Bald is Beautiful? Reflections on Hairlessness

I recently had a brief on-line conversation with my old friend Steve Henikoff (pictured above), whom I met in fifth or sixth grade at Jamieson School in Chicago. I mentioned that I was struck by his father’s baldness as soon as I was introduced to his dad, Armand. I recall thinking to myself that Steve would therefore probably go bald too, and that I would be exempt because my dad had a full head of hair. That shows you how little I knew about genetics — how unaware I was of the fact that Male Pattern Baldness (MPB) wasn’t that simply acquired. Not surprisingly, Steve has a great head of hair to this day and I am — well — just look at the picture on the right.

Steve, however, was not a fan of his father’s nose and claims to have the spitting-image — sneezing-image? – of his dad’s schnozzola. I never noticed anything about his father’s nose that seemed remarkable. But, Steve certainly inherited the best of Armand and Sylvia Henikoff’s brain-power, as he is an internationally recognized researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and one of the few folks in the world elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The NAS is the Hall of Fame of living scientists, comprising approximately 2200 members and 400 foreign associates, of whom about 200 have won the Nobel Prize.

Steve’s hair undoubtedly contributed to his success. Yes, I know he graduated from the University of Chicago and Harvard and is fantastically smart. But I’m here to report that it was his hair that enabled him to become world renown. Doubtless, if not for my own shiny pate, I would be right beside my old buddy on the NAS roster. I tell myself this so that I can sleep at night.

I, unlike Steve, began to lose my hair in college. I noticed a few too many strands on the bathroom sink during a summer that I worked at MIT and shared an apartment with Rich Adelstein and a friend of his. My initial reaction was that those black hairs couldn’t be mine. I looked for name tags attached to the individual hairs, but finding none, didn’t think too much about it. I simply buried the idea of this being some sort of early warning signal. By the beginning of graduate school at Northwestern, however, there was no doubting that something was happening — to me! My roommate then was blond. Ownership was indisputable.

A bald man who has cleverly figured out how to distract you from his baldness.

Passing thoughts occurred to me about the potential speed of my condition’s progress, but since it wasn’t obvious to anyone else I didn’t agonize about it. I suppose that I might have done some calculations. “Let’s see, if I have X number of hairs and I am losing hair at the rate of Y hairs per day, then I will be bald as a coot by — Tuesday!” As I say, I didn’t do this and wouldn’t recommend this exercise in self-abuse.

Talk about vanity. Before long I was trying to figure out whether I would look better if I had longer hair in the area of my temples or if shorter hair would achieve a better disguise. But I still had lots of wavy hair, despite the beginning signs of a bald spot on my crown. I was a poster child for the early stages of Male Pattern Baldness, which, unlike female baldness, tends to be localized at the start, rather than a thinning of the hair over the entire scalp.

By the 1980s a blood pressure medication called Minoxidil (Rogaine) was producing good results for some of the men who used it to deal with their hair loss. I knew friends who vouched for its safety and effectiveness. But somehow I couldn’t get around the idea of taking medicine for something that had more to do with self-image than with health. I’d also seen too many bad hair-pieces by that time, and heard that the care and feeding of those creatures — “Is the animal on your head still alive?” — was time-consuming. They also reportedly generate a good deal of heat on the top of the scalp, not being ventilated the way that real hair is.

Other possibilities presented themselves. For example, some guys look good with their heads shaved. The danger here, I think, is coming off as a little too intimidating; plus, you need the right shaped head. Not for me.

The idea of a serious comb-over seemed worst of all. I always wonder about the romantic partners of these guys. Don’t they have the guts to say “You know dear, I have to tell you that combing the six-foot-long hairs from behind your left ear to cover the top of your head makes you look like CRAP!!!”

Scalp reduction surgery was more intriguing. As I’ve written elsewhere, it is designed to get more coverage out of the hair you have by reducing the territory on top of your head.

I can imagine the following conversation:

Surgeon: ‘Well, Dr. Stein, we’ve studied your head, your hair-line and scalp and we have some good news and some bad news.”

Me: “Tell me more, Doctor.”

Surgeon: “The good news is that we can give you a full head of hair!”

Me: “And the bad news?”

Surgeon: ‘Your head will be the size of a grape.”

According to Wikipedia:

One large-scale study in Maryborough, Victoria, Australia showed the prevalence of mid-frontal baldness increases with age and affects 73.5 percent of men and 57 percent of women aged 80 and over. A rough rule of thumb is that the incidence of baldness in males corresponds to chronological age. For example, according to Medem Medical Library’s website, male pattern baldness (MPB) affects roughly 40 million men in the United States. Approximately 25 percent of men begin balding by age 30; two-thirds begin balding by age 60.

