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Notes on the Mustache 

The mustache, once a ubiquitous symbol of manhood, has nearly disappeared in America. It still turns up here and there, but mainly in conjunction with a beard. Nearly all American men are cleanly shaven now. Our enemies, on the other hand, all have mustaches. Saddam Hussein's mustache, a direct quotation of Stalin's mustache, now identifies the bad guys. A hairless upper lip denotes sincerity now, while the horizontal parenthesis of the mustache encloses something hidden and menacing, pointing to a lie. Tracing the history of the mustache would be a worthwhile project for a political anthropologist who might want to study its career from Nietzsche's depressing, downward pointing mustache, through Hitler's frozen hairy snot, Stalin's lippy scimitar, Dali's upward pointing antennae (through which he communicated with aliens), all the way to Saddam's face brush (which seems to crawl with germ warfare in the current depictions).

I am not an anthropologist, so I'll keep this personal. I was born with a mustache, a fact that scared the nurses at the hospital and freaked our neighbors when my mother brought me home. My mother had to love me because that was her job, but I often woke up terrified in the middle of the night as she hovered over me with a shaving brush full of white soap. I always screamed and she never got me. Luckily, I was born in a world of swarthy mustachioed men and I became anonymous around the age of 15. Later, it was the '60s and young people raised mustaches for protest. The American mustache of the '60s, in connection with long hair, was a glyph of rebellion. Businessmen and soldiers were clean-shaven because they had to be. Nobody wanted to be mustacheless, but the military-industrial complex required it. When the '60s ended and Nixon's clean-shaven mug became a rubber mask some people wore for fun, the severity and strain represented by the fighting mustache relaxed. In time, mustaches grayed and became a sign of old age rather than youth. Every year since, the number of mustaches eradicated by American men rose steadily until at some point in the mid-80s you could count more shaven heads than 'staches. My own was eliminated one morning in Venice, Italy, when I looked in the mirror and saw an old man staring back. Venetian mirrors are famous for spooking people, so I just closed my eyes and took the plunge. I had never seen my upper lip, which turned out to have a pretty big angel's finger-depression in it, which explains why my memory isn't what it should be. Since then, I have become anonymous again, but I can't suppress two suspicions: one, that my mother shaved me, and two, that if I still had it I might be one of the bad guys.

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