Saturday, December 30, 2017

Horse hair

Recently, a friend pointed out that, despite the many topics I've covered about hair, I've not once mentioned horse hair. I'm rarely around horses, so it just didn't occur to me.

As I combed (ahem) the internet looking into it, I found that horse hair is much more prevalent in my immediate surroundings than I would have thought.

For instance, horse hair is often used in concrete. Its fiber adds strength. It's also used in mortar. The walls of my house date to the 1950s and are made of plaster -- horsehair might just have been sheltering me from storms all along.

Horse hair is used for all kinds of things - pottery, fishing line, fabrics, paintbrushes, jewelry... Until synthetic fabrics came along, it was the goto for padding in furniture, not a bad choice since horse hair is more heat resistant than human hair. According to, the hair would be stripped from the horse's mane and crimped with a hot iron. (A horse's mane grows as much as 1-1/2 inches per month.) Called "Horse-hair Curlers," people used to have jobs doing this kind of work.

Horse hair is also music to our ears -- violin bows are made of it. The quality of horse hair used in a violin bow is exceedingly important. For the upper strings, only white hair from a stallion is used. Why? Black hair is coarser, used for the lower strings like the cello and bass. The hair for string bows comes from the tails of horses in really cold climates such as Siberia, Mongolia and Canada. I learned all this, and eight other facts about the horsehair on a string player's bow, at a post at Colorado Public Radio here.

It was in reading the comments at the above post that things got even more interesting. Since horse hair is often procured from slaughterhouses, for some the use of horse hair is a "cruelty to animals" issue, with alternatives constantly being sought. As I scrolled down the comments, this pungent remark stuck with me, made by Kamrooz Sanii: "We must realize that only the hair from male horse is useful because those from female horse is not since the female urinates constantly on its tail." There you have it.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Hawaiian hair leis

On a recent trip to Hawaii, I visited the Kaua'i Museum and discovered again the power of hair, existent historically in so many different cultures. For the people on the island of Kaua'i, a person's hair, as well as bone and nail clippings, were carefully guarded as they were believed to carry a person's spirit, or mana.

The Kaua'i people made leis out of hair, called lei niho palaoa, described in the museum exhibit thus:

This lei worn by men and women of high rank consisted of up to 1,000 strands of plaited (braided with 8 hairs) human hair from which hung a pendant carved in the shape of the tongue of the god Ku. It signifies the wearer speaks with authority.
The interpretive plaque went on to explain the talisman-like significance of the lei niho palaoa.
The hair of a highly regarded person was often used to create the strands of plaited human hair (this included hair from enemy warriors that were highly respected). The men would wear the lei niho palaoa into battle as protection.
While the pendant pictured here is carved of whale ivory, other pendants were made of pearl shell, wood, or stone.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Blue hair is in the eye of the beholder

At a recent visit to the eye doctor, he started explaining to me about the research studies on blue light from LED bulbs and computer screens, how long-term exposure interrupts our circadian rhythms.

"Remember those old ladies who used to have blue-rinsed hair?"

"Um, yeah," I said. Where was he going with this?

"Actually, as the eye ages, people become less sensitive to the color blue. So they thought they were correcting the ugly yellow color of their hair. To them, their hair looked pure white. They didn't see the blue."

Could this be right? Well, yes and no. Maybe some women's eyes/cataracts fooled them into thinking their hair looked white, but others were making a definite beauty statement, following the lead of movie star Jean Harlow. In the 21st century, we can't help but follow the lead of that stunning cartoon star, Marge Simpson.

Browsing about blue hair opened a wider vista than I thought possible. Wikipedia has a page devoted to it here.

Did you know, for instance, that artistic depictions of the Buddha often show him with blue hair? "This artistic convention emphasizes the blue element in the 'blue-black' hair said to be one of the 32 special physical characteristics of the Buddha." Oh my.

There's also a social stigma against it, leading to at least one lawsuit defended by the ACLU. (Also described in more detail on Wikipedia's "Blue Hair" page.)

