Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
February 2023 - Volume 23, No. 2
The Pocket Knife
It was my first visit in many years to a podiatrist. My PCP (Primary Care Physician) had informed me that Medicare would cover toenail trimming, so I availed myself of that benefit. I’d reached the age when bending down to trim my own nails wasn’t as easy for this non-limber body. And pedicures were somewhat pricy, though wonderfully refreshing.
As the podiatrist was working my feet, a long forgotten memory emerged. As a youngster, when a toenail would become ingrown, my father would take out his pocketknife and carefully scrape away at the center of the nail - which would get the nail to shrink laterally, so after some days it was no longer ingrown. As an adult I probably could have asked him where he learned to do that, but as a kid it was just what my Father did, and of course it would work.
The one other thing he’d take his pocked knife out for would be go remove wood splinters from my fingers or hands. He probably used it for sharpening pencils, but I have no specific memory there, it was so very long ago.
Nor do I recall when I began to carry a pocket knife of my own. I do recall that at I’ve had a succession of them - usually the thin two-bladed kind - the longer blade pointed for removing splinters. And I enjoyed having one in my right pants pocket. I know their primary utility was for opening letters and packages, and still for removing the occasional splinter. And sometimes for carving. Always "just in case I needed one."
I have no memory of when I stopped carrying a pocket knife. I had no need to sharpen my own pencils. Every elementary school classroom had a wall mounted one, and as an adult every office desk had an electric one. To this day I delight in that rasping sound they make.
I do know that in my lifetime at some level we’ve gone through a major shift in the meaning of men carrying knives. Let me walk backwards along this spectrum.
This is the epitome of the knife as a traveling multifunction tool kit. A close friend of mine has a permanent bulge in the right rear pocket of each pair of jeans, the shape of his favorite Macgyver knife.
The outdoorsman knife - for hunting, carving and eating. I don’t know if there’s a Boy Scout knife, but if there were, this would be its class.
As a Weapon
But knives are also weapons. They can injure and kill people. You can’t carry a knife on an airplane, or into a County CourtHouse. I think this is when I stopped carrying a pocket knife. A man carrying any kind of knife had become a man who was considered dangerous - he couldn’t be trusted. I sometimes consider looking in any bushes just outside a Courthouse entrance to search of any pocket knives that had to be rapidly discarded before the owner could be granted entrance.
A man’s Sword - The Great Uncle of the knife
I’ve often wondered about men wearing swords “in olden days.” It was, of course, an instrument of battle. But instead of just ‘hacking and hewing’ there’s a higher symbolism. There is the dress sword - often used as a symbol of honor or authority. Somewhere along the line, I was given that the sword, as a high masculine image, was a symbol of a man’s ability or gift to ‘cut through’ a particularly difficult issue.
A man earned, or was otherwise granted this honor or authority. A man who takes his authority upon himself is considered a usurper, a danger to social order. I would like to assert that any ownership and/or use of a weapon, can only be granted by an external authority.
I also learned along the way, that every knife or sword must be paired with a sheath. Mythically it represents the balance of the masculine and the feminine. An unsheathed knife or sword (or anything with a sharp cutting edge) must be protected (mythically as well as actually). Even my kitchen knives are stored in a handsome wooden block.
And so, of course, my pocket knife itself must fold into its sheath, or handle.
Guns - the obvious parallel
We are living in a seemingly unique culture where it is assumed every person has the right to a gun, a right that wants to transcend any external limitation or control of that right. And in the nightly news see the outcome of that usurpation. The people want gun control. But many of those in power do not. (You can see my particular politics here.)
There are responsible gun owners. They like their guns, but they know to keep them and ammunition locked (in “gun safes”).
Question: When is a gun not a gun? Answer: When it’s not loaded? Wrong!
At a mythic level, any weapon at a mythic level is a weapon, and must be respected as such. That’s a lesson my pacifist parents taught me. Most of us have been taught that you never aim a gun at anybody, whether the gun is ‘loaded’ or not. Weapons deserve respect, period.
A knife, or gun or any weapon under circumstances, can overwhelm its owner/master. Pocketed or sheathed or locked, it’s important that there be rigorous ‘training’. We’re becoming more aware of “rogue cops” whose ‘weapons’ take over and they abuse and kill people they’re sworn to protect.
The knife can overpower the wielder. The gun can overpower the wielder. (In ‘olden days’ it was called “battle frenzy.”)
It’s also been said “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” (Jesus said it - Matthew 26:52)
In my own pocket
As you can tell, I no longer carry a pocket knife. Even though I will sometimes pause in my local hardware store at a display of pocket knives. They deserve some respect if only for their particularly masculine beauty. And if I’m spending time out in the Michigan woods, I have a quality ‘outdoors’ or ‘hunting’ knife sheathed on my belt.
Some years ago I underwent open heart surgery (fortunately without a heart attack). And ever since I carry a few nitroglycerine pills in a little pill box - always in my right hand pants pocket. They are my ‘pocket knife’ - always there ‘just in case I need them’. And every time I go out my front door, I pat that pocket just to check if it’s there. (And if not, I have to go back and find where I left that little pill box.
The inner and outer worlds bid us pay attention to these things.
I’m sure that’s where the other name, ‘pen knife’, came from - a knife used to sharpen quill ink pens.
from Angus MacGyver, the lead character in the television series MacGyver (1985–1992), who often made or repaired objects in an improvised way.
Such as the 4th century tale of Alexander the Great cutting (mastering) the Gordian Knot. Often used as a metaphor for an intractable problem solved easily by finding an approach to the problem that renders the perceived constraints of the problem moot.
I recall some years ago, in our local 4th of July parade, the Sheriff of our Genesee County walked in the parade wearing his holstered service revolver. It startled me, and I had to ask myself why he would have to be armed for a parade. But now I understand it was a symbol of his honor and authority. That was his dress sword.
I read recently of a practice somewhere in West Africa, that when a young man returns from his duty time in the military, the elders will take away from him any or all of his weapons, before he is allowed to court and marry a young woman from the village.
It’s like some people I know who have suffered a severe anxiety attack will always carry “a Xanax” with them ‘just in case they need it’.
They’re in a little coffin shaped plastic pill box with the name of a local funeral home on it.I love the irony LOL.
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