In the fourth century, a group of Christian theology students in Alexandria came to blows, a common enough event for Christian theology students then and for centuries afterwards, over the question of how long a beard should be in order to demonstrate the wearer’s personal sanctity. After a night of exhaustive theological and pugilistic investigation of this admittedly arcane bit of dogma, someone hit upon the bright idea of asking the great scholar and Biblical translator Jerome for a ruling on the matter. So the collected students hied themselves and their black eyes down to the great library of Alexandria to pose the question to the saint.
Our seekers after knowledge found Jerome (or Hieronymous, if you people prefer the original with all this Bosch) standing at the circulation desk arguing with one of the clerks about his overdue copy of Valley of the Dolls. The students, in a burst of youthful enthusiasm, which is always the most annoying kind, breathlessly asked their tonsorial question of Jerome, an irascible man in the best of times—he once called someone who disagreed with him an ignorant calumniator, stuffed with Irish porridge (clearly, a man who knew how to vent and to vent well)—and now a man driven to new heights of irascibility because of the clerk’s obstinate refusal to let him keep the book out a little longer so he could translate the good bits into Latin. Jerome told the students, with perhaps more heat than charity, that if sanctity depended on the length of one’s beard, nothing in the Lord’s creation would be holier than a goat. Then, driven to distraction and left there without a return ticket, the great saint hurled anathemas at the students, as well as volume I of the Oxford Latin Dictionary (Aardvarkus to Aggravatedus), and the chastened students fled for their lives from the saint’s onslaught, returning to their usual haunts to discuss the theological significance of the goat. As per usual, the conversation grew heated and the neighbors then called the police to suppress the rioting. In the end, only three people were killed and 27 goats reported missing, although the police later found five of them tied up behind Jamaican restaurants on Alexandria’s west side. The owners declared that they had no idea how the goats got there.
I bring up all this aggressive hirsute shilly-shallying because I now have a beard and I am under some very substantial pressure from a number of people to get rid of the thing. My mother, for one, has never liked beards and finds the prospect of looking at mine for any prolonged length of time a prospect to horrifying to contemplate. Mom does not like anything that reminds her that she is, as she puts it, getting on a bit, although I should point out here that at 82 she is not getting on, she’s got on, and no, that is not something I would say to her face, thank you very much, and therefore having to look at her eldest son’s impression of Robert E. Lee is as grim a memento mori as you can find here in our happy little burg. The kid next door, an obnoxious munchkin as viciously noxious as she is relentlessly ob, takes my mother’s side of the argument and does so with no end of sonic gusto, usually in as close a proximity to my ears as she can manage. Scarcely a day goes by hereabouts that I do not hear that annoying little cockroach bellowing her incessant demand that I shave the ugly gray ferret off my face, and scarcely a day goes by that I do not wonder why I didn’t smother the rotten brat with a pillow when I had the chance. Ah well, it’s too late for regrets now, I suppose.
On the other hand, a good many people like the new look, something that I find very heartening. I look, depending on whom you talk to, like a professor, which is what I started out to be all those years ago, or Ernest Hemingway, a comparison I simultaneously love and loathe—I admire Hemingway the writer a great deal and I dislike Hemingway the man about as much; the type of person who could write the kind of nasty hatchet jobs that appear in A Moveable Feast is not the sort of person I would want to know personally. And, apparently, I look like Santa Claus, a resemblance that has led more than one youngster to sidle up to me and mutter, “I wanna Playstation.” I must admit that since growing the beard I am taking a good deal of pleasure in playing the Anti-Claus and telling them that they can’t have one unless they beat up their little sisters two days before Christmas, and that they may get nothing at all this year because the cookies they left out for me last year were so stale that the reindeer wouldn’t eat the damn things, and let’s face it, reindeer are neither the pickiest of eaters nor are they the brightest bulbs in the box; if the reindeer won’t eat the cookies, no one else will. I may not stop Christmas from coming this year, but I managed to take some of the shine off of the holiday, especially if you happen to be a little sister hereabouts just a couple days before Christmas, and before you start calling me names, let me reiterate my long held position that Ebenezer Scrooge was a deeply misunderstood man and that the Grinch was a equally unappreciated…well, whatever grinches are, with or without the tight shoes, they are unappreciated.
But the best opinion of all came from my brother, who agrees with my mother, thinks that the beard should go sooner rather than later, and says that the damn beard makes me look like a refugee from the ZZ Top Fan Club. This is fine by me; I’ve been a fan of the Texas rockers for years now, so if I’m going to look like I’m with the band, I might as well keep the beard. Like the boys say, every girl’s crazy about a sharp-dressed man. Of course, ZZ Top is not the sharpest looking band around—I think they look like the miner ‘49 and his daughter, Clementine, especially the latter—but then again, they don’t have to look sharp. Unlike me, they’re actually with the band.