Hair in the Age of Aquarius

The Age of Aquarius? Maybe. But an even better name for the late 1960′s and early 70′s might be the Age of Hairiness. After all, even the song proclaiming “the dawning of the Age of Aquarius” came from the musical “Hair.”

I remember, as a college freshman, walking across the campus one day behind one of the senior girls. One of the campus leaders, she was brisk and pretty, articulate and poised in ways that intimidated shyer girls like me into speechlessness. She was striding along with her usual straight-backed confidence, a cascade of soft brown curls rippling down her back, shining in the sunlight and bouncing with every step.

Those gleaming curls that gave her such an air of confident beauty probably came at a cost. Most likely, she had spent a restless night with her hair wound on huge rollers or juice cans.

Girls lacking the fortitude to torture their skulls with insomnia-inducing rollers sometimes went to the opposite extreme. They spread their long locks across the bed and had them ironed. The goal was a perfectly straight, shining curtain, the longer the better. One girl in my dorm had a glorious fall of red-gold hair that reached past her waist. Vigilant against the deadly threat of split ends, she trimmed a careful fourth of an inch every two weeks with her nail scissors.

All the attention girls paid to their hair was greatly appreciated by makers of shampoo and conditioner, if less so by the declining permanent-wave industry. But the real hair-raising excitement of the 60′s focused on boys. They started—gasp!—letting their hair grow so long it touched their collars.

This was largely blamed on the Beatles, whose outrageous mops struck some shocked observers as the most depraved male attribute to hit American television since Elvis Presley’s swiveling hips. Disgusted fathers issued ultimatums and marched boys into barbershops at the point of a rat-tailed comb. Schools added hair length (short was good) as well as skirt length (short was bad) to their dress codes. Editorials were published. Sermons were preached. A high old dudgeon of a time was had by all.

Looking back, it all seems a bit ridiculous. At the time, I suppose, the larger social upheavals and power struggles that no one knew what to do with were reflected in the smaller battles over boys’ hair.

Now, with those social changes overtaken by even greater ones, at least the matter of hair has largely gone back to being a private rather than a public concern. Nobody seems to care much what boys do to theirs. Girls, of course, still generously support the shampoo/conditioner/hair color sector of the economy, though curling irons have saved them from having to choose between vanity and sleep.

There’s one area, though, where hair still seems to be a concern. The more fundamentalist branches of several religions place an absurd amount of importance on women’s hair. Mostly, it seems to matter very much to God that they keep it covered.

Really? God cares that much about women’s hair? One might think God has more important things to do.

Personally, I doubt that God pays much attention. In support of that belief, here’s just one piece of evidence: I still occasionally see the woman whose hair impressed me so vividly back in college. She is still pretty, still confident and poised and slightly intimidating. But her now-white and now-thin hair is cut into stark stubble about an inch long. Like many of the rest of us, she has reached the age of “This is the first bad hair day of the rest of your life.”

If God really cared about women’s hair, this wouldn’t happen. As a being of great age and wisdom Herself, She surely wouldn’t allow it.

Categories: Odds and Ends, Remembering When | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Why Can’t You Wear a Clo?

I don’t remember this myself, but it has been told to me by an unimpeachable source, my mother. When I was a toddler, I figured out all by myself the proper term for an individual item of clothing. Since the plural was “clothes,” then with reasoning that must have seemed very logical to me, I decided the singular had to be “clo.”

Actually, it still seems logical to me. If you think about it, that was rather sophisticated grammar for a two-year-old. I’ve long since learned to have fun with the oddities of the English language, but I feel sorry for any innocent child just beginning to cope with its unpredictable and occasionally bizarre structure.

Plurals alone are confusing enough. Put one cat with another cat and you have two cats. (Well, after a couple of months you might have eight or nine cats, but that’s a different subject. We’re dealing with English here, not sex education.) Yet put one mouse with another mouse and you don’t have two mouses, you have two mice. Where’s the logic in that? Any bright little kid is going to figure out that the simplest solution is just to let the cats eat one of the mouses—er, mice—and then you don’t have to worry about it.

