Today’s post is about Devin. I met Devin last summer as he was wooing my sister. They were married in December and he has become family. There are three things that stick out to me when I think of Devin. His kindness, his laugh, and his beard. When I met Devin, I knew he was perfect for my sister because of his sense of humor and his beard. It takes a talented person to write an entertaining and well-thought out blog on a beard. He is a wonderful writer, he is an English teacher, so he has to be… Take a minute to read his story, on the surface it might be about his beard, but in the end I think it is much deeper.
Here is his Unknown Story:
I have one feature.
This is not entirely true, of course I have many features, as we all do, but I have just one feature that really matters, one feature that anyone really sees. It seems to me we rarely see the whole of people, but we see their features; we pass someone on the street, and we turn to a friend and say, “did you see that dude’s ears?” “did you see that girl’s legs?” “Did you see his arms?” “Did you see her hair?” Not all the features we see and point to are positive, of course, and I’m not oblivious that many of these observations and examples carry thinly veiled sexism and judgment. I also recognize that some of our features are created, like make up, and are designed to cover and hide other features.
I have one feature. I have a beard.
My beard grows quite long at times (not ZZ Top long, but long), and it can be the only thing people see. It is a talking point, not because I intended it to become one, but because people want to chat me about my beard. People seem to have a lot of questions. “Does it itch?” (No.) “How long have you had that?” (How long to grow this beard, or when did I first grow a beard?) “Is it hot?” (Yes.)
My beard does not change the way I walk, act, or dress, and yet the people I meet view the presence of the beard as an affirmation of a way of life, or a formal declaration of some kind. It’s not uncommon to have a stranger shake my hand and vocally express his (virtually always his, and not her) respect. The respect is not for the ability to grow the beard, but for the decision to dedicate my life to doing so, as though I had to obtain the power to grow and live with the beard by scaling a mountain and proving my worth. They treat me as one who has attained something noble that cannot be fully comprehended. It’s edelweiss for my face.
On a recent layover in the Denver airport, my wife and I had about fifteen minutes to make our connection. We weren’t full-on running, but we were doing a very dignified airport speed walk. In those ten minutes, on two separate occasions, two men, both twenty-somethings, stopped me to address the matter of my beard. The first we simply blew past, and I shouted my thanks as he shouted his respect. The second? He turned course and ran with us, despite the fact that his gate was in the opposite direction, and he snapped a selfie with me as we hustled along. He was so dedicated that I paused a moment to shake his hand. Please don’t get the impression that I condescended or deigned to address him; I really am grateful. It’s a boost to my self-esteem, and I can’t lie about enjoying it.
Part of the discussion about a thick, ever-present beard is that it is part of the individual’s identity, that it defines him. On a philosophical level, when I think about who I am at my core, I want to believe that I am not defined by having a beard, and that shaving it (as I sometimes do) does not change who I am. This is tricky, however, especially for me: my name, to nearly every friend and non-family acquaintance I have, is Beard.
Everyone calls me Beard. Virtually all of my friends call me Beard, men and women alike. Even former girlfriends called me Beard, and when we are around friends, my wife will sometimes call me Beard. I have a former student who calls me Professor Beard, and there are others like him. I even call myself Beard, in those moments when I am frustrated or otherwise crazy-talking, addressing myself in the third person. Many a time have I angrily restarted a project by mumbling the exasperated phrase, “pull it together, Beard.”
Oddly, I am not named after my beard, at least not intentionally. There was never a friend’s bro-like declaration that I am the one, true Beard, and that I would be known as such hereafter. The name came about from my niece when she was in those early stages of learning words. Imagine a scenario that takes many times with small children: we are trying to entice a youngster to be held by an unfamiliar adult, and we do so by pointing out the nice things about them; “Oh, isn’t she pretty, look at her pretty hair,” we say, hoping the child will notice the pretty hair, and NOT the fact that they are being held by person-not-their-mother. “Look at the shiny necklace” (child stares at necklace, mother gets a ten second break).
Everyone talked to my niece about my beard, both to pique her curiosity and to ease her tensions about the face that didn’t match the other faces. We would talk about how ticklish it was, and she would shiver when I ran it over her soft arm. The result? The single word that she associated with me was the word “beard.” When she heard my name, she would mumble, “beard.” The nearest adult would say, “yes, beard, good!” The association became stronger.
I moved home for a summer, ten years ago, and my niece was often at the house. When she would decide to come downstairs to see me, I could hear her sliding down the stairs, one by one, but I could also hear her repeating aloud: “beard… beard… beard…beard…” It was the word she knew for me, and my friends thought it was so hilarious they adopted it as my name.
So here I am, a man with a beard, known for having a beard, who goes by Beard. Can I really claim the beard doesn’t define me? I guess I can’t, not completely. I’ll say it doesn’t make me who I am, but I can’t honestly say it isn’t a big part of my identity. It’s certainly come to change the way I see myself.
Most of us do small, sometimes superficial things to change how we are viewed, and, likewise, change who we think we can be. We mask parts of ourselves and hide some of our features. Again, this is why makeup exists, or why we may wear certain glasses to make us look older, younger, or smarter. This beard became the one feature that I use to cover those other features, and without it, I can feel very adrift.
I rarely shave my face if I’m not in a moment of existential crisis, and if I do shave under good conditions, a mental funk will often be the result. I did so recently, after growing my longest beard yet. I shaved, more or less as something to do, and soon found myself in a terrible dither: I had a job interview.
This shouldn’t have been a thing, necessarily, and the truth is that many people shave only because of job interviews. I had to decide what to do: should I go to the interview with only a half-month’s growth, and risk looking like I slept late for the last two weeks? Should I shave and feel like I am going to Halloween dressed as a job applicant?
The complexity of this situation is that I hate not having a beard. I hate how I feel (though not who I am) without it, and I suddenly become very paranoid about the parts of me that are left exposed. Remember that line from Catch Me if You Can? “Why do the Yankees always win? Because the other team can’t stop looking at the pinstripes.”
Stripped of my beard, I am suddenly laid open and exposed; what if people notice my blotchy skin? Will people think I’m too skinny and lanky? Will my teeth look bad when they aren’t partly obscured? My facial expressions can be perplexing (I’ve not needed them for sometime)- will I seem like a creeper?
Having self-confidence means we all secretly believe we are walking around with something irresistible, that je ne sais quoi that will clearly win out in our interactions with co-workers, friends, clients, family, and strangers. This is a good belief, and I think that without it we might all just grind to a stop. My secret fear, slowly developing over the last twelve-plus years, is that my (hoped for) intangible electricity, that unknown desirability that can oddly only be described in chopped French, is not an innate something, but the pinstripes, the distraction and window dressing that I hang on my face, and when the face is shaved, and the curtains are thrown open, the room and furniture will be found wanting.
Fortunately, the moment of crisis passes, although it will return from time to time. In this case, I don’t shave for the interview (my wife reminds me that this man’s five o’clock shadow is really another man’s full beard – beards are all relative), and as soon as I sit down I slip into my comfort zone. I forget my stubbly face. I get the job.
This beard has really turned into a monster (a friendly monster). Started as a whim twelve years back, it has become the defining feature of my physical self. It has leached so thoroughly into my identity that it has literally changed my name, and somehow imbedded itself even further into my psyche. It has become the reason people approach me and the biggest discussion point in my students’ evaluations. People think it’s who I am, but it isn’t; it’s just a beard.
It’s my one feature.