Going Gray


First let me say, before I begin, that I indeed feel quite shallow writing this. I am deeply aware of the vanity of hair and appearance and always have been, but none more than when my sister and a few really good friends have had to sport turbans to cover their baldheads while they went through chemotherapy. That brings home our obsession with vanity more than any hard ball sent flying into your heart. It has been particularly ironic with my most recent friend’s cancer treatments since she and I spent many a downtown lunch together discussing hair. “Do you think people are noticing my gray hairs from afar?” she asked. “What? You’re hair is beautiful. I don’t see any grays.” I responded. My husband says I need to find someone else to discuss my hair with because I have become obsessed, so you’re it.” She said. We talked options though I still didn’t really see the issue. The irony of course is that now she too, sports a turban with no hair gray or otherwise, though in due time it will indeed grow back, and then maybe we can resume our conversation all over again, but likely not.

I began coloring my hair back to its natural dark brown shade several years ago, though I cannot remember when. I held off for a long time because I am very convinced that all the chemicals we use on us and in us, are responsible for the majority of illnesses and maladies we have. But, when I felt that the grays were winning I began coloring on my own first and then, succumbed to the outrageously expensive salon visits. I never did give into permanent hair color though, as I dreaded that famous “line of demarcation” where the gray roots grow in and you look as if you might be bald in the middle, where the contrast of dark and light show up. So, I stubbornly insisted on “demi-permanent” so that it could “fade gradually” rather than “grow out.” This worked for a while, but, as it turned out, I had to keep my hair pretty dark then, in order to cover the increasing gray It looked faker and faker all the time. I wanted lighter rather than darker because even my very vain Aunt Shirley warned “always go lighter as you age.” She was in her nineties when she said, “As your skin lightens, so should your hair.” I agreed, but the hairdressers always struggled with my requests to avoid permanent color giving me some hairdresser jargon about the color being absorbed as opposed to coating as opposed to layering??? Whatever.

There’s little need to mention my struggles with long hair vs. shorter hair vs very short hair, because most of us deal with that. I once grew my hair long so that I could cut it off and have it made into a wig for my best friend, going through chemo. When I proudly announced this to her she said, “I don’t even like your hair. It frizzes in the rain” I cut my hair. She bought an expensive wig.

Finally, a few months ago, I decided that I wanted to get real. I hated the dark, fake colored hair on my whitening, wrinkling face and since no one seemed to volunteer to make me a lighter haired/blondish woman, I figured I would just go au naturel and be gray. I looked on Pinterest. I Googled “Older women with cool gray hair styles.” Mostly Emmy Lou Harris came up and then Jamie Lee Curtis (really?) and always Helen Mirin. I am not even remotely like any of them with Emmy Lou’s lustrous locks (how does she do that?), Jamie ridiculously cropped, and Helen with very thin hair (that looks more blond than gray to me,) while mine is coarse and thick . I searched high and low for a stylist who would NOT say to me, “I can cut your hair however you want.” I wanted input, professional, experienced, input. I found my girl in a salon downtown when she said, “I think you would look good in short hair. Let’s do it.” All the leftover, grown out color fell to the floor and I was officially, predominantly, gray. I felt proud, emancipated and in months to come, would be richer not shelling out $100 plus for each coloring.

So, about two months ago, off I went with my new short gray hair. How am I doing? Shitty, actually. Besides being shocked every time I walk by a mirror, which I try very hard to avoid, people are definitely treating me differently. My kind husband even glances at me differently, but wisely, says nothing. I am a lactation consultant and work with of course, young women and their partners. One of the earlier comments was, “I thought we were seeing that consultant on your website with the reddish hair.” “That’s my site and that’s me,” I responded. “No way” the new dad said. Then, there was the dad who when I picked up mom’s backpack and diaper bag as I always do said, “Whoa, hey that backpack looks good on you, ha, ha.” Huh? As if I never carry a backpack? Am I too old for a backpack? I didn’t know that.

