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A Year in the Life of a Beard

For about as long as I’ve been able to grow a reasonable amount of facial hair, I’ve rarely gone longer than several months without letting my beard come in. For a long time, I would let it sprout then trim it back close, or I would shave clean for months and then let the beard flourish for a little while before shearing myself again.

So for the last 25 years, I’ve probably sported a beard at least as much if not more than I’ve been smooth. This particular iteration has been on the face for four or five years now. It’s been full, but kept to a reasonable half inch or so for most of that time. I find that it does wonders to mask the slowly expanding space between my chin and my Adam’s apple.

I had always wanted to see just what I was capable of growing if I really let it run wild. A few times in college I had gone without grooming for a couple months at a time before taming it again, but that was the beard of a much younger man. What could I do as a well-seasoned husband and father of two?

Without consciously intending to do so, I went a few weeks longer than I usually do between trims. In November of last year, the beard was in full foliage, even as the trees were not. By Thanksgiving I seemed manly enough.

Thanksgiving beard.
The beard representing both our Pilgrim forefathers and South Knoxville.

A week or two after the Thanksgiving holiday I lightly trimmed what had been growing, leaving me with the equivalent of three or four weeks’ growth.

That would be the last time I would trim it for 11 months.

By Christmas the beard was filling in to a fairly full state again.

the beard at Christmas 2014
Christmas seems the right time for a full beard anyway, right? Molly is looking lovely as always while I get by.

Around this time (I can’t remember exactly when) I was asked to play the part of Kit Carson in the William Saroyan play The Time of Your Life. Seemed the perfect chance: I could let the beard grow for the part, then see what happens. The play was a few months off, so I was certain that I could reach an impressive length by then. Molly wasn’t particularly excited about the beginnings of a fuller beard, but was enthusiastically on board for the acting bit, so she gracefully allowed it.

The slightly longer beard also lent itself to a more Biblical look for my role as a metal-smith during a church event.
The slightly longer beard also lent itself to a more Biblical look for my role as a metal-smith during a church event.
New Year's beard
Ringing in the New Year was definitely warmer this year.

In February we saw more snow and cold than we’ve seen in a long time in Knoxville. With temperatures dropping into and remaining in the single digits, I was glad to be more furry. The fuzzy face with the fuzzy hat kept me plenty cozy.

snow-shoveling beard
I might not have been excited to shovel snow, but the beard seemed to be.
wool cap and beard
Did I mention that I knitted myself a wool cap to go with my wooly beard?

By March and the time of the play, the beard had reached an unprecedented length. People would comment on it, but I insisted that “it was gettin’ there.”

Kit Carson beard
The character of Kit Carson was a rambling, crazy old coot…so I was typecast, I suppose.
Kit Carson beard after show.
I wish I could’ve kept that leather jacket. It fit me like a glove and had fringe for days.

Spring had rolled around by that point, and the beard had started taking on a life of its own. I had come that far with it, why not a little longer? We took it to visit Biltmore, which is a slightly more impressive structure, I will admit. Still, I was building something that would turn out grand in its own right.

Taking the beard to Biltmore.
The sideview car pic always shows off the beard line nicely, I think. The proportions work here, no?
The beard visits Biltmore.
Everyone enjoyed touring the early spring grounds at Biltmore, especially the beard.

Either the beard had taken on philosophical lengths or the visit to the early spring gardens at Biltmore prompted deeper thoughts. Whatever the case, during March I was reflective in a manner befitting a beard of that scale. You can read some of my thoughts here and here.

As nature came to life during April, with shoots and leaves appearing everywhere, the beard continued to grow as well. I’m fairly certain that it imparted enough manliness for Finn and I to build a working Pinewood Derby Car. I also took the beard along as Molly and I hosted a travel writer across East Tennessee.

beard and pinewood derby car
I’m slightly more proud of my son and the car than I am of my beard. Slightly.
beard at Whitestone
At the Whitestone Country Inn, Molly and I saw a bald eagle. It was slightly more majestic than my beard. Slightly.

