Every year about this time, when the petunias wither, the horse coats thicken, and the dogs have to be coaxed outside in the morning, a certain delicate debate returns to the Prior household. Each year, as if for the first time ever, I inquire of Mr. Prior if he has forgotten to shave. And Mr. Prior answers, without elaboration, in the negative. After a few more unshaven days pass, I ask, as though I don't already know: "Are you growing a beard?" And Mr. Prior again offers a noncommittal sort of non-response. Finally, after a week or so goes by, I state rather than ask, "You're growing a beard." And Mr. Prior, as though we hadn't discussed this once or twice or twenty times before, responds, "I thought you said you liked my beard," referring, of course, to last year's battle of the beard. "Yes, I like how it looks …" I explain, trailing off, unconsciously brushing my sensitive cheek with my hand.

Sometimes our facial hair skirmish goes on for a week, sometimes a month. Happily, it always comes to an end once the beard does, too.

Beards have a complicated and varied history. In various times and cultures beards have signified wisdom, manliness, virility, dignity, poverty, propriety, conservatism, and countercultural revolution. Some men's very identities are tightly wrapped up in their beards: who would Abraham Lincoln be without his legendary beard? Or good ol' St. Nick without his white whiskers?

Poor men. While the range of personal expression women can achieve through fashion includes bags, shoes, jackets, hairstyle, hair length, hair color, nail polish, earrings, necklaces, scarves, boots, barrettes, bracelets, and lipstick, or the lack of any of these, a man's range can be pretty much summed up in Dockers or not-Dockers, ...

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