Shaving my beard after five years

After five years with a full beard, I suddenly shaved it off on Wednesday morning. I warned no one. I had made the decision on Monday, after toying with various styles of barbate coif.

I had not even trimmed it since the September attack on New York, and it was going to be a big job. Certainly it was too emotionally complicated an event to tell my wife about. I didn’t want to have to explain myself, or to have any parties to the decision. Better to surprise her, along with everyone else. Here, I would go solo, come what might. My wife has always said she didn't like the beard. My mother made spitting noises when she first saw it, and has frequently urged me to shave it off. My grandmother would sometimes turn to me and say, at any pause in an unrelated conversation, "I have a razor." She also told me more than once,

When your grandfather and I were courting, one day he shows up with a moustache. I says, 'No more kissing till you shave it off!' So he went straight to the bathroom and borrowed my father's razor.
But I liked it, and didn't let their opinions sway me.

But now I had set my mind on pogonotomy. On Tuesday evening, I quietly plugged in my long-unused beard trimmer to prepare the battery. I went for my morning walk on Wednesday and bought some shaving supplies, things I have not owned since four households ago when I was in graduate school, including some witch hazel scented with rose water. I love witch hazel after a shave.

My wife was already up when I got back, so I waited until she went into the kitchen to prepare breakfast. I put on some music, locked myself into my bathroom, and turned on the shower to conceal the sound of the trimmer. Two minutes were enough to remove the hair, but there was a mass of stiff stubble to clear. (I think "stubble" originally refers to the tough stalks of grain-plants left in the ground after reaping.) It took some 20 minutes of careful work in the shower to get my whole face smooth. I managed not to cut myself, rather to my surprise. I had thought my skin would be tender after all these years of being covered in fur. Perhaps it was because I was using a new blade. My wife did notice that I was in the shower longer than usual, but suspected nothing.

Her reaction to the clean face was to cover her mouth and stifle a scream. She continued to groan for at least half an hour. All day, she kept making up her mind to look me in the face, then squealed and turned away. In spite of her many complaints about the beard, she was not particularly happy that I had shaven it off. She said I looked too young; she would be arrested for child molesting, she said. At first, she wouldn't let me kiss her, saying she couldn't stand the feel of the smooth skin. Today she is more used to it.

I am not sure I am, though. I had forgotten that underneath my gruff beard there was a sensitive Jewish face. With the beard, I got used to being yielded to in situations like scrambling for a seat on the subway or getting on the bus out of turn. I wonder if I will have to struggle more now that I look younger and softer.

To make the effect even more pronounced, I went out and had a haircut. Now I really do look quite different. At the University the first day, people who know me walked right past me, not recognizing me. Have I become anonymous? A little. That's an interesting sensation.

I had meetings with two A students that afternoon. They recognized me when they saw me, but said nothing. The Chinese student betrayed nothing on her face to suggest things were not completely normal; the Irish kid goggled a little but made no comments. This is one of those occasions when the teacher can see clearly the effect of his authority on the normal student - although our dealings often seem friendly, in fact they are not equal, and you mustn't mistake the ordinary teacher-student relationship for a normal friendship.

On the second day, a classroom of Chinese students said nothing until the very end of class, when the Evangelical student blurted out, "Why did Teacher shave off his beard?" He has considerably more difficulty controlling his emotions, and rarely prepares for class - on the other hand, sometimes he gets flashes of insight that have not been granted to his more studious classmates. I could see, however, that the other students, though better in control of their mouths, were just as curious as he was. My second class, with American students, responded as soon as they saw me with gasps and comments. Truly, these are different cultures.

Well, why, after all, did I shave it off? Certainly I felt it was the right thing to do. I suppose in some sense it was an unemployment beard, a hermit's beard - I grew it first in 1997, at the end of the second year of what would turn out to be a five year wait for a tenure-track job. It was a crushing, wrenching experience. I now am finishing my second year in a tenure-track job, and somehow I guess I feel I am finally over the worst of the emotional damage. The beard can go.

I have also kept my beard untrimmed since the attack on New York - for what reason I cannot say, except that it comforted me. But recently I have realized that I am largely healed from that event, as I have described in an earlier day-log. The beard can go.

I have shaven off beards twice before. Once was at the end of college, after breaking up with my girlfriend of many years and preparing to go overseas for an unknown length of time. And once was before I started spending time at my future wife's house in the Taiwanese countryside after things had become serious between us. For it is well known that a son or son-in-law does not wear facial hair in Chinese society if the father goes clean shaven. To do so would be a sign of arrogance and disrespect, and in that case everyone would comment on the beard.
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