The big event in May was the wedding of Molly’s sister Amy. I harbored genuine concerns that my beard might detract from the proceedings, might distract from the bride and groom. Fortunately my misgivings were unfounded, as both bride and groom remained squarely and solely in the spotlight. A few folks noticed the beard, but nary a fuss was made. Of course, that was well before it had taken on massive proportions. I mean…I was less than six months in at that point. Had they been married in September, I might have needed an excuse to forgo the event.

Beard on a boat
Things I learned about beards: when you’re on a wedding boat cruising a South Carolina lake at night, the wind will whistle through your beard. A strange sensation.
beard holding a glowstick
The beard was long and strong enough to hold a thin glowstick. I was pleased.

At around the six-month mark, the beard had taken on a life of its own. Clearly I couldn’t cut it back at that point…I had to see if I could make it to a year. I needed a new summer hat, as my typical baseball cap didn’t look quite right with the beard length, so I got a breezy straw fedora that, combined with my sunglasses, made me look distinctly like someone trying to be incognito. I enjoyed the irony.

beard and ice cream
Who is the man behind that beard? Is that a shake or a malt?
another beard on a boat
On a boat again, this time in Alabama. The wind still whistles through the bristles.

By the middle of summer the beard was attracting plenty of attention. When we went to the White Lightning Festival in Cumberland Gap, TN (a fun little excursion and well worth a day trip or two), Abraham Lincoln called me Stonewall Jackson. My reaction was conflicted: I was glad that my beard so clearly trumped Lincoln’s, but I certainly don’t want to be confused for a Confederate, even if he did have some military savvy.

beard and Lincoln
Lincoln’s got nothing on me.
Gap Trail beard
Clearly I could have made it as a pioneer across the Cumberland Gap. My beard would have carried me through.

August, and the dog days of summer, should have meant a measure of misery for me, but I stayed surprisingly cool, given my pelt. Granted, I needed to shake like a sheepdog when I came out of the pool, but it wasn’t so bad.

beard in the pool
The crystal clear waters of Chapman Pool nicely showcase the burliness, don’t you think?

I also trekked across the state of Tennessee with the beard in August, stopping first in Nashville for a couple of days to visit Belle Meade Plantation’s Homeschool Day. As I walked around the various folks in character, I briefly considered the historical re-enactor trade.

We moved on west to Memphis, where we did what became a musical tour of the city. I’ve learned that the history of rock and soul music is decidedly thin when it comes to men with magnificent beards.

Sun Studio beard
The Elvis lip just doesn’t read from beneath all that hair.

I actually started to get a little tired of the beard by mid-September. It needed constant tending, not unlike another child in the family. Indeed, it had started taking on a life of its own, garnering attention from all manner of strangers everywhere we went. The inevitable question: How did you grow it? What am I supposed to say to a question like that? “Inaction” is the most accurate response. I simply did nothing. The beard did all the real work.

seatbelt beard
When the beard gets stuck beneath the seatbelt, it’s time to reconsider the length.

Finn and I have the beard to thank for getting us through the first real over-night hiking trip. Three miles up and back is a long way without a burly beard to pull us through. As we got closer and closer to the trailhead on the second day, we encounter several day-hikers who looked askance at me. I suppose I did look mildly dangerous, maybe even slightly crazed.

beard hike
We made it up and down the mountain on the strength of my beard.

Had I not committed to being Zeus for Halloween, I would have trimmed the growing monstrosity back several weeks sooner. Nearly a year without cutting more than a few loose mustache ends, however, had left me with a face fit for a deity. A couple of cans of white spray later, and I emerged into the role quite nicely. At any rate, I was easily recognizable.

Zeus beard
Did I wield the power of lightning or the power of a burly beard? Maybe both.

My duties as Zeus having been fulfilled in fine form, I whacked the mess back the day after Halloween. In truth the trim was much easier than I had anticipated, although I nearly burned out the motor on the clippers a couple of times. How quickly a year’s worth of beard becomes a slightly gross pile of hair in the sink. I’ll spare you that picture.

beard trim before
beard trim during
beard trim after

Now all that’s left is to shape up this shaggy mane that’s been growing on the top of my head for the past few months and I’ll be back to fighting weight.

