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Archive for September, 2011

The Tao of Hair

Shoulder length or longer
Here baby, there mama
Everywhere daddy, daddy

Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair
Flow it, show it
Long as God can grow it
My hair
© 1967 James Rado & Gerome Ragni (lyrics); Galt MacDermot (music)


So many things to worry about in the world and yet I find myself thinking about my hair–and why not? We are our hair. More than eye color or height or weight, hair seems to be how we humans make a statement. Some of this is evolutionary: healthy hair indicates youth and well-being, two desirable traits when it comes to the propagation of the species.  Hair is a distinguishing characteristic of mammals, providing both temperature control and, for many animals, camouflage. As most of us (but clearly not all of us) understand, our animal friends don’t really care how they wear their hair as long as it does what their instincts tell them it’s supposed to do: namely, protect and serve.

But we humans are different. We care about our hair (or lack of it)…and we experiment.

While there is ample evidence that men are attentive to styling (the early Greeks, the upper-class Renaissance, the Chinese warriors, fans of Elvis’ pompadour and even—shudder—the mullet), men generally seem to have two styles available to them: long and short. Oh sure, we may go through periods of mutton-chops or fringe bangs (heaven forbid) but at the end of the day, most men stay with short hair, with a few hold-outs opting for shaved heads or the less than inspiring ponytail.

Women, on the other hand, have infinite permutations, notwithstanding they’ve often followed the lead of their leaders—monarchs, movie stars and various trend-setters. In any given decade, you could find a pleasing variety of straight and curly, waist-length and bob, flip and page-boy, worn up, worn down, decorated with beads and feathers or worn unadorned. If you had a little money, you went to a fancy hairdresser and chose a style that suited you; if not, you flipped through pages of hairstyle magazines and selected something and had your mom or your best friend cut it.

So what’s with all the long hair?

I mean long, below the shoulder, tendrils gently brushing one’s breasts or tickling that spot on the back it’s so hard to reach when showering. These days, I feel surrounded by women who look as if they’re auditioning for roles on “Gossip Girls,” women of all ages whose tresses fall far below the shoulder. Some of them sport the super-straight look, apparently ignoring the recent reports about the dangers of formaldehyde in the most popular straightening formulas. More recently, I’ve seen an explosion of the gentle tendrils that make the wearer look like an aspiring fairy princess. A surprising number of women (including a close friend of mine, a financially comfortable woman with great clothes) have long hair that simply sits on the head, as if the wearer had absentmindedly allowed her hair to grow without benefit of cutting or conditioning. It’s not unusual to see three generations of women out on the town with identical hairstyles, tossing back stray strands while they munch on Waldorf salads or scour Target for matching T-shirts.

Popular culture shoulders part of the blame, especially television. These past seasons, we’ve seen a raft of smart, funny, capable women, most between thirty and fifty. Their independent spirit seems to extend to all parts of their lives save their hairstyle choice. Doctors, lawyers, detectives, coroners, therapists, operatives, mothers, U.S. marshals, drug dealers: everyone wears prom-ready do’s, showing up in the operating room, in the courtroom, or at the scene of a crime with locks akimbo. Wouldn’t a flowing mane obstruct a clean shot or a brilliant summation? Isn’t anyone worried about contaminating evidence or interfering with a crime scene?

Maybe it starts with the ads for the latest shampoo, conditioner, coloring or balm, all of which feature attractive young people cavorting under sunny skies swinging great masses of gleaming tresses back and forth without getting whiplash. It’s hair you want to sleep in, dress in, bathe in; who wouldn’t want some of that?

Long hair conveys sensuality and pre or post-menopausal women these days are particularly sensitive about competing for attention in a society that still doesn’t know where to put or how to treat its older women (we can’t all be Betty White).

My own hair has hovered between my chin and my shoulders for years now, occasionally retreating back towards the ear. If the base of the neck is my wire-fenced, heavily-patrolled, “may I see your passport, please” border, then the area to the collarbone is a no-fly zone. Part of the issue relates to sheer volume: as my hair gets longer, it becomes fuller, threatening to engulf my small face in sweeping waves and errant curls. There’s also my ongoing struggle to stay relevant yet also “appropriate.” I mean, as much as I approve of cross-generational pollinating, some fashions, like some behavior, are better worn by the young.

Still, I hear the siren song—or maybe it’s the swan song—of Samson, at least before Delilah got to him. Push the envelope, it sings; go long one time before you’re eligible for Medicaid. Embrace your freedom; who cares if it suits you? This is America. You have the right to look just like everyone else.

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We like to commemorate in the United States. Coming up, what I refer to as The-Anniversary-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named recalls a horrible event ten years ago when four planes, two towers, and several thousand lives were destroyed in an attack on U.S. soil. In the days that followed, we came together, focused not on hate and destruction (at least to my grief-stricken, New York-centric eyes) but on resilience and purpose.

Heartbreaking, isn’t it? Not that my husband or so many others were killed but that, ten years later, we’re farther apart than ever. Everyone has an opinion as to why that’s happened (everyone has an opinion on everything, freely spoken and easily distributed through the unfiltered megaphone that is the Internet). For me, the decade is captured (albeit in a simplified manner) in a letter I had published in the New York Times the other day in response to an article by Tom Friedman:

After my husband died on 9/11, I hoped the American public, which had come together in a spirit of resilience rather than one of anger, would resist the temptation to blame, to justify, to point fingers or to follow an “us versus them” scenario. Instead we’ve devolved into a selfish group of squabblers, ready to throw strangers under the bus and kick friends off the ladder. A small group sacrifices abroad while we dither about the endgame; here at home, we expect our neighbors to fend for themselves and our government to do its job without revenue. The list of enemies foreign and domestic grows longer; we trust no one. While I’m mindful that my husband may be more fairly called a victim than a hero, I am still saddened that his legacy and that of so many others might be tied to a period of profound civic retrenchment.

On my worst days, I’m tempted to blame everyone, including me for sitting at home and indulging in blame. I want to slap the collective citizenry across the face and yell, “Grow up! Stop fighting! Behave yourselves. No one is always right and no one is always perfect. We have to work together to get anything done. Get off your high horse and get to work!”

Honestly, I hate feeling angry as much as I hated feeling grief-stricken. That’s not who my husband was and it’s not who I am. And so I leave my friends, acquaintances and various readers with this rather hopeful thought, played out visually by a lovely dance troupe of children from Denver, CO who have channeled what we used to think of as the American spirit to produce a stunning montage. Sure, it’s sappy but deep down inside, I’m a sap.

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