About the only thing I remember from my high school philosophy class was a discussion about the “argument of the beard.” It’s the paradox that suggests there’s no difference between things which occupy opposite ends of a continuum, because there is no definable moment at which one becomes the other: day and night, childhood and adulthood, Reese Witherspoon and Drew Barrymore.
“How many hairs does a man have to grow before he has a beard?” There’s no specific number at which an unsightly clump of hairs becomes a beard, though somebody apparently neglected to make this argument to about half the male stars at the Emmy Awards Sunday night.
The current fashion of sporting a three-day growth of facial hair has its genesis in the early 1970s, when I and my good friend Richard Nixon kept forgetting to charge our electric razors. As soon as my hormones had permitted, I opted for the scruffy look (I’m not sure what Nixon’s excuse was; probably something about Vietnam). It’s not that I didn’t shave on a regular basis; it’s just that the regular basis was every time Rod Stewart had a number-one single. Looking back, I guess my motivation was partly fashion, though sheer laziness played a pretty big role as well. Why should I spent an extra five minutes on grooming each morning when there was a cultural revolution waiting just outside my dorm room?
Unfortunately, my Scotch/Irish/Germanic/Pastywhite cultural heritage limited my bearding possibilities to random splotches on my neck and lower face. In my late-teen years, I looked like a Woolly Willie iron shavings toy that had spent too much time in a magnetic resonance imaging machine. Some hairs on the cheek, some under the chin, a few on the upper lip but most of them still hiding somewhere around the edge.
Eventually the bare spots started filling in, giving me the opportunity to forge yet another innovation — the Beardian Presidents style, later called the modified Taliban. Originally inspired by Rutherford B. Hayes, the look originated from an interest in post-Civil War history, when America’s chief executives were too distracted by the strains of Reconstruction to sit down for a little trim. If the likes of Grant, Garfield, Arthur and Cleveland had expressed as much interest in the Chinese Exclusion Act as they did in pogonology (the study of beards), we’d all be drinking green tea today instead of Full Throttle, and this whole civility debate would be moot.
- (Stroking chin) “Hmm, would I rather veto the Pendleton Act or go to the barber?”
During the late seventies, my beard reached a fullness that rivaled Amazonia. I was going through a period of introspection at the time, out of college but unsure whether to continue a counter-cultural lifestyle or to dive into corporate yuppiedom, which seemed to be paying a lot better than barefoot typesetting. My lack of confidence about the proper career course was reflected in my belief that the more of my face I could keep hidden, the better.
Photographic evidence of this period exists somewhere deep in the files of the State Department, as I had received my first passport during these years. In the innocence of pre-9/11 times, the fierce countenance I displayed didn’t raise much concern. They were letting anybody up to and including rabid abolitionist John Brown purchase a transatlantic airline ticket. The full beard in my passport photo would be flagged immediately by today’s facial recognition search programs, and I’d be put on a watch list faster than you could say “can I check my bags through to Helmand Province?” Then I’d be removed from the list when they looked at my ID and realized I had the most-benign, least-threatening surname (Whiteman) possible.
- “I demand an aisle seat!”
When I moved from Florida to South Carolina in 1980, I soon realized that facial whiskers were making a different kind of statement than I had intended. In a college town like Tallahassee, the bewhiskered were respected intellectuals; in the rural South, the effort to grow a beard was more about obscuring absent teeth than offering a shout-out to Marxian anarcho-syndicalism. Still, I held on to the beard for several more years as I slowly built my corporate career. It was a kind of security blanket that tied me to a more idealistic past; a food-flecked blanket to be sure, but still a vague reassurance that I hadn’t completely sold out.
It wasn’t until the nineties arrived and my son was born that I finally made a break with the past and decided to become clean-shaven. I sensed my professionalism at work was being questioned, not to mention that sad incident where my two-year-old mistook his father for a Furby. I first experimented with the babyface look during a two-week cruise vacation so I could practice things to do with the visible jaw before a more sympathetic audience than coworkers could offer. I gradually mastered civilized chewing techniques and got past the fear of slashing my own throat with Norelco’s trimmer accessory. When I returned to work, one person exclaimed “he’s got a chin!” Actually, after all the late-night buffets, I had several.
Now I’m entering the twilight of my career, having spent the last 20 years with hardly a stubble, unless you count every weekend or holiday. My ambition in the business world is starting to subside a bit, as I reflect more and more on the warped values of hyper-capitalism and on the value of taking SSRI medication. The other morning, I was up early writing the blog and found myself running late for work. I remembered that extra five minutes you could save by not shaving and figured I’d give the stubbly look another try. At age 55, the whiskers come in as grey as head hairs, so I had the look of a certain grizzled dementia that was keeping people from bringing me work, lest I start rambling that proofreading this particular graphic reminded me how much my grand-niece liked to play with range-column charts, and about that time I was examined by aliens who listed my physical traits on a holographic scatter plot. More time for Bejeweled!
So my argument of the beard has come down to this: You say I’m looking a little scruffy today? Big hairy deal.