And then there are tenses. Their migraine-inducing irregularities have to make them the most aptly named component of English grammar. We walk today and we walked yesterday, but we eat today and we ate yesterday. Even more confusing, our feet run today while they ran yesterday, but so did our noses.

Lately I’ve been spending time with several toddler grandkids who are just developing their own versions of spoken English. I’m impressed with their grasp of what would, in a logical linguistic world, be correct grammar. They are amazing at figuring out how grammar works. Alas, if only English actually worked that well.

By the way, despite over-simplified reports in the news about a decade ago, researchers have not identified a “grammar gene” that’s responsible for this learning. If you want to know more, here’s a link to a related post from the Language Log website. (Warning: Click with caution. Exposure to this site may result in hours of time loss for dedicated word nerds.)

Back to the logic, or lack thereof, in English grammar, I have a question. Why don’t we have a singular word like “clo” to go with the plural “clothes?” Every now and then we need a word for “one piece of clothing not specifically identified as, say, a shirt or sock.” “Cloth” doesn’t work, being just the raw material for clothes.

True, we have “garment.” But somehow it just doesn’t feel like an everyday word. It has a slightly old-fashioned air. You might discreetly describe a Victorian petticoat as a “garment,” but the word doesn’t quite fit a tee-shirt from Walmart. We could use another word, one that’s less formal than “garment” but still more descriptive than the all-purpose “thing.”

“Clo” might just be that word. As in: “Put the clothes in the washer one clo at a time.” Or, “My closet might look full, but I don’t have a clo to wear!”

Maybe, all those years ago, my two-year-old self was onto something.

Categories: Words for Nerds | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Porcupine Corpse a Prickly Issue

I tried to get them to stop. Really, I did. I pointed out the dead porcupine on the edge of the road—quite fresh, too, as far as one can judge these things driving by at 65 mph. It wasn’t the least bit squashed. Its bristling quills, highlighted by the late-afternoon sun, would have been a great temptation to any creator of traditional beadwork.

I thought my sister—the one who sews and quilts and knits and dyes and comes up with so many creative things—might have appreciated a chance to do something interesting with porcupine quills. We had plenty of room in the car; we could have tossed the critter (carefully) into the back and taken it right to her doorstep, which is where we were headed anyway.

Besides, you would think the two guys with whom I was traveling would have jumped at the chance to examine an intact road-killed porcupine. One is a scientist with an interest in natural history and the other one is a law-enforcement student whose career will probably encompass plenty of road accidents. Not to mention that both of them carry pocket knives and know how to field-dress game.

But no. They refused to stop.

I didn’t understand the full extent of the opportunity we missed until I saw the headline in our newspaper’s online edition a few days later: Man does C-section on dead porcupine, saves baby.

The story was from the Associated Press (and no, it didn’t appear on April Fool’s day). A man in Maine saw a porcupine get hit by a car. He had heard that some sort of mineral deposit valuable to Chinese medicine formed in the stomachs of porcupines, so he cut open the dead porcupine to look for it. What he found instead was—not surprisingly, given the time of year—a baby porcupine. He “cut the umbilical cord and thought the baby porcupine was dead until he started massaging it and it began breathing.”

If my traveling companions had only been willing to stop, that could have been us. We might have saved the life of an innocent unborn baby porcupine. Assuming I had been able to figure out the video function on my cell phone camera—which I’ve only used once and that was by accident—we could have even posted a video of the surgery online and become famous.

And we might have ended up with a cute little pet porcupine like this one. Just imagine having one of these critters in the house: climbing the piano, munching on the house plants, gnawing on the furniture, rubbing up against you, snuggling on your lap . . .

Wait a minute. What was the whole point of stopping to pick up the dead porcupine in the first place? That’s right. The quills. Those sharp, pointy, barbed things.

Never mind.

But I bet having a pet porcupine would teach the toddler grandkids a valuable lesson about not rubbing animals the wrong way.

Categories: Family, Travel, Wild Things | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Family Heirlooms

What makes something a family heirloom? Age? Value? Ownership? The fact that two or more family members stop speaking to each other because they have a big fight over it?

I hate to say it, but that last reason might be the most valid.

Merriam-Webster defines “heirloom” as “something of special value handed on from one generation to another.” It doesn’t, however, try to define “special value.”

