Dying of Embarrassment!

I love words. I love learning new words. I love trying to determine the meaning of a new word based on the context in which I might hear or read it, after which I will open a dictionary (or ask Siri) for the definition. Please don’t hate me for it; it’s my job. I’m not shy about telling anyone who asks what I “do” that I’m an author, so my passion for words is entirely defensible. I initially wrote “excusable,” but found “defensible” more appropriate for expressing my proclivity to wax poetic when given the opportunity.

Just today I posted the following plea on Facebook:

Everyone please repeat after me: “I feel BAD about that.”

You don’t feel badly (unless you identify silk as barbed wire in a blind touch test). How many of you feel goodly about things? You don’t. Stop saying you feel badly.

So, you can only imagine the horror and embarrassment I felt when I committed a most heinous faux pas—on a couple of levels—at an RV Campground this past weekend. Here’s what happened:

In bold print along the mirrors in the bathroom are warning signs about what you “Absolutely” cannot do with your hair. I suppose the signs are necessary, what with potentially clogged sinks and power issues and such. So when I was in the stall and heard the sound of a hairdryer, I tried to think of a non-threatening way to bring my concern to the blatant rule-breaker.

At this point in my story, please remember my comment about reading words “in context.”

I went to the sink next to Ms. Rule-Breaker and smiled at her, then stared at the sign right in front of her, then looked back at her.

“I feel like I’m on Candid Camera right now,” I told her, giggling a non-threatening giggle, “like someone’s watching to see who’ll report the person, or tell them not to do what they’re doing.” I smiled again and nodded toward the signs.

Ms. Rule-Breaker looked confused and mumbled something like, “Yeah, okay,” and kept drying her hair. A woman of about 45, she looked like she could have been a school teacher or a librarian. I expected more from her, but I wasn’t about to make a bigger deal than I’d already made of the situation, so I left to help Mike prep the trailer for our departure.

“Emptying the shitter” is the last step before locking up (Chevy Chase Christmas Vacation fans will appreciate that visual), and I took the opportunity to grouse to Mike.

“They have the same signs in the men’s room too,” he told me, though he thought it was weird. “Maybe they have problems with circuit breakers.”

“Well, I guess the lady I just saw in the bathroom believes the rules don’t apply to her.”

No sooner had I uttered the words than the very same rule-breaker walked around our trailer, hairdryer in hand, and glared at me.

“And just so you know,” she said, “the signs say ‘No Hair DYING’.” She turned in a huff and walked away.

I wanted to run after her and say, “Oh! Really? I’m so sorry! I’m an author . . . I’ll write something funny about this . . .,” but Mike suggested that she might be an author too, and the words she’d use to describe me might not be so funny.

Yes, I was a sanctimonious ass, but come on! “ABSOLUTELY NO HAIR DYING” just doesn’t make sense in an RV Campground bathroom, does it? And in the men’s room too? Well at least now I know (should I ever decide I need to touch up my roots while camping), and I also know I need to read signs more closely . . . and speak more softly in public places!


My Hair Piece

I got this silly idea a few months ago that every girl should grow her hair down to her butt at least once in her lifetime, and since I never had, it became a goal. I’ve tried this several times in past years, never with success. The longest my hair has ever been was during sophomore year at Smith College. I was really cool then. I wore my wavy locks in braids and sashayed around campus with my patchwork skirts and my art portfolio.

"Senior dinner" at Smith College. French theme. Freshmen had to serve the dinner.
“Senior dinner” at Smith College. French theme. Freshmen had to serve the dinner.

I had lusted after Sheila’s hair in high school. A gymnast with thick red hair well past her butt, she represented everything I believed to be sexy. She was even smart and not too stuck up, so I had no reason to hate her. But I knew I’d never get the attention she got wherever she happened to be with her gorgeous locks swaying as she walked, lifting in a breeze, glowing in the sunshine. I also knew I was not built for backflips on a balance beam. For those petty pretty things, I envied her.

School hair never got much longer than this.
School photos…my hair never got much longer than this.

