Alopecia And The Pirate

As I write this post, some scientists are searching for ways to prevent male baldness through genetic manipulation. Others are conducting similar research to cure cancer. Is hair really as significant a part of our identity as we are sold to believe?

My hair began falling out the 14th day after the first chemotherapy infusion. In preparation, I bought a wig, styled and colored the same as my real hair. Like a feral animal, it perched on its stand, awaiting an opportunity.

When I saw the first ungodly huge handful of fallen hair I was too stunned to cry. Instead, I mumbled, “F***,” repeatedly, like a demented chicken.

It didn’t fall out all at once. Each morning for a week, I’d step out of the shower holding gobs of hair in my hands to prevent clogging the drain. After blow-drying what was left on my head, I’d take a pair of manicure scissors, like a naughty three-year-old, and try to even it out and disguise the bald patches. When I no longer could, a coworker’s husband shaved my head while she collected the locks, tying them into small bundles with blue satin ribbons. Image

After a time, I stopped wearing the wig. I preferred to cover my baldness with a red bandana, pirate style.

It was summertime, and I was at downtown Portland’s Pioneer Square, when a young man wearing a pirate’s black hat, white blouse with buckskin laces, black britches, and boots approached me. He clutched an authentic-looking sword. This was years before Johnny Depp made pirates sexy. Despite fatigue and chemo brain, I understood: “Oh, no, this guy sees my bandana. Pirate guy thinks he’s found pirate girl.” There was no place to run.

He spoke to me. “Ahoy! Me beauty, how art thee this fine afternoon?”

“I art fine, thanks,” I replied. “Why are you dressed like a pirate? Is that sword real?”


He belonged to a club, of sorts, of people who dress like pirates and act out sword fights. I puzzled over what he wanted until he reached into his blouse and pulled up a goddess pendant dangling from a leather thong around his neck. He brought the goddess to his lips, kissed it, and then pointed to the carved turquoise goddess I had worn on a silver chain since my diagnosis.

“My fair Muse hails from Hungary, where she symbolized the female spirit of war and led her people to victory. I see you wear the Goddess yourself.” Doffing his hat, he bowed before swaggering back into the crowd.

He had approached because of the necklace, not the bandana. He hadn’t noticed that I was bald — or had he? Did I just have an encounter with an eccentric or a very kind man dressed as a pirate offering encouragement?

He left me smiling. There is more to each of us than what we look like.

This post was originally published by TheONC.

I Am Living As Free As My Hair

Someone asked if I color my hair. I said, “No I don’t, I pay someone else to do it.”

Once my hair grew back after chemotherapy my attitude toward it was changed. Before treatment for breast cancer, the color, length, and style of my hair was linked to my identity. Enough people share this link with their hair that “having a bad hair day” is common parlance. When it fell out (alopecia) in fistfuls as I shampooed in the shower, fourteen days after my first chemo treatment, I cried, “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” like a demented chicken, even though I knew it would happen.

Nowadays, I experience my hair as an accessory; its color and length mercurially changes, like a hat, within the boundaries of our hospital’s dress code, which outlaws hair colors not found in nature. Contrary to Lady Gaga’s song As Free as My Hair, a nurse’s hair lacks total freedom. Here’s an example: a classmate in nursing school came to clinical rotation one morning with a new, short haircut. Her abundant, thick hair was spiked in a then-new punk hairstyle. It was cool, and I admired her for doing it. The school’s dress code demanded that hair be kept above the collar of a student nurse’s uniform at all times, but didn’t specify anything about how short it could be. Our clinical instructor became unglued over the unprecedented hairstyle, calling out the student in front of the class, and telling her she looked like she’d “combed her hair standing in front of a fan this morning,” before making her flatten down the spikes with a comb. Without a doubt, the hair of a nurse lacks freedom.

Anyway, the other day I was sitting in a salon, my hair wet and matted with a new color. It’s fall, and time to color over summer’s golden highlights with chocolaty, cherry red. It’s beautiful, and popular in the fashion magazines I thumbed through while the color set. Sorry, I don’t carry nursing journals with me to read during spare moments. At the salon, I read brain candy. It’s fun, which is good for my soul.

