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Beards – they grow on you

March 2, 2010

Indeed, the beard is gone, as I noted on my Facebook page with apologies to and a link to a video by B.B. King who had absolutely nothing to do with the beard.  I just love that old version of “The Thrill is Gone,” and somehow it seemed appropriate.  And while I’m mentioning things (re)appropriated, the title of this blog comes from a great t-shirt I saw, pictured here:

I’ve never had a beard for as long as I had this one – just over two months.  Sure I usually grow the “grading beard” during finals just for fun, but I had no idea about the entry I was making into beard culture.  At first it was the usual run of questions surrounding the connection between my beard and the ones appearing on various colleagues after winter break.  Then I had students asking if it was part of “Manuary” which I must admit I’d never heard of before, but there’s a secret side of me dying to know more about.  Next it was thought of as a playoff beard as I gather hockey fans at first started doing and has since spread to other sports.  I’m not a huge hockey fan, although I enjoyed the Olympics this year.  I saw it as the best of both worlds – for US Hockey, we got to beat the Canadians and go deeper into the competition and come out with a silver medal, beyond any expert’s predictions.  For Canadian Hockey, they got to lose one that didn’t count for much, regroup, and close out the Winter Olympics with the now-hackneyed phrase, a “win for the ages.”  Bravo to all, but know my beard had nothing to do with your efforts.  The baseball playoffs are long over, and I’m excited for the Minnesota Twins and their new stadium, but they didn’t figure into the equation.  Neither did Duke basketball, although I worship at their altar and various associated blogs regularly, and savored the stomping of Carolina in the Dean Dome.  I’ll be glued to the tv for the ACC and NCAA tournaments but will be sans muttonchops.

I discovered the beard to be a great conversation starter, or easy entry point for everyone from the woman I chat with at the local dry cleaners to my kids.  I recall reading once that the weather is the one topic safe for anyone to talk about and is the best fall-back in the face of silence in a conversation.  I’ll go ahead and add a bushy, unkempt beard to that list.  Everyone felt comfortable asking about it, although thankfully I did not have to endure what my wife did during the late weeks of pregnancy: the hands of strangers breaking the personal space, going through the fourth wall to touch the bulging belly.   It would feel strange to have strange hands strangely touching my midsection – I sense all pregnant women confront this issue at some point.  It would be hard to imagine people randomly tugging away at my whiskers, altough questions did approach personal levels: is it soft? is it itchy? how long do I plan on letting it go for?

Then the geeky English teacher side kicked in and I looked back at all of the mentions of beard in Hamlet.  He first asks Marcellus, Bernardo, and Horatio about his father, confirming it was him with the question, “His beard was grizzled–no?” (I,2).  His excitement about seeing the players, once he has seen through the false pretence of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s visit, has him asking, “O, my old friend! thy face is valenced since I saw thee last: comest thou to beard me in Denmark?” (II,2).  A lovely use of the word – I’ve never before, or since, thought of it as a verb.   Moments later, when Polonius interrupts the actor’s speech about Hecuba, Hamlet rebukes him with, “It shall to the barber’s, with your beard,” (II,2) turning it into an opportunity for a multi-layered insult.  Hamlet finished the scene with the “rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy, asking, “Am I a coward?  Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across?  Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face? (II,2).  In a similar use later, equating a beard with the genuine sense of a person’s identity, Claudius says to Laertes, “Break not your sleeps for that: you must not think / That we are made of stuff so flat and dull / That we can let our beard be shook with danger / And think it pastime” (IV, 7).  So is the beard the true window to the soul?  What can be told about a person from their beard?  Mine was mostly the color of what little hair I still have but did feature some silvery streaks I would never have seen or known about without growing hair on my chin.   It literal and figurative ways it brought some things out about me I never would have known otherwise.  Oddest were the moments when I forgot about it until I caught a reflection in a mirror or reached up to pull on my chin while pondering a good question.  And now, in a flash (caught on video for later sharing) the beard was shaved off and I’m left smooth-skinned once again.  What will beard me next?  The grading pressures of the end of the semester?  More listening to the Grateful Dead and a kinship with Jerry Garcia I could feel during extended jams?  The bubble beards my boys wore in the tub tonight?

The ritual of growing a yearly beard is as close to me as the process of shaving each morning, and like I discussed with my students during our reading of Life of Pi and written about here, we are creatures of habit, defined by the repeated actions in our lives.  The predictability of our daily routines was part of a recent study I heard about on NPR where they spoke of an easy-to-create algorithm that could locate us 93% of the time.  Comforting thought to some, troubling to others.  We all have our rituals even though we might not fully understand their meanings.  But that’s a topic for the next blog post.  For now, it’s back to reading my current obsessions: Leslie Fieldler and Zadie Smith.  Two completely unconnected and unrelated writers, and only one of them had a beard.

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