By happenstance or predilection, I am generally surrounded by people who embrace change with the enthusiasm of a koala hugging a porcupine. For example, my parents stayed on the same floor of the same hotel every winter in Boca Raton for more than a decade before moving there from Great Neck. And for the past ten years, they’ve stayed in the same hotel in Great Neck every summer when they’re not in Boca.
My father has done the New York Times crossword puzzle every morning of my entire life. My father-in-law has used the same style date book for as long as I’ve known him, and probably much longer than that.
My stepmother — whom I’ve known longer than I had my deceased mother — didn’t learn to drive until she was nearly forty and then did so only under duress. My mother-in-law takes one of three identical walks on her Eastern Shore farm every day she’s there, rarely venturing a new one.
My wife kept the same cell phone until an AT&T store salesman informed her that replacement batteries could no longer be found. For twenty-five years, she has squirmed when I mention that I’m thinking of revising my hairstyle. For family peace, I never do.
Hair is one of those things some people change as frequently as their shirt. My people, not so much.
A few weeks ago, my parents, ensconced in their Great Neck hotel — not a place they own, mind you, though, at a month at a time, by this point they might have — invited us out to brunch (which they eat daily) at a place called Bruce’s where we always meet at least once when they’re in town.
They were already seated when we arrived, and after forty-seven years I am pretty familiar with my father’s face. So what was this thing under his nose?
I did a double-take and a triple-take.
He arched his brow. “You haven’t seen the mustache before?”
“Before when?” I wanted to say. “Before the seventy-nine and a half years you’ve been clean shaven?”
But my mind was at sea. All I could think of at first was the line from Jerry Seinfeld, who once said he’d thought about growing a mustache, but then he’d have to walk around in a bathrobe carrying a pipe to complete the look.
When I recovered a few senses, I tried to put the mustache in a more personal context. This mustache on the man whose prior attitude toward facial hair took inspiration from the ancient Romans, who, after all, coined the word “barbarian”? This fresh mustache on the man who drove the same model car (though a new one every time his lease expired) for three decades? This new mustache on the man whose every suit and sport jacket bore the Paul Stuart label for literally half a human lifetime?
Maybe the shock wouldn’t have been so bad but for an announcement that my wife had made three months ago. “I’ve decided to grow my hair out.”
It seemed like an innocuous statement at the time. In the quarter century I’ve known her my wife’s hairstyle has evolved at a pace so glacial that distinctions between periods lay beyond recognition by heterosexual males. So I wondered, how long would it have taken me to notice if she hadn’t mentioned it?
“I like it short,” I said, “but sure — whatever you want.”
Well, three months later and my wife’s hair had become an entity unto itself in our marriage. A tote’s worth of equipment attended to it: bobby pins and hair blowers; a brush with a giant cylinder at its center and dangerous-looking spikes coming out; hair clips that could eat the world.
One day, when we were packing to go somewhere, she called up the stairs: “Could you put my flat iron in the bag before I forget!” I thought: So that’s what that thing is with the cord and the prongs.
Worse than the equipment is the disruption of routine. A good quarter hour has been added to her prep time, and when we’re both pressed I find myself showering to the roar of what sounds like a three-stroke engine on the other side of the bathroom.
Similarly, my father — who shaved for his whole life with a manual razor — now travels with a Norelco for trimming the weed under his nose.
Thus we all become slaves to our own ornamentation.
One evening this summer in Williamsburg, my immediate family signed up to attend the re-creation of a small ball, the kind they’d have put together for fun in 1774. It felt like two hundred degrees, no air conditioning, and the Williamsburg women were wearing layered silk dresses and gloves up to the elbows. They plucked me from the audience to join in a dance, and I ended up paired with the one who was playing the role of eligible widow.
“Mr. Fishman,” she said in character, “what a pleasure to make your acquaintance. Are you married?”
I could hardly deny it with my wife and daughter sitting in the audience.
“Do you know of any eligible bachelors, then, a friend or a cousin perhaps?”
“No straight ones,” I said. “Aren’t you hot under all those layers?”
She’d been asked that question a thousand times, I’m sure, and had some diversionary reply ready. And then the dance was over and I was back in my seat.
But it occurred to me that the authentic clothing they wear in Williamsburg, so impractical for hot and humid Virginia summers, wasn’t born here. It was the fashion brought over from England, where the weather is, well, English.
These people, our Founding Fathers and their peers, were slaves to fashion just like the rest of us. Maybe clean-shaven George Washington spent half the morning primping his wig. Maybe he let his beard grow at Valley Forge when no portraitists were around to make a record of it. Maybe he returned to Mt. Vernon for a long weekend and Martha took one look at him and laughed her corset off until he got the razor out.
As I’ve documented, though, the members of my modern tribe don’t change so quickly. My best guess is that I’ll be lugging around totes full of hair supplies for the foreseeable future. And my father will wear that mustache until some salesman tells him he can no longer find replacement batteries for the Norelco.