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 Texas : Features : Humor : Column - "A Balloon In Cactus"

The Art of Barbering

by Maggie Van Ostrand
Maggie Van Ostrand
Men are lucky. When they get older, they can just cover up those telltale wrinkles around their mouth with a mustache and beard. The only time women are that lucky is if they're Arab and can wear a burqua, revealing only their eyeballs and, even then, they're behind little mesh squares. You can call them laugh lines if you want to, but I call them wrinkles, and I could use a burqua right now. But this isn't about wrinkles, burquas, or even about beards. It's about tonsorial abilities, or, The Art of Barbering.

The very word barber comes from the Latin word barba (beard), and, way back in time, even before Congress started dithering over health care, barbers were medicine men and priests because people were so superstitious, they believed that bad spirits entered the body through the hair and could only be evicted by cutting the hair off. The barber was the most important man in the tribe, though people with foresight tied back their long hair so the evil spirits could not get in in the first place.

The greatest nations in the history of mankind have all been extremely conscious of their hair. Way back when Egypt was the way we see it in movies like Cleopatra, Egyptians were very picky about their hair and were shaved with a razor -- remnants of actual razors have been found which probably did not belong to Elizabeth Taylor. Egyptian priests were de-haired every three days. Greek barbers had an important place in society since the 5th Century B.C. The Greeks were so fastidious about facial hair that one prominent Greek politician was defeated by an opponent who had a neater beard. The Romans had barbers since 296 B.C, when Ticinius Mena came from Sicily, bringing with him the art of shaving. (The only Italian barber I ever knew myself was Perry Como.) Free men were set apart from the slaves by the absence of beards. The art of shaving had military strategy benefits as well. Here's an example: The Persians defeated the Army of Alexander the Great because Macedonians then had beards, which the Persians could grab and pull their enemies down off their horses in order to stick a spear into them. Later, Alexander ordered his troops to be shaved so their enemies could not use the same tactics again. Someone should tell this to Brad Pitt so maybe he'll shave off that pitiful scraggly beard he's been sporting lately.

The barber pole itself has been around since the Middle Ages when barbers practiced bloodletting, leeching, surgery, and tooth extractions. They even gave enemas, proving that this occurred even before the invention of ExLax. For bloodletting, patients would hang onto a heavy rod for dear life in a grasp so tight, their veins would pop up and the barbers would cut them open and let them bleed them until the patient fainted. Later, the use of leeches, allowing for more controlled bleeding, came into popular use with a leech stuck directly onto the exposed vein. I suppose we could consider a leech a cousin of the original Dracula.

The actual pole came into being when, after surgery, bandages were washed and hung on a wooden pole to dry. As they were whipped around the pole by the wind, they formed a spiral, which began the barber pole tradition. The red stripe was added to indicate a surgeon, and a blue stripe was added to indicate a barber. Since the population back then was largely illiterate, the barber pole could be "read" without the use of words. The familiar ball we see atop the barber poles today was once a leech pan to catch the flow of blood. The singers we see whipping around the pole today are called a barbershop quartet.

These days, I'm all for a man's ability to hide the signs of age by growing hair over them, unless of course you're the ghost of Yul Brynner and then all bets are off.

Copyright Maggie Van Ostrand
"A Balloon In Cactus"
January 21, 2010 column

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