Penman for Sunday, October 2, 2022
FOR THE first time in my 68 years, I tried something new these past two months: grow a mustache and a beard. It began when Beng caught Covid—thankfully the rather benign Omicron variety—and I followed suit, which required us to self-isolate for at least a week. Either out of laziness or perhaps to give some purpose to my enforced enclosure, I didn’t shave until I woke up one morning to find some whiskers germinating on my upper lip and chin, and decided to wait some more.
No one in my family has ever sported facial hair, for good reason—our forefathers must have been chasing wild goats in the forest when they handed out genes for abundant hair. They got home just in time to catch some scraps, which was why my two brothers and I enjoyed luxuriant mops on our tops in our younger days, only to lose much of it to male-pattern baldness in our senior years. We grow hairy chests and bristly forearms only in our deepest sleep—in other words, we morph into Tom Selleck (or maybe Chewbacca)—and wake up to the pathetic reality of a pimple forming right where a respectable thicket’s supposed to be.
Much to my surprise, a perceptible fuzz did grow around my mouth, and for a minute back there I entertained the possibility of doing a Hemingway (for which I already have the girth), until I had to accept the fact that the Lord was already being exceedingly generous in making me feel like Johnny Depp for a day (hey, we even have the same initials).
It was nothing to crow about (a Facebook friend admitted to shaving off his incipient mustache when someone remarked that “I have more hair around my anus”), but I was happy. I looked different, and—okay—I felt just a bit different, maybe a tad more writerly, as if anything coming out of my mouth was going to sound like godly wisdom. It was comforting to know that while I’m never going to grow a mohawk on top, I can still go bald and whiskered, Yoda-like. Additionally, I thought that Beng would be tickled and thrilled to be kissed by a new man in her life (tickled, yes, thrilled, no).
All this has led me to explore the history of the mustache (“moustache” is its British version). The BBC’s “The Moustache: A Hairy History” gives a fascinating account of the ups and downs of facial hair (and even a new word: “pogonotrophy,” the art of its cultivation). The highlights include Peter the Great’s “beard tax,” which led to shaved chins and flowery mustaches; Lord Byron’s preference for the pencil-thin trim; the association of bushy beards with bacteria, and the subsequent falling out of fashion of the hirsute look (also, World War I gas masks didn’t work with grizzly faces); the resurgence of the handlebar mustache (strictly no beards) postwar; and the now-popular “Movember” charity event in November, for which men grow mustaches to raise awareness of men’s health issues (a most noble excuse, to my mind).
Since Samson established the link between hair and testosterone, mustaches and beards have also implied more masculinity, about which The Gentleman’s Journal has an interesting story. When the British colonized India, the native men—who brandished their mustaches like scimitars—looked down on their clean-shaven sahibs as wimps, forcing the white masters to grow their own, and bringing the fashion back to England with them. (The e-zine also offered up this etymology: “‘Mastax’, a Greek word, was stolen by the Scottish and turned into ‘Mystax’, with both meaning ‘jaws, mouth or lips’. The Medieval Greeks took the word back, and that ‘Moustakion’ grew out into the Italian ‘Mostaccio’ — before the French combed it into submission, giving us ‘Moustache’ around 1580, with a final definition of: ‘The hair that grows on the upper lip of men’.”)
The history of beards seems just as complicated; at one point, says Beardpilot, you could pay off a debt with your beard. Ancient societies punished erring men by cutting off their beards. In the Middle Ages, touching someone else’s beard could be cause for a duel. Before Peter the Great, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I also taxed beards. Of course, wherever you went, hair on your face meant virility and wisdom. What it did not guarantee was money, if one recent survey is to be believed, claiming that “Ninety-eight percent of the men on the Forbes 100 list of the world’s richest individuals are clean-shaven.”
Me, I’d rather be wise than virile at 68 (and should I say wealthy rather than wise?), but I’m just trying to get used to feeling something furry and sometimes wet beneath my nose, especially when I’m slurping soup or sneezing. I’ve learned to trim what passes for a mustache where I can touch it with my tongue, and to snip off vagabond whiskers from my scraggly beard. Beng seems indifferent to my experiment, in fair exchange for me not saying anything untoward about her pixie cut (I miss her bangs). I told our apu-apuhan Buboy that his Tatay Butch was going to be a pirate, but he appears unimpressed; I’m not menacing enough, needing to put more growl into my act. I hope Demi agrees that the bearded-guru effect makes her dad look smarter than he is.
One of these days I’m sure I’ll say that I’ve had enough, and reach for a razor—but not just yet. I’m just getting the hang of pogonotrophy, and while I guess I’m never going to be as shaggy as a Wookiee, I’d like to have fun playing Johnny Depp just a little bit longer, before the dementia gets real.