Fear the Beard

Justin Turner steps into the batter’s box and fusses with his gloves. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ third baseman has to tilt his head down to see them; the bird’s nest on his face would obscure his view otherwise. Turner’s stance is wide open. He’s practically facing the pitcher, as if acknowledging that he couldn’t see the pitch past his whiskers any other way.

Turner is not well-coiffed. On his chin he wears the exploded pelt of a golden lion tamarin killed with an unnecessarily large-caliber rifle. He looks like an orangutan that was bathed and tumble-dried without benefit of an anti-static-cling sheet. His beard is a kindergartener’s art assignment—a hand-outline Thanksgiving turkey shakily drawn in orange crayon.

The pitcher, Adam Wainright, leans in for the sign. He throws. Turner swings at one pitch, then another, then he takes a couple more. Finally, he sees something he likes and connects, gifting a fan in the left-field bleachers a souvenir. The beard wags as Turner trots around the basepaths, seemingly taunting the other team: You’re the Reds? I’m the Red. Remember me. It crosses home plate just ahead of the player to whom it is affixed.

Turner’s beard is not the menacing three-day growth Wainright sports to intimidate hitters on the days he pitches. Wainright’s stubble says, I might be crazy. Maybe I just crawled down from the hills and haven’t heard the war is over. Maybe I’ve been talking to myself too long and I don’t like people and now I’m gonna have to throw at you ‘cause you looked at me funny. By contrast, Turner’s beard is anything but anti-social. It is a fawning performance before an audience of Hollywood trendies. It is florid, garish, a crescendo at the end of the final coda of a Romantic symphony. You are supposed to applaud it. As with all stylistic affectations, it is slavishly conformist and self-referential.

It is also a sign of the times. Beards are in. Not the trimmed status symbol of the European academic (think Sigmund Freud), or the dangerous goatee (Vincent Price, evil Spock), or even a Musketeer’s Vandyke. No, today’s beard more closely resembles a tumbleweed blown by a parched Sonoran wind into the face of an unfortunate passerby.

The last time facial spurge was so in fashion—in the second half of the nineteenth century—it came to Europe on the haunted visages of British soldiers who grew their thatch to keep warm in the freezing winters of the Crimea. They were greeted as heroes back home, and their survival tactic became a fashion statement. Americans, always vacillating between reviling and admiring their European cousins, followed suit. Hirsuteness equated with virility, and—men being men—competition ensued. The most flamboyant styles had their own names: Dundreary whiskers (also called Piccadilly weepers), the chinstrap beard, mutton chops, walrus mustaches. Charles Dickens’s beard was called a “doorknocker,” although it looked more like a congealed lava flow. Alfred Lord Tennyson may or may not have had lips; who could tell? The less said about Union General Ambrose Burnside, the better.

Now here we are again. The current icon of men’s grooming standards is—brace yourself—Rutherford B. Hayes. Today’s trend, however, does not come to us courtesy of the Light Brigade, but rather as a result of the revenge of the nerds. Squishy young men who spend their days in dim rooms coding neglect their toilette to convince themselves that they resemble, however faintly, the medieval warriors they adopt as online avatars. In my high school these kids were social outcasts, but no more. They have built the world of the twenty-first century; the rest of us are just along for the ride. Their fluffiness is cool; their slovenliness now is high fashion.

Somewhere, the ghost of Karl Marx is laughing. It was he who said that history repeats itself—the first time as tragedy, the second time farce. (Marx himself bore a dense thicket in which a Grimm protagonist might easily have gotten lost and stumbled upon a gingerbread house.) Styles once copied from real soldiers return as the emulation of dreamy LARPers.  

Alas, it is not for me. For one thing, there is no surer way to kill a trend than for the parents of trendsetters to adopt it. By the time American Presidents were wearing beards on the regular, young men were already returning to their safety razors. (The advent of chemical warfare in World War I was the last straw. A good seal on a gas mask required a shaved face.) Like Chester Alan Arthur, I have reached that stage in life where young people look at me and see the death of the cool. Their slang sounds ridiculous in my mouth; their clothes look preposterous on me. A beard will not help. To my children’s immense relief, I will act my age.

For another—well, let’s just say there is a difference between that blend of salt and pepper that makes one The Most Interesting Man in the World and the snowy aspect of Father Time. The former look is in my rear view mirror, and the latter is upon me. Grizzled is hot. Talmudic is not.

Ah, but in my day . . . the college me rocked the Jeremiah Johnson look, then a shaggy goatee worthy of the Dude. For several years, I sported a thick black mustache that had flight attendants addressing me in Spanish. I was young once, and furry.

It’s okay. The young aspire to be older, and the old wish to be young again. A young man preens because his whiskers make him look and feel adult. I look in the mirror and see a jawline unsoftened by middle-aged decline and excess comfort. Long miles on the road keep my shorn face lean and my features sharp. I’ll take that.  

