Among the many things that are better left to professionals—piloting a jet, performing almost any surgery, copy editing—cutting hair always should be included. I did not know this until the day I did.
It looks so easy. The professionals talk while they are doing it, for crying out loud. How do they do that? Interrupt me while I am typing away and I will pretty much stop typing and begin to glare at you until you decide to ask someone else what I am doing.
One of my barbers, a World War II Navy vet, loved to tell stories from his war years while wielding his scissors around my scalp. (He was of the old school: No clippers for his customers. “Why give them a cut that they can give themselves?” Little did he know how well I knew that lesson. See below.) The only problem was that he would sometimes get so wrapped up in re-telling his tales of flying with one engine shot out over Okinawa that he would only trim one side of a customer’s head, finish the story but not the haircut, look around the barbershop at all his enthralled listeners, whip off his customer’s smock, and declare, “You’re done. Next!” I would return the next morning when he was not there to have one of his younger barbers finish the job. With clippers.
Years of successfully experiencing haircuts from the hair-bearing side taught me the wrong lesson: I could do it to myself and save money.
Unlike a lot of men who seem to think of their own full heads of hair as a skill or as evidence of a life well-lived, I know that my hair is evidence of nothing more than I am a human being who exists. Hubris can sometimes take humble forms, though. One night I thought that as possessor of my hair I knew it best.
In the mid-1990s, I was a graduate student, an adjunct college English teacher, and the housemate of someone who trimmed his own hair. (This was long before the WWII vet barber.) This qualified him as the most grown-up human being in my acquaintance. I was asked for proof of age wherever I went, even by my students in my own classroom, and he was not. Thus, he possessed a level of expertise in life and living that I could aspire to.
Under his incompetent tutelage, I bought a set of trimmers from a local dollar store; I think they cost more than a dollar, but what is the price of pride, anyway?
How many haircuts have I been involved with in my life? By my age at that time, 25, I estimate I had received about 100 haircuts. At not one of these events had the professional paused and said something like, “Huh. I’m stumped. Can you help me with this over here?” One stylist once shushed me when I started to explain where my part is and what I wanted her to do. “I know what I’m doing,” she said.
With that voice ringing in my ear, I stood in the bathroom, five-dollar trimmers in hand, and stared at my non-barber face in the mirror. Let’s do this, we whispered. For reasons that will be understood by no one anywhere ever, I did not put a guide on the trimmers. I flicked the appliance on for the first time in my life and did not start at my sideburns or someplace easy, nor did I turn the thing off, put it down, and pick up the phone to schedule an appointment with an actual barber, snickering with hard-earned wisdom at my temerity. I put the thing against my forehead and the contraption skittered across my scalp like the runaway lawn mower I had forced it to be. The first cut is the deepest, but so is every subsequent one when one is cutting one’s hair for the first time.
A little was taken off the right side, and then a bit was taken off the left. The left was now too short. A little more was taken off from the right, and now the left was left too long. What was inevitable from the start of the endeavor slowly became clear: It was all going to have to go if I was going to appear in public again and not look like what I was: An idiot.
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