The “pixie” cut was Mum’s choice for me throughout my childhood years, and although I can’t remember ever complaining about the choice, I also coveted my baby sister’s long, golden strands. For school picture day, the best I could do was try to keep a ribbon-clip in my hair. Girls with long hair could do ever so much more. Even as a youngster I sensed the glamor symbolized by long hair, so after growing my own to shoulder-length in high school, I determined never to cut it again in college.

And then I joined the Army.

Cadets at West Point in 1979 had no access to hair stylists or salons, and my first butchering by the high-and-tight-hungry barber in the basement of a cold, stone building left me horrified—and convinced I could do a far better job myself. Fortunately, aside from ensuring my shoes shined like mirrors and my shirts were tucked just right into my starched pants, I had little time to think about my appearance, and the uniform hat hid much of my face beneath it, and my hair.

Me and my tent roomie Kelly.
Me and my tent roomie Kelly. No time–at all–to worry about hair.

I think I could probably take a few trips around the world with the money I’ve saved over the years by cutting and coloring my own hair and cutting my husband’s and sons’ hair. My horror at the cash register each of the few times I treated myself to a professional cut and color rivaled the horror I felt leaving that barber’s chair decades earlier. Two hundred dollars? Are you kidding me? And that’s without a tip? Do you have any idea how many bags of clothes I could fill at Goodwill with two hundred dollars?

For a few years we lived in a place where $200 was pocket change and hair extensions were as commonplace as Tupperware, so I convinced myself I deserved the occasional splurge. But I always felt guilty after handing over the credit card and hopping into my car, and when I checked myself out in the rear view mirror, I never felt 200+ dollars prettier. For $8.95 and about one hour in the privacy of my bathroom I could emerge with a color and cut that was “me.”

I laugh at myself now for my most recent attempt at long locks because this attempt marked the fourth time I’ve repeated this sequence:

  1. Decide to push past the awkward not-short-not-long phase.
  2. Camouflage the transition as best as I can.
  3. Start to feel good about my progress as my hair reaches my shoulders.
  4. Chastise myself for compulsive hair twirling.
  5. Enjoy the hair twirling because that means it’s growing longer.
  6. Buy all manner of hair adornments and accessories.
  7. Realize I’m spending lots of time keeping my hair out of my face.
  8. Wake up one morning with a mouthful of hair.
  9. Spit it out, walk to the bathroom, find the scissors, and cut it all off.
  10. Tell myself I’ll never grow my hair again.

Last week’s hair-in-the-mouth will be my last. The liberation I felt from all things “hair” inspired me to lighten up in other areas, too, and I filled bags with clothes and shoes from my stuffed drawers and closet. How did I get so many pairs of socks?

Waking with a mouthful of hair = time for a haircut!
Waking with a mouthful of hair = time for a haircut!

As I pondered the decision to embrace my inner pixie, the whole idea of hair consumed my thoughts for several days. I asked a long-haired friend why she would never cut her hair and she confessed to having an emotional attachment to it. She plays with it and it is a comfort to her, although she told me she woke up nearly strangled by it one morning. When she returned to her studies, I watched surreptitiously as she absentmindedly twirled and occasionally chewed on the ends of her lovely locks.

Every time I see someone who’s lost their hair to cancer treatment, the foolishness of my own vanity becomes clearer. It is vanity, after all, and it affects some more than others. Hair is something we adorn, hide behind, deceive others with (“Only her hairdresser knows for sure”), perm, tease, spray, braid, extend (so much deception!), feather, spike, dreadlock (Eek!) . . . the hair care industry will never die.

But I don’t want to be a slave to my hair anymore. I want to believe I’m at a stage in my life in which I’ll spend far more time on my inner development than my outer appearance. It’s not like I’m mature enough to shave it all off, though, and I’m still going to buy my $8.95 Clairol every six weeks, so I’m not walking away from all expressions of vanity.

“I like it. It’s cute,” my husband told me when he returned from work.

I’ll never be a Lady Godiva, and I’m finally okay with that.

I’ll settle for cute.


A friend recently suggested I read this article about hair. The author’s research extends beyond her personal experience, and she too was a pixie at one point! Siri Hustvedt’s article in New Republic.