Besides, now that Ted Cruz and J.D. Vance are on the bandwagon, we have probably seen peak beard. Voters may be impossibly stupid, but they have little patience for pandering frauds. A beard does not turn a Yale education into the school of hard knocks.

Fads turn on a dime, and this one will too. Best call your broker and buy Gillette.

The Power of Me

Today it was announced that my former boss will be nominated to be Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. My boss before him is going to be Vice-President. My boss before her went on to his third and fourth terms as California governor. Do we see a pattern here? People who associate themselves with me do very, very well. Take note.

Play Ball

Linda and I agreed to re-up today. Talent scout that I am, I originally signed her to a long-term contract, but that expired many years ago. Because I’m a cagey bastard, I included a reserve clause that enables me to renew the original terms every year if negotiations on a new contract break down—and I always make sure they do. No arbitration, no free agency. It’s indentured servitude, really. Sucks to be her, I suppose. Sue me.

The original terms included bonuses based on performance and durability, and she meets them every year. Plus, this spring she reported to camp in The Best Shape of Her Life and showed all the rooks how it’s done. She shows up every day, and she always brings her “A” game.

Sometimes I think she thinks I’m looking for a reason to cut her. I get it; youth is prized in this business. Every veteran looks over her shoulder at the kid who thinks she’s the next big thing. Maybe that gives Linda an edge. She doesn’t see how I’ve come to rely on her steadiness in the clutch. I don’t need to coddle her like some wide-eyed youngster who’s never felt the pressure of the big time. She’s the one I want on the field when everything’s on the line and someone has to win the day.

So I’ll bring her back for another year. Same terms.

She’s a gamer. I like that in a woman.

Kaep was Right. He’s Still Right.

This is the state of our country: According to CNN, there are as many National Guard members activated in the U.S. right now as there are active duty troops in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

Maybe, just maybe, Colin Kaepernick had something to say that the country should have been willing to hear. Maybe, just maybe, if he hadn’t been run out of town we wouldn’t be where we are now.

Denial, goes the old saying, is a river in Egypt. Except that it isn’t a river at all. It’s the road that runs straight to hell, and we’re awfully far down that road. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to turn around.

Death by Chocolate Chip

Among my wife’s many redeeming qualities is a splendiferous singing voice. (She’s an alto.) Our local university has availed itself of her talent by inviting her to serenade audiences in its campus-community chorus. As a result, I have spent many an evening at the Mondavi listening to performances of music that I occasionally liked and regarding which I more often gave thanks that I never belonged to a religion that made me sit through such stuff. Regardless, I am an attentive and dutiful husband; what interests her interests me. Thus, when her director asked her to host a social gathering for the chorus in our home, I readily agreed and negotiated a suitable amount of time during which I was required to socialize and after which I could hide in our bedroom with my iPad and earbuds.

In preparation for the event, Linda baked cookies for one hundred people, give or take. Chocolate chip and peanut butter. Into the freezer they went, once she had extracted a promise from me not to conduct my usual raiding forays. (Although this should not need to be said, I do not steal cookies. Some escape, and others are liberated. This is not theft.) Then a relative of the director took ill, and the event was postponed. Then a pandemic swept the country, the chorus went on leave until the fall, and gatherings of any sort were verboten.

I said to Linda, “When this thing is rescheduled in the fall, are you really going to want to serve cookies that have been in the freezer for months?” She allowed as how she’ll probably want to start fresh.

I am midway through the fourth tin. This is a dangerous endeavor in a nation bereft of toilet paper. It’s a race against time, really. Will the stores restock before I finish two more tins? After two more tins, will I be able to hold my hands steady enough to operate a motor vehicle and drive to the store? Is the sugar rush worth the jitters and double vision? Okay, that last one’s easy.

These are tough times. Tough times call for tough measures. Tough measures and warm, gooey, chocolatey joy. Tell me I’m wrong. Actually, don’t bother; after the next tin the words will just slide off the page in front of my quivering, spasming eyeballs anyway.

An American in London

Here is the statement I’d like to see issued by Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex:

“We would like to thank the people of Great Britain for your support during this difficult time. That said, guess what? We’re not animals in your fucking petting zoo. In fact, you people have things completely backwards. If a fucking mail carrier can marry whomever he wants but a duke cannot, what the hell is the point of being a duke? It’s supposed to be better to be royal than to be common, remember? It’s supposed to confer a certain privilege.

“Oh wait, you’re gonna tell us how good we have it because we’re rich? Then you’re going to turn around and tell us we’d better behave the way you’d like or you’ll cut off our support? You’re our subjects, not the other way ‘round. You might want to remember that.

