A beard grows in New Mexico.
This may come as a surprise to locals familiar with me only as a devilishly handsome, clean-shaven bon vivant and man about town. (Those of you already snickering may leave the room!) Even regular readers who know me only by the inch-high photo at the bottom of my editor's column — tiny, yes, but dramatically well-coiffed in a silver-haired sort of way and with the clean-cut jaw of, say, a slightly more mature Jon Hamm — might have their preconceived notions shattered. But the fact is that for most of my adult life, prior to relocating to the sunny Southwest, I sported a beard.
And now — brace yourselves — I am once again bearded. A bit grayer — way more salt than pepper, you might say — about the chin than the last time I went unshaven, about a dozen years ago, but there it is. A beard. Not one of those "did he just forget to shave?" scruffy patches favored by every male Hollywood star these days, but a man's man's beard, the sort of facial hair Brad Pitt no doubt wishes he could grow.
White though my whiskers may mostly be, however, I'm not going for the Santa Claus look. I've already dug out and charged up my beard trimmer from way back when, ready to draw the line before Miracle on 34th Street time. No, the goal here is more like Sean Connery in Medicine Man or The Hunt for Red October. If there's a cure to be found in the jungle or a Russian sub to be commanded, look no further!
This news will come as a surprise to our daughter, who last got a beard-related shock from me when we visited her on Parents' Weekend at college and I'd shaved off my beard. That was the first time she'd ever seen my bare chin. Devilishly, I didn't tell her I'd gone beardless until she showed up at our hotel and saw me. As I recall, she screamed.
Surprise has always been part of my beard saga, which might seem odd given that beards take awhile to grow. (Unless you call that two-day smudge on Brad Pitt's face a "beard," that is.) The key is not seeing the person to be surprised for a few weeks once you've made the decision to grow a beard. That was the case when, fresh out of college and newly married, I and my bride returned to our hometown for the first time since the wedding. We rang my parents' doorbell, and I think when they saw me with a beard for the first time Mom and Dad thought twice about letting us in.
My mom in particular may have blamed my wife for turning me into that bearded stranger, but she got over it. Years later, when I visited her after springing the shaving surprise on our daughter, I think my mom kind of missed my beard. She'd gotten used to seeing her boy with one or another of my beard permutations, whether full-face or goatee. (Yes, putting the devilish in devilishly handsome.)
My dad no doubt understood: Shaving is a hassle — all too often a bloody hassle. Like me, he was a bleeder, and one little nick from the razor could turn into a multiple-tissue, get the styptic pencil (let me tell you, those sting), should we go to the emergency room? drama. He never grew a beard, as far as I know, but it must have been tempting. Why put your face at risk every morning when you don't have to?
Genetics was a prime reason I first started growing a beard, in fact. I'd begun shaving back in my mid-teens, with a Norelco rotary electric razor I'd gotten for Christmas. (You may recall the TV commercials in which Santa rode such an electric razor like a sled. He obviously did not shave with it, however, which makes the ad seem even odder in retrospect.) My parents no doubt wanted to minimize early-morning trips to the E.R., but the electric really didn't (sorry) cut it.
Some boys might have been able to pull off a five o'clock shadow look in high school (more accurately a two o'clock shadow, given my beard and the school's hours). But on me it looked more like a skinny Richard Nixon. Not exactly a "chick magnet" style, and I needed all the help I could get in that department anyway.
I put up with that Nixonian shadow all through high school and college, mostly making do with the electric razor. (Why, I don't know. My dad of course used a blade — a so-called "safety razor" — and shaving cream applied the old-fashioned way, with a brush. Maybe it was all the blood he spilled with that "safety razor" — accompanied by a soundtrack of cursing — that convinced me the Norelco shaved close enough.) The rare occasions when I went out on a date or with a group of friends that might loosely be construed as date-like, I shaved again before leaving the house at night.
But we had been married only a short time before my wife — who somehow had seen past not only the five o'clock shadow but my wardrobe, gangliness and general absence of suave — suggested I stop shaving. Try growing a beard, she urged. See what it looks like.
The great beard experiment began over a weekend, as I recall, and by the time I went to the office on Monday morning there was already plenty of evidence of what it would look like. (Already I was into surprise mode with my beard, no warning given to boss — fortunately, he had a beard — or co-workers.)
That was the last anyone saw of my chin for the next 20-plus years. I changed jobs, moved from city to city, became a father. Save for going back and forth from goatee to full beard, my facial hair was the one constant.
Except that my beard started to go gray even faster than the hair on top of my head. I had no illusions about going gray — my dad had been gray-haired since about the time I was born. (Not my fault, honest!) I figured having gray hair was still better than no hair at all. But when my beard started looking, well, grizzled and making me appear even older, it was time to contemplate drastic action.
I shaved it off right before going to a lengthy writers' conference in Hawaii, reasoning that if I hated how I looked there'd be plenty of time to regrow the beard before anybody in my office saw me. I also figured if I got a tan in Hawaii, I didn't want my chin to miss out.
It was a little over a year later that we picked up stakes for New Mexico. I arrived here clean-shaven and have remained so ever since. I even traded my Braun electric shaver (an upgrade from Santa's Norelco) for the latest in high-tech, multiple-blade safety razors — a Power Fusion blade that actually vibrates as you shave, thanks to a little battery in the handle. Paired with Trader Joe's Mango Shave Cream (not tested on animals!), it gave me a smooth-enough face. And my five o'clock shadow hardly showed any more, lacking its former Nixonian hue.
But now that my hair has thoroughly caught up with my graying beard, I got tired of the hassle and the gory nicks in the morning. I got curious, too: What would my beard look like after all these years?
I know it seems odd to grow facial hair just as we're headed into summer in the Southwest. Isn't a beard a winter thing? Isn't it hot? Some experts maintain that by shading the face, a beard actually helps keep you cooler. Think of all those furry desert critters — you don't see coyotes shaving every summer, do you? Besides, I sort of employed my pre-Hawaii reasoning in reverse: If I was going to hide part of my face at some point, why wait and expose it to another sunny Southwest summer?
So here I am, bearded again — no, that's not a 1990s photo of Sean Connery. Will I keep it? I don't know, though no, there will not be a poll on our Facebook page.
I guess first I'll have to see how it looks one-inch high. Devilishly handsome enough? Maybe next month. Or maybe I'll have shaved it off already by then. You know how I love surprises.
Desert Exposure editor David A. Fryxell is socking those savings from pricey
razor blades and shaving cream right into his 401(k).