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Published Jun. 25, 2012

There are some trials we women put ourselves through for the sake of vanity that defy logic and reason. For instance, on a recent Saturday I sat in a salon chair of a hairstylist-in-training from 10:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. getting gentle auburn highlights in my hair that turned out to be more like the screaming red of London's ArcelorMittal Orbit ... on fire.

All those hours were spent first putting in the streaks, then removing them, after I'd reacted to the shock of color with barely contained panic. The streaks were in addition to my routine gray-fighting hair-coloring marathon that normally eats up at least two hours every third Saturday.

At a distance this should be enough to cause anyone to forget the whole messy, expensive business of dyeing one's hair. But I wouldn't give it up if I had to spend my last dollar and eat cat food in exchange. It would be like asking Charlize Theron's evil queen in Snow White and the Huntsman to stop sucking the life out of village girls to steal their youth. Not going to happen, because what's being covered by that handy little trick isn't pretty.

"Skin, hair, weight, clothes," is the way a stylish friend ticked off the hierarchy of things that betray a woman's age. Hair is number two on that unblinking list. That's why hair is recession-proof. Unemployed women looking for work need gray-free hair more than a grammatical resume. If the IRS wasn't run by men, taking the gray from one's hair would be a legitimate business deduction.

Nora Ephron explained it best in I Feel Bad About My Neck. Her essay "On Maintenance" is a hysterical meditation on life and aging. By maintenance Ephron is referring to all of us who have embarked on the Sisyphean path to keeping the natural signs of age at bay so as not to feel as invisible as Harry Potter's cloak.

When Ephron spots a bag lady in New York, with her gray frizzled hair, cracked nails and potbelly, she muses, "I don't want to be melodramatic; I am never going to become a bag lady. But I am only about eight hours a week away from looking exactly like that woman on the street."

Ephron asserts that nothing beats the amount of maintenance involving hair. She estimates that some of her friends spend the equivalent of nine workweeks a year on theirs. "Sometimes I think that not having to worry about your hair anymore is the secret upside of death," she quips.

For me, the ritual of going to a hair salon (don't use "beauty parlor" or you'll evoke Gladys Kravitz in curlers) is as essential as basic hygiene. Errant gray hairs were noticeable starting in my late 20s, and I've been fighting them ever since. Now they dominate in a way that would bring the word "babushka" to mind, as in, "Boy, that lady could use a kerchief."

So there I was in the stylist's chair asking for the same subtle red highlights I'd had done a year before by some other student's hand, and pointing to a picture in her "example" book of what I want. We were reading from the same script except for me "subtle" was the operative word, for her it was "RED!" Of course, since a trainee was working on me I have no cause to grumble. Even so, as we entered the seventh hour of the operation, I did fleetingly doubt my sanity and that of my entire gender.

I go to a local training institute to get my hair done for three reasons: (1) it's economical (2) it saves money and (3) see first reason. This time the ordeal was a learning experience for us both. My stylist got to correct an error, which she did, and I got a reminder that sometimes there is a hefty price to being female and cheap.