Archive for April, 2008

Hair, apparently

April 30, 2008

Intertwined in the story of every woman’s life, I am convinced, is her relationship with her hair. I have yet to meet anyone who was entirely happy with hers: It’s always too thick/thin, curly/straight, light/dark, long/short. Hair anxiety covers the generations, the sexes and the races. (Spike Lee has an outrageously funny song about “good and bad hair” in “Jungle Fever,” I recall.) My global observation: Looking into a mirror in a restroom as they wash their hands, women everywhere can’t stop themselves from pulling theirs forward or brushing it back.

In assessing someone, it’s hard to say if hair comes before age, body size and apparel, but it might. Before I could deliver my 92-year-old mother to one of her final doctor appointments, she insisted I comb her hair for her. She was nearly blind by then, and her makeup application was so terrible that I would have laughed if it hadn’t been so sad. But her hair looked good, and so she was satisfied.

The hair care aisles at Wal-Mart and Target are staggering, and they include just the “over-the-counter” products. The stylists at the salon I frequent were all atwitter recently over a new product they called “hair crack” — the latest panacea for all hair ills that cost about as much as several ounces of the real thing.

Alison Lurie, in an article on the Rapunzel myth in The New York Review of Books, says:

Long, thick hair has always been thought beautiful and erotically alluring: artists and writers have celebrated it as the sign of a lush, intensified womanliness. In nineteenth-century America it was a source of pride if you could actually sit on your hair, and to lose it was a disaster: when Jo in Little Women sells her thick chestnut mane it is treated by her family as a kind of minor tragedy. Similarly, in “Rapunzel” and its variants the witch often begins her revenge by violently chopping off the heroine’s long hair.

I wept when I read about Jo cutting her hair, and I remember marveling at all the care Laura and Mary took of their long hair in the Little House on the Prairie books. I held my breath when Laura dared to cut bangs, or a “lunatic fringe” as Pa called it. Laura, not surprisingly, was shortly thereafter on her own, first as a schoolteacher and then as a wife.

But though long, thick hair was often referred to as “woman’s glory,” [Lurie writes] it was also her burden. Washing it, drying it, combing out the tangles, brushing it (fifty to a hundred strokes a day were recommended in ladies’ magazines), plaiting it, pinning it up, and taking it down took a lot of effort. The gifted children’s writer E. Nesbit dramatized this problem in a 1908 fairy tale called “Melisande: or, Long and Short Division,” where the princess’s golden hair grows so fast that she is almost immobilized. The date is significant, since in the early twentieth century many women could and did decide to wear their hair short. This choice, which now seems more or less inconsequential, was seen at the time as a serious, even dangerous sign of sexual freedom and independence—and often criticized as unattractive and unfeminine. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920 story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” is a famous exploration of these issues. (Via.)

One of my first personal acts of adult emancipation was allowing myself to wash my very oily hair every day if I wanted to, a practice Mother scorned. “You’re not washing your hair again, are you?” she yell through the bathroom door. (She only washed hers once a week, when she got it “done.”) It was MY hair, after all.

Was taking control of our own hair a part of growing up, of separating from our parents and their lives and expectations?

In high school, it was all about long hippy hair, the Joni Mitchell-Cher thing. My baby-fine nondescript brown tresses would only get as far as my shoulders and then they would just sort of break and split into nothingness, so I never achieved Seventies hair nirvana. As my long-haired friends moved into college, marriage and motherhood, their hair became shorter and shorter, partly as a nod to fashion and partly out of a need to uncomplicate their lives. Shorter hair seemed to signal that they were serious.

Was cutting our hair part of leaving innocence behind and embracing experience?

After years of unsuccessfully trying to pull of a Farrah Fawcett shag, I joined just about every white person in America and celebrated the civil rights movement by getting a curly perm. I tried for the Julie Christie look in “Heaven Can Wait,” and antique sepia-toned family photos from that era indicate I just about got it right. Growing the perm out, however, proved painful, so I ultimately switched (along with almost everyone else) to a Dorothy Hamel bob. I knew that I was clearly OLD when I decided I didn’t have the time or the hair to manage a “Rachel.” But I am currently sporting a “stacked” bob that gets a lot of its current cachet from Victoria Beckham — who I heard just got extensions because she was tired of everyone trying to look like her. (Poor thing.)

By emulating someone’s hairstyle, are we trying to claim some of her power as well?

This all sounds so trivial, but most women I know spend an inordinate amount of time fussing and fretting over their hair. Every woman has a story about refusing to leave the house because of a bad cut or a terrible perm or a disastrous attempt at color. It’s almost a rite of passage.

