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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Cutting Hair

I cut hair.
I’m not a barber, and I don’t stand at busy intersections wearing a sign: “Will cut hair for food.” It’s not something I do as an occupation or out of desperation. In fact, I have only one steady customer… myself. I’ve been cutting my own hair since high school.

I was thinking about it this morning: cutting hair is one of the subtle rhythms of life.

Somewhere in a shoebox at my mother's house there are pictures of my brothers and I crying while Dad, standing behind us in a white T-shirt, is giving us our “first hair cut.” From that time till the time we moved out of the house, the home hair cut was a way of life, a recurring ritual of sorts, for my three brothers and me (and for my Uncle Bob. He and Dad cut each other's hair once a month for many years). About once a month on a Saturday night (so we'd look sharp the next day for church), Dad would set up shop in our knotty-pine basement down by what had been a wet bar until we converted it into a closet.

I remember climbing up on that stool and staring down at the checker-board tile, strewn with fallen brown and blonde tufts from my brothers' sheering. I can still hear the whispering buzz of the electric clippers and their clickity glissade across a comb-full of hair. The little sharp teeth of the blades tickled their way up my neck and around my ears. The steel blades were cold for the first boy in line and hot for the last. As the youngest (until Jim was born in '68), I was usually last. Sometimes the blades got so hot Dad would wrap them in a cold washcloth and sweep the floor while they cooled—then it felt like going first.

We didn’t mind short hair cuts when we were kids. These were the “Father Knows Best”/ “Leave it to Beaver” years, when virtually every male in America wore the same length of hair, a standard held since the dawn of modernity. Don’t believe me? Look in any yearbook or class composite through the mid-Sixties. Some brushed it back; some up; some down; some slicked it with Brylcreem or Score; later some used Dippity Do... but it was all pretty much the same length.

Short hair was a cinch—all of our role models had it: movie stars, pop singers, sports heroes, teachers—everyone! Highest on the list was my dad who got a “crew cut” when he joined the Navy and kept it all his life.

What we hated about hair-cut night was not the cutting of our hair but the interruption of our play. Because Dad's clippers didn’t work well with sweaty hair, he'd make us stop playing and “cool down” an hour before haircuts. It was that hour that we hated—the haircut itself was a breeze. In fact, the breeze from running up the steps and out the screen door felt twice as nice after a fresh hair cut.

Part of our home barbering ritual was the fact that my dad and my Uncle Bob (who also sported a crew cut for decades) cut each other's hair. Those two crew cuts kept them connected during the years when life's road widens and siblings tend to lose touch. Every month or so we'd drive to our cousins in Marysville an hour away. (Or they would come to our house.) The rhythm of cutting hair kept our families close through two decades. I have no doubt that was one of the reasons those two brothers kept crew cuts long after hairstyles changed... and oh, brother, did they change.

Some say it was The Beatles who introduced “long hair” to my generation. It's true that the Fab Four were derided as “mop tops,” but if you look at the pictures from their early years—the Ed Sullivan-“I Want to Hold Your Hand” years—the Beatles’ barely had enough hair to shake to the rhythm of “She Loves You Yea, Yea, Yea.” It took several years for longer styles to become common. The Beatles arrived when I was in 2nd Grade—not until I was in junior high, did some of my peers start “growing” their hair, and not until high school (in the Seventies) did the hair length on guys range from “clean cut” (a shrinking minority) to shoulder-length-or-longer / down-to-there hair (usually worn by the “hippie freaks,” “burn-outs,” and heavy metal rockers in my school).

This was the peak of the Viet Nam era, and by then long hair had become a political statement, my generation's way of flippin' the bird at previously held values (simply because they had been previously held). In the early years of the hair-length debate, it was a fairly accurate means of “profiling” one’s attitudes. It may sound like Archie Bunker, but the stereotype was pretty consistent: If you were a pot-smokin,’ McGovern-voting, veteran-bashin’ Pinko, you had long hair. If you were still hoping the best for Nixon ,you had shorter hair—not Opie-Taylor short…but you were probably showing plenty of ear (unless your were Elvis).

Now top this political froth off with a “spiritual” cherry, and you’ll understand what it was like for teenage boys of that day who ran in conservative circles. Maintaining a short haircut in “fundamentalist” churches took on the significance of circumcision to the many sons of Father Abraham. To put it in a New Testament context, it was as if our Lord himself had said, “And by this they shall know you are my disciples…” [John 13:35] and then He held up my school picture as an example of the proper haircut.

I sometimes forget that most people have never heard of "fundamentalism" in the context of the 20th Century church. I don't have the space or time to explain it here so I guess I'll just say that the movement's good intentions to produce character sometimes resulted in a caricature instead, an inordinate emphasis on certain outward appearances. Not unlike the Amish culture, self-evident standards of distinction were to be strictly followed for harmonious inclusion in the group. In churches like mine, short hair was practically an ordinance. On youth group outings, it became hard to tell who was more counterculture, the hippies handing out flowers or us short-haired guys handing them tracts.

