Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Just Before You Ruin It

“And the LORD answered me, and said, Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it.”
Habakuk 2:2 (King James Version)

My monthly haircut has become one of those big recurring events in my life. It’s become almost as important to my well being as my annual PSA blood tests.

I’d been out of the habit of making appointments to have my hair cut ever since Bill Clinton got that two hundred dollar Christophe job on the tarmac of LA International back in 1993. On seeing the uproar it caused, I decided it wasn’t proper that any haircut should be a scandalous affair. Thus, I made the decision to join the walk-in crowd, get the quick snip and clip, and be on my way. From that point on it became a long series of bad haircuts. I’d make the monthly trek, wait for ten minutes or so until some orange haired stylist could squeeze me in between appointments. Three or four minutes in the chair and it would all be over. I’d then go home, Nancy would give me the once over, and pronounce her benediction on the butcher job. “What on earth happened to you, Slick?” she’d say.

The haircuts were bad in New Jersey and got only marginally better in Memphis, then descended somewhere close to the bowels of hell when we moved to Emporia. I’d make the trips to one of Emporia’s many shops, the stylist would look at me, give me the once over, and come to the conclusion that I was a mark. “Old guy, receding hairline, thin on the top. Two or three minutes with him and I’ll be twelve bucks and a tip richer.”

It took me about three years to see the light. After being hacked on for so long it occurred to me one day that the stylists were making a killing. An hour’s worth of bad haircuts like mine added up to more money than Christophe got from Bill Clinton in two hours at LA International. And, what was worse as far as I was concerned was that he got his money’s worth, with every lock of his salt and pepper hair in just the right place when all was said and done while I was leaving the stylists’ shops time after time unrequited. Something had to give. Based on a recommendation from a friend at church I made an appointment with George, owner of George’s Barber and Style Shop on 7th Street. Ten years of butchering were about to come to an end.

I’ll never forget that first haircut at George’s. I told him that my only requirement was that I come out in the end looking like a young sixty-one year old man. I think I put it this way - “George, I’ve been going into stylist’s shops for ten years now and every time I have I come out looking like the cows that go into Iowa Beef down the road.” With that said, George launched in.

Thirty minutes later, with my hair cut and brushed, my mustache and eyebrows trimmed, George pronounced most proudly that he was done. “Whaddya’ think?” he asked as he held a mirror up to me. I was absolutely amazed. “Wow!” I thought to myself. “I came in here looking like Captain Kangaroo and I’m coming out looking like the handsome Irishman Nancy married back in eighty-six.”

That was two years ago. A monthly appointment with George has now become part of my routine.

Yesterday at one o’clock, as I made my way down 7th Street to renew the ritual, my mind, thanks to George, was on things far more important than whether or not I was going to get butchered like some cow. Since early in the morning I’d been wrestling with something, considering my writing and asking myself over and over, “How does one know when the story’s done, when the deal is sealed?”

At 1:05 George began trimming above my right ear, working his way from the hairline to the top of my head. “Hey George,” I said. “I met a friend of your son in Glorietta about a week ago.”
“Oh really. How’d that come about?”
“Met him at a Christian writer’s conference. Every afternoon we’d have these roundtable discussions with agents, publishers, and writers. On Saturday I met a guy from Texas, a novice like me, and he got curious about my being from Emporia. Asked me if I knew Dave Sleezer. I told him I did, that he was my barber’s son. Amazing, huh?”
“Sure is.”

By 1:25 George was starting to put the finishing touches on his work. It seemed appropriate to ask him the question that had been on my mind all day. “How do you know when it’s done?” I asked.
“When what’s done?”
“A haircut.”
George took a step or two back and stood pondering for a minute or so. “I’ll give you the long and the short of it, the long first.”
“Go for it.”
“There’s three levels to this. There are laborers, craftsmen, and artists. When I went to school I was taught, like everyone else, to use your hands, to do it by the numbers, one-snip, two-snip, three snip. That’s the laborer stage. Are you with me?”
“So far.”
“Then you start using your brain. That’s the craftsman. When I was a kid I used to do those puzzles where you draw lines between numbers and find out when you’ve connected everything you’ve drawn a dog or a cat. I started doing that same thing with people before I began cutting their hair. I’d mentally draw lines around them by the numbers, creating a mental picture for myself of what I wanted the finished product to look like.”
“And the third stage?”
“Ah,” George beamed. “That’s the stage when you use your heart. That’s when you do it by feel.”

The lesson of the long went on for some time, with George waving his arms in an animated manner, his face overflowing with the pride. “Once you get to that third stage you’re an artist,” he said in closing.
“I think you’ve arrived, George.”
“Well I’ve got the long of it now,” I said. “How about the short? How do you know when the haircut’s done?”
George’s response came quickly, with no hesitation. “It’s done just before you ruin it.”
I let the answer sink in for a few minutes. By the time he’d trimmed my sideburns I understood what he was saying. There comes a time when things can be overdone. A laborer will keep cutting when he shouldn’t, when the job is probably already done. An artist won’t. Ten years of one-snip, two-snip, whoops have taught me this is true.

Last night Nancy and I had dinner at the Grand Central Hotel in Cottonwood Falls, a small town about twenty miles west of Emporia. We go there two or three times a year to celebrate special occasions, our birthdays, and, if we’re in town, our anniversary. I slowly dispatched the petite filet, still feeling pretty young at sixty-three, thinking back to the lesson I’d learned at George’s earlier in the day. In between bites I told Nancy the short of it. “It’s done just before you ruin it,” I said. Like I had earlier in the day, Nancy let it all sink in. “I think I know what he meant,” she said as she took a small sip from her glass of wine. “I remember wanting to add one more bush, or a cloud, to landscapes I’ve painted. They’re really done but I can’t resist the temptation. Every time I do, it winds up being the wrong thing.”
“I do the same thing with words,” I confessed. I write something and can’t resist the temptation to put an adjective in where it doesn’t belong or some flowery noun that’s got no business being where I put it.”
Nancy smiled. “Not only did you get a good haircut this morning, you also got some really good advice.”

This morning the lesson learned at George’s Barber and Style Shop is still on my mind. The short of it has stuck with me. I wonder how things might look out at mile marker 109 if God was some sort of Cosmic Hippie, showering color where it doesn’t belong. The tallgrass prairie could have wound up looking like a never ending tie-dye shirt, with garish shades of purple, blue, orange, or yellow glaring at pilgrims passing by. He might have thought to himself, “No trees at all out there. Let me paint some trees to add something to all that nothingness” and it would have all been ruined. He could have applied some of Andy Warhol’s methodology and the Flint Hills might have wound up looking like the soup aisle in a grocery store. But He didn’t. God, the Master Artist knew when to finish the job. He wasn’t going to go one step further than He needed to.

I’m trying to think of what to say next. There must be something else, something flowery, something colorful that would express what I’ve learned and what I’m feeling. It’s a great temptation that I need to resist. My work on this essay is done; I’ve said what I’ve said. I need to close, just before I ruin it.


Gone Away said...

Great story, great advice. And also the reason I gave up all hope of ever being an artist (of the painting and drawing kind) many years ago. But that's another story...

Pastor Mike said...

Phil, you are a phenominal writer and draw pictures with your words that are hard to forget. I can't wait to read your first book and to tell the church about it.


prying1 said...

Wonderful advice.