“There are two kinds of people in this world that go around beardless—boys and women—and I am neither one.” -Greek aphorism
The idea to grow a beard is not such an arduous task-when you first have to shave at thirteen, can buy beer (and condoms to pass it off) with a week’s growth at sixteen, date a few upperclass intellectual hottees at the tender age of eighteen-it’s just as natural as putting on pants or eating cheese.
That is of course just the idea of growing a beard. The reality is another thing entirely. The difference between a few days’ growth (lazy), a few weeks (really lazy), and a few months (tying to break up with your girlfriend) is the difference between men and boys. The main reason why most men (or their associated women-folk) can’t get beyond Don Johnson’s three-day Miami Device is not the filthiness, crudeness, or eccentric disposition often associated with facial hair, epsecially on the west coast of the United States, but simply because facial hair- aka Sideburns, Chinstraps, Donegals, Garibaldis, Goatees, Juncos, Hollywoodians, Reeds, Royales, Impériales, Stubbles, Van Dykes, Verdis, Neckbeards or Neards (my favorite), Soul patches, Stashburns, Friendly Mutton Chops, French beards or Bulgans, i.e. what is known as the “Full downward flowing beard with either styled or integrated moustache”- is simple: it’s itchy as heck.
Cue winter 2005. Living in Fukuoka- the biggest prefecture of the south-western island Kyushu, as well as the original destination for the atomic bomb Fatman, somewhere between Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan- I was pretending to be an English teacher at a local high school for misanthropes when one day I received an invitation to join in Winter Beard.
Nine or so guys (and one dog), a camera, photoshop and a (sadly, now defunct) website: it sounded like something I could do with my eyes closed. I could grow a beard in my sleep. The conversation I had with myself soon thereafter went something like this:
Me: I am the one living in mountainous Japan, a place where it actually snows, as opposed to the moderate climes of southern California, I should have something to protect my face from the cold.
The Other Me: Your opponents are working in the entertainment industry, i.e., Hollywood. They have reputations to uphold. Their looks are their business cards.
Me: Hollywood? They’re animators, designers and work with video games. They sit in front of their computers most of the day. No one cares what they look like, especially their girlfriends. Most people expect them to look like a disheveled, straight George Michael…
The Other Me: They’re designers, digital masters, they trained in this. You, on the other hand, suck at photoshop.
Me: That may be so, but with my Gaelic blood I am facially haired like no other. Look, it almost connects to my chest hair…
Eventually finishing in second place (not for lack of length nor girth, but due to a lack of aforementioned mastery of machines) in the month-long competition (the dog did not finish last), my appetite for Friendly Mutton Chops had nonetheless been whet. And having become beard-dicted, I wore some variation of the Van Dyke on and off for the next five years. I was also single during most of this time.
When, in between facial hair revolutions, I did meet some sweet young lady who was willing to take a chance on me, it generally ended between the time they said, “I think you’d look good in a beard…” and the actual fact of it sprouting on my face. No big deal. So I learned to be alone with my man hair. After all, what do we remember from the bearded greats of history: Darwin, da Vinci, Socrates, and Zeus? Their women? Or attributes such as wisdom and knowledge, masculinity and high social status? Ok, Zeus, the olde-timey Olympian who knocked up half of humanity, is a bad example. Darwin was into animals. Socrates liked young men…maybe I’ve spoken too quickly. No, wait, da Vinci was a man of great creative and artistic ability, to say nothing of having a stately mane of flowing face growth that just oozed sexual virility. Am I wrong? I wonder if he had as much beard-ruff (beard dandruff) as I did…
In traveling across Asia and Europe I have seen many of the wonders which the world offers, walked many miles in the barren outlands and in my luckier moments, talked and broken bread with some of the finest people alive. Like a portly, useful Sancho Panza-like companion by my side, all this I have done with a beard on my face. In not a small way this has provided me a cushion of sorts, a sense of security into which I can reside in times of cold vulnerability, a friend to comfort me when missing the company of a fine lady, a place to catch any wayward bits of food.
The truth is that compared with eras of not so long ago, the beard has faded in popularity with the coming of recent, more technologically adept times. Whereas it is still acceptable in the chillier agrarian-based areas, it is generally seen an an unkempt, unnecessary affectation more and more the further one heads west. The U.S. armed forces declined comment, but has maintained a ban on beards beginning during the Vietnam war due to increased risk of napalm burns (and tick infestation, but they don’t say that too loudly), making wartime facial hair all but obsolete. This ban has seeped out from beneath the camouflage and into the modern consciousness. How?
To blame biased media coverage of, say, Brooklyn’s carnivalesque Williamsburg trust fund community, who happen to maintain alternative rock affiliations and pot bellies as characteristics of a growing majority of bearded malcontent young males, for skewing the perception of Middle Class Americans against what made us great as a country would be to insult Lincoln’s Chin Curtain (aka the Donegal)- the first facial hair in presidential history- which gave him the gravitas to lead a young nation through its darkest hour, Teddy Roosevelt’s handlebar moustache- just the thing to give a small-lipped man the courage to bust a gang-ridden New York, and then the world, into shape, and, jumping ahead a bit, let us not forget Thomas Magnum, who saved the beautiful women of Hawaii any number of embarrassing misadventures. America is a country founded on the curlicues of cheeks and jowls alike- Damn the naysayers- In Beard We Trust!
If only life were a forty-four minute CBS drama in the 80s. As it stands, beards in the United States of America, and in the borderless Internet Culture Mall in general, have run on hard times. Most people these days associate hair on faces as a religious anachronism (Amish, Sadhus, Hasids and Islamists), a cartoonish prop of left-wing revolutionaries (Castro, Lenin, Zapata), somehow related to criminal violence (Hell’s Angels, Cat Burglars), or alternatively something that hippies (Tommy Chong, Jesus) are born with. Despite several creative individuals zealous attempts at hitting the B-spot of nicknaming this wayward bearded traveler, the ever-changing Great Beard of Manny resists classification. It still seems that people have yet to learn that when something happens of its own accord, like water flowing, air breezing, or men ogling boobies, that that’s the way it should be.
I leave you with a quote from the French Naturalist Comte de Buffon in his Histoire Naturelle, “They have no…ardor for the female,“ who then goes on to describe their reproductive organs as “small and feeble.”
He was talking about the clean-shaven. Winter or summer, spring and fall: Grow’em if you got’em.