Somewhere in my basement on a cluncky worn-out cassette tape, I have a little-known song that lampoons this chapter of fundamentalism. You have to hear its twangy gospel style to fully appreciate it, but thanks to a fellow blogger named Chris, we have the lyrics and a Youtube post is here: "If Your Hair's Too Long":

A rich young ruler came one day
To ask about the narrow way
But his hair was long and he couldn't be saved
The preacher looked at him through tears
And said the problem's on your ears

If your hair's on your ears,
there's sin in your heart .
Get it cut today and make a new start
You'll live a life of fear and dread
With that tangled mess upon your head.
If your hairs too long there's sin in your heart

My friend if you will enter there
You'll not go there with your long hair
If your hair's too long, there's sin in your heart.
They'll be held behind with those I fear
Who wear their hair upon their ears

If your hair's too long there's sin in your heart.

For some, the humor of that song hits close to home. The longer fundamentalists spiritualized hair length, the further they went out on a “limb” that couldn't hold even Absalom, who was, by the way, the poster boy for short-hair advocates. To hear them tell it, Absalom was not only hung to death by his long hair—but because of it. God just couldn't endure his vain Fabio locks a day longer.

Hermaneutic took a holiday, but I didn't know it (or the word) at that time. For instance, I heard sermon points from more than one preacher (whom I still consider dear friends) that said Jesus had short hair. All the artists from Rembrandt to Warner Sallman had gotten this detail wrong. This anthropological update surprised some, but as far as I know, it inspired no lasting works of art. (This is not a challenge to photoshop Sallman’s icon with a crew cut just to make a point. Sacrilege! Besides, I'm pretty sure James Caviezel has since put the argument to rest.)

By the time my oldest brother Paul hit high school, we were contemplating an appeal to Dad. It was my sister Kathy who went to bat for us. “Dad, could you leave a little more hair on the guys? She’d stand there like a supervisor at cosmetology school pulling at our uncut hair telling Dad which parts to leave alone and which parts to "only trim." The look she was after was called “soch” (pronounced like the first syllable of social). To our surprise, Dad agreed to leaving more hair on our heads: "Hey, I don’t mind cutting hair every other month.”

Unfortunately, in Dad’s mind this simply meant giving us haircuts short enough to last two months before his anti-Beatles feelings kicked in and he revved up the sheers. So my brothers and I began secretly cutting each other's hair. By trimming our hair behind closed doors, we could keep Dad's clippers at bay for months. When my brothers went off to college, I simply did it myself with the help of a mirror. That's how this "cutting my own hair" thing started. By 1974, when I went off to college, I had it down pat.

While most college campuses of America were in a lingering cloud that smelled like burning hemp and flags, I went to a well-known university in the south that required my haircut for all of it's 3,000 plus male students. This was not a problem...this was an opportunity.

My skill (dare I say "art") of maintaining "the proper length of hair" became a regular source of spending money. I put a sign-up sheet on my dorm room door, and come Saturday morning, I went from room to room on schedule to cut hair at $2.00 a head—a true win-win for a twenty minute inconvenience. The house-call approach was not so much about customer service as it was about having each guy clean up his own mess (while leaving my room neat and undisturbed for my roommates).

After several months, I got called up to the Dean of Men's office. Local barbers were complaining that an unlicensed student was cutting hair in the dorms. When I explained how my service worked, the Dean smiled and approved of it. I'm not sure how he explained it to the barbers, but based on a previous meeting with the dean, I knew he had a pretty good feel for his jurisdiction, so I thanked him and resumed cutting hair with impunity. (And believe me, on that campus, impunity was a fleeting fancy to be enjoyed like the last sparkler from the box. The Dean of Men's waste basket was lined with the crusty-burnt sparkler wires of impunity, but I enjoyed the brief sensation all the same.)

During this time, I continued cutting my own hair as needed. I'll never forget one Saturday evening when I was walking my girlfriend to her dorm. At the end of the walk, she smiled and said, "You cut your hair today didn't you." "Did I take too much off?" I asked. "No, it looks fine, but there's a big clump of hair in your ear." I reached up and pulled out a wad the size of a GI Joe toupee. It had been there all afternoon and evening.

That's the main drawback to cutting your own hair: you have to be sure to clean up the area and yourself afterwards to keep the ladies happy. Other than that, it's a useful skill that has saved me roughly $5,000 to $6,000 over the years (which has in turn been spent by my wife and daughters on haircuts). But it's not about the money; it's about perpetuating the ol' home hair-cut tradition. It's good to keep some things going.

To this day, I have no regrets for honoring my father during those years and missing out on the worst "bad hair days" of history. As a less fortunate friend of mine once said, "If you remember the Seventies, you didn't experience them." I remember them vividly. Thanks, Dad.

