The first little paint stroke of Mercurochrome to my upper lip seemed like an interesting idea at the time. I, after all, had grown my first mustache and beard over the summer of 1972, between eighth grade and my freshman year of high school. To my adolescent mind, it was a badge of maturity that went with leaving behind Catholic grade school and the redneck bullies I had endured for eight years. The next day would be my first day at Rockhurst High School, Kansas City’s Jesuit high school, several miles and mindsets away from the Hickman Mills area where my family lived just at the edge of where the suburbs met the cornfields and hunting woods. Grateful to be moving on, I had spent the summer gearing up for what I hoped, if not was almost certain, maybe, would be a new life, and part of the passage included not shaving for three months just to see what kind of beard I could grow.
My dad would have been 97 years old today. To remember him, I’m posting a piece (more an anecdotal memory than a story) that I wrote several years ago before his death. Happy birthday, funny man!
This morning while plucking a hair from my earlobe as thick as a chin whisker I recalled my childhood visits to the barber with my dad. Saturday mornings belonged to my dad and me during my grade school years. He and I got out of the house, where my mother and six sisters ruled the roost, not to go fishing or hunting or do little league or some other typical father-and-son activity, but to do the weekly household grocery shopping.
This piece appears as one of the two introductions to the art anthology Hair, published by Bruno Gmünder in 2010. The book is in its second edition, and the introductions themselves received callouts in reviews.
The Hairy Pendulum Swings:
How culture has embraced male body hair over the past century
When I was a child the world was warm and furry, from shag carpeting to suede bean-bag chairs to shing-a-ling trim to the long manes on everyone young. No one but competitive bodybuilders and drag queens would have considered shaving or waxing their bodies back then, and actors and athletes, like Sean Connery, Joe Namath, Burt Reynolds, and James Caan bared their luscious chests proudly on screen and in the pages of the magazines as often as possible.
In 1960s and ’70s America, chest hair was not only popular, it defined masculinity. The opposite of idealized stone-cold waxed muscle, the mysteries of adult male sexuality lay hidden deep within the thick matted diamond of hair between a workman’s pectorals, or under an athlete’s arms, or in furtive glimpses of bushy crotches in locker rooms. Hair softened the hard parts of men’s bodies, gave shape and expression to those that would otherwise have been shapeless, and suggested raw animal attraction waiting to be discovered.
And then came the 1980s. Continue reading “the hairy pendulum swings”