Dr Timothy Corcoran Flynn recalls the childhood inspirations who led him down the aesthetically-pleasing—and moss-covered—path to dermatology
I was fortunate to have a great first year teacher. Every four-year-old needs to go to school and be taught by Miss Mildred Painter. She made every child feel special and we all knew she really loved us. Warm and friendly, she had a huge smile. It didn’t matter that there was usually food retained between her irregular yellowed teeth.
Most days you could get over that, unless she had eaten a typical American lunch. We would all sit at our desks and spend a few minutes identifying the hamburger, lettuce and tomato bits next to yellow cheese wads snuggled in the crypts and crags of her upper dentition. Then it would become a game of “Find the French fry” or “What’s in her moustache?” You had to make sure you were out-of-range should she recite “Peter Piper”.
Her personality was kind and big, but her body was even bigger. She wasn’t just large; she was full-on fat—so plump, you thought that when she took a shower, her feet never got wet. We all worried that if you were to run to her with arms wide open to give her a hug, you might never come out. Or, that she might accidentally sit on two kids who would be stuck to her rear end, squashed like pressed raisins.
She had one style of dress—a tent that hung from her shoulders, made out of a large drapery and covering her ample chest and chubby tummy. I wondered if she was smuggling a Volkswagen under it. One mother said there was so much fabric she had to iron it on the driveway.
We never saw her shoes and I’m not sure she did. I suspect that they had been flattened into the shape of inflatable lifeboats. If she’d ever had them polished, she’d have to take the shoe shine man’s word for it.
She was like the most wonderful grandmother (make that three grandmothers)—so nurturing, but to whom nature hadn’t been kind. If only she could have been nicer-looking.
Elegance and pancakes
The next year, my teacher was Mrs Jack Morgan. One look at her and I knew we were going to get married. She was a perfect beauty and after coming home, I told my mother just how gorgeous she was. My mother agreed with me, telling me that she was not just pretty; she was elegant. After explaining elegance, she told me that Mrs Morgan was married and her husband worked at the university.
I was not about to let that get in my way. Mr Morgan could be there on Saturday morning when I fantasised that Mrs Morgan would be making me pancakes while wearing a nice red skirt and frilly white apron. I’d even let Mr Morgan watch cartoons with me.
Mrs. Morgan started it all. She was my “aesthetic angel”—she made me appreciate beauty. At two o’clock naptime, I’d roll out my little cotton mat and lie down positioned so I could look at her. Her face was wonderfully symmetrical and lipstick so wonderfully red. She had a perfect Cupid’s bow; and one of Cupid’s arrows had certainly struck me.
She had the type of skin that seemed to glow in the dimmed lights of the classroom, like the windows of the passenger car of my electric train. Her hair perfectly framed her face and it never seemed to grow; it was always perfectly styled and naturally placed. She was really quite beautiful and at times, I couldn’t hear what she was saying because I was looking at her face, her fingers or her feet, thinking about what made her so pretty.
Mrs Morgan lived near our house, which was great because I wouldn’t have to leave our neighbourhood when I moved in with her. I would see her out walking and she seemed to flow, rather than ambulate. Some women walked with purpose—including my mother, who walked as if she were a draught horse pulling a wagon, not to be slowed down by anything. She had energy and determination but Mrs Morgan simply floated.
I recall noting how movement was a component of beauty and of elegance. I began looking at other beautiful women out walking. There was Mrs Sam Nelson with long auburn hair, wonderful facial bone structure and height. Mrs Gay McDonald—quite beautiful. She gave me swimming lessons and had superior grace and form (as much as anyone could in a rubber swim cap with yellow floppy flowers adorning it).
Moreover, my classmate Lisa’s mother had poise and manners, gorgeous big brown eyes and a rich smile with just a touch of adventure in it. Fortunately, my mother agreed that these were all attractive ladies and did not even mention any thoughts about why I was so interested in them, the Oedipus complex or a need for psychotherapy.
Throughout my childhood, I learned that beauty is found throughout nature and not just among older women walking around town. Many scientists can pinpoint the times they became acutely interested in research and I recall the afternoon in which nature’s beauty exploded.
It did not involve the music of Pink Floyd or smoking anything, for I was eight and lying out in the woods examining moss just four inches from my face. How perfect that moss was, and how varied. There were patterns to it and a wonderful structure. There was colour and form in that soft, green bed and its beauty invited me to lay my head down on it, like the bosom of Mother Earth.
I felt the coolness of the earth and took in the rich earthy odours. The beauty of the moss was inviting and captivating. I started to think about how that mossy pillow could be made better, by removing the twigs and acorn caps from it, and perhaps trimming it a little bit. Moss-scaping might be needed. If only that tuft had more volume, those creases would be smoothed out.
Beauty is anatomy and good anatomy is wonderful. Like most children, I was interested in anatomy at an early age. One’s anatomy produced intestinal gas. It was fun and funny, so much so that laughter could not be avoided. When an audible eruption occurred in the classroom, the laughter could be painful. No matter how many times the teacher whacked us with the ruler, the giggles could not be suppressed. Sometimes the farts were appropriately termed “tear gas” because of how hard we howled.
Perhaps related to a curiosity about the anatomy of the intestines, a few students and I managed to get some anatomy training in summer school. We studied the eye, the brain, the skeleton and the muscles. While we never made it to the large colon and didn’t come near the anus, the anatomy of the human body seemed beautiful to me.
Some have termed the years at university “anatomy lab”, and it certainly led to a further interest in the body. Great learning occurred, and beauty was investigated and appreciated. While not at the forefront of my thoughts, I wondered what makes one college girl more attractive than another.
It’s not just that Mary’s father owns a liquor store while Martha’s dad sells insurance. Personally, intelligence and style play a role, but we always seem to consider anatomy and the many different variations. Sometimes the anatomy is perfect, which can lead to the irrational behaviour called love. However, even when in love, one can’t help thinking about how to improve your beloved.
So, fast-forward to training in dermatology. Here, we could actually improve appearance and increase beauty. Wrinkles could be relaxed and lines could be reduced. Noses could be reshaped and made more pleasant to look at. I was so excited. I thought I would never again have to hear my mother’s memorable comment made about a girl I went out with once in college: “Beauty is but a light switch away.”
A few injections here, a bit of light energy there, some steel and suture and symmetry and elegance approached. How very exciting to be able to improve someone’s anatomy and make them feel better. I thought back to Mrs Jack Morgan—her beauty and movement, her smile and radiant skin—and realised whoever will be making my pancakes will look better with just a few well-placed injections and a bit of light energy.
After all, no one is perfect.
Dr Timothy C Flynn is a dermatologist and medical director at the Cary Skin Center in Cary, North Carolina. T: 00 (1) 919-363-7546