Dispatch to Graygirls.Com
"But what grey man among the vines is this
Whose words are dry and faint as in a dream?
Back from my trellis, Sir, before I scream!"
-John Crowe Ransom
Last week I received yet another slap of mortality as I plucked a random hair from my ear. I examined it, as Freud said we are wont to do with anything that is shed from our body, and expected to find a brown hair. It wasn't. It was gray.
Damn. It's one thing to go gray on top (which I am), but when your body hair becomes autumnal, you have reached another level in this journey we call life. That's right, yet another mile marker on said trek, a living post-it note that reminds you the clock is running and that you'd better suck it in and wrestle the harbinger before the next one rolls in. Hashish and alcohol are weak solutions, Emerson once wrote, the surest poison is time.
OK, before you throw the javelins attached with slogans about age being a state of mind (which it is, an old one albeit), let me say I am merely marking the passage of time. I myself looked forward to going gray as a younger man. My father, in his later years, had that silvered tint, never reaching for the Grecian Formula, and I liked the way it looked. One day I thought, I will be a distinguished looking gentleman like my father.
At the time, I was unaware of the DNA card dealt to me by my mother's side of the family, a royal flush of male pattern baldness. All my uncles on my mother's side had cue ball domes and that trait is chasing me now. Everyday I notice the race between bald and gray and it seems they are neck and neck at the moment, a sort of biological Hillary and Obama race. I have little vested in who wins this bio race. I just hope my mind is lucid in the meanwhile while the battle rages on top.
A Brief History of Gray.
Joe. Growing up in a small, Ohio town, I knew of a local character I'll call Joe (since that is his name). Joe is one of those supporting cast members most small towns have of eccentric individuals who daily skirt the brink of retardation and lucidity. My brothers and I would often see Joe walking, always walking, from one side of town to the other as if on a mission of utmost emergency. I see him still, walking and hurrying to points unknown, whenever I pass through my old town. Joe is a vivid icon in my mind as his hair is pure white, a premature blankness of shock that always accentuated his somewhat loony dumb show.
I am not trying to sound harsh. I came to know Joe somewhat in later years as a human being as opposed to our local Boo Radley who constantly zipped across our town. The rumor was Joe once went to nearby Ashland College and studied so hard one night, his hair turned white overnight. I was able to ask Joe about this rumor and he confirmed it though I have the feeling he would have confirmed any rumor I confronted him with (did you really sleep with Marilyn Monroe? I might ask. He would answer, well yeah, once, maybe twice) so the origins of his gray and white main remains a mystery to this day. I mention Joe because I liked the way it looked, that thoughtful and unique slant it gave his being as if to say yeah, I may look like an old fart but only because I've thought long and hard about the meat of life and what matters to us most. For me, Joe's white/gray hair was a badge. Of what exactly I still don't know but I admired it. Joe continues to think hard beneath his snow top as I type this. Kudos to the Gray Man.
Susan Sontag. If you know of Susan Sontag, you know of her infamous streak of gray that plowed through the middle of her dark hair like a motor boat on Lake Erie. How did she do that? Again, I thought the look gave her brainy points, which the woman certainly did not need in anyone's book and from time to time, I chartered its progress in that sea of burnt sienna. In the years before she died (fairly recently), the streak blended with its surroundings as the sides caught up with it. Her head became a fermenting mass of gray, before the chemotherapy she took for her cancer washed it away forever. I never knew Susan Sontag but met her once briefly at a reading she gave in Manhattan in conjunction with a book she was pushing. The book was a collection of stories by a long dead and obscure writer, Robert Walser, whose reputation she was trying revive. I caught Susan at an idle moment before she took the stage and planned to ask her about the her legendary gray streak. I never did. We spoke briefly about our last names, both of which are Germanic, before she was whisked away and out of my life forever. Whatever the story was behind her streak of gray, was taken with her to the next world. Kudos to Susan, wherever she is, for her cool stripe of gray that she nurtured like a child.
Like it or not, we are living in a youth culture and gray just does not sell blue jeans or power drinks. Of women in their youth, John Crowe Ransom went on to write in the poem quoted above, "They want the young men's whispering and sighing (but see the roses on your trellis dying)." Gray is a state of mind I've just convinced myself. I hope I die over a keyboard, typing away, gray and wrinkled, with Roland Kirk blasting in the background. If I can do that, well, say what you will about the gray on top, I'll be living inside where it's warm. Gray rocks, it's the new blond. Get used to it. It's heading your way.
David Breithaupt has written and published both fiction and non-fiction and is currently revising a draft of a memoir titled American Felon.
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