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Voices | Mark Feeney

Hairline fracture

Coming to terms with his fading crowning glory

By Mark Feeney
November 16, 2009

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There were three of us in the car: Alex, Wesley, and me. A colleague had just announced he was leaving journalism. This became the chief topic of conversation. Being journalists, which means inveterate complainers, we had no problem finding fault. Things got reasonably ugly reasonably fast. Finally, I’d had enough. With uncharacteristic charity, I sought to praise this person - but sincerely.

“Well,’’ I said, “he has great hair.’’

“What do you mean?’’ Wesley, who’s two decades younger than Alex and me, practically yelled. “He does not have great hair! He just has a lot of hair.’’

Alex and I looked at each other. It was the sort of look men exchange who have seen much - perhaps too much - and now must share their knowledge with a man who has not seen enough.

“No, Wesley,’’ Alex said, “you don’t understand. A lot of hair is great hair.’’

How had it come to this? Sure, hair used to be problematic - but the problem had to do with abundance, not absence. “Get your hair cut!’’ parents would order, unaware (or, more likely, all too well aware) that long hair was a statement: a declaration of personal independence, a show of generational solidarity, maybe even a way to get girls’ attention. I remember years ago giving my shaggy chestnut locks a happy shake when I read Germaine Greer in Esquire pointing out how the posters that young women put up in their rooms were invariably of rock stars with great, girlish spills of hair: Roger Daltrey, Mick Jagger, Peter Frampton. Well, 35 years later, Daltrey and Jagger are doing OK. But “comes alive’’ is definitely not how anyone would describe Frampton’s scalp. “Do you feel like I do?’’ Yes, Peter, I do; and, baby, I don’t love your way.

I had another reason for prizing long hair. From an early age, I’ve been near-sighted. So I’ve always associated sitting in a barber chair with feeling blind as well as being shorn. When he’s done, the barber always holds up a mirror to display his handiwork, and I always have to ask him to hand me my glasses. What has the man been doing? For all I know he could have been just scissoring the air, the way Michael Palin does in Monty Python’s “Lumberjack’’ sketch. Writers are control freaks. Nearsighted writers sitting in barber chairs with their glasses off are utterly lacking in control. Not a good situation.

In retrospect, I suppose this was good preparation for the feeling of hairy powerlessness that has increasingly confronted me. How to describe my situation? I’m not bald - not yet - but empathy, not scorn, is what I feel at the sight of a comb-over.

What makes my experience of increasing hair loss all the harder to accept is that I am surrounded by great hair. My brother-in-law has great hair. My boss has great hair. The editor of this column has great hair (well, good hair, anyway - or did he edit that out?). The editor of this newspaper has great hair. So does the publisher. John Kerry has great hair - and Ted Kennedy had it to the day he died. My next-door neighbor Jed has great hair. My late father-in-law had such great hair he was like a white-maned Mitt Romney - no, two Mitt Romneys. There’s that line from Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London,’’ “I’d like to meet his tailor.’’ Myself, I’d like to meet Mitt Romney’s barber. My friend Dan is 97 - 97! - and impressive as it may be that he still goes to his office every day, it’s even more impressive - at least to some of us - that he still has all his hair.

Nearly everywhere I look I am follicularly indicted. Now it’s true that my oldest friend’s scalp started thinning noticeably more than 30 years ago. The last time I saw him was at a wedding in August. But I was brought up short when I saw my hair no longer looks all that much thicker than his does. “Jesus!’’ I started to mutter - until I remembered that in every rendering of him I’ve seen, Christ has the greatest hair of all: stupendously, miraculously, biblically great. Mutter turned to moan. I’m not just losing my hair. I’m losing my religion.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.