Friday, April 19, 2013

The Meaning of a Great Shave

My first straight razor shave is complete, and it went pretty well. My face is almost as smooth as with a normal shave, and I should be able to go out in public with no shame. But as I sit here for a few minutes and wait for the bleeding to stop, I'm thinking of why it holds some importance to me to be able to cut hairs off of my face in a manner so obsolete. I want to be able to do it, and do it well. And despite my own delusions of grandeur, there seem to be far worse ways a man can make a living than providing a truly excellent shave as a barber. I've decided there are two reasons why I think the razor and its use are important in today's social context.

Razor-Thin Margins

First of all, there's the economics. This is what I'm using as a straight razor, a shavette, because I am still too lazy to sharpen and strop and I don't want to pay a hundred bucks for a quality Dovo. For daily use, my usual razor for several years now has been a 1940's Gillette Tech, a single-blade safety razor so excellent that I cannot, for the life of me, understand why we think modern razors are any better. And we must think that, because holy shit, we pay out the ass for a modern shave. Buying cartridges for a Gillette Fusion costs about $25 for a pack of 8, and that's the Amazon price before shipping. More than $3 a cartridge, in other words. Now, what the hell is so amazing here that we're paying so much for a Fusion shave?

In physical terms, simply put, nothing. Estimates have put the difference between cost of manufacture and cost of sale at 4000% for those blades. That markup is money for the store, the shipper, and the developer of the blade, but then look at old-fashioned double-edge blades, and you know that something is wrong here. I've never had to buy more than the original package of blades for the Tech, they last longer than the Fusion cartridges, and DE blades average about seventeen cents each. My package of 100 Shark blades cost me around $15. The blades for the straight are even cheaper, and most straight razor users simply don't use replaceable blades, since they use real straights, so I'm paying more than necessary.

The real benefit to modern razors is convenience. You need not know what the hell you're doing to get a good shave out of a Fusion. Any idiot can do it. There's no risk - they've been designed to simply never cut you. You don't need to think about it, it's fast, you can do it while hung over or possibly still drunk. The speed thing definitely matters; my shaves would probably go twice as fast with a Fusion. I'm not sure what that's worth, probably more or less with any given person with different schedules. But in a culture where the average person is finding several hours per day to watch TV, I still wonder why it's so much of a problem to learn how to use an actual razor.

What's the point of such convenience? What's the point of convenience, generally? Seems like a stupid question, but why not put yourself into all your tasks with equal dedication? Of course, in most cases, we handle the mechanics of life, like shaving, so that we can get on with more important things. But does everyone really have much more important things than maintaining themselves? For those who live on tight schedules and must abbreviate the routine to the extreme because their time is so precious, I understand the fastest possible shave, but this cannot be everyone, or even most people.

Pointing out the obvious, this spend-happy preference would not be feasible without our ridiculously cushy middle-class living standards. We've become used to wasting money however we like; if there were a sudden need to actually watch our budget, the number of old-school shavers would likely increase. In fact, they seem to be doing so; there are many conversion stories on sites like Badger and Blade. That's not a bad thing. The pressure to save money creates not only efficiency, but proficiency.

Razor Ethics

But the second element that matters is trust.

The change is most apparent with the experience of going to a barber for a shave, which almost never happens anymore. This sucks, because by all accounts, getting a professional shave is a great experience, full of expert craftsmanship, great smells, and a demanded relaxation that can create an almost retreat-like sensibility for a man comfortable with the process.

It has always taken a certain faith to allow another person, particularly one you don't know, to use a literally razor-sharp blade directly on the skin of your throat, just next door to the jugular. But that particular aspect we probably still wouldn't think twice about. It is a credit to Western civilization that, a century ago, men who lived in much more dangerous circumstances would implicitly trust that a barber wouldn't hack them to pieces. A society which creates such trust probably deserves a basic respect for producing good, trustworthy, God-fearing people. We take that for granted now; you simply don't have to worry about someone hurting you in your daily routines.

Or do we? Depends on your definition of 'hurt'; maybe not with true malicious intent, but as far as competence goes, there is some concern. There are some problems here. We don't trust teachers to educate the kids, don't trust cops to enforce the law fairly, don't trust fathers to discipline, don't trust politicians to preside. We can't trust business, governments, churches, universities, or almost any other critical institution without serious reservations. The doctors are negligent and the bureaucrats are crooked. We might be willing to get the shave if the timing was right, but in a broader sense, we are a society that locks its doors more, refrains from casual interaction with strangers, pushes the kids to stay in touch via cellphone, and otherwise minds its business to such a degree that the creation of social capital obviously lags. We isolate ourselves and huddle into our little circles when we're lucky enough to find people we can count on. The problem extends to our own self-image: this is a generation without much in the way of living skills, no manners, none of the easy confidence of a people at home with each other. With the Fusion razors, why use something so safe and spend so much money doing it? Because people don't trust themselves to learn the skill well. So they take the easy route. They do it when they demand the government regulate our credit cards and mortgage contracts, no business relationship too safe.

The barber is essentially a wage peon today, and so maybe we take some trust in the image of a man simply trying to earn a living, not really in a position to hurt us as a matter of consequence. But when the images move towards those of people in authority, we simply do not trust them. Many grand moral pronouncements have been made to the effect that a society is truly legitimate when it cares most enthusiastically for its lesser members, but I disagree; a society isn't in serious trouble until it can no longer admire its highest. When that happens, you have serious functional issues. And we do. The lesser members can be dealt with locally. The greater members cannot do what we need them to do without trust, respect, and honor from pretty much everyone.

Is this a lot to make of a shave? Yeah, probably. I still recommend learning to use a razor properly and saving yourself a few bucks a month in the process. I go through the whole routine, with shave soap in the mug and a badger hair brush, and it quickly becomes enjoyable. The shave is much closer than with a cartridge razor, and you can buy Gillette tech razors on eBay, in good shape, for ten bucks all day. Money aside, it's worth it to slow down and put some attention into something both mundane and intimately personal.

1 comment:

  1. Well thought and well-written. Shaving works for me as a metaphor of many traditional values we have cast aside without really thinking about what should replace them. Thank you.