in praise of pockets

I’ve been told by several friends that this particular rant of mine is getting tedious and I should drop it, so consider this post a kind of purging.  I promise not to bring it up again.  Unless you do first.

When we first started buying clothes for our daughter, Eliot– she’s four now– I noticed that many of them lacked pockets.  I don’t think our eight year old son, Anselm, has ever owned pocketless clothes.  (If anything, it’s challenging to find boy shorts that don’t subscribe to the eight-pocket “cargo pant cult”.)  I assume this is because toddler fashion is designed to prepare the subject psychologically and ethically for adult fashion, which if you’re a girl means avoiding at all costs adding padding to the hips, waist or arse.  (Patent idea: breast-shaped wallet?)  Of course if you’re a boy, functionality trumps style.

But why is this important? Let’s begin with the role of pockets in childhood.  Downloading Tom Sawyer from Project Gutenberg and doing a search for “pocket” turns up quite a few references, like:

The new boy took two broad coppers out of his pocket and held them out with derision.

[…] so he returned his straitened means to his pocket, and gave up the idea of trying to buy the boys.

His hand wandered into his pocket and his face lit up with a glow of gratitude that was prayer, though he did not know it.  Then furtively the percussion-cap box came out.

[…] he took another marble from his pocket and tossed it in the same way.

He picked up a clean pine shingle that lay in the moonlight, took a little fragment of “red keel” out of his pocket, got the moon on his work, and painfully scrawled these lines […]

He put his hand on his jacket pocket, found his piece of bark safe, and then struck through the woods […]

She knew that Tom had a whole candle and three or four pieces in his pockets– yet he must economize.

Tom took something out of his pocket.  “Do you remember this?” said he.  Becky almost smiled.  “It’s our wedding-cake, Tom.”

He took a kite-line from his pocket, tied it to a projection, and he and Becky started, Tom in the lead, unwinding the line as he groped along.

“A glow of gratitude that was prayer” is strong praise indeed for a square of fabric sewn into pants or a jacket on three sides.  The pocket might be the oldest form of personal augmentation, a simple and powerful way of extending your capacity as a human.  It’s the “gather” part of “hunter-gatherer”.  It’s cut-and-paste for the physical world.  You take a small piece of the environment, store it, and retrieve it sometime later in a new context, where it might take on a different meaning or satisfy a need, foreseen or unforeseen.

When I’m turning Anselm’s pants rightside-out I find stones, seeds, bark, scraps of paper, and so on, pretty much like what Tom would have kept in his pockets at eight.  As a boy grows, his pocket inventory acquires greater potency– candles, string, coppers.  Driver’s licenses, keys, credit cards, phones.  If you happen to be male, imagine for a moment living with none of these powerups on your person.  Imagine instead needing to carry them around in a decorative bag, if you carry them at all.  You leave the bag lying here or there, hanging on the back of the chair, in a coat-check room, under a bar stool, and if you’re human you forget it sometimes.  That’s okay, you’re not expected to pay, or drive the car, or open the front door.  Really, you shouldn’t be in the bar at all, unescorted.  See what I mean?

Grandma helps Eliot stuff a horse into her pocket before going out.


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