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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Bearding Blog

It's been a bit of a rough year, to be perfectly blunt. Even though it seems as if 2015 was filled with professional and artistic triumphs, the personal tolls that were taken during the last 12 months were more than I would have preferred.

Acknowledging this is important. I think that end of the year overviews do serve a purpose, as well as all those New Year's Resolutions that seem to proliferate our world but not necessarily change many of our worlds. It's good to reflect, sum up, and see if the path you're on is the right one for the present or your future.

On the surface (literally the surface of my face), 2015 was the Year of the Beard. Growing my beard was the over-riding day-after-day event that I wore around for 365 days starting in late 2014. Actually it was my 50th birthday that started the whole deal.

I was worried about turning 50.

The men in my family have had a hard time in their 50s. Many that I'm blood related to have had major coronaries, major traumas, cancers, and/or death happen to them in their 50s. I approached my 50th birthday with an internal trepidation that I was mostly unaware of. I was thinking I felt great, I was on top of my game, professionally speaking, and looking younger than 50 if I were to be humbly honest with myself. But I was worried.

I stopped shaving on November 21, 2014. I had a leftover extensive handlebar mustache on my face and I thought it would be kinda cool to see what a year of not shaving would do for my mustache as well as my face. (In the end, the long mustache was the hardest part to deal with!) I joined a few online beard clubs, started my Yeard selfie journey by taking a photo every day (this eventually stopped about halfway through and I cut back to once a week), and bought hundreds of dollars of beard balms and oils online (plus a couple of nifty teeshirts I picked up along the way.)

The Austrian Ball stache in a tux:

So off I went, with a great deal of optimism, to Eugene Opera to direct a L'elisir d'amore which opened New Year"s Eve. I also spent Christmas of 2014 in the emergency room thinking I was having a heart attack. That was fun.  L'elisir was a great success and I loved working at Eugene Opera. Here's me on Christmas day...

Upon returning, I started in on the first part of my "half-sabbatical" at McGill. My projects were numerous, but January was spent looking into my health. It wasn't a pretty picture.

The mind-body connection is a powerful one and to just be pithy, I was riddled with anxiety and stress about too many things. Meditation was helping, but it wasn't enough.

With a scruffy face, I headed to my old stomping grounds at Ithaca College in Ithaca, NY to direct Little Women and collaborate with old colleagues there (like the amazing lighting designer Steve TenEyck) and my very dear friend, Brian DeMaris. It was strange walking around the music and theatre buildings, even stranger being on campus. Ithaca is a great little town, and the food there is simply spectacular. Walking around the halls, I was overwhelmed with so many wonderful and vivid memories of students, their triumphs in particular. I realized I was missing the musical theatre repertoire. Because of my experience in Ithaca, I have a new goal: to reintegrate musical theatre back into my life! Ithaca in a nutshell: The best Thai food anywhere, a bunch of great bars, and a downtown pedestrian zone that is superb for shopping. The student cast members were terrific, and of course super-prepared. Brian is a terrific conductor and I loved every minute being there.

I also believe I saved a life.

One late afternoon, as the sun was heading behind the foothills above my Air BNB place, I was walking to my car to get some dinner and I heard a faint "please help me". I looked around and couldn't see anyone. I heard the same faint cry a few seconds later and realized it was coming from across the street. This was not a busy street, by the way, it was way out of the way of traffic. It was also WAY below freezing outside. In a driveway I saw an old woman on the ground in a house dress - no coat, no shoes. She was reaching up to me. I ran over and discovered she had not only fallen, she had broken her ankle (basically it was faced backwards) after getting locked out of her house. She was in shock and freezing after dragging herself about twenty feet towards the road to seek help. Luckily the ambulance came in time, and I had access to my parka and lots of blankets from my place. When I left Ithaca, I was told she was recovering. I hope that is still the case.

My beard came into its own in Ithaca. The opera was a success (it was beautifully lit and performed in an intimate space) and I had finally also gotten a grip on myself by the time I returned to Montreal.

Ithaca's Little Women:

During my sabbatical, Opera McGill was being run by Jonathan Patterson, a theatrical factotum, and the Nozze production was lovingly directed by my colleague Nicola Bowie and conducted by the wondrous Gordon Gerrard. Later in March, the double-bill of Gianni Schicchi and Suor Angelica was a big hit with conducting by Boris Brott and direction by my friend David Gately. (David certainly knows how to get all the laughs out of those Donatis!) It was nice to not have to worry about my opera program for three months, gotta admit.

I headed to Fargo, North Dakota, where I went from having a beard to really being bearded. The production was Fille du Regiment and the great cast was wonderful. Eric Weimer conducted it brilliantly and I'll never forget celebrating the Passover with a bunch of the cast.

Here's a downtown Fargo beard:

Fargo is one of my favourite cities (yes, truly!) I love the opera company there as well. David Hamilton is a terrific general director and Fargo is a great city to spend three weeks rehearsing and enjoying the fantastic craft beers on tap around town. It also has the greatest barbershop! Everett's is a place I love going to get my hair cut and always try to figure out how to get in two visits during my three weeks (it's all about getting there in that first week!)

It was in Fargo that I started to get the "great beard" comments from strangers, as well as the curious looks from people passing me on the street. The surprise, for me, was how freaking white my beard came in. I was starting to look, um, older. Big white beard is not something that "youthens" you…

But I persevered. I didn't cave and shave. Nor did I let anyone trim my beard or mustache. And let me tell you, LOTS of people gave me advice on what I should do with the hair on my face.

