There is an old joke about a man who went to the barber’s shop for a hair cut. You can tell it is an old story because today the barber’s shop would be called The Unisex Hair Stylist Centre. The gentleman in question, as the saying has it, was now well passed the first flush of youth; his locks had thinned, leaving uncovered areas of scalp unadorned with curls. The hair that remained was trimmed to the customer’s satisfaction, but when the bill was presented the old man requested that it be reduced, on the grounds that much less work was required to cut his locks compared with trimming a full head of hair. The barber-come-hairdresser replied to the effect that the bill was made up of two items, a reduced fee for cutting but also, in his case, it was necessary to add a fee for time spent searching for the hairs, which brought the figure up to the normal hair-cutting charge.
I was reminded of this story when I visited the dentist a few days ago. Little work was required on the few teeth of my own still present, but the fee wasn’t reduced. I assume my dentist also charged a search fee.
As I am wont to do, I allowed my mind to travel down side roads of the mind, one thought tenuously attached to the next.
Many activities give rise to sayings that are then woven into everyday life and give colour to our conversations. The sea and sailing are a source of many. For example, which of us does not from time to time sail close to the wind, though I trust we are seldom, if ever, three sheets in the wind. There are times when we sail merrily along with a good following wind; on other occasions we need to batten down the hatches. Landlubbers we may be, but we use the language of the seafarer as we voyage through life, anchoring in a safe haven from time to time.
Along with images derived from the sea, I mused that teeth also play a part in enriching the language. One or two of us present are getting long in the tooth as gums recede. Like gift horses, our mouths should not be examined too closely. We like to think age equates with wisdom and sound judgement; maybe it does, but don’t bank on it, for it is said that there is no fool like an old fool. However, if wisdom doesn’t automatically come with age, a greater appreciation of our own weaknesses does.
Still on the theme of teeth, one of their central functions is they enable us to chew. Children were once instructed (perhaps they still are) to chew carefully before swallowing. If you gulp your food before thoroughly masticating it all sorts of unpleasant consequences could follow, from indigestion to other unmentionable symptoms, so adults once warned the young. As we get longer in the tooth, we are more inclined to chew things over when a proposition comes before us, rather than swallow it whole without testing its flavour.
It is a truism that modern life assails us most hours of the day with new information, attractive propositions, a splendid idea for tackling an old problem, a must-have new piece of equipment, or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity not to be missed. The need to chew before gulping down was never greater, the unpleasant consequence following a hasty swallowing, more likely.
Just to take one example. It is reported that the number of people in serious debt has grown greatly over the last few years. In a few cases this is through misfortune, accident or ill health. In many other cases it is surely the result of failing to chew things over before ingesting the advertising blurb, the seductive sales talk or the alluring brochure. Look before you leap, chew before you swallow, is wiser counsel than buy now, pay later.
Just as chewing adds enjoyment to eating, so reflection is an enriching activity. “Taste and see that the Lord is good”, the psalmist sings. Chewing things over makes foolish errors less likely. Reflecting upon, say, the meaning of a poem, a portrayal by an artist, the harmonies within a great piece of music, the beauty of a landscape or seascape, gives added meaning to life. Chewing over can be much more than delaying a decision. The exercise enables us to stop, taste and see what a hasty gobbler up would let pass unnoticed. The full flavour of life comes out in the chewing.
I think of teeth as tools, and like many tools they can be used for a variety of purposes, good or ill. The screwdriver is a most useful tool. As well as unscrewing things and fastening them up again, they can be used to prise off a lid, clear a blocked plughole, wedge a door open, scrape paint off the floor after careless decorating, and do a host of other essential tasks. With horror, I read the other day a man had been stabbed and badly injured when attacked by a thug wielding a screwdriver.
I have admired the skill of the joiner using a saw, I heard a musician with the aid of a violin bow play a tune on a saw. Alternatively Dr. Crippen is said to have murdered his wife before dismembering her with a saw. Tools need to be used with love not malice if they are to be a benison and not a cruel weapon. It behoves the workman to create rather than destroy when handling the tool.
Let us return to the subject of teeth. Teeth serve other purposes besides chewing. They can be bared to show in a snarl, they can bite and wound, they can snap in rage. Like all tools, we should not choose that they become weapons. We may show our teeth in a snarl, or they can become an element in a smile. Let’s be careful not to bite off more than we can chew, and not to hurt or maim others.
But enough of teeth. The analogies are becoming strained, the imagery boring. It is time to stop meandering down the by-roads and get back to what I intended to be my theme.
Life is lived at hectic speed because we choose to let be so. We can’t go back to the slow pace of years ago, and I’m not at all certain that even scenes viewed through rosy glasses of nostalgia tempt me to want to do so. What we can do is slow things down a little, to stand and stare from time to time, to enjoy today and not be so desperate to see tomorrow’s dawn.
The Sundays of our youth will not return, as shops open every day. Family car journeys are undertaken to places of amusement or to visit friends and relations on the seventh day of the week. Football matches are no longer restricted to Saturday afternoon and the odd evening. To be perfectly truthful the old Sundays could be dull and boring at times, even if we pretend they were all idyllic. There was however one great merit about the old-fashioned Sunday.
It was a day of the week that was different for it gave us chewing time. Sorry, I said I had moved on from teeth, so I’ll re-phrase that to “reflecting time”. True, we don’t need a special day on which to sit back and think for a while; we can do it anytime if we choose. But in this hectic world of ours, we make the choice to do so reluctantly, spasmodically, if at all. Regarding a day as special did give an incentive to sit down quietly for a time. Some might use the term meditating time, some praying time, wondering time as alternative terms for chewing or reflecting time.
The tastes and flavours of life, I’m sorry I just can’t seem to get away from teeth, come out as we chew ideas and memories slowly, to be relished and savoured. The church or chapel, a worshipping place be it cathedral or mission room, can be thought of as an eating-place, where the victuals are food for thought. Sometimes we are fed with ideas, sometimes we bring our own sandwiches, and quite often we combine the two. Rather like those restaurants where they say you can bring your own wine to accompany the provided meal.
In the neighbouring town of my youth stood the PSA Hall, PSA standing for Pleasant Sunday Afternoons. I suppose it was a kind of non-sectarian adult Sunday school. Though I never went there, it was a place where lectures were given, amateur musicians gathered, there were poetry readings and I think, painting classes. Though many of those who were members might say they were not religious people, non-believers even, they paused from a mundane working life for an afternoon to taste and see that music and literature provided a flavoursome dish, rich and satisfying. For a while those attending could see beyond the ordinary common events of their lives to think, as the walrus said, of other things.
Worship contains many elements, singing together, a lecture by the preacher, literary readings and much else. But not least in importance in my opinion is the time to get one’s teeth into the fare provided, or open the pre-packed hamper we bring with us, to sample flavours and one trusts, avoid indigestion.
I had better stop at that, this tooth reference is becoming an obsession. Thank goodness it’s another six month’s before the next dental check-up.
Chris Rosling March 2007
Hucklow 4 March 2007