That’s wise of Merriam-Webster, because the value of an heirloom doesn’t necessarily have much to do with how much cash you could get if you sold it on EBay or Craig’s List or at a local antiques shop. The real “special value” that transforms something into an heirloom is the stories around it.

I remember years ago visiting the Pioneer Memorial Museum in Salt Lake City. In one room was a collection of beautiful old pianos. One of them had traveled from England, first by sea and then from St. Louis by wagon. Its owner was a widow with six or seven children, the youngest of whom, if I remember correctly, didn’t survive the voyage.

Another instrument, a square grand piano that would need a sizeable parlor to house it, had an even more interesting history. The wagon train it traveled with apparently started somewhat late in the year and needed to speed up the last part of their journey in order to get across the mountains before snow came. They dug a pit, wrapped the piano in hides (beaver, I think), buried it for the winter, and went back to retrieve it the following year. Since it was in immaculate condition more than a century later, it apparently survived its temporary entombment perfectly well.

I enjoyed seeing the pianos and reading their stories, but it was also a little sad to see them sitting in a museum, unplayed and labeled with “do not touch” sign. These were family heirlooms that were no longer in their families.

One of the heirlooms in my family is a parlor organ. Its history isn’t quite so dramatic as that of the continent-crossing pianos, but it did make its own journey across the prairies by wagon. The trip, from the southeastern corner of South Dakota to the family homestead in the south-central part of the state, took three rainy weeks in the spring of 1905 and included crossing the Missouri River by ferry.

I remember my grandmother playing that organ, which she did by ear because she didn’t read music. My sisters and I—with the benefit of enough piano lessons to make us dangerous—used to play on it, too. We would pull out the various stops to see what differences they made in the sound and pump the pedals until our legs got tired. The collection of old music books and sheet music in the library table was where I discovered a whole new set of verses to “My Darling Clementine.” My favorite, and the only one I still remember, was: “How I missed her, how I missed her, how I missed my Clementine; Till I kissed her little sister, then forgot my Clementine.”

One of my sisters still has the organ. The next time we visit, I might have to introduce my youngest grandchild to it. At age 15 months, he likes music, and I imagine he would have great fun pulling out all the stops. And if we paired him with his slightly older cousin, they could take turns on the pedals.

It would add one more generation of stories to this particular family heirloom. They might even get into a big fight over it. And maybe they would eventually learn to play “My Darling Clementine.”

Categories: Family, Remembering When | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Driving Men to Drink

One of my close friends, a man of mature years, asserts that every woman he has ever met is only interested in one thing: getting men to drink more.

No, this isn’t some sort of gender-reversal seduction plot along the lines of, “Another glass of wine, my dear?” Sorry if any of you got excited there for a minute.

This is about drinking more water.

It’s a scientifically unproven but clearly observable phenomenon that women drink more water than men do. We’re the ones carrying water bottles in our cars and our bags, keeping carafes on our desks, and stopping at the kitchen sink for a quick one before we leave the house. When the server in a restaurant comes by offering “more water?” as a subtle hint (“You’ve been here for two hours, for Pete’s sake; would you just get out of here and let someone else have this table so I might make some decent tips this evening?”), we’re the ones who not only accept the refill but actually drink it.

Every time a man has some sort of health problem, then, whether it’s major or minor, most of the women in his life are likely to ask, “Are you drinking enough water?” And several men of my acquaintance would like to know why.

Well, I know why. And I am about to spill the secret. It’s breaking the women-only code to reveal this, though, so please don’t let anyone know I told you.

Yes, women think drinking more water is good for one’s health. Yes, we want the men in our lives to be healthier. But beneath those genuine concerns, which of course are as pure as bottled water from crystal-clear mountain springs, is a deeper plot.

You’ve noticed, I’m sure, that during intermissions at public events like plays and concerts, the lines at the women’s bathrooms are much longer than those at the men’s bathrooms. This is partly because, for reasons both physiological and fashionable, it takes women longer. It is also because more women, being the heavy drinkers that we are, need to use the facilities more often than men do.