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Hair bandwagons

During recent travels in Scotland, it was early September, school just back in session. I was out for a walk one day at a park near a school, and noticed a group of lads all wearing a similar haircut. The sides were buzz cut, but on top it was left long. Here's a picture of a Scot on a train -- to give you an idea.

At first, I thought maybe it was a small enough town that the kids all went to the same barbershop. Then I began to notice it on older guys, too.

I was musing about this trend, how something like a hairstyle can catch on, and everyone goes along with it. How I hadn't noticed it back in Seattle, and maybe it would begin to be popular there before too long? Even before getting on the plane to Seattle, I was eyeballing hairstyles, and noting that people headed in my direction were mostly wearing the same shaggier style with which I was familiar.

Back home this week, my son asked me to cut his hair.

"Do you want that kind of cut where it's really short on the sides and long on top?" I joked as we were setting up.

"You mean the Macklemore cut?" he said.

"Macklemore cut?!" I couldn't believe it actually had a name.

"Yeah, that rapper from Seattle, Macklemore. He wore his hair like that and it became a fad."

Talk about your ironies. I'd been thinking it was foreign, and it had come from my home town in a way, all along.

"Most people don't know this," my son went on, "but it's actually similar in style to what the 'Hitler Youth' used to wear."

He added that Macklemore had abandoned the style over a year ago.

While I doubt most guys with that haircut are consciously making a "racist" statement with it, this phenomenon of going with the flow is symptomatic of our times, the tendency to hop on bandwagons without thinking through the implications.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Hair unbalanced

In July, I forgot to schedule a hair appointment until it was too late so my regular stylist wasn't available. The salon suggested Kay, and I went for it.

"What are you looking for today?" Kay asked as I settled tentatively into her chair.

I had experienced moments like this before. Things could go terribly wrong terribly fast.

"I guess just more of the same," I said, surprised by the uncertainty in my voice.

"You know what would look really great on you?" Kay asked. "Just a minute, I'll go get a picture."

Kay seemed really excited as she showed me the photo -- a hip, sharp-looking blonde sporting an asymmetrical haircut, short on one side, long on the other. "You're already headed in this direction, we could totally do this," she said.

"I do need to look good for this conference," I said. "But not like I'm trying to look twenty years younger than I am."

"Oh, I won't overdo it," Kay assured me. "We'll keep it on the moderate side."

I left the salon feeling pretty good about it, but no one said a word to me about it, a sure sign things had gone awry. Except my daughter, about a week later. "Your hair is, like, all auburn and swoopy," she said.

We both laughed. "I know, right?" Worse, it was annoying; the part was so far to the side that my bangs were always in my eyes.

To address this, I pushed my bangs back entirely using a 99-cent head band, so my hair resembled windblown dune grass.

That was enough of that. At my next appointment, I insisted on, and regained, an appearance of symmetry and balance.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Things that blow my hair back

There have been plenty of items in the news these days to make my hair stand on end, so I liked to pause for a moment to reflect on a few things that blow my hair back. A few things that fill me with a sense of awe.

For starters, my hair was blown back by the voice of mezzo Sarah Larsen when she sang "Deep River" last Sunday. Sarah's just here from New York for a couple of months. If you're anywhere near the Seattle area, listen up. Sarah Larsen is giving a recital through the Seattle Art Song Society with accompanist Elisabeth Ellis and tenor Eric Neuville this Friday, July 28, 7:30 p.m. at Queen Anne Christian Church, 1316 3rd Avenue West, Seattle, WA, 98119. More details here.

A few other things that blow my hair back:
  • my sister-in-law Cheri is 3-scans cancer-free after struggling through a diagnosis of nodular melanoma last year.
  • son George just passed the 1,000 mile mark on the Pacific Crest Trail
  • Coffeetown Press has accepted my memoir "How We Survive Here: Families across time," the story of my quest to trace my ancestry, due out in 2018 
  • this coming September I'll be studying writing at Moniack Mhor Writing Centre near Inverness in Scotland with authors Amanda Smyth, Paul Murray, and Jane Harris
For it all, I feel a sense of fathomless gratitude.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Hair discrimination

It felt like a blast from the past, a furor over school dress codes. In this case, though, it wasn't a policy across the board against girls wearing pants in school as it was in my day. This dress code smacked of racial discrimination.

