Imperialism and razors

Weishi razorI’m looking at my recently-acquired, matte black, Weishi adjustable, TTO (Twist To Open, aka butterfly-head) razor. Quite attractive, smart even, and a solid heft in the hand. Chinese-made, Amazon-sold. I am still bemused by my ability to buy products – especially household items, things I use daily – from half a world away with a simple click. Especially when I can’t find any of those items locally (and, yes, I’ve looked…).

Convenient, yes, but also a symbol of the new imperialism: the transnational corporate empires.

Most (all?) of the safety razors I’ve purchased in the past six months since I switched to these devices have also been made in China, despite their companies being located nominally elsewhere (executive offices, anyway). And these razors are all pretty damned good. As good as those made in Europe or Canada (well, okay, once made… as far as I know, no one makes them in Canada, precious few are made in the USA these days, and the Europeans seem to be making most of theirs offshore, too…).

A few years ago, I wouldn’t have said that about a lot of Chinese products – I had numerous experiences with poorly built, low-quality control items. That seems to have changed for the better. But it’s hardly surprising.

Look at the history of offshore manufacturing: after WWII, American (and some European) manufacturers opened (or took over) plants in Japan, in part to restart the Japanese economy, in part to develop lines of low-cost consumer items to feed into the growing western economies, and to take advantage of the cheap Japanese labour. The Soviets did this in Eastern Europe, although their results were very different.

These factories were initially designed to build low-end lines of products. And the phrase “made in Japan” signified low quality for many postwar years. But the Japanese steadily improved their production, designs and quality. The Japanese first progressed by copying, then innovated and improved Western designs. They created products that instead said quality, dependability and luxury. Made in Japan became a boast, not a liability.

And as they did so, the Japanese consumer market itself grew. Workers became more skilled, demanded higher wages. Japan’s economy accelerated and the costs of production rose with it. On a side note: Soviet-managed factories in Eastern Europe produced crap from the start to the end of their regime with little to no effort to improve or innovate.
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The sharp edge: razors and rituals

Four razorsSince I switched to using a safety razor, as I wrote about last spring, I’ve continued to pursue my explorations into razors, blades, technologies and techniques about shaving. I’ve learned much, but still want more hands-on experience. Nothing teaches like hands-on.

I followed up that post with another one on shaving, a month later, about what I’d learned since that first piece. Now, four months later, I come back to the topic with new discoveries to relate. And some new razors to describe.

But let me interject a comment on why this matters. Shaving is something I do if not daily, then almost every day, and I’ve been doing it since I was in my late teens. Ablutions are not neutral acts: they are personal rituals which in some cultures and religions are actually sacred acts. They should not be performed unthinkingly, but rather with focused intention and attention. Something which, I admit, I never appreciated when I was younger. I don’t think it’s a silly obsession to pay some attention to it now.

Ablutions should be done with a sense of reverence. These rituals have a deep symbolic meaning and help validate our lives. As Sigal Samuel wrote in The Atlantic last May:

Although there is no single agreed-upon definition, a ritual is typically a deliberate action performed in a set sequence that improves our emotional state, by reframing an experience in a way that feels meaningful.

Rituals help keep us connected to our daily lives – important in an age when we are increasingly disconnected from real life by the virtual life within technology. Even for a secularist such as myself, there should be a sense of awe and thankfulness at simply being alive and able to perform these acts. And I increasingly believe that as our societies become more and more secularized, we are losing our sense of connectedness and community that religious rituals helped create.

Recognizing the ritual in shaving helps me appreciate that what I’m doing isn’t just about myself: it’s bigger, much bigger than me. I am only the recipient of the end result of generations of effort to get to this point. And I try to recognize that.

When I turn on the tap, I can give silent thanks to the engineers and technicians and workers who worked for the previous century to provide the pipes and the the facilities so I could get easy access to clean water every day. I can thank the designers, the manufacturers, the sellers of the products I use – razors, soaps, brushes, toothpaste, shampoo – who make my ablutions convenient and efficient. I can thank architects and builders for the house, for the very bathroom in which I stand. I can marvel at the ingenuity of everything I use, from a simple toothbrush to the gears and springs of my razor.

I can sip from my tea and think of the workers who picked and dried the leaves, of the centuries of planters and growers and merchants who make it possible for me to drink a brew from leaves grown half a world away. Or of the farmers and herders who produce the milk that softens the tea. Everything we use, we touch, we throw away is the result of the efforts of thousands of others.

I can think of the towels and the cotton growers and pickers and cloth dyers and manufacturers – and even of Susan, who washed them and hung them on the racks for us to use. There are creators and designers and sellers involved in everything around me. I should not take them for granted or simply conduct my life as a consumer alienated from the things I use. As I get older, having a sense of community matters more.

I can also think of my parents and grandparents and the family lineage that stretches back into the haze of time who lived and worked all their lives so that I could stand here, wrapped in a towel, leaning towards the mirror, shaving or brushing my teeth in the latter part of my life.