Therefore, if more men drank more water, more men would spend more time standing in line for the men’s room. And fewer men would be leaning against the wall in the lobby, jingling their car keys and looking at their watches, waiting for their wives or dates to get back from the ladies’ room. There would be less eye-rolling and fewer impatient greetings of, “What took you so long?” Having stood in line themselves, they would know exactly what took so long.

There’s nothing like shared experiences to increase understanding and closeness in a relationship. This is the real reason so many women want their men to become heavier drinkers.

Better relationships through equal-opportunity imbibing: now there’s something to celebrate. I think we should all have another drink.

Categories: Food and Drink, Just For Fun | Tags: | 1 Comment

Grandmas With Guns

It was the lead story in the Rapid City Journal’s Outdoors section this week. There was a photo of two smiling hunters with a mountain lion, which wasn’t smiling, probably because it was dead. The headline under the picture? “Grandmother bags a mountain lion.”

As if that weren’t enough, the teaser headline at the top of the paper’s front page read: “Grandma, 75, Shoots Mountain Lion.”

Why is it that every time a woman older than, say, 50, does something mildly adventurous, unusual, physically challenging, or illegal, the first and sometimes only word journalists use to describe her is “grandmother”? She might be a business owner, a barrel racer, a cancer survivor, or an artist. She might do all sorts of interesting things.

It doesn’t matter. If she’s over a certain age, and she has kids who have kids, reporters grab that “grandmother” label, slap it across her forehead, and think they’ve summed her up.

Maybe she shot a mountain lion. Or drives a semi. Or runs marathons. Or has a seat in the Senate. Or wrote a sexy book called Sixty Shades of Scarlet. Or makes meth in her basement, for that matter. The tone of the news story is, “Oh look! See what this sweet little grandma did! Isn’t that cute?”

If a man with kids who have kids does something newsworthy, he’s almost always described as a mechanic, a lawyer, a rancher, a professor, or whatever his work happens to be. Once in a while, admittedly, in a spasm of equal-opportunity condescension, he’s labeled a “grandfather.” But by and large, it seems to be assumed that a grandfather has a life beyond the facts of his age and his grandkids.

But once that first grandchild shows up, grandmothers seem to be expected to lose all other parts of their identities and retire into a one-dimensional state of grandma-hood. Presumably they are allowed to knit and bake cookies. But committing acts of adventure, or career achievement, or actually having a life apart from grandkids, is just so not grandmotherly.

I have a herd of grandkids. I love them all, from the ones who are barely walking to the ones with baritone voices who are taller than me. While I have taken some of them hiking, I’ve never knit anything for them. (Well, apart from one half-finished baby blanket. If the kid it was started for is lucky, I might get it done in time for his own first baby.) And if they want cookies, they’ll have to bake their own.

Maybe, if they really love me, they might even bring me some.

Categories: Family | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Style, Stubble, and Scruffy Chic

I thought that look went out with the last reruns of “Miami Vice.” Or maybe it did, and it’s just come back around again.

In either case, it was a bad idea then, and it’s a bad idea now. I’m talking about the fashion in ads for men’s clothing to show models all dressed up in their nice suits, with three days’ worth of stubble on their faces. They look as if they interrupted a back-country fishing trip for the photo shoot, hurrying back to town in such a rush that they didn’t take time to shave.

Does anyone in the real world actually think this “stubbly chic” is attractive? Are there women out there who daydream about snuggling up to guys with faces that feel like a cross between a juvenile porcupine and a piece of 60-grit sandpaper?

Most of these scruffy-faced models are chisel-jawed guys in their 20′s. A few, maybe in their 30′s, seem to be trying to look a little older, going for the “CEO’s are real men, too” look. And even some of the guys modeling clothes for teens show up proudly in their chin whiskers. Never mind that they don’t look old enough to shave.

Thankfully, there’s one demographic that doesn’t seem to have succumbed to this look: models over 50. (Yes, there are a few, and no, not all of them are advertising Viagra.) Maybe even fashion photographers have to admit that it doesn’t work to show a guy of a certain age with gray stubble sprouting across his not-so-chiseled jaw. No matter how expensively he may be dressed, he’s going to look like he just spent the night sleeping behind a dumpster.