I happened to be visiting in Boston, Massachusetts mid-May when Malden charter school in the Mystic Valley area came under fire for discrimination against hair braid extensions, a relatively recent fashion trend. Here are a couple of examples of hair braid extensions from

According to a May 21 article in the Boston Globe, braid extensions were determined by school officials to be "unnatural" and "drastic" and "distracting." Students wearing braid extensions at school faced detention and possible suspension.

Students and parents cried foul. Why were braid extensions distracting on black and biracial students, while neon-bright dyed hair on white girls went unnoticed? There was also a hair-no-thicker-or-higher-than-two-inch rule. Wha - a - ? That policy also seemed to point directly at students with hair that could be styled as afros.

Under a flurry of protests and media exposure, within a week, the school lifted the braid extension moratorium. Oh yes, and after the Attorney General Maura Healey sent a letter to the school saying the policy was unlawful. In response, the trustees suspended the policy for the remainder of the year, but did not change or cancel it altogether. Sheesh. Get a clue.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Hair Recipes, Part I-b

Or maybe a better title for this post would be "Hair Comedy." Steve Carell busting a gut over FertHairLizer on Comedy Central.

And how about that head of hair on Jon Stewart. God, those were the days.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Hair Recipes, Part I-a

When I see the title "Hair Recipes," I think of recipes with hair in them. Ew.

Are there such things? With all the hair being cut daily around the world, there oughta be. Think of the tonnage going to landfills otherwise. Recycle nation supplies the following data:
The average hair salon collects about 1 pound of discarded hair per day. In the U.S. alone, there are about 300,000 hair salons. That’s 300,000 pounds, or 136 tons of human hair per day, just in the U.S.!
What do they suggest? In addition to a few time-consuming, creepy-looking hair sculpture, clothing, and furniture alternatives, the site notes there is also FertHAIRLizer -- plant fertilizer with hair in it. Hair, it turns out, has a high nitrogen content. According to Recycle Nation:
Consider this stunning fact: about 6-7 pounds of human hair contains 1 pound of nitrogen — as much as 100-200 pounds of cow manure!
I've often wondered about the weed patch just off my deck. It's a shaded spot where you wouldn't expect such healthy dandelions, but it's also where I shake off the hair-clipping-coated towel after I give my son a haircut. Mystery solved. I've been feeding my weeds with nitrogen. And to return to an earlier hair repurposing, there's also using hair to clean up oil spills through Matter of Trust.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Hair signals

The hair on our heads grows continuously, a trait unique to our species. In evolutionary terms, countless millennia ago human body hair (aka, fur) was reduced to a relatively insignificant amount, while the hair on our heads began to grow, and keep growing, throughout our lives. What is that all about?

According to an Evolutionary Anthropology article "Hair Grows To Be Cut," continuous hair growth allows us to manipulate our hair to send signals to others that "herald the cultural identity of their bearer, providing cues about tribal belonging, rank in the community, marital status, and value or history of individuals."

In a related article, "Hair Signals," it states:
Truly untended hair implies that the wearer is desperate or insane and, furthermore, has no friends. Pseudo-untended hair signals ritual mourning in some cultures or, more often, cultural revolt (hippy ponytails, dreadlocks).
By contrast, tended hair, no matter the method, broadcasts one or more signals.

Take the photo above. One haircut can produce a variety of looks: business woman, adventurer, fun lover, come hither ... It all depends on how you present your message.

But not all messages are intentional. Several years ago, I shifted my hair color from brown to red, in part on the recommendation of my hair stylist. Right away, men started doing double-takes when they hadn't before. Was I sending some kind of signal? The next time I went in for a cut, I mentioned it to Jeff, thinking he'd have the answer, but apparently not.

"Really? No way," he said.

