I Feel Bad About My Hair

Nora Ephron, the wonderful writer, humorist and director, died two days ago and I will miss her.  She was a role model not only for writers but for all women struggling to come to terms with their imperfect appearance in an appearance-obsessed world.  She wrote valiantly about her small breasts, her drooping neckline and failing memory as she grew older, the Herculean maintenance that she needed to stay youthful in New York.  Her book, “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” is a frank, funny and heartbreaking collection of essays about growing older.

One of the many revelations in that book is that Nora got her hair blown-out twice a week and called it “better than therapy.”  She was obsessed about her hair, which to me always looked perfect but apparently required major professional intervention to keep looking great.  In fact, the New York Times obit for her recounted a phone conversation that she had just two weeks before her death with Scott Rudin, the producer, about an idea for a TV pilot. “If I could just get a hairdresser in here, we could have a meeting,” she told Rudin.

I was glad to read that Nora shared my obsession with hair, and in homage to her I have decided to devote this latest blog to my lifelong struggles with my own sorry head of hair.  Like Nora’s small breasts, which she wrote about so eloquently in her essay “About Breasts,” my own hair has been the source of more angst than any other part of me.  It is too curly to be manageable, with a wave that goes its own way, and too thin to be luxuriant like Julianna Margolies’ or Andie MacDowell’s crowning glory.  It is an exquisitely sensitive barometer of humidity; even the slightest whiff of vapor arouses my inborn frizz, defying my efforts to torture it to death with gel, blow dryer and straightening iron.

I am writing this from Nantucket, where we are vacationing with Bob’s brother Mike and wife Erica. When we first hatched plans to come here I felt a little apprehensive.  I still remembered my neighbors’ tales of vacationing there in 2011 roughly the same week as this one, when their friends hosted a destination wedding there.  It poured, it drizzled, and on a good day it misted.  Everybody at the wedding was a soggy and frizzy mess, after paying Ritz-Carlton rates to stay in those signature weathered gray cottages and eat in Nantucket’s notoriously overpriced restaurants.  I was afraid this would happen to me.

And indeed it did, at least part of the time. The early part of this week was sunny but humid, and my hair was at its worst.  Despite being in the presence of my loving family, I felt like shit. My hair, which looked halfway decent after my ministrations with a blow dryer, looked like Dilbert’s boss after a few minutes outside.  I cursed myself for not wearing a baseball cap, which would flatten my hair and accentuate its thinness.  It was hard for me to enjoy a stunning sun-shower a few days ago.

Over the years my hair has gotten me mistaken for a boy (when I was a toddler wearing it short.)  During grade school in the early 1960s, when all of the little girls wore pixie haircuts, mine was a lumpy tangle, more frizzy than curly.  In one neighborhood photo I look like Larry Fine.  In middle school I was asked, “Catherine, did you get a perm?” or “Catherine, do you set your hair with Spoolies?”  (Anyone remember Spoolies?)

I began a lifelong series of interventions with my hair around that time.  The first was huge rollers, with my hair cemented in place with bobby pins and Dippity-Do. Until we had a bonnet dryer I’d spend half my day wearing those things.  Sometimes I would sleep on them, feeling like a knight sleeping in armor, tossing and turning all night.  The rollers did straighten things out somewhat but gave me a puffed look, like an inverted kettle.

Then I discovered Curl-Free, the chemical straightener.  After about an hour of combing a vile, tear-inducing concoction through my head, and setting my hair in soup-can-sized rollers, I looked fabulous.  My eighth-grade classmates lavished compliments on me and I felt like Jean Shrimpton, the 60s model and “it” girl.

Until my next shampoo, when my curl reasserted itself.  “Catherine your hair is getting curly again,” my classmates reminded me.

I remember going to a swimming pool on a hot but dry summer day and being afraid to ruin my recently set hair.  I had a deluxe bathing cap that had promised to keep the water away from my hair but did not realize that its warranty did not cover diving accidents.  I fearlessly dived in and was dismayed to feel the rush of chlorinated water that stabbed through the rubber barrier around my hairline.  I spent the rest of the day with my hair lacquered with Dippity-Do and pulled tightly into a ponytail.

