower-curtain liner; a cover or dust cover for microphones, mixing consoles, or cameras; or (as "CVC Windbreaker®") an "Adjuvant for use with agricultural chemicals." Those are the only live listings for "Windbreaker" trademarks in the system.
John Rissman & Son's 1948 trademark for Windbreaker® "jackets, coats, blouses, and shirts for men, women, boys, and girls, made of any kind of material excepting leather" has expired. The reason it says "excepting leather" is that it wasn't even the first Windbreaker® clothing. In 1926, the Windbreaker® name was registered for "clothing made of leather—namely coats, and vests," in a filing held by Guiterman Bros., Inc., of St. Paul, Minnesota. That trademark has also expired.
What this means—and this ought to be the key fact, even for diehard pedants—is not only that no one owns "windbreaker" as a term for lightweight jackets, but that writing it as "Windbreaker" is factually inaccurate. I got stuck in an argument with a copy editor once about their desire to use an uppercase S where I'd written about a towering load of scrap styrofoam being carried on the back of a cargo tricycle in Beijing. I had no way of knowing whether the white polystyrene foam on the cargo tricycle was Dow Chemical's Styrofoam®-brand polystyrene, and to capitalize the S would have been to make a factual representation I could not support. (In fact, Wikipedia points to Dow Chemical's archived explanation that actual Styrofoam® is an insulation material for building, and is officially blue.)
Whatever kind of light jackets the people in the store were wearing, they were not Windbreakers. There is no such thing as a Windbreaker jacket anymore. There are only windbreakers.
There aren't that many things I'm truly at loggerheads with my kids about. I want the younger one to stop ringing the doorbell when I'm getting my key out to let us in. The older one procrastinates so badly it eats up other people's time on top of his own. But the worst conflict probably is slimy toys. This is at least 95 percent with the younger one, the second-grader.
I had Silly Putty when I was a child, and maybe occasional other gloppy things, but only in limited quantities and at limited times. Somehow, in the intervening decades, slime and slime-putty and oily rubber doodads were deemed not just fun but inalienably fun, some indisputable entitlement of childhood. The second-grade teacher sends the younger one home with little plastic tubs of wet, sparkling green putty as a reward to the students for their good behavior. I dig green putty-clots out of the rug and tell the kid I never want to see that crap again.
It's not that the stuff is ewwwwww gross; I don't care if it looks like giant boogers—have fun with the giant boogers. In principle. In practice, all this stuff is filthy. The slime toys pick up grime and sweat out grease or soap or unknown substances, leaving a trail behind them wherever they go.
So the younger kid had a squishy length of orange rubber with a squishy orange rubber hand molded onto the end of it, so you could smack it up against something and make it stick there. Who knows where it came from? A vending machine, a goody bag from someone's birthday party, the cash-out window at Chuck E. Cheese. Nobody really wants these things. Nobody seeks them out. They are pre-disposable, cranked out in some poisonous industrial zone where poor people burn their lungs making utterly useless crap, and then shipped off to enter into general and unexamined circulation.
I was only sort of aware he even had it, substantially less than half-aware. There was just something flopping and smacking around in my peripheral vision. I didn't really notice it until the next day, when I looked up and saw the hand stuck to the wall, above the piano, about neck high. I peeled it away and some of the greasy orange essence of it stayed behind. A lot of greasy orange essence. It left a looping squiggle on the paint: a precise print of the rubber cord, in orange dye, with a blurry gray oily penumbra spreading out from it.
I showed the younger boy the mess on the wall and told him we were throwing the thing away. It was no great loss to him; it hadn't been any great gain in the first place. I wiped down the wall with this and that, to no effect. The hand went into the wastebasket. The greasy squiggle will stay there until we move out.
NINETEEN FOLKTALES: A SERIES
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]
9. The Counselors and the Persimmons
A king's chief counselor was aged and ill, and he asked to be released from service. The king had two young counselors in the provinces he held in high regard, but he did not know how to choose between them. "Command each to send you a fruit," the old counselor advised, and then he took his leave.
The first of the counselors sent a messenger to the palace bearing a silver plate on which lay a ripe peach, soft and luminously white, its perfume floating before it. The king took a bite of it: sweet juice spilled forth from the yielding flesh. "This is a perfect fruit," he said, and devoured it all, wiping his mouth on a silken handkerchief.
The second counselor sent a plain little basket. Inside was a persimmon, firm and oblong, its skin a smooth shiny flame-orange. The king bit into it and a chalky astringency seized his tongue. Coughing with fury and surprise, he spat it out. His face was purple. "I shall send a troop of soldiers to arrest the wretch at once!" he snarled, when he could speak again.
But the queen, who was of sensible temperament, stayed his hand before he could ring the bell and issue the order. "Wait a few weeks," she said. "And send for another fruit."
The king was unhappy, but he agreed. When the appointed time came, a messenger from the first counselor arrived with a golden dish, in which rested a spectacularly large, plump fig. The skin was velvety and midnight-colored, and it split open at the gentlest touch of the royal incisors, yielding a honeyed interior. "Again, a delight," sighed the king.
The second counselor's messenger brought another little basket. When the king opened it, he saw fiery orange again: a persimmon identical to the first. A matching hot color spread across his vision. "What is the meaning of this?" he shouted, and he flung the fruit against the wall untouched.
But the queen picked it up where it had bounced, and again prevailed on the king to settle his temper. "Wait again," she told him. "And then put the matter to the counselors once more."
Grumbling, the king acquiesced. The appointed time came, and the messenger of the first counselor appeared before the throne. The plate this time was of platinum, and on it was a single golden pear, musky and succulent. The king ate it with satisfaction.
The second messenger arrived, with yet another basket. Inside was a third bright persimmon, indistinguishable from the first two. The king leaped to his feet and laid a hand on his sword. "Bring me the impudent fool!" he cried. "Bring him in irons!"
The queen stepped in front of him. "Why would you fetter your chief counselor?" she asked.
In the queen's hand was a small dish, and in the dish was a crumpled black bag, with dirty orange patches on it. "Your majesty," she said. "Here is the last fruit that was sent you." With a little spoon of horn, she pierced the sunken and darkened skin of the persimmon, for persimmon it was. She scooped out a bit of the inside, a deep amber jam, and offered it to her husband.
The king tried the spoon. A flavor spread over his tongue: sweeter than the peach, richer than the fig, more lush and musky than the pear. In it it seemed he could taste tea, and autumn smoke of the forest edge, and the rich fertile soil of the hills. An image of his kingdom, fields and woods and towns, impressed itself on his mind.
"It is sweeter for having been bruised," said the queen.
She spooned out a second bite of the persimmon. "The first counselor sent whatever was ripe and pleasing," the queen said. "And thus will his counsel be. Ask him for another peach now, as we settle into autumn, and see what he can do."
The newer persimmon, she set on the windowsill. "The time for this one will come," she said. "Thus the second counselor held constant, whether you were disposed to receive his gift or not. Not every fruit within your grasp is ripe yet, nor could it be. Nor will the counsel that you need be always sweet to your ears."
And so the king left the first counselor in the provinces, and brought the second to the palace, where his wisdom served the kingdom throughout the king's reign.
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