My father, a man given to distributing Scots-Presbyterian aphorisms about the virtues of adversity, placed great importance on details that told a person's true character.
"You can tell a lot about a man by the welts of his shoes," he'd say.
There's something to that, I can remember thinking. It's grating to look at nicely buffed footwear and see a buildup of dirt along the corrugated top edge of the sole. The wearer clearly values a flashy appearance over a well-done, thorough job.
Another of his favourites: "You can tell a lot about a man by the way he treats people in lowly positions." There is definitely something to that.
I've always wanted to add a rule of my own: You can tell a lot about a man by his comb-over. Or lack of one.
I can't help it. No matter how brainy or impressive someone is, if the hair on the top of his head is pulled up in swirls or whorls from somewhere else, I feel compelled to question his judgment.
Like Larry David in the TV show Curb Your Enthusiasm, I'm probably harsher about the subject than most, having lost most of my hair a long time ago. Deep down, I probably resent the combers-over for sullying the integrity of bald guys everywhere.
My issues with the aging male hairline returned the other night, as I watched what seemed like the 849th debate of the Republican nominating race.
Ron Paul was wearing the mildly puzzled look he gets when the onstage bombast surges out of all proportion to the question at hand.
Rick Santorum had just inveighed at length about the thuggishness of the Cuban leadership, and how the Castro brothers are like cancer, and how America should never trade with Cuba as long as they're in charge, sentiments echoed by fellow contenders Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.
Moderator Wolf Blitzer then asked Paul what he would do if he were sitting in the Oval Office, and the secretary told him President Raoul Castro was on the line.
"Well," said Paul, shrugging, "I'd ask him what he called about, you know?"
Oh, snap, as the kids say. Nailed that one.
But even as I laughed in appreciation, I couldn't stop staring at Paul's awful comb-over, brought up from his temple and placed gently onto his dome.
Whom, exactly, does this impressively intelligent man think he's fooling?
Does he seriously imagine anyone looks at him and thinks he's not going bald?
Same goes for Newt Gingrich.
Setting aside his remarkable capacity for self-admiration — his declaration that "transformational figures" like him are what stand between free people and another Auschwitz is my current favourite — the fellow is undeniably intelligent and quick-witted, which is why he's become so beloved to those Republicans who want a nimble pugilist representing them in November.
Yes, he has quite the shock of white hair, which can make him look a tinge avuncular, to some people.
But Newt pulls it up from behind, carefully layering it down the part and the front of his head where the hairline (look closely) is in retreat. He must spend a fair amount of effort doing it, too, because it almost — almost — looks natural and boyish.
Smoke and mirrors
Does Newt Gingrich, PhD, imagine somewhere in that famously esoteric mind of his that nobody notices? Does he look at himself in the mirror in the morning and reassure himself that he's fooled Mother Nature?
Is that how a president should think?
Even the youthful Santorum has something weird going on up top. He is clearly no peacock, given those plain-vanilla sweater vests he's branded himself with, but the hair is thinning, and he's obviously doing some artful rearranging to maintain appearances.
Donald Trump should be on this list as he has the most ridiculous and most mocked comb-over in America.
But I figure he knows by now that no one buys it and he has decided to wear it ironically, as a big middle finger to his critics.
But it isn't just politicians, or would-be ones like Trump, who are duplicitous with the comb.
The CNN debate the other night was followed by the usual bench of pundits, pawing through every word, trying to identify "moments."
David Gergen, with his truth-telling air of veteran gravitas, is one of my favourites. He is like a professor patiently explaining the assignment.
But in matters of the pate, Gergen doesn't just bring his remaining hair up from the side, he sort of plumes it sideways first, a little flourish of deception you'd think would be below a guy that smart.
Maybe it's the TV thing. Maybe these people feel they have no choice but to try to hide the realities of their appearances. Maybe they feel that if they didn't do all these hair acrobatics, they’d look old, and in America, looking old means looking weak and out of the game.
Politicians such as Ronald Reagan and John Kennedy (and the genetically fortunate Mitt Romney) have set the hair bar so high that political image consultants probably insist on hair-enhancing for everyone looking for high office.
But remember that Sean Connery keeps being named Sexiest Old Guy Alive, and he disdains the comb-over (OK, he’s worn a rug from time to time in films, but that's when he was playing someone with hair. And he was triumphant as the bald Irish cop in The Untouchables).
One of my (charitable) female colleagues says combing over is really no different from women dyeing their hair.
But I don’t think so. Dyed hair is usually at least plausible.
To rephrase John Donne’s meditation: Every man's comb-over diminishes me. Please stop.