Wednesday, December 12, 2007

PC Hair, Part I

I gave up perms, but I'm ashamed to say it was a beauty-based decision, not an environmental one. I didn't consider the fact that perm solutions contain triethanolamine (TEA), diethanolamine (DEA), or monoethanolamine (MEA).

What happened was, my hair stylist Kendra moved to California and I got Doug instead. The last time I'd been to see Kendra, I'd gotten this gorgeous, soft spiral perm, which I'd absolutely loved. Doug had different ideas: cut off the frayed ends, a little layering, some cute side bangs.

"But I was hoping to get a perm."

"You don't want a perm, not really."

"Yes, really, I want a spiral perm. I just loved the last one."

"I don't think you do. I mean, no one gets perms any more. Perms are so frumpy '80's. ... O.k., I'll give you a soft perm, to add a little body."

Thanks a lot, Dougie. A bad hair month ensued, with floppy hair that looked like I'd slept on it wrong no matter what I tried. So I gave up, both on Doug, and on perms in general.

To Doug's credit, the environment is much happier since I abandoned perms. While advances in hair care products are being made all the time, there are still a surprising amount of pollutants in them: formaldehyde, paraben perservatives, heavy metals like lead and selenium. The stuff not only emits foul fumes that are breathed in by stylists and customers alike--it often gets rinsed away down the drain.

The other day, I passed by the salon where I'd locked horns with Doug. There was a vent coming directly from the building at ground level, a vent emitting a pink, frothy, damp air onto the sidewalk. Oooo, yuk, I thought, what the hell is that? Were hair salons even considering stuff like environmental impact? I went looking, and found at least one place (Victoria, BC) where there are suggestions for reducing pollution through Best Management Practices.

It's the unseen dangers in our everyday environment, like CO2 emissions, germs, and hair perm solutions, that really get us. I must be vigilant, even about the seemingly innocuous, even about my hair, which I only see when I take the time to look in a mirror.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Hair love

At family gatherings when I was just a little girl, my brothers and I were the only young children around. By the time we were born, the family tree had dwindled to our branch, and our branch alone. I had no first cousins, not even older ones. We were it.

As such, family picnics and reunions were chock full of old people and their foibles, a source of endless entertainment for me and my brothers. There was Uncle Lew, who once bumped near-sightedly into a tree and muttered: "Excuse me." There were my Grandmother Lindsey and Aunt Ruth, sisters who'd shared much in early life and Alzheimer's at the end, who were always looking for their pocketbooks. They would spend hours at it, while my brothers and I sat giggling, gleefully pointing out from time to time that their purses were right next to their chairs all along. Grandmother Lindsey would look down, frown, pick hers up and say: "No, Ruth, I do believe this is your pocket book, not mine!" while we children doubled over trying to hold in our laughter.

I loved Uncle Lew and Aunt Ruth, but I especially loved my Grandmother Lindsey, with her soft eyes, soft skin, and large, welcoming lap. It didn't matter to me that she was confused; she was a cozy confused, after all, not meaning anyone any harm. Except maybe Barney Fife.

My Grandmother Lindsey put her foot down with Barney Fife one afternoon after her bath. When Grandmother Lindsey stayed with us, Mom would help her bathe, then lead her out to sit in the mahogany rocker to watch the TV. It was my job to put bobby pin curls in her still-wet hair. I loved standing behind her, carefully winding the curls and pinning them in place, while she crooned to me over and over: "You're such a good little girl. Such a good little girl."

On this particular afternoon, as I was twisting her hair into place, the Andy Griffith Show was on. Everyone in our family liked it. Barney, especially, always made us laugh. But Grandmother Lindsey didn't see anything funny about it at all. "That Barney! ... That Barney!" She kept saying, getting more and more incensed. Suddenly, wrenching a half-done curl from my grasp, she stood up and tottered over to the TV to fumble with the cabinet doors until she'd managed to close them firmly across the screen.

As she turned and shuffled back to the rocker, I could still hear Andy and Barney arguing, their voices hardly muffled by the doors. "Grandmother ..." I started to argue, then gave up. As far as Grandmother was concerned, she'd banished Barney Fife forever, and the town of Mayberry was history. Once again, she and I were free of Barney's trying miscommunications, misunderstandings and confusions.

