Sunday, May 30, 2010

Coming Clean

Two weeks ago, I got a haircut.

This may not sound like any special news but it's a big deal to me. It has been over a year since I went anywhere near a stylist. I've been too embarrassed and too self-conscious. One of my major insecurities has always been my hair: how I style it, how short I wear it, how I use it as an outlet for stress. I pull out my hair, one strand at a time, when I'm anxious or bored. I've alluded to it here before, but never gone into detail. When I talk about it to the few people I trust enough to tell, I gloss over it and make it sound like a personality quirk, instead of what I fear it may really be: a disorder. An addiction. A condition.

A counselor told me several years ago this bad habit had a name: trichotillomania. I was relieved it existed; it wasn't some unique craziness I had invented. It freaked me out that it had the word "mania" in it, though. I found some websites, looked for support groups, journaled about it till my hand cramped, but nothing came of it except more self hatred. Willpower hasn't been enough to break the habit, especially when I'm aware I'm doing it and continue anyway. An obvious question is, "doesn't it hurt?" Pain hasn't been a strong enough deterrent. It's just like scratching an itch.

It is something I've done in different forms since I was a kid (I remember Mom catching me with bald eyelids when I was 8 or so, having pulled out all my eyelashes with tweezers). It was a boredom thing in high school, and I remember asking my family to point it out to me when I didn't realize I was doing it.

The urge to pull becomes more compelling in times of stress. The last two years have been the worst. Big events in the last couple of years seem overwhelming at times: being married, while blissful, has it's challenges. Not that I blame my husband. Marriage just magnifies my own lack of skill in dealing with stress, conflict, and the normal adjustments of learning to live with a spouse. My Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer's at the end of 2006 (at age 53). That's something else I've never written about here, but the affect this disease has had on my family is deep and heart wrenching. I've been grieving for the last three years.

I internalize 99% of my negative emotions and it's become obvious. I see my hair habit as external evidence of internal issues. I've thought a lot about it, written a lot about it, and argued with myself for a long time about why and how and what to do about it. Even though I hate the result, I continue pulling.

Because I haven't been willing to let anyone look at my scalp, my hair has gone haywire. I cut it myself last year. Thankfully, curls are forgiving and it didn't look too bad. But as it continued to grow, and I continued to pull, the bald spots have become more noticeable. The hair on top of my head is short and sprouty. The length in the back gives me an unmistakable mullet-look, so I usually just pull it all up in a hair clip and hide the thin patches. But I finally reached the last straw. I was SICK of myself. So tired of hiding, so tired of hating my appearance, so exhausted from justifying the whole process to myself. So I gritted my teeth and made a salon appointment.

I was not looking forward to letting someone look directly at my scalp. And touch my hair. And examine the very thing I try so very hard to hide. I knew the question would come: "What's causing your hair loss?"  But I made the appointment anyway, sick of my frizzy reflection every time I looked in the mirror. My best cover-up wasn't working anymore.

I called a couple of places, and a salon a few blocks from my house had an opening that afternoon. I showed up 15 minutes early and waited anxiously in the lobby. A stylist named Samantha greeted me and led me back to her chair.

"What are we doing for you today?" she asked.

"Well," I took a deep breath and dove in. "It's been a really long time since I had my hair cut, and I need more layers."

She put the barber-chair bib on me and I un-clipped my hair from it's regular ponytail-bun. It hung limp at my shoulders. She turned the chair to face the full length mirror, and our reflections made eye contact.

"It's really fine and thin," I explained. "I'm ready for something new." She started pawing at my hair.

Sure enough, here came the dreaded question. "What's causing the hair loss?" Samantha asked with a concerned look on her face, running her fingers through what little hair she could on top of my head.

"Um," I stammered. "It's a condition related to stress."

Without missing a beat, she leaned forward and with a straight face asked, "Do we need to take him out back and shoot him? They make good fertilizer, you know."

I laughed nervously, disarmed by her directness. "No," I said, "it's not that." I appreciated that she was on my side. I considered launching into detail, but held back.

