Thursday, June 23, 2011

Beer & Passion at Beard & Moustache Championships

The crowd is drunk and antsy for the show to start. Then, suddenly, a medium build man makes his way across the room and there's a noticeable drop in the rowdy volume. I know instantly this has to be Jack Passion and, with his lush orange beard tumbling gently to his waist, I now completely understand how he became the two-time world champion bearder in the full natural beard category.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, college students, soccer dads and grandpas are letting their manliness blossom in the form of facial hair. But while ordinary whiskers may be commonplace on the streets, they're nothing compared to the au natural, waxed or styled extravaganzas found at beard and moustache competitions scheduled regularly around the US and the world.

The Stumptown Stash and Beard Collective, Portland Oregon's beard and moustache chapter, started in June 2010. The interest however has been overwhelming. On January 24, 2011 the group hosted the first West Coast Beard and Moustache Championships drawing in competitors from around the state and as far away as Pennsylvania, Texas and California. The event, scheduled at the undesirable hour of 4pm on a Sunday by the folks at the Crystal Ballroom (who expected a poor turn out), saw people lining up around the block for up to two hours, causing the contest start an hour and a half late.

But this wasn't a problem for the competitors for whom beer and enjoying it with their fellow beardsmen is as important as showing up for the event.

Shawn Hasson, a young hopeful from Fresno in Scottish garb and endowed with a several-inch-long curled and waxed moustache tells me, "Really these shows are about meeting and hanging out with other bearded guys."

With a two-year-old moustache he's new to the scene and pays his own way to and from the shows but the fun, he says makes it worth the cost.

Around the ballroom beards are omni-present, from casual scruff and women in stick-on moustaches to the obvious stars with their long or flamboyantly styled facial hair. Many of the professional bearders are dressed in gimmicky costumes. Abe Lincoln is there as well as a garden gnome, several English gents with curled handlebar moustaches, some cowboys, a mafia looking fellow with a thick black moustache and dark glasses and a grey-haired guy in lederhosen and a beard down to his waist. They walk around happily getting their pictures snapped with their fans.

I talk with the mafia-looking guy, Steve Scarpa from Southern California who tells me his bearding career started in 2003 when he was "discovered" by Phil Olsen the president of Beard Team USA in the audience at a beard competition.

"Then there were 30 or 40 members," he tells me. "Now there are a couple hundred. It's exploding."

Scarpa introduces me to Brian Snoderly one of the founders of Stumptown Stash and Beard Collective who happens to be walking by. Snoderly has a manicured beard and moustache, a silver bar through his nose and the biggest "plug" earrings I've ever seen. It ends up Portland's bearding group was started by Crystal Ballroom employees, the venue of the night's contest, and the proceeds will go towards a scholarship fund at Portland State University. But Snoderly tells me, as everyone else has, that the shows are more about camaraderie and beer drinking than anything else.

"Steve Scarpa tattooed the Beard Team USA emblem on my calf last night do you want to see it?" he says pulling up his pant leg.

Just then another bearded man walks by and says "Showing everyone the tip of your penis again are you Brian?"

Much to my surprise, the star of this world, Jack Passion, who brought near-silence to a room of drunk people less than half an hour ago, stops to join our conversation, or possibly to get a glimpse of the end of Brian's penis. As you'd expect from a guy with a long ginger beard, Jack is easy-going and ready to talk with his fans, including me. He dispels the rumors I've heard that he's not competing this year to give other beards a chance and tells me, in what seems a forced breach of his humbleness, that he's "unbeatable." As for beards becoming more fashionable he says that "men love to be appreciated as men," and that from the night's turn-out, the Pacific Northwest has got to be a center of the facial hair fad in America.

But do chicks dig beards? Passion's Facial Hair Handbook website assures that "your beard or moustache will get you laid!" but at least at the West Coast Championships I notice that it does more than that: most competitors are accompanied by their undeniably attractive wives or girlfriends. Yes, there's something about a beard that gives a guy an honest, cuddly dad-vibe, and that's something many women would like to take home for more than the night.

The show starts with the natural beard and moustache competition and as the first contestant prances down the catwalk in a tight 70s shirt, kicking like a Vegas dancer, the crowd cheers as if Katy Perry just walked on stage. Next is a man's man kind-of-guy wearing a baseball cap and a button up blue shirt - he gets a cacophony of hoots from the crowd including a loud yell "Now that's sex!!!"

Once the twenty or so contestants have strutted their stuff the audience yells their favorites to the judges and I start to understand why I saw earplugs on sale by the bar. Following come the Partial Beard, Natural Moustache, Natural Full-Beard, Natural Full-Beard With Styled Moustache and lastly, the Freestyle Beard categories. Some of the contestants just walk the catwalk, perhaps caressing their facial locks, while others get in character by shooting fake guns, playing a toy electric guitar or ripping off their shirts exposing beer guts and tattoos.

The crowd never settles and every contestant gets catcalls and enthusiastic support. But even after the awards ceremony, I have to agree with the beardsmen I spoke to. This isn't an event about winning, it's about growing facial hair, getting appreciated for it and hanging out with other people who understand the pleasure that comes from tending a garden of whiskers. And then of course, there's the beer.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Traveling the Age Gap

I'm almost 40. I've traveled every year of my life, as the baby, the kid, the teen and the young adult. Then I became a traveling 30-something who still took risks but much more calculated ones than my 20 year-old counterpart; I still slept in cheap bamboo huts, took the bus and did most of my laundry by hand but splurged on a resort from time to time. My style of traveling changed through the years but I still hung out with the younger crowd as much as with a considerably older crowd and everything in between. The point seemed not to seek out people of my own age, but people who shared my passion.

But my world traveling view was shifted in Thailand two months ago. I'm still not sure if it's because I look older, act older or if travel style has changed radically in the younger generations, but for the first time I felt a sharp dividing line between myself and the gap year kids. Yes they have lots of tattoos and piercings but I think that's kind of cool. They drink a lot and so do I on occasion. Actually I don't care much what they do - if they're in Thailand and appreciating and enjoying the culture we should have something in common.

But the dividing line wasn't drawn by me. On a jungle path I pass a very young couple - we are the only people in any direction for maybe a kilometer but they avert their gaze to avoid saying hello. I say "hi," they don't answer. At a bus stop I'm surrounded by two or three converging groups of young travelers going to Krabi, they all chat with each other but I am invisible. I try to say something to join the conversation and they avoid answering. They're a clique that's never met and I'm already the geek. Soon I start noticing that the places I stay are mostly devoid of people under 30 and, although I hate to admit it, this makes me happy. When I do stay at places filled with 20 year-olds they bang doors and make noise all night keeping me awake; they avert eye-contact and make it impossible to make friends.

For a while I thought maybe I just looked like an extreme dork. It's true that a near-40 year-old woman traveling alone is culturally weird to lots of people but I'm gregarious enough to get past that. And these late-teens to early-twenties travelers aren't hanging out with anyone over 25, let alone the severely over the hill like me.

Luckily, my confidence issues were finally put to rest on Ko Phi Phi. I found this great place to stay (Phi Phi Hill) at the far end of Hat Yao. As my (28 year-old) friend and I were walking up the steps we passed a couple who were probably in their early 30s and I asked them how the place was.

"It's great!" the guy said. "No 20 year-olds."


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