As I finished up her hair, the light from the TV screen shifted through the top seam of the cabinet doors and the dialogue blathered on. But Grandmother was at peace, rocking gently back and forth, crooning softly: "You're such a good little girl … such a good little girl." And with her, I felt peaceful, too. In our own special place, Grandmother Lindsey and I were together, cozy and safe, caring for and loving one another the best way we knew how.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Hair Waves

Fast forward to this month, to my most recent visit to the hair salon. Recently, I've been hankering after a change in hair styles, wishing for something less conservative, a little, well, perhaps younger is the word I'm looking for. While I wait for my hair stylist, Tina, I'm leafing through a photo album of hair styles and spy one that looks pretty great on a woman half my age. I bring the book with me to the chair. Tina peers over my shoulder at the picture.

"Oh," she says. "You want something textured." Whatever that means.

"Uh huh, sure, like, different lengths, but basically long, kinda snazzy." Can't you just picture her rolling her eyes as I say this? I mean, really, I just never learn.

But Tina is a consummate professional--if she does roll her eyes, she doesn't let me see her do it. Instead, she musses my hair with her capable hands. "Sure, I can do that," she says.

Her confidence is contagious. Also, I'm paying a healthy chunk of money for the cut, which in my mind is a further guarantee of success. I sit there happily as she works, enjoying the attention, the way she pins my hair on the top of my head, snip, snip, snipping away. This is going to take years off my life! I think. I can already hear the compliments, the appreciative nods from family and friends.

But when I get home, not one word about my haircut. They're not really looking, I think to myself. A week passes, still no comments, and I start to wonder myself how much I really like this cut. My hair looks messy, no matter what I try. Then I go to lunch with Jo. She grabs a wad of it at the back of my head.

"What's goin' on back here?" she asks. "I mean, are we having some kind of hairpisode, or what?" (She reads my blog.) I laugh nervously. "I'm serious!" she says.

When I get home, I scrounge for a hand mirror to see what's back there. At the nape of my neck, there's a rat's nest. My hair is sproinging out in a way that matches nothing else, like a bad case of bedhead. So I go back to the hair salon to see what can be done. I catch a stylist's eye as I walk in the door.

"What's going on here?" I ask, turning the back of my head to Maria (it says on her nametag), picking up the bushy tail back there.

"Oh, you got some kinda wave."

"Can we, like, just cut it off?"

"Oh, I wouldn't do that." She giggles, presumably at my lack of hair sense.

"But why is this happening? My hair was always so straight."

"Hair doesn't stay the same, it changes. It changes when you hit puberty, it changes when you have children." Maria is dispensing her hair wisdom in teetering platform shoes, broom in hand since she's just finished sweeping up from a customer. "You maybe didn't realize it, you got some kinda wave back there, now you got too much texture, it won't lay flat anymore. You need a blunt cut, something heavy to weigh it down. I'll give you a redo."

Now I look younger all right. My teenage daughter and I have about the same hair cut. Live and learn?

Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Calicuchima Cut

I'd been growing out my hair for six years, the longest it had ever gone without a cut. I'd graduated from high school, then college without cutting it. I'd gotten married without cutting it.

But then Dave and I, newly married, traveled to South America for an extended tour. I'll never forget the thickness of the air in the tropics--the endless tracts of big-leafed banana trees, humid and dense. At our first stop--Ecuador--the climate in Guayaquil was unbelievably warm, a greenhouse cranked above 100 degrees.

We weren't on any particular schedule. We'd sold an inherited diamond ring for $4000 to make the journey, and were traveling till our money ran out. We'd heard the Galapagos Islands were worth a visit, so we booked passage on the Calicuchima--an Ecuadorian naval supply ship--to tour them. It was the absolute cheapest way to go.

For a reason--they had no set departure time. Maybe they'd leave tomorrow, the ticket seller said when we paid for our passage. Or maybe not. Maybe the day after. So, each morning, we'd pack our stuff and hike over to the dock. Finally, about a week later, they allowed us on board and it was time to depart, the Calicuchima plowing out through Guayaquil's littered shorewaters into the Pacific for a twelve-day tour.

