New Year's Guide 2008

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The finalists in our annual essay contest — plus musings from Westword writer Michael Roberts on New Year's resolutions.

First Place

I Hate 2008

By Christopher Castellano

This year sucked.

I was recently laid off from my ingloriously undemanding job working for the lowest-rated TV news station in Denver. I'm not going to name it, since I don't actually hit the road till February, but it sounds a lot like "GW" — also on his way out and with equally dismal ratings.

Shortly after, my thirteen-year-old invincible cat, Funkmaster Flex, who has survived gunshot wounds (BB), stabbings (cactus needles) and excessive smoke inhalation (college dorm room), was diagnosed with lymphoma. As optimistic as he is, I'm not so sure he'll be able to meow his way out of this one.

So, in its final act, 2008 promises to leave me unemployed and catless. Pretty bad, yes, but only made worse when I realized my sorrow-drowning plan was methodically foiled by the engagement and marriage of most of my drinking buddies throughout the year.

Now that I think of it, the trouble really started last winter when I hung up my calendar. My hometown Giants won the Super Bowl in stunning, record-breaking fashion — but I was passed out for most of the second half, metabolizing Jägermeister. Tyree helmet catch...all a the next few months.

 The governor of the world-champion state gets busted banging overpriced Jersey Shore sluts. The nation's economy falls apart like a Mexican space shuttle. Gas cost more than whiskey. The once venerable Brett Favre drags everyone through a pathetic public breakup that made us all feel uncomfortable and awkward, like having to take a shit at someone's house whose bathroom is in the middle of everything and has no fan.  The Dutch flipped on some kind of atom-smashing, money-sucking, underground energy tube that was supposed to swallow up the universe but instead did nothing but just lie there. Anyone else been duped by Amsterdam's false backroom promises?

    And then, to cap it all off, the confusingly cheerful, moose-hunting moron Mayor of Methtown came within a beaver's hair of the White House. Hooo-lee shit. This year needs to check out faster than a tween Hollywhore from rehab.

 I didn't mention the only bright side, Obama, and that was intentional. I'm saving him for 2009. If nothing else, he'll bring enough light to the new year to get us through the tunnel of sludge left behind by the dozens of despicable scandals, pointless tragedies and boring Britney comebacks that have soiled the past twelve months.

I won't be making any resolutions this year — mainly because I don't want to quit drinking, I love to overeat, and I have nothing but contempt for exercise. But I will be making magic brownies, and plenty of them, at five bucks a pop. C'mon, how else am I going to pay for the Funkmaster's chemo?


Oh, Brother!

By Robert

I'm a high-school dropout, 26 and still living at home. (That sounds worse every year I have to make that number higher.) I rang in 2008 in an old hospital in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, made into a hotel for patients and visitors who cannot afford a real hotel. I sat in bed with two shooters of cheap whiskey while my mom slept in the other bed. We were there because my brother had been in a car accident that left him a paraplegic with a severely disfigured leg. His wife had grown tired of me and decided to tell the psychologist that I was hindering his recovery, even though all the nurses and therapy staff stuck up for me. So I would visit on weekends, bumming a ride whenever anyone I knew was going to see him.

The time came to fix his leg, and they sent him to St. Luke's here in Denver. I took the bus there every day and sat with him. (Thankfully, he'd convinced his wife to stay in Nebraska for all but his days in surgery.) They did a muscle-flap surgery and sent him back to Nebraska to wait for the bone replacement — but the MRSA he'd contracted while in the Scottsbluff hospital got worse. It was decided that his leg couldn't be saved because of that and he had to have it amputated. We've gone through various ups and downs since then. He's been hoping for the big cash settlement from the guy who hit him that the TV lawyers promise, but I hold out little hope.

Then my uncle unexpectedly died. That was a huge blow to my family. Right after they had taken him off life support, I remember my aunt saying to the twenty-somethings in the room, all grasping their significant others, "That's what you have to look forward to, the death of a spouse." Being the only loner, I caught a short glimpse of just what love can mean to some people. I've felt alone this year, and watching those couples, I figured out why: Everyone grew up on me. 

A little more than two years ago, my best friend of sixteen years got married. I was the only witness, and she was the last of my friends I still talked to. (She and her husband would later do me dirty.) Most of the people my age in my family are in a serious relationship, married and/or have kids. I really have no interest in such a thing, so I guess that's why I should turn to friends — but it's hard to make friends when you're not in a high-school lunchroom grouped together by who you think hates you. 