Finally, during senior year of high school my sister Julie and I began ironing our hair…not with a  hair iron, but with mom’s clothes iron. One of us would kneel in front of the ironing board while the other one brushed our long hair over the board, followed by the iron. It was a religious ritual, an offering to the straight hair gods. My hair eventually broke so much it started growing shorter,   but I did get to be in the homecoming court that year.

During one summer after my freshman year in college I was at a party with a group of friends, where the gathering included a cute boy I wanted to impress.  My hair had been blown out; I looked tanned and summery.  But an evening mist crept in and I felt the inevitable happening, with my confidence slipping away one baby hair at a time.  The porch light behind me made my head cast a shadow, and as I talked with Steve I observed my sillouette’s changing and softening shape in dismay.

“Why are you staring at my shoulder?,” the guy asked, sounding irritated.

My mom would sometimes grow frustrated with my obsession with my hair, and I could not blame her.  “When your hair frizzes,” she told me, “your whole face changes.”

“Couldn’t you find other curly-headed girls to share this struggle?” one might ask. Indeed, I have sisters and a daughter, all with curly hair, but different from mine.  Not to minimize their own struggles, but Julie’s hair straightened out in midlife; Maria’s is still curly but much thicker…she can rock her curls, like Sarah Jessica Parker.  Both my sisters struggled with their hair just as I did, but have come to terms with it far better than I did.  Julie, who never wore curls after childhood, relied on scrunchies, elastics and cute baseball caps if the weather did not cooperate.  Maria’s curls have a great wave and thickness that allows her to wear them with insouciance…although recently she has occasionally treated herself to the “Brazilian Blowout,” a modern and longer-lasting version of Curl-Free.

My daughter Rachel inherited my curls, and has also found a way to rock them.  With her green eyes and pale skin she looks like a young Andie MacDowell.  She lives in California, home to millions of identical blondes with straight blond hair, and stands out like a gorgeous wild rose in a field of daisies.

But unlike my loved ones I have not yet found a way to come to terms with my hair, because it is so fine and thin as well as curly.  I did embrace it periodically over time…once in young adulthood, when I had a lot more hair in healthier condition, and the second time a few years ago when I spent a fortune to have a “Ouidad” stylist cut my hair with a patented “carve and slice” method guaranteed to bring out the best of your curls and minimize frizz.  Ouidad is known as the “queen of curl,” but my hair was too hopeless even for her proven methods.  The curls were lank and my hair flattened at the top, and I could not give it height despite endless duckbill clips and gobs of Ouidad’s expensive styling gel.

So I went back to Tammy, a stylist who comes as close as anyone to truly understanding my hair, and she gave me a much shorter cut that is longer in the front.  With highlights, keratin treatments and careful ministrations with a straightening iron it looks pretty good.  It’s still too thin to be swingy but if I keep it shorter I can get a little height on the top.  So at least half the time I actually like my hair, thanks to Tammy.

Until the humidity rolls in, and then I go into an existential funk about my hair once again, the depression creeping in like frizz, one baby hair at a time.   Keratin treatments do give me some immunity, but I am overdue for one and I feel as angry as I did when I was a middle schooler being asked about Spoolies.   I am sure that my whole face has changed.

My friends with straight hair tell me they’d give anything for curls.  Their hair just goes stick-straight whenever humidity rolls in, they mourn.  They can’t do anything with it.  They think curly hair is sexy, they reassure me.

I think they are full of shit.

Dad’s Top 10 Greatest Hits

As dad grew older, he could find Nirvana in the perfect peach, but when we were growing up his tastes were more macho, like watching “Combat” on TV.

My Dad passed away 14 years ago and I think about him every day, and especially now as we get close to Father’s Day.

Dad was a stoic man who was not a touchy-feely type. He would not have been cast in a MetLife commercial, giving his son a bear-hug and being misty-eyed as he watched his kids play. He was not in touch with his feminine side. He grew up with a macho Italian sensibility about manhood; his dinnertime conversation consisted of pointing at the dish that he wanted the women in the household to serve to him. The meal would always end with him complaining about how full he was. “I’m bufaad (full belly), he would say, just before he lit up the day’s tenth Pall Mall.