Taking tourists on the Calicuchima apparently helped fund the supply run of white rice and soda pop to the Ecuadorian naval base in the Galapagos Islands. Besides a group of Ecuadorian Catholic high school girls, nuns in tow, our fellow passengers were gringos like ourselves--Germans, Belgians, Americans, Australians, Canadians. And much to my delight, one of them was a hair stylist.

"I just hate this long hair--I'm miserable!" I complained to Carli, who was Swiss. Carli and her husband Marc had left Switzerland to move hemispheres--Marc had a new job in Australia. They were taking the scenic route. "Will you cut it off? Please?"

It took some nagging, but eventually, Carli gave in to my pleas. Some time during our three-day journey back to the mainland, she took pity on me and led me to the rumbling, vibrating stern of the Calicuchima, the ship's engine sweating away at full power, a smell of diesel exhaust and overripe fruit in the air. As she cut my hair to a length where I might be mistaken for a boy, some of the ship's crew came to the railing to smoke cigarettes, to watch the crazy gringos. When we were done, they didn't smile and nod appreciatively. They acted somber, like they'd witnessed a funeral.

It was only after I'd cut it all off that I began to understand how much South American men revere long hair. Dave and I continued with our travels, to Peru, then Bolivia, and every time we were stopped for a passport check from then on, it was the same story. The guard would look up at me, then at the passport picture, the old, long-haired version of me, and there would be a pause.

"Linda!" The guard would say, gesturing to the picture. (Linda means lovely, charming.) Some of the other young guards would lean in, machine guns strapped casually across their backs, to stare at the picture, too. "Linda!" they'd say, pointing at the passport, looking up at me accusingly.

But I'd smile back at them, unfazed. With a soft breeze tickling my neck, I'd think with relief of the weight that had been lifted when my hair swirled into the Calicuchima's wake. Floating along on those satisfying swells of the Pacific, I'd said good-bye once and for all to my boy-magnet tresses. It was as good a time as any, I'd decided.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Grandmother's braid

Grandmother Patterson was a tiny woman who wore demure outfits complete with matching pocketbooks, thick-heeled black shoes, and old-lady hair. Her hair was in no way remarkable; as a little girl, I was more intrigued by the hairnet holding it in place. She'd confide to me from time to time that she wasn't always so old, and perhaps she even noticed my skepticism. But probably not--when she'd warm up to a story, her gaze would turn inward, backward, to her childhood in Cleveland's heyday, to the dawn of the 20th century. She'd repeat her stories over and over, about making dresses with her sister Olga, about staging grand weddings as a kind of game in the house entry hall, about the ribbons they'd used to make splendid hats.

"In those days, I had so much hair the braid was as thick as my wrist," she'd tell me, circling her papery, blue-veined wrist with her gnarled thumb and forefinger. "It had never been cut--not my whole life, so when I let it out, it fell well below my waist. I always wore it up in one long braid that I'd fasten over my head, like so!" and she'd pantomime winding it, tucking it in at the back where the wispy gray hairs were always straying from the net.

Then she'd pull out her photo album to prove it to me (perhaps she'd noticed my skepticism, after all), showing me pictures of herself then, her dark, sepia-tinted eyes staring out at me, her braid circled over the top of her head like a crown. As we sat on her couch together, the photo album cracked open across our laps, she'd tell me the story of how she'd lost all her hair.

It was during childbirth, her first and last pregnancy. My father was supposed to be a Christmas baby, but it wasn't until late January of 1923 that she finally went into labor. According to Grandmother, the labor was long and difficult, but still the baby didn't come. In the end, they'd taken it C-section, a procedure much less common in those days.

"He was ten pounds!" She'd tell me, her serious German eyes blinking with concern, like it worried her still that something so freakish could happen. "I was so very sick after Clyde was born that I lost all my hair. I would run my hands through it and it came out by the fistful. I cried and cried. My beautiful hair, all of it gone. They told me I almost died. My mother sewed me this little silk cap that I wore for months until it finally grew back. But it was never the same after that."

