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Almost Cut My Hair

On shaving one's beard.

I cut my beard recently, and I am forced to admit that I am significantly uglier than I had remembered. The lower-third situation, while less dire than the chinless standard prevalent among the male species of the fourth estate, is not so hot, and is aggravated by the fact that I am running to fat. The resulting mandible-dewlap combination vaguely suggests portraits of the Renaissance popes, and gives me an unsavory air of wicked babyishness.

I have also been reminded how much I hate shaving. Long years of hard experience in younger days disclosed to me a truth buried under advertising and lifestyle blogging: anyone trying to sell you a lotion, unguent, tonic, or foam for before, during, or after the application of the razor is a rip-off artist. You might as well slap turpentine on there for the good it does. It all works on the same principle of puffing out your skin and then drying it—a perfect storm for ingrown hairs. What you want is tap water, preferably unfluoridated. (Though I confess that, if I want to impress, I will splash around a little Aqua Velva at the neck. Good enough for Pete Rose, good enough for me!) Even so, it’s a wretched business. Press too hard, ingrown hairs; don’t press hard enough, pulling and uneven stubble. Then there’s the whole question of angle of attack—with, against, or across the grain?

My children took it well—hardly a comment. The baby laughed. My bartender, however, did not recognize me, which was hard not to take personally. Serving my highball in an uncharacteristic daze of novelty-induced confusion, he said (and he wasn’t the only one) that the shaving made me look much younger. Eddie didn’t mean it nastily—probably—but gosh, I really hope it’s not that bad. He doesn’t know what I looked like when I was young. There are pictures in yearbooks, of which I was reminded on the subway this week after getting into a car with a school group of teenagers.

Muslim societies get a lot of flak for bundling up their women in burqas, chadors, niqabs, and so forth, but if you ask me, they haven’t gone far enough. All people under the age of twenty-five, both sexes, should be encased in some sort of mobile tents when they are allowed out in public, which should be as infrequently as practically possible. The girls are nauseous combinations of babies and actual women. The boys are even worse—parodies of myself as a youth, pimpled, badly groomed, grotesquely dressed. I involuntarily touch my face as I remember those downy little sidies; I look down at my shoes as I remember the smudgy adventure of having a mustache at fifteen. (Subsequent and, to my mind, more compelling adventures in mustache-keeping have run aground on strident protests from the wifely unit, who has a benevolent but firm line of conventionality when it comes to the topic of masculine grooming.)

This avalanche of unpleasant associations undercuts the reasoning for my recent restyle: I had the intuition I would be taken more seriously if I lost the beard. Not that I particularly need to be taken seriously; I just thought it might be a nice change of pace. So far, I have noticed no real difference in treatment, but this may arise from the fact that the overwhelming share of my time is spent among people—my wife, my children, my mother, my in-laws—who have already decided not to take me seriously in their respective ways. (And who could blame them after the last adventure in grooming innovation, the shoulder-length hair debacle of the high Covid era?)

I suppose your relations to the world at large are mostly settled by middle age, and that’s why we laugh at men who hit forty and start popping their collars and buying motorcycles. It’s not that buying a Porsche is itself a silly thing to do; it’s that buying a Porsche on credit after a life of Camry-driving is an absurd and obvious exercise in self-deception. That which we are, we are—and what we are is incapable of eating fatty foods after eight p.m., and prone to falling asleep on the couch. I very much suspect that every man of a certain age at a nightclub secretly wishes to return to the voluptuous embrace of his Sealy-Simmons, even if he will not admit it to himself. But everyone watching him knows what’s up.

I don’t think this attack of cleanshavenness is so bad as all that—my cars remain sensible, my dress shabby, my figure dumpy. (It appears that, even under a regular fitness regimen, I am unlikely to become one of those super-oldsters who start looking like meat steers in life’s autumn.) I seem relatively secure in employment, at least so far as that means anything for a journalist. I floss, use a calendar, and have been up past eleven o’clock no more than a dozen times in the past two years—a recognizable type, the formerly fun friend. Even if I were shaken by a desire for change, to strike out like Ulysses for unknown climes under strange stars, who has the digestion or the budget for it? Who has the time?

Back to wooly unseriousness for me, I suspect. At least there’s no razor-burn there.