And if I focus, if I pay attention and practice mindfulness, in all this I can glimpse a sense of the connectedness of everything. We are, none of us, an island. And if shaving helps me remember that, if making it a personal, daily ritual that means a bit more than just the act itself, then it’s worth being thought of as an obsessive crackpot.
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The arts of politics and baking

In his book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, author Robert Prisig wrote about how dealing with the small things of daily life  – like fixing his wayward motorcycle – could teach us about the world at large. A sort of microcosm-becomes-macrocosm perspective, with the vagarities of motorcycle repair to colour the learning. What we learn in one we can apply to the other. *

Baking bread, too, offers a meta-window into other arts and crafts, in particular (for me), politics. Bakers and thinkers have oft cited bread as a metaphor for life (listen to master baker Peter Reinhart’s comments on that topic here or watch his TED talk here).

As an opener, I love making bread. I find it relaxing, rewarding, stimulating and challenging. And sometimes incredibly frustrating and disappointing. Like life. It’s both a creative process and an experimental one. When I bake, I transcend the politics, the worries, the noise of daily life and concentrate on the act itself, a focus I only rarely apply to my daily activities.**

Here are some lessons I’ve learned from making bread I feel apply to politics. They’re not necessarily in the order of importance.

Lesson one: start simple.

You can make bread with four basic ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast. Everything after that is chrome. You can make some pretty spectacular breads by adding more, but if you can’t master the four, you can’t make anything. And you can make stellar breads with nothing more – if you understand how they work together.

In politics, you have to master the basics of procedure and process, of legislation, of policies, and of budgets. These are the superstructure on which you will build everything else. If you don’t have a firm grounding in these, you cannot build anything.

Lesson two: start small.

I have a terrific textbook (Jeffrey Hamelman: Bread – A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes) about baking with recipes for commercial bakeries and restaurants. These produce from half-a-dozen to dozens of loaves. But I’ve learned to make one loaf at a time, scaling back every recipe – even many of those online that are intended for one or two loaves. If I do it properly, I’ll have a small, single, good loaf to enjoy. But if I make a mistake or try something that doesn’t work out well, I’ll probably end up tossing most of it out. I don’t want to waste bread.

Many municipal projects are grandiose dreams. But often smaller, less ambitious or even phased projects over a longer term are better and more efficient. Things change, public needs change, tastes and demographics change – what might seem a great project today in a few years might seem outdated and inefficient. Better to be conservative now than end up with an expensive white elephant in a few years. And politicians should never waste taxpayers’ money.

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Abby the heartbreaker

She was a small cat. At first we thought she might be not much older than six or eight months, but no, we were assured, she was fully grown. Just petite. Two kilos, maybe a hair more. Black with a little white patch on her chest. Big, expressive eyes.

This was a dozen years ago, back when the humane society was in its infancy, and didn’t yet have a permanent shelter. Cats and dogs that couldn’t find homes or foster care were kenneled with willing veterinarians around the region. Susan and I had agreed to adopt one more cat, and were told to check with a vet located between Elmvale and Wasaga Beach.

We drove out one evening, along a dark road, the last people to arrive there before closing. We were led to a spartan back room where they had several cat cages, in which were two cats awaiting adoption. One was a little older, withdrawn into that sort of kennel depression cats get when cooped up too long. The other was a small, black cat who looked like she was not long from kittenhood.

We were going to adopt the older cat at first, but the little black one reached out a paw through the bars and tapped my shoulder. Then did it again. And again. I opened the cage and she crawled into my arms. We were hooked. She came home with us that night.

We called her Abby, short for Abby Normal, not because she was crazy in any way, but because we had recently seen our favourite film, Young Frankenstein, and that name stuck with us. Abby was our home’s princess.

She loved the heat. Any place in the house where the sun warmed a patch of rug or furniture, she was there. In the summer she came outdoors on a leash and would sit on a cushion basking in the warm weather. Sometimes she’d sit beside Susan on a deck chair, small enough to snuggle into the narrow space.

In cooler months, she sat on laps – mine when I was working on the computer or we were watching TV. Beside or on Susan when Susan was in the spare room, reading on the upstairs couch. If we lit the fire, she would move to a small cat bed nearby so she could be closer to the heat. We jokingly called her the perfect cat for Mexico.

At night Abby climbed onto the bed with us and slept on my lap while I sat up and read. When the lights went out and I hunkered down under the covers, she climbed atop my hip and stayed there most of the night. No matter how I might toss and turn, she managed to stay aboard my hip.

Mornings she waited in the kitchen for a saucer of milk – Abby loved her morning milk. Evenings she and Diego, our orange Tom, waited in the kitchen for the treats we gave them before bedtime. Abby liked the rituals and never missed them.