I was her only granddaughter, and while Grandmother also confided in my two brothers, I think she told me stories of her girlhood more often. It was something precious we shared, being girls, an appreciation of the finer things in life, of cooking and sewing, of keeping house. It was very hard on her that I didn't know how to properly be a girl. From an early age, I didn't like to play dress up, I didn't care much for dolls, I shunned the color pink. She was willing to forgive those transgressions, though, as long as she could have me Saturday evenings when my parents went out, to scrub my face and armpits by the sink at bedtime, to dig the soapy warm washcloth in the orifices of my ears, to gently comb out my hair and tuck me into bed.

Although I had no clue of the magnitude of the crime, by this time the unthinkable had already occurred. My mother had, with determined efficiency, cut my hair when I was about three. And for the first decade of my life, I would keep it short. The sad truth of the matter was that I never missed it. Despite my grandmother's dearest wishes, I was a tomboy, tracking mud into the house from the woods and ravines, riding my tricycle recklessly, running pell mell everywhere I went. I'm sure Mom had a good reason the first time she cut my hair--I remember it had something to do with chewing gum. But much later in life, Mom would tell me how Grandmother didn't speak to her afterwards for over a month, and never really did forgive her.

As for me, I was innocent of the grown-ups' drama. My path lay before me, and it wasn't yet time to look back. In my girlhood years, I would be many things: an indian princess, a gazelle, a dancer, a writer. And to be or do any of those things, no matter how challenging, it wouldn't be about the hair.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Hair Polish

Zofia, a bleached-blond, Polish hair stylist, worked alone. I remember her low-lit shop, her tight polyester pants, her pale blouse tied loosely at her waist. She wore open-toed shoes--a fashion I hadn't noticed till then--her glossy, dark pink toes erupting from the front ends at odd angles.

I'm guessing Zofia was in her late fifties, around the same age as my mom at the time. With her heavily powdered face and her yellow hair piled high on her head, though, I could only guess how old she was. I also wasn't able to guess whether or not Zofia was beautiful--her approach to femininity departed from any point of reference I'd ever known. There hadn't been older women in my life who'd divulged much information about what made a woman beautiful, especially not my mom.

Growing up, I'd watched my Mom's beauty ritual, eager to learn, believing it to be the practice of all women. I'd to stand nearby whenever she got ready to go out for special occasions. First, Mom would stare blankly at herself in the mirror, then grab face powder and slap it all over--forehead, nose and chin--followed by a smear of lipstick. I'm not sure she even owned perfume--the only bottle I ever saw was a no-name one that said "eau de toilette."

Together, Mom and I would then stare skeptically at her reflection, me instantly missing her incredibly soft cheeks, her uncoated lips that cracked so easily into a smile, that so readily showered me with kisses. In the end, she'd run a man's comb through her black, short-cropped hair, redon her never-properly-adjusted glasses, and voila! Mom, it turns out, knew more about the beauty that lies within.

So when I first encountered Zofia, she put me off my stride, perched as she was on the exact opposite end of the glamour continuum. Zofia had been recommended to me one lunch hour at work as I'd jawed on about how much I needed a hair cut. Her shop wasn't the kind of place you'd pick out on your own, the storefront wedged into the middle of the block, its pale blue sign faded to white, "Zofia's" almost weathered away. I'd hardly even noticed it was there.

Zofia welcomed me in, her heavily-accented voice singsong as she washed my hair and answered my questions about where she was from, how long she'd lived in the U.S. The warm water and her voice were relaxing. As soon as she began the cut, I felt talkative. Things had been tense at work and were tense at home, besides. Consequently, I volunteered a monologue about my recent house projects, the stress of trying to work and keep the house clean during a major remodel, my sense of accomplishment at having single-handedly painted the kitchen shelves. Then I launched into a diatribe about how long it takes to set up and clean up, let alone paint. But Zofia had heard enough.

"Now, stop!" In her distress, she'd actually yanked on my hair. I blinked at us both in the gilt-edged mirror. "Why you do all work? Is not right. You not careful, you lose man!"


"Why you not have man do? Or pay money for painter? Man, husband, no like woman work. Is not sexy. My friend, she at home cooking, cleaning, washing. All day. What happen? Husband leave, find pretty girl who no work. Man no respect woman who cook and clean, walk over her, treat bad."

I tilted my head, absorbing this news, hoping she'd say more. I couldn't help but think it sounded wrong, though, like cake-and-eat-it-too. Zofia righted my head in the mirror and gestured with the scissors, eyeing me sternly.

