Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Best Cut

From childhood until I moved away for college, my father cut my hair. The process of cutting may have been considered an artistic practice. That is, if my father had had any clue what he was doing when it came to cutting hair.

He didn’t.

It may been considered an act of love when he delicately threaded curls of my black hair between his index and middle finger and snipped with his pair of kitchen scissors. That is, if he hadn’t tugged at hair until the knots came loose, alternately screamed at me sit still or be more malleable to better suit whichever purpose he fancied at the moment.

An act of love, it was not.

My sister stopped letting my father cut her hair in her early teenage years, after he unilaterally decided to give her a close-cropped, boyish cut. By the time she finished high school, she had grown her hair long enough that she could sit on the ends of it, and had earned the nickname of Pocahontas among her friends.

And I--I walked around with doofy haircuts. Short enough, for the first week or so, that they looked more or less fine, but before long stupid-looking, curling outward at all the wrong angles and proportions.

Around the age of 11 or 12, I started hyperventilating when my father would cut my hair. The solution was to move the operation out of the cramped bathroom, into the more open space of the garage, which, as a bonus, was easier to sweep. My breathing issues went on for a year or two, then, like so many other pieces of my childhood, receded.


Toward the end of a particularly stressful summer, working full-time with CTY, I talked with a woman named Sarah who was working for me, and she told me about the time she and her program manager from a decade earlier made a pact and each shaved their heads. She remembered that people stared and people laughed, but also the bond between that older soul and her for taking the plunge together. She remembered another staff member who took her aside in the dining hall when she thought she might cry for being such a spectacle--a woman who took her aside, put her hands on her shoulders, and told her she beautiful and brave.

I had shaved my head once before. Stressed out with a heavy course load and ever-increasing obligations to the college newspaper. That, and my flavor of the week girlfriend had dumped me and I felt the need to make some sort of grandiose gesture.

I remembered that time. Being 19 and capable of such things, and how it had been years since I had considered such an act--embroiled in a series of long-distance relationships, working in an office setting. I reflected on Sarah’s story.

To kick off my California vacation at the end that summer, I stopped at Target and bought a set of clippers.

A couple hours later, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror at my hotel. Not quite bald, but hair buzzed down to an eighth of an inch length. I looked different. Not quite newborn. But new.


I sat in a barber’s chair at the hair salon on Main Street, my junior year of college. I’d worked my way through most of the hairdressers by that point. Each time I had scheduled an appointment with the same hairdresser twice, the results seemed to worsen, so I kept switching.

I sat with a new girl, named Christy. Younger than most, probably not more than two or three years my senior. Awkward when she introduced herself, laughing nervously the first time I cracked a joke. Curly, long brown hair. Blue eyes. Copy paper white skin that stood in stark contrast to the bright red stream of blood that poured from her finger after her second snip at my hair.

Christy wadded a tissue against her finger and kept going. When the tissue wouldn’t stay, she got another, ripped a piece of scotch tape from the front desk and fashioned a makeshift bandage, and kept going. If she’d cut herself like that, I grew wary not only of how the haircut would turn out, but if I’d leave without getting the point of her scissors stabbed into my scalp, or if I’d still have both ears intact.

But I stuck it out.

When she washed my hair, she got the temperature just right and worked her fingers against my scalp, firm but gentle, establishing a rhythm, as much a massage as a cleansing.

I looked at my hair when she was done. Short as I preferred it at the time, but perfectly blended between the close-cropped sides and backs and the longer hairs on top. Perfectly asymmetrical. Perfect, period.

I returned to that same hairdresser for the rest of my days at Geneseo, and each cut was every bit as good as the one before it.

I dropped in when I visited town for a weekend the year after graduation, and asked if Christy were around. A woman who had cut my hair two or three times before I met Christy worked the counter, and told me with a sneer (that I probably imagined) that Christy didn’t work there any more.

I like to think Christy outgrew the little college town salon. That classier, more appreciative clientele are appreciating her craft somewhere, and tipping her generously. Or perhaps that she stole away to some other sleepy village to open her own shop.

And though I’ve taken to using the clippers more often than not, as a cost saving measure, I still speculate about a day when I may step into another salon or barbershop, in some altogether different place. A time when I might get my haircut and not reflect on my father’s butchery. A time when I don’t wish to settle for shaving my head or my own humble trimmings. A time when I might recognize a woman I met long ago. And whether she draws her own blood or mine, I’ll nonetheless trust her. I'll trust her to once again give me the best cut.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Go Be It

One of my favorite lyrics--a simple, direct bit of wisdom--comes courtesy of The Avett Brothers, a little before the one-minute mark of "Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise."

Decide what to be and go be it.

I will leave Baltimore at the end of this summer to start my MFA in creative writing with a concentration in fiction at Oregon State University.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Broken Thumb

When I was junior in high school, I played goalie for a gym class game of “speedball.”

Speedball, surely the brainchild of an ambitious phys ed teacher, was a soccer-football hybrid in which players could only use their hands if the ball had been kicked into the air and they caught it; the objective was to throw or kick the ball into the opposing team’s soccer goal.

On a particular play, I made a save with my hands. My thumb was sore afterward, and swelled up in the hours to follow, but such an occurrence wasn’t entirely new to me. At that stage in my life, I played quite a bit of basketball, and at least once every month or two, I’d jam one of my fingers. It would hurt for a day or so, but I’d ice it and it would get better.

This time, it didn’t get better. Two days later, my father complained when I was taking an inordinately long time to comb my hair before school, and I explained about my thumb. My old man was traditionally pretty conservative about going to see doctors about anything, but when he saw that I couldn’t bend my thumb, he determined that it was time for x-rays.

Lo and behold, I had fractured my thumb in three places. The months to follow saw a small-scale surgery, a month in a cast, physical therapy and a series of stretches I had to do independently to regain more or less full motion.

I remember the cast part most of all, perhaps because it’s the only time I’ve had to wear a cast and thus marked a several week period when I needed to change many aspects of how I lived my life. I was a prodigious writer for my age, and scrawled most everything longhand. I had to manage a modified grip on my pen as I worked on my novel outside school, and of course, tended to note-taking and homework for a full course load. I played viola in the high school orchestra, and though I remember sitting out playing for a period of a time, I also recall clutching my bow like a club, pinned between my four functional fingers and the hard cast of my thumb to draw it across the strings. I showered with my right hand elevated, and sealed in a plastic bag to ensure the cast remained dry.

And then, in perhaps the cruelest irony of all, that fall turned out to be the time when we had a basketball unit in gym class. Most any other sport, I would have gladly preferred to have sat on the sidelines in phys ed--this was the one game that would stir me to try sneaking on the court to take a few shots until the gym teacher told me I had to sit back down, lest I re-injure myself and he find himself in hot water.

When I reflect on that casted period, I have somewhat distinctive record for the fact that it came up in the same period of time when the photographer took student club pictures for the high school yearbook.

In these pictures, I’m surprised to see myself far more optimistic than the snarky, angst-ridden teenager I better recall. For despite being in fairly regular pain, dealing with all manner of hindrance and inconvenience, despite all of these reasons to scowl and sulk, in the yearbook pictures, I smile. Not only that, but in any number of them I use my cast to give the camera, the school, and my future self a disproportionately large thumbs up.

Sure, there was a part of me that just liked having a conspicuous prop around which to build Roger and Ebert-based puns or pretend I was hitchhiking. But more so, I like to think I was affirming that everything was and would be all right.