Why am I still a hairy guy?

(Originally published June 2020 in The Sault Star)

Almost cut my hair. Happened just the other day.

It’s getting kind of long. I could’ve said it was in my way.

Friday was the day the Ontario government, apparently after consulting a ouija board, restored many of our pre-COVID freedoms, even though the virus is still hanging around like a drunken neighbour at the end of a party.

So in the better-behaved parts of Ontario, including Algoma, people finally could legally get their hair cut professionally again. Put down them garden shears, ma!

But like David Crosby in his 1970 song quoted off the top of this column, I didn’t book a haircut. I didn’t even try.

David Crosby is more “party in the back and polish in the front” these days

For one thing, my preferred cutter couldn’t have handled all her regulars in a single day even if she sprouted a few dozen sets of arms.

And I anticipated a stampede by a whole bunch of women who have been afflicted with a two-inch-wide strip of grey in their hair, apparently a side effect of the coronavirus.

Hell hath no fury like a woman whose turn in the salon is usurped by a man, as Elizabethan dramatists used to say. So after you, mesdames.

My own hair looks like it sustained a dye job from a passing seagull. But I’m sort of liking the length.

And unlike David Crosby, now 78, I still sprout long hair from most parts of my scalp. No party in the back and polish in the front for me. I’m styling long hair.

Is it nostalgia for the halcyon hippy days of my late teens and twenties that makes me fondly fondle my longer locks? How could I be nostalgic for something I’m not supposed to be able to remember?

But letting your hair down seems appropriate in today’s atmosphere of social upheaval. Long hair was an emblem of the ‘60s counterculture, before it became an excuse for a horrible Broadway musical.

About a month ago if someone said “there’s something in the air” they meant COVID; now they might mean revolution — as well as COVID.

There are thousands of people in the streets and young people speaking their mind, just as when Crosby’s bandmate Stephen Stills captured the ‘60s street clashes in For What It’s Worth.

Today’s protests are mainly focused on racial inequality. My generation hit the pavement over that too, but we’d take umbrage at just about anything, from the Vietnam War to the undercooked french fries in school cafeteria lunches. As long as our parents might like something, it qualified as an injustice.

But things have changed since half a century ago.

Smoking pot openly isn’t the act of defiance it once was; legalization took the fun out of that.

And police aren’t being referred to as “pigs.” Perhaps real pigs, upset at being associated with animalistic acts of violence, threatened to sue.

As in the late 60s, there is a crooked a-hole in the White House, although compared to Trump Nixon looks like his claim that he was “not a crook” could almost stand up. There’s nothing tricky about the current dickie; his crimes are part of his allure for the red cap crowd, so why cover them up?

Will there be free love this time around? If so, I hope it’s before 9 p.m., the bedtime of aging revolutionaries.

Will some really great music be inspired by today’s street clashes? Probably, if some rapper samples something like early Chicago or Neil Young.

Crosby’s anthemic Almost Cut My Hair has been credited with making long tresses an emblem of rebellion against the establishment.

So I guess a long-hair today should do his best to bring down the loathed boomer ruling class. That’s going to require some fancy philosophical footwork for me, since I am, by birthdate and default, a member of that elite. Whether I like it or not.

Even the cynical younger me who didn’t give peace and love much of a chance in 1970 never imagined how avidly my generation would embrace selfishness and greed.

So maybe the remnants of an idealist in me has bit of an itch to be on the front lines, though I’d likely end up like Martin Gugino, the 75-year-old who lay bleeding from the ear after being pushed to the ground by police in Buffalo June 4.

And maybe the journalist in me thirsts (journalists are known for their thirst) to be out covering what’s happening on those American streets, risking mace and rubber bullets and false arrest while the cellphones cameras roll.

But the pragmatic chicken in me will leave both the reporting and the protesting to a younger generation, hoping they’ll do a better job than we did. You’re on your own, revolution.

Still, I toyed with letting my hair grow even longer as a gesture of sympathy to the cause.

But then I was told just the other day that long hair makes me look 20 years older than I am.

As someone in the WHO (World Health Organization, I think) once said, hope I die before I look that old.

I’m booking my haircut chop-chop.

To self-isolate, perchance to write

(Previously published in The Sault Star but still pertinent today)

It’s mostly Shakespeare’s fault.

Those of us in the writing biz cringe when we are told that we should be churning out masterpieces from our COVID isolation instead of scrolling through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Didn’t the Bard of Avon concoct three of his most beloved and respected dramas, King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, while fleeing the Black Plague? So why are some of us playing Candy Crush all day?

To be fair, just about every time Shakespeare put quill to parchment there was a plague going on. It cropped up intermittently for more than a century in Elizabethan England. 

A bust of Shakespeare sits in a hotel window in Stratford-upon-Avon, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease. REUTERS/Carl Recine

Whenever an outbreak of the rat-borne disease prevented him from sucking up to sponsors and shilling ticket sales at the Globe Theatre, Will spewed out another masterpiece from his forced confinement.

London was hard hit, but Stratford didn’t escape unscathed. So for Shakespeare, it was a plague on both his houses.

Anyway, in some people’s minds any old pandemic should generate almost as much art as it does death.

Critics might scream that Edvard Munch painted some of his most memorable works during the Spanish Flu.

