(This is the third in a series of observations on our pandemic times.)

I am a Shaggy Man. In that, I am not alone.

A whole lot of guys have become Shaggy Men over the last few months, thanks to the COVID lockdowns. In our state, barbershops and beauty salons were one of the last places to reopen. I suspect that’s the case across the country.

We’ve seen rebellions in this Shaggy Man era. In Michigan, my home state, we had a 77-year-old barber who refused to close his barber shop until the state closed it for him. And we had Barbers’ Lives Matter, or whatever they called the event a bunch of these folks held on the grounds of our state capital, cutting hair and insisting on freedom.

It’s late June, and as I write this, our state has had a slight uptick in the number of cases. Still, our few hundred pales in comparison to the thousands exploding in states elsewhere. There are also many more hospitalizations elsewhere.

Hospitalizations are not caused by testing, no matter what our president insists we believe. Hospitalizations are caused by COVID severe enough to cause an emergency. And no, COVID can’t be simply wished away. Just sayin.’

So, late June. I should get a haircut one day. Our barbershops are open.

I’m not going back to my original barber. Frank (or Franco) is 81 years old. At my last visit, in early March, he told me that his doctor had suggested he cut back hours. Interesting advice. We scheduled a late April appointment.

Of course, that never happened. And in this intense, gyrating year, April seems like long time ago. Well before those pickup truck lovin', gun totin’ “freedom” rallies COVID doesn’t give a damn about.

I won’t go to see Frank. I’ve had my hair cut by him for decades. We’ve talked school, jobs, kids, careers, hair care, gardening, food, travel, health. He knew my son’s name and always asked how he was doing. Frank and his wife are from the old country, from Italy. You could hear it in his voice. You can’t hear it in mine, filtered through a couple of generations — my grandparents on my mom’s side emigrated in the early 1900’s.

It was a great, if only once a month, friendship. Given that friendship, I’d never risk the chance that I was asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic and somehow transferred COVID to an 81-year-old friend, whose wife has heart issues.

That’s beyond disrespectful. That’s just wrong.

I suspect Frank is finished cutting hair for good. I hope he’s made the adjustment to this new life.

As for me, it’s time to turn this page. Just like it’s time to move on from my YMCA, now permanently closed due to COVID. I’d exercised there three times a week for over thirty years.

That’s what COVID does. It closes doors and opens new ones. Thanks to COVID, my walks are more intense. I’ve discovered new trails (well, new to me) around a lake only a few miles away. I walk this woodland trail now, every other day, where nature keeps its own time and the language and commerce are far, far different.

And I’m a Shaggy Man.

Early in this COVID journey, I learned to make a simple mask, watching a video shared by a Chinese lady. I figured, what the hell, if anybody was going to teach me how to get by, it would be someone from where the outbreak started. Her simple instructions were followed by a simple wish. Be healthy. Stay safe.

My simple mask is made using an ordinary pocket handkerchief (any bit of cloth 16 to 20 inches on a side will do, size not super important). You fold the handkerchief in thirds, slip on two elastics, and place the thing on your face. Not designer, not high-tech, not colorful. Just white. Just something that works.

I am, after all, a Shaggy Man.

I put the mask on whenever I have to go someplace where it’s tough to keep physical distance. That’s usually grocery stores, farm markets, hardware stores. When I get around to getting new shoes (after all, I am walking a lot), I’ll wear it to the shoe store, too. It’s a sign that I respect other folks, be they store workers or customers: I’m not going to give you what I have. That kind of sharing isn’t cool.

I thought about making masks with statements. “I’m Kicking COVID’s Ass” would be a favorite. But I’m just using my white hankies and then, when done, slipping off the elastic and soaking the hankies for a few minutes in soapy water. That’s because COVID hates soap. Soap kills COVID dead. COVID’s not the inevitable, invincible enemy. A little soap does it in. Then dry the hankie, and it’s a new day.

So I wear the mask out of respect. Others have decided that, somehow, that gesture is simply too much to bear. That this small sacrifice is somehow greater than the sacrifice our Greatest Generation youngsters made when storming the D-Day beaches. Greater than the sacrifice the British made, holing up in subway tunnels while bombs destroyed their London homes.

I, a Shaggy Man, simply can’t figure this out. I can’t fathom how those who insist this is the greatest country on earth have somehow confused themselves into thinking that greatness means doing what you want, when you want, damn the consequences to others. Confused into thinking that respect for others is somehow weakness, not strength.

Only in America, it seems (as COVID cases soar, and per-state daily totals exceed the weekly or monthly counts of whole countries) — only in America could we declare that wearing a mask out of respect for your fellow citizens is somehow contrary to the principles of democracy. All in the self-proclaimed name of freedom. Come now.

Freedom doesn’t mean do your own thing at the expense of others. Freedom simply means, live well together.

I often get angry at all of it. But I realize that anger doesn’t do anything, not really. Sure, we all have to blow off steam. But it’s far better not to let the steam build up in the first place. My escape hatches are simple. They involve thinking, and reading, and walking, and cooking, and sweating in the garden, and thinking some more, and then writing.

Perhaps through essays like this I might reach someone, somewhere, and calm them. Help them realize that when we say, “We’re all in this together,” we really are. And “all” means all — humans, animals, plants, the water we all share, the air we all breathe. We, and these, are our common wealth, and we squander them at great peril.

I’m also shaggy in the garden - that great place of promise, water, soil, sweat, and mosquitoes. Ours is a community garden, comprising dozens of plots (the Brits would call these “allotments” — I have a friend who tends one outside of London). We work alongside other gardeners, who are also equal parts promise, water, soil, sweat, and bug bites. That might be a good way to describe a world citizen, come to think of it.

