The expression “not worth a tinker’s dam” means something is completely worthless. A tinker was an itinerant handyman who repaired small household items like utensils and pots and pans. A tinker’s dam was a piece of doughy material used to hold metal in place when soldering. It was worthless once the repair was complete because it couldn’t be reused or made to serve any other purpose. In the old days tinkers made their rounds in a cart pulled by a horse or a donkey; but they were still around in the 1950s, making their rounds in a pickup truck with bells strung across the bed announcing their presence as they drove slowly down the block. Maybe that’s where ice cream trucks got the idea.
I remember being home with my mother before I was put in kindergarten. She heard the truck coming. She handed me some scissors that needed sharpening and a bit of money and told me to take them out to the tinker. My mother had polio and couldn’t walk well. She said to hold the scissors with the shear points pointing down and away from me and to walk very carefully. Then she stood in the doorway and watched me the whole time. Nowadays a kid on a similar mission would be wearing a football helmet, but it was different then. Lots of children, not just those of the disabled, were trusted with rather grown-up chores at a young age. “You should know better” was introduced into the conversation early.
The tinker was an old man. He gave me a big smile, sharpened the scissors, handed them back with care, and thanked me for the coins. A few years later, when I fell in love with A.A. Milne’s book of children’s poems When We Were Very Young, one of my favorites was “Jonathan Jo,” which was about a junk man: “Jonathan Jo has a mouth like an O and a wheelbarrow full of surprises . . .” I thought to myself: I knew a man who was kind of like that! The little story it told, with illustrations by E. H. Shepard, made me feel we were both famous.
Even in the 1950s household scissors were not an expensive item. So why not just buy a new pair rather than employ the services of the old man working out of his old truck? Partly because things were made well enough that they were worth repairing; but in our house it might also have had something to do with why a blind man came to tune the piano even though none of us played the piano. We had a piano because everyone with children should have a piano in the hope they might take an interest, and it gave a blind man work. Like sharpening old shears gave the old man in the old truck work. If you’ve done your quick math, you have figured out that my mother lived through the Great Depression, which probably had something to do with her being sensitive to men needing work.
In terms of our modern culture, there’s a lot of doughy material temporarily holding things in place while patching up leaky belief systems is attempted. Sex as recreation is an age-old weakness, but now it’s been elevated from human fallibility to social good, the idea being that sexual discipline is a puritanical tool of repression leading to psychological problems and—God knows—bed wetting. This idea has a “scientific” basis as per Alfred Kinsey and his famed Kinsey Reports, which claimed that “delayed sexual experience was psychologically harmful.” Kinsey got his start studying the sexual habits of wasps. That’s bugs, not Presbyterians. The more prosaic “If it feels good do it” provides a useful dam to keep conscience and consequence still while they’re being tinkered with.
Another doughy material that held things in place while patching up a leaky belief system was the pseudo sage saying: “It’s not about abortion, it’s about choice.” Philosophy-wise it’s having your cake and eating it too. But while deftly sidestepping what one is choosing, it was, perhaps, also an attempt, however much grasping at straws, to preserve a facsimile of conscience, a tentative nod to better angels. A blink. With the overturning of Roe, it seems to have been eclipsed by “Abortion—No Limits, No Apologies,” a take-no-prisoners confrontational style that advocates are either truly on board with, or, too intimidated by the post-Dobbs rage, don’t dare to propose what the milder “it’s about choice” offered— however meager. And that’s a shame.
The overturning of Roe has brought some political soul-searching, resulting in both increased funding to help care for children saved from abortion, and increased interest in making society more motherhood friendly, even if it means going toe–to–toe with corporations that, for efficiency sake, like to see their “female workforce stock” neutered with harmful hormones. Perhaps, then, it’s the right moment to give the “It’s about choice” corner a respectful hearing in hopes that they will encourage their base to prove that saying is more than just timid rationale.
I believe there are many women who are storming the voting booths and going to pro-abortion marches who would never, ever have an abortion themselves, and may mourn the abortions of their friends. What terrifies them is the idea of laws that limit choice, period. Even a choice they would never make. If pro-lifers can commit to providing for the lives being saved, perhaps pro-choicers can do some soul-searching as well and work hard to encourage other women to infuse their choosing with the sympathy for life in the womb that they do. Show up at the march with a sign that shouts: If Abortion Be Legal, We Should Live Like It Isn’t. Otherwise, their talk of choice is just a feeble nod to conscience, and not worth a tinker’s dam.