He was tough; he yelled and pointed a finger when he was angry. He watched “Combat” on our small black and white TV and we knew better than to whine about not being able to watch “The Flintstones.” He bowled. He didn’t use flowery language to show his love for us. We would have felt foolish getting him one of those sappy Father’s Day cards – the ones that have “What is a Father?” printed on the front and enough mushy verses for a Longfellow poem inside.

Yet as we grew up and became more mature and independent, we learned to appreciate the depth of Dad’s wordless love. We continue to marvel at it, 14 years after he’s gone.

Here are my 10 favorite times that he proved his love without saying a word.

1. When I was in fourth grade Dad stayed up all night to put together my Barbie Dream House, which I had bought myself with five weeks of allowance money. I woke up and came downstairs to see my Barbies lounging on their cardboard chairs the tiny Vogue record albums on Barbie’s coffee table nearby.  What I would have given to see him picking up my Barbies and deciding where to pose them!

2. He drove us all the way out to Montauk Point, Long Island, for one night – which was still a financial stretch — because he loved that place so much. Six of us stayed in a place called the Ronjo, which probably isn’t there any more. It is still one of my favorite memories of our family.

3. Dad built the world’s best air hockey table for my brother. Dad was never an engineer but he could figure out how to put together anything, especially if somebody he loved wanted it.

4. Dad was a terrific photographer who taught us how to develop film and print photos in his darkroom, which he built in the basement of our home. When I was my high school yearbook editor he became my photographer, taking great photos like this one from our school’s homecoming win in 1971.

5. Dad dropped me off at college at Penn State. I was the oldest and when he said goodbye it was one of only a handful of times I saw him tear up. Over a five-year period he shuttled my sister, my brother and I back and forth to Penn State every fall and spring, a total of eight hours for the round trip, which he always made in one day.

6. When my Mom was still working, Dad helped her entire office set up their computers, a volunteer effort that probably would have cost thousands in fees for paid techies.

7. Dad, who had never cooked, discovered a genius for cooking after he retired. We started coming home to wonderful pastas with fragrant sauces, homemade bread, and beautiful fruit tarts the size of bicycle wheels. He computerized many of the family recipes, and I still have some of those printouts, with perforated holes on each side, from his 80s-era dot matrix printer.

8. In my late 30s I smoked for a few years. One day Dad washed and vacuumed out my car and when I got back into it, I found a pack of Newport Lites that I thought had been missing on my front seat. Dad had probably found them under the seat but chose not to lecture me. Nor did he throw them away. After that I knew that he knew.

9. Dad loved picking his own fruit and he and my mom loved taking their kids and grand-kids along with them. He couldn’t wait to share his pickings with family, friends and coworkers. On a hot summer day he’d put the just-picked fruit in cushioned containers leftover from a Harry and David gift, then put it in the air-conditioned part of the car (never the trunk.)  The air conditioner kept churning, through traffic and pit stops, all the way home.

10. Dad showed us how to find the biggest strawberry in each cluster on the vine. I’ve since learned that this is called “the king berry.”

11. When I was a single mom my parents lived 20 minutes away. Dad often came over to my house with his toolbox in one hand and with a brown bag holding a loaf of his wonderful homemade bread – which my children called “Pop-Pop Bread” in the other.

[Well this is 11 things, but Dad was a 10-plus! Love you and miss you, Dad!]

What Will Your Kids Remember About You?

Yesterday Bob and I finalized our will, a task that was long overdue since we are both in our late 50s (although both in great health). Along with the four-inch-thick binder that specifies how our assets will be divided once we are gone, our estate plan includes something more: a 45-minute-long audio of us sharing our personal histories and our philosophies towards family, work, money and other big topics.

Our attorney told us that this oral record, which she called the “priceless conversation,” was as important as the estate plan. It would help our children remember our voices and the details of their ancestries: our parents and grandparents’ names and birthplaces, our memories of where we grew up. But it would also give them our thoughts about our priorities and values, our hopes for their own futures, and how we would like them to remember us. In turn, maybe it would help guide them in deciding how to spend their inheritance – as Bob pointed out, “a user’s manual for the money.”