“So here’s the four-one-one: We’re going to do whatever the hell we want, and you’re going to suck it up and deal. If Grandma objects, maybe we’ll go raise an army in France and take the crown, like they used to do in the good old days. If you commoners object, you can raise your own army and we’ll give it a go. Because this is how monarchy works, people. Someone wins and someone gets their head chopped off, and the people with heads make the rules. Peace out.


“The Duke and Duchess of Sussex

“P.S.: God save the fucking Queen.”

Somewhere in my Youth or Childhood . . .

. . . I must have done something good.

Days like today are the best days. Linda’s apple streusel pies are made, and the pumpkin chiffon pies are in progress. She’s made most of the appetizers, including my favorite, peppers Provençal. Yesterday, I prepped the bourbon sweet potatoes (purple!), and our friend Amy prepped the roasted root vegetables with hot honey butter and lime. Today we’ll get to work on the turkey with bacon-cider gravy, cranberry-walnut relish, and other dishes. Between family and friends, we’ll have everything from curried butternut squash soup to sautéed spinach and pancetta to maple cheesecake with vanilla whipped cream and tart apple compote.

My younger son spent an hour or so out in the yard with the leaf blower. “The good thing about having people over at five o’clock,” says Linda, “is that it’s dark already. They won’t see what a mess the yard is.” That my son would fly across the country for this holiday and cheerfully help with yard work is progress of a sort we would not have expected a few years ago. We won’t have as much of my side of the family as usual this year, but between friends and Linda’s relatives we’re still seating nineteen for dinner. And get this: everyone genuinely likes everyone else.

Last night, with our work done for the day, we kicked back and tested various methods of spiking eggnog.

I’ve known lean years and hard times. Sleepless nights and agonizing choices are old companions of mine. But if that’s what it took to get to these days, then it was all worth it. I have family, friends, love, and affection in abundance now. I treasure the people in my life, though sometimes I wonder what they’re doing here and why they stick around. It isn’t all butterflies and Fudgesicles, but it’s close.

My father says that if you have luck, you don’t need brains or talent. I don’t know if what I have now is luck or something else, and I don’t care. It’s more than enough for me.

Home of the Brave

We toured Fort McHenry today. You know Fort McHenry as the fort bombarded by the British during the War of 1812. It’s where Francis Scott Key was inspired to write the Star Spangled Banner. Later, it was used as a training ground and prison for Confederate soldiers and sympathizers during the Civil War.

To say the exhibits at this National Historic Monument and Shrine are problematic is an understatement. In one building, for example, is an exhibit entitled: “Lincoln: Statesman or Despot?” It discusses the fact that President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus early in the war and imposed military rule in Maryland in order to quash secessionist activity. The writ was later restored. Lincoln did what he did because the nation’s capital would have been indefensible had Maryland seceded.

Historians consistently rate Lincoln as the greatest President in the history of this country. We should remember and teach his legacy objectively, including the extra-constitutional measure of suspension of the writ. But it is lunatic to suggest that he was a despot. It is unbalanced. It is not scholarship. It is not history.

There’s more. The exhibits at Fort McHenry lionize Key and the Star Spangled Banner. That’s understandable. But most people don’t know that the poem/song has four verses, of which we only sing one. The third verse addresses the British attempt to sow disorder and win the war by offering to free American slaves who abandoned their masters and fought for Britain. Some slaves accepted the offer. In the third verse Key looked forward with glee to murdering them after the war:

  • No refuge could save the hireling and slave
  • From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
  • And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
  • O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
  • Nice.

    The exhibits at Fort McHenry gloss over this grotesquerie, noting only that the words were inspired by Key’s anger at the British invasion. The meaning of the words is completely ignored, while in other places exhibits strain to give the impression that the few free blacks who fought for the U.S. somehow proved that the armed forces were integrated and inclusive.

    I suppose you could say that the unbalanced nature of this exhibit is explained by its location in Maryland and a consequent desire to appease the local population. But that only begs the question of why we, as a nation, are still trying to appease white supremacists who describe their racism as “southern culture” and “heritage.” For too long, we have taught that the Civil War was caused by political disagreements between people who were otherwise good, loyal, honorable, and decent Americans. This is patently untrue. The war was a contest between good and evil, between freedom and slavery, between the idea that liberty and bondage were incompatible and the idea that African-Americans were, in the words of Chief Justice Roger Taney, “of an inferior order and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

    Our weak-kneed attempt to be “fair” to the Confederate cause has brought us to where we are today: a place where a national monument questions the legitimacy of our greatest President. A place where a President can describe white supremacists as “fine people” and shrug off violence between them and counter-protestors by saying there were “good people on both sides.” Imagine if we taught that Hitler and the Nazis were good Germans who had legitimate grievances after World War I; they just took those grievances too far or expressed them poorly. We don’t teach that. We teach that Naziism was, and is, pure evil. We teach that no legitimate grievance or economic dislocation could have justified it. When we teach about World War II, we call good and evil by their true names. We do not hesitate.

