A Middle-Age High School Musical

I’ll admit it. I’m one of those people who often wishes that in real life, everyone would burst into song and dance numbers, just like in a musical. In a magical, well-choreographed way, not a cheesy, oh-my-god-I-think-this-show-has-jumped-the-shark kind of way.

Street musical scene from Isn't it Romantic movie

You’re eating with family in a restaurant, and all of a sudden, the patrons at the table next to you start to argue. In the middle of the argument, the man stands on the table and begins to sing in a dramatic way about feeling misunderstood. The woman joins in, too. The rest of the patrons become the chorus, and then, the waiters break into a perfectly timed dance, complete with plate juggling.

Too much?

Sorry. Blame it on my 80s upbringing and mormon TV commercials, with the kid who broke Mr. Robinson’s window, and the kids who learned that they are better off to never tell a lie (an even small one!).

Speaking of 80s upbringing, yesterday, I went to the MixTape Tour — a dream concert for anyone who was a teenager in the 80s. Some of the best 80s artists were playing. No, not Journey, though that would have been cool. Okay, no, not Madonna. Not the Cure, not Depeche Mode, not…

New Kids on the Block. It was New Kids, okay?

New Kids on the Block MixTape Tour concert

Plus Salt n Pepa, Naughty by Nature, and two of my 1987-88 favorites, Debbie Gibson and Tiffany. About 95% of the crowd that packed the arena were middle aged women like me, reliving our teen years of big hair, jean jackets, and like, totally awesome music. The other 5%, I am convinced, were men who were dragged along for the ride.

From the beginning to the end, this was no ordinary concert. Every artist in the stage kept encouraging us to join in, sing along, and dance out hearts out. And we did, in a wave of nostalgia and excitement. Sometimes, we even turned toward our neighbors, who were absolute strangers a moment ago, and shouted the lyrics at one another, all while waving our arms and gyrating our hips, in unison with the performers.

It wasn’t exactly a spontaneous musical moment. It was planned, right down to our expensive seats. But there was something incredibly magical about being swept up in a moment of song and dance with tens of thousands of other Gen Xers, waving our hands in the air like we just didn’t care, and taking in one last gulp of the best part of our teen years.

Me smiling in front of an arena

Me, as a teenager at a concert (for the 2nd time around)

Pluck! Pluck! (aka: Swimming Against the Current)

While shopping at the mall, I came across a gorgeous bracelet, strung with polished stones in varying hues of grays, blue-grays, and green-grays.

“That is so you,” my daughter said. “You have to buy it.”

Ten minutes later, the bracelet was paid for and dangling from my wrist. It really was a perfect piece of jewelry for me, because more than half of my wardrobe is gray. Gray sweaters. Gray dresses. Gray flats and tights and t-shirts. I even own a gray overcoat and a gray faux-leather jacket. Such a smooth, sophisticated color. Neutral enough to be a blank palette, but far cooler than beige, and softer than black. Ambiguous. A mystery.

My love of all things gray doesn’t end there. I find comfort in gray, cloudy skies. Our living room furniture is mostly gray. My car is gray. In fact, I even identify as a heteromantic graysexual, or gray-asexual.

Which is what makes this little problem so ironic.

Sometime during the past several years, a tiny sprig of gray appeared among my off-black locks of hair. When I first discovered it, my heart sank. Oh my god. Here it is. The first official sign that summer has come to an end.

But then, I plucked it out, and all was right with the world again.

A year later, the sprig had multiplied. I had two — count them — two strands of gray hair. Pluck and pluck.

Now, at the age of 43, I have counted as many as six tiny sprigs of gray among my curls. Possibly more, hidden in the back. This has officially become an invasion. A takeover. I can still pluck the little suckers, but they come back with friends. And they’re so unruly! Not at all as well-behaved as my other soft, springy curls. The little gray punks like to poke out from my head in unpredictable directions, making their appearance super obvious.

It’s silly and vain of me to care so much, I know.

I’m middle-aged. The appearance of crepey skin and gray hair is perfectly normal. Although I’ve often been told that I look quite young for my age, I couldn’t expect that to last forever. The other silly thing is that gray hair on other people doesn’t bother me in the least. Never do I look at another person’s salt and pepper tresses and feel the temptation to start plucking. So why does the appearance of gray in my own hair freak me out so much?

Maybe because it is a reminder of my own mortality. Youth is not eternal. Life does not last forever. Like a tree, we blossom, then bear fruit, and then the leaves, like our hair, begins to change color. And we all know what that means.

Winter is coming.

Unlike a tree, we don’t lose our leaves and vibrancy only to have them return again, green and new, in the spring. For us, once the lively browns and blacks and reds and yellows that graced our heads throughout our lifetimes have faded, that’s it. They’re gone. Nature’s not going to give us brand-new hair.

Something about knowing that something good is only going to be in my life for a limited time makes me want to savor it. Capture it. Hold onto it for as long as possible. Change is inevitable, of course. Nothing lasts forever (except maybe the diamonds in my old wedding ring, which still sits around, useless, in a box somewhere). But if that means I have to always go with the flow, to accept it as it comes, to age gracefully, then I have one thing to say.

Screw that.

I think that Dylan Thomas said it best:

“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

I will not accept that beauty is chained to youthful age. I refuse to lie back and float along with the current that will eventually dump us each into the sea. I will not go gentle into that good night. Instead, I plan to keep struggling, keep swimming hard against the current until my body is too old and too sick and too tired to take another stroke.

Last week, my cousin died of breast cancer. She and I were around the same age. Both single moms, though her children are mostly younger than mine. Since our teen years, she was the cousin I went to get my “hair did.” Thanks to her skill and deft fingers, I went through hair phases of long, braided extensions and sleek, straight, flat-ironed styles. When I wanted to try a new color, I sat in her salon chair, and we gabbed about family members, raising children, and TV shows as she worked her magic, transforming my ordinary black hair into a honey-streaked marvel. She snipped and shampooed and braided and styled so many women, and made so many of us feel beautiful.

Cancer robbed my cousin of her own hair, her beauty, her youth, her life. Far too soon. If not for cancer, I’m sure that she would have continued to help women in our struggle to look and feel our loveliest, no matter our age. Gray hair? Why settle for bland, unruly gray hair? Why not dye it auburn, raven, or gold? Why not curl it or straighten it or try something new? Why not try new makeups that decrease our wrinkles or bring out the shade of our eyes, or wear clothes that make us feel sexy, or cute, or strong, or alive? Why should we settle for frumpy, dumpy, and bland, just because we’ve arrived in middle age?

I love the color gray. But I do not love the gray hairs reminding me of the end we must each face. So I reject the idea that fighting them is vain or silly. Instead, I choose to make myself look as young and alive on the outside as I feel on the inside. If my cousin were still here, I would ask her to highlight my hair to hide the gray intruders. Hair dye — such a fun and simple way of raging against the dying of the light. I wonder how I’d look as a blonde?