She told me she had a female family member with a similar bald spot, also "caused by stress," our new euphemism for "pulling your own hair out by the roots." She kindly didn't call it plucking, or yanking, or tweezing, or anything like that.

She asked, "How long has it been since you had it cut?"

"A year or more."

"Well, you're not going to wait that long again, are you." It was a statement, not a question.  She rested her hand on my shoulder and made eye contact again in the mirror. "Why'd you wait so long?"

"Mm. Too embarrassed," I admitted. No dignity to lose at this point, might as well be honest.

She said, "Embarrassed?! You don't have anything to be embarrassed by! This is my job! I love doing this!"

She held up a length of my hair by the ends and showed it to me in the mirror.

She leaned in close again, confiding. "If it was lice, I could see being embarrassed by that. But you don't have lice!"

She continued examining my hair, comparing lengths, trying out locations for a new part, peering at the short hairs growing back. It was worse than a pap smear. This level of vulnerability was all about exposing something wrong about my body that I had caused.

Samantha washed and conditioned my hair, and began cutting. I asked her to take four inches off the bottom, and work some new layers up to the crown of my head.

She said, "You're not losing your hair. The follicles are still healthy and it's all growing back." She lowered her voice to a whisper, "you've just got to stop pulling it out, hon."

I nodded, too appreciative to say anything.

"Life is too short for you to be that stressed about anything," she said. "What you need is a massage and a facial."

I told her about Mom. I opened up about how I felt guilty for not spending more time with her, how I wanted to take care of my Dad, how I wished I could make life easier for my siblings. She listened, and commiserated, and shared a few things from her own life.

Then she said something I have been thinking about ever since. Samantha said, "It's not about how you wear your hair, it's about how strong you are. I guarantee you are stronger than any other person in this room."

I glanced at the other customers and other stylists.

She continued. "No one could walk in your shoes, no one else could live your life. I believe you meet people for a reason. I think the purpose in all this is that you're going to help someone else who's dealing with this. I do. I think you're going through it now so you can help the rest of the world."

Her attention to me and our camaraderie made a big impact. It was almost like I needed another woman to look closely at everything I was hiding, and still approve of me. I felt cared for. I felt understood. Someone was on my team and rooting for me to take care of myself.

I told her I had a goal. "In a couple of months, I want to come back. After my hair has grown in a little fuller, I want to get it colored."

She said, "Good for you. What color?"

"Strawberry blond" (the most conservative change I could think of).

"OK. And after that, we'll do something wild. Like pink." She grinned at me. I grinned right back, fantasizing about the amount of confidence that would take.

Samantha showed me how to fluff up the hair on top a little with a comb, to boost the thinnest parts. She recommended a few products to try, but didn't make a sales pitch.

I thanked her profusely, and promised to make another appointment in a few months. And I will.

Knowing someone who cares is going to track my progress is enormously motivating. I love my haircut. I don't feel like I'm just trying to go unnoticed anymore. The curls are back in full force since I'm not trying to pull them into a bald-spot disguise.

And the best news? I've had more pull-free days in the last two weeks than I've had in years. Pulling, or fiddling with my hair in anticipation of pulling, is still ingrained as a habit. But now I'm reminded by the new length that it's a work in progress.

I can't wait to show Samantha a full head of curls. Because I secretly love my hair.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Time to kill before work

8:45 am
Blood is BOILING. I just got cut off in line at my favorite coffee shop and I’m ready to tear someone’s head off. Someone in particular. He came in on his cell phone, didn’t even look to see there were still two people waiting to be helped. A mother with a newborn in a car-seat-carrier and I were both standing alongside the pastry case waiting for our turn to order, but he bypassed us and went right to the little space left at the counter.

When he ended his phone call, he pulled a bagel off the plate it was displayed on, shoved it toward the barista, and ordered his coffee (something ridiculous that involved pineapple flavoring). He forked over a twenty out of his wallet. The baby in front of me started crying. Mom tried swinging the car seat to rock Baby back to sleep, but she was a tiny little thing and barely had leverage enough to get the baby carrier off the ground, much less swing it soothingly.

