Good salesmen possess a key to the human psyche. They understand our hidden triggers, our innate fascinations and horrors, the drives we’ve eradicated from our top-of-conscious minds yet continue to lurk in our reptile cortex—that primitive brain center which compels us to consume substances which are injurious to our health or emotional wellbeing. Our reptile selves prowl the scummy stew of neurons and electrons that fizzle in the darkest pools of our brainpans; every so often a scaly appendage or forked tongue will flicker up from those steaming wastes to find gratification in the obscene or outright awful.
As a society, our communal reptile cortex is the culprit for such abominations as turduckens, the Twilight saga, dwarf tossing, Paula Deen, spandex, the lion's share of CMT programming, Girls and Corpses magazine, and The World's Ugliest Dog competition.
To suggest we actually desire these things is to invite madness into our souls. We can’t consciously desire them, can we? No! But as a culture we clearly like these things—we really, really like them. And may God have mercy on our souls.
The current reptile-cortex salesmen par excellance are reality TV producers. There’s this old wheeze in the ad racket that goes along the lines of: You’ve got to answer a need the customer didn’t even know he had. Reality TV producers bastardize it a bit so it goes: You’ve got to provide viewers with access to private hells they had no idea even existed—and once you get them there, they’ll stay of their own volition.
And we do. For hours and hours, we’ll follow the exploits of Botoxed housewives and buffoons hollering over storage lockers and cleanliness-challenged shut-ins and obsessive-compulsive coupon clippers and batshit ex-beauty queens who turn their daughters into creepy bedazzled harlequins.
I watch plenty of these shows, a fact I’m neither terribly proud of or abashed about. My reptile cortex needs to feed; reality TV is its ambrosia of choice. Yet I’m startled when I find a fresh delight—and more startled that someone, somewhere, had anticipated my heretofore-unknown desire and pre-emptively answered it. Whenever it happens I go through an approximation of the seven stages of grief.
STEP 1: SURPRISE
“Why does this show exist?”
STEP 2: RIDICULE
“Who the hell would watch this?”
STEP 3: EXTREME-RIDICULE-SHADING-INTO-RAGE
“No, really, this is stupid! Why is this on the air? This represents the absolute nadir of our culture and the sum total distillation of all that’s wrong with our country! No wonder the Chinese are kicking our asses!”
STEP 4: BAFFLEMENT
“If it’s so bad, why am I still watching it?”
STEP 5: BARGAINING
“It doesn’t mean you’re an awful human being for watching this, Craig.”
STEP 6: ENRAPTURE
“This … is okay. I don’t know why, but it is so.”
STEP 7: ACCEPTANCE
“C’est la vie.”
Such was the situation last weekend, when I caught a Whisker Wars marathon. What is Whisker Wars, you ask? A program providing a rare and dizzying glimpse into the world of “professional bearding.” What is that, you ask? Phil Olsen, series mainstay and “captain” of “Beard Team U.S.A.” helpfully explains:
“Bearding is a sport, which is growing and cultivating and styling one’s beard for the purposes of competing in a beard competition.”
Let me stop you right there, Phil. “Bearding” is not a sport. I say so with the understanding that today’s definition of “sport” is looser than in prior eras, what with poker and fishing qualifying in some quarters. But the simple fact is that if “bearding” is indeed a sport, it means that long-term coma wards all over this great land are jam-packed with athletes.
That said, bearding’s one hell of a subculture! Never would I have imagined full-grown men would dedicate so much time, effort and ego to their facial hair. Never did I think there could be a World Championship beard-off, long dominated by the Germans, where men style their face-pelts into extreme curlicues and zaftig whorls, teasing their mustaches into two-foot waxed rails that put Dali in the shade. I never thought I’d be privy to the daily travails of veteran beardsmen—beards hilariously caught in zippers, slammed in doors, chewed at by zealous goats, etcetera—as well as their big life decisions: Will Myk O’Connor, the Brooklyn bad-boy of bearding, shave before his wedding to honor his inlaw’s wish that he doesn’t walk down the aisle looking like some hipster Gandalf?
I couldn’t have imagined giving rips about men whose primary, nay sole, goal in life is so staggeringly narrow: to grow a beard. But lord help me, I do! I care about Jack Passion, aka Big Red, the darling of the beard circuit, the Muhammad Ali of bearding, who has earned the poisonous enmity of the Austin Facial Hair Club, a passel of rogue Texans jealous of Big Red’s success—so much so that they sought an alliance with the Alaska Beard and Mustache Club in hopes of overthrowing Phil Olsen (who openly dotes upon Jack Passion, grooming his protégé like a mama chimpanzee picking nits from her child’s fur) in a surprise coup.
I couldn’t have foreseen how the cultivation of a thick, lush, hairy drapery actually de-sexes a man, neutering his baseline sexuality. It wouldn’t seem to make sense, seeing as some of the great beardsmen of yore—Hemingway, Genghis Khan—were titans of malehood. But it’s a fine line, like a man who grows his fingernails too long; at some point, you just look plain weird.
I can’t believe I’d’ve become so emotionally involved that when Olson looks dead straight at the camera and says, with magisterial gravitas, “Beard Team USA grows beards for America” that I’d’ve thought: F’ing-A right, Phil! Go stomp a mudhole in those German’s backsides!
In one of the seven episodes I watched that day (forgive me!) Olsen declared his aim was to monetize bearding somehow, so that his “athletes” could reap lucrative endorsements, motivational speaking fees—JACK PASSION PRESENTS: FACIAL HAIR IS A MATTER OF WILL!—and competition bonuses. That stirred something in my own reptile cortex, namely:
The best beardsman in the world is undiscovered. He’s in the woods, living in a cave, a societal pariah. My goal is simple: find that brilliantly-beaded hermit and exploit him to the max.
Some of you might find my plan to be scabrously unethical. I’ll not deny that. But the world of bearding is infamously harsh—milquetoasts, shrinking violets and noodle-armed dandies need not apply, you dig?
But back to my plan. I’m putting together an expeditionary team. A cartographer, a follicular antiquarian, and myself. We’ve staked out some likely locations with the intention of departing post-haste; we will not return until we’ve found a magisterial specimen of beard-itude. Perhaps a ferrety-eyed shut-in who just wants to be left alone to die or a full-blown mountain man who despises humanity. Perhaps even a terrifically skinny fellow with a long bushy beard—my follicular antiquarian says we should consider this hypothetical specimen as our Great White Whale, based on beard-to-body ratio alone.
We will find this harmless hermit, drag him from hiding, comb the pinecones and squirrel bones from his beard, barber him, and enter him in competition.
And he will be glorious.
Perhaps you say my plan is sheer folly. I laugh at you. Spit at you. And if I should die in the woods, my body gnawed by wolves, well, such is life. And is it very much of a life, really, if it is not spent in pursuit of greatness?
Viva la barba!
Viva the beard!
All best, Craig.