For me, apparently, it's all about appearances. Mainly, my appearance(s). Or, perhaps more correctly, it's about fooling myself about my appearance(s). And ever-more-frequent failure to do so. Fool myself, that is.
When last we were rummaging around in these entries, I believe I revealed that, because I'd been successful in my bid for a much-coveted acting role in arguably one of the most potentially humiliating plays I've ever read or seen, I shaved off my facial hair. Well, not the eyebrows and lashes. And disposing of the little teased-out patch of white on my chin wasn't all that upsetting. I wasn't even so devastated by clearing away the tag of whiteness hanging off the center of my lower lip. These tidbits of my secondary sexual characteristics were really there only to provide distraction from, and balance to, my nose of enormous proportions and bulbosity. Easy come, easy go, I thought.
The moustache, however, proved to be another matter altogether. I've had a moustache since at least 1979. Many people I know weren't even born then, and so have no idea that, when it first began to make its reluctant appearance, my moustache, such as it was, was brown. I may have grown it for an acting role, as a matter of fact. That would be a convincing prompt, for me.
And somehow, over the years, even with all the other theatrical roles I've done, I've never been called upon to remove this little strip of sub-nasal hair. (Could it be, he suddenly wonders, years after the answer 'yes' would make a difference, that this explains in part my lack of success in theatrical productions that didn't require a mask?) I've grown accustomed to my face.
Even when it turned stark white -- which was a process that startled me only when it was mostly over already -- it still seemed to do the face-balancing job as nicely as I could want, without resorting to major cosmetic surgery. I'd always said that, if shaving were necessary for a role, I would do it, but inside I was always praying, 'Please say no, please say no, please say no...' I doubt that these petitions had anything to do with the matter, but it does indicate my less-than-detached opinion of my facial hair.
The little additions, mentioned as easily discarded, came later. I've been accused of having ironic facial hair. I've confessed that, given the twisted way my hair grows on my head, some of it is a devious comb-over.
Now. A couple of years ago, John and I took a summer vacation that wasn't in California. We decided, on his suggestion, on spending a week on Block Island, RI. Even though I'd lived for some years in Newport and Providence, I'd only seen Block Island, in the mist, while standing on the south-facing second-floor balcony of the restaurant I was working in. The one run by self-destructive alcoholics, but that's for another time. In any event, it was clearly time to see this place from much closer.
We had a great time, in spite of having arrived just as the legendary earthquake was rattling the East Coast (we didn't feel a thing because we were still an eighth of a mile out to sea, on our way to the dock); we rented bikes and toted our bit of luggage up to the little cabin John had found for us, not too close to town, not too far. Our little veranda looked out on a pond bordered on one side by thick bushes, that would be perfect cover for songbirds. At night, the sky was utterly clear.
We spent a lot of time biking -- a cruel amount of time, I thought while trying to pump my way up yet another totally unnecessary hill, on our way to see one of the two lighthouses that form the main tourist attractions on the place. Plus the Statue of Temperance, which you can only look at for so long. We had to bike down the hill for our groceries (eggs: $7 each! This isn't exactly true, but that's how it felt, to pay into the heavy double digits for one little plastic bag of edibles), we were just biking fools. I remember one afternoon, when we were (finally) taking a bit of a breather from our exertions, and I was lounging on a bench, and some other bikers rode past, and I thought that one of the women looked at me... that way. Like, not dismissively.
I was completely sure, for some reason, that she was right. I'd been having an unusual spate of self-assurance, and was sure I'd been losing weight, and that I was looking more fit than I had in a long time. On one of our last treks, we'd climbed down a long, winding set of stairs, from a considerable height, all the way down to the narrow beach. It was almost as good as something you'd see in a children's book. I got to play in the surf for a bit, and examine, up close, some of the many simple rock cairns sprouting here and there, as far as I could see, in either direction. John, as sometimes happens, was taking pictures. For once, I didn't think I minded. In fact, after we'd climbed back up the twisty stairs (which lose some of their charm when gravity is working against one), had cleaned up and then biked out for our last island dinner, I allowed John to take a picture of me, in the sunset light, while I was waiting for my lobster mac'n'cheese to arrive.
Later, when we were back home (leaving the island just as Hurricane Irene was making its way up the Eastern Seaboard, not because we were afraid of the storm, but because that's when our reservations ran out), John either developed or posted those photos of Block Island -- the maze of old contraptions inside one of the light-houses, panoramic views of the harbor, a shot of one of the more charming marinas, a surprising picture of a sea elephant that had somehow gotten tangled up, improbably enough, in a man's athletic shirt... A photo of someone who resembled me, but instead of looking rested and triumphant, looked wrung out and grey.
