On Great Shampoo and Weak Vibes

For the last four or so years I’ve been cutting my own hair, with mixed results. I remember one day while working at the school in Oregon when at least five people — both fellow faculty AND students — stopped to say “nice haircut!” to me, and at least five times I indulged in the humblebrag reply of, “hey thanks! I cut it myself, and I guess it actually turned out okay this time!”

I recall another instance when I tried to manually push my hairline back a couple centimeters by taking clippers to — well, to my hairline, not realizing in the moment that those pesky hairs would indeed grow back, as they tend to do. For the next three weeks I had one inch of a buzz cut just above my forehead and had to comb the rest of my mop down over it á la Neal Hamburger to conceal the mess.

Cutting my hair saves me about $200 a year, but I mostly do it because I’ve only received a handful of great cuts in my life from professional barbers. However, I admire people who are comfortable paying what to me are exorbitant fees on their hair: such services fall into a pecuniary category that is as much directed towards the preservation of mental health as the preservation of appearance.

Up through the holidays I was working two jobs, one at a popular restaurant and another editing video for a one-man local production company (I’ll refer to that man as, uh, “Banyon”). The former kept me chatting with friendly co-workers, walking out the door with cash every night and then up late and drinking. The latter kept me uncertain about a dodgy pay situation, the details of which I won’t bore you with for now. Altogether the two positions amounted to roughly 50 hours of work per week, and by making the decision to dedicate my free nights to stand-up comedy I was ensuring that I could never find time to relax.

In hindsight it was a watershed moment when, after a pleasant afternoon playing board games with my friends Clay and Pham, I dragged them to a Whole Foods to help me find a particular brand of hair product: Avalon Organics, whose peppermint conditioner was the only liquid toiletry exceeding 4 oz that I brought along with me on my cross-country road trip. My weekly shower routine involves applying shampoo every 2-3 showers: on non-shampoo days I solely use conditioner, letting it sit in my hair for 2-3 minutes while I lather up with body wash. Never before in my life have I had a “go to” brand of hair product, so I was VERY excited last summer when I discovered that Avalon Organic’s conditioner not only smells great but also keeps my signature top-tuft of hair both fluffy AND somewhat turgid.

And lo! Not only did the Whole Foods on Maple Ave. in Vienna, VA carry a healthy variety of A.O. products, but they were on sale for a reasonable $5.99 per bottle! I strode out of the store with Clay and Pham in a pleasant, guilt-free daze (we had also just dined at a vegetarian restaurant that evening, where I sipped on a “twig tea”) and I mentioned earlier that this was a watershed moment because that night I realized that I’d been looking forward to my first Tea Tree Oil shower more than anything else all week.


The aforementioned “signature ‘top-tuft'”


That was last Wednesday. That Tuesday, out at the video editing gig, Banyon asked me to sign an 11-page Independent Contractor Agreement, and I almost did. Until I realized that nowhere in the document did it state our agreed-upon rate for Services ($20 /hr) and, of course, it was 11 pages of legalese, a tongue I am far from fluent in. Until the contract came up I was more concerned with getting some professional editing experience under my belt, but all of a sudden the cold, hard details of our relationship emerged, just as I was beginning to doubt Banyon’s ability to pay me in a timely fashion. I had been editing for him for about two months and still hadn’t been compensated for any of it. This fact, paired with the strangely lengthy contract, loomed over the rest of my day like a ghastly shadow, clung to me through my dinner shift and shivered in the backseat on the dark ride home from the restaurant (because it was also very cold, and what looms and shivers better than a ghastly shadow??).

Stress of this kind is hard to re-enter once you are outside of it (SPOILER ALERT: I am now outside of it) because there is often a very simple solution buried in a murky thicket of would-be complications, and it is the stressed brain’s M.O. not to see the forest for the trees. My dilemma was that I was unhappy with the asymmetry of my work situation — one job was somewhat fun and profitable, the other not-that-fun and not yet profitable — and the simple solution to my work dilemma, as the more clever readers may have already pieced together, was to demand compensation from Banyon and subsequently renegotiate or quit. But for those murky trees: oh no, I don’t want to forfeit my first paid film/video gig, and potentially a nice line on a résumé; oh Spills, this is just like you to want to quit when the going gets tough, you are just using this dodgy pay situation and frosty, isolating work environment to excuse your own laziness! And so on.

An artistic representation of the aforementioned “ghastly shadow”….

