Trimming

Amy Rowland - Brooklyn, New York
Entered on March 29, 2011
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: family
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My dad is a retired barber, and much of his job involved trimming. It is delicate work to coax a blade around a man’s ears, but that is what he did, six days a week, and so he sent four children to college on forty years’ worth of haircuts.

I remember the shop’s smell, the bottles of blue Barbicide and gold Lucky Tiger, the snap of the pinstripe barber cape, and the sound of the stiff brush whisking talc around men’s necks as they stretched toward the scratch.

“Make me look decent,” a country man in town shoes would say as he eased into the chair.

My dad was like the stage manager of Our Town—listening close and revealing little—because talking was the main activity among the men in the shop. They would sit in the row of orange chairs along the wall and wait their turn, talking all the while.

Sometimes my mother would come home with a big piece of small-town news only to discover that my dad had already heard it at the barbershop. Southern women are often accused of being gossips, but listening to men in a barbershop is like watching long-deprived pyromaniacs take a blowtorch to a drought-parched hayfield.

I learned a lot of valuable lessons from watching my dad cut hair. I learned about holding still, being respectful, paying attention, and cleaning things up. I learned not to waste words—or anything else. Often, my dad saved the hair he cut to spread around his tomato plants, not to keep the deer away or to warm the roots but because, he said, “It’s protein.”

I also learned about the sacredness of small acts. Dad was a deacon and then an elder in his church and sometimes would be called on to both cut hair and give communion to a man on his deathbed. To witness this intimacy between proudly masculine men, one of the final physical exchanges of a man’s life, was to see grooming, like communion, as a ritual of dignity.

I wonder if I have followed in my dad’s footsteps with a career of cutting away. I am a copyeditor for a newspaper index. I trim articles into short summaries. Then, I consider whether the summary itself can be trimmed. It’s not the same as tracing a blade around a man’s ear, and yet, it is the same idea of starting with clippers and finishing with tweezers.

So I believe in trimming.

Perhaps I have become too attached to the act of trimming. I now have the alarming experience of working on a novel that continues to get shorter as I write it. Perhaps soon I’ll discover that for the past several years what I’ve really been writing is a mediocre haiku. Then I will just shred the other pages and give it to my dad to spread around his tomato plants.

Amy Rowland is a former editor for the New York Times Index. She was a 2009 Norman Mailer fellow, and her nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times and the Smart Set.