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This is a cautionary tale about the importance of clarity in language.

Ordinary conversation is often ambiguous. We speak to our friends in sentence fragments punctuated with “uhs,” “likes” and “ya knows.” But the meaning comes through by context. A good deal of what we communicate comes via gesture, tone of voice, and the fact that our conversant shares our experience. But when instructions are given, it is important that there be no room for misinterpretation.


As Chinese war philosopher Sun Tzu wrote, “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame.”

And so, I have no one to blame but myself.

I am forced to recall the case of Robert E. Lee and Richard Ewell at Gettysburg in 1863. Lee, being a Southern gentleman, had always had a hard time issuing direct orders, choosing instead to make polite suggestions, which he fully expected his officers to understand as commands. When Ewell didn’t do so in front of Culp’s Hill on July 2, the Confederate army lost the advantage, and ultimately, the battle.

Would clearer orders have changed the course of battle and war? Maybe not, but it certainly meant that the battle would continue for days, and it is clear that Gettysburg marked the turning point in the war.

What does this mean for me and my beard?

I have had a beard for 50 years. It has been my constant chin companion. In that time, it has been kept long, sometimes short and often unkempt. It was a rich hue when I was young, has progressively become gray, and finally, so light a shade of gray as to be indistinguishable from white.

I began the shaggy thing in college, not so much as a fashion choice, and not to brag of my manfulness, but rather because I was too lazy to shave. In fact, I hated shaving. Let the damn thing propagate, I thought. After a few years, the beard became so much a part of me, that I never even fancied the thought of seeing what might lie beneath. My chin was obscured by the duck blind of whisker.


The hair on the bottom of my head has grown lush even as the hair on the top has become sparse. Younger men whose hairlines have begun to draw back sometimes shave it all off, preferring the billiard-ball look to the billboard admission of creeping baldness. In recent years, the sheen of scalp has become something of a fashion statement. I have never chosen this route, but have had something of a similar reaction to tonsorial care as I once had on the issue of shaving.

For years now, I have gone to the barber and asked to have my hair trimmed down to an eighth of an inch. This strategy began in Arizona when the summer threatened and an ultra buzzcut promised to be marginally cooler than anything else. I would get the scalp mowed about every six months, after that point where it was necessary to take a comb to it. I didn’t like combing my hair much more than I ever liked shaving my beard. The close crop solved that problem.

“Would you like me to trim the beard, too,” the barber would say. “No, I trim that myself.” And I did, for 50 years, periodically taking a scissors to it to curb its profusion.

Recently, however, I have asked my current barber to tackle the beard also. She is so much more refined a topiarist than I am, and she has been training my shaggy beard into something more delightfully Hemingwayesque.

Well, last week, it was time for my semi-annual. I went to my usual barber shop and waited my turn.

Unfortunately, my regular barber was not there, and I was invited to recline on the chair of an alternate. He was a very kindly old Southern fellow, with hair as snowy as my own. With my regular barber, I never had to explain what I wanted, since she knew very well. “Here for your six-month?” she would say, laughing at my hair-cutting habits.

Alas, she was not there, and my bullpen needed instruction. This is where I should have been more specific. This is where the lessons of General Lee and Sun Tzu should have instructed me.

“What do you want?” the old barber asked.

“Cut it down to about an eighth of an inch,” I said.

“And do you want me to trim your beard, too?”

“Yes,” I said, and the die was cast.
At first, I had no clue of disaster. He took the electric buzzer to my dome and started mowing the hair down. But before I noticed, and before I could say anything, he dragged the mower down my cheek and the glorious chin-garden was deflowered.

Because I am now living in the South, I couldn’t get all Yankee and scream imprecations at the poor barber. “You damn beard murderer! Why, I’ll get my cousin Tony to come down here and burn your house down and see how you like that!”

No, we don’t do things like that in North Carolina, so instead, I said, “Well, it’s a new look, I guess. I’ll see if I can come to like it. But it does mean I won’t be able to dress up as Santa this Christmas.”

But I would be able to impersonate Harvey Weinstein or Steve Bannon. This is not a situation devoutly to be wished. He held a mirror up for me to look at and Harvey and Steve both looked back at me. This was more suited to Halloween than Christmas. I cringed. I weeped inside. I looked facially naked. And the three-day-growth look that seems so sexy with buff young studs looks on me more like grandpa forgot to shave again. And believe me, I don’t wish to be mistaken for either Weinstein or Bannon.

Or, nearly as bad, the sagging skin-sack, stubble-bound and watery-eyed, of Orson Welles as Hank Quinlan in A Touch of Evil. Gives me the creeps.