Why? What possesses people, especially strangers, to chime in with their opinions about a man growing a beard? As my beard got longer, it became clearer that I was being judged for my appearance - mostly negatively out in public - which made no sense to me.

For you see, I believe that men are supposed to be bearded. Shaving our faces is an unnatural act. If left in the wild, men grow beards. There were no mirrors 10,000 years ago. The Vikings had big beards because they needed them way up there in the cold, plus there's no need to shave a face. I blame Alexander the Great and those Romans who came later to spread the idea that beards were barbaric. But really, my pagan roots yearn for resplendent facial hair! At some point in time, all men should grow a beard and find out what their actual FACE would look like if they were thrown back in time without razors, mirrors, and face moisturizers. This was a great lesson for me, accepting my natural, albeit very hirsute state.

The beard calmed me, that's for sure. The longer it got, the less anxious I became. I was able to clear my head quicker, I was able to meditate easier and with greater mental focus. It was strange. I was much less worried about my worries.

I left Fargo a big bearded guy.

And then we decided to leave Quebec. It was not a tough decision.

We are now in the country living outside of the small town of Alexandria, in the province of Ontario, Canada. I still work at McGill with a commute that's just a bit harsh. But we love - LOVE - living in Ontario. The people are so nice, our neighbours are SO nice. The cost of living is much cheaper, from gas to lower taxes on food and my pay check. Walking outside in my PJs onto my back deck in the mornings to watch the sunrise and breathe in the new day did wonders for my stress level, and my beard went crazy. It just grew crazy long.

In the woods of Ontario:

If I had been bold and shaved the upper lip, I would have had a true Amish beard (sorta sorry I never did it, truth be told). The country folk here took no notice, Montrealers certainly did. More difficult comments from lots of people. I found it hard to direct Opera McGill's Little Women this fall with the big beard. I couldn't express things as well, knowing that the students were seeing this big beard gesticulating and directing in and out of character - which worked fine for the father role but not so much for the other characters in the show. The last three months of my "yeard" (beard for a year = yeard, fyi) were tough. Waking up with mouthfuls of hair, having it split into a fork anytime the wind blew too hard, and when dressed up in a suit feeling like I was some sort of country-bumpkin with a big long beard; that was hard to do, psychologically speaking. I also started to think ahead into a future of conducting (2016 I'm conducting two operas) and wondered if a big long beard made sense. (It was okay for Brahms, just saying.)

Opera McGill's Litte Women:

But I am, if anything, quite a stubborn guy. And I powered through knowing that on November 21, 2015 I would make the full yeard. Completely untrimmed, mind you (this is a big thing in the bearding world.) Plus, I had entered into a gentlemen's agreement with a friend living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. We both decided to grow a beard for a year and if one of us caved and shaved, or trimmed, we would have to take the other guy and his wife out to an expensive dinner. I'm part Scottish and therefore, cheap. No way was I going to lose!  I'm happy to report that neither of us "lost", we both gained a great beard and both of our wives were very supportive. (Actually, his is a monster beard and I was quite jealous once he reached the six month mark…)

November 21 to November 21:
November 21 came and it was the Austrian Ball. I decided to trim down my Yeard and leave the long stache. After keeping it for about a month, I buzzed down the beard to stubble and left my handlebar mustache. It's weird. It's like the last year didn't happen, like it's 2014 again. Looking in the mirror I am definitely younger. But I am missing my beard. Really missing it. I've no idea what 2016 will bring, other than starting it off back sporting the curls of my handlebar "mo" while starting a baby "mo-hawk" on my head. At least that where I'll begin 2016; we shall see where it all ends.

Trimmed for the masked ball:

My three outside gigs had commonalities: Eugene, Ithaca, and Fargo are all eclectic small cities. All have vital university communities, all are liberal enclaves surrounded by rural conservatives, each are somewhat geographically isolated, each is difficult to get to, each has unique yet thriving cultural non-profit arts organizations, all three opera experiences were generous and collaborative for me as a stage director, all three operas were led by superb musician conductors who also are incredible vocal coaches who love singers and this art form, all three cities had fantastic food. Eugene: food trucks and pinot noir ON TAP!; Ithaca: Thai food and Ithaca Bakery!; Fargo: microbrews on tap: hundreds plus the best homemade potato chips and beer dip!

So this was basically just a long blog about a beard, with a nod to what I did these past 12 months. Apologies, no deep thoughts about opera. I'll write something operatic next time.

However, my bearding a yeard wasn't just about not shaving. It was about patience and perseverance. Waking up every morning and looking into the mirror to see a man I didn't quite recognize was mostly fun, sometimes depressing, sometimes scary. As the yeard progressed, it took more and more time to get ready in the morning. Too much oil, balm and other shit to work through the beard, plus the long mustache needed a lot of attention. Next time, I think it might be interesting to trim and shape the beard as it grows. At least that would be my advice to others -- let it grow for at least 100 days before making any decisions.

And if any of you out there are guys, drop the razor into the bin and try bearding for three months. You deserve to see what you'd look like without any intervention from the various fake societies that surround us nowadays. Trust me, you will literally discover a new you, you'll find wisdom in patience, and you will discover an internal strength to swim against the current trends of societal norms.

Here's my video of my yeard journey in pictures: Time Lapse Beard 2014 to 2015

Plus, bearded guys are the best sort of guys out there -- they're gun-loving rednecks, axe-loving gay lumberjacks, hipsters who actually do brew their own beer, tattooed grandpas, veterans suffering from PTSD, and bankers, lawyers, baristas, writers, and chefs.

Beards unite men in a way that nothing else does. It puts us all on a common ground.

After typing that thought, I've decided to beard again. 2016 here I come!!