A few months ago my dad got laid off, just a year from retirement. We're scraping by, and when I need a job most, it's at a time when even college graduates can't get jobs. It's not fun going on an interview and explaining when they see your blank work history that you've been your family's "freelance grunt" for the past ten years, looking after people and doing various jobs they couldn't or didn't want to do themselves. (I'm not stupid — I got A's and B's in school — but I quit because I was tired of people fucking with me, and it took me too long to learn that it doesn't matter what people think of you.) That's when you can even get an interview. Most times I trek to the library after being told that (insert potential employer) only accepts online applications — only to never hear back. My poor parents, they've worked hard all their lives and deserve better than "scraping by."

As the year has gone by, I've seen various other family members in the hospital, family friends getting fucked with, and many good people crushed by the weight of the world. So many nights I prayed for things to get better — only to watch them get worse, as if god were mocking me. So one day I just stopped praying, just stopped believing in this great man in the sky and that he would help my family. I realized that all the hardships we've endured, we've done on our own. The hard work of many people kept my brother alive, not the words falling on nonexistent ears.

This year has left me friendless, angry and godless, so I say "Fuck you" to 2008 and I hope that 2009 has much better in store — not even for me, necessarily, just the millions of good people who deserve it.

Oh, and P.S.: To my bastard neighbors who built that new shed — thanks, dickheads, for killing my view of downtown. Fuck you.


Jailhouse Rock

By Christine

In July of 2007, I got engaged to this guy I'll call "Bob." I was working at a company that his friend owned, and we set our wedding date for August 2008. Well, that didn't happen due to a series of events that made me aware of what a shmuck this guy is. I know, I should've known all along and all that, but that's another story. Well, to make a long story short, I ended our engagement in July 2008. Then September rolls around and I end up quitting my job because my ex-fiancé's friend not only threatened me but threatened the guy who worked with me, and to be honest, I don't need that kinda shit! So he calls me and tells me that he could see me either in jail or dead. I'm not dead, so — yup, you guessed it...I went to jail. For what? Well, that's another story, too. Anyway, I get community service and a fine, along with some classes. Not to mention while I'm doing all this (which has taken the better part of 2008), my father is diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer and dies.

I just wish this year would end. I have lost my job, my house and my dad, so here it is: This year should just die!

Head Games
What I learned from a hair-raising experiment.
By Michael Roberts

Like so many ridiculous situations, this one began with a joke — and I wound up as the punchline.

The time was early January, and I was at the dinner table with my wife, Deb, plus our son, Nick, then seventeen, and twin thirteen-year-old daughters Lora and Ellie, when the topic turned to New Year's resolutions. None of our spawn had thought about committing to one, and the possibilities put forward by Deb (like encouraging a pledge from the girls to stop cursing so damn much) were about as popular as a guy wearing a beer helmet at a wine-tasting party. In self-defense, the young folks shifted their focus to me, demanding that I share a resolution of my own. I sputtered ineffectually for a moment before blurting out the most absurd declaration that came to mind:

"I'm not cutting my hair for a year!"

This announcement wasn't a complete non sequitur. Earlier in the conversation, my loved ones had heartily ridiculed my mane, which had become quite unruly. Deb had last taken scissors to me sometime during the previous September, meaning that my hair had sprouted unencumbered for more than three months. That was a long time by my standards — or anyone else's — but I'd been thinking about letting the augmentation continue, despite two key considerations. First, my job at Westword requires me to interact regularly with important people in professional settings. Second, I'm ostensibly a grownup.

My family reacted to my proclamation just as I'd hoped — with laughter and disbelief — and their responses inspired me to stick to my words despite the lack of thought that had gone into spitting them out. The result was my longest-ever running gag, a twelve-month-long prank that alternately amused and horrified the ones I love even as it gave me unexpected insight into myself, not to mention the current state of the U.S. male.

Most men don't like to admit how important appearances really are to them, or to what extent they're influenced by fashion. Dudes are supposed to be above such considerations. But I know differently — and all it took for me to gain this knowledge was to walk around for a year looking like an idiot.