    The descendants of those who fought for slavery and racism should be ashamed of the actions of their ancestors. They should not still be waving Confederate flags. They do so only because the rest of us have shied away from compelling them to face the reckoning that Germans were not spared after their descent into barbarity. This is cowardice. It is moral relativism at its worst. It needs to stop.

    Relentless Forward Progress

    Somewhere around mile twenty four, I saw someone in an orange vest behind me. My legs were cramping and my feet were blistered. Thank God, I thought, The race sweeper. I’m the last one out here. He’ll pull me off the course and end this sufferfest.

    It was just another runner in an orange vest. Shit. I had to keep moving.

    I’m nobody’s idea of an athlete. Slow, uncoordinated, nearsighted, with poor balance and prone to weight gain, I was always the last kid picked for any team in school. I was something of a Renaissance man, which is to say I sucked at every sport. Now I’m getting old, and my never-very-good best days are behind me.

    But I can run, because any able-bodied person can run, so that’s what I do. Not fast, and not gracefully, because I’m built like an undersized linebacker. But I run.

    I don’t love it. I’m perfectly happy on the couch with a plate of warm chocolate-chip cookies. Besides, running puts me in the company of people who are younger, faster, more athletically accomplished, and more beautiful than I. It twangs and strums the strings of my insecurities. But it’s necessary for health and fitness, so I run.

    It has its benefits. It’s a pretty satisfying feeling when you defy others’ expectations to do things no one thought you could do. It’s something else entirely when you do things you didn’t believe you could do. Suddenly, the light goes on. That voice in your head that says, “I can’t?” It’s just a wuss who doesn’t want to try. You won’t listen to it next time. You know now that the voice lies. You will do all the hard things, and you won’t make excuses, and you won’t listen to your own doubts and fears, because they were bullshit last time and they’re bullshit this time. If you choose to walk away from a challenge—well, that’s a choice, and you’ll own it. There is no such thing as “I can’t.”

    At mile twenty seven, I knew I’d make it to the aid station at mile twenty nine.

    Sometimes I ask the important people in my life to do hard things, because sometimes life requires the doing of hard things. Beyond that, I want them to know that their own voices that say “I can’t” are just as wrong as mine. How can I make that ask if I’m not willing to push myself to accomplish things I think are beyond me? I will not be that guy who asks of other people what he will not risk himself. I will not be that man who seeks to control a woman to compensate for feelings of disempowerment that the world foists upon him. There’s a lot of that in today’s world, and it isn’t my way.

    At the aid station at mile twenty nine, it became unthinkable to drop out less than two miles from the finish. I’d get there if I had to crawl.

    I will do the difficult things in life that I don’t want to do. I will do them even if they hurt. I will not quit despite wanting nothing more than for someone to give me permission to quit. I will lead by example, not by diktat. The people to whom I mean something will say, “If Jeff can do what he does, I guess I have no excuses.”

    The barbecue at the finish line warmed my insides and restored some brain function. I looked at the finisher’s medal in my hand. Is this mine? Did I really do this?

    Life gives you plenty of opportunities to sit out a challenge. But the true adventure begins at the edge of the known world; that is, just beyond what you believe to be the limit of your capabilities. Somewhere past that point are things you’ve never seen and can’t imagine. Someone has to bring back reports of what’s out there. Why not me? Why not you?

    Justice Denied

    Boy, I don’t know. Fourteen days for Felicity Huffman. I just don’t know.

    Let’s be clear about what happened here: Huffman didn’t just cheat the system to get her daughter into a university for which she was not qualified. In so doing, Huffman took that university spot from another student—perhaps one who studied hard and earned his/her grades. Perhaps the student who didn’t get into U.S.C. because of Huffman’s fraud overcame adverse economic or family circumstances to put him- or herself in a position to succeed. That student’s opportunity now is gone forever. (S)he doesn’t now get to go to U.S.C. just because Huffman got caught.

    A parent who is rich enough to pay tens of thousands of dollars to cheat the system is wealthy enough to provide her child with every educational advantage. Huffman had the resources to send her daughter to the best schools, provide private tutoring if needed, and ensure that her daughter didn’t have to work while in school. I can only marvel at the arrogance and sense of entitlement it must take to believe that none of this is enough; that is, that one is so deserving of elite status that lawbreaking is justified if the privileges of wealth are not sufficient to deliver it.

    In a time of growing inequality, this sentence only reinforces the widely-held belief that we have a two-tiered system of justice: one for the rich, and another for the rest of us. That belief is deeply corrosive to our faith in government and society. It doesn’t matter that Huffman isn’t an habitual criminal or a congenitally bad actor. What she did strikes at the heart of our conception of America as a meritocracy. For that, she deserved at least several months of quiet time in very close quarters to reflect on her misdeeds.