Only the very hip and the very square wear mustaches. In 2009, irony dictates coolness. This creates fashion trends wherein the hip can't survive without the square. The squares? They get along fine on their own, oblivious to the fads they produce.
Neither party looks so great in the mustache, though - a facial affectation if ever there was one. "A mustache is an exercise in vanity," pronounced my mom when my father started his own in the un-ironic '70s. "A mustache says, 'Look at my face,'" she decried, shaking her head one morning as my dad sat down for breakfast with a half-grown one.
He kept at it, though. I thought it was cool. Until it came in all the way, and then it made him look mean. Like a knife fighter. My sister and I wouldn't go near him. He acted the same, but even as we sat far across the TV room and watched him crack up over Tim Conway, the mustache overpowered everything and communicated that it was only a matter of time before he shoved a shiv into us. We were relieved when he shaved it off.
Mustaches are buzzkills in other ways, too. I've never kissed a man, but if I were a man kisser, I'd never want to kiss into a mustache. Why not smooch a muddy golf cleat instead?
So if mustaches look dumb and taste bad, why do men wear them? For the same reason they wear bow ties, tassled loafers, suspenders, yellow shades, retro Munsingwear, cardigans and chain-drive wallets. No good reason at all.
Given my jaded outlook on mustaches, I surprised myself when my daughter Maggie bet me that I wouldn't grow one. "You're on," I said. It was the day after Thanksgiving. She was inspired when friends, brothers in a family we know who live out of town, devoted themselves to growing 'staches by Christmas. We planned to see them on Christmas Day, and Maggie wanted me to surprise them with a mustache of my own.
That I could even grow one cast a five-o'clock shadow of a doubt over the household. I didn't even have to shave until I was a junior in college. Even then I might as well have had cardboard in the razor. The night of our bet I leaned into the bathroom mirror and squinted. A month might not be enough time.
It's hard to say which looks worse, a bad mustache or a partially grown bad mustache. I found that most people will give you the benefit of the doubt on the latter. For about a week. That's how long it takes until what they think they're seeing on your lip is no longer deniable.
"Are you okay?" a co-worker asked me at the end of week one. Personal hygiene is the first thing to go for mental patients. "What do you mean?" I said. "Well, I just mean, are you sick or anything?" She pointed her fingertips in the direction of her face and swiped them back and forth through the air.
That night I took stock. A mirror for someone trying to grow a mustache is a torture device. Maggie caught me checking myself out. "You're not gonna make it, are you?" she taunted. "Why do you say that?" I asked. "Because you're too vain," she said. "And you look so crappy."
This only fortified my resolve. My eyes darted back to the mirror. A knife fighter stared back at me.
By the end of week two, the hairs got long enough to fiddle with. My fingers found their way to the surface of my lip as though they had minds of their own, anxious to explore and press and rub. Some of the hairs, way too many of them, decided they didn't like the world and headed back from whence they came, their tips like ostrich heads in the sand. I could feel these confederates knife back into my skin and grow anew, thriving at twice the rate of their brothers above ground. Given this development, I'd win the mustache bet but I'd have to raise my upper lip to prove it.
Week three. People at work now only looked at my lip. It wasn't easy because their stares were filled with pity, the way anyone would look at a friend who has clearly gone to seed and is losing his mind. In a way, I was.
Christmas Eve. Laughter and dish clatter arose from the dining room and reached the bathroom where I stood, hands straddling the sink. With fewer than 12 hours to go to win the bet, I opened the cabinet, reached for my Gillette Trac II, and locked a new cartridge onto the weighty metal handle.
The blade pulled and plucked more than it sheered. Five minutes later the mustache was replaced by coagulating blood droplets. I dried off, jogged downstairs and took my seat at the Christmas table directly across from Maggie. She passed the salad bowl to her brother and then looked up at me in the flickering glow of the candles. A look of disappointment spilled like a can of old house paint across her face. It made me want to turn back the clock a half hour.
The only thing more vain than growing a mustache, I realized, is shaving one off.