Let's hit the mailbag.

A reader writes, "Michael, I am in awe of you as a human being. In particular, I can tell from your picture that you ooze masculinity. Maybe it's the beard. Should I grow one?" *

* Note: A reader didn't actually write this. I don't have a mailbag. To be honest, no one really writes me after reading one of my columns (except for family, close friends who are concerned about my wife's feelings, and the occasional prison inmate). In fact, I'm starting to get concerned that the readers of the Westport News are skipping my column and going straight to the comics pages (which, considering there aren't any comics, pretty much leaves only the first part of my theory). My ego is starting to deflate, which could make these columns turn dark and somber. I would greatly appreciate it if you stop reading this right now, walk over to your computer, and write me a fawning e-mail to the address below. Make sure to tell me how much you love the column. Lie if you'd like. I won't mind.

Well, devoted reader, I'm blushing but am willing to accept your compliments. And yes, the beard has clearly become a key part of my aura. And I'm not alone. Beards have become a strange kind of fashion accessory lately. Men's magazines are covered with stubbled and bearded models. I've been kind of ahead of the trend on this one, which proves that if you engage in a certain style and stick with it, the world eventually comes around. Those of you who still wear mesh football T-shirts or hair scrunchies should only have a few more years of embarrassment left.

But be forewarned, it's been a difficult road, not one for the faint-hearted. Before you decide to accept this challenge, and join the legions of the facially-follicled, be sure that you are committed to the task at hand. Because frankly, I'm not sure I'm really wearing a beard these days. I think the beard may be wearing me.

I first made a concerted effort to grow facial hair only a year or so after I was married. I look back on my wedding pictures and see an innocent little cherub, clean-cheeked and naïve in the ways of the world. I also think I look like I'm about three days past my 14th birthday. But my beautiful wife saw something she liked and married me anyway. It was a good start.

My first foray into facial hair involved a goatee, which at the time I thought still had a sense of danger attached to it. The fact that I was growing one clearly meant it didn't. But still, it was unique enough among my peers at the time that it seemed like a contrarian thing to do. It took a while to grow in, but once it settled nicely on my chin I grew to love it.

But my wife hated it. Oh, she really, really hated it.

She voiced her displeasure in a series of gestures:

Overt: "What is that thing on your face?"

Sarcastic: "Hey, it's looking good on you. Now excuse me while I move to another state."

Passive-aggressive: "Look, honey, I bought you a new razor!"

Physical: (dramatic eye rolling on a regular basis)

I pressed on despite the lack of spousal approval, and after a year or so it became a less frequent topic of conversation at the dinner table. But I knew that somewhere inside, she looked at her husband's face and longed for the man she married.

So one day, as we prepared to leave on an anniversary trip, I did the unthinkable: I lathered my chin and upper lip with Edge gel and shaved the goatee off. I may have cried a little at the time, I'm not sure. But I thought I'd show my devotion to her by giving her the best gift I could think of: a clean-shaven husband. Diamonds could wait until next year. I tried to gift wrap my face but the scotch tape kept irritating my lip (and I couldn't breath, which is always a problem).

As Karen entered the room, I stood straight and strong and waited for her joyful reaction. Instead I got something ... different. She looked up, saw my face, squinted her eyes a little and smirked.

"Huh," she said. "You shaved your goatee. You look ... nice."

I knew instantly that something had changed. She denied that anything was wrong, but after hours of interrogative questioning, I badgered the witness into admitting the truth. She liked me better with the facial hair.

So I grew it back. A few years later, I decided to fill in the rest of the canvas by growing a full beard. Thus began the cycle anew, my wife expressing her horror through the same series of gestures as before. I fully expected to wake up in bed one morning in a pool of whiskers and dissolved shaving cream, my wife demonically snickering as she cleaned the trimmings off of my neglected Gillette Fusion. If she hated the goatee, she despised the beard like it was armed with explosives and threatening her children.

I kept it anyway. I do think I look better with the beard, although I can't really explain why. But over time, I have to admit it's lost its luster.

In the summer, the beard is like a facial sweater. If the temperature is 95 degrees at Compo Beach, it's more like 115 on my face. And in the winter ... well, you probably don't want to be around me during ski season. The hair on my upper lip seems to enjoy collecting running mucus, forming snot icicles that hang off my face during any ski run longer than a foot and a half. You could hang christmas lights off of them.

And my facial hair has forced to me to engage in another sign of aging. The hair on my scalp has receded far too fast for it to turn gray. The hair on my chin has not. I've got gray and white patches that look like the first signs of mold on wheat bread. What once started as a means to help make me look older than 14 now makes me look older than 60.

So I was ready to lose the beard. But when I told my wife about my plan, the tides shifted once again.

"Really?" she said. "I kind of like your beard. You look too young without it."

So now I'm confused, and more than a little stuck. You could read this as an allegory about marriage as a whole, but I think that's ridiculous (really, honey). It's just about my beard. I love my wife, so for the time being I'll continue to love my beard. But this might take a while. I just hope hope it doesn't get embarrassing. You'd tell me if it does, right?

Michael Wolfe writes a monthly column for the Westport News, and can be reached at wolfeml@optonline.net