I don't want to sound morose, but when my father died in April of 1995, and I stood there at his casket before they closed it... I reached up and stroked his gray crew cut once and then again and again. In our early years of shared life, he had done that often to his young sons, but I had never done it back...touched his hair as if to say "I love you," but in that hour it seemed a very natural thing to do. His hair was upright and perfectly in place as it—and he—had been all my life.... It was soft, very soft against my hand.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom, you must have done a pretty good job because I always made it through the "hair check" at chapel. I still remember looking at the floor while I entered the chapel so my hair wouldn't be over my collar. You brought back some great memories. I still remember "Don's electric Tomahawk" in Waverly!
Steve Meneley

17/9/06 10:56 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

What a pleasant surprise. (We missed you this summer.) Yes, fond memories. Nothing like monitor-imposed trauma on the way into chapel to put your mind on things above (above the collar that is). Did you know that Daryl bought me a used pair of barber sheers from Don's? I still have them.

17/9/06 9:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another great post! It is a wonderful contrast. That hair may look harsh or prickley, was wonderfully soft. When I read this I thought of both of my grandfathers. Both had a very harsh look on the outside (one even had the same haircut as your father!) but both would just melt anytime one of us kids would come around. My Dad's stepdad, the one with the hair, would love it when we would rub his head and we all loved the softness of it. Thanks for the stroll down memory lane! Julie

17/9/06 10:45 PM  
Blogger Jody said...

Brock is bending the rule of CCS's hair length, more because we haven't had time for a hair appointment, but also because I think his hair is sort of like Sampson's- he feels more 'powerful' with his longer hair. Maybe we could catch you in your office and give you $2 bucks to 'clean him up a bit'...what do you say? Or have your rates increased since way back when. =)

19/9/06 8:06 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Julie, I'm so glad someone else knows the surprisingly soft feel of a "strict" looking crew cut.

Jody,Let's see... it's been almost 30 years of inflation....For you, I'll do it for $5.00 and donate it to the school. Just kidding.

19/9/06 8:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't realize that Dad
and Uncle Bob had been cutting each other's hair for that long. They were still doing that when I was in junior high!. By the way, I have been cutting Joey's hair too!

Your blog still makes me laugh and cry -- sometimes simultaneously!


6/10/06 2:58 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Hi, Jim,
Yep, those haircuts started before I was born and kept going until Aunt Rita talked Uncle Bob into growing out his crew cut some time in the early 80's. Do you remember the time Dad gashed his right elbow in the radiator fan while fixing his car? I was home from Iowa. Uncle Bob showed up for his haircut, but Dad's arm was in a sling so he taught me how to do a crew cut on Uncle Bob's head. Come to think of it, that may have been about the same time Aunt Rita said "no more crew cuts." :)
Glad you enjoyed your trip to CA.

6/10/06 7:53 PM  
Anonymous Ben said...

I'm honored to be part of the haircut tradition in the Kapanka home. Grandpa was cutting my hair until I was 11, I think. And mom (Kathy) was still standing around to let grandpa know what a "soch" haircut was. I think she eased up a bit though. After all, grandpa had been giving hair cuts for decades by that time. Uncle Bob was still coming on a regular basis to share in the hair cuts, and I remember playing with the bats and balls that were stored in the closet under the stairs while listening to grandpa and Uncle Bob talk--the haircuts were happening in the laundry room, under the pull-up bar that was permanently bent from workouts. I remember vividly the warmth of the blades - I think they warmed up faster when I was getting the cuts. Could have been the same shears for all I know! My least favorite part (at the time, now a fond memory) was the brush down after the cutting was done. Grandpa would take the towel that had been around my neck and brush off the remnants of hair that stuck (this involved a swinging of the towel that required precision - too much contact of the towel on the neck may have knocked me off the swivel chair). I think it was a toughening up ritual, which was important to an 8 year old whose mother would eventually take him to get his cuts at Rose's Shear Image, the place where grandma's hair was done. Hardly a place for a boy - I think grandpa saw it coming. :) Haircuts were part of bonding, and I'm grateful I've got those memories too!

My wife now cuts my hair. She does a fine job. I've got to brush off my own hair though. She's not comfortable with swinging. :-)

10/11/06 1:15 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Ben, I don't know when you posted this. But I'm reading it on Nov 14, 2006. I forgot that you would have gone through the second generation of this haircutting ritual. I remember the laundry room and the blue plastic "barrel" of bats and balls. (I brought that container home from the trash at the Ford plant when I worked there through college. I forgot to include the "towel whupping" part of the haircuts. No matter how vigorously Dad swung that folded towel, there were still invisible hairs that made the neck of your T-shirt itch the rest of the night. Hey, do you remember the time you took scissors to your own hair? You completely cut off your bangs. You looked like a kid in a concentration camp until you smiled--then you just looked funny.
Write often. I enjoy hearing from you in this way.

14/11/06 9:55 PM  
Blogger heiresschild said...

hi Tom, i'm reading this as a link to your present post (2/19/08). things were so much more simple and cheaper back then, weren't they? not to mention the memories that gave you this good story.

19/2/08 8:36 AM  

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