Dermatology was always one of those fascinating fields I loved but made me feel uncomfortable.
So much can go wrong with skin, with glands, with hair follicles. Since I'm colorblind, I cannot really appreciate rashes, moles and infected hair follicles my patients show me. And hair? America has had such a complex relationship with the role of hair over the course of my life.
When I was a kid, all the cool kids in the 1970s had shaggy cuts, or hippie-long hair. I really wanted long hair and to fit in, but that wasn't possible with my Dad or his friend and barber, Joe. I sat in Joe's chair while they told old stories in Italian and the longer they talked, the shorter my hair became.
Having a crew cut meant getting mercilessly teased by all the cool kids in school who had the long shag-cut and whose flower-child parents listened to Jimi Hendrix and Crosby, Stills & Nash. My Dad listened to Frank Sinatra and Mario Lanza and demanded a 1950s style cut.
In the '80s, body hair was cool. Tom Sellick in the TV show "Magnum P.I." wore those open Hawaiian shirts with that tuft of hair on his chest and all the women thought he was sexy. I remember my Grandma Mary's shock at Burt Reynolds posing in all his hairy nude glory in Cosmopolitain, saying in Italian, "Look, Christine. Ma non si mette scuorn." (Isn't he ashamed of himself?") and giggled, but I got the feeling that she really liked the way he looked because I had never seen Cosmopolitan magazine in her house before that.
I certainly wasn't the cool hairy type back then. My wife points out that when we married in 1987, I didn't have a single hair on my chest. Now that I'm older my kids tease me. My daughter thought my hairy back and chest-a metamorphosis that happened sometime when I wasn't paying attention-was gross, so she put wax on my back and ripped the hair, as well as my epidermis, dermis and part of my trapezius muscle clear away. I shrieked in pain, and she shrieked because she thought all the hair on her wax was disgusting. I had a bald, raw patch on my back for awhile, surrounded by my ape-like fur.
These days, hair is not cool. "Everyone wants to be Abercrombie & Fitch," the barber at Gabe's Barber Shop told me as he trimmed the old man spikes of hair growing out of my ears and nose. "You know, smooth, tanned skin basking in the sun - that's what all the kids want."
A guy in the gym told me to put on Nair for men and go to the tanning bed when he saw my Cro-Magnon Man fur. A tanning bed?!
Which brings me back to dermatology. The sun-and tanning beds - shoot radiation at our skin's DNA and wreak all kinds of genetic havoc, making cells grow crazy, get old and sag, and become cancerous. Everyday I notice strange moles and growths while I'm listening to people's lungs and heart. Thank God for the dermatologists and sunscreen. Smooth hairless skin may be the "in thing" this week, but suntanning doesn't bring youth, vigor or health.
As for hair, I suspect that by time hair is cool again, all of mine will have fallen out.