To beard or not to beard?

This question must also have been considered by Shakespeare, who, according to some portraits, is shown with a dapper mustache, which, together with his half-long hair, gives one the impression that he, too, was not above a certain amount of vanity. Adornments of this kind don't happen. They're planned.

So was my beard - after long deliberations and careful scrutinies of my cleanshaven chin in the mirror in an attempt to picture what effect a growth of extra hair would produce. Would I appear handsome, or would my scraggy, lined face become even more so? That was the question. And what about the environment? If those with whom I associate felt that I was bringing ugliness into the world, how could I ever face them?

Yes, face them, indeed - another problem. The agony of starting to grow a beard has to be experienced before it can be truly appreciated. The first feeble flutterings, the first day's growth, will perhaps go unnoticed, but the entry into the second or third days is the testing time of every potential beard grower. Your wife says: ''You haven't shaved very well today.'' You smile wanly and rub your chin with as big a hand as possible, and the conscience that makes cowards of us all impels you to say nothing, although you know that you are only postponing the day of judgment until tomorrow.

Tomorrow comes. ''Don't tell me you're growing a beard.'' (The last thing you'd ever intended doing.) ''How awful - you look like a tramp.'' You know this is true. You know that everyone you meet will think or say the same. Now there is no denying what your intentions are, and your mind battles both with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and a whole ocean of troubles.

That is the turning point. The realization now comes that as long as you are shuffling along on this mortal coil, you've just got to oppose the thousand natural shocks that flesh is hair to, stick to your decision, and give the beard a chance. The crisis is over, but details remain. What area should the growth cover, and how should it be shaped? Presumably from the lifelong practice of keeping my upper lip stiff, it refused to cooperate, and what should have been mustache turned out to be widely separated oases of dark, stunted trees in a pink desert. They had to go. The chin must take up the struggle on its own.

And so it did - rather well, in fact. It simply bristled with pride, although reduced to an area bounded by diagonal lines sloping outward and downward from the corners of the mouth. The general color of the beard was whitish-gray, but these boundary lines from the mouth to the jawbone were demarcated by quarter-inch strips of black!

Then it happened. I, a serious man, little given to mirth, took one look at myself in the mirror, broke down, and giggled! Nature was abetting my project in a way I had never imagined. This would make an impression on the world at large . . . but what sort of an impression? Ay, there's the rub. As the newly bearded man walks to and fro in the world, everyone who has ever known him expresses an opinion - not necessarily in words - but what can be more eloquent than looks! The faces turned my way conveyed everything from downright ridicule to unutterable pity.

But, Brothers of the Beard, stand firm. Sooner or later someone will say: ''I like it - it suits you,'' and when this comes from a sculptress, as it did in my case - an American sculptress - the remark bears incredible weight. ''Abraham Lincoln,'' she smiled. ''Do you think I ought to run for the presidency?'' I replied. She reminded me of the Boston Tea Party, and we agreed that an Englishman would hardly be a suitable candidate.

But you don't have to be a president to sport a beard. In my adopted country, Denmark, a large percentage of the male population have some part of their faces covered by hair. But that knowledge is only a partial help to the beginner.

On looking back over the last three months - the bearded chapter in my life - I feel that I cannot ignore forever the negative comments on my ''new look,'' whether given facetiously or with genuine concern, and should the experiment prove a failure and I decide finally to revert to cleanshavenness, I shall find solace in the words of Neil Millar: ''To fail is to achieve the unexpected. But it is still an achievement, however unintentional.''

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