Taking this look of fashionable scruffiness to its logical conclusion, what might be next? Just think of the possibilities. Slender young female swimsuit models with hairy legs and underarms like King Kong. Dimpled toddlers in cute little outfits, with pureed peas smeared on their rosy little cheeks. Grade-schoolers with Kool-Aid mustaches. Cosmetics models whose close-up shots reveal not only flawless skin, but also bits of broccoli stuck between their teeth.

I’m all for truth in advertising, but this might be taking “reality” a bit too far. Especially when most real guys seem to hold to the quaint custom of shaving every morning before they head off to work.

There is hope, I suppose, that the stubble-and-a-suit look will eventually run its course. I did see one photo in this week’s newspaper inserts of a manly young guy with a clean-shaven chin. It was an ad for jackets, in the Cabela’s flyer. He was fishing.

Categories: Fashion | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

A Tale of Two Cacti

It’s a classic tale: the poor, abandoned orphan who perseveres, eventually overcoming hardship and heartache to become successful, happy, and universally admired. Charles Dickens might have written it. Oh, wait, Charles Dickens did write it. Several times, in fact.

But this particular story has unfolded right here in my very own home. Here is the uplifting (I think) tale of the Christmas cactus and the Thanksgiving cactus.

The Christmas cactus, a valued member of the family, can trace its ancestry back some 40 years to my grandmother’s plant, and back another 30 or 40 years to her cousin Minnie’s plant.

The Thanksgiving cactus was a gift to my daughter several years ago from someone who turned out to be a false friend. My daughter didn’t want the reminder of an unpleasant experience, so she left the cactus at my house.

I didn’t exactly welcome it with enthusiasm, but I took it in. I watered it. I kept it in the south window with the other plants. But I never talked to it, admired it, or even bothered to transplant it out of its original cheap plastic pot. It was just there, dutifully cared for but never loved. Sort of a step-cactus. A second-best cactus.

In response to this neglect, it did its best to thrive. It worked hard, blooming faithfully every year—even when my heirloom Christmas cactus did not. This outshining of my favorite, as Dickens could have predicted, did not make me love it. Over time, though, its quiet, uncomplaining dependability did generate a certain grudging respect and acceptance.

Last fall, I decided it was time to cut back the original plant. I snipped off several cuttings and plunked them into some water to take root—which, of course, they promptly did. Eventually I planted them in a new pot. Meanwhile, I kept watering the original plant, not wanting to throw it out until the new one was established.

Toward the end of November, I noticed buds on both plants. Obviously, the new one was thriving. But I certainly couldn’t dump out the old one while it was blooming. Even in Dickens’s time, condemned female criminals who were pregnant were reprieved long enough to bear their children.

So I waited and watered. All three cacti bloomed beautifully throughout the Christmas season, in an abundance and harmony that would have made Dickens proud.

We were out of town for much of January, and by the time we got home all the lovely pink-orange blossoms had dried up. Still, I didn’t quite get around to throwing out the original orphan plant.

And now, both Thanksgiving cacti are covered with an unheard-of second round of delicate pink buds. I don’t want two of them. But I can’t condemn a blooming cactus to the compost pile. They’ve done it again. When my back is turned, I swear I can hear them snickering.

Does anybody out there want a Thanksgiving cactus? Please, please, let me do the “far, far better thing” and give you one. Charles Dickens and I would both be grateful.

Categories: Odds and Ends | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

“Nobody But a Logger Stirs His Coffee With His Thumb”

Rocking a baby to sleep is one of life’s lovely little pleasures. Well, at least that’s true as long as said baby, not particularly interested in going to sleep, isn’t screaming its darling little head off.

Fortunately, this wasn’t the case the other morning with my one-year-old granddaughter. She was just a bit reluctant to settle down for her nap, so I sat down in the rocker and sang to her. For whatever reason, when I sing to little ones they seem to slip right into dreamland. Given my singing voice, my theory is that they do it in sheer self-defense. Never mind; if it works, it works.

In this case, it only took two times through “The Frozen Logger,” before she was sound asleep. I just sat for a little while, soaking in the pleasure of holding her and watching her beautiful little face as she slept.