Or they’ll let it drop that Isaac Newton came up with his theory of gravity during a retreat from the plague. At the same time Newton also invented calculus, a subject I never gave a fig for in high school.

Boccaccio wrote his plague-themed Decameron and Daniel Defoe produced A Journal of the Plague Year while in isolation. 

And so on and so on.

Fair to say most would-be scribblers have more in common with Hemingway, who found himself quarantined with his sick child, his wife and his mistress, and produced nothing but empty liquor bottles.

The thing is, people who make writing their full-time job might not even have noticed that there’s quarantining going on. It’s business and life as usual.

For writers, there’s never much more to do during the day but write. Yet because they’re very creative they find lots of other stuff to fill the time.

The only benefit COVID has had for writers is to make their lifestyle more socially acceptable.

Suddenly writers are not the only people with questionable personal hygiene, erratic snacking habits and a tendency to drink before noon. 

Since some writers trend toward weirdness, they rarely find themselves in gatherings of more than five people. So social distancing comes naturally to them.

The rest of the world is also spending inordinate amounts of time revising tweets, spreading conspiracy theories online, choosing our 10 favourite albums and following trails to nowhere on YouTube.

Many a life is passing to the sound of a relentless TikTok.

In this COVID world, a writer’s day-to-day existence doesn’t seem as eccentric as it once did. We have lots of bedfellows in our strangeness.

‘Od’s truth, I’ve been fairly prolific during this time of stasis, chugging out newspaper columns at more than my usual rate.

But as for the other, more “serious” writing to which I sometimes aspire, I’m afraid it has been much ado about nothing.

Mother’s Day in isolation

My mother, alive and well at 96, has a phone in her room. But I can’t talk with her this Mother’s Day.

Between her near-blindness and some dementia, the chances of her answering that phone and carrying on a conversation if I called are only slightly less infinitesimal than the likelihood that she could place a call to me unassisted.

Mom enjoying the sounds and smells of Edwards Gardens in Don Mills, within bicycling distance from my childhood home, a few years ago.

In the normal past, once a week my sister would call me, hand that phone over to mom and we would have a good chat. 

Almost always mom rose to the occasion, seemingly enjoying phone calls more than our face-to-face interactions when I visited in person every couple of months or so.

(Can’t blame that on my face. Did I mention she’s pretty well blind?)

Her long-term-care home is locked down now, to both my sister and me. So phone calls are out as well, though the staff connect mom with my sister about once a week that way.

I’d have to say not being able to talk with my mom is the hardest blow COVID has inflicted on me. I miss her. 

Given how dementia disposes of a person’s concept of time, it’s quite possible she doesn’t miss me at all. If pressed, she might think she talked or visited with me just yesterday. I hope that’s the case.

And given the many social media tributes I have seen today by people whose mothers who are not longer with us, I should and do consider my mother deprivation to be akin to whining.

She is alive. There is no COVID in her home, apparently a well-run if a bit run-down not-for-profit with a staff that has always struck me as being as wonderfully kind, caring and loving as they underpaid. 

I’m delighted to trade the emotional costs of not talking to my mom for the fact that she has not suffered the fate of too many of her cohort, old people sacrificed on the altars of shareholder value and government “efficiency.”

Unless something unlikely and awful happens, in 26 days mom will turn 97. Her birthday will be another occasion for me to miss my mom. For her, probably it will sail by her unnoticed; they celebrate birthdays once a month in the residence, one day all those with a birthday in that month. COVID might have put an end to that too.

Not being able to talk to her today, or on June 5, prompts me to remember the conversations we have had over the past few years that she has been in that facility.

She likes that I tease and joke with her; mom has always had a great appreciation for humour, probably a survival mechanism for dealing with her late husband and me.

She chastises me if my joking goes over the line, as inevitably it does.

She concedes that she is well-cared-for — the food is great there, and at her stage in life that satisfies a good chunk of her pyramid of needs — that she is in pretty good health and that she’s having a good time.

She has no news. But that would be true if Doug Ford had been assassinated just outside her room.

She wonders when I’m coming to visit.

She thanks me for calling, even though it’s her who called me, through the agency of my sister.

Very satisfying for me. Probably very satisfying, for a briefer moment, for my mom. Hopefully a longer-term boost to her endorphins.

In these COVID days people like to recite how many troubling global events our elders lived through.

In my my mom’s case, that would be prohibition, the depression, World War Two, the Korean War, the Cold War and all the other ups and downs in the intervening 65 years. And now COVID. I hope and sort of expect she’ll live through that.

But world history is far from the sum of mom’s experience. She also lived through some remarkable events in her personal life, challenges she overcame or at least endured, things that I won’t recount out of respect for her privacy.

I was a challenge. One of the dominant images I retain from my teenaged years is my mom sitting at the kitchen table, smoking, waiting for me to sneak in quietly well after my curfew. We’d share a cigarette and then she could go to bed.

Though mom quit smoking about half a century ago, I think the worrying took a lot longer to taper off.

I was one of those kids — heck, adults —  who could take years off a mother’s life. Thankfully, I didn’t. Or if I did, my mom has one hell of a life expectancy.

Happy Mother’s Day to my mom. And to all those moms who are incommunicado, whether or not they have a full recognition of their plight.

Today I’m the one smoking at the kitchen table.