"Never let husband see you no make up. My husband fly plane, he pilot, sometimes he get up five in morning. I put on alarm, get up 4. He never see me no make up. Always, always I beautiful. Is woman's job--only job."

Since I didn't know what to say, our conversation screeched to a halt. In the ensuing silence, I mulled over this new angle on relationships. Was I about to lose my man? Was I not sexy? According to Zofia, women like me lacked sex appeal. Could I change my ways, wear a constant coat of foundation and gloss, let the housework go, lounge around in lace teddies and puffy bedroom slippers? Skeptically, I stared at myself in the mirror. Meanwhile, Zofia was transforming me into the woman she spoke of, curling my hair with a hot iron, blow-drying it into sweeping waves, spraying it firmly for hold.

As I left, I looked nothing like the woman who'd walked in her door. Breathing in a gulp of street air, I thought about how exotic, mysterious, even intimate my time with Zofia had been. Finally, I'd encountered what I used to long for as a girl. A woman who focussed her life on beauty, a woman who took control, who insisted there was a right and a wrong way to be beautiful. She had done her best to rein me in.

All at once, I couldn't wait to get home, to wash my hair, to shake the fresh-cut ends free of drips and let them air dry. As for me, I'd be just fine, my spirit busily stirring within.

Thanks, Mom. Claire

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Hair changes

I can't help but think that hair is something larger than a fashion choice. I did not come to this conclusion lightly. I came to it years ago, when I was working as an office manager. I'd been growing out my hair for several years--three, in fact--ever since I'd moved to the Northwest.

I was at the office one morning, working diligently at my desk, doing everyday tasks like filing, letter-typing on a Selectric (yes, it was that long ago), and kicking my DOS computer every time it crashed with an unsaved file on the screen. I took my job seriously, rarely entertaining notions of leaving the building, even on my lunch hour, since it usually meant spending hard-earned money. Besides, I had an inkling that the only thing keeping me there at all was the unswerving discipline of sitting at that particular desk, talking on that particular phone, typing on that particular keyboard.

All of which made it especially odd one morning when I suddenly stood up and announced to my co-worker over the cubicle partition that I had a hair appointment. She looked surprised. I was surprised, too. You see, I actually didn't have a hair appointment. But I didn't think about that, really. I simply left my desk and walked out the door. No one tried to stop me, but why would they? It was perfectly believable.

Even to me. Like I'd been called by some invisible force, I headed down the street to an office tower, rode up the escalator to the shop of the woman who'd trimmed my hair half a year ago, and found her in. She had no customers. I sat in her chair and she set to work.

For the next two and a half hours (I'd asked for a perm--it was still the '80's), I zoned out, letting go to the process. At one point, I remember, the stylist asked if I needed my hair done for some special occasion. I said not that I know of. Because no one had had a chance to tell me that in fact, I was about to embark on a long journey. No one had had a chance to tell me that around the time I'd stood up at my desk, my older brother had finally gotten his way, putting a bullet through his temple not far from my parents' home. Thousands of miles away, I couldn't hear the wailing sirens as they drove down my folks' driveway, filling my mom's heart with dread and mourning.

When I returned to the office, my new curls smelling of chemicals and coiled tightly, like a crash helmet, over my head, I heard there'd been a call for me, a long distance call from Cleveland. As my parents gave me the bad news, I couldn't fathom what had happened, and bizarrely, I couldn't fathom why I'd been doing something so frivolous at the time. It was truly morbid, like I'd been getting ready for a party, not a funeral. Then too, I later saw, in the instant my brother had left me, I'd begun a journey to adjust to a world without him, to cope somehow. The first step had been as mundane as a new hair style, and there would be many such acts, acts where I'd go through the ordinary motions unthinking, moving on with my life, wading forward, inevitably, through my irretrievable loss.

Over a decade has passed, and my hair has gone through many changes since then. My older brother, though, has remained the same, frozen in time at the age of thirty-three, leaving those of us who loved him to survive with the infinite silence he left behind.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Summer Hair

My straight hair is god-given, something that came with the Claire kit. Apparently, it can't be returned for exchange or refund.

