I opened the door and the little bell rang. Sam stiffened on the leash and pulled away, tugging hard for the sidewalk. It was grooming day. Long overdue. Sam, our black golden doodle had an appointment at the shop in our neighborhood. But she wanted none of it.
It was humid inside the small, old building. It smelled of detergent and wet dog, a tired structure that could have used an update years ago. The chest-high counter was dressed in aged paneling. A bottle of hand sanitizer sat on its shelf. To my left, shelves of cheap-framed photos of groomed dogs—fresh from grooming, spiffy and clean—lined the wall. The woman on the other side of the counter had just emerged from a room in the back, dog hair littered her t-shirt. She spoke into a cell phone as she wrote with a pen in a coffee-stained three-ring binder. “What time do you want to bring her in?” she asked the caller on the other end. The scene and the smells were apparently all too familiar to Sam. She knew where she was and wanted out.
“It’s okay, girl,” I said. Sam cowered in the corner.
“Okay,” the woman said, ending her phone call and smiling at Sam. “Who is this?” she asked.
“Sam. Here for an appointment,” I said. “We like the puppy cut but do what you need to. She’s pretty tangled in places.”
“Like before?” the groomer asked.
I nodded. Sam turned to face the door and longed to escape.
“She’s not happy,” I said.
The groomer reached out her hand and Sam reluctantly moved toward it—uncertain, unsettled, unsure. The woman rubbed Sam’s head. It did little to soothe her. I handed the groomer the leash and exited to the street, my heart a little heavy.
On Saturday mornings as a kid, my father would take me to the neighborhood barbershop, the barber sitting me in the big chair and wrapping a flowing bib around my little body, my dirty Keds dangling out from the bottom. The whir of the electric razor next to my ear was loud and unnerving. “Cut it close,” my father would say from his seat in the waiting area. And as the barber used his large hand to position my head from on side to the other, I could feel the cold steel on my scalp and watched the hair fall onto the bib at my lap.
Years later, I was my father, taking my own sons to the barber. “Cut it close,” I’m sure I had said.
The inevitable cleaning-up. I wasn’t a fan. My boys weren’t fans, either. Why should Sam be one?
When I was a teenager, listening to Iron Butterfly and Led Zeppelin albums in my bedroom late at night, my hair had grown to my shoulders. There had been no grooming, no cleaning-up, for sometime. “Thinking about a haircut?” my father would ask. I would answer, “Not really.” My parents never pressured me, never insisted I had those wavy locks trimmed up. I’m sure, however, they would have preferred it. Still, they never expressed that openly. Eventually my hair found a shorter length. Male-patterned baldness soon took over. I wasn’t into the David Crosby look, so, keeping it close would be the new normal.
I finally got cleaned-up, you might say. But I don’t remember liking it much.
Today, the hair is close-cropped, but a beard has emerged. Years ago, it was a full one. Then a mustache only. Then a goatee for about a decade. Today, the full beard is back—scruffy in that pandemic sort of way that has become acceptable. Still, when I look in the mirror, I wobble between letting it grow—letting my freak flag fly—or taking it all away. Like Sam, maybe it’s time to clean-up again. But also like Sam, a part of me is pulling hard on the leash for the door.
What is this odd defiance? Why is it that I rebel, in my smallest say, against the clean-up? For Sam, I’m sure it has to do with having to be still and submissive for the hours it might take to trim her up. Is that it for me, too? Do I have a distaste for being obedient? I’m not planning to go all ZZ Top or Noah or Walt Whitman or the aging David Letterman, and I’m certainly not going to allow the beard to tangle up like Sam’s fur can. But I’m also confident I’ll not be firing up the electric razor anytime soon.
On my walk home, if only for or a moment, I had the urge to rush back and rescue Sam. But I knew better. She needed the trim not just for a better look, but more importantly for her health. Tangled or matted fur for a dog can cause skin irritation. I ran my hand through my beard and scratched along my cheekbone, as if to stunt any possibility of that being an issue for me. There was no chance of that, of course, and Sam and I would never share the same grooming dilemmas. Yet in that moment, I felt a kind of kinship with her, as if growing out our hair was a symbol of something bigger, of camaraderie, of solidarity of spirit.
Later that afternoon, I returned to the groomer for Sam.
“Well, she’s a lot shorter,” the woman said as I entered the shop.
“At least it’s not winter and she’ll be cooler in the summer heat. Of course, it’ll grow back.”
She brought Sam around to the other side of the counter on her leash. Sam’s hair was tightly trimmed except around her face and tail. She looked lighter. Sportier. Cute. Yes, cute. And when she saw me, she lifted off her feet. Sam didn’t care what the grooming had done to her look, only elated that those gnarled tangles were gone. Shorter hair; happier dog.
When I returned home, I looked in the bathroom mirror. The beard stared back at me.
Maybe I should also go with the summer cut. I would be cooler in the summer heat. Of course, it could grow it back.
In today’s society, the beard may be associated with hipsters, masculinity, dominance. But the history of the beard shows a more interesting past. Beards have been linked to spiritual energy, a sign of freedom, equality, and creativity. They’ve also been a symbol of defiance signaling individualism and a nudge against the sterility of conformity.
So, Sam, I’m sorry. You got your trim but I’m staying with the beard for now, my minor attempt to raise my fist in the air, and to keep the freak flag flying.