Have You Named Your Beard Yet?

So I was just talking with a young colleague I hadn’t seen over the summer. He’s hipster handsome and slim, has the regulation black-framed glasses, and rocks what I like to think of as a “Brooklyn Beard”: thick, dark, lustrous, well-tended but not fussy. A low-key statement beard.

That beard of his looked way more luxuriant than the last time I’d seen it (and him) when our paths crossed at the gym. You know the kind of beard I mean. Some people love ‘em, some hate ‘em.

“Your beard is a work of art,” I said. “It deserves a name.” That part was a joke, but I was seriously fan-bearding him.

“It has a name,” he said. “I call it ‘Red.’ ”

“Really?”

“Actually, I just named it right now.”

We both laughed because it was coal-black, but the name fit because of the quiet incongruity. I could already imagine people referring to him as “You know, that guy with the black beard he calls ‘Red.’ ”

I was inspired by his irony. In the same spirit, right then and there I christened my beard “Erik” after the Norwegian Viking, Erik the Red. I think that was already making my colleague and me beard bros.

Now, my beard isn’t as lush as his, and it’s got various colors shot through with red like my Dad’s, rather than one solid hue. And the reason for the name was multi-layered as well. It dated back to all my travels in Germany and elsewhere in Western Europe where people often took me for Norwegian because of my coloring—and the beard. And because if they heard me speak German, French, or Dutch they couldn’t tell where I was from, but they never thought my accent was American. Now and then someone outside Germany might ask if I was German, but everywhere the predominant guess was Norwegian.

Even a Norwegian once asked where I was from in his country, and likewise a Swede sitting next to me on a flight back from Berlin told he was surprised when I asked him a question in English. He, too, thought I was Norwegian. Being mistaken for Norwegian has happened to me on a regular basis when I’ve been over there. Sadly, I’ve never had the chance to learn any Norwegian, just tourist Swedish (which a friend with Swedish relatives said is surprisingly good). Because I would have loved to fake it, just for a little while.

“You know, we need a web site,” I said to my beard bud. “For guys who name their beards.”

He nodded. “Too right.”

“Because we can’t be the only ones.” I hesitated. “But what do we call it?”

He considered. “How about ‘Guys Who Name Their Beards’?”

“Too literal. Maybe ‘Dudes With Beard Names’?”

“Yes! Uh, no. It sounds—”

“—yeah, it sounds like they have a problem and need therapy, or a talk show.”

We both fell silent, and then he smiled: “Let’s go with ‘Our Beards, Ourselves.’ ”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery.

The Shocking Truth About Universities

When I was in graduate school, my wonderful dissertation advisor told me that he was determined to do a good, humane job getting me through without delays.  Why? Because his own advisor had been a hyper-critical nightmare.  My advisor kept his word: thanks to him, I finished writing my dissertation and defended it successfully in under a year.

campus-photoHorror stories about abusive dissertation advisors and feuding dissertation committees are common in graduate schools across the country–you don’t have to look hard to find them.  Even casual cruelty makes the life of graduate students miserable.  Because I write an academic mysteries series, people share these stories with me from around the country.

Just recently I heard of a PhD candidate whose rigid advisor refused to let the student show ongoing work to anyone else on the dissertation committee.  That left this student feeling isolated and extremely anxious.  Talking about  mistreatment to other graduate students in the program felt impossible–that’s how strong the professor’s grip was.

sad-writer-2Then there are the adjuncts or “contingent faculty”: overworked, underpaid, uninsured, and treated at some schools almost like pariahs.  Sometimes they don’t even have office space, or too many of them share a tiny office.  Tenure-track faculty belittle them unconsciously or even openly, no matter what they might have accomplished in their field.  Department chairs treats them like cannon fodder.

I know of one university where an adjunct who had the same degrees and had published far more than tenure-track peers was shut out of teaching upper level courses because of faculty jealousy.  Qualifications and experience didn’t matter–it was all about people protecting their tiny fiefdoms.

medieval-knightAnd students probably suffer more than anyone.  Stories reach me about how they’re bullied and put down publicly by their tenured professors.  I’ve been told about students reduced to trembling and even tears in the classroom.  Sometimes the mistreatment is more subtle: a professor will only call on favorite students, or might ignore something one student says but praise another student for making the identical observation.  Do students complain?  Rarely, because they’re afraid to, despite flashy news stories about campus protests.

None of this brutality is like the sexual violence on campus we read about, or the bigotry targeting various minorities–but it’s part of the atmosphere all the same. No matter how scenic the campus, colleges and universities can be surprisingly toxic for more people than outsiders imagine.  So when people at my book readings ask me, “Aren’t you exaggerating?  Are colleges really that bad?”  I don’t hesitate saying “No.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books including Little Miss Evil and seven other Nick Hoffman mysteries set in the dangerous world of academia.