I was a little apprehensive when we learned that the “priceless conversation” was part of our package of estate planning. The family history was pretty cut and dried, but the list of topics – thoughtfully sent to us a few days ahead — included major ones that I haven’t pondered enough:

“Describe your proudest moment or an accomplishment you found most gratifying.”
“What do you feel is the true measure of success?”
“What are the qualities that a person needs to live a rewarding life?”
“What advice about using money wisely would you hope to pass on to your children, grandchildren or other loved ones?”
[and the last one:]
“If you could pick a few things that your family would remember about you, what would they be?”

Does anybody other than religious zealots know the answers to these big questions? Our attorney assured us there were no “right” or “wrong” answers; that we were not being graded. Yet the night before our meeting I lay awake wondering how I would answer them, slightly ashamed that I didn’t know, angry that I didn’t give myself more time to write a good “script.” Despite being a parent for 27 years I still sometimes feel as if I am muddling my way along, dealing with each new situation on the fly and without a playbook, waffling too many times, consistent only in my inconsistency.

All of us hope that we have passed along the right values to our children, that we have given them the best foundation for the challenges of adulthood, that their memories of us will be good ones. But we are flawed individuals, which makes us flawed parents. We second-guess ourselves and replay painful videos of our fumbles.

But yesterday morning I gave it my best, and I hope that I won’t confuse our children too much 30 years from now when they unveil this time capsule from my middle-aged life. We followed a format: the attorney asked each question; I answered first, and then Bob would answer. Bob was a lot more eloquent. As the digital recorder screen started ticking off the seconds, I said that I hoped our children would spend their inheritance wisely on things that would bring lasting pleasure and memories for their families. I hoped that our children would value relationships and family above money and always be able to grow stronger from their mistakes and setbacks.

As I thought about that last question – how I wanted to be remembered — I found it was easier to remember the things I hoped people wouldn’t remember. While I didn’t put it on tape, for the record here are 10 things I hope my children don’t remember about me:

1. The time I poured orange juice on a whiny four-year-old after he complained it didn’t have ice.
2. The time we opened our car door in the Springfield Mall parking lot and smashed the headlight of a brand new Toyota next to us, and my first instinct was to move the car. (I did change my mind and put a note on the Toyota’s window with my phone number.)
3. The time I accidently dropped a six-year-old off at the wrong field for a baseball game.
4. All the times we didn’t go to church
5. The time my 18-month-old chased a ball down our busy street while I was folding clothes, totally oblivious.
6. A troubled two-year period when I took up smoking and I’d hide in the bathroom with the exhaust on, while my concerned children knocked on the door and said “Mom, we know what you’re doing in there.”
7. The busy weeks as a working single mom when we’d order pizza one night and reheat it all week.
8. The time I couldn’t understand my 13-year-old’s math homework enough to help him and bellowed, “Ask your teacher. That’s what she’s being paid for.”
9. All the times I made my daughter cry when I tried to get the knots out of her curls.
10. All the times I lost patience.

The Kids Are Alright In London

Three of our six children are partying in London today. They booked this vacation in December because the dates worked for all of them, totally unaware that the Queen’s 60th jubilee would be going on during their visit. But what a party to crash!

For the past two days I’ve been watching the pageantry on TV and feeling so glad they are a part of it. I can picture them wandering around that stately and vibrant city – which we visited in April – amongst the fluttering British flags, goofy souvenir hats, overflowing pubs and revelers wearing masks of the Royal Family. My daughter Rachel, 27, is finally taking her first trip out of North America, after years of taking simpler vacations while she studies and works fulltime. My son Ryan, 24, lives in London, nine time zones away from his sister’s California apartment. Completing the trio is Bob’s son Jesse, their stepbrother, who’s on his second trip to Europe but his first to London. Within a few days they will join Bob’s daughter Rachel (yes, we have two Rachels) in Switzerland.

London is home to many distinctively named pubs. One of Jesse’s favorites.

