The Dandruff Others Have

Full disclosure: I do not have dandruff. Lint, yes. Crumbs, perhaps. But actual dandruff, no way. Even its etymology is enough to deny it access to, let alone egress from, a civilized scalp: ‘1540s, Northumbrian or East Anglian dialectal huff, hurf “scab,” from Old Norse hrufa, from Proto-Germanic hreufaz, source of Old English hreofla “leper.”’ It makes me think of lice, and stuff that would get you sent home from school if you were caught with any on your shoulders. I couldn’t embarrass the family like that.

I mean I suppose I used to get twigs and bits of bark tangled in my hair if I happened to get chased into the woods at recess -but they were only dark, crumbly things. And I was no stranger to foreign head material. I was often tripped into the mud on the way to the trees, of course, or somebody would find some dog stuff and throw it at me -I used to dread recess- but for sure, not dandruff. And yes, I still have lots of hair, although for some reason it is regarded askance for someone my age and gender. Well, too bad -I don’t have dandruff, so back off!

I decided it was better to clear that up -the point, you understand, not the condition- before I told you about what I read. I have always felt that my dandruff-free life was akin to that of a bodhisattva, although marginally easier to spell. Still, even though we can’t all be equally blessed, I find flakes repugnant… Okay, just annoying.

It was only when I came across a reference to dandruff’s historical roots that a wave of agape engulfed my being. An epiphanous understanding that some people really couldn’t help it. Dandruff, I came to understand, was an atavism the weak had not been able to overcome. Their genes had not the strength to cast off the yoke of dinosaurs.

I should have known, though. I should have been more pansophic. ‘Dandruff in birds, dinos and humans is composed of cells called corneocytes… instead of sloughing off their entire skin like reptiles or snakes, the skin of these bird-like dinos flaked off between their feathers—just like modern birds.’ Although, ‘In modern birds, these corneocytes are fatty and keratin is loosely packed, allowing the birds to not only shed dandruff, but help them stay cool while doing energy-intensive activities like flying… But the latest fossils suggest that dino corneocytes were more densely packed with keratin… This means they probably didn’t spend much time in the air thanks to less efficient heat exchange.’

Personally, I find it hard to believe that dinosaurs actually had feathers, let alone dandruff, but then again, a lot evolution disappoints me if you want to know the truth. Why would dandruff make it past an asteroid strike, for heaven’s sake? And why should the birds they evolved into inherit the same skin problems? I mean, what’s evolution for anyway?

It’s enough to drive a person into doing Bishop Ussher’s biblical begat counts again -maybe six thousand years, or whatever, was not enough time for the skin genes to solve the issue.  But he was mainly focussed on generations, not dandruffs, I think.

If I’m really honest, though, I have to admit there has probably been some improvement over the millennia. First of all, scalp size has apparently decreased. And secondly, the price of shampoo has come down considerably. But I mention all of this mainly out of pique -mortification, actually.

I was sitting in my usual shadowed seat in Starbucks the other day, using a paper napkin to wipe off some coffee I’d spilled on my sweatshirt. It’s an incredibly difficult task trying to see a stain in the dark, but I really didn’t have anything else to do that morning.

Two elderly women sat down at a table beside mine and both stared at me for a moment. I don’t usually expect this kind of behaviour -that’s why I sit in the corner- but I suppose they were bored, or something. It was a busy morning, and they were old and no doubt desperate for a seat and a place to rest their eyes, so I smiled and kept on wiping.

“Do you need another napkin?” one of them, a silver haired lady in a green woolen suit and matching hat asked me, trying to look friendly.

“No, I think I’ve pretty well cleaned things up,” I answered, as much embarrassed at being noticed, as having managed to spill coffee on my shoulder. I vowed never to try to unbag a sausage and egg breakfast sandwich with one hand again.

The green lady smiled, shook her head, and pointed. “I think you missed some on your shoulder,” she added helpfully. I think she was probably a teacher in her younger days, or something.

I glanced at the area, but all I could see was a bit of lint from where the napkin had probably flaked off when I wiped it. “Oh, thanks,” I said and took the proffered serviette.

Her friend was a portly soul with a sagging face that tugged up a reserve of skin from her neck whenever she smiled. She’d been watching me intently all the while, but for some reason she kept glancing at the shoulders of her dark red blouse.

The teacher noticed and whispered to her friend. “You’re okay, Gladys,” she said. “Nothing there…”

“It’s so embarrassing, Liz,” she whispered back, glancing at me covertly. “I think it’s the rinse my hairdresser used this time.”

“You go to Irene, don’t you?” Liz asked politely, as if she already knew.

Gladys nodded.

“I always insist on Sadie -no matter how long I have to wait,” Liz declared, in a no-nonsense tone.

“Sadie wanted me to go natural, so I switched to Irene.”

They sat in a silence for a while, broken only with rhythmic slurping as they alternated trips to their coffees. “Sadie says hair dye causes dandruff in the elderly… It does something to aging hair follicles…” Liz finally ventured, after a particularly poignant gulp from the dregs of her cup.

Gladys glanced at me and then her coffee. “I guess it’s common enough though, eh?” she whispered again, but loudly enough to be heard over a group of students that happened by at that moment.

Liz nodded sympathetically. “Half of all adults, Wikipedia says.”

Gladys’ eyes opened wide at that, causing a different fold of skin to cascade down her neck in a silent ripple.  “You looked it up?”

Liz nodded again as she got out of her seat and helped Gladys out of hers. “Thought you’d want to know it’s nothing to worry about,” she said in a normal voice, and glanced at me as if trying to reassure both of us.

And then they were gone -vanished into the crowd before I had a chance to explain. To exculpate myself. Some days are like that in Starbucks, though, I guess.


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