Rudeness Personified leaned over toward Mom with a real sleazy, confiding look on his face and said, “You know, its amazing what a little beer will do!” He was obviously proud of his joke, and assuming all eyes were on him, shrugged and said too loudly, “It worked for me!”

The barista laughed and the Mom laughed but I wanted to gouge out his eyes. He sauntered to the other end of the coffee bar to wait for his drink. He never realized he had cut us both off. I tried to make it apparent with laser beams from my eyes and smoke from my ears but he was oblivious.

The gal making his coffee tried to make conversation and asked, “So, do you have any plans for the weekend?” “Get drunk” he said with a smirk.

He took his order and left, still glowing from his witty remarks, but clueless he had made an ass of himself.

He is a slime ball. My hackles are all up and I can’t shake this feeling of rage. I don’t usually react like this, but I am pissed. The only thing that allows me to cut him any slack is the possibility that he’s a used car salesman and doesn’t see people as people, just means to an end. Or maybe he’s related to the owner of the coffee shop and thinks he deserves preferential treatment. After this minor injustice, my morning has a bad flavor and I’m all bent out of shape. I know it’s not worth my energy, but what the heck?! I feel like a raging feminist right now. Wish I could crank up some Alanis Morissette. What  if I had the guts to call people out on that crap and not care if I sound like a bitch?

Don’t know what’s up with me. Maybe I need to readdress my birth control. I am a little scared of how aggressive I feel the few days I spend without it and miss my hormones terribly.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Slight Improvement: Update from the Hulk

Today I'm trying to stay positive. Yesterday was a cranky day and I'm not sure why. Hormones? If so, good GRIEF! My body is working against me. Or was it all just psychological? If so, what's up with my psyche?? I honestly felt like the Incredible Hulk, splitting out of my normally pleasant demeanor and becoming a behemoth of moodiness. Of course I had to keep all this below the surface since I was at work (and Hulk was never awarded for customer service, as I recall).

On yesterday's lunch break, I had to put myself on time-out and get away from my desk for a while. Starbucks calmed me down (and you know it's bad when caffeine makes me feel normal again).

Today I'm thinking about happy things. Wanna see my list of pick-me-ups?

1. Orange tic tacs. Already had two boxes today. That sounds like a lot, but it's really only like 2 ounces.
2. Peonies. My favoritest flowers, next to roses.
3. These hilarious T shirts. Guess which one I want?
4. Three day weekend is only 26 hours away!
5. Leftover mediterranean pizza for dinner (artichoke hearts, feta, peppers, greek olives).
6. New scrapbooking toy (early birthday gift from Hubbins).

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Trying this out...

Apparently has hooked up with Blogger and now it's easier to link to books and music and such. I'm going to try it.

Two new additions to my wish list: Away We Go soundtrack.

Anybody seen this movie? Hilarious! I loved it. It's about an expectant couple trying to "settle down" to start a family and the dynamic of their relationship and all the friends they visit throughout the movie is really entertaining and believable. Puts a new spin on parenting (at least for me, a non-parent) since the story takes place before the baby is born. The emphasis is all on anticipation, fear, excitement, and expectations. Word of warning: don't watch this movie with small children or your parents unless you're really comfortable talking about sex 'cause there are a few adult-themed moments (what with the movie being about making a baby and all). But making a family is really the theme.

The music...oh, the music is so wonderful. I have a crush on Alexi Murdoch's voice. Follow the link and find a sample. Seriously.

Once soundtrack. I haven't actually seen this movie, but I  love the song called "Falling Slowly." It is beautiful. It's one of those harmonies-are-so-good-I-get-goose-bumps songs. Can anyone recommend the movie? I'm content to listen to the soundtrack for now, but maybe the story is good too.

Any American Idol fans out there will recognize it as the duet Crystal Bowersox and Lee DeWyze sang last week. Amazing.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Thank you, Stranger-Friend

Allow me to introduce you to one of my favorite Bloggers. Her name is Zakary. I can't remember how I found her blog (buried treasure that it is). I think I ended up at Raising Colorado along a bunny trail of posts and hyperlinks. Words can't describe how hilarious and endearing she is; you're just going to have to read her stuff. Start with this post about going to the gym, because I love it (her post, not the gym).

