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Although I am a middle-aged white North American male, I know the pain of being broken down solely on the basis of my looks, my entire personality rendered meaningless and subsumed by a single piece of my anatomy. In my case, it’s my hair. Specifically, my pony tail.

Since I was young I’ve always wanted long hair. As a child I was never allowed to grow it long, but when I became a teenager and had the faintest hint of independence in how I dressed and groomed, I started to let my hair grow. Unfortunately the fine, straight hair that I’d been blessed with started changing with the advent of puberty, and become wavy and unruly. Just when I had the freedom to let it flow, it had gained a mind of its own.

I hated my hair.

It refused to behave as I wanted it to, and so I went back to cutting it short. I was defeated.

But, years later, I decided to try again. In the meantime, I’d developed a minor phobia for going to the barber: I dreaded the expectation to make conversation and the odd intimacy of a stranger touching me and hovering around me as my locks were shorn. Also, I hated spending $15 for the traumatic experience. I stopped going to the barber.

If anything, my hair had become wavier, almost curly, but I discovered that if I let it grow long enough, I could tie it back in a pony tail, controlling its most chaotic urges. It might not have been the best look for me, but it was low maintenance, and free. I could go months without a haircut, and even when I decided my hair was too much to handle, I’d simply shave it all off and start from scratch. I’d never had much romantic success and, looking back, my hair probably didn’t help. But I was more at peace with it, after hating myself and the way I looked throughout adolescence and high school. I’d found a hairstyle that might not have been attractive, but at least it didn’t bother me any more.

Fast forward to years later, and I mostly have long hair that I tie back in public. It’s messy because I don’t even get it trimmed, but it’s sort of become my “look.” I know I’m starting to go bald on top, and I’m aware that I’ll eventually look like a stereotypical aging hippy (if I don’t already) but, for the most part, I don’t care. I used to be extremely self-conscious, worrying too much about what everyone thought of me, and whether they were judging me. I’m still self-conscious, and know I’m not good-looking, but I don’t worry about other people so much now; I’ve grown more comfortable in my flabby, pasty, hairy skin.

I’ve started to go to a new pub to watch Chelsea football games. It’s very nice, but they don’t know me by name yet, and there are a lot of us, so understandably they’re struggling a bit to get to know us and make sure the right person gets the right breakfast and bill. This weekend I learned that the bartender has his own tricks for keeping us straight. He’s picked out defining features, since telling the waitress to bring the Carlsberg to “the guy in the Chelsea shirt” won’t get them very far. My defining feature? My pony tail.

I kind of like that. It took me years to grow it, and now it’s sort of my “thing.” My only complaint is that somehow I became “pony2” on my bill, and I wonder how I lost out to “pony1.” Maybe I need to do what my family is always threatening to do to me, and cut off his pony tail. It might be the only way up in this tonsorial world.

When I was young I used to worry about falling asleep.  It would literally keep me up at night.  I didn’t understand what being unconscious meant, so I imagined that I would still be aware of myself, just not moving for eight hours. This seemed like a tremendous waste of time, and I hated wasting time when I was young.  Sleeping meant I wasn’t reading comic books or playing with Lego or watching TV.  I thought sleep would be like having to lie still for eight hours at a time.  I couldn’t imagine anything more boring.  And even though that’s not what sleep was like at all, I kept being afraid of it.  This fear of sleep seemed to plague me for a large period of my youth, and may have been tied in to my obsession with death.  I tried to figure out what happened when you died, and I can remember that I didn’t really think–even at that young age–that you’d go to heaven.  Instead I usually tried to imagine what nothingness would be like.  Even then I’d started to believe that nothing happened to you after you died–no heaven, no hell–you just ceased to be active (much like I imagined sleep).  But if you believe the afterlife is nothing, what is nothing like?  It’s hard to imagine not existing anymore, so I would imagine a kind of void which contained me and nothing else.  But that’s not really nothingness–that is in fact existence in its purest form, the continuance of the only thing anyone can truly say exists with any authority, your Self.  The rest of the universe may melt away, and the mind can deal with that, because it’s easy to lose the sense of the faraway–tell someone that the Crab Nebula no longer exists, and what impact does that really have on their life or sense of place in the universe? Even tell them that China is no longer there, and they’ll adjust, because after all China for most people is just an abstract concept–something they’ve read about, seen on TV, maybe even met someone who says they’re from there, but never experienced personally. Keep drawing the circle in tighter and people will learn to accept the loss of things they were truly never sure about in the first place–Rio de Janeiro, that great souvlaki place across town, the emotional state of their closest friends–until the last thing that will remain and be held on to with the greatest possible tenacity is the Self.  It’s the one thing we imagine we can be sure about, even if when we’re being truly honest we realize that even our Selves can be mysteries to us.

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