If you can, if you’re a man capable of growing a respectable beard, do it. Be hirsute. Embrace it. If you can’t, if your cheeks are patchy or your upper lip thin, then don’t. Not at all. But don’t feel bad about it. Not everyone can be as magnificent as I was for a year. Then again, I’m not sure I would want to do it again. Not that Molly would allow it anyway…

Have a question about growing beards? Ask away!

Not Just a Chore, Raking Leaves Can Be Fun Too

Deciduous Trees and Falling Leaves

I don’t know about your backyard, but in East Tennessee, almost every tree loses its leaves. The biodiversity of the deciduous trees is what gives the Great Smoky Mountains (and the Knoxville, Tennessee area) such a memorable autumn. Not just a fall chore, raking leaves can be fun too. Involving the whole family in this typical homeowner experience is a great way to exercise and to bond.

What started out a nuisance of “little helpers” quickly turned into an afternoon of backyard fun and exploration.  While typically, most folks would want to rush through a chore to move onto another more enjoyable activity, raking leaves is one of those outside activities that I always enjoyed as a child because it usually meant spending time with my dad. So, when my kids were old enough to hold a rake, we turned them loose. This meant that the chore took longer, but guaranteed everyone would sleep well that evening.

At ages 5 and 3, the kids used to beg to rake leaves.
At ages 5 and 3, the kids used to beg to rake leaves.

Jumping into a Pile of Leaves…Again?

Every fall, the kids used to beg to rake leaves…so they could jump in them of course! Convincing a 5 and 3 year old to not to jump in leaves is impossible. So what if we have to do the work twice…or three times…look at those happy faces! If getting the job done in a timely manner isn’t the most important thing, then this simple chore can become a great opportunity to reinforce good homeowner habits and to spend quality time together.

Finnian bouncing a ball in the pile of newly raked autumn leaves.
Finnian bouncing a ball in the pile of newly raked autumn leaves.


This backyard activity not only is good exercise, but also provides safe and controlled independent exploration. Such as, what happens if we bounce the soccer ball into the the pile of leaves? What if we bury ourselves in leaves? What if we make it rain leaves. On their own, the kids noticed the different shapes and tried to identify which tree the leaves might have come from.

Now that the kids are a little older, I wish I could still say they were begging to rake leaves, but I can confirm that they are still interested in jumping into a big pile of leaves!



Animal Jam Halloween Fun

Hi Jammers! Kittenstar10 here! Hope you all had a happy Halloween in Animal Jam. Halloween in Jamaa is called Night of The Phantoms. Animal Jam got in the spirit of Halloween by making Jamaa Township filled with jack-o-lanterns, coffins and phantoms! They even added a new temporary game where you protect your candy from the evil phantoms. You are given a torch and it moves wherever you place your mouse. The phantoms avoid the light from the torch and your goal is to get them into a beacon of light, where they will disappear in order to move to the next level.

Halloween Clothing from Jamaa on Animal Jam
Halloween Clothing from Jamaa on Animal Jam

By playing the games, you earn gems which can be spent in any of the shops. In the clothing shop there are Halloween themed costumes. You can shop for zombie masks, eyeball headbands, skeleton tails and more.

Halloween Den Items in Jamaa on Animal Jam
Halloween Den Items in Jamaa on Animal Jam

In the den item shop, they have spooky phantom items like ghosts, a giant phantom balloon, a phantom lamp and more Halloween themed items for your den to dress it up for the holiday.

Spooky Halloween Den in Jamaa on Animal Jam
Spooky Halloween Den in Jamaa on Animal Jam

There is a new den for members that looks like a haunted house for any members wanting to throw a Halloween party. Most Halloween items require you to be a member, but there are still some things that non-members can get. Since its November you need to swoop right in to get all the Halloween merchandise before its gone! See you in Jamaa!?


Animal Jam is an online game designed for kids sponsored by National Geographic and shows fun facts if you want to know more about animals. The game requires Flash Player so you must use a computer or a special app for iPads.