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Writing practice

I'm reading another book by Natalie Goldberg. This one is specifically about writing memoir. The short chapters give writing practice exercises a lot like Writing Down the Bones did, but this time it's all about describing yourself and your memories. She instructs readers to "pick up the pen and kick some ass...write down who you were, who you are, and what you remember."

I'll share one example. The writing prompt on page 14 is to "Tell me what you will miss when you die." Hm. Not a topic I think about often. Believing in eternity is usually an excuse for me to dismiss questions like this with vague notions of "heaven will better than I can even imagine!" And that's where the topic ends. Time to change the subject. Other than hazy images of clouds and harps and rainbows and lollipops, how do I visualize any kind of comparison?

Of course, writing this and sharing it publicly makes me think all kinds of extreme things. If I should meet an untimely demise, this list will carry more weight and people will scour it for clues about me (typical Emily-dramatization, I'm afraid). Oh the pressure to make a comprehensive and accurate list! But I'm writing topics to come back to. These few things that come springing to mind when I picture myself on my deathbed, or from some alternate reality, carry a lot of importance to me. Probably good topics to elaborate on in future writing.

Here's my response.

What will you miss when you die?

Strawberry shortcake.

The smell of a mowed lawn.

Heat from a campfire.


Soft blankets and clean sheets.

Bubble baths.

Husband's hugs and kisses.

Love notes.

My dad's laugh.

My mom's voice.


Mooshy and Sheepy.

Smelling salt water in a breeze off the bay.

The way a sunburn makes my freckles glow.

Bon Jovi (my heart pumping as soon as I hear the intro to "Livin' on a Prayer").

My garden.

Long daylight hours in summer.

Endorphins after working out.

Coffee shops.

Moments I pause and think, "this is temporary. I'm here right now, but I won't always be. Soon this current moment will exist only as a memory. Whatever I can't stand will soon end; whatever I'm looking forward to will soon be here. Time is incremental and this place and experience are finite."

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Friday Harbor


Next time you're in the northwest corner of WA state, I highly recommend that you visit the San Juan Islands, and Friday Harbor in particular. Husband and I have made this our anniversary destination for the last three years, and it's great having a tradition (makes me feel like a real grown-up, having traditions and all). Check out the pictures on the Visitor's Bureau website. Beautiful!
The islands have sentimental appeal to both of us. We both grew up visiting San Juan county on family trips. J's extended family owns property on one of the islands where they spend a lot of time. My Grandfather worked on the Washington State Ferries from 1960 until he retired. He was a photographer and took tons of pictures of the islands and the ferries. My Dad remembers going with him to the Seattle harbor, and fishing for bullheads off the pier while Grandpa worked.
Here are a few of my favorite places to visit:


Monday, May 10, 2010

Bosom Buddy

Disclaimer: this post is meant for girls. Cause I talk about bras. There, you’ve been warned.

One thing I have a hard time spending a lot of money on is underwear. Nobody sees it, I don't have to "impress" anyone (sorry, husband), and it is one of those clothing items that stays sequestered out of sight. Therefore, why spend loads of money on it? Well, here's why. Kind of like shoes, you get what you pay for. If you need support, a comfortable fit and functionality, Pay Less tennis shoes are going to crap out on you in no time. Cheap bras are the same way (but with a different kind of "arch support").

There are a lot of factors at work when it comes to a bra: under wire (sharp metal spears held tightly against your ribcage? Egads!) elasticity, appearance (lace, bows, straps, embroidery etc.) and aerodynamics all have to be considered. And here's what I've learned the hard way: if my bra is uncomfortable, life is hell. This is one region of my anatomy I don't want sweat, unbridled chub, scratchy or binding fabric, or limited lung function. And I've experienced all of the above. I tried to resurrect a bra recently that I had almost given to Goodwill (but then decided to keep, because shopping for a new bra is murderous), hoping I was just imagining things. Nope. I really do feel like I've got a couple of torpedoes strapped to my front (even though my husband pleaded, "But I like handling artillery!"). Nope. It really does jab in all the wrong places (and who wants blisters under her arms?).

