One of the most off-putting questions I ever get as a dad is when someone, upon seeing my daughter, says to me, "Where did she get her red hair?" The question in and of itself is a fair one, and not off-putting at all, on the face of it. But to me it is, personally, because, as long as I've been alive, I have always identified myself as a redhead. So every time I hear the question, part of me can't understand where it's coming from. Until I look in the mirror, and am reminded that the current reality no longer matches what my brain perceives as "the truth."
Hair color is on my mind today for two reasons: One because I just finished Malcolm Gladwell's great essay in What the Dog Saw called "True Colors," which discusses the changing Madison Avenue slogans of women's hair color products as reflective of and contributing to the attitudes and psyches of 20th century women (from "does she or doesn't she?" to "because I'm worth it"). The other reason is because my kid, the flaming redhead, had a bunch of her friends over for a study group today, and three out of five of them were also redheads, which, given the statistics, is just kinda crazy.
But what's on my mind in particular is my own hair color, and how it has changed, and changed my own psyche, over the course of my 40+ years. Because when you have flaming red hair, as I did all the way up until my early 20s, when it mysteriously started to turn brown, it is an identifier (some might call it a stigma, others might call it a blessing) that you are stuck with, that defines, to some extent, who you are. I had the added fun, too, of having a last name that was also a color, so "Red Green" or "Jeff Red" and so on was my particular stoopid cross to bear.
Though I recall getting compliments on it from adult females at the time ("Oh my god I'd pay to have hair that color!"), that didn't really do much to appease my young and adolescent self when all I really wanted to do was fit in and not feel like a freak. I imagine it is probably worse for redheaded boys than girls. Or it was, anyway. I get the feeling now, in the more enlightened 21st century, where kids have all sorts of ever-changing hair color, that maybe it doesn't matter as much now. Or at least here in Berkeley it doesn't. All I know is at the time I hated it. It didn't help, either that I grew up in Los Angeles, where the pale skin that goes with the red hair further separated me from the Tan and Beautiful. "A tomato on a stick" is one of my asshole adolescent "friends" called me at the time--referring to my red hair on my rail-thin body. And the thing is that, whether positive or negative, you hear about it all the time. Daily. It's the way people identify you.
See what I'm talkin' about? This guy is a REDHEAD.
It was only as it started to go away, of course, that I finally began to appreciate it. Even before I had my kid, when I was 32, it had long been turning brown, and so when folks would see my driver's license, which said "red" under hair, or heard me refer to myself as a redhead, they would look oddly at me, or question it to my face. But of course I was a redhead, I'd reply. That was who I was. And when that point was disputed, I realized that I was actually bummed by the new truth. I dunno if it was Stockholm Syndrome or what, but after actually being a redhead for so long, I really didn't want to be anything else. I'd grown into it. I think I actually didn't change the "red" to "brown" on my driver's license until about 8 years ago---right about the time that it really, maybe, should have started to say "grey," simply because I didn't want to believe I wasn't a redhead anymore. Both my dad and my grandmother and my first cousin and now my daughter: all redheads. Redheads in the media and popular fiction, like Ron Weasley: my brethren. This was the club I belonged to. And I wanted it to stay that way.
The brown hair I never really enjoyed too much. It was what it was, to use the past tense of a phrase I hate. Now I'm in a whole different ballgame. Happily, though, I'm already over denying the gray. Hey, it is what it is. I'll admit that it bugged the crap out of me at first, of course, but my period of denial was much shorter this time around. It didn't help that the signals were coming in stronger: The number of times I was being called "sir" multiplied exponentially. I somehow found myself cruising past lines--like airport security lines--that used to seem to take longer. I was in the old white male club! Just like in that classic Eddie Murphy sketch! The turning point, at least in terms of my own denial/awareness, came back at 1up.com, when my friend Dana, after returning from a trip with the 1up gang to the sports bar outside our office, said that the bartender had said to her, "Where's the silver-haired guy who's usually with you guys?" I took it badly at first. "Silver haired guy? Huh?"
But still. Could be worse, right? There's the whole "bald" thing, which, knock on wood, looks like I'm likely to avoid (not that there'd be anything wrong with that). My hair is bozoid thick. Second, if one has to go gray, there are worse ways for it to happen then getting these "wings" I have sprouted. I mean, who doesn't mind looking like these guys:
I get asked all the time now if I'm going to dye my hair. Almost every time I get my hair cut I get asked. But the answer is always the same for me: Why? Who would I be kidding? Anyone who already knows me would know what I did, so that'd just be embarrassing. And anyone who doesn't know me, well, who cares? What do I care what they think? And what would they think, anyway--if they thought about it at all, which is unlikely since they have their own lives to lead and probably aren't wasting a whole lot of brainpower on me, no matter how solipsistic I want to be? "There goes a gray-haired guy!" Well...so what?
That's what I am now. I'm a gray-haired guy. Just like I was a redhead before. Only this time, decades later, I'm going to embrace the hand (or head) I've been dealt. If it's good enough for Paulie Walnuts, it's good enough for me.