5 Instagram Tips for Tweens

Tips for Tweens who just got, or already have, an Instagram Account

Instagram is about connecting with friends and having fun! My name is Audrey and I have had Instagram for about two months, so I am still a relatively new user, but I have learned a lot in the time that I’ve had it. If you follow these tips you will be successful and safe on Instagram.

I like to post about cute animals on Instagram.
I like to post about cute animals on Instagram.

Instagram Tip #1

My first tip is about consistency. Do not to post only about one thing unless you will only post about that one thing on your account. An example is if you post 20 animal pictures, then lots of flowers, the people who followed you for animal pictures will be disappointed and might unfollow you, which you don’t want. If you post one thing, your followers are expecting just that one thing, but if you post different stuff all the time your followers will expect that.

Instagram Tip #2

My second tip is don’t post too many selfies. I posted one or two selfies and got more followers, but the followers that I got only posted selfies and I don’t want to see a bunch of selfies. Selfies are not “about” anything. So I did not follow them back, which brings us to my next tip.

 I like to post my artwork on Instagram and I like to see people's encouraging comments so I can get better.
I like to post my artwork on Instagram and I like to see people’s encouraging comments so I can get better.

Instagram Tip #3

You don’t have to follow everyone who follows you. Some people out there will follow you but post stuff that you don’t want to see, so you don’t have to follow them back. Some people will post stuff that you like, though, so if you want, you can follow them. You should only follow people that post stuff that interests you.

Instagram Tip #4

The fourth tip is about how often you should post. You should post about once every week, but you can always post whenever you want. If you post a lot every day it can be annoying if it is all about one thing because some people get notifications that make noise and they might block you.

This is the search screen on Instagram. Use it wisely!
This is the search screen on Instagram. Use it wisely!

Instagram Tip #5

The fifth and final tip is be careful what keywords you use when you search people or pictures on the search feature because there are some inappropriate people and pictures out there that your parents might not want you to see. The way to avoid seeing that kind of stuff is to be careful how and what you search by using keywords that are only related to what you want to see.

This is my Instagram Page where all my posts are. Obviously, it goes without saying that you should add your interests to your profile, but never your personal contact information.
This is my Instagram Page where all my posts are. Obviously, it goes without saying that you should add your interests to your profile, but never your personal contact information.

Instagram is Fun

Instagram has tons of pictures on it and tons of people too, so Instagram safety is very important, I hope you found my tips helpful. Instagram is about pictures so make your experience about something interesting! If you want to see pictures of my adventures and interests follow me at audreyhgilbert on Instagram.

Sometimes I like to post silly stuff to make my friends laugh.
Sometimes I like to post silly stuff to make my friends laugh.

9 Tips for Whittling and Pocket Knife Safety

My First Pocket Knife

My first pocket knife was from my great grandfather. He gave it to me as a Christmas gift. It was a multi-purpose knife. I had to do a little pocket knife training with my dad before I could use it to prove that I was mature enough to not hurt anyone, including myself.

Finnian's first pocket knife was a Christmas gift from his great grandfather.
Finnian’s first pocket knife was a Christmas gift from his great grandfather, Papaw Louie.

Learning to Whittle

I learned to whittle from Cub Scouts. My dad taught me and let me use his jack knife. My first project was to carve a bar of soap into a fish. The first step is to let the bar of soap sit out all day so that it can soften up a little bit from the moisture in the air. The second step is to put a drop cloth on floor to protect it from the shavings. The third step is to use a stick to make an outline on the soap. And then, the final step is to carve it. On my first try, I started to make a fish, but it didn’t work out so I decided to make a bear.

Bear Carved out of Soap
Finnian’s First Whittling Project: A Bear Carved Out of Soap

9 Tips for Whittling and Pocket Knife Safety

  1. I recommend a jack knife. It has one big blade that locks so you have to push down a button to close it. It keeps the blade immovable so that when you are guiding the knife you don’t have to be afraid of chopping off your fingers.
  2. I find it easier to use your thumb to guide the knife. Push your thumb down on the back of the knife so you can put more force into some strokes and less into others. You are shaving the wood, not cutting it.
  3. Keep your knife closed when you are not using it.
  4. Always keep it in its case if you have a case.
  5. Never cut toward you because one slip could stab you.
  6. Don’t whittle near other people.
  7. Take your arms out and spin in a circle. If your arms touch anyone, then you need to move. This is called a “Safety Circle.”
  8. Always sit down.
  9. Stay in one spot when working unless you close your knife, then you can move.

