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Editor's Note, June 29, 2012: The column below features Todd Tobias in his typically droll and observant voice. He wrote it for IM's January 2011 issue. Todd passed away this week, and we offer this sharp piece of wit as a tribute to the writer.
Once upon a time, I had thick, wavy hair. Brown and long with a natural curl on its ends that segued into violently angled ski jumps just above the ears and neck. My hair defined me. Part late-series Peter Brady, part Help!-era John Lennon, I was known not so much for the stylishness of my coiffure as for its sheer profusion—the curls that sat atop my head like a naturally occurring coonskin cap.
My hair defines me still. What's left of it, that is. I'm balding. Not bald, mind you. At least, not bald in the Mr. Clean/Yul Brynner/Daddy Warbucks sense. Not yet, anyway. Bald-ing. It's a process. One that for me began quite early. I can't remember when it started exactly, because for years I was in denial about the whole receding affair. Back then I referred to it simply as "losing some hair." Like misplacing a set of car keys, I was sure that the hair I lost would resurface sooner or later. It did. Just not in the places I had hoped.
Let's just say I slowly started going bald somewhere between the time I was old enough to vote and the time I was old enough to buy beer. Not that I have ever had any trouble with the latter. In part because of my premature ... situation, and in part because ever since junior high I have (also) been genetically cursed with a permanent, Homer Simpsonesque 5 o'clock shadow; convenience store clerks began referring to me as "sir" when I was 19.
"Don't you want to see some ID?" I'd ask in my most affronted teenaged voice.
"Good one, sir," they'd say while handing me a six-pack of Schlitz and stifling a laugh. Then they would repeat the words aloud to themselves as if they were the most hilarious ever uttered ... See some ID.
Now, there are sneezes that last longer than the amount of time it takes to cut my hair. I have become the type of client that my salon receptionist refers to as "a quickie." As in, "It's about a 20-minute wait, but we should be able to squeeze you in sooner, LOOKS LIKE IT WILL BE A QUICKIE."
Back in the halcyon early stages of my recession—henceforth to be known simply as B.C. (before clippers)—I had elaborate instructions for my hairstylists: "Block it in the back, layer it, then blow in a little mousse, part it on the side and finish 'er off with some high pH gel" was my long-standing order. Today, as Cheryl, the friendly stylist at my neighborhood Great Clips, straps on the old oversized lobster bib around my neck, I say simply, "No. 2," as if I'm ordering off a deli menu. "No. 2," of course, refers to the size of the clipper guard used in cutting my hair. The abandonment of scissors from the grooming process was more or less the death knell of my youth. I started out with "No. 4" a few ago and have been slowly working my way down. I was recently thinking of making the move to "No. 1," going for the Andre Agassi look, but it depresses me to know that once I make that jump, the only other hairstyle option available to me will be to flat out shave my head. White guys don't look good with shaved heads. It's an indisputable fact. Two words: Michael Stipe. I rest my case.
Lately, after succinctly delineating my hair-care requirements, I've taken to asking Cheryl to "buzz my brows." As in, "No. 2 ... and buzz my brows." It gives me a sense of comfort to know that the $11 I shell out every month for the five minutes (tops) it takes to "keep me out of trouble for a while" (Cheryl's signature haircut ending line) cannot be reduced to a mere numeric terms.
I tried Rogaine once. I dipped the dropper into the stinky fluid and applied it to my scalp. It was like trying to stop a forest fire with a thimbleful of water. All that's literally left for me now is acceptance. After all, my hair defines me, as it defines us all. It's amazing, when you stop to think about it, that in these politically correct times, there has yet to be a well-documented case of "baldism" or "anti-sparse-follicleism" or some other important-sounding name for what really amounts to, in my opinion, a rash of hair-loss insensitivity.
Let me be the first to stand atop that soapbox. I mean, it's no longer safe to comment on Must See TV around the watercooler without fear of legal repercussions, much less to make an innocuous comment about a coworker's appearance, yet somehow, openly commenting on a balding man's recession is not only fair game—it's something of a cultural norm.
I was in a wedding recently for a boyhood friend, and someone in the wedding party made the comment that, like the innards of a towering redwood, "we could measure the time that has elapsed over the years by the number of inches around Todd's hairline." A good one, I admit. But how is that remark any different than if the bride had made a similar observation about her maid of honor's ass? Just something to consider the next time you find yourself about to use one or more of the following "terms of endearment": Chrome Dome; Shiny; The Recessionator; Baldy Locks; Mt. Lightbulb; The Mayor of Propeciaville—pure verbal hate crimes, if you ask me.
Yep, my hair defines me, just not the same way it did 15 years ago. Back then, my shaggy head shrub just reeked of bookish underachiever. And, truth be told, that slacker look was deliberately cultivated. What burns me today is that I'm still the same old bookish underachiever I ever was, only now, thanks to nature assigning me a hairstyle only tax attorneys and insurance salesmen welcome, people tend to regard me, upon first impression, as neither bookish nor underachieving ... they seem to expect, well, for me to be, like, all mature. What nerve.
There is an upside to all of this though. I used to work out religiously. Pump tons of iron; run marathons; play all kinds of sports. These days I've taken to letting myself go. I even started smoking. I have to tell you, from where I stand (that is, from where I sit), looking good is overrated. I mean, it's a lot of work. And for some of us, there's just no longer any point. To paraphrase Seinfeld co-creator Larry David after he had just won an Emmy award: "Thanks, but I'll still always be bald." That's kind of the way I feel about my life: I no longer feel the need or obligation to do sit-ups at the end of the day because, well, no matter how rippling my abs, I'll still always be bald.
I guess you could say that when it comes to my outward appearance, I've resigned myself to acceptance. Acceptance and a redefinition of personal heroes. David Foster Wallace has been replaced by David Crosby, Bruce Springsteen with Bruce Willis. Robert DeNiro? Yes, I'm talking to you. Take a hike. Robert Duvall is the new method man in my heart. You too, Captain Kirk. Off to Deep Space Nine; Captain Picard gives the orders around here now. They're brilliant men all. For they wear their baldness with swagger and style. I only wonder what clipper number they use.
This article originally appeared in the January 2001 issue.
>> MORE: See Todd Tobias's remarkable profile of boxing's biggest loser, "Almost Infamous."
>> MORE: Read Todd Tobias's write-up on a young Peyton Manning, "Viewpoint: Peyton Manning."
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