The greening of shaving


But my brother Esau is an hairy man, but I am a smooth man. I recall those lines from a Beyond the Fringe sketch first released in 1964 (see below).* And so it was in my family: my brother was the hirsute Esau to my near-hairless Jacob. I didn’t need to shave until my late teens and even then it was iffy. That was in the late 1960s when sideburns and moustaches were the rage. By the time I could grow enough, everyone had gone back to being clean shaven.

Eternally unfashionable, I was, even back then. In another era, I suppose I would have been a clean-shaven Roman when Emperor Hadrian made the beard fashionable.

My grandfather – born in the 1880s – used a straight razor. Aka a “cut throat” razor. I remember seeing it in his bathroom, along with the small ceramic bowl for shaving soap and a badger-hair brush for lathering it on. A well-worn leather strop hung from a wall hook. Dangerous, Jack-the-Ripper sort of thing, that razor; understandably the weapon of choice in many slasher films. Its deceptively sharp blade swung out easily.

It had a bone handle, yellowed, marked with the signs of age and use. It was old, old enough that the handle may even have been ivory. Maybe even older than he was, passed down from his own father, although he never said as much. It had a severe beauty about it, sort of like a moray eel has. I was never tempted to try it – too dangerous, too easy to slip and slice, I thought.

I was surprised to find that, despite its venerable history (the oldest ones date back 3,500 years or so but the steel-bladed version more common today dates from 1680 CE), straight razors are still being manufactured – and used – today.

Safety razorMy father – born in 1914 – used a safety razor – the sort of all-metal device that had a double-edged blade where you unscrewed a knob on the bottom of the razor to open the top where the blade sat. It was first introduced in 1904 with King Camp Gillette’s patent, and hasn’t changed a lot since.

My father’s razor had heft and solidity; the knurled handle felt secure. He’d fill the sink with water and swirl the razor in the soapy water to clean it as he shaved in confident strokes.

I can’t exactly remember when, but I seem to recall him having one with a butterfly head that opened like wings to replace the blade. I remember turning the knob to open and close those wings. It had a satisfying sensation of engineering know-how; the very model of the industrial revolution’s ingenuity.

I did try that type of safety razor, way back when I first started shaving, albeit briefly. Not being terribly coordinated then, I cut myself easily, so I switched to something less likely to draw my blood in spurts.

I – a boomer child of the 1950s – went higher tech when it was my turn: I started with a convenient cartridge (injector) razor, one of those single-edged blades that you pushed from a small metal container into the razor every month or so to easily replace the dulled one. Introduced as the cutting edge – forgive the pun – of shaving tech in the 1920s by Schick, it evolved little by the time I took it up. Plastic handle, little grace in the design, but much utility. Easily purchased in any grocery or drug store, and not expensive. And not quite as likely to slit my throat as other types. (While no longer popular, versions of the injector are still being made by smaller companies)

Years later, I still prefer single blade razors, by the way, although they are rarely seen on drugstore shelves outside of disposable versions. And that disposable notion bothers me, enough to want to change a lifetime of shaving habits. So read on…

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Those we lost in 2017

It’s not just because I’m older that I am reading more of the obituaries than ever in my past. At least, I don’t think so. I seldom read local newspaper obituaries (in part because the delivery here is too sporadic to make it a habit), and I don’t regularly share death notices on social media unless they are of very well known figures. But I do admit I think seem to notice these reports more these days than in years past.

It’s not a fear of death, either, just an awareness that it’s closer than it was and that it comes to us all, great and small. I try to keep in mind the words of Marcus Aurelius, that great Stoic, who wrote among other thoughts in his Meditations, Book VIII:

He who fears death either fears to lose all sensation or fears new sensations. In reality, you will either feel nothing at all, and therefore nothing evil, or else, if you can feel any sensations, you will be a new creature, and so will not have ceased to have life.

Cicero had some pithy things to say about aging and death too, but I’ll leave them for another post.

It strikes me most melancholy when someone among these dead contributed in some memorable way to my own life, to my own culture, upbringing, values, entertainment or beliefs. We have lost their continued wisdom, their continued contributions to our culture; their future output is stilled. For those closest in time to my own age – writers, actors and rock stars many of them – I notice their passing more than I do that of younger artists and musicians. true, few have had a direct, personal impact on me, but they touched me nonetheless.

For no apparent reason other than it struck me to do it, I started looking online for notices of deaths in 2017 only last week, combing through the lists posted online for familiar names. Here are a few that stood out.
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The House on the Borderland

House on the Borderland “But for a few touches of commonplace sentimentality [it] would be a classic of the first water.” So said H. P. Lovecraft of the 1908 novel, The House on the Borderland, by William Hope Hodgson. But, Lovecraft admitted, the book was also a major influence on his own, later work. And for good reason: it created the ‘unknown horror’ effect that Lovecraft (and later writers) exploited so well.