At the sink across from me, a young woman had her hair washed by a stylist, and was telling the stylist that she enrolled in nursing prerequisite courses this fall and hopes to get accepted into a nursing program next year. Nursing will be her second career: she is a recently laid off teacher. I’m not sure why it struck me as odd that a teacher would decide to become a nurse, because I know nurses who became teachers. I wonder if she has a better chance of finding a nursing job than a new teaching position without moving? Through social media, I hear finding a nursing job as a new grad or a returning nurse is pretty tough everywhere, not only in Portland. Does she know that many nursing departments are laying off through attrition, if not by actual termination? Who is telling these students that nursing will solve unemployment woes? In today’s economy, nursing job security is not what it was only a few years ago.

I also wondered how nursing and teaching compare as careers, so I searched the Internet to find out. The best information I found comes from blog posts and comments on the subject. (Nursing versus Teaching Major, Feb 1, 2010) and College Confidential (Teaching Versus Nursing, April 26, 2010) had the most compelling conversations, in my opinion. In summary, both careers are described as challenging, overworked, and highly respected. As in other industries, neither guarantees job security in the present economic crisis.

Losing your hair, or losing your job alters your identity.

Inside the salon a woman gets a new haircut, and in time, perhaps a new career.

After a rinse and blowout, I left the salon with a glossy new hair color, still a nurse. I am living just as free as my hair.

What? U.S. Women’s Soccer Team Looks Like Nurses?

The Christening Gown. mixed media by jparadisi

This morning fellow nurse blogger Joni Watson at Nursetopia urges our friends here in Oregon, Nike, to make scrubs for nurses. I like the idea, considering the physical nature of our jobs, which requires both strength and endurance. What really caught my attention, however, was the link she included to an article criticizing the U.S. Women’s Soccer team for looking like nurses in their white uniforms at the World Games. I can’t help but to track back to my recent post The Color White and the series of paintings I made From Cradle to Grave: The Color White.

The White That Binds (Pinning Ceremony) mixed media by jparadisi (sold).

The Color White

From Cradle to Grave: The Color White (water color and ink on paper) by jparadisi

This post was originally written as the artist’s statement for my series of paintings From Cradle to Grave: The Color White.

From Cradle to Grave: The Color White

     When some hospitals, in the name of customer service, decided nurses would again wear white, I began thinking about the symbolism of white clothing in western European culture. Patients complain it is difficult to tell nurses apart from other hospital staff. Interestingly, color-coding nurses was chosen as a solution, rather than promoting the professional identity of this primarily female occupation.

The burden of the color white for women of western culture is laden with moral innuendo.  For nurses, it conjures images of Nurse Ratched, Hot Lips Houlihan, and Jenny Fields, the nurse/mother in John Irving’s novel, The World According to Garp. It is paradoxical that when women wear white it represents virginal purity, yet evokes sexual fantasy, fear, or both.

From Cradle to Grave: The Color White depicts the rituals for which I’ve worn white. Baptism, First Communion, two weddings, and the iconic white nurse uniform of the “pinning ceremony,” marking the completion of nurses training.

I considered rituals or occupations requiring men to wear white clothing:

  • Baptism
  • House painters
  • Chefs
  • Meat packers
  • Ice cream vendors
  • Medical professionals
  • Colonel Sanders
  • The Navy
  • The Pope

The robes of the Ku Klux Klan take the color white to its sinister extreme.

The color white comes with expectations for women who wear it: only the pure and virginal, never before Memorial Day or after Labor Day.

Baby, I Was Born to Run

Identity: Self Portrait

David and I are at our favorite brewery slurping steamer clams with broth-soaked crusty bread and sharing pints. Overhead, Bruce Springsteen’s disembodied voice wails Baby We Were Born to Run:

The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive

Everybody’s out on the run tonight

but there’s no place left to hide

Together Wendy we can live with the sadness

I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul

h-Oh, Someday girl I don’t know when

we’re gonna get to that place

Where we really wanna go

and we’ll walk in the sun

But till then tramps like us

baby we were born to run

It’s the first hot, sunny day of the year in Portland, and I’m thinking life doesn’t get any better than this.

