Losing your surface
‘It’s like anything,’ she said, ‘they all lose their surface eventually.’
Sheila was referring our George Foreman Lean, Mean, Fat-Grilling Machine,
which is now so old and used that the non-stick surface is time-expired, and trying
to get a rasher of bacon off it results in shredding the meat, and barely contained
frustration. Even with so-called ‘thick cut’ bacon. I must get back to curing my
own - then I do get thick cut slices!
Being a creature who enjoys lateral thinking, I began thinking of other possible
interpretations of her phrase. And being a doctor too, I had to start thinking of
parts of our anatomy that ‘lose their surface eventually’.
Teeth, hair, intestine, bone - though the latter one tends to lose its insides before its
outsides - hence, osteoporosis. Then, of course, I started thinking about the
cerebral cortex, and our loss of cognitive power as we age. I am aware that not all
forms of dementia arise as a result of cortical atrophy (= ‘losing the surface’), and
some take origin from deeper in the brain. Nonetheless, the end result is the same,
and the loss of myelin on the axonal sheaths of the nerves allows the nerve cells to
degenerate. Take the skin off your sausage and it will fall apart - same idea.
Suppose, however, that it is not just my ability to count backwards from a hundred
that is lost (I’m not sure I ever had it!), but something more central to my ability to
relate to the world; recognition of familiar faces and names, the knowledge of what
to do with a toothbrush or a pen, how to ask for a cup of coffee?
These would be much more significant ‘losses of the surface.’ Yet we can go
further, and not only lose our sense of identity, but lose our consciousness of the
This does not mean that we are ‘unconscious’ in the medical sense of the word -
we are not asleep or comatose - but our connection with the world and other
people is stretched so thin that the essence of ‘us’ is hidden, almost as though
looking to see who is behind the frosted glass.
Some take refuge in such a state, and deliberately seek out this asylum - for that is
what it is - or so people may think. But an asylum is not always a place of safety
and protection, it can be a place of isolation and loneliness. It is also a place that
some mystics will deliberately seek out, to cut themselves off from the world. Not
healthy. Most psychologists and psychiatrists will tell you that total isolation is not
compatible with sanity in the long term. Take a break, by all means, but ‘no man
is an island’.
Lastly, some people ‘lose their surface’ on purpose, as an excuse for eccentric
behaviour. Jenny Joseph, an English poet who died 5 years ago, wrote a poem she
entitled, ‘Warning.’ I am certain that many of you will know it, but it is worth
‘When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me,
And I shall spend my pension
on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals,
and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I am tired,
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells,
And run my stick along the public railings,
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens,
And learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat,
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go,
Or only bread and pickle for a week,
And hoard pens and pencils and beer mats
and things in boxes.
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry,
And pay our rent and not swear in the street,
And set a good example for the children.
We will have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practise a little now?
So people who know me
are not too shocked and surprised,
When suddenly I am old
and start to wear purple!’
And some vicars just don’t like wearing shoes!