Posts Tagged ‘culture’

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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Okay, Hillary lives on to fight another day (or at least fifty of them), Mac sews it up and who would have predicted any of it? Since there are a number of blogs dissecting the minutia of this crazy run-up to the nomination, I’d rather turn my attention today to the run of fake, or should I say “faked” memoirs.

As a writer, I’m interested in the proliferation of books that ought to be titled “My Life – Not. ” The latest dust-up is over “Love and Consequences,”a critically acclaimed memoir about a half-white, half-Native American foster child running drugs for gang-bangers in Los Angeles was apparently completely fabricated. The comfortably middle-class all-white woman who wrote the book defended her actions as a way to “give voice to people who people don’t listen to” – a sentence that doesn’t exactly suggest an inspired writing style, never mind that it’s fiction.

Some may remember the tale of James Frey, whose memoir “A Million Little Pieces” was touted by Oprah and sold as her recommendations do – very well indeed. When the truth of his million little lies surfaced, he was emphatically scolded by Oprah on national TV, which was both entertaining and uncomfortable. Last year, Laura Albert applied her talents to writing as JT LeRoy, addict and son of a prostitute; she even managed to find an actor to wrap himselves in scarves and sunglasses to show up as the nonexistent LeRoy at all the right parties. But wait, there’s more: what about the heart-rending memoir of a young girl trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto who killed a German soldier, escaped and trekked a couple thousand miles across Europe in search of her parents. Oh and did I mention the part about her being adopted by wolves who saved her from the Nazis? The book, “Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years” by Misha Defonseca, a Belgian living in Massachusetts, was translated into eighteen languages and was adapted for a French film. It just happens to be complete fantasy. Misha’s name is Monique DeWael and by the way, she’s not even Jewish.

I’m not sure why these folks don’t all just write fiction, since they seem to be good at it. Apparently “real life” stories are seen by the struggling publishing industry (which is obviously saving money by laying off fact-checkers) as  more likely to sell more books. 

I’d love to have the fame and fortune that attend these authors, although obviously not the broken contracts, lawsuits and public humiliation that follow when they’re caught. My reality is pretty boring, except for one rather over-sized event that swamped my life for a time (9/11).  While my experiences are surely memoir-worthy, my “real” story is so much more interesting:

You see, I’m the one-legged illegitimate daughter of a Hollywood screenwriter named as a Communist sympathizer and his beautiful Norwegian/Spanish actress mistress who abandoned me to the streets of London in the late sixties. After falling in with a group of adorable orphans and their charismatic leader, I was taken in by pop model Twiggy, who sent me to a posh boarding school in Switzerland. I spent vacations in Los Angeles singing backup for the BeeGees before dropping out and hitchhiking to India where I worked with Mother Teresa. There I fell in love with a handsome graduate student and champion cyclist teaching American-accented English to start-up entrepreneurs who had an idea for a giant call-center in Bangladesh. The stranger was really a prince in the royal house of some obscure and unpronounceable Arab emirate whose father, a forward-thinking ruler who was actually half-Jewish, was married to a stunningly beautiful Irish-Italian graduate of the London School of Economics. We wed, hosted several peace conferences, produced several stunningly handsome sons and one daughter, a math genius who is a contender in the Miss Teen World competition. Upon the death of my beloved’s father, he took over as a wildly popular leader of his peaceful, ethnically diverse and oil-rich country. After building a sustainable housing project next to our palace,we now divide our time between our lovenest in the desert and our vacation home on an island off the coast of North Carolina, the setting for my next novel.

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My pleasure reading tends to be semi-lowbrow fiction: mysteries and thrillers, the odd fantasy or science fiction, historical novel and sometimes deceptively small character-driven books. I don’t do too well with romance novels or their modern sub-genre, chick-lit; I don’t identify with the earnest, ditzy, determined or confused heroines, all of whom end up depending on the appearance of “Mr. Right”. My idea of escapist fare involves puzzles that have to be solved or life-or-death decisions that have to be made. The drama unfolds in the courtroom, not the bedroom.

However, I’m hooked on a particularly appealing non-fiction book right now called “The Age of American Unreason” by Susan Jacoby. This academic, erudite, densely packed but highly readable book lays out all the ways and all the reasons our culture has been dumbed down – I mean seriously, irrevocably dumbed down. There have been other books that have sounded the alarm; reviewers have been referring to Richard Hofstadter’s “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” written in 1963. But Jacoby’s smart, angry, sometimes funny book has the advantage of being very current and extraordinarily specific about all the ways we Americans proudly go for the lowest common denominator. It’s not just that we don’t know science or geography or social studies; we don’t know why we should. We misuse words, misunderstand meanings, resort to easy labels and shrug. We think information equals knowledge, every piece of news is actually newsworthy and every issue has two equivalent sides (to given an example: saying the Holocaust occurred and saying it didn’t are not rationally equal points of view), a position encouraged by cable talk shows.