What is so powerful about being in control of one’s own hair, of knowing we got it right?

I’m asking these questions because I’m on the cusp of abandoning the whole stupid struggle and getting a VERY short cut that requires very little maintenance. And I’m even considering (GASP) giving up on coloring it as well. I’m just tired of the hassle. But why does it feel like, if I do, I’ll be giving up, giving in, in a word, failing? After all, it’s just hair.

But it’s also more than that, apparently.


Adventures at Midlife:

April 28, 2008

In lieu of a post today, I’ll gladly refer you to the excellent byjane and her new child, The site — which is the result of a long conversation on Blogher — is still deciding what it wants to be, but several interesting mid-lifers are on board hoping to be regular contributors. (Me! Me!) If you are interested, please give Jane your input.

Adventures at Midlife: Alternative medicine

April 24, 2008

An article in Arts and Letters Daily, one of my favorite sites, inferred that middle-aged, middle-class women are the biggest consumers of alternative medicine, from homeopathy to massage to aromatherapy to vitamin therapy. Says Rose Shapiro in Suckers: How Alternative Medicine Makes Fools Of Us All, such women are “educated enough to know what they’re paying for and if they prefer to spend money on an aromatherapist than a stiff gin, it’s hard to cry too many tears for them.”

Shapiro is, as the title of the book indicates, a scoffer.

Did you know [says reviewer Natalie Haynes] that traditional Chinese medicine, described so often as dating back thousands of years, was actually a rag-bag of ideas put together under Chairman Mao to try to fill in the gaps left by a shortage of “the superior new medicine”? Me neither.

Shapiro reserves her real fury for the snake-oil merchants who knowingly prey on the weak: terminal cancer is a favourite. After all, the dying will often believe anything. She reveals case after case where someone has been talked out of chemotherapy or palliative care by a quack with a big bank balance.

I’m a pharmacist’s kid, so I grew up on pills. Pills, in our house, are good, but I also have friends and relatives who pride themselves on taking no medication of any kind, which I find a bit extreme. Most of my friends who have turned to alternative medicine have done so because they weren’t getting the results they wanted from traditional medicine or because they wanted to explores more “natural” rather than chemical ways to health.

I became a convert to vitamins when I read an article about a group of geriatric specialists who couldn’t agree about much of anything when it came to theories about and causes of aging — but who all took multivitamins religiously. A chiropractor has helped me overcome some serious sciatic pain. I’ve also found that, for me, massage and light exercise are among the best treatments for chronic pain, stress and fatigue. But I haven’t ventured into alternative medicine much further than that.

With costs for pharmaceuticals increasing and most insurance co-pays shrinking, I suspect we may look for more low-cost, low-impact and local ways to maintain our physical quality of life. But how do we separate the effective and sensible treatments from the snake oil?

Katie Couric’s midlife crisis

April 23, 2008

The news just keeps getting worse and worse for our girl Katie Couric, who also suffered the “indignity” of turning 50 last year (which, as a woman in her field, is just short of death itself):

The “CBS Evening News” attracted an average of 5.39 million viewers last week, placing the newscast more than two million viewers behind the second-place “World News with Charles Gibson” on ABC (7.51 million). The “NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams” ranked No. 1 for the week with 8.17 million viewers..

Two weeks ago, multiple reports said that Ms. Couric and CBS have discussed a potential departure from the “Evening News” after the presidential election. Perhaps some viewers read all the accounts of Katie Couric’s uncertain future at CBS News — and surmised that her evening newscast wasn’t worth watching.

I cannot believe this is all her fault. CBS News was already in the mud up to its axles over Dan Rather’s disastrous story about Bush’s National Guard service, and audiences for all the major network new programs have been shrinking for years thanks to the rise of cable news and the Internet. When I stagger home from work and flip on the TV, I seem to find a lot of “old” news on these highly touted nightly broadcasts. They’re far from my first or most significant source of information. We’re long past the Walter Cronkite era.

In terms of a career move, Couric could not have turned it down. At nearly 50, with a five-year, $15 million-a-year contract, she became one of the highest-paid newscasters in television history, male or female. Not many middle-aged women get that kind of opportunity, and she can’t possibly second-guess that decision.

She somehow could not make the transition from “perky” (a word she hates) to “powerful,” a transition which Barbara Walters has seemed to make more successfully — or am I just imagining it?