A few weeks ago in church there was this guy who looked just like he had been in the movie, “Cape Fear.” He had on this black vinyl jacket and when my husband and I were walking out of church, he kept sticking his arm in my side. I just didn’t know what to do and kept thinking he wanted me to feel his jacket or something. Finally, I realized he was extending his arm so that he could help me down the stairs, to assist an old woman! Oh God.

At work the other day, we had a potluck lunch. We gathered in one of the practitioner’s offices and I comfortably settled on the ottoman. “Oh no, you should sit in the chair,” another said. I said that I was fine where I was but of course, wondered why she felt I needed a real chair and then within seconds, I realized why… It was the gray hair and the wrinkling up of every part of me….

I’m telling you, everyone is acting differently towards me and it feels “creepy” as my 16 year old twin sons would say. “YOU have 16 year old sons??!!” Okay, enough already, my point has been made.

So, I am at this crossroads, not knowing what to do. Frankly, I study older women’s hair in church, in women’s groups, in libraries, etc. and I have yet to see fabulous gray hair. Oh that’s not true really, because at a wedding a few weeks ago there was this huge mane of gray hair all bouncy and curled and amazing, but I doubt it looks that way on a daily basis. Besides, now it would take me at least 10 years or more to grow that and they would be 10 miserable years for sure.

But, my gray hair is short and always dull as gray hair tends to be and there are those dry, fly away pieces which my 24 year old stylist does not acknowledge or understand. She adds “gel” or “shine beads” etc. In fact, she really doesn’t understand any of my angst and says silly, girly things to me when she is uncomfortable about our age difference. So far, she seems to cut okay, but she has not ventured into color with me. Perhaps she is afraid, which frankly, I would be too. It is not black or white, but as they say, the gray place no one wants to be.


How Do I Get to Greensboro?


It was Saturday morning around 9 am. Shep and I were on our way to Restore, the Habitat for Humanity warehouse of bargain priced treasures that we check out almost every Saturday. In the last few years we have gotten a hand painted sink, stained glass windows, lamps, chandeliers, chairs, windows, doors, to name a few. When we thought we were building a house, we began acquiring most parts in advance of the project. When we threw in the towel on building a house, we needed to sell most of it on Craigslist. It’s the kind of place that you need to go to on a regular basis, though because you never know what items might show up from one day to the next.


I look forward to weekends more than I ever have before. I am not sure if that is a part of aging and wanting to be home more than not, or just because Shep and I have embarked on this home buying and home decorating project for over two years now that I have enjoyed immensely, albeit often, exhausting. In fact, I love weekends so much that I almost prefer Thursdays most of all, knowing that the weekend is coming, not leaving. And most of all, there is still no one in the universe than I would rather spend time with than my dear husband, Shep. I am always aware of how blessed I feel to be with him, for every moment that I have with him here on earth.


We were coming down Capital Blvd, heading to Restore in quest of some used bricks for a hearth we were going to create in our condo, when an old Buick pulled up next to my side of the car and tooted his horn. Since the advent of GPS, Mapquest, and Google maps, that doesn’t happen very often anymore. “Hey, how do I get to Greensboro?” the older man with no teeth and thick, dirty glasses asked. “Greensboro?” I asked incredulously, thinking to myself, “we are over 90 minutes away from there, where would I begin to describe how to get there?” I turned and looked at Shep for help and since there is no one better at this sort of thing, he came through, as always. “Go straight ahead and take 440 to 40” he yelled to the man.


Off we went and turned right on Westinghouse Blvd, but we noticed that the old blue/green Buick was following us which would in fact, never get him to Greensboro. Shep pulled over and motioned for him to come next to us. “This is not the right way,” Shep said. “You need to go that way and get on 440.” The man leaned over, took off his dirty glasses and his lip started to quiver. “My wife died this morning at 6:30 at UNC Hospital. We were married for 41 years.” He started to cry. I didn’t know what to do, because of course, being the weak hearted soul I am, I immediately started to cry too! Shep asked, “Well, why are you going to Greensboro?” “I have to pick up my daughter and bring her back here” he said through his tears. Shep redirected him once more, wished him well and we sat there, stunned for a moment. As the Buick drove on, I asked Shep if he didn’t think we should go and take the man to Greensboro, which of course resulted in Shep giving me that intense, “Are you out of your mind?” look


