The Razor II
Bill Long 3/18/05
What surprised me about my experience of shaving with the "1950s style" razor and 1948 blade was that it triggered so many other feelings even as I was shaving.
Triggered Thoughts I--Dad
First, I recalled the cold, cold mornings growing up in Connecticut, where I would peer into the bathroom in the morning through bleary eyes and see my father in his sleeveless white undershirt lathered up and shaving with steam rising from the sink. Every work morning he would catch the 7:34 a.m. train from Glenbrook (CT) station into NYC, then take the subway from Grand Central to his office on 1 Madison Avenue. He would return regularly each evening, catching the 5:34 out of New York and returning to Glenbrook by 6:45 p.m. I remember his shaving not simply as a morning ritual but almost as emblematic of the type of life he lived, trying to raise 4 sons in a posh CT suburb on a decent but not huge salary in the 1950s and 1960s.
I thought further about my father. He was really a very creative person, almost a genius, I think, in designing computer systems to help people simplify their lives. But he was both ahead of his time and he lived in a time of national conformity, where creative geniuses were not much appreciated in business, especially if you were not from a blue-blooded line of CT Yankees, which my father was not. So, he continued at a job that he really didn't like, working on development of the Univac computer with Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in New York until the company transferred him to the San Francisco office in 1967. I think my father saw our transfer to CA as a sort of personal liberation, for within a year he had left Metropolitan Life and started on some tax ventures of his own. I don't know the full story of the rest of his productive life, which lasted until about 1980, for I was building my own "empire" in those days, but I do know that he was still working on a "revolutionary" computer tax program when the smoldering myeloid leukemia, which would take him at Christmas 1981, overwhelmed his system in the summer of 1981.
Triggered Thoughts II--Myself
As I was drawing the razor across my face this morning, I also thought back to the times when my father first taught me how to shave. It was in our CT home, probably in 1964 or 1965. I recall the sense I had that I was 'gaining on him' in height and in strength nearly every month, and this was one further sign of that process. I don't consciously recall feeling "Oedipal" about him, as if I was trying to "kill him" and "marry my mother;" rather, I remember the first tentative steps at shaving that accompanied my growing sense of becoming a man. I never really learned how to shave with the straight razor blade and fixed-head razor; it was only the more developed razor technology of the 1970s-1980s that "saved" me.
I experimented with my first beard about 1976. I recall the occasion. I was in my third year at an Evangelical Protestant seminary. I looked at growing the beard, much like many other people who grow their first beard, as an experiment in freedom. I think it meant that I wanted to be an "experimental Evangelical" in those days, and that the button-down conservativism of the previous generation, who felt that they needed to be recognized by the secular academy, was not going to appeal to me. I sported a beard at my wedding on June 4, 1977 and well into my doctoral work at Brown from 1977-80. For me it would always be either a beard or a cleanly-shaved face. Nothing in between. The attractiveness of the beard diminished in direct proportion to the sprouting on grey hairs on the head and the face. Thus, since about 1993 I have not had the temptation to grow another beard.
Triggered Thoughts III--My Son
So, I taught my son to shave about 2000. I knew the day would come sooner or later, just as the time would come for me to teach him how to tie a tie. Because I grew up in a New England culture in the 1950s, I had learned to tie a tie almost as soon as I could walk; but my son is growing up in a different world. He has made it through most of his first 18 years without needing to know how to tie a tie. Yet facial hairs grow irrespective of societal patterns that might approve or disapprove of ties. So, on that 2000 day where I taught my son how to shave, I had a funny feeling, as if I was passing on lore that only I knew (which was certainly not true) to my own flesh and blood.
A friend remarked to me not long ago that he never had had such a feeling of being in the "chain" of life as when he participated in his daughter's wedding a few years ago. His memories were drawn back to his own wedding and to his parents stories and pictures of their own. Something about seeing his daughter making her independent choice to marry, to continue the cycle of life yet another generation, convinced him more than anything that he was a part of a human chain, a human tradition. We arrogantly think in our twenties-forties that no one has ever trod the path we have been walking. But as the body sags and begins to lose its strength, as the mind functions less precisely and efficiently, we truly see our lives as they probably were meant to be seen--as contributing to the whole symphony of human life on earth, but not as the entire symphony.
But rather than waiting for possible marriages of my kids for me to feel a part of the chain of life, a link between the generations that came before and that which follow, I think it was watching my son shave for the first time that convinced me that this was true. Nothing was said, of course. The only thing I did was to try to show him how to put on the lather and how to move the razor. But in those motions much more was happening.
Thus, the message of the razor is a multi-generational one. It reminds me of my father's hard, and not overly-fulfilled life. It provokes my thoughts of my own coming of age. It convinces me, by watching my son, of my role in the chain of living. The old-time razor has so many lessons to it, that I wonder what I shall do for shaving tomorrow? Well, I think I will go to Walgreen's this afternoon....
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long