Monday, September 29, 2008

Less Hair Is More

As your hair recedes and you start to go thin on top, a paradox grows above your brain. The more hair you try to cultivate to conceal the fact that you’re losing it, the less hair you appear to have. The growth only serves to accentuate the parts that are blank. The only solution is to get your hair cut very short. The less hair you have, the less you appear to have less hair.

You’d think it would be easy to get your hair cut short. Just go into a barber’s shop and say, “I’d like my hair cut very, very short, please.” But American barbers either don’t understand this instruction, or they refuse to understand it. It’s as though there is a single American male haircut mandated by the government, and they are forbidden to deviate from its preppy, comb-over norm. Or they are all solid members of the Barbers’ Union contriving to keep hair long, so that people have to come back more often. Or the Marines have forbidden pink-livered pacifist cowards like me to have short haircuts so that come the day when they have to exterminate us all to ensure America’s safety, they’ll know which hirsute-headed commie bastards to take out first.

The first time this happened to me, the barber snipped away for a few minutes, held up a mirror, then asked me if I was happy with the haircut. “No,” I replied. “Like I said before, I’d like it really, really short, please.” He snipped away for another 20 seconds and stood back again, smiling. We’d already had one long and confusing conversation when he’d asked me, “You like Turkey?” and I said I’d never been, until eventually I worked out he was just making pre-Thanksgiving small-talk. So I paid and left and didn’t give him a tip, and never went back.

The second time, I explained to the barber that I wanted “what we used to call in England a Number Two Cut all over, please.” I always say please, because you should, even if it doesn’t help make your average barber understand that you want your hair cut really, really fucking short. He nodded and said, “Of course, sir.” And then he cut my hair for a few minutes and held up the mirror. I asked him three more times to continue cutting my hair until it was really, really short, “like I asked for,” which visibly annoyed him. That made two of us. In the end I gave up there too. No tip, never went back.

Finally, I found Hannah’s Barber Shop, which deserves to be patronised for its name alone. Hannah really is the owner, though it was a young bloke who did my hair. He got it all wrong, but when I kept asking him to keep cutting it really, really short just like I asked for, he kept laughing, like I was the most comical customer he’d ever served. “Are you sure?” he wanted to know. “Oh yes, I am very sure,” I replied. We stopped to check another four or five times, with the barber bemused and incredulous at my apparently outrageous request asking him, a barber, to cut my hair off.

There finally came a moment of clarity as he thought for a moment and said, “So what you want is a Number Three Cut all over?” As though no one had asked for such a thing since the 1930s.

“Is that what I need to ask for? I thought no one understood the numbers system here.”

“Yes, that’s all you need to ask for. Next time you come.”

“I’ll be back,” I promised. He got a six-dollar tip on a 14-buck haircut. Better still, he didn’t once ask me where I’m going on my holidays. Or about my taste in roasted poultry.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Super-Sized Safety

The problem with neurosis is that it knows no limits. Find one good reason to worry why you might die tomorrow, and you can quickly find several thousand more. It’s why I never read the ‘Health’ section of the Washington Post. I can’t be bothered to fret that the rare and previously undiagnosed condition striking one in every 500,000 Americans might be out to get me just because I’m sure that I might once have experienced one of its 27 known symptoms.

Paradoxically, the safer we are, the more we seem to worry. This must be why my local supermarket has installed a PureCart system. It’s a car wash for supermarket trolleys, and has achieved country-wide press coverage for being, in the words of The Seattle Times, “the area’s first full-scale shopping-cart wash, a push-through device that sprays a misty peroxide solution over each cart between every use. It dries in a few seconds, leaving behind a faint whiff of beauty parlor and a cart promised to be 99.9 per cent germ-free for the next customer.”

I know exactly what you’re thinking, and it involves a combination of the words Jesus, Christ and some kind of expletive in-between. Much as I like the friendly folk that run the conveniently local shop, and in particular their selection of beer and wine, I have the exact same thought every time I pass the PureCart contraption on my way in to the store. Never mind that most of what people are putting in their carts is industrially processed food, or that the scales on the deli counter are always covered in the layered detritus of that day’s nutritional transactions. There are obviously enough people around who worry about catching germs from a shopping trolley that the shop has gone to the trouble of installing an entire system to counter this alarming and invisible peril. But hang on, it only says “99.9 per cent” of the germs. Watch out, mom, what if little Logan sticks his infant tongue on the 0.1 per cent of the trolley that PureCart failed to purge of someone else’s filthy bacteria? HE COULD DIE!

A couple of years ago we flew to Cancun and hired a car, heading for an island off the Yucatan peninsula famed for its billion different varieties of mosquito (in seven days we got to experience them all). As we drove out of the city, we passed a family on a moped -- Dad, Mum, and a kid, all balanced precariously on the vehicle, with the shopping too, and none of them wearing a helmet. Coming from America, it was somehow a refreshing sight, merely because it embodied a different attitude to mortality that served to highlight our own obsessive fixation with health and safety.

Of course, if it had been one of my own kids riding a moped without a helmet, I might have been less sanguine, but that’s how conditioned I’ve become. In a few weeks I probably won’t even notice the PureCart. In fact I’ll probably raise a complaint with the managers if I pull out a trolley and I fail to pick up “a faint whiff of beauty parlor.” I will not be murdered by vicious, evil bacteria without a fight.