This month marks the 45th anniversary of me growing my first beard.
In my near half-century of beardage, I've worn every style of facial hair but one. I've had a beard without a mustache; a mustache without a beard; a stache with full goatee and long sideburns; a stache with soul patch and no sideburns; and other arrangements I can no longer recall or would be embarrassed if I could.
The only kind of beard I've never had? The Big Kahuna, El Maximo Grande, Il Barba del Tutti Barbi - as long a beard as possible. But last year I started going for it.
Of course growing a beard is the exact opposite of growing anything else, for example bonsai trees. The bonsai take work, and lots of it - watering, fertilizing, trimming and maintaining perfect temperature and soil acidity and all the rest.
Growing a beard, however, is the act of doing nothing (provided doing nothing can be defined as an "act"). You just don't let your razor do its thing, and your beard will do its thing.
I decided to give my beard three years. Then, if I don't like the way it looks, I'll trim it. And if I do like it, I'll keep growing it till I'm either tired of it or tripping over it - whichever comes first.
Interestingly, along with my longer facial hair have come a bunch of surprises.
The first was a strike against conventional wisdom: In hot weather, a long beard is more comfortable than a short one, and in fact is a lot more comfortable than being clean shaven. How can that be? Simple - it's insulation, and like all insulation, it warms in the cold and cools in the heat.
Another surprise, though not a pleasant one: A long beard will catch falling food detritus that would've missed a short one. At home, this is no problem. But in public I now dine only with my closest friends, those true-blue souls who can let me know I've got crumbs on my southern exposure without gloating about it.
Those are the small issues about big beards. The big issues are more complex and more interesting. They involve people telling me they don't like my new look sometimes quite stridently. That would seem a simple expression of opinion, but I think it goes beyond that.
Sure, it's an opinion about looks, style and aesthetics. But where did that opinion come from?
If this were 1875, my long beard would be considered either nothing out of the ordinary or perhaps the height of fashion (think the Smith Brothers of cough drop fame). If we were Sikhs, who consider long hair a gift from God, I might be considered not only dashing, but blessed besides.
But of course it's not 1875 and we're not Sikhs, so we don't operate with those aesthetics. Instead, we're 21st century Americans with 21st century American aesthetics, so now a long beard is as outre as top hats and whalebone corsets. In short, there's no bottom line for looks - otherwise, they'd never change. But they do, and people follow those changes, to the point of considering them the only way to look until, of course, the next look comes along.
A noteworthy example when it comes to facial hair? How about stubble?
During times when either the clean-shaven look and/or facial hair were acceptable, one look was not - stubble. It was the sign of sloth, slovenliness, depravity or worse. Then almost overnight it became the look for '90s breathy balladeers, actors and Miami Vice wannabes. It became so popular, the razor cartel jumped on the bandwagon, turning out razors designed to keep the Skid Row look without it ever becoming an actual beard, which I'm sure sold like hot cakes to neo-hipsters everywhere.
Turning my back on turning back the clock
Finally, there's people telling me that if I trimmed my beard to an "acceptable" length, I'd look a lot younger.
I realize they've got only the best intentions, but let's check it out.
First, how much younger is "younger"? I sure couldn't look 10 years younger, so maybe three or five years is more like it. But let's get real - knocking five years off my chassis isn't enough for me to even consider the bodywork, much less doing it.
But here's the point I think most people miss: I really don't care if I look younger. I wouldn't mind being younger, but looking younger? To me it's as ridiculous as trying to look like anything you're not - richer, smarter, classier. The simple truth is we are what we are and if we want to try to appear otherwise, so be it. But as far as I'm concerned, it's too much work for too little potential reward. Besides, who in My Home Town am I going to fool about my age - or anything else?
Furthermore, why would I want to look younger in the first place? I've earned my age - every wrinkle, line, liver spot and bald spot of it - which I consider less embarrassments than campaign medals.
Who came up with the equation Younger = Better anyway? Obviously, Americans have bought into it big time, but so what?
My friend Ed Woodward lived in China for three years in the '30s and three in the '40s, and said the Chinese thought you were an idiot until you were 40. Aging was equated with wisdom, and as such, it warranted kindness and respect. And it's still that way in most other countries.
But here? Some crappy cafeteria may give you a whopping 10 percent senior discount on your tuna a la king on Thursday night, but see how often someone'll surrender their seat on a subway, hold a door for you, or even let you cross the street - even when you're in the crosswalk.
And if you think things are going to get better, think again.
So what does all this mean?
Well, I can't speak for anyone else, but as I become an old codger, I'm going to embrace my Old Codgerhood. I'm going to look like a codger, act like a codger, talk like a codger, and probably even walk like a codger.
But there's one thing you can bet your bip I'm not going to do, which is let anyone treat me like a codger.