The news that you have (or will have) some company in the hair loss department is cold comfort, especially if you lose too much hair early, which I didn’t. As with money, status, jobs, and just about everything else in life, we are more likely to make comparisons to those who are better-off than those who are lower on the totem-pole than we are.

Question: Does this look more like Steve’s father or me?

A man who is honest with himself will admit that the reason he wants hair on the top of his head is to look good for others. When you are alone reading a book in your room, I doubt that many guys think that the experience would be better if they could run a hand through thick and wavy locks every few minutes and say to themselves: “Boy, you know I liked The Great Gatsby the first time I read it, but it’s really much better now that I have a hair transplant!” No, I don’t think so.

So this is about making a good impression, rather than a bad impression or no impression at all. It is about being sexually attractive even if you have no real interest in having sex with those who might admire you. And, as with many other things, it is emotionally tougher for women, some 30 million of whom have hair loss issues in the USA alone.

Eventually, at least for most guys who don’t try to change the course of nature, you reach the point that your baldness can neither be disguised nor denied. You are a bald guy. Face it. Because, I’ll tell you what, it isn’t the worst thing in the world. Think of some of the advantages:

  1. You will find yourself thinking much less about either hair arrangement or being without hair. It is just who you are.
  2. You will save money on hair spray, hair cuts, and hair-care products.
  3. You will save hours combing your hair and have much more time for re-reading The Great Gatsby.
  4. You can rent out the top of your head as advertising space — “Eat at Joe’s Restaurant” — and make some extra money.
  5. Some woman actually prefer bald men and many value other qualities more highly than hair.

There is one other advantage, but I’m afraid I can’t transfer this to my brothers in baldness. It came in the form of a 2008 handmade Father’s Day card from my daughter Carly. To help you understand the message, you need to know that we have a cabinet-filled room full of CDs which is mostly devoted to my listening to music. If you happen to be in the kitchen, you can see into the room easily, and see me from behind as I am seated on a couch. Here is what Carly wrote on the inside of the card:

Dad,

Your bald head has always had a warm place in my heart. Sounds peculiar, I know. But ever since I was little, I would look at the back of your head sitting in the music room and it comforted me. The image still does. It’s because that picture (below) represents my Dad who is always there to listen, to give ample hugs, to give sound advice, to dole out corny jokes, and when he smiles I know how much he loves me. To someone else it may be just a bald head, but to me it’s the gleaming ray of sunshine that is my Dad!

As perhaps you can imagine, reading that was worth all the hair loss in the world.

The photo of a Bald Eagle was taken by Vlad Butsky and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Last Day of School and Other Sighs of Relief

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/bf/VJ-day-cernobila.jpg/240px-VJ-day-cernobila.jpg

Every so often something happens that feels like a great weight has been lifted off of some important body part.

The end of war, as in the famous Times Square VJ Day photo of Alfred Eisenstaedt, produced just that giddy, “it’s good to be alive” combination of gratitude, joy, relief, and abandon. In the spontaneous madness of public celebration, the sailor sweeps a nurse unknown to him into his arms.

I dare say that the U.S.A. probably hasn’t experienced anything quite like that shared moment since World War II ended in 1945.

But most of us born after that event probably know some smaller examples of the same feeling from our post-war childhood.

Remember the last day of school when you were young? In the Chicago Public School system, the final day was always curtailed. And as the seconds of the shortened day counted off, all you could think about was how the vast expanse of summer time (“when the livin’ is easy,” as Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess told us) lay ahead.

Imagine, over two months (until the day after Labor Day) without the classroom grind!

Amusement park rides, ball games (played and watched), movies, swimming, TV, catching fire flies, trading baseball cards, and sleeping late all beckoned. And, best of all, no homework, no tests, just about no responsibilities.

When I was very small, I’d actually imagined something even better. I don’t recall my age, but I must have been about seven. It was the foggiest day ever. One could see perhaps only a quarter of a block ahead and the world became this mysterious, fantastical, enshrouded place that looked like a different planet than I had inhabited the day before.

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/60/Hydrocarbon_fog.jpg/240px-Hydrocarbon_fog.jpg

And somehow, on the 15 minute walk from Talman Avenue to Jamieson School, I got the idea in my head that perhaps, just perhaps, my school had disappeared! Minnie Mars Jamieson School still occupies about 2/3 of a square city block in the Budlong Woods neighborhood of Chicago’s northwest side. It is three stories high — all bricks and mortar and intimidation.

But still, if I couldn’t see it, surely it wasn’t there. It didn’t occur to me that all the other befogged buildings on the walk to school were coming into view once I got close enough to them. I didn’t consider what it might have taken to raze the gigantic edifice quietly over night. And sure enough, as soon as I got close, the structure rose up before me and looked down on me, as if to say, “Not so fast, buster. You can’t get out of school that easily. I’ve been here since 1937 and I’m always going to be here. Get used to it.”

