The Show & The Shave: how it all started

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

About that question

"I get it that you're shaving your head to support your friend going through chemo. But why for a year? Are you just running an experiment to get people's reactions so you can blog about it?" So go the questions.

Bernd, Susan, & Uben: Loved ones who matter a lot
Susan's chemo alone made The Shear a done deal, but doing it for a year clearly takes it into extra innings. When asked for reasons, I know in my heart and soul the many layers of motivation that make this something I simply must do. Unfortunately, I can't easily articulate them. It's about setting aside some small part of vanity, stripping away the non-essential, and in the process discovering just what "essential" entails. But even that doesn't quite cover it. This morning Susan herself inadvertently gave me more insight.

She periodically posts updates on, which touts itself as "connecting friends and family during a health event". This morning her post was about some of the ups and downs she has experienced since her third chemo treatment last Friday. She ended with:

"We read a couple of other Caring Bridge journals last night, and both reminded me to be GRATEFUL for my very hopeful prognosis in spite of the fact that I feel like warmed over death right now. I cannot begin to imagine the devastation of a parent losing an 8-year old to leukemia or a young father riddled with cancer and doing all kinds of clinical trials to try to stay alive for his young children.  I really do not have it so bad."

Susan, I don't think these situations discount the challenges you're going through, but they do quickly and dramatically bring perspective into sharp focus.

I now have an unequivocal response to anyone still wondering why I'm doing this. A Year of Living Baldly is about asking, "What really matters?" My bald head is a constant reminder to me—and I hope to others as well—to unceasingly pose that question. What really matters? And to pay close attention to the answers.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Filmmaker is Born... and Shaved

In my last post, I detailed the tribulations of making the video that was supposed to introduce this blog. At last.... 

[Press the Play > button in the small box immediately below for appropriate sound effects. If you want that special Hollywood ambience, shine a flashlight or two on the screen.]


After a month in the making, it's here! Enjoy!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

"Video Killed the Radio Star" and now it's killing me

My plan has been to post about The Shear/The Shave/The Act of Going Bald, accompanied by a nice little video of the event. How hard could it be? The answer to that seems to have an age variable, parallel to learning a foreign language. For the 12-year olds uploading thousands of hours of video to YouTube on a daily basis, it is as easy and natural as breathing and texting. It is, unfortunately, an exponentially greater challenge to the over-60 virgin videographer.

This has become my “Thomas Edison Project”. Just as TE found 1000 things that didn’t work for the incandescent light bulb before finding success with tungsten, I am discovering 1000 ways not to make a simple video.

Two weeks before The Shear, I got a Sony camcorder at Costco, hoisted it onto a tripod, and video’d myself relating how A Year of Living Baldly came about. How hard can it be to sit in front of a camera and talk? (Notice this “How hard can it be?” theme. It has the reek of the passengers on the Titanic, giddily sailing off, confident in their beliefs that “God Himself cannot sink this ship.”) So yeah, how hard can it be for a natural-born talker to sit in front of a camera and talk? It is excruciating. Gazing into the camcorder's single eye, I look and speak like some wooden object with a stick up my wooden butt. It took about a bazillion attempts to capture something even marginally acceptable.

On the day of The Shear, photographer, friend, and colleague Dennis Thayer video'd the event from the first buzz of the clippers to the rosy glow of my denuded skull. All of the raw footage I wanted for my video was now “in the can”. (Are terms like "footage" and "in the can" used when it's digital?)

In preparation for combining and editing these segments for my filmmaking debut, I updated my iMac to the latest iMovie editing software, a deal at $14. But wait...Apple wouldn't let me update iMovie ’11 until first updating my iMac's operating system. More US$ sacrificed on the Altar of Apple. Done. Once again I was ready to download everything from my camcorder to the Mac. But alas, I was impeded by yet another learning experience on the road to tungsten. It seems that Sony and its resulting videos are partial to Windows/PCs. I won't go into every gnat's ass detail describing hours of enlightening dead ends, but I learned that I could have used a setting on the camcorder that would have given the video a taste for Apple. But I didn't, and too late now—that hair isn't coming back for a repeat performance. My only alternative for the Mac was to spend some more bucks on converter software to make Apple deem my precious video footage acceptable. Good to know, damn you Steve Jobs, but first I’ll pay a visit to The Land of Bill Gates.

I downloaded everything to an old PC with Windows XP (success), and fired up Windows' bundled (i.e., free) video editing software, Movie Maker. The learning experience—still devoid of tungsten—continued. XP does not like HD (high definition), which is, of course, exactly what my video files are. This was where I learned about more formats, codecs, and converters. Downloaded some of the free ones, then spent hours uninstalling them and getting rid of the malware that had come with them.

And then came—not tungsten, not quite yet—but still, some kind of magic. I downloaded the videos to my Windows 7 laptop. A la Sally Field: “Windows 7 likes me [and my video files]. It really likes me.” Unfortunately, I found that I didn't like the Movie Maker software. It was as intuitive as my wooden butt. So I downloaded the free trial of Sony Movie Studio. Bless Sony. Their "free trial" is all one could want in a test drive. The software is fully-enabled (not like some software companies that disable every useful element for free trials, rendering it useless) and it's good for 30 days. No advertising crap or viruses come along with the download. And it is really, really good. I have thanked them by purchasing it.

Beloved though Sony Movie Studio might be, it is nevertheless winding along the learning experience maze and taking longer than I expected to master the basic functions. But Thomas Edison is getting closer to tungsten. And if Thomas Edison had a Skinner rat, it would be smelling the cheese about now.