"Yes way. I mean, it's never happened before. I really think there's some weird attraction men have to red hair."

"That's kinda creepy," Jeff said, but I could tell he wasn't entirely convinced. Like maybe I was imagining it.

Regardless, the double-takes weren't leading to anything untoward, and I even found it a bit flattering, so I hung onto the red.

I've since found it wasn't my imagination. There is indeed something about men experiencing an increased attraction to women who wear red. In 2008, psychologists at the University of Rochester studied men's reactions to women in red, as compared with men's reactions to women in gray, green, and blue. Hands down, red was the hot color of choice.
Under all of the conditions, the women shown framed by or wearing red were rated significantly more attractive and sexually desirable by men than the exact same women shown with other colors. When wearing red, the woman was also more likely to score an invitation to the prom and to be treated to a more expensive outing. ... [However,] red did not change how men rated the women in the photographs in terms of likability, intelligence or kindness.
The study also looked at women's reactions to women in red, and found the "red effect" only happened for men. The article concludes "As much as men might like to think that they respond to women in a thoughtful, sophisticated manner, it appears that at least to some degree, their preferences and predilections are, in a word, primitive."

As primitive as the origins of our continuously growing hair, and the many ways we choose to flaunt it.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Long hair in the big leagues

I was pretty impressed the other day when I glanced at the front Sports page of the Seattle Times and saw they'd published an article on hair.

Yup, columnist Larry Stone pontificates on how this year's Mariners team have shown up for Spring Training looking like: "The Titans of Tress. The Monsters of Mane. The Leviathans of Locks."

Pitchers in particular, Stone points out, can make sly use of their long hair.

"Certainly, the Mariners had an outlier in the button-down 1990s when Randy Johnson used his wild locks as part of a calculated mask of intimidation," Stone writes. And, a little further on:

For a pitcher, there might be a tactical advantage to having hair that whips back and forth, Willow Smith style, during delivery. One anonymous ballplayer told the Bergen Record last year that he was distracted by deGrom’s cascading hair.

“You can’t not look at it,” he said. “It’s everywhere. It bothers me when I’m trying to pick up the ball out of his hand. All I see is hair.”
Check out the full story here.

The Seattle Times also did a poll to learn what readers think on the subject. The results are in:

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Cowlicks and whorls

Cowlicks and whorls. Reminds me of the Lewis Carroll Jabberwocky poem:
Twas brillig, and the slithy toves.
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.
Cowlicks, aka hair whorls are about as whimsical as Carroll's gyre and gimbel. A cowlick is actually a spiral, or whorl, of hair. We all have one. Blue-hair girl above is sporting her whorl/cowlick quite obviously, where it originates at the top center of her scalp. We have these whorls from the day we're born.

Since hair whorls are both clockwise and counterclockwise (more rare), research has been done to to see "if there is a genetic link between handedness and hair-whorls." People have actually studied this stuff. Amar J.S. Klar's research showed "8.4% of right-handed people and 45% of left-handed people have counterclockwise hair-whorls," indicating that "a single gene may control both handedness and hair-whorl direction." (from Wikipedia)

Thing is, other animals have hair whorls too, notably horses and cows. According to the "Word Detective,"
The first appearance of “cowlick” in print found so far was way back in 1598 (“The lockes or plaine feakes of haire called cow-lickes, are made turning vpwards”). (A “feak” is a dangling lock of hair). The cowlick is so-called because the disruptive lock is said to look as if it had been produced by a lick from a passing cow. It’s also commonly called a “calf-lick,” but in that case it may be a reference to the effects on a calf’s coat of grooming by Momma Cow.
That said, other languages do not appear to mention cows in relation to hair whorls, so the term is pretty much confined to English. (Again, the Word Detective.)

Anyhow, some of us have two (or more) cowlicks, which is where things get tricky. My second cowlick is dead center in front on my hairline.

It can look okay.

Or it can look silly.

Or downright weird, depending.

Hair stylists are always trying methods of making it disappear, but it never works. As far as I'm concerned, it's hair personality shinin' through.