I am still stuck to the thought that my generation is showing signs that it cannot bear to watch women age, a specter Rush Limbaugh raised with Hillary. (See my previous post.) Did we really think that we would stay young forever?

Jihadist humor

April 22, 2008

Forgive me, but this just appealed to my warped sense of humor this morning:

Ask the Jihadist

(Be sure to check out the illustration and notice where he’s blogging from.)

Men Who Explain Things: A “fundamental” issue?

April 22, 2008

I was so impressed with this article from the LATimes that I read it twice, not that I would likely pick up any of Rebecca Solnit’s books for a quick read, but because of the universality of what she was describing.

While she and a friend were at an upscale dinner party, some jerk began to expound on her lack of knowledge on a topic, only to be told that the book he was citing to silence her was HERS.

Men explain things to me, and to other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men. Every woman knows what I mean. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.

This syndrome is something nearly every woman faces every day, within herself too, a belief in her superfluity, an invitation to silence, one from which a fairly nice career as a writer (with a lot of research and facts correctly deployed) has not entirely freed me. After all, there was a moment there when I was willing to believe Mr. Very Important and his overweening confidence over my more shaky certainty.

I don’t know about “every woman,” but I certainly have found myself cut off in mid-sentence and sometimes silenced by some macho moron’s need to be superior. (And it’s only afterward, in my office or my car or my house, licking my wounds, that I come up with the perfect thing to say.)

Having public standing as a writer of history has helped me stand my ground, [says Solnit] but few women get that boost, and billions of women are out there on this 6-billion-person planet being told that they are not reliable witnesses to their own lives, that the truth is not their property, now or ever.

The battle with Men Who Explain Things has trampled many women — of my generation, of the up-and-coming generation we need so badly, here and in Pakistan and Bolivia and Java, not to mention the countless women who came before me and were not allowed into the laboratory, or the library, or the conversation, or the revolution, or even the category called human.

While I’ll admit that I’ve had this experience with a few Women Who Explain Things, the majority of the perpetrators have been men. I even remember one embarrassing exchange with a particularly smug guy in a Sunday School class! (Pious Men Who Explain Things are in a sanctimonious class of their own.)

I’ve become better at speaking up over the years, but I still find the whole thing distasteful. I don’t have to be right all the time, but I DO have to be taken seriously, to be included in the conversation. Most women tend to look for common ground in a discussion, I find, while too many men look for ways to win, to have the last word. Why is that? Testosterone? Conditioning? Bringing the sports field into the board room?

Maybe this is making me itchy all over because, for the past week, I’ve been watching those sad FLDS women from the compound in Texas, with their upswept hair and pioneer dresses and soft, soft voices. They outnumber the men in the compound by more than two to one, but I’ll wager they have been the victims of Men Who Explain Things their entire lives.

(Update. Someone takes a swing at Solnit.)

Adventures at Midlife: Older and happier?

April 20, 2008

At last, some good news about the March of Time:

Americans grow happier as they grow older, according to a University of Chicago study that is one of the most thorough examinations of happiness ever done in America. The study also found that baby boomers are not as content as other generations, African Americans are less happy than whites, men are less happy than women, happiness can rise and fall between eras, and that, with age the differences narrow.

The increase in happiness with age is consistent with the “age as maturity hypothesis,” [author Yang] Yang said. With age comes positive psychosocial traits, such as self-integration and self-esteem; these signs of maturity could contribute to a better sense of overall well-being.

As for his finding that baby boomers are less satisfied with their lives?

“This is probably due to the fact that the generation as a group was so large, and their expectations were so great, that not everyone in the group could get what he or she wanted as they aged due to competition for opportunities. This could lead to disappointment that could undermine happiness,” Yang said.

So maybe we BBs will mellow with age, eh? It wasn’t enough that we got to slurp up more than our fair share of planetary resources, and that the media and the marketplace have been catering to our every whim since we were toddlers? We didn’t get to be Meryl Streep or Bill Gates or Carly Simon or Magic Johnson or Bill Clinton? We didn’t all get our hearts’ desires? Poor things, we.

As I used to tell my children, let’s just be happy anyway, okay?

My Life in Shoes: How many?

April 19, 2008

I, of course, begin this post with an homage to the patron saint of shoe collectors: Imelda Marcos, who is rumored to have had more than a thousand pair when she and the Old Man fled the Philippines in 1986. (“Come on down!” cried Robin Williams in a Filipino accent at the Academy Awards that year. “Some of these shoes have never been worn!”) You go, girl! However, raping and pillaging the country to acquire them was probably a little over-the-top.