This whole video pursuit has been frustrating, if not downright painful. Despite the pain and unlike the radio star, this video gig isn't killing me but making me stronger. Even eager and excited. I'm grateful to be exploring such a spectrum of mysteries of the technical universe and to be learning a new skill that's fun and creative with potential for so many applications. I count this laborious and time-consuming pilgrimage to find my tungsten and eat my cheese altogether worthwhile. 

In the meantime, it is slowing down my blog posts. Please stay tuned. The Shear, and its recounting via video will eventually be posted. Really. How hard can it be?

Friday, April 5, 2013

It wasn't exactly the lesson I'd expected...

I knew that shaving my head would bring life lessons, as well as the possibility that a few people would stare, make comments, or react to my appearance with some level of rejection. I was okay with that. "Teach me," I told the Universe. "I'm here to learn." 

The Universe chortled. "You got it, babe."

What I didn't know was that the lessons would start before The Shear. And so close to home. The lights had barely come up in the theater after Mondays at Racine, the documentary short that spurred this decision, when I turned to Scott and shared my plan. Rather than the enthusiasm I'd anticipated, he displayed the look of someone asked to sniff milk two weeks beyond its expiration date. 

It was no secret that he loved my long hair; but I thought this opportunity to support Susan, while exploring a whole new frontier of identity and appearance would appeal to his boundless curiosity and love of adventure. It didn't. Any time the subject came up in following weeks, he would get the same sour expression. I quit mentioning it. Then Susan's chemo started, and she scheduled her hair buzz for March 22. I scheduled mine for the following Friday. Scott and I finally started talking about it.
A time of  more concern about the dog's alcoholism than about hair
(Photo credit:  Gwyn Padden-Lechten)

"You know I'll support you in whatever you do. I'm so proud of you for doing this and supporting Susan. But... " He went on to say that he felt conflicted by a sense of betrayal that his life partner would radically alter her appearance without his input. He also reminded me that he does not adapt well to change. (As I reflected back several years on an argument that spanned an entire weekendit was over changing the paint color of our bedroom from white to a muted mauve, or my desire to change it at allI could see his point.)

My distress came from feeling that he viewed me as a life support system for a bunch of hairand perhaps even more from my sense of loss that he was not joining in as my co-conspirator and road buddy on this venture. It seemed he could fully accept the loss of my hair if it were due to illness, but it was no cause for celebration to be healthy and taking this route as a conscious decision.

Even as we both politely grieved our grievances, we retreated to our respective emotional corners. I stewed endlessly on his recalcitrance toward embracing this journey that meant so much to me. Finally I realized that emotions are not currency; and Scott didn't owe me positive feelings about my choice. Despite his unhappiness with it, he had pledged his support. He didn't owe me that either, but he freely gave it. I loved him for that and for so much more.

I came out of my emotional corner, started expressing more love and appreciation, and everything seemed to shift. Scott became far more open to the impending Shear and even wanted to be present for the event.

The homeschool lessons aren't entirely over even post-Shear. Scott will occasionally look wistfully at my head and ask things like, "How fast does hair grow?" And when the "bald maintenance" Wahl hair clippers I'd ordered from arrived a few days ago, he got that sour milk look again. But he tells me I look beautiful, and we tell each other "I love you." And we keep learning.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Art and Life Intersect

It started as a quest to see every 2013 Oscar-nominated film in every category before the Academy Awards ceremony. One documentary and the desire to support a friend took me down an altogether unexpected path.

On February 9, 2013, my husband Scott and I were pursuing our Oscar Quest at the Madison, Wisconsin Sundance Theater. Fully loaded with popcorn and other sundry concessions, we were armed for the all-day undertaking of viewing the 15 nominated "shorts"—those films with a running time of under 40 minutes—in the categories of Animated, Live Action, and Documentary.

As we viewed the documentary short, Mondays at Racine, about a New York salon that offers free beauty services to cancer patients, I could only think about my friend Susan, who had been recently diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. The fact that Susan had seemed almost as distressed about the potential loss of her hair through chemotherapy as she had about the cancer itself made the tag line of the film particularly poignant: "When your life is at stake, why is losing your hair so hard?"

As several women in the movie had their heads shaved as a preemptive strike against its loss to chemo, it occurred to me that this was one part of Susan's path I could share with her. With immediate certainty, I knew it was the right thing to do; but it was also daunting. Shed the locks I'd spent four years nurturing and growing to great lengths? And how weird would I look with no hair? Oh yeah, considering what Susan was facing, those concerns were petty. Nevertheless, they were there.

The next instant was like being struck with lightning on the road to Damascus. As I imagined what I would experience without hair, it was a liberation akin to flying. Why? I'm not entirely sure, but I think it goes back half a century.

Due to my mother's utter lack of grooming skills, my early years were spent as a homely kid and all the rejection that entails. When I was about 10, my cousins had some teen magazines with "beauty tips", at which point a brilliant light of hope went on for me. From that moment I spent the next 50 years desperately grasping at every tip, every skill, every product (okay, maybe not "every"—never did go with anything that had "lamb this" or "placenta that" in the ingredients or title) that would help me look pretty.

Something about that moment of imagining what it would be like without hair—who I would be without hair—with the associated freedom from trying to make it look good and earning the approval of others, felt like a hostage release. Although it was still a journey I wanted to share with Susan, it became a pilgrimage I was making on my own behalf as well.

Thus began the countdown to A Year of Living Baldly.