Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Beard And I

It always seemed to me that men wore their beards, like they wear their neckties, for show. ~D.H. Lawrence

I grew my first beard back in college, around 40 years ago. For more than half of that time I've kept a beard, so I think I have a good idea about what beards are about.

For some people, beards are a fashion; for others, a beard is a mark of independence or rebellion; for others, like me, a beard is all about not having to shave every day. Some of us are more sensible about this whole business.

No one makes much fuss about beards these days, which is okay by me. Back in the sixties, though, we were coming out of a long beardless era in America. In the olden days, we had some presidents with beards or colossal muttonchops hooked on to massive mustachios. But around the turn of the twentieth century, we went all clean-shaved. Perhaps the razors got better. I suspect some of it had to do with the idea that farmers and bumpkins wore beards, so the mark of sophistication was to be naked faced. The mustache, though, never really went out of style, for reasons any shaving man can understand.

You get the best shave from a razor blade. Electric razors, no matter how expensive, always have trouble spots. So a man can either have patchy stubble, or he can grind that electric over and over the offending area to get a modicum of smoothness. With his face on fire, he then splashes raw alcohol disguised as “after shave lotion” on the wound. This is called “refreshing” by the makers of the lotion. If they did this to prisoners of war, it would be outlawed by the Geneva Convention.

The trouble with a blade, on the other hand, is that you are scraping a sharpened piece of metal across your face. Oh, they can encase the blade in all kinds of plastic or a (ha-ha) safety razor, but, sooner or later, you are going to cut yourself. The irony of blade manufacture is that they try to protect you by showing less of the blade, but they keep adding blades to ensure that one is always on your face.

The upper lip is particularly vulnerable area. Ironically, it is the first area where the youthful male actually needs to shave. The first time you nearly remove your upper lip as you emulate the guys in the ads on TV, you begin to think that a mustache isn't a bad idea.

In the 1950's, facial hair was out. A mustache was tolerated in general, but many organizations didn't allow them. My father wore one, but since he was European and spoke with a cosmopolitan sort of accent, most people regarded it as very continental. In high school, facial hair was verboten; even some companies banned any sort of facial adornment. When some baseball players began to grow mustaches, it was regarded as positively scandalous, although it did generate a lot of comparisons with the turn-of-the-century House of David all-Jewish team.

By the end of the fifties, the only people who wore beards were professors (but only if they had the requisite tweed jacket with the leather patch elbows), revolutionaries (preferably with scraggly beards, wearing grungy fatigues), and beatniks (mostly goatees, but occasionally an artistic-looking vandyke). Oh, there were mountain-man types who wore huge bushy beards, and elderly guys who played Santa every year, but otherwise it was Gillette's dream era.

I grew my beard solely out of self-defense and laziness. I would save the time wasted shaving, and I wouldn't bleed so much. Shaving can be dangerous. One evening during my college days, I was playing some rousing operetta music that had a march beat to it. My room was near our shared bathroom. Suddenly, I heard a voice saying, “You know, I like that song, but I wish you wouldn't play it while I'm shaving.” I looked up, and there was a roommate with about a pound of toilet paper stuck to the wounds on his kisser. Seemed that he had started shaving in time to "Stout-hearted Men".

I would remove a beard for any number of reasons. If I was trying to get a summer job, the beard had to go, because interviewers were still pretty square. Later, the usual reason was that the beard had gotten scruffy and my attempt to trim it up had led to rather disastrous results. So off with the beard and start again.

You learn a lot about the human condition when you remove a beard. If you've had the beard for any length of time, your children will not be happy. When I shaved one off, my kids avoided me for a week. But at least the kids notice. Your coworkers are quite another matter. You will learn that no one ever really looks at anyone. One coworker, who had never seen me without a beard, walked up to me a couple of days after I had shaved everything but my upper lip (still thinking defensively, you see) and said, “Hey! You're growing a mustache!”

On other occasions, when I began to regrow a beard soon after removing one, a colleague pproached me and said, “Hey! You're growing a beard!” When I pointed out that I was growing it back, she said, “You had a beard?”

But the unkindest cut of all came from the woman I would one day marry. We had been going together for a couple of months when she said, “Why don't you shave off your beard?”

“Why? Don't you like it?”

“It's fine, but I'd sort of like to see what you really look like, you know, to see what I'm getting into.”

Well, that didn't seem unreasonable, so I shaved off beard and mustache (love will even make you risk your upper lip). I came over to see her the next day. When she opened the door, she didn't say “hello” or “my goodness” or even “did you get a haircut?” No. The first words out of her mouth were:

“Grow it back!”

Now I don't know about your ego, but that's the sort of thing that stomps mine flat. I mean, I have no awful scars or acne. I have the requisite number of noses, eyes, and lips. I even have a dimple in my chin that would make Kirk Douglas envious. But, here was this woman I really liked looking at me in horror! I finally found my voice and said, “What's wrong?!”

“You look five years younger than me!!!”

Well, being that I'm a month older than she is, that was the most unpardonable sin I could commit. I assured her that I would immediately commence to growing the beard back. Of course, when I went out into the business world, I had to shave it again, but I kept the mustache, which helped ease her mind. But, I've kept the beard on for quite a few years now and probably will for the foreseeable future.

Anything to keep the wife happy.

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