The best I can hope for is that others my age will remember Red Connors from the Hopalong Cassidy TV series of the early 1950s. Red was played by the venerable Edgar Buchanan, veteran of hundreds of movies and latterly of dozens of TV shows. His chin stubble defined him for me, through the Hoppy series and the Judge Roy Bean TV show after that, and, although I was too old to watch it regularly by the time it came on, through his stint as Uncle Joe on Petticoat Junction.

So, I wait patiently to age into my beard once again, learning the ancient sage lesson of the slow progress of life, and, of course, to be more careful in my language.

Lincoln seated

What we know best of Abraham Lincoln is his face. Gaunt and furrowed, with hollow cheeks, dark, shadowed eyes and a cowlick in his hair, as if he didn’t quite know what to do with a comb.

It may be partly that we know him from black-and-white photographs, but it is a gray face that already seems to be cut from stone. It is a monumental face.

It is also an ambiguous face. Perhaps because of the longer exposures needed to make those portrait photos in the 1860s, his expression is blank. We don’t have images of Lincoln smiling or talking. He is always sitting still, waiting for Matthew Brady to say, “OK, thank you, Mr. President. We are done.” And he can then relax, stretch his long legs and perhaps crack a joke. “Mr. Brady, it reminds me of the one about …”

But the static pose means we look at the face and read into it what we want: fatigue, care, wisdom, faith, despair, grief or distraction. Maybe just boredom.

Lincoln 1865

And it isn’t only in the photographs that Lincoln is more mirror than figure. Everything in his life is ambiguous, and lets us find the Lincoln that reflects the image of ourselves. What we know best is his face, but it tells us the least.

Nathaniel Hawthorne called it “this sallow, queer, sagacious visage, with the homely human sympathies that warmed it.”

The words are from Library of America’s Lincoln Anthology, a collection of writings about our 16th president edited by Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer. It contains a century and a half of writing, from the recollections of his contemporaries to recent ruminations and lucubrations by writers such as Gore Vidal and Garry Wills. Each has his own Lincoln.

In it, you can read the shifting versions of the man. For some he is the preserver of freedom, for others he is a bloody tyrant. Some saw a sober man of deep reflection, others a jokester who would jibe at the most inappropriate moments. Some saw him as a statesman, others as an opportunistic politician.

For some he was a pious Christian; for others, he was an atheist.

You can find proof of any of these views in the more than 10,000 books that have been written about him.

Did he prosecute the Civil War to end slavery or to preserve the Union? There is evidence for all these Lincolns, and more.

Recent books have suggested everything from a closeted gay Lincoln to one afflicted with one or another form of undiagnosed genetic neurological infirmity.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the problem better than Lincoln’s attitude toward race. His early writings can be hard to read nowadays, from a post-Obama perspective: “There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And I … am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race,” he said in a speech in 1858. He was an avid user of the N-word, hardly excused by the fact that almost everyone did back then.

Yet freed slave Frederick Douglass, who frequently held Lincoln’s feet to the fire over slavery, after meeting him in 1863 wrote in his autobiography that Lincoln was “the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color.”

“He was big enough to be inconsistent,” wrote W.E.B. Du Bois in 1922. “Cruel, merciful; peace-loving, a fighter; despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote; protecting slavery and freeing slaves. He was a man – a big, inconsistent, brave man.”

There are three explanations for Lincoln’s inconsistencies.

The first and easiest is that he was a politician and said to people what they wanted to hear. This is certainly true in many cases.

The second is that his views changed over time, and that what he said in 1858 cannot accurately reflect what he believed in 1863. This is also true. Few presidents show so much growth in office as Lincoln.

But the third is more important: He was simply a complex man. He seemed able to hold opposing points of view in mind at the single moment.

Unlike many later presidents, who grasp unwaveringly to their ideologies, Lincoln approached the world as a multifarious and varied place in which a single point of view cannot encompass. It allowed him a pragmatic flexibility.

One of the lies of history is that it follows a script. We tend to see history as a story with a beginning, middle and end. We know how the Civil War turned out. But in the midst of it, no one knew how it would turn out, and Lincoln faced new problems every day and no single policy would work in every case.

And every day presented choices that could lead to an infinity of results: Behind every door, a dozen more waited to be opened.

“I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me,” he said in 1864. His genius – his political and moral genius – it to have been a great surfer of events, turning this way or that to maintain his balance and herd those events toward the general goal he held firm to.

“My policy is to have no policy,” he once said.

It is what made him the right man for the job in 1860: An abolitionist could not be elected; a Southern sympathizer would only have prolonged the agony, like his predecessor, James Buchanan. Lincoln’s steadfastness of purpose was matched with a flexibility that many saw as being unprincipled. Yet, that flexibility is what worked.

“The scars and foibles and contradictions of the Great do not diminish but enhance their worth,” Du Bois wrote.

“I love him not because he was perfect, but because he was not and yet triumphed.”

LINCOLN