The cluelessness of American men regarding their hair didn't sprout overnight. According to Kurt Kueffner, the director of men's market development and education for Aveda, it took root over decades. While women learn hair care at an early age, the average man receives no such training, and the ensuing ignorance has naturally bred contempt. "There's a stigma about men looking too fussy, men looking too concerned, men looking too image-conscious," Kueffner told me. "It's not considered masculine." Rather than seeming as if they put an effort into their appearance, "men just want to look genetically superior. They want to look fabulous by accident."

That's me in a nutshell — which explains why my intermittent attempts to grow out my hair had always met with catastrophe. My locks were so thick and coarse that they puffed out as they lengthened, making my head look like it belonged on a Wink Martindale balloon at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. The worst example of this phenomenon occurred during the mid-'80s, when I went six months without a shearing — and by the end of that span, I seemed to be wearing a fur stole atop my cranium. It's a wonder PETA protesters didn't splash me with red paint every time I stepped out the door.

I thought this humiliation had killed my long-hair fantasies once and for all. But it took a lot more than that to put them in the grave — including credible accusations that I was succumbing to a mid-life-crisis.

From the beginning, I swore otherwise, but no one believed me. After all, I was 45 when I made my dinner-table proclamation, and even though I've done my best not to fall victim to the march of time, my hair was definitely acting its age. Indeed, the stuff on top of my head had begun to thin in a serious way, as I learned after seeing a bird's-eye view of my crown on television during coverage of a mayoral news conference I'd attended. To my shock, I'd developed a notably ugly bald spot — a jagged slash that looked like an earthquake was about to split my skull wide open.

Why, then, didn't I recognize my interest in a longer 'do as a last, futile battle against inevitability? My rationale was convincing — to me, anyhow. Because my hair was thinning, I reasoned, it would dangle downward as opposed to poofing up, à la Albert Einstein, who I later discovered has been nearly as influential from a style standpoint as from a scientific one. An entire organization, memorably dubbed the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists, cropped up around his crop, and while I couldn't solve a simple algebraic equation if I had a cannon to my temple, I loved the idea of my hair suggesting otherwise.

With this motivation, I embarked on my mission, fully confident of success — and less than two months later, I was ready to raise the white flag. I discovered that the hair on the back and sides of my head was as bushy and untamable as ever, and the longer it got, the feebler the strands atop my pate seemed in comparison. Worse, the side hair jutted out like Mary Tyler Moore's during the era when she tossed her hat into the air once a week. The combination could be summed up in two words: clown hair.

Deb said styling mousse might improve matters, but I was adamantly against taking this tack; I'd never used sprays, gels or anything else, and I wasn't about to start. Still, each time I caught a glimpse of myself in a passing storefront window, I imagined passersby snickering at the very sight of me — and toward the end of February, I finally cracked and told Deb I was ready for a trim. She responded by racing for her barbering paraphernalia so quickly that I'm shocked she didn't pull a muscle.

Before the cutting could begin, however, Nick emerged from his downstairs lair and asked what was going on — and when we told him, he shook his head in disapproval. He said my New Year's resolution represented a promise I'd made to myself as well as to the rest of the family. What kind of lesson did it teach if I was willing to go back on my word less than a sixth of the way toward my target?

I understood instantly that Nick was messing with me — but I also knew he was right. I was going back on my word, and I was doing it far too soon. If my oath was to mean anything ever again, I had to carry on.

Nick was immensely satisfied by my decision, but then, he was applying to colleges at the time and would soon accept an offer to attend Catholic University in Washington, D.C. — meaning that he'd be half a continent away for what was sure to be the most awkward period of my gestation. During his first semester, virtually every conversation we had with him featured Deb reciting what became her mantra about my hair: "This is all your fault."

In the meantime, though, something unexpected happened. My hair started looking better. The growth on top reached the point where it was visible from a distance without the use of binoculars, and the waves on the side were no longer swooping quite so uniformly. The overall effect wasn't attractive, exactly, but it fell short of jaw-slackeningly hideous. A visiting friend went so far as to say I looked good — though he warned me not to succumb to the urge to put my hair in a ponytail. I laughed at the very thought. A ponytail? The most embarrassing hairstyle any man could pick? No way on earth would I wear a ponytail.

The next judge I went before was my mother, whose sentences are dependably harsh. But to my profound surprise, she actually said nice things about my hair when we visited her in Arizona in late March. Unfortunately, though, this sojourn was as good as it got for me, hair-wise. As spring stretched into summer, my coiffure became absolutely impossible to manage. It refused to stay put, with even the slightest breeze causing strands to fly around my face like a swarm of gnats — and my attempts to toss it out of my eyes with a flick of my head did nothing but give me a literal pain in the neck.

