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.