One of the advantages of living at home is that free legal counsel is available on-demand. When I walked through my front door on Tuesday night my dad, Dale, was working on his laptop at the kitchen table, and I was a blizzard of internal strife. Immediately poured a beer, sat down with Dale and pored over Banyon’s contract. Dale is an attorney by trade, and likes to call bullshit in general. The visceral skepticism I sensed when I read out certain clauses over the phone to him earlier in the day turned into loud scoffs and utterances of “Jesus!” and “well, this part is bullshit.” As he struck through a gratuitous Liquidated Damages clause, I confessed to my dad that I was not satisfied with the way the job was turning out, which I’d found on Craigslist and hadn’t had great vibes about from the start. Dan works out of a modest corner of office space that he shares with a Nationwide insurance salesman whose phone voice is a strained yell and looks like a grown-up version of Buzz from Home Alone. Banyon’s half of the space consists of two rooms, his office and what was effectively mine, the main features of both being three editing workstations and a few framed movie posters. My days would typically begin by touching base with Banyon about what I was working on, then holing up at my computer for about five hours, my daily respite being a quick trip to the Central American bodega across the street for a couple tamales and a cup of sugary coffee.

Up until about a week ago I had been pretty generous in my estimation of Banyon as a boss. That is, I chalked the weak vibes I was getting from his operation to my unfamiliarity with the vagaries of the video production world at large. Also, Dan came off as a genuine person: while he had a desperate quality about him and at times shared his officemate’s proclivity for wearing people down over the phone, he also clearly loved his trade, the sly process of transforming an ugly, stuttering computer programmer into an eloquent, photogenic talking head. We worked efficiently together in the office and on-set, and shared some laughs through those long days. He had jokes and stories, and a funny way of saying things. But his affability as a fellow journeyman didn’t translate into his more important role as the leader of a company. He would regularly say things like “I just wanna get you paid for this stuff, man,” but would simultaneously add the crucial caveat that 1) his clients needed to pay him first and 2) his clients often lagged in their payments. You clever readers have likely figured out, as I did, that he didn’t have anything resembling a payroll set up. At times he would justify his iffy payment scheme by claiming, “well, if I paid you hourly, you might just end up back here spending a whole week on a job that should only take 4 hours!” In hindsight there were other red flags, but from the onset I told myself that I would be patient about the payment situation and would sit down with Dan if the situation became unsatisfying. Which is a good way to produce needless anxiety.

Talking through the whole situation with Dale last Tuesday was a revelation: not only of the contract’s potential liabilities, but of the very real unhappiness I had been denying up unto that point. When I mentioned that I never got excited to drive out to Dan’s office in the morning, Dale chuckled and replied “even I look forward to going to work.” I then decided to take Wednesday off, make sure I was making the right decision, then drive in on Thursday and have the quitting conversation with Dan. That night I took a long shower with my new shampoo.

This is the board game I spent my very pleasant Wednesday afternoon playing with Clay and Pham; it was an Xmas gift from my sister Holly. In spite of the unfortunate connotations of the title, it is a real winner!

As I alluded to previously, the value of a great shampoo goes beyond its mysterious thickening agents and magical scent. Breaking in a bathroom product — as wonderful as it may be — should never be your most cherished part of a day; if a bottle of Avalon Organics feels more like a miracle elixir than a nice treat, you should consider changing something about your life. It’s a good litmus test. Months ago when people would ask me why I was leaving Oregon, I told them — in full honesty — that something inside was telling me I needed to be back home in Virginia for a while. Around that time was also when I purchased my first bottle of Avalon Organics. I was ecstatic about what it did to my hair, but during that hectic summer I was far more excited about swimming in the Willamette River on hot afternoons, meeting up with friends for drinks afterwards, and planning my route across the Southwestern states. I had a lot to look forward to. Now that I’ve lived out my decision, I have learned to dispel any notion of whether it was “right,” and instead embraced the fact that I had a great time making it, and that I was even able to make such a big change at all.

However, my final encounter with Banyon did indeed prove to be in “right decision territory. After the initial apologies and consolations expected of any “hey, I’m quitting” talk, the timbre of our dialogue took an abrupt turn once we arrived at the subject of my compensation. After several volleys of (in essence) “you owe me money” and “well, hold on…” Banyon agreed to cut the check, and I agreed to go into the next room — my soon-to-be former office — and square away a small fix on a project I’d been working on. Ten minutes later he came in and told me not to worry about it; I stood up to thank him and shake his hand, but he did not extend his arm. He looked down at the check, then looked up at me. “You don’t get to have it both ways, man.” It was maybe the most unimpressive gesture I’d ever witnessed, but one hell of a good reminder that weak vibes are often more prescient than we give them credit for.

What’s troubling me now is that I’m a quarter of the way through the Tea Tree shampoo/Thickening conditioner combo I purchased: if I splurge once again in a few weeks, will they have the same alimentary effects on my psyche? Will they continue to surprise and delight me after every soak and scrub?? I’m hoping that they won’t need to — that I can just settle for stable, good-smelling hair and instead be surprised and delighted, say, by cool things that happen at work, on stage, and in my personal relationships. I’m hoping I can continue to carve some humor out of this experience (last night I tested out a invigoratingly low-brow joke involving Avalon Organics, and I’d it was a hit!) and when I tell my friends in macho tones about how I walked into that crappy office, got my money and walked away without a handshake, I won’t mention the cathartic conversation I had with my dad the week before. That bit is a BLOG EXCLUSIVE for you clever, sympathetic readers. Talk to your dads.


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