Ludwig’s Locks

Ludwig van Beethoven was a musical genius who was almost as well known during his lifetime for his health problems as for his titanic, soaring symphonies and his beautiful piano works. Beethoven famously suffered from progressive hearing problems that eventually produced functional deafness–requiring him to produce his later compositions in his head, without actually hearing the music he was creating–but his health problems went beyond hearing loss. Beethoven experienced chronic gastric issues for years, and when he died in 1827, after having been bed-ridden for months, he was afflicted by jaundice, liver disease, swollen limbs, and breathing problems. His health problems were so great that Beethoven wrote out a testament asking that his conditions be studied and shared after his death.

Two hundred years later, scientists have heeded those wishes and tried to figure out what was wrong with Beethoven. They took an interesting approach–identifying locks of the composer’s hair that had been cut from his head in the seven years before his death and preserved ever since, and then using DNA analysis. The team started with eight samples that purported to be Beethoven’s hair, and found that two of the hair clippings weren’t his and another was too damaged to use. One of the five remaining samples had been initially provided by Beethoven himself to a pianist friend, and analysis showed that all of the hair in the samples came from the same European male of Germanic ancestry.

The DNA analysis did not reveal the causes of Beethoven’s deafness or his gut issues, but did indicate that he was suffering from hepatitis B and had genetic risk factors for liver disease that may have been exacerbated by the composer’s alcohol consumption habits–which a close friend wrote included drinking at least a liter of wine with lunch every day. The genetic analysis also determined that one of Beethoven’s ancestors was the product of an extramarital affair.

I’ve ceased to be amazed by the wonders of modern DNA analysis and what it is capable of achieving. To me, the most surprising aspect of this story is that five legitimate clippings of hair from Beethoven’s head survived for two centuries. It make you wonder how many people were given locks of Beethoven’s hair in the first place. Ludwig van’s barber must have been a very popular guy.

Getting The Dear Leader’s Haircut

There are conflicting reports from North Korea about whether men have been ordered to get a haircut that matches the styling of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Un. Some websites are reporting the story as the truth; others are saying it’s a hoax.

Either way, the story is getting a lot of play — primarily because the Dear Leader’s haircut is so distinctive. The hair on the sides of the head, around and above the ears, is shaved down to the bare scalp. Then, some kind of industrial lubricant is liberally applied to the hairs on top of the head to give them a deep sheen and allow them to be combed straight back and parted in the middle. The awkward result looks something like a wet plastic mat covering part of a cue ball. It’s a look you’d expect to see in a prison or a mental institution.

The “required haircut” story has legs because it’s plausible — North Korea’s conduct is so unpredictable that people will believe just about any news story emanating from that country — and because it’s outlandish even by North Korean standards. Could Kim Jong-Un actually be so besotted with the state-created cult of personality about him that he thinks his haircut looks good? Would a country that starves and enslaves its people go so far as to dictate an item of personal choice like a haircut, and force its unfortunate citizens to get an unflattering one at that?

We’re lucky we live in a free country where our leaders don’t insist that we adopt their hairstyles. I’ve now lived through the terms of 11 different Presidents, which would mean a lot of hairstyle changes — especially since I’ve stuck to pretty much the same style for the past 30 years or so. And some of our presidential coiffures weren’t exactly trend-setting, either. I wouldn’t have wanted to adopt the Ronald Reagan Brylcreem pompadour or the Richard Nixon straight comb back — although either of those would be preferable to Kim Jong-Un’s institutional trim job.

Heroic Hairlessness

If you’re a guy and you’re losing your hair, you’ve got a choice:  you can accept it and live with it, or you can take extreme measures, like expensive toupees, hair implants, or Rogaine or other hair growth treatments, to try to deal with the issue.  What to do?

For generations, men have bemoaned baldness.  They think women find bald men unattractive, and third parties think chrome domers are pathetic.  Now experiments conducted by a University of Pennsylvania researcher suggest these concerns are unfounded.  In fact, his experiments indicated that guys with shaved scalps are viewed as more manly, more dominant, and taller, stronger, and having more leadership potential.  According to the experiments, baldies still aren’t considered as physically attractive as men with full heads of hair, but a shaved head still beats the thinning hair and comb-over looks every time.  (Although the linked story doesn’t say so, incidentally, I’m assuming the depilated dudes didn’t have unsightly ridges, bumps, or scars on their heads.)

Why is this so?  I think it’s because people who accept their condition and deal with it are always going to be viewed as stronger and more decisive than people who try to mask the condition or reverse it.  Trying to hide something always seems weak — and trying to hide something as obvious as thinning hair, or wearing a bad toupee, just makes the individual seem ridiculous, too.

Hair Cells Are Weird

After years of thoughtful reflection and careful observation, I’ve concluded that hair is weird, and I am convinced that hair follicles are among the most perverse cells found in the human body.

At some point in a man’s adult life, the hair follicles in the ankle and calf area just quit working.  As a consequence, the middle-aged man is left with embarrassingly smooth, hairless areas that are exposed to the ridicule of chortling passersby whenever the guy wears shorts or a bathing suit.   We don’t ask for furry, apelike legs — a reasonable crop of manly hairs would be just fine.  Instead, all of the hair has given up the ghost, fled the jurisdiction, joined the choir invisible.  It is as if the hairs have decided to permanently go on strike to punish us all for the absurd knee-high gym socks that guys wore in the ’70s.

Nice hat too, by the way

But that is not the weirdest hair-related event that the aging man must address.  No, that designation must be reserved for the “sleeper cells” in the ear region that have lain in wait for years, through our youth, the teenage years, even the fit days of young adulthood, until they have received some unknown signal to start growing.  You go for years with clean, shell-like ears, and then some grim morning when you are in your 40s you suddenly notice that hairs are growing from your ears where they have never grown before.  What the?  Seriously, what Darwinian explanation is there for this unwanted development?  What function did these turncoat cells serve before they decided hair was needed to improve the appearance of the adult male ear?

The perverse nature of hair cells makes every day a new adventure.  You never know what new prank they may be planning.  You could wake up one morning and find that your eyebrows have fallen out and hair is growing from the soles of your feet.  Aging is bad enough without having to deal with such inexplicable weirdness.

Living With A Two-Tone Head

My hair is turning grey.  At first, the process was gradual.  Now, it is happening at an alarmingly increasing pace.  At first, it was just a few flecks here and there.  Now, every trip to the stylist provides unmistakable evidence of aging.  Brown hair is shorn and mostly grey hair seems to lie underneath.  The effect is particularly noticeable at the temples, where it looks like I’ve inadvertently leaned against a whitewashed fence.

You always hear that greying temples makes you look distinguished.  Don’t believe it!  Instead, it makes you look like you have a two-tone head or are wearing a badly matched toupee.  And the weird, literally kinky nature of the grey hairs makes it very difficult to maintain any kind of distinguished visage.  Instead, the grey hairs tend to jut out, begging to be plastered down with some powerful pomade.  It is as if, after decades of life in a limp, boring brown incarnation, the hairs have thrown every convention to the wind and decided to live their remaining years in reckless abandon, grey, twisted, and untamed.  It provides a great incentive to get your hair cut frequently — and then the vicious cycle starts over again.