Greek Orthodox monks grow out their facial hair as a mark of humility. Buddhist monks keep themselves clean shaven for the same purpose. My overgrown beard may have been humbling for my wife but it was more for spectacle's sake that I had it removed - and underwent other mildly invasive procedures at The Lounge, a men's spa in Abu Dhabi, during a three-hour "executive grooming" session. Please, don't call it a makeover.
I had never been to a spa before. But if I was going to do it at all, I was going to go all out: shave, haircut, manicure, pedicure, facial, bronzing (the man tan) and, yes, waxing. Based on the photos from before the session, you might understand how any corner saloon in Abu Dhabi usually suits my grooming needs. In fact, getting a haircut is one of the simple pleasures of living here. For Dh20, a barber takes incredible pains to make sure that your haircut is even, that your beard is trimmed, and that you are happy with his work. Even if you are left with the hair helmet of a Bollywood star, you can appreciate the effort. You even get an Ayurvedic head rub.
Some of those saloons are lucky to have a licence. The Lounge has a mission statement: to help its customers "experience a modern way of relaxation". A head rub had seemed pretty modern to me, but this would be a day full of lessons. As I was seated for my haircut, a waiter asked for my drink order, and I began to realise how different this was going to be. The barber also appeared to have a consultant, who enquired what I wanted to have done. Since I am new to spas, this "consultant" could have been there simply because the barber didn't speak much English. But that had never prevented the Santini brothers from cutting my hair back home in Washington.
The trim was great and the straight-razor shave was what I have come to expect in Abu Dhabi. But I also have come to expect a head rub and didn't receive one from this barber. Any concern about this was forgotten, however, at the shock of seeing myself clean-shaven for the first time in five years. I had first grown a beard in a failed attempt at gravitas when I was teaching history to students only four or five years younger than myself. I kept it to save myself five minutes every morning.
First, I thought I was looking at a younger version of myself and I began to feel proud - until I noticed that the jowls that used to emerge in times of hibernation during New Hampshire winters had become more of a year-round phenomenon. All in all, I was pleased but only time will tell if it was life-changing enough to get me back to shaving every morning. Next, they whisked me upstairs into a room with what looked like a dentist's chair. I was asked to lie down on my back and suddenly a whole team of technicians arrived. One took my shoes off and began to work on my feet. Another began to work on my hands. And what in other circumstances might be called the crew chief worked on my face.
The enterprise reminded me of Formula One pit service. Of course, these technicians were working on a machine that more resembled a Nissan Sunny than a Ferrari, but they had brought enough drills, picks and scrubbers to make Mario Andretti look good. One of their tricks is to place pads on your eyes while the work is being performed. They told me that this was supposed to reduce inflammation around the eyes. I think it's more to blind you from all the chiselling. It just doesn't look natural.
And while a dentist likes to make conversation, these technicians were professionals. When I found out the crew chief was from the Philippines, I told her that my grandfather had served there with Douglas MacArthur in the Second World War. "You have dryness with mildly sensitive skin," she responded. Thoughts of General MacArthur made me feel more comfortable. I'm sure he had a facial or two. At least he had been to a spa. All those years in Japan, all those great one-liners, the stylish entrance he made on the beach in the Philippines and Inchon. He even made aviators popular. He was the first metrosexual. I began to chuckle to myself. Then one of the eye patches fell off. Those were some pretty sharp tools.
As the chief's efforts became more intensive, the rest of the crew left the scene. The technician working on my hands didn't need that much time anyway, since I bite my nails. She did some nice work on my thumbs, however, where there was some roughness from over-aggressive play on the Xbox. "Now we will do blackhead removal," the crew chief announced. I hadn't noticed my blackheads, much less that it would take about 20 minutes of sharp poking around my nose to remove them. I began to compare the process to a rite of passage for warriors who receive facial markings before they go to battle. What was a bad analogy to start with was killed when the instrumental version of Lady in Red played over the stereo system - for the second time since I arrived.
Warrior or not, my next stop included a back wax, so I had better toughen up. Remembering the scene in The 40 Year Old Virgin where Steve Carell gets waxed, I knew I had to mentally prepare. So I compared the waxing to the polar bear swims I did in college: any pain would be short and sharp, and when it was over you'd have a story to tell. I remembered those February days when we took a chainsaw to the frozen pond behind my fraternity house, carved a small swimming hole in the ice and took a dip. Sure, it was a painful 20 seconds, but afterward a mild wave of euphoria would set in. After I completed my second polar bear swim I realised the story didn't get any better, so the next winter I wore a heavy coat and drank hot chocolate while I watched from the sidelines.
The fact that you only need to experience it once may be the only similarity between the icy dip and the back wax. There's less pain and less euphoria. But maybe it was the mental preparation. Of course, if I hadn't done those polar bear swims I probably would never have become so furry to begin with - it was an adaptation against the extreme cold and my stupidity. After the waxing was over a crew member wheeled me over to a small cart with brown liquid inside and what appeared to be a hose. I know beauty has its price but I had no idea about this. After I asked what it was, the crew member burst into laughter. What, had he never seen a pair of shamrock-print boxers before?
"It is for your bronzing," he revealed. After spraying me down for several minutes, the crew member asked if I thought I was bronze enough. As I looked into the mirror to find out, I understood what was meant by "executive" grooming. The shave may have made me look younger but the bronzing gave me the glow of a much older man - Silvio Berlusconi perhaps. I concluded that I was bronze enough and it was time to depart, before my wife started to worry.
One final word of advice: having your own car should be a prerequisite for any executive grooming. As I waited for a cab in the summer heat, the bronzer began to melt. And without a beard, it takes much longer to hail a taxi. Visit www.thelounge.ae for treatment details.