Every Boy Should Whittle

If you cut wood with one stroke, it counts as whittling. Out of a stick, I made a spear which I used as a fork on a Cub Scout camping trip. My friend made a wooden knife, but I don’t recommend it because it is really hard to make. If you want to make a spear, then you need a stick about as thick as a pencil. Scrape off the bark and then you can carve the wood into a point.

Whittling is a good way to pass the time on a camping trip. Every boy should know how to whittle and know about pocket knife safety.

This is a fish carved out of a bar of soap my dad did - he is really good at whittling!
This is a fish carved out of a bar of soap my dad did – he has had more practice and he is really good at whittling!

10 Tips for Your First Cub Scout Camping Trip

Animal Jam: An Introduction

Shaking Things Up at the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum

Maybe it’s because I’m solidly in my forties. Maybe it’s because I feel too acutely the never-ending draw of devices that shine and allow me to zone out in utterly unproductive ways. Maybe it’s because I’ve read too much Wordsworth this year. Probably, it’s a little bit of everything.

I keep experiencing moments during which I notice a wistful pang of wonder that I’ve been missing…or maybe not that I’m missing the wonder so much as the opportunities to feel it. We all, the whole family, get busy with being busy and we don’t take the time to appreciate the pleasant little simplicities of life. Sure, we’re learning a lot and we’re experiencing a lot and we’re seeing a lot. But where is the pure delight?

Wooden figures at the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum.
Wooden figure shakers.

Yesterday the moment came in the most unexpected way, as is usually the case with these sparks. Visiting some family friends who were vacationing for the week in Gatlinburg, TN, we ended up with some time to kill between the “big” activities of shopping the Arts and Crafts Community Loop and taking in the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. I had stumbled across a spot that seemed mildly interesting, so we took a chance and stopped in to see the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum.

The only museum of its kind (aside from its sister museum in Spain), this spot is absolutely fascinating, if you’re attuned to the possibilities for being fascinated. Here we have the most basic of kitchen and dining tools: the humble salt and pepper shakers. They’re everywhere, right? Even the most rudimentary kitchen will have them. We see them so often that we don’t even see them.

Row after row of shakers at the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum
Row after row of shakers.

Not at this museum. You can’t help but see them, all 20,000 pairs. Shelf after shelf, line after line, row after row of shakers. The experience is a veritable assault (ahem) on the eyes! Peppered throughout are sets of every shape and size, every color, from throughout history and from across the globe. From cutesy, to kitschy, to macabre; from dainty, to massive, to downright bizarre. The collection reaches meta-collection levels. You’ll see three or four shelves of cattle-themed shakers, then turn around and spot several sets fashioned after playing cards.

Shakers of all colors and sizes at the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum.
Shakers of all colors and sizes.

I was struck all at once by several ideas, the most lucid being the notion that this collection is as close as you’ll get to a truly common denominator. I know that not everyone uses salt and pepper, but the use of spice in some shape or another is pretty much part of the human condition. We crave flavor; we seek it out; we develop entire cultures in pursuit of it.

And what, after all, is that moment of delight that I’ve been missing? Just a little spice, a dash of mental salt to enrich the flavor of my life, a pinch of existential pepper to remind me to savor my wonderfully rich life.

So, dear reader, we come at last to this admonition. If ever you get the chance, get off the beaten path in Gatlinburg and visit the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum. Take a break from the grind of life and shake things up a bit.

A panorama of shakers at the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum.
A panorama of shakers.

Another Visit to Ripley’s Aquarium

We went back to Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies recently. We’ve been before and have enjoyed it every time, but I’ve come to expect a law of diminishing returns effect for places that we’ve seen more than once. Not so. The whole place has seemed fresh each time that we’ve toured the tanks.

Plenty to see on the lower floor.
Plenty to see on the lower floor.
The kids enjoyed the fish manicure.
The kids enjoyed the fish manicure.