I’ll admit to 50 pair. Or so. The Spouse might quibble with that figure, but he’s long since resigned himself to my shoe obsession. (Just as long as I don’t leave them all over the house.) You see, one can never have too many pair of black sandals. Formal or casual? Heels or flats? Leather, plastic or cork? Open- or closed-toe? It’s important to have OPTIONS.

It wouldn’t take too many sessions with a shrink (in fact, try maybe five minutes) to get at the root of my jonesing for shoe leather. In junior high, when such things became important, there WERE no shoe options for girls with size nine feet. (See my saddle shoes entry below.) Mother made sure I knew it was MY FAULT that I couldn’t find anything but old-lady shoes. (How could I have let my feet get so big? I mean, they were much bigger than HERS!)

I read once that women with big feet made Elvis nauseous, which meant I would have had him gagging up his bunions. I mean, when I did find a pair of black patent leather Mary Janes (which were hot in high school) that actually fit, they made me look like Peppermint Patty! And so I shuffled around for years, desperately hunting for real-girl shoes and hoping no one would notice my gunboats, which unfortunately didn’t STAY a size nine.

Fortunately, with young women growing bigger and taller every year, the options for us Clementines (“…and her SHOES were NUMBER NINE…”) are better. But I still have a hard time walking away from a pair of shoes that are CUTE and that FIT.

You see, it’s my own little scarcity mentality. I’m hoarding for a future when foot-binding comes back into vogue. In fashion, stranger things have happened…

What parents know

April 18, 2008

The terrific Tara Parker-Pope — whose writing alone would be worth a NYTimes subscription — has listed the winners of her Well blog’s “What Kids Need to Know” contest, a collection of advice from parents. They’re wonderful. A few of my favorites:

Do not sell any of your old rock concert T-shirts on eBay until you are over 40.

That should be the worst thing that ever happens to you.

Don’t put peas in your nose.

Life is not about surviving the storm, it is about dancing in the rain. (Okay, I admit that one’s a LITTLE gooey…)

Breathe deeply when it’s your turn at bat.

Be good. Remember your manners. And don’t let the silly boys bother you. (It’s my new mantra.)

I’ll let you discover the top five (at the end of her blog). They’re charming.

Adventures at Midlife: It, um, Depends…

April 17, 2008

Okay, here goes.

Dear readers, a confession: When I turned 50, it was as if the warranty on my body expired. Within several months of that landmark birthday, I spent a week in the hospital — and several months thereafter — recovering from the effects of a blood clot. I developed sciatica down my left leg (and overcame my suspicion of chiropractors). My face started looking, well, a little saggy. The gray hair that had been lurking at my temples began a death march throughout my scalp. My eyebrows began disappearing, only to sprout on my chin and upper lip. My shoulders and hips drew strangely closer together. My once-reliable knees began to balk at stairs. And what in the hell were these brown spots on the backs of my hands?!?

Those developments, however, were trifles compared to the ultimate indignation: I can no longer depend on my ability to start and stop. I mean, you know, eliminating. And I’m not talking a little leakage problem here. This is a major gather-yourself-up, get-yourself-home, and shower-and-change problem. I cannot tell you the times I have wept with frustration and embarrassment over this.

No one warned me about it. Not a clue or a hint. My gastroenterologist was sympathetic, but not very helpful. He told me of patients who, when they begin to have physical signs that a bathroom stop is necessary, can calculate how long they have before they will be in real trouble, usually 20 minutes to a half hour. Me? I have five minutes — or less.

So, as with so many crises in my adult life, I had to find my own solution. I know the location of every available restroom in my building and on my commute route. (And I can rate them on cleanliness. Just ask me.) I know what food and beverages will likely trigger a crisis, and I know what hours of the day are particularly deadly for me. (Mornings, almost always, and immediately after I have a meal.)

And (she said, bracing herself) I have added one more item to my stash of indispensable toiletries. In my bathroom cupboard, where the tampons used to be, is a package of adult undergarments. You know: Depends, or their less-expensive generic counterparts. I also have some in my trunk and my bottom desk drawer. Now, when I have an event or excursion where I will likely be unable to have immediate access to a restroom, I take an anti-diarrheal, moderate my liquid intake, and wear the damn undergarment under my Spanx. (Believe me, no one can tell I have them on.) It has lessened my stress level ENORMOUSLY.

I have several friends who are approaching landmark birthdays of their own, and I am tempted to pull them aside and present them with a gift-wrapped package of Depends. I like to think they would ultimately thank me for it.

I would have.