Oh wait. Those were me.
Well, I may as well get this out of the way right now, though it can be of no surprise to anyone who's read more than one of these tiresome entries: of me, I think it can be said, with absolutely no irony at all, that when it comes to my appearance, I am profoundly shallow.
I wouldn't go swimming as a teen, because I was too skinny. I made college board scores significantly lower than would otherwise have been expected, because I was wearing the wrong trousers to school that day. While I was in the Air Force, in Iceland, I found a pencil self-portrait I'd done while I was still in Pennsylvania, and I was truly jolted at the strength of the self-hate that burst off the page. Me confronting my own face. Luckily, that drawing has been lost forever...
But not all of my misgivings about myself are imaginary or evidence of body dysmorphia. Both my face and my body seem to be divided into two distinct parts. On my face, my eyes and my (let's call it... assertive) nose seem more or less suited for each other. But beginning just below my nostrils, my face sort of shrinks in on itself, and I really do look like the result of an interbreeding experiment involving a green sea turtle, and my mother.
My body has pretty much the same division line -- the arms and torso seem to match, while just below my rib cage, my hips widen, and I look like a freshman art student's last-minute effort at a life-size model of a human body in clay.
The body thing can be compensated for with clothing, of course, Even a well-chosen swimming suit can disguise this discontinuity. But the face is another matter.
Granted, I could decide to wear a ski mask for the rest of my life, although it might make summers more unpleasant than they already are. I've been doing... upper lip exercises (do such things exist? Someone had to think of yoga the first time, didn't they?), so this expanse of featureless skin might at least lay claim to some character. I'm planning to visit a little clinic I know of, to discuss the feasibility (read: cost) of possibly injecting botox into my aggressively emphatic naso-labial folds. If that's not advisable, maybe I can just get some really sturdy office clips -- the black ones made of springy steel, with the silvery flipping grips -- and attach one behind each ear, thus giving me the same results as a much more expensive mini face-lift. It couldn't be much worse than clip-on earrings.
Here's another sliver of apparently irrelevant relevance. When my parents were divorced, my mother took my little sister with her -- the girl half of a set of fraternal twins. (The boy died, about fifty years later, never having seen his mother again) I don't think she could have known that this would be so -- my sister was only four at the time, and looked like a dark-haired little girl. My brothers and I, of course, went with my father, even though the divorce had been granted on the grounds of physical cruelty. I guess the presiding judge thought that giving my angry father some easier targets at home might prevent him from causing damage in public? Who can read the legal mind?
Years later, and after I was out of the Air Force, I located the Philadelphia suburban address the Red Cross had provided me, dialed the phone number they'd given me, and arranged to take a train and a bus to meet this woman and this girl. Our rendez-vous spot was to be the pet shop in a little strip mall right by the bus stop. As soon as I stepped out into the night air, and saw the two expectant faces, and met them at the door, with the smell of cedar chips pouring out after them, I had one of those realizations that must be what it's like to cleave a precious stone. I realized that, whether or not they knew this on any level, my parents had each taken with them the child who looked most like their divorced parent.
Seeing my mother, this tiny woman in a dark cloth coat, explained like retroactive magic all the pained glances I would get from my dad, for no particular reason at all -- why he could sit and stare at me with cold, reptilian eyes, until for once I would invent a chore for myself, just to get away from him. Who knows how my sister had borne her unasked-for resemblance to a man she grew up, in some ways with, and in some ways, without. My mother could be unsubtle when it served her purposes.
So, in addition to everything else, here's my mother once again looking back at me from whatever reflective surface I happen to face. Time heals all wounds, say those for whom time has healed all the wounds they happen to be paying attention to. For me, time seems more to pick away at, and expose, and provide opportunity for infection of, all wounds. While sapping whatever psychic strength might be necessary to fight off the picking, and wipe away the pus.
Who knew that a little strip of bristly white hairs could do so much? Who knew that the removal of this modest facial adornment could stir up so much? But then, consider: because one of the Louis -- most likely Louis XIV, the deluge one -- had begun to lose his hair at age 17, and was self-conscious about it, the entire industry of peruquiererrie for men arose and flourished.
The play will be over by the end of May. And I'm still glad that I'm doing it. But I'll stop shaving with the final curtain. And perhaps, for the next couple of months, I can just spend an unusual amount of time, using the largest possible bandana, and blowing my nose.
© 2013 Walter Zimmerman