Bill Vernon served in the United States Marine Corps, studied English literature, then taught it. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folkdances, including many old and new Romanian dances. His poems, stories and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, and Five Star Mysteries published his novel OLD TOWN in 2005.
EXFOLIATING by Bill Vernon
Prices are about all that I check in the shampoo section of Krogers. A chemistry professor where I taught once told me all shampoos come from a basic formula, one that he employed, in fact, to sell hundreds of gallons of his concoction to soap manufacturers (a nice money-making sideline, which I, a science-challenged writing instructor, of course envied).
So I assume equality in this array of shampoo containers. Though each might smell and look different because of additives, any will produce thick suds sufficient to clean grimy hair. My discerning eyes center only on container size and cost. Two minutes of consideration at most to choose the most cost-effective, then I'm "off forth on swing," looking for bread.
Hours later, in a comforting shower of water, which seems to be God's natural cleanser, I open today's shampoo choice, and despite steam and flowing liquid, a new lurid claim, EXFOLIATING SOLUTION, glares at me from the pleasantly shaped and colored plastic bottle.
An innovative marketing ploy. Those business guys will try anything to make a buck, but I'm onto their tricks and unmoved. Exfoliating or not, the contents' slippery goop, with some finger massaging, foams up and does its job.
Rinsing off though, I realize that the product's boast, that phrase, especially the word exfoliating, has lodged in my mind the way Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Windhover" glided years before into my younger thoughts on the "rolling level underneath him steady air."
The word bugs me. A mental search recovers defoliation from the Vietnam War years. Agent orange. Dioxins. That brings back images of green jungles turned yellow and dead. It leads me off into the effects the poison had on our troops and the native population. I remember pictures of malformed children and people dying of cancer. I remember sit-ins, demonstrations, confrontations--but slow down. All that is off the point.
I refocus. De and Ex as prefixes can mean the same thing, from. Doesn't De imply a taking from? Foliate and foliation I know refer to plant growth, leaves, blooms, etc. Therefore, the taking or shedding of those things from their plant's body. For clarity's sake I finally look it up--thank you, Wikipedia.
So I learn that my hair scrubbing has supposedly employed extra help in ridding my scalp of dead skin, cells and whatever. Apparently, people throughout the ages have tried to rejuvenate their looks (if not their health) by hastening the departure of their dead and dying skin.
I don't think anybody in my family ever did it. If they had, they might have incurred more than strange glances. There would have been remarks. There might have been amusement at the "exfoliater's" expense. Then again I remember women relatives scraping their scalps with brushes. One of them even counted her strokes--was it 50 or even 100 times per day? I remember a body builder friend, a tough guy, who used pumice on his skin. When I asked what he was doing to his feet, he gave me a pumice stone in response and said to try it. That was decades ago, but I still have the stone somewhere, a little blocky, grey, rectangular thing, product of a volcano if I remember correctly. Maybe it's in that old gym bag in the basement. I do know I never used it as intended.
Anyway, did my accidental shampooing exfoliation work? I decide the difference in the effect of my "exfoliant" scrub from my previous non-exfoliating scrubs was so miniscule (if it happened at all) as to be insignificant.
Furthermore, isn't applying water to skin exfoliating? Isn't the rushing of air over skin? Doesn't brushing up against another person, say when you're dancing, have an exfoliating effect? These are the kinds of questions that plague me when I have time on my hands. Can I call what the dental assistant does with her tools on my teeth exfoliating the enamel? Can the diet I have trouble maintaining be described as exfoliating weight?
Just by comparison, I answer myself.
Regrettably, this thought of likenesses suggests that exfoliation might connect to many other quirks of life. With near hurricane force, innumerable similarities strike my mind and whirl me off, soaring, riding the currents, mixing metaphors indiscriminately.
There is delight, of course, in gliding high above it all, like "a skate...[sweeping] smooth on a bow-bend." But the lull of elevated flight also allows me to sense the dangers of what entanglements lie waiting below, the uncharted, crisscrossing paths that lead into mysteries that, if unresolved, might end in madness. I rebuff "the big wind" even as I know that I cannot pull away from it yet. So I search through that frenzied confusion below until, Aha! A target, a prey, the one specific subject I've been describing all along. I "here/Buckle" and dive toward it.
Actually, this bird, which is my exfoliating fugue, has since the beginning been carrying me here. I've been aboard the Bird of Cynicism, the Bird of half-understood psychology courses, the attractive bird of Negativity, and knowing that suggests that my sub consciousness knew all along where exfoliation was leading me. The word of course has to relate to myself (I've long suspected that everything's a mirror somehow). This sudden insight will be useful to escape my obsession with exfoliating. It's what I need to reach an acceptable understanding. A finality. A lid on the boiling water. A cap.
And here it is. After all these years of writing, playing with phonemes, the rhythms of speech, the attempts to imitate life, after typing every letter many, many thousands of times, after books and reams of wasted paper, I peer at my life through the lens of exfoliating and realize that I have been spending my time scrubbing with words. I've been exfoliating ideas, beliefs, and feelings from the terminally shrinking confinements of my cranium, the synapses and cells of retracting grey matter. Scrubbing with words. Cleaning off and rejuvenating. Making myself look better. Feeling good about myself. Laughing.
And these simple thoughts "gash gold-vermillion."