I figured this out early, when selected to be an angel in the Christmas Eve pageant. Even my mom was enchanted by the halo and gossamer wings the church school teacher had given me. In a rare nod to playing dress up, she did her best to add to the overall effect, using bobby pins to twist sproing-like curls all over my head. I suppose she'd imagined a fluffy cluster of ringlets to disguise the wire that held the halo in place, but seconds after the bobby pins were removed, only one or two listless waves remained. At the eleventh hour, as the birth of Christ was nearly upon us, she dragged me to the church and the church school teacher came to the rescue with clouds of hairspray.

Once I'd entered elementary school, I absorbed the concept of envy more wholeheartedly than reading, writing, and 'rithmetic. Lindsey had this head of curly, dark hair, and Audrey was daring enough to tease her hair on top and make it flip out at the ends.

"I want curls like Lindsey, Mom," I begged. "Please?!"

Dutifully, Mom did what she could. After my bath, she rolled my wet hair tightly in these incredibly prickly curlers, snapped a shower cap over the top, and sent me off to bed. I'm still not sure how I survived the night. That curler helmet was nothing less than a scalp torture chamber. Everytime I moved my skull exploded with stabbing pain. When I didn't move, it kept up an aching, your-hair's-being-ripped-out-of-your-skull tension. And all for naught. The next morning, when she took out the rods (or cattle prods, or whatever the hell they were), the curls lasted less than half an hour.

My point is, I lusted after curls, but they'd always eluded me. So when perms made the scene in the 1980's, I was nothing short of ecstatic. My hair curled, and stayed curled! I had bounce, flair, my entire visage lifted. I looked and felt happier. I clung to the perm concept for over a decade, but after I had children, visits to hair salons by necessity became brief, anxious affairs. Once again, my hair deflated to its limp origins.

Then one day, it was a late spring afternoon, as I remember, when my son was at school and my preschool-aged daughter had a play date, I visited a walk-in hair salon and, on a whim, asked the stylist if she could give me a perm. She was so nice about it, willing to abandon several hours worth of clients just so I could regain my curly peace of mind. Together, we suffered through the smell, the drips, the folded papers and different-sized curlers, the whir of the hair dryer, the tangle of curlers clicking in the sink during the wash and rinse. The whole time, I felt a growing sense of excitement. My curls were back! I was back! Look out world! I could have it all!

Then came that last blow dry and style--the one where the stylist whips the chair around for the final "ta da"--and I knew in one glance: I'd made a huge mistake. I only had myself to blame. It's true, most of the hair I'd had when I'd walked into the salon had been on top. Perhaps the raw material had been lacking for what I'd envisioned. Whatever the reason, my hair was a mess, now rising up in a mound of floppy silly string, stupid, a ridiculous after-thought.

On the way home, I stopped to pick up my first grader. When your little son--who rarely really looks at you--notices something different, you know you're in trouble.

"What's that on your head, Mom?" He asked, frowning at my curly-the-clown hairdo.

"It's, um, my summer hair," I said, brightly.

"Yuk," he said, buckling in for the ride home. "I liked it better the other way."

The style grew out, but the "summer hair" moment has endured. I don't think I'll ever live it down.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Delving for that je ne sais quoi

When I was in my twenties, I moved seven times in seven years. Now that I've stuck it out in the same locale for a couple of decades, I've discovered stylists are perpetually on the move as well. One said she was moving to a different city to see what it was like. Another fell for a boyfriend who wanted her to learn to dance the salsa and sit by his pool. One guy got a chair in a better salon. Another moved back to Texas because he grew up there and loved riding his ATV through the desert.

Being in the market for a stylist is as torturous as, say, shopping for a car. Cars run the gamut of personality statements--racy, sexy, conservative, cute--just like hair. I'm looking for a stylist who will not only see me for who I am, but who will, with skill, finesse, and expensive haute couture training, produce the spitting image of how I see myself, or failing that, how I'd like to be seen.

Over the years, I've tried just about everything. Sometimes I've asked friends for referrals. Or I've driven down streets and eyed salon storefronts, wrapping my mind around flippy names ("Hair Works," "Hair Raisin'"), trying to hone in on harmonious vibes. Or I've opened the yellow pages to "beauty salons," closed my eyes, and pointed.