If you think Ms. Jacoby is preaching to the choir, you’re right. I absolutely believe she’s onto something. I’m not nearly as outraged as she is, probably because I’m not nearly as smart or as intellectually rigorous. In fact, I’m guilty of accepting lower standards of excellence in everything from writing to speaking to TV programming. Still, I’m aware of my shortcomings and make daily efforts to improve my knowledge base. And while I suppose my swearing contributes to the cultural coarsening she deplores, I swear I know the difference between trash, even the enjoyable junk, and news that’s worthy of serious consideration. Britney does not equal Iran on my radar screen. It does for many Americans, though and that’s what worries me.

I’m also concerned, as is Jacoby, about how the idiocy we’re force-fed dulls our ability to think rationally. We’re really getting out of practice, people. How else to explain the bills proposed by Alabama State Senator Hank Erwin that would allow professors and some students carry guns on Alabama’s college campuses, legislation gaining some traction following the recent shooting at Northern Illinois University? The good Senator is quoted as saying: ” “Most university folks feel a no-gun policy is the best policy. I understand their feelings, but reality says otherwise.” Arm students and teachers and let everyone shoot at each other? I want to scream, “Have we lost our minds?” but I already know the answer.

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I was amused to see a new Rambo movie on the horizon (less than two weeks). After all, Sylvester Stallone has always been a kind of loveable lunk, even as he took out the bad guys with as few words and as much hardware as possible. He’s not nearly as much fun to watch as Bruce Willis but he’s nothing if not sincere.  But an article in the paper today suggests that aging eighties heroes are making a comback because we (well maybe the male version of “we”) yearn for iconic heroic types in this uncertain world. Thus we have Stallone stomping, Chuck Norris stumping (for Mike Huckabee) and Hulk Hogan hosting a new version of American Gladiator. Is this cause for proto-feminists to panic? After all, in the coming election, gender seems linked to the issue of toughness in a less than enlightened way.

It’s not that women don’t get to kick their share of tail nowadays, at least in the fantasy world. There are plenty of video examples, although how those gals work around their Barby-like curves is beyond me. Fox’s new show, “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” features a very tough-love heroine and “Live Free or Die Hard” showcases a throughly lethal villainess who almost gets the upper hand until Willis’ character realizes it’s okay to punch a woman if she’s trying to kill you. These ladies strike me as a lot more dangerous than the pumped-up young studs who seem to have acquired their muscles for the purpose of snagging babes at the beach (e.g. Matthew McConaughey). In general, though, the young guys don’t make much more headway than the women for the legions of mostly male fans who apparently like their testosterone delivered with an air of world-weary authority. I don’t know if this signals a yearning for the good old eighties, although it’s true that half our candidates seem to think the Reagan years represent the last time America had it all figured out. I prefer to think of this mini-phenomina as a way for aging baby boomers to prove they can still bring it to the table – well, in entertainment, if not in politics.

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I’ve been thinking alot about my parents lately – maybe it’s the holidays. In any event, it made sense for my sister and I to take a ride down to Philadelphia today, where a painting that once belonged to my parents now graces the corner of one wall in the Philadelphia Museum of Art‘s American Art Collection. The painting is “Doorway in Tangier” by the artist Henry O. Tanner, an internationally acclaimed African American painter active in the late 19th century and into the early part of the twentieth. While in Paris, Tanner apparently befriended my grandfather’s cousin Philip Miller, a talented but less well-known painter who later became a newspaper cartoonist. Tanner gifted the painting to Philip, who in turn presented it to my parents as a wedding present. My father took delight in its historical provenance; my mother, an aspiring artist, in Tanner’s evocative use of light and color. It held a cherished place in our living room and when my parents passed on, we called around to see which museum might appreciate its significance and similarly honor it. The folks at PMA were and continue to be most gracious, welcoming us during our now annual pilgrimage. No question that the very best legacy is one in which certain values and attributes are passed down from generation to generation. Still, it’s a bit of a thrill to know that a work by such a culturally important artist lives on through a remarkable “regifting” process and at the same time to see a familiar fixture of our childhood hanging so importantly next to a plaque bearing my folks’ names.

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