The formerly hirsute


Sometimes a picture does seem worth a thousand words. When the Northern Alliance forces headed towards Kabul, the New York Times ran a photo sequence of someone being beaten, stripped, and shot by the advancing fighters. Then, when Kabul had been freed from Taliban rule, photos showed women revealing their faces, a VCR being purchased, and the floor of a barber shop covered with shorn beard hair, all said to be signs of joy.

I’ll certainly buy the idea that the re-introduction of music, movies, and women’s faces into everyday life is cause for joy. But I wonder about the beards.

I have swum in the Arctic Ocean and in the Southern Ocean just off the coast of Antarctica. For the most part, I seem to be impervious to cold — except in Philadelphia.

We like to watch the Mummers Parade in Philadelphia on January 1. In the good old days, the parade could take as long as 12 hours to pass a single point. And I would try to watch all 12 hours. There is no cold like the cold that seeps into your bones when you sit in one place for 12 hours.

The only worse cold I’ve experienced has been when undergoing platelet pheresis. That’s a procedure in which one’s blood comes out one arm, enters a machine that removes the platelets, and returns to the other arm. The platelets help keep people alive before they get bone-marrow transplants.

It takes a while for one’s blood to make it through the machine, so the first fluid to enter the return arm isn’t blood. A heater in the machine is supposed to warm it to body temperature. But sometimes the heater doesn’t work. There’s suddenly a piercing cold INSIDE the body. The phlebotomists rush over with blankets to no avail. The cold is inside the blankets, and the warmth that the body’s blood would normally bring isn’t there. Fortunately, in a few seconds, the blood-borne warmth comes back.

In Philadelphia at the Mummers Parade, the cold lasts a lot longer than just a few seconds. Over the years, I’ve come up with a layering system that keeps me relatively warm. Essentially, I wear everything I own. It works on most of me. But, despite electric socks, multiple layers, insulated boots, and blankets wrapped around those, I have yet to figure out how to keep my toes warm enough by the end of the night.

I can handle the cold better than most. One reason is my natural insulation (what others might call fat). Another is my beard.

The last time I had a clean-shaven face was in 1968. I do not wear a beard for religious reasons. I do not wear a beard for fashion reasons. I wear a beard because I am too lazy to shave.

Once a year, whether I need it or not, I get a haircut. I usually trim my beard down to a tiny fraction of an inch around the same time (March). If the summer is particularly warm, I might trim it again. But I don’t trim it in the winter. It keeps my face warm.

It may soon hit freezing in New York. My beard, as of this morning, is a little over five inches long.

It is already below freezing in much of Afghanistan, although Kabul is still in the 60s. Not surprisingly, many of the Northern Alliance fighters have big bushy beards, even though they were not subject to Taliban rule.

So, what’s going on in the Kabul barber shops? Are the beards coming off because they were such a hateful symbol of Taliban rule that it’s worth freezing in winter just to get rid of them? Or are the men of Kabul shaving their beards for the same reason that American flags adorned the taxi of the cringing turbaned driver on the recent New Yorker cover?

Are clean-shaven faces a sign of joy or just a sign? “This is not the face of a Talib. Please direct your anger elsewhere. Thank you.”

TTFN, Mark