Sunday, September 1, 2013

On beards

Tuesday, August 20, 2013
By Michael
            I was fetching water at our local spring yesterday when a man lying on the grass startled me. If I see people there they are usually either filling up water or swimming (and that only happens on the hottest of days). It was a minor holiday (spas—when apples get blessed, I think; we never celebrated it at our Ukrainian churches in America), so I guess that made it a fine day to lounge around by the spring. Ukrainians take religious holidays and Sundays very seriously. They will never work on those days. Anyway, this man struck up a conversation with me. He was pretty friendly and obviously wanted to chat a bit more than I did. His name is also Mykhaylo (I go by Mykhaylo to Ukrainians, Michael to English speakers), and he told me that his mom built that spring. I’m guessing that means she either helped finance it or helped in building it. Laying down all that concrete and installing sidewalks, railing, and the chapel is more than a one person job I think. He told me that he lives by the pond on the edge of town and said it belongs to him.

The pond on the edge of town (the sign says, “Fishing prohibited”)
He has a nice little place in terms of location. His house is disconnected from our village by a few hundred meters or so. It’s private enough without being too remote. He also told me how a group of people downstream from the spring wanted to hook up their houses with plumbing. They would have had running spring water in their houses—and the pressure is high enough that one would not require the use of a pump. They even laid down piping starting at the spring until a man put a stop to the project.

The white pipe exiting the spring towards people’s houses
He would not let them lay down pipe through his property. Pan Oleh would have been one of the users of the spring water. He even began to dig out a small pond on his property. He planned on filling it with water from the spring. Oh well. People keep telling Yulia and I to have hope because that man might have a change of heart.

The pond by our house
            Mykhaylo eventually asked what many Ukrainians who have just met me ask—“Are you a priest?” From experience I knew that he was referring to my beard and told him, “No, I’m not a priest. I just like beards.” Beards are not as popular in Ukraine as they are in, say, the US right now. I guess the few men that do have beards are priests to most Ukrainians. Then he asked the second most frequently asked question about my beard—does my wife like it? I assured him that, yes, she likes it.
As a fan of facial hair, it’s sad to me that Ukrainians have lost their tradition of long whiskers. The stereotypical Cossack sported a very long mustache. Our national bard, Taras Shevchenko, also had a bushy mustache, probably in deference the Cossacks he romanticized in his poetry. Why did Ukrainians lose this tradition?
Beards really aren’t as uncomfortable as people may think they would be. True, for the first week or two after shaving facial hair seems especially sharp and coarse. The neck itching that many men experience during this period is especially annoying. But after that the itching stops and the whiskers become softer and pliable. And after that brief period of discomfort, doesn’t the beard look better than no beard? I think so. So does Yulia.
            I first grew out my facial hair about a year and a half ago. Yulia and I had been in Ukraine for about half a year already. During that time I noticed that there was something different about Ukrainian men. They seemed more sullen, cranky, and disrespectful than what I was used to. I began to despise their attitudes. They expect women to cook and clean, but never lift a finger to help with children or housework. I noticed these differences in attitude were accompanied by physical features as well—swollen bellies and grey skin from drinking too much and a body odor from not washing and smoking cigarettes. And there was something else. …Then it hit me. These nasty men—none of them had beards. All the bus drivers who smoked their cigarettes and talked on their cell phones while yelling at innocent passengers asking for directions. All the gold toothed construction workers on perpetual smoke breaks. The drunken jerk who ripped down a sign that a couple of teenagers had just put up advertising trash pick up day at the park. None of them had beards. I began to associate shaved faces with losers.
            To be fair, I had been curious to grow a beard since before Yulia and I left for Ukraine. But I think the nasty man stereotype pushed me over the threshold.  Since I had met her, Yulia had been encouraging me to grow a beard. She says she thinks all men look better with facial hair. I was skeptical about what I would look like, though I agreed that men look better with beards. I thought my whiskers weren’t dark or dense enough, but I was proved wrong. I liked the look a bit more than being bare faced. It’s also much less maintenance. So I say to all men who are not nasty men—let your whiskers grow! Let beards be the sign of respectable men who are healthy, happy, care for women, and help out with chores around the house. Let the inconsiderate, lazy, drunken smokers look like what they are—spoiled, smelly, overgrown boys.
Before I conclude this post and offend 90 percent of the small audience Yulia and I have, let me say that the above rant is somewhat tongue and cheek. A bearded man does not make a respectable man. And a shaved face does not imply brutishness. Nor are all men from Ukraine pigs. My grandfathers and father-in-law are very respectable and respectful. But the association I made between bare faces and brutes is real, despite it being inaccurate. It should serve as a lesson for all grown men. Together, we all need to ask: What kinds of signals are we sending others about ourselves and what kind of role models are we being for boys and adolescents? Like it or not, we create the male archetype for the upcoming generations. Let’s make it a good one.

Yulia and me at the park in L’viv. Me with a full beard. (I’m still working on being a better man though.)

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