So, with the help of friends and relatives providing moral support and an extra set of eyes I trusted to see the unthinkable, I went bra-shopping. And it's a good thing I did. I discovered the perfect fit. It's made by Victoria's Secret. Even though I was taught at a young age to avert my eyes when walking past this hot-pink palace in the mall, even though their advertising verges on porn, even though I feel subjectified when I see their larger-than-life window posters of seductive poses, Victoria actually had a darn good Secret. If you are like me and your bra size can't be found in the first three letters of the alphabet, I highly recommend my new discovery: Perfect Coverage. At first glance I thought, "No way. Padding is the last thing I need, especially when it feels like a memory-foam mattress." But I've got to tell you, I'm hooked. I have a crush on my cleavage. I feel streamlined. I feel less matronly. Husband hasn't objected to the new look.

I'm too shy to post pictures (or even a VS link), but go check it out at a store near you. The girls will thank you.

More Memoir: Satrapi, Small and Dahl

I got lots of time to read last week, during our anniversary trip to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island (pics and anecdotes coming soon).

I spent most of my shopping time in Serendipity, our favorite used bookstore. And look what I found! The rest of the story!

Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return This book is about Marjane Satrapi's teenage and young adult years in Europe (her parents sent her away to protect her from war), and then her return to Iran after she hits rock bottom trying to discover who she is and establish her own identity. She describes herself as being a Westerner to her family and friends in Iran, and an Iranian to everyone outside her home country. The way she illustrates this "not fitting in" was really poignant. I wonder why this topic is so relate-able to so many people. I loved discovering the second half of this story, and was sad when the book ended.

I also found another treasure. Stitches: A Memoir by David Small had less text than the other graphic novels I've read, and relied more heavily on illustration.

The drawings seem fluid and very dream-like. The emotion David experiences as a little boy are really striking (fear, anger, confusion) and I immediately got sucked into the drama of the story. The Persepolis artwork was almost block-prints with very solid lines and all two-tone (black or white, no grey). In contrast, Stitches used a spectrum of grey and varying line width which made the drawings really expressive. The story focuses on an operation the author had as a child, his perception of his cold and quiet mother, and how his doctor-father's best efforts actually ruin David's health and does permanent damage.

My sister was flipping through the book yesterday (back-to-front), browsing the drawings, and I said, "NO! You have to read the story in order!" She said, "But it looks really scary and depressing." It's certainly not a visit to Candy Land, but real life rarely is, in my opinion. The raw quality of the story is even more important since it's written from the perspective of a child. I wouldn't let Sister judge it without reading it first (in the proper order). PS: Sis, you left the book on my coffee table last night, but you still have to borrow it and read the whole thing. You already appreciated the artwork, but I want to talk about the story line!

I'm currently reading Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl (author of James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, BFG, all those classic kids books with quirky artwork).

This isn't a graphic memoir, but I'm loving the pictures he draws from memory. Here's how Dahl introduces his own stories:
An autobiography is a book a person writes about his own life and it is usually full of all sorts of boring details. This is not an autobiography. I would never write a history of myself. On the other hand, throughout my young days at school and just afterwards a number of things happened to me that I have never forgotten.

Turns out Roald Dahl was Norwegian, which I never knew. The chapters I read last night describe his family vacations to Oslo. My Grandfather was born in Norway (he was a few years younger than Mr. Dahl) and I can picture Grandpa as the rascally hero of these stories. Their pictures even look similar.
Can you stand it? Just look at that face! I'm going to find a picture of Grandpa to compare.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Graphic Novel Memoirs: Blankets, Imposters, Houdini and Persepolis

For several years, my favorite genre to read has been memoir. Personal narrative always draws me in the quickest. I don't usually pick up fiction when I browse Barnes and Noble, or our local used bookstores. I go straight to the biographies, the essay collections, and the memoirs. People telling their own stories always fascinate me.

