Monday, July 9, 2007

Shining, gleaming, steaming, flaxen, waxen

My mother has always looked remarkably like Elizabeth Taylor. When she and my father were on their honeymoon in Rome at the same time Liz was fliming Cleopatra at Cinecitta, paparazzis followed my parents around thinking she was the actress (and wondering who the fat bald guy next to her was, as he certainly wasn't Richard Burton). This resemblance to Elizabeth Taylor is one of the cornerstones of my mother's life.

To keep this look my mother has been coloring her brown hair black for more than 50 years. And every time she went into the bathroom with her squeeze bottles and gloves, we kids knew that a major existential freakout was coming. There appears to be something about coloring one's hair that can lead to serious thoughts along the "Who Am I, What Am I Doing" vein. Granted, not everyone feels this way, but certainly my mother -- as well as various other relatives, friends, and girlfriends -- have usually not had a great day when it came time to break out the hair dye.

Was this on my mind? Of course not -- I can ignore mountains of evidence if I have to. I write the "What's Inside" column for Wired Magazine, and I suggested to my editors that we cover Just For Men hair coloring in an upcoming issue. And like a good journalist, I felt it was necessary to test the product thoroughly before writing about it. Ever since my hair started going gray while I was being tortured by the Federal Government*, I had half-joked about dying my hair red. Bright red. Clown red. Run, Lola, Run red. Over the years, that idea has faded to a slightly more biological orange-red, the carotene color of natural "red" hair. But for various reasons that were no real reason at all, I never did it.

But now I had a reason. Participatory journalist, that's me. I bought a box of Just For Men Sandy Blonde hair color (they don't make a red hair mix), and on Friday night I started the 48 hour allergen test to see if this stuff would send me into anaphylactic shock.

From the Just For Men website: "Just For Men has a new True Color Formula that targets only the gray hair -- replaces it with subtle tones that match your own natural color." Remember those words.

My natural hair is a kind of dark dusty brown. There is one huge patch of gray, about the size of an outstretched palm, on my right temporal zone above my ear. There are other gray hairs scattered throughout the rest of my head like milkweeds in a field of barley. Since Just For Men targets only the gray, my idea was to leave my dusty brown hair dusty brown, but color the grey sandy blonde so that I would have dusty brown hair with sandy blonde highlights scattered throughout seemingly at random (with the obvious exception of a huge sandy blonde patch on the right temporal lobe, which I could live with). I honestly believed this would happen.

Last night I snapped on the gloves, mixed and shook the bottles, then glopped the warm reacting mixture onto my hair. As the instructions suggested, I started with the area that was most gray, then worked to the rest of my head. The instructions said to leave the hair color on for 5 minutes to reach the desired shade -- leaving it on for a longer time results in a darker color, while a shorter time might not "take". I waited exactly 4 minutes, then stepped into the shower.

Great gobs of brown liquid came off my head and dirtied the bathtub. My first reaction was that this was Not Good. The instructions said to shampoo, so I shampooed my hair until the lather and water ran clear.

I looked into the mirror and did not recognize the creature peering back at me. Just for Men may indeed target only the gray, but the rest of my hair was an unintended casualty: the dye had colored all my hair, not just the gray. My head is now monochrome, a sight I haven't seen since I was 25, and it's a glossy milk chocolate brown that I've never had in my life. And I'm having a major existential freakout. There appears to be something about coloring one's hair that can lead to serious thoughts along the "Who Am I, What Am I Doing" vein. Granted, not everyone feels this way, but I'm not having a great day now that I've broken out out the hair dye.

No pictures.

*No, I wasn't in Guantanamo -- I was working at the bottom of a long ladder of martinets at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. We were programming the robots that transferred astronomical sums of money out to and from the vault. The boss was a refugee from Czechoslovakia (back in the days when there was a Czechoslovakia, and refugees from it) and the communist prison camp example informed his every decision as a manager. How awful was this guy as a manager? The previous guy to hold my position killed himself by jumping out of a window, that's how bad he was. I figured that jumping out of the same window would be too unoriginal, so my not-quite-attempted suicides of the period were based on various subway scenarios. My time at the Fed perfectly coincided with the 1990-1992 recession, so finding another job as a computer programmer took me 18 months; every day at that job was a tossup between living and dying. The recession must have been easing off at the time I left, because approximately half the staff quit in the spring of 1992. And in every case, the boss was genuinely astonished that anyone would leave. The mass exodus of his staff hasn't seemed to
hurt his career -- he is now a senior vice president in the Federal Reserve System.

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