It’s almost time to shave again.
I grew my beard at age 19, to make myself look older—or at least that’s what I told everyone. My family hated it: mother, father, both grandmothers, aunts and great-aunts and nearly everyone who bothered to notice at all. I sort of liked it, but I always claimed I was willing to shave it off if I didn’t need it any more. You know, to look older.
When I turned 21, I reasoned that now I was older: old enough to buy beer, anyway, and what other reason is there to look older? So I shaved off the beard. I left the moustache though: I was afraid I’d look a little too young without some sort of facial hair. That only lasted a few months.
I look like a complete goober without a beard. My original conclusion was that I just had too much of a babyface. This was overly optimistic. What I came to realize, eventually, was that I have no chin. Not just a weak chin, but practically none at all. I get it from my mother. Turns out it’s not so awful on a woman, but for a man to have no chin is pretty bad. And it gets worse the older you get.
A lot of people have told me that, when they try to grow a beard, it itches too much and they eventually give up. My beard has never itched when it’s coming in. In fact, it hardly ever itches at all, except for one sort of curious cycle: about every 5 years or so, it starts to itch something fierce. So, every 5 years or so, I have to shave my chin completely ... just to air it out, so to speak. Twice I’ve gone for the General Burnside, which let me tell you will get you some strange looks. Once I did a sort of droopy moustache and soul patch combo, like Ben Stiller in Dodgeball. I can’t recall what I did for the other one. It probably won’t be long until the next cycle rolls around, although that’s not the sort of shave I was talking about.
No, I meant just the regular sort of shave. My pattern, you see, is to let the thing grow for several months: basically until it’s so long that it gets annoying. The beard will, if left untended, start curling under my chin, creating a sort of shelf under there. I can understand why people put beads and shit in their beards—I’m sure it’s just to get the stupid thing to grow straight down. I can’t imagine how much effort it takes to grow a ZZ Top or somesuch. But that’s mostly irrelevant to me, because long before I have to worry about that, my moustache will get so long that it starts getting in my mouth. When I’m trying to eat, certainly, but even when I’m just trying to talk, or stick my tongue out so I can concentrate, or sometimes for no good reason at all. Once that starts happening, it’s time to shave.
I had a friend (my boss on my first professional programming gig, as it happens) who grew a beard for a while, but he eventually shaved it off. When I asked him why he gave up on it, he said it was too much trouble. I was perplexed by this answer. What do you mean, too much trouble, I asked. Well, you have to trim it, and shampoo it, and condition it ... he went on and on about all the beard grooming he was putting in. I had no idea how to respond to this, other than to say: you’re doing it wrong.
I mean, if we’re going to be honest here, most of the reason I grew the damn thing in the first place was sheer laziness. The whole “it makes me look older” thing was mostly a convenience. And, if you’re growing a beard because you don’t like shaving, then you better not be shaving very often, or else what’s the point? I shave once every two or three months. Something like that. I don’t keep track; as I mentioned, I just wait for it to get annoying, then I shave.
But I don’t shave it all—did I mention that I have no chin? Basically, I start at about the top of my ears and go all the way down until I have just a smallish goatee. Then I thin out the beard a bit, square off the moustache so it’s not in my mouth any more, and that’s it for another few months. Now, if I’m doing this for a special occasion (funeral, job interview, that sort of thing), I may follow that up with some shaving cream and a safety razor, but typically it’s just clippers.
The clippers I use to trim my beard are the same sort people use for shaving their heads—which is handy if you have friends who are skinheads, or Neo-Nazis, or Sinead O’Connor fans, or just guys who are going bald but still need to look tough, like bouncers in dive bars or Bruce Willis. I’ve tried special beard trimmers and that sort of thing as well, but a nice simple pair of clippers is moderately cheap, does a great job, and they’ll last forever. Well, they will if you oil them regularly. My first pair of clippers I didn’t oil them. The clippers come with a tiny little bottle of oil, and a recommendation to oil them after every use, and to use only the special oil with the manufacturer’s name on it, and if you’d like to order some more, it’s only $30 a bottle. This sounds like a rip-off—which it is, but not because the clippers don’t need the oil. I found out right quick that the clippers will rust on you in a heartbeat if you don’t oil them. The rip-off part is needing to use the special oil. Just get yourself some sewing machine oil: it’s the exact same stuff, except cheaper. The Mother‘s mom is the one who taught me that trick: she bought me a 3 or 4 dollar bottle of oil some ten years ago or so, and I’m still on the same bottle. I don’t know if you need to oil the clippers after every time you use it, but, since I only use mine once every few months, I do.
For me, shaving is a whole big ritual. I only do it before I shower (otherwise you wander around with little stray beard hairs down your shirt all day). I only do it over the toilet—I only had to clog up my sink 3 or 4 times before I learned that one. So I always start by cleaning the toilet first. Not necessarily the toilet bowl, I mean, but the outside of the toilet and the seat and all that. Then I get my mirror and prop it up on the seat. Then I double over my ponytail and tie it up out of the way ... one wouldn’t want to shave off one’s ponytail by accident, now would one? Then I do the shaving, which is fairly simple. Then I use one of those barber’s brushes to sweep all the stray hairs into the toilet. (Maybe those things are easier to come by these days, but it took me about 15 years to manage to get one when I first started looking.) Then I have to brush the stray hairs off me. Then I have to brush the stray hairs off the clippers. Then I oil the clippers. It takes quite a while, really, for the whole procedure. But then again I’m only doing it every few months, as I say. So it’s not that bad. And, you know: you get it down after a while. Becomes sort of second nature.
So I start with the goatee, and it gradually fills out to a full beard. By the time it gets shaggy, my moustache is in my mouth again and it’s back to the goatee. It never really itches (except for the every 5 - 7 years thing), and it’s not particularly stiff, so I never bother conditioning it as my former boss did. Oh, I shampoo it when I shampoo my hair, but conditioning? That’s way above and beyond. I’ve also never had any problems growing it. I don’t have nearly as much hair on my head as I used to—my once-cool widow’s peak is now more of a Phil Collins sort of look—but the beard has always grown in nice and thick.
When I was younger, it was brown, with reddish highlights. It got darker as I got older, nearly black ... and then it started to go gray. First a salt-and-pepper look, then almost all white except for a black stripe down the center of my chin. Yes, for a couple of years I was rocking the reverse-skunk look. Now you can barely see any black at all. No gray in my hair, but my beard is almost completely white now. Hopefully it looks distinguished.
Our title today is from George Carlin’s famous poem about his hair. (And where is the hair on a pear? Nowhere, mon frère!) Mr. Carlin always had a flair for language that I envied. I’ll lean on him a bit to offer my final thoughts on the topic of beards.
Don’t be skeered,
It’s just a beard.