The regularly rotating special exhibits helps a lot with the re-visit factor. This time around you can learn all about swarms: animal behavior in groups. The focus of the feature extends well beyond the fish world, with an installation of leaf-cutter ants, one of mice, and one of halloween crabs. The real draw, though, is the fish manicure. While a knowledgeable staff member educated us on the behavior of the fish, a school of the little critters nibbled gently on our hands, cleaning the dead skin material from our calloused digits. A spa experience at the aquarium! The kids loved it, too.

We just happened to see the same staff member at the horseshoe crab exhibit. I had always considered myself pretty well versed in horseshoe crab lore, but he told us quite a bit that I had never heard, like their number of eyes (did you know that the tail acts as a photoreceptor and so qualifies as an eye?) and the fact that they must move their legs to eat. He had the entire area engaged with a perfect combination of knowledge and ability to talk to everyone without patronizing the kiddos.

Learning a little about horseshoe crabs.
Learning a little about horseshoe crabs.

The best part, as always, was the moving sidewalk under the big tank. It inches you forward at just the right pace to see all the denizens of the deep. If you want to take a longer look, you simply step off and linger until you’re ready to move again. The whole experience is quite relaxing at the same time that you’re moving through a heavy-traffic attraction in Gatlinburg. I left feeling almost refreshed.

Contemplating the fish as we glide through the tunnel.
Contemplating the fish as we glide through the tunnel.

We’ll definitely be back, especially as a part of our science studies in the coming year. What a great combination of playing and learning.

Audrey and Finnian might take up residence in the tanks.
Audrey and Finnian might take up residence in the tanks.



Creative Inspiration at The Muse

The Muse
516 N Beaman St, Knoxville, TN 37914
(865) 594-1494

Our family has been visiting The Muse (formerly Discovery Center) in Knoxville, Tennessee, for many years and it has never been more fun that it was this week. A bright and vibrant place crawling with campers made all the exhibits look even that much more fun. Musical notes and laughter filled the air.

Spin spin spin spin spin
Spin spin spin spin spin
Exploring sound at the whisper disc.
Exploring sound at the whisper disc.

This time we visited with neighborhood friends and that always makes a visit to a local venue more fun. About 20 percent of the inside space is dedicated to toddlers, but since we visited in the afternoon (naptime), our big kids enjoyed exploring the wavy funhouse mirrors and puppet theater areas.

When you visit The Muse, you’ll immediately understand the connection to their namesake.

In Greek mythology, there were Muses who ruled over the arts and sciences and offered inspiration.

Inspired by the Muse of Fashion
Inspired by the Muse of Fashion.

“There were nine Muses according to Hesiod, protecting a different art and being symbolised with a different item; Calliope (epic poetry – writing tablet), Clio (history – scroll), Euterpe (lyric poetry – aulos, a Greek flute), Thalia (comedy and pastoral poetry – comic mask), Melpomene (tragedy – tragic mask), Terpsichore (dance – lyre), Erato (love poetry – cithara, a Greek type of lyre), Polyhymnia (sacred poetry – veil), and Urania (astronomy – globe and compass). On the other hand, Varro mentions that only three Muses exist: Melete (practice), Mneme (memory) and Aoide (song).”

Our kids are old enough (ranging in ages 8 to 12) to explore on their own and since this hands-on museum is basically a big open room, the moms were able to sit and visit while still being able to monitor where everyone was in the play space. There’s a giant rocket ship

Enthralled by the floating scarf fan
Enthralled by the floating scarf fan.

complete with control panel, a book nook area, a floating scarf fan, a puppet theater, glow in the dark toys, wavy fun-house mirrors, LEGO car race tracks, microscopes, musical instruments, giant foam building blocks and a scrap materials art table.

Since there are several planetarium movies, this venue is worth a repeat visit. The younger your child is, the more you can take advantage of repeat visits to the play spaces while older children will benefit from the interesting staff-led programs and events.

Activities and exhibits prompted our kids ask engaging questions like how, why and what if. The question that rose in my mind was, why didn’t we have a place like this when I was a kid?

Lifting is easier with pulley power.
Lifting is easier with pulley power.