Abby was the mistress of the silent miaow. She seldom actually vocalized, but would look at you and make the facial motions without the sound. But if she was sitting by the window and saw a bird or squirrel outside, she made little cat noises to express her eagerness to give chase. Which she never did because like all of our cats, Abby lived indoors and only went outside with us, and on a leash.
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Relevant poetry

I was standing in a bookstore in downtown Toronto a couple of weeks back, and opened The Essential Ginsberg, a collection of poems, songs and other writing by the late Allen Ginsberg, he of Howl fame*. I open the book at random and read the opening Ginsberg’s poem, Capital Air, which starts:

I don’t like the government where I live
I don’t like dictatorship of the Rich
I don’t like bureaucrats telling me what to eat
I don’t like Police dogs sniffing around my feet

Allen GinsbergEven though Ginsberg wrote it in 1980, it felt like something he would be writing today about America’s Trump government. Or about the increasing repression and fascism in his country. I shivered when I read it because it spoke aloud to now.

Ginsberg was more than a poet: he was also an outspoken political activist for freedoms and rights. Although he died in 1997, I’m sure he would be writing similar lines today, had he lived.

Of course, I had to buy the book (well, buying any book isn’t a difficult decision). Not just for this poem but for others he wrote, the best of which were collected within. I also picked up three more books of poetry: Rumi: The Big Red Book (trans. Coleman Barks)**; Haiku in English: the First Hundred Years (ed. Kacian, Rowland, Burns)***; The Essential Ginsberg (ed. Schumacher) and E.E. Cummings: The Complete Poems (ed. Firmage).

I initially passed on the 1,100-page Cummings’ collection because carrying a 4.2 kg – yes, I weighed it – hardcover in my knapsack through the hot city was daunting. But thought about it overnight, thought about how much he reminded me of Don Marquis and his delightful archy and mehitabel poems, that blank verse and their shared disdain for form, and how little I had of Cummings’s work on my shelves, then made a special trip back to the store to get it the next day. I also found the haiku*** collection beside it, a serendipitous find. ****

An odd thing happens when I read poetry. Normally, I read a dozen or more books at any one time: I am a fairly fast reader with good comprehension. I can juggle all the different types, styles and topics without losing much if anything between books. But when I read poetry, it’s like my brain shifts gears and drops off cruise control.

Reading slows down, it becomes more focused. The chattering monkey in my head stills. Words become heavier, as if gravity increased. I read poetry with more attention to each word, savouring each one, sometimes repeating lines in my head several times, feeling for the rhythm, the wavelike motion of each. I parse each line with more attention than I do to prose. A single, page-long poem can take me as long to read as a chapter in, say, a novel or a history.

I usually re-read the entire poem, once I’ve gone through it, just to try out different emphasis on syllables. Find its inner music, weigh the words. Even poems I’m familiar with – and I am prone to re-reading my favourites – take longer than prose, as if I need to digest each line at a measured pace until it settles in my mind. 

It’s like music: emotionally entwining – but without the accompanying sound it’s a subtle mystery I have to decode. Although I can read music with a child-like effort, when I stumble through a songsheet, figure out the notes and how the tune progresses, I feel a great sense of accomplishment. Same with poetry. When the poem finally settles in me, I feel like I’ve achieved something, solved something.

I have no difficulty writing prose. It falls off me like water from a roof in a rainstorm. But poetry for me is a slog, the death march of my intellect. I can’t disconnect the monkey brain that demands I analyze, assess, parse each word as I attempt to write. it’s like building a Lego house while stopping to measure the distances between each block and compare the height of their protrusions. I have nothing but respect, admiration and a bit of envy for those who are able to write it with any ease.

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Shaving redux

Sweeny ToddIn mid-May, 2018, I published a post about my change in shaving technologies and techniques. I described why I thought it was a more environmentally friendly method, and somewhat of a homage to family tradition. Now I want to bring you up to date on my progress to date.

Before I took the step back to the double-edged safety razors like my father used, I did (as is my wont) a lot of reading and research on websites and forums. Thankfully, there’s a lot of content about everything online, albeit that quantity doesn’t guarantee quality, or truthfulness.

One of the most common themes I found is about which razors are suitable for “beginners.” Words like “aggressive” are tossed around when describing blades and razor hardware. Some models are pegged as for “experts” or “experienced” shavers only. Like they were some hard-trained marathon team, or maybe like Navy SEALs with expertise honed to sharpness matched only by their blades.

It can be rather intimidating. In fact, I was a bit hesitant and ambivalent about the whole process. It sometimes read like I was about to engage in some dangerous ritual that involved deadly weapons and secret cult gestures only with which I would be able to avoid slicing myself into bloody ribbons. Or like learning to fight blindfolded with real katana.

Maybe I’m just channelling Sweeny Todd, but I imagined Susan would rush into the bathroom, alerted by the sound of shrieks and wails, to find me bleeding out on the bathroom floor. Ambulances would be called. Emergency department nurses rushing my gurney into operating rooms screaming “stat!” and “code blue” or other such TV-hyped phrases. While I, in a haze of fading consciousness, stared at the blinking machines that counted my life ebbing away with ever-slackening metallic beeps and boops.

I’m here to tell you it’s pretty much all tosh. Diaphanous piffle, as Conrad Black would say. There’s really no mystique in it and no secret handshake shared among users.

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