Why we grow beards and what they mean, if anything
“Feel my face,” I say to my wife.
It’s a Saturday morning in August. We’re on our way to the farmer’s market—not our usual farmer’s market, where we know whose tomatoes we want, whose zucchini are the size we like. It’s a new market. She wants to see if George, our peach man, is there, or that failing, maybe we can find a substitute George.
“Why would he be there?” I ask.
“He might be,” she says. “There’s a chance.”
“Feel it,” I say. “I shaved.”
“I see that.”
I seriously doubt she does. But I’ll take it. She reaches over, rubs my jaw with the back of her hand. “Soft as a baby’s ass,” she says.
I know she worries about George. A couple winters ago, he lost all his peach trees.
“It’s his livelihood,” she says. “What’s the poor guy going to do?”
The weather warmed up in February, then froze hard again in March. We thought the cold killed them, but evidently it was steady, slashing wind that did them in. For years, from mid-July to mid-September, he brought free-stone peaches to market. Approaching his stand, you heard his booming voice and his easy laugh. Leaning over his tables, a billcap yanked down over his wild hair, he smiled above an unruly red beard, refilling half-peck boxes with peaches from bushel baskets piled in the back of his rusted Chevy van.
“These are Red Havens,” he’d say. “Wait a few days before you eat them.”
Another day, “These are my Lucky 13’s. They’re almost ready.”
The fruit came in steady and sweet over the last weeks of summer, PF 17’s, PF 23’s, PF 27’s. One year he announced a new variety that he called his mutants. (When asked, he provided no explanation.) They were a revelation. Try one, he’d say. And we would. We trusted him. He had the rumpled look of an almost homeless guy. Word around the market was he arrived on site in the early hours, slept in his truck, and woke up still drunk. All that. And amazing peaches.
Those summers, almost every day at lunch and dinner we peeled and sliced a half a dozen Georges into bowls of red wine for dessert. Peeled, his peaches were shiny, brilliant gold. They took on mythic status at our table. You could imagine Renaissance paintings, Madonna and Child enjoying a peach, with one of George’s peeled golden orbs in the Christ child’s hand, a beatific look on His face.
You would have to imagine that, because as far as I can tell, the poor kid never got peaches.
You can find blasé baby Jesuses eating grapes–
toddler Jesus deciding to try a fig–
a beautifully coiffed Jesus holding a pear and rolling his eyes (as if he’s thinking this again?)–
Botticelli Jesus eating a pomegranate, a bored look on his face, waving at the fruit vendor (Don’t you have any peaches, man?)–
and always and everywhere, it’s apples, apples, and more apples–
The apple, of course, is an essential prop in Biblical human history; also probably a mistake. Given regional geographic and horticultural facts, it’s unlikely there was a single apple tree in the Garden of Eden. Eve probably plucked and ate an etrog or a quince or a date. But in Latin, the word for apple and evil are the same. Thanks to the church of Rome, it was Eve’s fruit of choice. And Adam’s.
A boring fruit, my wife maintains.
Baby Jesus, I think, would agree. When you see him in some paintings, he does not look like a happy baby.
One of George’s mutants could have made His day.
I pass a hand over my cheek, where my wife’s hand just traveled. It was a perfunctory shave this morning, because, unlike George, and unlike grown-up Jesus, I am not a beardful man.
I shave today much the same as I did when I was a kid. I started shaving with an old Norelcro electric my father had retired. Maybe he didn’t trust me with a razor. The shaver had a blue travel case with a busted zipper. It also came with a little brush for brooming whiskers out of the well beneath the rotors, which I needed to do on a semi-annual basis. It was this shaver I took to college with me, storing it in the dank, filmy dorm bathroom, where my roommates kept their accessories: razors, cans of shaving soap, aftershave lotions. I’d get up most mornings, look in the mirror, and think, No, not today.
Lots of guys on campus had beards. It’s what guys do, right? The first girl I went out with in college, on our second date, at some point in the evening saw my face in just the right slant of light. She asked me, “Did you shave?”
I sensed this was a trick question. “Yes?”
She smiled and pointed. “You missed a couple spots.”
It was easy to do, given that my facial hair was, and still is, mostly transparent.
I transitioned to an actual razor around this time—a decision requiring a few manly decisions. Somewhere I had heard that shaving with a razor caused your beard to grow. It was a stimulus-response bet worth a try. I went with a Schick razor that you shucked refill blades into, rather the way I imagined chambering a bullet in a gun. On a round black knob on the handle end of the razor was a four-speed shift legend, an adolescent touch, I admit.
I went through a series of shaving soaps, foams, creams, gels, and butters, looking for the one that both gave me a close shave and supposedly called forth a thicker, lustier beard. I knew from TV that some products were better than others at softening a man’s beard, not really a factor in my case. The whole ritual was imbued with equal parts hope and farce. For me, a razor was little more than a squeegee.
In his new book Of Beards and Men, Christopher Oldstone-Moore argues that, throughout history, from Alexander the Great forward, shaving was pretty much the norm. Oldstone-Moore identifies four main periods in western history when beards were a big deal: during the time of the Emperor Hadrian, in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and the 19th century (see Walt Whitman). For Hadrian, influenced by the Stoics, shaving was about being natural: “[The importance of nature] is very explicit in the first beard movement, because Hadrian was following the teachings of Stoic philosophy. The Stoics were explicitly—in fact all the philosophers—were in favor of beards as a sign of following the rule of nature.”
