We have all heard the advice about not looking a gift horse in the mouth.
One suspects that what that old saw means is that we should not be critical of gifts that we receive.
I propose, however, that there are times when we should look proverbial gift horses in the mouth because things are not always what they seem.
That is to say, there are things that sound wonderful on the surface, but in reality, can be atrocious.
For example, most of us have had days that were tougher than average; the kind of days when we felt as though we had been trampled by a herd of unusually callous wildebeest and maybe a few rhinoceri in combat boots.
On occasions like this, the thought of a nice therapeutic shoulder massage sounds like just the thing to help bring us back to the land of the living. It may be, but not necessarily.
I learned this painful lesson the hard way.
Many years ago, when the world was young, I knew a girl who had hair as pale as a glass of chardonnay in the last rays of the setting sun and eyes like pools of liquid sapphire. She was slim and compact, with the sort of a figure that could make any old sweater look like a million bucks.
I mention this, not because I am preoccupied with appearance, although one does tend to notice these things, but because the way she looked is germane to my story, and makes it all the more tragic.
This girl, in addition to being easy on the eyes, was a very kind-hearted person, and she often offered to give one shoulder massages as a sign of affection and good will.
Like most young men, I found the thought of an attractive young woman putting her hands on me far from repulsive. However, my joy soon turned to horror when I discovered that she had received her early training during the Spanish Inquisition.
My first sensation was that a pterodactyl had swooped down out of the sky and latched onto my neck with talons extended.
I was shocked to discover that anyone that small (and beautiful) could inflict so much pain with those nimble little fingers.
Rather than a soothing massage, the effect was like a blacksmith trying to rip chunks out of my shoulders with a pair of pliers. I became acutely aware of nerves that I didn’t know I had during these bouts of torture.
Perhaps more amazing was the fact that she was so proud of her talents.
Apparently, somewhere along the line, she got the idea that in order to be effective, a massage had to be administered with maximum force.
What made the situation a trifle awkward was that if the girl had a fault, it was that she was rather sensitive. Any attempt to suggest that a more gentle approach might be preferable caused her to break into tears and wail that she was a failure.
One was left with the difficult choice of enduring the agony or hurting the feelings of this lovely girl.
One soon learned never to show weakness. Even if one had spent all afternoon playing rugby or football and felt a bit worse for the wear, one dared not show it, because doing so would provoke her to spring to one’s aid on an excruciating mission of mercy.
Apart from massage, another thing that sounds good on the surface is fresh-baked goodies and home cooked meals.
Here again, things aren’t always what they seem.
Early in my career, I worked with a woman who loved to cook. The problem was, she wasn’t any good at it.
I don’t know what it was, but she could take the simplest recipe and turn it into something ghastly.
She was the Lucrezia Borgia of the potluck circuit.
The things she made looked delicious, but somehow, they always tasted horribly wrong.
Her co-workers soon learned that if they were to survive, they would have to share information.
The receptionist became the first line of defense. If she saw old Lucrezia bringing in a plate of noxious cookies or other pathogenic treats, she would hoist the quarantine flag to warn sailors to steer clear if they saw a plate of innocent-looking treats in the lounge.
If there was a potluck lunch in the office, the staff would post lookouts to see what Lucrezia brought, and post discreet warnings.
This may sound cruel, but no doubt countless lives were saved by these measures.
Like my friend the sweater girl, Lucrezia was a warm, wonderful person, and no one would ever willingly hurt her feelings, but they also had enough sense not to eat her toxic treats.
Her co-workers would accept her pestilential offerings, so that she would not feel bad, but they would find ways to quietly dispose of them.
If she brought samples of her culinary mayhem to a party, one could be sure that the potted plants and other discreet hiding places would be rife with perilous pastries and malignant muffins before the night was over.
This may have caused the untimely demise of a few shrubberies, but human lives were spared.
The point of all this is that no matter how good things may look or sound, there are times when the best (and safest) response is “thanks, but no thanks.”