Friday, October 29, 2010

Above: On the UCLA campus, after a high school cross-country meet, in the spring of 1964; I was 16


You Have Requests? We Fill Them!

or "Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow"

Give me down to there 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 hai

– From the musical, Hair.


For several decades, I sported a full head of hair. The thatch of hair on top of my head, that once was a thick-grown forest, has now thinned into a lazy patch of weeds.

Earlier this week, my barber performed a buzz cut on me. I don't have to dry my hair. I don't have to part it.

I uploaded a photograph of the result in my last post. A reader asked me to post some photographs of me that date from before my haircut. That made me think more about why I cut my hair.

My wife had cut her own locks short several days ago. Kathy cut her hair, in part, to make it more manageable. Knowing in advance she was going to do this, and I decided that when she did, I would cut mine, too, ostensibly to share in the experience of change.

Yet I knew that cutting my hair was fraught with implications. Over the last ten years, I've occasionally dreamt that I'm looking in a mirror, and the image starting back at me is almost or completely bald. That would sometimes be frightening enough to wake me. I'd have to calm myself with the cliched thought that, "It was only a dream. I still have some hair."

Such dreams are not strictly about baldness. They are metaphors, for the fear of castration, of growing old, or powerlessness, of death. I need only think of Samson, in the Old Testament, to know that losing one's hair can be a metaphor not just found in dreams, or in hair restoration commercials. Our hair, and the loss of it, is entwined in a myth that defines who we are as humans.

As I searched for the photographs I’ve used here, I thought about a passage from from Ernest Hemingway’s look back at the years he spent in Paris with his first wife, Hadley, in the posthumously published A Moveable Feast. In a chapter titled, “Secret Pleasures,” Hemingway wrote that when “we lived in Austria in the winter we would cut each other’s hair and let it grow to the same length.”

Although he's mostly known for his spare, muscular prose, Ernest Hemingway had what might be described as an obsessive interest in hair. To understand the long and shorn of his interest in locks, we need only know that “Papa’s” mamma dressed and treated him as a girl. Yes, little boys were dressed somewhat androgynously long ago, but not until the age of four. Hemingway's mother, Grace, held Marcelline, her oldest daughter, back a year so she and Ernest would be in the same grade in school, gave them similar haircuts, and dressed them alike. It was her experiment at "twinning."

Whatever the effect of his upbringing, Hemingway's male and female characters in his stories and books find themselves over and over again switching roles and uniting to become one person. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Maria tells Robert Jordan, "I am thee and thou art me and all of one is the other. And I love thee, oh, I love thee so. Are we not one? Canst thou not feel it?" Robert Jordan feels it.

In the Garden of Eden, he writes: “You aren’t really a woman at all,” Marita said.

“I know it,” Catherine said. “I’ve tried to explain it to David often enough. I did try and broke myself to pieces in Madrid to be a girl...You’re both a girl and a boy.”

Head hair, of course, has always been an attractant. In Hemingway's world, though, this sense of attraction is carried to the heights. Hair is touched, it's bleached, it's tawny, it's to be stared at, mouthed, shaved, grown long or, as it was with Ernest and Marcelline, cut and shaped androgynously short.

Unlike Hemingway, I don't think I have gender issues. I’m nothing like Hemingway, except that, like Hemingway, I think about becoming older. That's because I am older. Maybe it’s fair to imagine, though, that Hemingway, like me, had his own dreams about hair.

If I admit that fear of the loss of my hair is a metaphor for the loss of power, of control over life, then it’s also fair to ask myself why I cut my hair. Why do I reveal the broad sweep of my baldpate? Why not hold onto what vision of youth, of strength, I still have when I look in a real – rather than a dreamer's – mirror?

I think the answer is that Kathy’s trim triggered a freedom to facedown the fears of my mortality; it triggered a confidence to accept who I am on my own terms. Or as the New Testament reads, quoting the apocryphal Paul, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

That’s not to say I won’t let my hair, what’s left of it, grow out again. It is to say that I may have a better insight of what it means to be myself. Maybe I even have a more authentic life than I did before I cut my hair. Hemingway wanted an authentic life, too. He conjured that life, if not in himself, then in the lives of his many characters. Like each part in a head of hair, each of Hemingway's characters were, of course, parts of himself.

Now onto a few more photographs:

I was probably about 20 when the above photograph was made.

That's me with my daughter Rebecca, above, who is now 29. Yes, her hair was that red. And my hair and beard were that thick and that dark. Rebecca must have been about two. I would have been about 33.

Above: Rebecca now, with the man in her life, who is also her fiance, Lee.


sweeper said...

Dave, Have you read Ursula Le Guin's "Left Hand of Darkness"? It may be the best book ever on the roles of men and women and the psychology of each. Especially of what happens when you change roles.

Dave said...

Sweeper - Le Guin is one if my favorite authors and The Left Hand of Darkness one if my favorite books. Too bad Hemingway wasn't able to read the book.

I should take another look at the book.

What would a sci fi book by Hemingway have been like?