If Saturday’s straight razor shave was the Moustache-a-thon’s starting gun, I spend the first leg of the race running in the wrong direction. So far, I’m only shaving my neck, to just under the line of my jaw. For personal reasons explained in my last dispatch, so far I am only growing a beard.

The safety of this choice cannot be overstated. At some point, every man grows a beard. It’s nothing, really. A mustache, though. A mustache doesn’t just change your appearance; it marks you as an iconoclast and, by some strange power, transforms your identity.

Consider history’s notable mustache-wearers, men like Theodore Roosevelt, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Rollie Fingers. These men tamed America, pronounced the death of God, and single-handedly invented relief pitching. Can we even imagine them without mustaches? No, we cannot. Their mustaches were not mere adornments. They made them who they were.

A mustache, then, is not merely an aspect of one’s personal appearance. It is, instead, a physical manifestation of the essence of one’s being. The eyes may be the windows to the soul, but a mustache IS the soul. Hence, the choice to grow a mustache is not merely a personal grooming choice. It is an existential choice.

Had I figured this out before entering this contest, I might not be so worried about growing this stupid mustache I don’t really want. Growing a part of my soul on the outside of my face, for everyone to judge? No thanks.

So, the beard. I expect it to delay my unwilling existential transformation, to provide some mental breathing space. Also, unlike the mustache, I expect it to look good. There’s no reason to explain why a mustache won’t look good but a beard will, that’s just how these things sometimes go. I had a beard once and it was well received. I expect the same thing now. In fact, I’m counting on it.

But when I go into work on Monday, braced for compliments, no one says anything.

I mean, no one. Says. Anything.

What’s the deal? Could it be that my friends have never really seen me? That when we talk in the halls, meet for lunch, and have drinks after work, they see only a glaze of my composite features − thin frame, blonde hair, glasses − and never anything more specific in the way I look?

Days go by and, still, no one mentions the radical change in my appearance. Hey! I’m growing a beard here! Hello? I linger in front of friends for an extra second or two. I bring my hand to my chin unnecessarily. “By the way,” I say, “What do you think of these glasses?”

By Wednesday I can’t take it any more. The beard is four days old. I need to know what someone thinks about it. I wander into Marcello’s office. He’s just down the hall from me, and one of the friends I like to visit when I can’t concentrate on work.

“So,” I tell him, “I’m growing a beard.”

Marcello looks up from the papers on his desk.

“Really?” he says, narrowing his eyes.

“You can’t tell?”

“I guess I hadn’t noticed.”

I look past him, out his window. It’s a government office. The view is of another government building.

“So you haven’t shaved,” he says, picking up the conversation. “Since when?”

“Since Saturday.”

“Must be the blonde hair. It just blends in.”

When I explain the Moustache-a-thon, Marcello is quick with his reply.

“I could never do that.”

“Do what?”

“Grow a mustache.”

Marcello does not mean that he would never want to grow a mustache, or that he would not look good with one. He means, he explains, that he is physically incapable of growing one.

“You can’t grow a mustache?”

“No,” he says, passing out of his office on the way to the printer. “I would never even try.”

It’s not that I have come across yet another person with more self-knowledge than I possess. That happens all the time. It’s the possibility I’ll be unable to grow a mustache, combined with my easy assumption it would be no trouble. That’s what bothers me. It’s another sign I’ve blundered into the Moustache-a-thon without thinking it through.

Later, my colleague Sara tells me that her husband, a Marine who works in the Pentagon, is also physically incapable of growing a mustache. “Oh no,” she says, “he just can’t do it.” My legal assistant Meleah says that all of the men in her husband’s platoon, who are serving in Iraq, have started growing mustaches. She doesn’t know why. She asks if I know.

Must life be an unbroken string of surprises? Why, just once, can’t I know everything? The implication of my office conversations is clear. Mustaches are grown by two categories of men: 1) those who know they are physically capable of the feat; and 2) those who are also Marines serving in Iraq. I don’t belong to either category.

I think about quitting. I could just shave, and write my own check for $137.43.

By Wednesday evening I can’t take it anymore. Who cares about the Kennedy Center’s red carpet and how I’ll look at the ballet? I’m in the middle of a crisis. It’s vanity versus my sense of civic responsibility, and it’s not a pretty fight.

And what about the kids I’m supposed to be helping? What about the writing center I’m supposed to be raising money for in this wacky contest?

I’m losing my grip. I have to act. I go to the bathroom and take one last look in the mirror. Then I spread shaving cream on my face, and draw my razor to my cheek.