Christmas Break, 2010. A certain member of my family was dyeing his or her hair, though he or she really has little grey to hide. I breezed my way into the bathroom and glanced at the mirror. I was feeling festive, even playful. A long hard semester of teaching was drawing pleasantly to a close. Days of ease and good cheer stretched out enticingly before me, distorting my perception of more permanent realities. So I piped up: “Maybe I should dye my hair, too!”
Exactly what transpired next, and why, is a matter of some dispute. It can be said with certainty, however, that the next couple of minutes were moments of great psychological subtlety. Somehow, the dark brown dye found its way into my hair–without my explicit consent, but also without my overt resistance. I vaguely recall phrases–“cheap dye”…”just four bucks”…”grey hard to cover”–before the calamitous final instruction, “Let it set a while.”
Sometimes cheap products work. Soon my hair, which had begun to grey in the Clinton era, was indeed dark brown, with just a little silver left untouched at the temples. My daughter’s pleasure was instantaneous. Cecilia, then 9, was thrilled to see time overthrown. I suddenly became the dark-haired dad she had never known, a man in the full vigor of early fatherhood. Next day, she reported the news gleefully to her little girlfriends. “I told them you said you were a ‘walking fraud,’” Ceci explained, “but it’s OK because none of us knows what that means!”
Unfortunately, the day after the day I dyed was not one of placid domestic retreat. A few work duties remained. I had to see and be seen. My first professional encounter was a meeting with a student. Her words were uttered literally at the threshold of my office: “Did you do something to your hair? – It looks darker.” I was grateful for the opportunity to reveal my shameful open secret, and to exonerate myself in the revelation–“just a joke, a lark, won’t do it again, believe me…”
Later, a holiday luncheon brought colleagues and me together around intimate, white linen tables. No one said a word about my new look, no one probed, even gently. Some eyes did seem to rest higher upon my countenance than they normally do. Meanwhile, I drank silently from the cup of humiliation. Oh, to be caught in such a patent act of vanity! I used to be incredulous to see women putting on makeup in public. Had they no desire to preserve and protect the great cosmetic ruse they were part of? Were they not like magicians divulging their secrets before the first rabbit was pulled from the hat? But surely I was now even more exposed. My darkened hair was as patent a fiction as if I had dyed it right then and there, with the brown fluid dripping pathetically onto the white linens and grilled chicken salad.
Like all humiliations, of course, this one did not last. Within a couple of months I was back to my old grey self. And some good came of the trial. I served, if only for a spell, as liberator of men’s vanities. For if a man can dye his hair and be detected, he can certainly dye his hair so as to avoid detection.