It's one of the reasons I love my job: I get a little glimpse of individual lives as I open new savings and checking accounts or process loan applications. Sometimes the conversation is strictly business (social security number? Address? Income?) but I love it when personal details come into play. It's a pretty unique role I have; I can ask really personal questions of strangers when they come to me for a loan. Then my job is to translate their situation (sometimes messy, emotional, painful, exciting, you name it) into a formulaic summary, basically stating "so-and-so wants this much money, and here's why." And I love that. Something about paraphrasing the details really invigorates me.

It's the kind of writing I love best, telling my own stories. Maybe because I don't fear failure: no one can cite references and tell me I'm wrong when I describe the world as I see it. Plus, I appreciate mundane things more when I see them as potential writing-material.

I've been exploring the genre of memoir by reading a couple of unique examples. Last summer, I read Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life (by Amy Krouse Rosenthal). The author was really clever: she made an alphabetized list about herself (memories, fears, preferences). Then it got published (that's the short version of the timeline, I imagine). My first reaction was, "Hey! That's cheating! That's not real writing, that's just a disjointed list of fascinating personal facts!" Then I thought, "I wish I'd thought of it first."

On the cover (in case you can't read it from the link) is an excerpt from the foreword:
I have not survived against all odds.
I have not lived to tell.
I have not witnessed the extraordinary.
This is my story.

Pah! Genius!!! This is one of those books I picked up in the bookstore, flipped through, and thought, "Must. Own." I highly recommend it, for it's literary uniqueness, and for plain old enjoyment. I LOVE this book. Click on that link above, and scroll down to the excerpts. Random, huh? Totally engaging, right? Yeah, I know! I'll loan you my copy if you'd like.

I've also discovered some memoirs written as graphic novels. Ooh, these are fun. The writing has to be brief (text has to fit into a word balloon in a single panel) but a picture is worth a thousand little word balloons. One reason I love these is that they are familiar territory: my family is a family that loves to draw. With a cartoonist father and a pen-and-ink illustrator mother, it kind of comes with the territory. Since they home schooled us, all five kids turned out to be visual learners. We all operate best with illustration and captions. Heck, my brother learned to read because of Tin Tin.

So far, I've read (and really enjoyed) these graphic memoirs.
Blankets This is a coming-of-age story that addresses siblings, parents, church, relationships, sex, art, and choosing independence and identity. The Publishers Weekly review says, this sensitive memoir recreates the confusion, emotional pain and isolation of the author's rigidly fundamentalist Christian upbringing, along with the trepidation of growing into maturity. Skinny, naive and spiritually vulnerable, Thompson and his younger brother manage to survive their parents' overbearing discipline through flights of childhood fancy and a mutual love of drawing. [Taken from the Amazon .com page]. I loved the illustrations because the author used really exaggerated images to tell his story. Very vivid.

The Imposter's Daughter This book blew my mind. Laurie Sandell tells the story of her (dysfunctional) relationship with her Dad. He is an odd character to begin with, but the further into the story you read, the more you discover how little anyone truly knows about him. Fascinating.

Houdini: The Handcuff King This isn't really considered memoir; more of a brief biography since it describes one trick of Houdini's. I read it in one sitting at the comic book shop. It's a quick read but brings this figure to life and makes Houdini seem more relate-able by including the people around him in the story. It made me want to study him, not as a magician or a trickster, but as a man with strange abilities and motivations. There are additional resources in the back of the book for further reading.

Persepolis I just finished this book yesterday. It's the story of the author's childhood in Iran, the revolution in 1979 from her perspective as a 10 year old, and war with Iraq. I had to flip back to the introduction several times, to re-read the historical summary she provides of the region since I am so unfamiliar with the politics of the middle east. But again, it was brought to life more than any textbook could have done, because it is a very personal account, from the eyes of a child. The illustrations are really simple, but still packed a punch. Who knew black and white silhouette and could communicate so much.