It stayed with me all day and some of the next day. Clearly, almost a week later, it is still with me. I don’t know why, but there was something about the irony of it all, and him choosing to ask me for directions, perhaps knowing on some karmic level, that I would be the most likely to empathize and share tears with someone I did not even remotely know. And this is where I can then begin to drive Shep crazy with questions like, “Why do you think she died? How old must she have been? Do you think it was a heart attack or cancer? Why can’t his daughter drive here instead of him going to pick her up?’ All poor Shep can answer is “I don’t know,” which of course, no one does.


I teared up on and off for the rest of the day, thinking about the old man in the old Buick losing his old wife and having to find Greensboro in the midst of it all. I wonder if he did and if his daughter was just too devastated to have driven here by herself. I will assume so, and try to put this sad story to rest, now that I have written it out. Losing those we love is by far the most inconceivable, unbearable, poorly scripted part of our lives here on earth.


Anna Quindlen

Anna Quindlen for real

At the invitation of a friend, I went to hear Anna Quindlen speak last night at Centennial Campus at NCSU. I had been struggling through her latest novel, “Still Life with Breadcrumbs” for a while now, but then so had the other four members of my book group. Reviews were mixed on Amazon, which made me feel a bit better and most of us decided that we really preferred her non-fiction and articles to her fiction.

I used to read just about anything I could get my hands on, that Anna wrote, whether in the New York Times, Newsweek or elsewhere. She was raising her kids around the same times as I was (however, I still am!) and her insights and perspectives made me laugh and chortle at times. Most of all, her words often tugged at my heart and gave way to comments to my husband, “Oh yeah, she gets it.” Anne Lammot did too, when she wrote, “Operating Instructions” and later in my life, Nora Ephron struck me right IN the throat, with “I Hate My Neck.” Great women, great writers and I am grateful for how they have enriched my life and expanded my mind, simply by sharing their truths and describing them so intimately.

A young woman in the audience asked what she and her generation could do to forge ahead and be notable women of their time. Kind of an odd question in a way. I see the younger generation of women as notable and free, so I was somewhat unsure just what her concern was. Certainly they are without the travails that we women growing up in the 60’s and 70’s had. We had so much ground to break and issues to bring consciousness to. Anna answered with, “Don’t be afraid.” And that is where she lost me a bit. Not “lost” as in “confused,” but lost as in, “Really? That’s your advice?”

I fully embrace biblical references to the famous, “’Do not fear, for I am with you” and I take it to heart. It was in fact the very last words I uttered through my wrenching sobs as they closed the casket of my two year old at the end of his funeral. But, I also think this is an overused, empty comfort phrase. “Do not be afraid” of what, which, when? Do not be afraid that your heat won’t come on this winter? Do not be afraid that your washing machine will overflow? Do not be afraid that your kid will fail yet another test and his teacher’s email will come, reinforcing the known fact that it is of course, all your fault because you suck at parenting? Do not be afraid that your business will not take in enough money to cover overhead and expenses? Do not be afraid that your children will become ill, addicted, troubled, depressed, lonely, or otherwise miserable? Do not be afraid that your partner will stray? Do not be afraid that your dog will moan in pain and need outrageously expensive vet care? Do not be afraid that right before you make a presentation, your computer will die or the connection to a Mac will not allow your Powerpoint to show up on the screen? Do not be afraid that your car won’t start? Do not be afraid that your haircut will make you look ten years older? Do not be afraid that you will fall and break a bone and never be the same? Do not be afraid that you will miss an important date because keeping a calendar on your iphone is not really all it was cracked up to be? Do not be afraid that your memory or cognitive abilities may begin to slip? Do not be afraid that you will be misunderstood, misinterpreted or otherwise disliked or blamed? These are likely not the fears of that young woman, but I doubt that hers are any more exotic, though maybe simpler or more idealistic.