This time, the universe didn't seem to align with my quest. The friend I asked said her hair stylist had moved. Huh. Go figure. I called several numbers in the yellow pages but got voicemails. Meanwhile, my hair grew steadily limper, more frayed. Waiting in line at the bank one day, worrying over who I was gonna call (Hairbusters?), I noticed the woman's hair right in front of me in line. It was sophisticated, chic, not overstated. I tapped her on the shoulder.

"Excuse me! Can I ask you? Who cuts your hair?"

The woman pivoted, exclaiming: "Shelly! Oh, I just love her! She's done my hair for years!"

Since the line was crawling, we had an opportunity to delve: Shelly had staying power, Shelly cut hair at a salon not far from here, Shelly was the greatest hair stylist on the planet. The woman even gave me Shelly's card. That wasn't so bad, after all. You just never can tell.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Hair loss shocker

I know that having hair is not a given, but I'd always had plenty of it. Too much, even, so that I'd have to stand under a blow-dryer way longer than I had patience for to get all that hair dry. So no one was as shocked as I was to discover a few years ago that my hair was falling out. By the handful. By the brush full. My hairline was inexpicably receding. The drain was clogged with hair each time I showered. It got to the point where my heart started to pound before I stepped in the tub, and immediately afterward, I'd rub a circle in the steam on the mirror to examine what, if anything, had stayed attached to my head.

It was an isolated symptom--almost. I also had drier and drier skin in general, and my scalp had started to itch and flake. I couldn't exactly see what was going on, but my stylist let me know it was more serious than I thought. After cutting my hair, Joe gave me a stern lecture about scalp conditioners, and sold me an expensive bottle of shampoo and a $15 brush so I could "itch" my scalp when I detangled. I tried his shampoo, but the hair kept falling out. Two months later, I went back, still hoping for a magic cure.

"So, what's going on with your scalp?" Joe asked without preamble as I lowered down before him in his chair. He hadn't even touched my hair. He sighed heavily and I watched in the mirror as he now lifted fistfuls of it, peeking underneath with a disapproving frown.

"I'm using that shampoo," I said weakly.

He didn't reply: He left. I sat in the chair for ten minutes while Joe wandered around washing brushes, putting in a new CD, folding manicure towels. Finally, he returned to me with another sigh, pushing the foot pedal to raise my chair like he could hardly stand it.

"You know what?" I volunteered. "I think I'll grow out my hair, actually. Let's not do anything today."

"O.K.," he said brightly. "Let me think." He walked around the chair to face me and frowned at my plain, free of make-up visage. "I could wax your eyebrows. Do you mind?"

I shook my head mutely. And he set to work.

Thirty minutes later I had artfully defined eyebrows and a light application of lipstick. My stylist unsnapped my cape with a flourish and hurried to his checkout desk. I pulled on my sweater and stood obediently at the counter, thinking: $25? or God forbid-$30? What should I tip?

"That'll be $70," he said.

Dumbfounded, I wrote out the amount, neglected the tip, and left for good. I'd gotten nowhere with my horrifying hair loss and my checkbook had just undergone a terrible thrashing, like a feeding frenzy of beluga whales.

The next morning, after I'd cleaned another mat of precious hair off the shower drain, I got desperate and called my general practitioner for a referral to a scalp specialist.

"Oh, your GP can take care of that," the RN said cheerfully.

And she did. I had psoriasis. There was a prescription shampoo and a scalp oil treatment that restored my dry scalp and kept the hair on my head.

The whole experience gave me a new appreciation for the suffering that accompanies hair loss. Temporarily, I'd joined the ranks of people who have lifetime scalp issues, or who lose their hair in chemo, or who genetically go bald. And I'm here to report it's more than humiliating. Hair is a part of our identities, so when we lose it, we lose part of ourselves. Samson lost his hair and his power. In the end, I didn't lose all that much hair, but I did lose my stylist.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Coif of Hope

I was overdue for a hair cut, which I'd been putting off because I just couldn't get excited about it. Besides, I was having trouble with my oven. The gas was taking forever to ignite and when it did there was a dull explosion inside. Not to mention the murky gas odor I kept smelling. So I made an oven appointment instead, calling the 800 number in the Amana repair manual.

"Thank you for calling Maytag."