There was, I think, a similar sense when I was coming of age. In the late 60’s, when guys tuned in, turned on, and dropped out, in their efforts to get back to nature, facial hair was definitely on the syllabus. Some of my friends grew their hair and their beards; when they did so, more than a few were derided by their fathers for trying to be Jesus look-alikes. By the mid 1970’s I finally achieved significant hair on my head. By then, however, I was also more or less resigned to the fact that great facial hair was not in the cards.
Over the next few decades I shaved 2-3 times a week. It was enough. Friends with heavy beards told me I was lucky. Once or twice I flirted with the idea of growing a beard, testing my tolerance for feeling foolish.
Sometime in the 90’s, a friend and I went on a ski trip together. “Let’s grow beards,” he said. In my heart I knew it was futile. He might as well have suggested I fly the plane. But I thought, Maybe now is the time. I had sired two children. My growth, while patchy, and still transparent, had definitely thickened in places. Maybe I had it in me.
We booked a Thursday night flight to Salt Lake City. I quit shaving the Monday before that (which meant I already had almost a week’s “growth”). I felt a little sheepish about it. It was like starting the race before the gun, but what the hell.
“Well?” he said as we buckled in for take-off. He said his last shave was that morning.
I found a minor patch of grizzle on my face, scratched it, and shrugged. “Why are we doing this?”
“Come on,” he said, “you got it going.” I swear he was squinting to see evidence of growth when he said that.
I felt and looked ridiculous. The flight attendant who checked to see if I was buckled, did I detect a smirk? The guy selling lift tickets at the ski area, the Jeremiah Johnson lookalike, was he ruffling his beard to draw ironic attention to my face? On the gondola, in the bar, standing in front of a urinal, I asked myself, Am I really putting my best face forward?
Never mind it didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel good. My face was irritated. It felt like it was breaking out, like it had a low-level fever. Men with beards love their faces. They rub their beards, they fondle them in public. I didn’t want to do that. I just wanted to get rid of it. Saturday evening, after our second full day of skiing, after some 7-9 full days of hard work, I turned on all the lights in the bathroom and examined my beard. I had more hair in my ears than on my chin. It wasn’t happening. I peeled the wrapper off a fresh bar of complimentary soap, lathered up, and shaved.
Oldstone-Moore observes, “Right back to the beginning of civilization you see people thinking that the removal of hair is a kind of purification, the removal of the animal self.” It was a relief. I got back to my human self. It wasn’t so much animal as clown self I had removed.
Beardlessness equates with youth. That’s a bad thing? In ancient times athletes shaved their beards, in some cases shaved their bodies, to appear young, to show off their muscles. I remember my shock a few years ago, during a World Series, at the number of bearded baseball players there were. It seemed incongruous, indecorous, even a little barbarous. To this day, the New York Yankees have maintained their no-beards rule.
Not long ago my son, now 30, sent me a selfie, a bearded selfie. He lives in Manhattan. Weather permitting, he rides a skateboard to the ad agency where he works. In times of need, he has given me fashion advice. We have a similar facial structure, similar gaps in beard growth. Or so I thought. His beard had filled in pretty well. Hardly any gaps. Oddly, it looked reddish.
“Wow,” I texted back.
“Did you color it?”
“Does she like it?” The girlfriend, that is.
“Yes. She says I touch my face too much.”
I show my wife the photo, tell her I might want to try again. Wouldn’t she like a man with a little scruff? I’m joking, but not 100 percent. Just once, I would like to see my face with hair on it. I’d be happy with medium stubble.
I show her the photo of our son a second time.
“Dreadful,” she says.
“I was thinking…”
“Please,” she says, “no.”
“Aren’t you at all curious?”
“If I wanted a man with a beard,” my wife says, “I would have married one.”
I would need to go into the wilderness. What could I accomplish in forty days? Not much. It might take years to make visible my inner wild man. Make that old wild man. In the right slant of light, when I can see hair on my face now, my beard now looks both transparent and gray.
We find good Michigan peaches at the new market. I would like to think they are mutants. George is not there. We circle the market a few times looking for him, listening for him. A vendor from Irish Hills says she’s seen him, but not lately. On the way home we stop at a Lebanese restaurant for take-out. Our server, Fadi, has soft black flowing facial hair. He is slim, with soft boyish features and sleepy eyes. Maybe he’s twenty.
“That’s quite a beard,” I say. He nods, lifts a hand to his face to stroke it. I ask how long it took to grow.
“It’s been a few weeks now,” he says.
My wife looks at me across the table, shakes her head.
“Badass,” he says with a shy smile.
She orders kafta, I get the shwarma.
In truth, the beard gives him a gentle, almost spiritual look. I decide not to tell him that. I give my own hairless face a thoughtful rub. It’s been a few hours since I shaved. Mostly it is still soft as a baby’s ass.
“Anything else?” he asks.
“Not today,” I say. “We’re good.”