At Westword, one of my annual tasks is to name the local TV news personalities with the best hair — an irony roughly the size of Mount Kilimanjaro, since my own hair had never been a concern. Now, though, I was thinking about it all the time. The more I mulled over my problem, the more I realized I needed professional help.

Melanie Shelley to the rescue.

Shelley got her professional start in New York City, assisting at runway shows starring the likes of Cindy Crawford before moving on to magazine shoots featuring Antonio Banderas and plenty of other notables. Today she owns Trim Classic Barber, one of the top salons in the South — her clientele includes Faith Hill and Ashley Judd — and she's also been featured in an episode of the Style Network series Split Ends.

"Physiologically, I think we are actually programmed to be obsessed with our hair," she told me. "I don't believe it's something our culture tells us. I think from the beginning of time, there's a physiological trigger in us that makes us obsessive about our hair."

That goes for men, too. Whether because of the rise of what's become known as metrosexuality or simply a gradual breakdown in the preconceptions that made men shy away from fiddling with their follicles, Shelley has noticed that many of her male clients are now comfortable enough to use hair tools that their fathers and grandfathers would never have touched. "I have probably ten or twelve guys who own flat irons," she said. "They pull out their curls in front with it. Or they have short, spiky hair, and they want it to do different things without putting product in it."

Not that product is verboten. "Maybe there's a large group out there that still isn't using hair products," she allowed. "But in my experience with high-profile people — and I'm talking about senators and heads of companies and heads of health-care organizations — these guys really know that images are very important. They've figured it out."

Clearly, I hadn't. But now I knew that I had to set my product phobia aside or I'd never make it to year's end without throwing myself under a riding lawnmower and letting the blades do their duty. So I described my specific hair dilemma to Shelley — not just the year's growth pledge, but the type of hair I had on different parts of my head — and asked her to give me a long-distance prescription. She advised me to use "a thickening spray" on the top, to counteract the hormonal changes that made the hair there thinner than the kudzu elsewhere on my noggin, and a "relaxing balm" on the back and sides in order to "chill them out a little bit." Afterward, I should work "grooming cream" through the last two inches of hair all over my head. She described it as "almost like hand lotion for hair."

These directions seemed extraordinarily complicated to me, and a trip to the local beauty-supply store disturbed me even more. I staggered through the aisles, shell-shocked by the sight of $150 straighteners and every kind of mousse other than Bullwinkle. But this discomfort was nothing compared to the alarm I felt after applying the recommended ingredients the next morning. When I brushed the top after using the thickening spray, the hair laid out in narrow ridges, like a sad parody of cornrows, and the gel plastered the hair to the side and back in massive clumps that, after drying, made me look as if I'd fired my head in a kiln.

The combination fairly screamed Miami Vice, and my efforts to vary the amount of product and the method of application came to naught. When music editor Dave Herrera asked me to say hello to Crockett and Tubbs, I put the spray, cream and gel back on the shelf and left them there. I'm certain Shelley could have set me straight, but I didn't think I could justify a trip to Nashville for an in-person consultation, especially since my daughters were already appalled that the $40 I'd spent on products had turned me into an even scarier freak than I'd already been.

Too bad the status quo was just as terrifying. A one-day experiment with blow-drying exploded in my face; I looked like a Chia Pet. A few days later, my hair seemed to have calmed down — but then, as I channel-surfed past the Martin Scorsese remake of Cape Fear, I realized with dismay that I was a dead ringer for Robert De Niro's Max Cady, one of the most despicable villains in screen history. Suddenly, I didn't just have Bad Hair. I had Psychotic Rapist Hair.

Back in the spring, I'd cackled at the thought of sporting a ponytail. But desperate times called for desperate measures, so I raided my daughters' supply of elastics. Unable to sweep all my locks into a single bundle, I let the hair in back hang and gathered the strands on the side into a top knot, telling myself I was paying tribute to my favorite movie swordsman, Toshiro Mifune. In reality, I looked more like John Belushi portraying "Samurai Journalist," only not nearly as funny. In October, I spoke to Lora's American government class, and in his introduction of me, her teacher announced that I'd discovered a hairstyle more embarrassing than the mullet. What an accomplishment.