No, reality could not be escaped. And, as if to counterbalance the relief I felt on school’s last day each year, the business world concocted a dreaded campaign to suck the life out of the last few weeks of “freedom” one experienced at the end of summer.

Even today it is called by the same name: THE BACK TO SCHOOL SALE.

It seemed to me that all of the stores except for those selling food and tires must have come together in some secret meeting place with the following agenda:

Those kids seem altogether too happy. They are enjoying their time off too much. How can we bring them down to earth?

I’d like to meet the now, undoubtedly long-dead genius who answered that question. The guy who got all the other retailers to promise that they would create gigantic billboards and store signs, employ men wearing sandwich boards, run newspaper and magazine ads, and create radio and TV commercials that would, at precisely the same moment on August 1st, make it impossible for any kid in America to completely enjoy his last month of liberty.

The ads and signs seemed to count-off the days on your stay of execution: 25, 24, 23…tick, tick, tick, 13, 12, 11…tick, tick, tick, 3, 2, 1.

back-to-school-resistance-is-futile1

If you recall James Cagney or some other movie actor going to pieces as he walked down death-row to the electric chair, then you have some idea of what this felt like even if you never went to school a day in your life.

“Oh, no, not that, anything but that!”

It was only many years later, when I became a college professor, that I began to realize that the teachers probably felt as bad about the end of summer as the kids.

But, as I think about it, in the nostalgic after-glow of a long-departed youth, its hard not to be grateful for that joyous end-of-school, end-of-war, sense of relief that still visits me from time to time.

Yes, I get the back-to-school feeling on occasion as well. But it seems more manageable now, easier to accept.

It’s almost spring now. Think Frederic Delius’s achingly beautiful, six-minute tone poem, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring. And, to greet the summer we have the first movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony #3, the movement he called “Summer Marches In.”

The end of the school year is near.

The world is full of delight.

Enjoy the small pleasures.

The top image is card stencil spray paint from a photocopy of the famous VJ day image by Alfred Eisenstaedt sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The second photo is Hydrocarbon fog.jpg by Cambridge Bay Weather. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Learning From the Wrong Example: A Story of Five Teachers

Patricia Daley Martino and Peter Martino

For the most part I am grateful to my old teachers. By and large, they were an earnest and dedicated bunch.

Teachers like Patricia Daley Martino (pictured above with her husband Peter) were a treasure.

But I remember five with less kindly sentiments. Still, they did teach me something:

What not to do.

My very first high school science teacher laid down the law on the first day of class. And the “law” went something like this:

“I may make mistakes in marking your papers and grading your tests. You may be able to prove to me that I made those mistakes. It still won’t matter. I’m not going to change your scores or your grades no matter what you say.”

I can’t remember precisely what went through my mind when I heard this, but it was probably some version of “Is this guy nuts?”

What I learned from this man (whose son I knew in grade school, when he was already a juvenile delinquent in-training) was that power corrupts, and authority needs to wielded with a sense of justice, lest you become some sort of bully or dictator like my science teacher.

I also learned, in a practical way, that the famous quote from trial attorney Clarence Darrow is true: “There is no justice, in or out of court.”

But, I doubt that the teacher in question intended to instruct me in that particular lesson.

Still another high school science faculty member, a year or two later, took off a small number of points from a test paper because I didn’t put my home-room number on the page; or perhaps it was not in the right place, I don’t recall which. Since I was already “detail-oriented” he taught me nothing new about attention to small stuff. But, what I did learn was a lesson about nit-picking, something he was quite good at.

Going back to the primary grades, I observed a bad example displayed by two different teachers, one female, one male.

For reasons still unknown to me, both of these single adults, neither probably older than their early 30s, felt compelled to tell my class a bit about their dating lives. The man fancied himself a “Don Juan” type and indicated that he could easily have been married if only he wanted to. The woman, for her part, explained why it was that she was still single.

Who asked?

Should I have taken notes? What would they have said if someone queried, “Will we be tested on this?”

Even as a little kid, I thought to myself, “I’m not supposed to hear this.”

Finally, the teacher I had for music in the 8th grade told us all that she had been a famous opera singer, but for some reason had given up that career. Moreover, she offered that she had a stage name different from her current married name. What was it? She wouldn’t say. From time to time she would also rant about Harry Truman, who hadn’t been President for a number of years. She was, however, a heck of a good choral director.

Another case of kids being a captive audience. Too much information — the wrong information, I knew even then.

I suppose the moral of this story is that we learn equally from those who are good models and those who aren’t.

Teachers (and others) often don’t realize that the lesson they intend to teach is, in fact, not the one being taught.