I could go on and on, but I think you get my point. There ARE many things to be afraid of and they are real and anxiety producing and don’t simply vanish by breathing deeply or doing yoga everyday. They also don’t dissolve because someone says, “Do not be afraid.” As a believer in God and all things good from him, I do not imagine him as a magician of any sort, nor do I think he can take away all my fears. I would not be human if I had none. I do believe that God IS with me, (though I often forget that comforting thought,) but he cannot make everything fearless. Even Bach’s Rescue Remedy can’t do that.

So, I guess I sort of wish that Anna hadn’t said that, though I forgive her, being up on that stage and needing to adlib some brilliant, off the cuff responses. But, frankly it was too empty a recommendation. On the other hand, I was completely intrigued by her love and adoration of reading and how she manages to read every new book and re-read all her old favorites. How does anyone do that or find the time to read endlessly?

She also spoke about growing up in the 60’s and 70’s and feeling she had no choices as a woman. Anna felt that the only role models she saw were mothers and teachers and that Jo in “Little Women” was her only image of a female who wanted to write and became a writer. Somehow, with all the misery I did experience in growing up in a household dominated by mental illness, I don’t think I felt the same way. My mother (crazy as she was) was always writing and reading. She wrote poems, articles, proofread columns for Esquire magazine, and worked for publishers and advertising agencies. She also had endless creativity for decorating our apartment in a public housing project. So, I think that I did not feel that limited, in that I never for a moment imagined myself as a teacher or a nurse and heaven knows, not a “mother.” I was hell bent on working in the fashion industry at the time, and though I know there is something intrinsically female about that, it was certainly different than my friends who went en masse to Brooklyn College and City College on the teacher track. I envied them in a way and still have utmost respect for them and all teachers, but my point is, I did see beyond some limitations. I was very interested in business, advertising, marketing and the selling of all things, particularly fashion. I will never forget Professor Goodman at F.I.T. teaching us, “Create the desire. Make them die to buy your item. It does not matter if they need it. Make them want it more than anything in the world.”

So, that brings me to what happened next. There we were in this big auditorium and when Anna Quindlen’s short but interesting talk came to an end, the throngs began lining up for her book signing. I have never been really drawn to that sort of thing. I mean, what is it really to have the author sign your book? Does it make it valuable, better reading, what? If the author was Barack Obama or the like, well then, of course I’d be on that line. Instead, my friend Debbie and I decided to tour this completely amazing new campus building that to me seemed right out of the 22nd century! The completely robotic library is several stories high, surrounded by glass and operated by forklifts and touch screens. I was mesmerized. Floor after floor blew me away with high tech, innovative design, brilliance, and modern ideas and products I’d never seen. And yes, there were excited students doing brilliant things, everywhere. I will always regret not having had the “going away/living on campus/roommate/college experience.

When my friend, Debbie asked me, “If you could get your masters in something, what would it be?” my first response was “business.” But then, I thought for while and being a lactation consultant for the last 20 years, my next response was, “No, I think something health related.” “Oh but maybe something fashion related or marketing.” I thought about that for a few minutes as we climbed another shockingly yellow flight of stairs and my conscious filled me with thoughts of “Huh, marketing, as in making more money for bad companies like Monsanto or Nestle?” “Nah, I said, “I know, I know – Journalism. Yep, I want to learn to write, but write really well to make a difference.” Even that didn’t feel quite right either. Silently I though of others – studying toxic furnishings, toxic home building, the difference between green building and healthy building and on and on. It was a really good question, and one that I have no realistic answer for. It doesn’t matter a whole lot because it is not something that I will ever do, but it was very interesting to think about. Most of us have so many things we wish we knew more about by the time was cross the 50 line. But then we think, “Nah, too late, too much else to do.”

Anna says that when she finishes writing something, she then spends a few days reading it aloud to check for any “clunks.” So, I will now read this aloud for any of those as well, except it will take me a couple of minutes because this is no book by any means. And yes, I am still afraid, despite Anna’s advice.

NCSU Library1NCSU Yellow StairsNCSU seating