After that, I went with two ponytails: a smaller one on top, a larger one below. This move allowed me to go outside without worrying that a few gusts of wind would transform me into Animal from the Muppets, yet it also put me in league with a common Colorado archetype — the aging hippie who can't quite bring himself to admit that it's not 1968 anymore. My mother, who'd relocated to Colorado, was appalled by the look and urged me to cut my hair immediately. When I argued that doing so would render all of my previous efforts totally pointless, she countered with a rhetorical question: "If you knew you were on the wrong train and had a long way to go before the end of the line, are you telling me you wouldn't get off at the next stop?"

Actually, I was telling her that, even though I no longer recognized myself — and neither did anyone else. In November, when I was asked to guest on Channel 6's Colorado State of Mind, I had to reintroduce myself to host Greg Dobbs, whom I'd known for the better part of a decade. "Have you gone native?" he asked.

No, and I hadn't gone insane, either. Not really. I'd simply gotten mired in a hairy situation, and I needed someone to lead me out. Aveda's Kueffner was the man for the job.

As part of his Aveda responsibilities, Kueffner regularly travels the country, advising stylists how to overcome men's hair-related biases, of which there are many. "Men will spend more money to look like they didn't get a haircut than a woman will spend to look like she did," he revealed. "If a man gets hair color and anyone notices, he will come back and get it re-colored. A woman will come back if she gets her hair colored and no one notices."

Given American males' psychological peculiarities, Kueffner and other hair pros teach their acolytes how to set such customers at ease by avoiding certain language that works fine with women. The term "gown," for example. "We used to give everyone a gown, and we found out that men don't like the word," he said. "You ask a guy if he wants to put a gown on, and he's probably going to say 'No,' because it doesn't sound like a good idea. But go to a guy and say 'Do you want to put on a T-shirt?' and he's probably going to say 'Yeah,' because he knows that after he gets a haircut, he itches for the rest of the day."

How to explain to men that they should use a separate shampoo and conditioner, as opposed to a single cleanser that contains both? Point out that they'd never use just one item to wash and wax their car. How to convince a dude who thinks there's no good reason to put oils or balms in his hair? Explain that these additives help the scalp retain moisture, which in turn slows hair loss.

That last one hit me where I live, and so did Kueffner's next comment. "People are saying, 'Men are growing their hair out.' I don't think so," he declared. "I don't think there's as much of that as the rumor would have it. I think what was going to happen with long hair already did, and it's over."

Not quite, but almost. By now, I only had a few weeks to go until January 1: shearing day. With the end so near, I was actually able to enjoy my hair for the first time in months. One morning I discovered that I could toss it from side to side like Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And on December 31, I let the girls do something they'd been begging me to let them do for months: straighten my hair. Afterward, Deb said I could have passed for a double of Chris Elliott in Scary Movie 2. Talk about every man's dream.

Deb had been telling anyone who'd listen that she was going to grab me at 12:01 a.m. on New Year's Day and cut everything in sight — a remark usually accompanied by what struck me as humor-free nods to Lorena Bobbit. But she eventually agreed to get a good night's sleep beforehand, knowing she'd need to be alert to do the job. And it's a good thing she did, since the task's degree of difficulty soon rose precipitously.

I'd long wanted to donate my leavings to Locks of Love, a Florida-based charity that makes wigs for children who've suffered medical hair loss, thinking that this gift would make my stunt seem altruistic, not massively self-indulgent. To my chagrin, occasional measurements en route suggested that my hair would fall short of the organization's ten-inch minimum length. But when I plucked several hairs from my head on New Year's Day, I was thrilled to discover that they were a quarter- to a half-inch longer than necessary. So instead of simply going over my head with her electric clippers, Deb would have to snip off several ponytails as close to my scalp as possible and then try to even everything up afterward.

The entire process took over two hours, and she did an incredible job. Lora and Ellie, as well as Nick, who was back home for winter break, couldn't believe how much younger I looked, and neither could I. (Take that, Albert Einstein.) Of course, my balding patch was on display for all to see. But somehow, admitting what was happening on my head was now a lot easier than it had been the year before.

Today, I still use the shampoo and conditioner from a care package sent by Aveda. And although I never got brave enough to try the additional styling products — I eventually included them in a care package for soldiers in Iraq, who need relaxing balm a lot more than I do — I still think Shelley and Kueffner would be proud of me. I've finally come to terms with the stuff on top of my head, and all it took was keeping the dumbest New Year's resolution of my life.


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