About mosquitoes. It used to be that the big story to worry us was West Nile virus. Don’t get me wrong, West Nile’s still out there. Still, it’s a more personal risk if I get a bite and fall ill and (more often than not) recover. I don’t take anybody with me.

At the garden, when not swatting, my wife and I are sweating, and weeding, and watering, and digging, and planting, and driving stakes, and swearing at critters. It’s one thing, though, to fence the critters out and hope they get their meals elsewhere. It’s another thing entirely to poison them, either outright or through the long and largely hidden road of pesticides, herbicides, and genetic defects.

Along with mosquitoes, we have frogs and toads in our garden. One year a snake slept in the leaves of one of our broccoli plants. This year, for the first time, a turkey prodded through our straw. We have no idea what it was looking for, but we doubt it found it.

Being a Shaggy Man at the garden means that bugs find their way into my wiry hair and then have a dickens of a time finding their way out. Which means that on occasion I have a tiny vacuum cleaner going off somewhere near my ear. And of course, I think the bug must be the size of a small bird — who else would make such a racket?

So we water and weed and watch our vegetables grow. And the weeds return and we weed again, and they return again and again and again and we weed again and again and again. The critters come and go, often with more of our food than we’d like, the freeloaders.

Fighting a pandemic is a lot like working your garden. Ignore the weeds, and pretty soon your garden will be overwhelmed. You’re on the lookout for critters, and despite your best efforts, they often carry off that prize you’ve nurtured so long. But you keep at it, just like COVID. With COVID, you test, and contain, and test, and contain, and adjust your behavior, and carry on, until the season’s done.

Is gardening hard? Can be. Try those steamy ninety-degree days, when just moving makes you sweat, and it hasn’t rained for days, and lugging water is the last thing you want to do. Or the spring, when you’re digging bed after bed and arguing with your back. Or late autumn, when everything’s harvested, but there’s massive cleanup to do before the frost.

You can refuse to garden responsibly. You’ll just have far less to eat.

COVID’s hard. It is. We can complain about the loss of jobs, the real pain caused when businesses have to close. No doubt about it, these are extremely tough times for many of our citizens. And they have every right to complain. Life was complicated enough. Who the hell needed this?

But for gosh shakes, washing your hands, maintaining your distance, wearing a piece of cloth over your face? How hard, really, is that? Not nearly as hard as lugging all that water on a hot day. Or doing all kinds of things we do for a living. You know what those things are. You do them.

Not nearly as hard as having a tube shoved down your neck to keep your lungs open. Or (since you'll likely be OK, given averages) not yours, but possibly someone else's. Someone you know.

Freedom arguers, mask haters, I ask you: Are you jacked because somebody else is telling you what to do? Really? Is this just another reaction to your mom saying eat your vegetables? Don’t play on the freeway? Don’t run with scissors? I mean, come on! What the hell is so hard? Are you really that fragile? Can’t you climb out of your boxes for a minute and think about others?

The mask isn't about you, it's about the people around you. Your fellow citizens.

OK, OK, sorry.

To lighten it up, let me describe what I, a Shaggy Man, face in the bathroom every morning. The reason why my bathroom mirror wants to shelter in place somewhere else.

I used to be shaggy in college. Had hair way longer than my present mop. But looking back, I think I’d call that “fuzzy.” I was even more harmless and goofy in college than I am now. There’s this picture of me from those days that has that hair curled out like a yew bush. Amazing, scary photo.


But what you don’t see in that charming photo is the “before” shot. The “first thing in the morning” shot. The “straggly hair every which way” shot. The “I just showered with my toaster” shot.

In short, pretty much the way I look now.

The difference between being fuzzy and being shaggy is the difference between a coiffed French poodle and a Bergomasco sheepdog. (Go ahead and search for Bergomascos online. See if you can find an image. See if you can find a dog in the image.)

The difference between the picture above and this.

“Oh,” you’ll say (after you’ve picked yourself up off the floor), “that’s just because it’s first thing, before you’ve brushed it, Squirrel-Herder.”

I wish.

I can brush it, weigh it down, whatever. And for about, oh, six or seven minutes after I leave in the morning, it’s probably behaving. It waits for me to get out of range of a mirror. (Car mirrors don’t count - how could you ever contain that mess in a three-inch visor glass?) But it doesn’t go poof! either. No, it slooowly starts to unravel, a strand here and a strand there. The first warning I get is a tickle on my forehead, a few minutes into my morning walk. (In the woods, remember? With ticks, which I don’t worry about, because they can never find their way through my hair and onto my scalp.)

Uh-oh, I think. And, dork that I am (young people - go look up dork and don’t bother me), I brush it aside. Which just tells all its buddies to start coming loose.

By the end of the walk, I look like a kiwi that sat on an electric fence.

Which is great for physical distancing, by the way. I’ve noticed that people self-distance quite nicely around me.

There are advantages, after all, in being a Shaggy Man.

Let me leave you with this. I, a Shaggy Man, have to put up with long hair that goes unruly, confinement to my home more than usual, cooking at home, sweating more at the garden from all that hair, wearing a mask to respect other people, washing my hands frequently and thoroughly, and avoiding picking at my face.

The horror! The horror!

When I think of the people who passed from this world, isolated, intubated, when I think of Frank, when I pass an older person, masked and walkered, still out and about and shopping and living through this and having lived through much more — when I think of all this, and I take my air for granted on my walk, breathing in and breathing out as though it was the most natural thing in the world — then being a Shaggy Man is not a tough gig. Not a tough gig at all.

Stay safe, stay healthy, and stay shaggy, my friends.