Do You ever get the feeling that your life is scripted in some way, that events conspire to thrust one subject at you over and over again? All my life, it's been my hair. I've always been judged by it, as though its unruliness said something about the human being lurking under its mass. When I was a girl, Jean Seberg's bowl cut as Joan of Arc made a huge impression on me. I stuck a bowl on my head, trimmed round it, then Brylcreem-ed what was left into submission. Still the curls defied reason. In later life, I learnt that the only time I felt truly anonymous was when my hair was tucked away under a hat. So it's appropriate that the first letter I got from a reader wanted my opinion on our cultural obsession with hair removal, especially now that it seems like there are almost as many men as women who are plucking, waxing and shaving. Then I happened on a syndrome that was new to me: trichotillomania, or compulsive hair-pulling. It afflicts an estimated two to eight million people in the US alone, 90 per cent of them female. The primary symptom is a constant neurotic tugging at hair on any part of the body. I noticed my granddaughter Maiya at it and began to worry that she was a trichotillomaniac in the making. Then my worry worried me. Am I turning into a manic granny? I was too damn busy to worry about my daughters the way I fret about Maiya. Perhaps that's the penalty attached to reflection in a life that hasn't had much time for it until now.
Hair again. I popped into a loo while I was waiting in Denver Airport for a connecting flight to Santa Barbara and there I met a woman with a beard. Not just facial fuzz, but a full face of hair. My natural assumption was that this was a male who'd gone through the wrong door, until we got to talking. In my mind, bearded ladies and circuses go together, and sure enough, Jennifer worked in a circus - her own, 12 people, one ring. But that is the only predictable element in her story. Jennifer was raised by her mother and grandmother - both dynamic, non-conformist educators - to believe that it was important and beautiful to be who you are. So, when she first grew a little facial hair in her late teens, she left it. At 20, a brush with electrolysis felt like self-mutilation and strengthened Jennifer's conviction that her beard was a learning curve, rather than a curse. Now she is in her mid-30s. Unsurprisingly, life has been tough. She withdrew from the straight world in her twenties, turning her back on college and career paths, so she is ill-equipped to follow in her mother's footsteps and teach, much as she'd like to. Besides, the beard would make it hard, just as it turns public places into an ordeal. Jennifer has taken to using the men's bathroom - fewer questions asked. Or she'll take a girlfriend into the ladies' loo so people will hear her talking and know she's a woman. Why bother, I can sense you thinking. Just shave the damn thing off. I thought of the women I met in Japan who shave their faces every day with tiny little pink razors, to ensure smoothness and grip for their foundation. Jennifer has shaved once or twice but she felt even more self-conscious, as if people were thinking she was trying to hide her imperfections and not really doing a very good job of it. This way at least, Jennifer is indubitably herself, just the way God planned her, and profoundly independent and dignified with it, though you'll also be pleased to know she has a sense of humour about the situation. I liked her take on life and felt lucky that, in my fifties , I could learn from the way she has chosen to express herself as a feminist. There is no male counterpart for such insights.
To Me, America is a sequence of these odd and interesting encounters. That is just one reason why I love the place so much and talk about it so often. I don't think I ever got over the thrill of finding out in my teens that my real father was Italian-American, and when I went to Ellis Island, it was an extraordinary experience seeing my family name on the wall. I like the tactility of Americans. They don't know how to be cynical or how to wordplay. In fact, they're confounded by their terror of language in a way we could never be. Yet they're so able and easy when discussing themselves and their psyches. Americans talk about the geography of their minds the way Canadians talk about their land, and those interior landscapes make for a huge mass of uncharted territory. Perhaps that is the sense of limitless opportunity on which the American dream thrives. Unfortunately, the downside is an expectation of instant gratification and a whole lot of waste. It drives me nuts. Huge undrunk glasses of ice water, great plates of half-eaten food, a need for fresh flesh for entertainment, a chronic inability to wait in queues or hear someone out. If reflection does breed anxiety, as I'm beginning to think, it makes sense that America is running as hard from itself as it can.
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