During this meditative interlude, the song kept going around and around in my mind. “The Frozen Logger,” is a folk song by James Stevens that I learned from a recording by The Weavers. It has several qualities that make it a good lullaby. It’s a fun little story song, set to a waltz, so the words are easy to remember. It doesn’t have any inconvenient low notes or annoying high notes. And, most important, it has a lot of verses and can be repeated more or less indefinitely.

The longer I sat, though, the more I started to wonder about the song. Chiefly, whether it was really an appropriate one for a conscientious grandma to use as a lullaby. After all, it’s about a guy so tough he “stirs his coffee with his thumb.” Not only that, “if you’d pour whiskey on it, he would eat a bale of hay.”

Then I remembered how that classic lullaby, “Rock-a-Bye Baby,” ends. “When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, and down will come baby, cradle and all.” Given the potential trauma to an infant psyche from this happy thought, I decided not to worry about mere bare-digit coffee stirring.

Then I got distracted by another thought. Suppose you have a cup of steaming hot coffee, fresh from the pot. Or you’ve just poured boiling water over a tea bag. There’s no way you would stick your thumb in that cup.

Yet some people have no problem whatsoever in drinking coffee while it’s still steaming. Or in sipping tea that’s been cooled from the boiling point by only a tiny splash of milk.

I’m one of those people. This is why I rarely order coffee in restaurants. It isn’t hot enough. So I gulp it quickly before it cools, and then the waitress comes by and fills it up again, and I have to drink that while it’s hot. And before I’ve finished my omelet I’ve had six cups, and I’m so full of caffeine that my hands shake for the rest of the morning, and if I tried to send a text, LOL would probably come out KIK.

What’s the explanation for that? Are our tongues—sensitive organs so capable of detecting subtle tastes that they can tell the difference between two brands of chocolate—really that tough? More to the point, are they really that much tougher than our thumbs? After all, thumbs, besides being one of the things making us human, are calloused, hard-working digits.

Maybe—to save others the trouble of pointing it out—I should just admit the most likely truth. Apparently, some of us exercise our tongues more than we do our thumbs.

Categories: Family, Food and Drink | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

Fertilizing the Family Tree

When my younger stepdaughter and my daughter were both in third grade, they had a class assignment to draw family trees. My stepdaughter’s tree was a small one, including only her mother, her father, her sister, and her brother. My daughter’s tree was more like a fat Christmas spruce with an over-abundance of ornaments. She included her father, me, her brother, her stepdad, her stepsisters and stepbrother, their stepbrothers and stepsister on their mother’s side, our cat, and her stepsister’s stepdad’s dog.

Deciding who is entitled to perch on a branch of your family tree isn’t always a simple thing. In our family, now that those earnest third-graders and their siblings are adults with kids of their own, it hasn’t become any simpler. We just keep adding inlaws, grandkids, cousins, and significant others. (Does anybody have “insignificant others,” do you suppose? I hope not.) Enough of these extended family members are step-whomevers so that most of the time it’s easier to drop the “step” part and just think of them as what they are: family.

And it doesn’t stop there. My partner’s mother, for instance, who died recently at age 96, had only a small family of her own. But in the last years of her life, the definition of “family” in her life changed. A woman who originally helped her with house cleaning and errands, then took on more and more care of her as her health declined, eventually became a close and loving adopted daughter. She didn’t come alone, either. She brought her children and grandchildren, and all of them blessed a rather solitary woman’s house and life with people, activity, and lots of love. If that doesn’t qualify as “family,” I don’t know what does. Branches are branches, even when they have been grafted onto the family tree.

All those branches, of course, have to be supported by roots. To some extent, we define our families by where we came from. In my case, one grandmother immigrated from Germany and the other’s parents were both born in Norway. My grandfathers, whose ancestors came to this country much earlier, aren’t quite as easy to categorize.

But we’re about to find out more. We’re participating in the National Geographic Genographic Project. By testing DNA samples, it can tell us more about where our ancestors came from, where in the world they went across the generations, and what racial mix we are. It can even reveal whether we have Neanderthal ancestry. Who wouldn’t want to know that?

It will take a while to get the results, but there’s one thing I already know. This knowledge is going to expand the roots that support our family trees. A good thing, too. At the rate we keep adding branches, we need the broadest root system we can find. Neanderthals and all.

Categories: Family | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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