It was perhaps my junior year in college, and I was sitting at the lunch table with a group of friends mostly from the Rutgers Daily Targum, our (ridiculously good) student newspaper, of which I was, at that time, one of three news editors.
The topic was the kind that we often explored during those years, one that was deep and important and probing and really didn't make a lot of sense. But we talked about the variables that change a person's life. Small things that shouldn't make a difference, but do.
And Louise Mowder, who was not on the newspaper but the student government, said something that I've thought of often since then (and it's been a while). "For example," Louise said, "Jeff here would have had an entirely different life if he'd had straight hair."
It's the kind of thing that can make you wonder: Would many things have been different if I didn't have this unruly tangle on my head? Would I still have the same wife, the same children (both of whom would now have straight hair, one imagines), the same friends?
Would I be a more successful mystery novelist? Or an insurance adjuster?
There is, of course, no way to know. But I do know the fact that my hair does not hang down, but takes a number of turns along the way, has been an issue at various points.
In the 1960s, of course, having curly hair was so non-Beatles as to be a sin. I couldn't cut my hair into neat bangs that would waggle when I went "ooooooooh." I couldn't get it to grow over my ears. I couldn't shake it (frankly, it doesn't move that much). I was, indeed, an outcast.
Besides, people kept telling me how girls "would kill to have hair like that," which is exactly what a 12-year-old boy wants to hear, and telling me how "cute" having curly hair made me. Cute? Was Superman cute? Was Batman? Was Cary Grant, or other superheroes? Who wanted to be cute?
It should be noted, as well, that it was not yet in vogue to have long curly hair. My hair didn't grow down, it grew out. Nobody knew what to do with that (except Art Garfunkel). And the idea of not including a part hadn't really taken hold yet, either. So in an especially despised photograph of myself from that era, my hair has grown long, but it still being parted on one side. It gives the impression that I have a triangular head.
So by the 1970s, I decided enough was enough, and actually had my hair straightened for my cousin Joan's wedding (Joanie's son Brian is now engaged to be married, to provide synergy). Not only did I look ridiculous with straight hair, I also passed out cold at the wedding (it was the middle of August, and the air conditioning was not working). And a week later, my genes had taken back over, and my hair was as curly as ever. End of experiment.
Since the late 70s, I've worn my hair pretty much the way it is today (although it was a lot less gray in those days). It doesn't require a lot of maintenance, and it suits my face, pretty much. The beard was something that got added just before I graduated from Rutgers, and has been a constant on my face since about 1982 or so. I shaved it off just to see what would happen a number of years ago, and my wife walked into the room, took one look at me, and said, "grow it back." That's been it since then.
So, would straight hair have made a fundamental difference in my life? Probably not. Like I say, I looked stupid with it, so I guess my face would have had to have been different, too, and that probably would have made a difference. But how do you measure that?
I've made peace with my hair. A hair peace, I suppose you could call it. I'm glad it hasn't fallen out yet, and largely, I'm glad it looks the way it does.
A different life? Maybe. One I would have preferred to this one? I don't think so.