When our daughter was born 3 1/2 years ago, I dreamed of warm affection between the two of us. I dreamed of giving her smooches on the forehead and having them returned. I dreamed of "Eskimo kisses" where we'd rub noses and giggle for hours. I dreamed of nuzzling her cheek and having her say, "Oh, Daddy, that's a nice nuzzle."
But here is the reality of Emily Susanna Levey and her dreaming father. He closes in for a cheek-to-cheek, or an Eskimo, or a great big fat one on the forehead. And she erupts with:
"No! Yuk! Yuk! Yuk! Beard needles!"
The first four words of Emily's explosion need no explanation. Neither will the last two when I tell you that I have a face full of salt-and-pepper growth. Which I trim carefully and regularly. Which makes the collection as sharp as the business side of a hairbrush. Which sends my daughter screaming for the exits whenever I approach with puckered lips or poised cheeks.
Being a hopeless believer in reason, I tried to persuade Emily that she was wrong about beard needles. She was exaggerating the problem, I said. I pointed out that Abraham Lincoln, Alexander the Great and even her idol, Oscar the Grouch, had facial fuzz. Besides, I observed, with clinching finality, you don't see Mommy flinch when I kiss her, do you?
But as kids will, Emily had a better idea.
"Why don't you shave your beard off, Daddy?" she said.
This, dear friends, was not in the script.
"Uh, well, uh, gee, um, uh," I said, eloquent as ever. Finally, I managed: "I couldn't do that, Em."
"Why not, Dad?"
How to explain? How to tell a kid that you grew a beard in the summer of 1969, not for political reasons, not to make a stylistic statement, but because you were on vacation in New England for two weeks and who the heck felt like shaving?
How to tell a kid that your beard grew on you (pun intended), that it has become a part of your identity in 16 years, a key element of your persona, as integral a part of your looks as the oversized ears and the crow's feet?
How to explain that shaving your beard would be incredibly time-consuming, because you'd have to listen to everyone tell you how much better/worse you look with a visible chin?
And what if this "improvement" turned out to be a step backward? If Emily finds her father's beard scratchy, what's she going to think of his five o'clock shadow?
To Emily, however, this was typical adultism. Old Dad was just trying to cloud a simple issue. If there are beard needles, you remove the beard needles. Presto. Done. Next case.
Emily was so sure she had the solution that she began a campaign of hit-and-run persuasion.
I would be trimming my beard in the bathroom mirror. She would slip up to me and ask: "Are you shaving it all off, Daddy?"
Then, like any lobbying pro, she started using third parties in an effort to "create momentum" for her issue.
"Say, Bob," said one of her preschool teachers one day. "I hear you're going to shave your beard off. That's great!"
"I can't imagine where you heard that," I said.
The beard issue even led to a massive outbreak of sexism in Emily's bedroom.
In the past, she had been perfectly willing to have either parent read her a bedtime story. The other night, she announced that "no one with a beard and a mustache can ever read me a story again."
"We've been in Washington too long," I told Jane. "The kid sounds like some refugee from the National Labor Relations Board. She's already learned how to stake out a negotiating position. You think she'll ever learn to compromise?"
But I hadn't done much compromising, either. Could I live without all that fuzz? I walked around the idea and kicked its tires a few times. Finally, I announced to Emily that I was thinking about shaving my beard. I wasn't rushing off to the bathroom to do it, mind you, but I was strongly considering it.
Emily's reaction was: "Good." Then she picked up a crayon and resumed turning Woody Woodpecker's shirt bright orange. Smug, this kid.
The beard question probably couldn't have ended without a battle -- and it didn't.
It was my turn to read Emily a bedtime story. She trotted out the "no one with a beard and a mustache" business. So I got mad and said if that's the way you feel about it, you won't get a story from anyone. And I stalked out of her room.
A few minutes of weepy wailing later, I heard: "Daddy, will you please come back and read me the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory story?"
I found the book and came back. She sat up in bed and said: "Daddy, you don't ever have to shave your beard. I love you the way you are."
This is a precarious victory if ever I've seen one. Still, Emily's words produced a big squishy one on her cheek -- and she didn't flinch a bit.