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On personal symbols

I’ve got today off! I’m going to spend it jogging, doing a few errands and chores, reading, writing, and generally being quiet while K, who mostly works from home, writes press releases. At some point I suppose I should reflect on my 20s, since I will leave them behind tomorrow, but meh. I’ve enough to do without inflating the importance of my age. K dreaded turning 30. Of course, that year was bad enough without the odometer change, and the bad things that happened then made the year more symbolic than passing.

Last night we went to a benefit dinner to eradicate land mines sponsored by the Iowa United Nations Association. Our new U.S. Representative Dave Loebsack was there, and I was reminded upon seeing him that, among men who run for Congress, much less men who win elections, he is unusual for having a beard. I hope he keeps it. That American men in power have so thoroughly rejected beards these past several decades has struck me as unusual, even a little creepy. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t idolize beards. I had a great uncle who, about to undergo several nasty rounds of radiation treatments for a tumor that had taken over his throat, was allowed to choose between the hair on his head or his beard. He chose to keep his beard, and I always wondered why—my grandmother believed it represented to him his masculinity. If she was right, it was odd: except for a mustache I never knew him not to be shaved, which is to say that he had for years cut off his own manly symbol on purpose. I suppose one could believe there is a qualitative difference between shaving and having your beard fall out by radiation poisoning, but to me it seems a little false. For men in power to forsake their facial hair is more strange, especially given the long and honorable history of bearded men in American politics, as well as the persecution some brave men, such as Joseph Palmer, endured to gain the right to shave or not to shave:

Palmer’s claim to fame as a civil resistant was his absolute insistence on wearing a full beard in an age when beards were ridiculed and worn only by Jews.

Palmer himself had fought in the War of 1812 and he had an eccentric character, but was steadfast and upright and immovable when it came to his principles. “Wearing a beard became a fixed idea with him, and neither the law of the land nor the admonitions of the church could make him falter in his determination to claim freedom of action in this respect“1 His nick- name, “Old Jew” Palmer, was no reflection on his religious affiliation, but only showed the bigotry of his persecutors….

One day Palmer was attacked by four men, intent to shave off his beard. With the aid of an old jack-knife he carried, Palmer was able to thwart his assailants. However afterwards he was “arrested for committing an unprovoked assault and ordered by Justice Brigham to pay a fine, which he refused to do, as he claimed to be acting for maintenance of a principle.” He was thrown into jail and lodged with the debtors where he remained for over a year. When once asked why he wore his beard, “he said he would tell if any one could tell him why some men would, from 52 to 365 times a year, scrape their face from their nose to their neck.“2 He refused to pay his fine, although he was a man of property and he far outstayed his sentence. He refused to leave the jail because he thought he was being cheated on his upkeep, which he had to pay out of his own pocket. “The sheriff and jailers, tired of having him there, begged him to leave. Even his mother, Margaret Palmer, wrote to him ‘Not to be so set.’ But nothing could move him. He said they had put him in there and they would have to take him out, as he would not walk out. They finally carried him out in his chair and placed it on the sidewalk.“3 On his tombstone in the old North Leominster graveyard is said to be the carving of the head of an old man with a flowing beard and underneath it the inscription: “Joseph Palmer, died October 30, 1875—Persecuted for Wearing the Beard.”

Indeed, I’ve seen Palmer’s tomb, and that’s exactly what it says. But Palmer’s suffering was for nought, it would seem, since today, for too many shaven = craven. It’s a sad state of public affairs indeed. I’ve lamented this, briefly, before, yet the sordid, bigoted ways that shavers treat the unshorn continues. Fact is, though, hairless men are ninnies.

1 Clara Endicott Sears, Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Co., 1915), p. 53. (Source’s footnote)

2 Ibid., p. 60. (Source’s footnote)

3 Ibid., p. 66. (Source’s footnote)



The chemo-on-scalp-rather-than-beard decision may be analogous to many men’s refusal to get vasectomies even though they are sure they want no (more) children. To choose not to exercise your virility is one thing, to have it taken away is completely another.

I suspect that’s right. Such squeamishness among men sometimes irks me. I imagine my great uncle was frightened to death—the cancer was horrible and so were his treatments, and it eventually killed him—and wanted something to hold onto. I didn’t really understand that when I was first told about it. But men who decide o snip or not? That’s a small price to pay in light of all the invasive ways men have subjected women to for birth control.

PS. The irony that in light of a benefit to rid the world of land mines (truly atrocious things) I chose to write about beards and virility is not lost to me.


it’s because your youth is slipping away.

You’re just jealous because I’ve still got time left in my 20s. It’s less than 12 hours, sure, but it’s a glorious 12 hours!

happy birthday… too bad that you will turn 30 on the couch