Once we got the text that they landed safety, we were careful not to annoy them about keeping in touch. From our plush throne in the family room we watched the jubilee celebration on CNN and scanned the hundreds of thousands of faces along the Thames, looking for three familiar ones. We were thrilled when Jesse sent a message with a photo of the Queen’s royal barge, taken from Vauxhall Bridge, their vantage point for the jubilee celebration. I Google-mapped Vauxhall Bridge right away and shared the excitement vicariously for just a moment. I lurked on their Facebook pages to check for posts and pix, and my heart jumped a few minutes ago when I finally was rewarded. What other parent of grown kids still hovers like this?

Can’t help wondering if they are managing to stay dry, if their passports are in a safe place, if they’ve stowed their pounds and pence deep enough in their pockets. I hope they’ve learned the London subway and can remember the address of the hotel after the pubs close.

My kids, who live nine time zones apart, are enjoying being together in the world’s greatest city.

Worries aside, the fact that our children are vacationing together brings us profound joy. Fourteen years ago, after Bob and I married, I relocated to Boston with Rachel and Ryan, my kids from my first marriage. It was a vulnerable time for Bob’s kids and mine. Each family was used to having their parent all to themselves. But on our very first day here, Jesse insisted that my kids join him and his friends on a trip to the rope swing, a popular youth hangout on the banks of a nearby reservoir. It would be their first adventure in their new home, and Jesse was sensitive enough to know they needed one. The ensuing decade when we became a family was an adventure too, and there were times when we were not at our best. But with time, love and patience it did happen.

So now our amazing young adults are enjoying their latest great adventure — a continent away from the first one, as siblings and great friends, making their own way without us.

Can Midlife Marriage Survive Without Sex?

One of my favorite Hallmark cards of all time. Scroll down for the sentiment inside.

Christa D’Souza, columnist for the London newspaper The Guardian, wrote on Friday that most middle-aged married couples would feel relieved if they didn’t feel societal pressure to keep having great sex. What do you think?

D’Souza’s provocative piece (sorry) was written after a new survey of Brits, “The Sex Census 2012,” revealed that people aged 60 to 65 were more sexually confident than those in their 30s. “Really?,” D’Souza writes, no doubt echoing the sentiments of many midlife people who read the report. “ Who are these middle-aged chandelier-swingers? Where do they winkle them out from?” To read the whole column, click here.

While the Sex Census covered the UK, surveys in the U.S. suggest that midlifers are randier than ever. In January the Huffington Post published highlights of a survey by dating site OurTime.com, in which 97 percent of midlifers said regular sex was important to their relationships. According to the survey, 53 percent of post 50ers think their sex life is just as important now as when they were younger, 26 percent think it is more important, and only 3 percent think their sex life is not important at all. That same HuffPo article featured sex and relationship expert Dr. Pepper Schwartz, who said that that women after 70 are more satisfied with their sex lives than men. (Really? Could it be because women after 70s are happier because they are having less sex?)

Here’s the inside of my favorite Hallmark card.

In her column in The Guardian, D’Souza was skeptical about the Sex Census results. She suspects that most people in midlife might just embellish the truth a wee bit when asked about their sex lives.  And the fact that the Sex Census was conducted in part by Ann Summers, a UK-based chain of erotic boutiques, might also skew the results.

“Admit to having shoplifted. Admit to having a bit of a drink problem, or being bankrupt. But living in a sexless marriage? Never,” she writes.

D’Souza breezily admits to an increased prudishness in her own marriage and shares similar perspectives from some of her acquaintances, all happy with having sex infrequently or not at all. Moreover, she features experts who say that it’s unfair to people with diminishing hormones to perpetuate the myth that sex should always be frequent and volcanic. One of those experts, psychologist Petra Boyton, points out that it’s a myth “that if you aren’t bonking like rabbits some terrible thing will befall your relationship.”

“If you are having a lot of sex, and you are enjoying it, obviously I’m not going to talk you out of it,” Boynton told The Guardian, “but in this environment where we vet or measure our relationships by the amount of sex we are having, I think that is disingenuous for people who have lots of other ways to express intimacy. There are a number of things which connect people, but we are constantly spun this line that the glue to a relationship is sex, and without it one’s relationship will fall apart, and I think there are a lot of commercial reasons why that message is put out. That’s not just insulting, it’s pernicious.”

Any brave souls want to join this discussion?