In a few more days, my medical leave ends and I return to work in the ambulatory oncology clinic. Damn, back to work just as I’m feeling good. That’s how it goes. I’m mostly ready. There are restrictions on lifting, and time on my feet, which require light duty for a couple more weeks. I will return the same week Epic, the electronic medical record (EMR) program, goes into effect. The way the medical leave program works at our hospital, I was restricted from attending Epic training classes while on leave.  I hope I’m allowed to make them up during the time I’m on light duty. Otherwise, I will hit the ground running along with my colleagues.

It’s okay, because baby, I was born to run. Literally. Running is my exercise of choice. I haven’t been able to since this health problem began. Running is as much a part of my morning routines as brushing my teeth. I don’t feel right without it. Hopefully, my surgeon will give the go ahead to start at the next follow up visit. I am cleared for walking and do at least a short one most days. Growing stronger, and healthy again, I feel energy building within me.

The need to run is not only physical. It’s mental too. I miss my nursing job. I miss being the person who helps instead of the person needing help. I want to be Superman, not Lois Lane. I want to drive the motorcycle, not hold on from the back seat.

New Series, Color-Coded For Your Safety Published on Die Krankenschwester

Four Shades of Grey from Color-Coded For Your Safety, by JParadisi and posted on Die Krankenschwester

Color-Coded For Your Safety is my latest series of images posted on the blog, Die Krankenschwester, which I also author. The series considers identity. Color-Coded for Your Safety consists of nine photographs of flip-top caps collected from medication vials, which are commonly used in hospital pharmacies. Color-coding medication vials is a visual aid created by pharmaceutical companies (medication manufacturers) assisting pharmacists, nurses and physicians to identify the medications they administer to patients. The goal is to prevent patients from accidentally receiving the wrong medication. Each cap color represents a different medication.

Color Coded for Easy Identification

The White that Binds (Pinning Ceremony) jparadisi 2010

On my other blog, Die Krankenschwester, I explore issues of gender, role, and identity through nursing imagery.  J Doe at Those Emergency Blues wrote an excellent post this morning about titles and power.  Her post runs corollary to the idea of color used as a label of identity in my series of paintings From Cradle to Grave: The Color White. In The Color White series, I question the links between the color white, femininity, purity, and nursing.

In her book Color, author Victoria Finlay (2002 Ballantine Books) discusses the historical association of the color purple with royalty.  If some physicians insist they are the only ones who may use the title Doctor in the medical setting, then perhaps they should be required to wear the color purple in hospitals, which was traditionally only allowed to royalty in ancient times. That way, patients will know at a glance who their doctor is, because name badges and an introduction may not be enough.

I’m just sayin…

Comfortable with the Squishy Part II: Look, Look with Your Special Eyes

The White that Binds (Pinning Ceremony) by jparadisi 2010 mixed media & collage

I’ve read a lot about eyes, seeing, and looking lately.

Eye doctors are concerned about a fashion trend among young women called circle lenses. These non-prescription contact lenses create a large, round eye effect, making the woman look like a doll or cartoon character. Illegal in the United States, they are easily purchased on the internet from other countries, where no studies or quality checks are conducted to determine the safety of the lenses. A lack of scientific research proving whether or not circle lenses are safe seems not to concern these women. They are comfortable with the squishy.

As an artist making paintings about identity, I’m interested in the choices people make. I was a child during the consciousness-raising of the Feminist Movement, when women rebelled against a society that saw us as dolls or cartoon characters with biologically limited abilities.Nursing rebels against the depiction of nurses as angels, bitches, and handmaidens (excellent post by Barbara Glickstein, MPH, MS, RN for Off the Charts). Accepting these characterizations creates problems about role and identity for nurses of both genders.

Can nursing make advances in the media depiction of our profession if women pursue trends reinforcing the idea we are dolls and cartoon characters? When women choose fashion over their health and safety, can nursing’s demand for safe work environments be successful? Is there a connection between the two? Do mixed messages create roadblocks?

I don’t know the answers to these questions and that is why I explore them through art. Without scientific facts to turn to, I have to be comfortable with the squishy.

New Image Posted on Die Krankenschwester

Mean Girls (First Communion II) is the latest painting exploring identity posted on the art blog Die Krankenschwester.

New Image Posted on Die Krankenschwester


     Little Girls in White Dresses (First Communion) is the latest painting in the From Cradle to Grave: The Color White series on the art blog Die Krankenschwester. The blog chronicles a developing body of visual art exploring the theme of identity.