Maytag? Whatever. It was somehow reassuring to think I'd be helped by that man in the starched blue suit and silly hat. I went ahead and made the appointment, setting aside an entire day to wait for the doorbell to ring.

On the scheduled day, four hours and fifty-five minutes into my vigil, it finally did. I hurried to answer the door. My first thought on opening it was that something terrible had happened. My oven guy was shockingly disfigured. Perhaps an oven he'd been repairing had exploded? The purple stain of a birthmark spread across his entire lower face and mouth. His skin was oddly dimpled, like it had been badly upholstered to his frame. His large glasses were wrong--tortoiseshell, round, oversized--only adding to the grotesque effect. I couldn’t tell if his skin was always that color, or if he just hadn’t washed. And, most unfortunate, he was standing there with a sad, hangdog expression, like he’d rung a million doorbells and every single face had fallen at the sight of him.

I forced myself to let him in the house--was he contagious? I tried not to think about it--and he set to work, diagnosing the need for a new igniter and finishing up in about fifteen minutes. With the disfigured visual input, and his head actually being in the oven in a worrisome way while he replaced the igniter, it wasn't until he was filling out the paperwork on the kitchen island that I noticed his hair, his loose curls a rich brown with frosted highlights, the style soft, carefully arrayed. It was captivating, mesmerizing. He'd used product, perhaps mousse for hold, a volumizer for body, a finisher for shine. My heart expanded: I had a lift-off-the-ground, floating feeling.

This deflated, pockmarked man sporting dark stains over 30-percent of his body had hair fashion sense, a winning style. I could hear the chorus of hallelujahs every time I glanced at it. Perhaps he had a date that night, I fantasized, a loved one to impress. I sincerely hoped for him that he'd succeed. He was fighting back against inherent issues with charming valor. Maybe he couldn’t color or iron his skin, but by God, he could do something about his hair.

After I'd ushered out the Maytag man (no, he wasn't wearing a starched blue suit, though I hear they're bringing those back), the house seemed strangely empty. I wandered to the bathroom mirror and stood staring at my image, assessing my own coif: It framed my face poorly, was limp with split ends, forlorn and untended. But the least I could do was try. I picked up the phone and dialed.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Hairpisodes: What hair does to us, what we do to hair

This is how it starts. I sit in the salon chair and the stylist fastens that slippery black cape tightly around my neck—too tightly. I’ve never heard of anyone asphyxiating in a stylist’s chair, so I try to relax. This hair appointment is therapy—a much needed dose of medicine—a make-over to my next level of self-awareness. Breathe, I tell myself, breathe.

I've lost my regular hairdresser, who was so hard to find in the first place, and now I'm overdue for a cut. I couldn't seem to bring myself to make an appointment--I've had so many bad styling experiences over the years I've begun to refer to them as "hairpisodes." I don't consider myself superstitious, but I have a hunch this outing will end badly. Let's face it, I'm pinned to the chair, and that woman behind me is wielding some razor sharp scissors. I should just leap up and run screaming from the salon, black cape and all, but stupid me, I hang in there.

"You like?" the woman keeps asking as she snip snip snips, pieces of hair flying in all directions. "You like?" I don't nod, afraid she'll miss, and besides, I can hardly swallow. But the stylist doesn't notice, chattering away in a foreign tongue to the other stylists, and especially to the sullen woman sweeping with the broom. It takes ten, maybe fifteen minutes to lose the hair I've been growing out for six years. Released from my noose, I stumble forward, grab my purse, and pay hastily so they won't see me cry.

Arriving at the restaurant to meet Dave, he looks up, then back at the menu like he doesn't know me. My throat still feels choked as I sink into the booth opposite him. He glances up, then does the double-take I fear.
"What did you do?!" He asks.
"Well, I didn't mean for it to be this short," I say thinly.
"Where did you go?"
"That discount place across the street. My regular hairdresser moved to Texas." I sound as forlorn as I feel.
"Across the street? I go there! Did you get that skinny woman who cuts hair like a butcher?!"
"Maybe. Does she have short brown hair that looks sorta like this?" I grab a stout tuft from the side of my head.
"God! She only knows how to do one cut. Everyone leaves her chair looking exactly the same!"

So I'd met the butcher, and faced her like a coward. I resolved to never go back there. And grow back my hair, too. That would show her.