Years of successfully experiencing haircuts from the hair-bearing side taught me the wrong lesson: that I could do it for/to myself and save money.
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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 learned it.
Cutting hair looks so easy. The professionals talk to you and even chat amongst themselves while they are doing it, for crying out loud. (Some will even use the word “amongst” while talking: “Your dark hairs are here, amongst the gray ones.”) How do they do that? If you interrupt me while I am merrily typing away, I will pretty much stop typing and begin to glare at you until you decide to ask someone else whatever it is you came to ask me. And how do you know where I live anyway?
One of my barbers back in the early 2000s was a World War II Navy vet who loved to tell stories from his war years while he was 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?” he woukd ask-declare. Little did he know how well I knew that lesson. See below.)
The only problem with all of this 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 (the same side as the engine that was shot out), finish the story but not the haircut, look around the barbershop at all his enthralled listeners, whip off his customer’s smock, and declare with a flourish, “You’re done. Next!”
I would return the next morning when he was not there to have one of his younger barbers, his daughter or his son in law, finish the job. With clippers. Some of yesterday’s other customers would be there, too.
Years of successfully experiencing haircuts from the hair-bearing side taught me the wrong lesson: that I could do it for/to myself and save money while doing it.
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 full head of 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 years before I met the WWII vet barber.) The fact that he cut his own hair qualified him as the most grown-up human being in my acquaintance. I was someone who looked so young that 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 only aspire to at that time.
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?” and then invited me around to the backside of my scalp for a consultation. One stylist shushed me once when I started to explain where my part is and what I wanted her to do with her combs and scissors. “I know what I’m doing,” she said.
“I know what I’m doing-doing-ing-ing.” With that voice ringing in my ear, I stood in the bathroom, five-dollar dollar-store trimmers in my trembling hand, and stared at my non-barber face in the mirror. Let’s do this, we whispered to one another.
For reasons that will be understood by no one anywhere ever, I did not put a guide on the trimmers. I did not read any instructions, if the five-dollar dollar store trimmers had instructions fall out of the box. I went ahead and flicked on the appliance for the first time in my life, and I did not start at my sideburns or someplace easy; I also did not 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. No, 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 to match it, 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 who had cut his own hair for the first time with no idea what he was doing.
I was told that I have a good-looking scalp, but I know now that this is something that people say when confronted with another person’s socially awkward reality, like “Nice sweater” when you show up for work on crutches.
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