These days, it being below freezing when I’m about to walk out the door in the morning, I’m faced with a personal decision: hat or no hat. Wearing a hat is the wise choice, of course, because we lose heat from any parts of our bodies that are exposed to the elements and the part of our bodies that is most exposed to the elements during the winter is our head. But while we get warm, we also get hat hair, which for me means a wild and wiry disarrangement of frizz and split ends that is charged with static electricity and obeys no rules. No combs, no brushes, no conditioners, or even hairstyles, save shaving it to the scalp, have ever tamed my hair. Nor do I remember being in the company of many women on a cold day who did not tell me to put on a hat, my mother, my grandmothers, my aunts; to this day, after forty years of marriage, my wife will still follow me to the front door on a winter morning and ask me why I am not putting on a hat.
I have always had difficult hair and while it is not uncommon to grow up disliking parts of your body, my hair actually seemed to dislike me back. Like some snarky little brother I never asked to have in my life, I’ve always at war with my hair, attacking it with an arsenal of petroleum based products—Polymol, Wildroot Cream Oil, Alberto’s VO 5, Brylcreem—all better suited to lubricating an internal combustion engine than styling my hair. Other children had haircuts. On my best days I had something on my head that resembled a thatched roof.
In one of the few family projects I remember being a part of, my mother tried to help me straighten my hair for the high school prom. She had me sit on the toilet seat while she massaged a hair-straightening anti-frizz mixture into my scalp. Then she wrapped my head in aluminum foil and had me wait while my hair relaxed. The entire family assembled for the unwrapping but even without a mirror I could tell the experiment was a disaster. My hair had lost all its texture and dribbled down my forehead like chocolate sauce on a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
The seventies were a kinder decade. All through college I wore my hair in a large puffy afro circling my head in a perfectly symmetrical globe about a foot and a half in diameter. But even going natural had strict rules: never take a brush to it. Don’t shampoo too often. Don’t towel or blow it dry but shake it out like a dog emerging from the ocean. Arrange it with your fingers, not a comb, and never use conditioner. I do admit, I was in high style in the nineteen seventies.
But the job market did not look favorably on candidates entering an interview with a tumbleweed on their heads. For awhile I worked as a substitute teacher in Boston, always fed like chum to toughest inner city schools with the toughest, most merciless kids who called me Mr. Nappy Head.
It’s not that there weren’t hairstylists who were eager to help. Even the frumpy old Boston of the nineteen eighties was a Mecca for hair salons on Newbury Street and Harvard Square but the best they could do for me was a cut called the mullet, a design that is short at the front and sides and long on top and in back.
Apparently the term was coined and popularized by the Beastie Boys of all people and referred to someone of dubious intelligence, which is understandable. I might have been in vogue, but I always knew I looked like I was wearing a dead fox on my head.
Nowadays, I’m one of the few guys my age who still has a full head of hair and I let it grow out proudly. I do have to get a haircut about every eight weeks or so, because if I wait any longer than that I start to look like Larry of The Three Stooges.
One of the things you don’t know about life when you’re young is that if you wait long enough you may actually start to like the things you used to hate about yourself. And I do like my hair. But please don’t tell me that I’ll get sick if I don’t to put on hat on when it’s cold. I know that. I just think it’s a bigger problem when I take the hat off.
I’m Ira Wood…and that’s my opinion.