House on the Borderland is a seminal work in its genre and, despite its age, deserves not to be forgotten by modern readers. Here’s a passage from the book:

And then, as I peered, curiously, a new terror came to me; for away up among the dim peaks to my right, I had descried a vast shape of blackness, giantlike. It grew upon my sight. It had an enormous equine head, with gigantic ears, and seemed to peer steadfastly down into the arena. There was that about the pose that gave me the impression of an eternal watchfulness—of having warded that dismal place, through unknown eternities. Slowly, the monster became plainer to me; and then, suddenly, my gaze sprang from it to something further off and higher among the crags. For a long minute, I gazed, fearfully. I was strangely conscious of something not altogether unfamiliar—as though something stirred in the back of my mind. The thing was black, and had four grotesque arms. The features showed indistinctly, ’round the neck, I made out several light-colored objects. Slowly, the details came to me, and I realized, coldly, that they were skulls. Further down the body was another circling belt, showing less dark against the black trunk. Then, even as I puzzled to know what the thing was, a memory slid into my mind, and straightway, I knew that I was looking at a monstrous representation of Kali, the Hindu goddess of death.

You can read or download a copy at Gutenberg.org. It’s not very long – just over 50,000 words, and is a fairly quick read.

Hodgson – whose 140th birthday was celebrated by fans last November (the 100th anniversary of his death is in April, 2018) – was prolific in his lifetime, but is an almost-forgotten figure these days. Only two of his novels – the other being The Night Land (1912) – got any significant attention or popular reprints for many decades after his death. Thanks to the internet, digital files and the magic of on-demand publishing, a lot of his work is available online; five of his novels are now downloadable from Gutenberg. And this slowly growing popularity has seen a few publishers reprinting many (maybe even all) of his works.

While still in the shadows compared to other writers, he is read today by fans of classic horror and early scifi. But he’s not anywhere near a popular writer. In part that may be because better, subsequent writers like Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany and Edgar Rice Burroughs captured (and continue to capture) the public’s imagination. Plus, they wrote about the modern, post-war world: with radio, cars, telephones, movies, steamships and the like. They are easier, I suspect, for modern readers to comprehend than those from the Edwardian era.
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A farewell to 2017

Cicero books, and othersTwenty seventeen has a special significance for me, beyond merely another year in the ever-lengthening calendar of my life. I find it difficult, sometimes, to believe I am as old as I am – who, after all, lives this long? I used to think that. Back then, back in my salad days of my misspent youth, fifty was impossibly old. Sixty? Ancient. Beyond that? Methuselah old.

Or perhaps I simply don’t act my age. I still listen to the Beatles and the music of my youth, and play computer games. I still watch Godzilla movies and play tag with my dog. But my joints tell me a different story some days. What is it about time and age that we never see ourselves as others do? That wrinkled old guy in the mirror is someone else, I swear. The real me is killing orcs and invading dungeons online or running through the park with the dog.

As I age, however, I tend to grow more philosophical, and my attitudes about life and death have trended more and more to the Stoics of late. As I write this, a small pile of books by and about Cicero are stacked nearby (hence the picture above, shown with some other books I’m also reading). I haven’t quite found the meaning of life in the Stoics, but I do lean their way. And I sometimes find my own muse too, in reading Cicero. He was passionate about good governance and would have railed against our current, inept council with all his rhetorical might.

Late December marked 35 years since I met Susan. We met in a bar in Toronto, a serendipitous chance event on a cold evening, and we’ve been together ever since, closest of friends and lovers. I am daily surprised she stuck with me through everything, but it speaks to the iron in her soul. And a quirky compassion for a sometimes obsessed, grumpy old fool. More than half our lives spent together.

We both still recall quite clearly our very first dinner date … but that’s another post. We still go for mini-holidays to Toronto every year, visiting the AGO and ROM, Kensington Market and several bookstores. Always we are happy to return, laden as we are with bags of books.

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Guillermo, monsters and me

Tucked away at the bottom of a tall display case in the ‘At Home With Monsters’ exhibit at the AGO is a small collection of seven old, well-thumbed books, all by the 19th century French naturalist and entomologist, Jean-Henri Fabre. At the very bottom of the pile, its title almost hidden in the shadows, is The Life of the Spider, first translated into English in 1913, but not translated again until 1971.

The books subtly reflect the importance director and artist Guillermo del Toro places on insects in his works. He calls them “living metaphors” and adds, “They are so alien and so remote and so perfect, but they also are emotionless. They don’t have any human or mammalian instincts.”

I felt a certain thrill at seeing Fabre’s works, especially The Life of the Spider. That very same edition was the first adult book I ever read. I was nine or ten years old, maybe younger, stuck at home with some now-forgotten childhood illness, unable to go to school or out to play. I’m not sure where I got the book. Likely I had taken it out from the local library – probably for some science project or homework – and it was all I had to read that week in bed.

I read it cover to cover, absorbed in the minute details of the behaviour of Fabre’s spiders. It created in me a lifelong appreciation of these arthropods. I must have returned the book after that, because I never saw it again. But it was not forgotten. I was the only one in the gallery bent down, kneeling on the floor to read the book titles. 

I had not expected to see this book in the exhibition – which features the monsters and the fantastic visions of writers, artists and filmmakers that appeal to Guillermo del Toro (including several from his own works) – but the sight gave me an immediate sense of familiarity, and of connection with del Toro. No one else I have known has ever read that book, or even knows of its existence. But del Toro does.
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