It was at the start a dream—a chance to claim a piece of manhood, to embark on a rite of passage of my own making and once it was all over, my life would be more or less fulfilled. Like my ancestor Roald Amundsen, I was exploring new lands and carving out a piece of history; unlike him I was not facing Arctic winds or the dilemma of having to eat my sled dogs for sustenance. All I had to do was wait as a boy might for his growth spurt or voice to deepen, patiently expecting that next emblem of Man.
When it started in it was amateur hour, the patchy, wispy sort a hirsute and daring twelve year old might sport, a Wooly Willy toy. Once it grew it was more or less in place and so it stayed, never filling in fully but mine nonetheless. I kept it mostly because beyond all the nu-identity nonsense and lower-maintenance grooming is that, generally, it looked okay. It worked insofar that it was not off-putting or an egregious leap to a lumberjack/presidential candidate circa 1880, it suited me and my face accommodated accordingly. It was not a loud statement and I adjusted to it as did everyone else and it simply became part of me, an accessory emeritus, that is how people met me, that is what they associated with me, that is how they remembered me. Girls would occasionally ask me to shave, wondering what I looked without it but I would shrug it off and ask them to look at my face and subtract the whiskers but this was misleading advice—taking away the fuzz is tricky business in terms of imagining alternatives. It is not simple arithmetic but an unknown algorithm where not just does hair get supplanted by bare skin but features shrink and/or blow up, ratios get skewed, age changes and friends become strangers. I was reminded of the train wreck of my old high school art teacher who featured an Old Testament Moses and once shaved. The same way new Marines often look like nebulous babies awash in afterbirth or chemo patients, my art teacher post-shave was worse, a slightly burned, unfinished Picasso cubist portrait. I was convinced that mine was part of me in the essential sense, that if you took it away I would cease to be.
One would think in 2012 people would be progressive, open-minded, or either diametrically so indifferent to or so PC with things that a young white man with a beard would not phase anyone but face hair is, now in America, frowned upon. In the nineteenth century, the great reign of the whiskers, it was odd if you didn’t have a beard. This was maybe to represent the rollicking, rakish manifest destiny pioneering populist spirit, or in lieu of powdered wigs and having gotten the lice under control and as a break with the prim Victorianism of the Crown, a chance for egalitarian self-expression and celebration of follicle independence. It tapered down to thin Errol Flynn mustaches by the 1920s and 30s, veering towards clean-shaven mid-century, growing back again in the 60s and staying course in the 70s but reduced to the mustache (albeit thicker) again in the 80s—by the 90s the coffeehouse Van Dyke/goatee and in the 00s and now it’s, well, in a strange place. Ironic mustaches are implemented by some but anything else in the straight workaday world is, sort of, not around. In an undergrad milieu, where/when I started the beard, it is expected or even encouraged to try out facial hair, along with being a functional alcoholic, amateur narcotic-dabbler and fully committed to promiscuity. The leafy campus is the place to get all that childish whim/idiocy out of your system, then try the beard again maybe when you are fifty and have laid a foundation and attempt your silver fox Hemingway. In the microcosm of college one sees plenty of beards but overall it is not a good time for facial hair unless you are part of the competitive fringe circuit of bearding as seen on IFC’s Whisker Wars, but if you are on that show it is most certainly not a good time for you anyway.
With this particular choice of bearding going against the grain during these times, I realize something as obvious as a man with a half-shaved face. For all my years of cop run-ins, my pronounced talent for attracting attention of the negative variety and all of that circling-the-wagons thinking of, ‘I just have one of those faces’ as Bill Hicks and John Lennon said of themselves; the troublemaking kind complete with puckish smirk and air of diffidence—all that time what was really happening was that I was flying in the face of clean-cut aesthetic expectations of the establishment and pretending otherwise. Most of my glares and suspicious looks were due, more than anything, to my Mickey Mouse stab at a beard.
People generally think beards are lazy and unkempt, that they are some sort of statement, and they are all those things, but not nearly as subversive as they’re being given credit. Beard prejudice can thrive when all others are vice-gripped because there is a choice in the matter (shaving)—though when you look at other qualities that people have control over, the same logic is not applied; as is the case with obesity. When fat, not only have you not shaved for a few days, you have not exercised for a few years, and not only have you actively done nothing in terms of being sedentary you also actively shovel in thousands of calories too many each day, every day. But the reason the obese get a societal pass (of sorts) beyond the condition being incredibly common is that more importantly if you are fat, you are eating a lot, and if you are eating a lot, it can safely be assumed that you are buying a lot, therefore being a productive citizen. Whereas the bearded among us are not shaving, which means they are not helping the likes of Gilette but more aptly if they are not shaving, what else are they not doing? Not showering? Not working? Not paying taxes? Not being good Americans? Which brings us to probably the biggest reason for a lack of acceptance of beards in America post 9/11: fundamentalist Islam terrorists have a lot of facial hair. Crazy beards, crazy long, for crazy men. Al-Qaeda/Taliban would do splendidly on the Whisker Wars show—just like Hitler outlawed any reasonable person from doing what was previously the Chaplin for more or less ever, our current war fronts have dictated among other things, that you don’t want to look like the enemy. And if the extremist enemy has extreme beards, then you can’t have any beard. They’ve ruined it for us all. If anything being fat is, despite its unhealthy ugliness, far more American than a thin bearded man, which describes nearly every terrorist. Stigmatized geopolitical associations among them, the beard is becoming more trouble than it is worth.
But at a certain point not only can you not imagine yourself sans beard, but the actual physical task of shaving seems light years away and so dizzyingly alien, so much of a plunge that a very real phobia sets in. There’s white-hot fear, a nagging pride, an inertia years in the work, an intrinsic vague middle finger to the world still in place, a clinging-on desperately to a fabricated identity, the logistical nightmare and mild resignation when considering the change. The beard is a time machine and I did not want to go back. But there was still the lingering curiosity of how I would look, it had been half a decade in fact, and you tire of using the beard as a crutch, wondering if you could make it without your whiskered friend. And just as earlier you were bored with your face now you are getting bored with the beard—and promises are made to yourself to nurse a little stubble at all times, to not shave every day but maybe weekly, and to try to jettison the adolescent flights of fancy and reconcile how I want to look, how I look best, and how America wants me to look in a stew of compromise.
Great men have had beards, evil men have had beards, and homeless men generally have beards. I have shaved twice since writing this and though the first shave required whiskey (digested, not topical) and was a bit jarring in the immediate aftermath, after the second one, I realized I was still me, I had not ceased to exist and it seems, as Balzac said, that the worst fears were in anticipation, and that gentleman had a mustache. The stubble grows in fast anyway, when shaved I look less like a potential suicide bomber or worse, hipster. I have crossed the Rubicon with the Fusion Razor and no longer fear the blade. Even though now for the moment my beard has returned, maybe one day when I’ve built a legacy and have been a man for long enough to earn it, I’ll grow in my Hemingway silver fox. By then though America will have clean-shaven Chinese enemies, and all the young Republicans will be looking like Benjamin Harrison and I will be forced to try to resurrect the Hitler only to be told my wife and kids to shave that ugly mess off my face.
—Photo credit: zieak/Flickr