Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Farewell to Davy Jones

I never was much of a Monkees fan (they released their last American hit the year I was born) but they had this strange recurrence in the time when MTV was transitioning to just another TV channel and away from playing music video, so I did see them. Also, M has been a longtime fan. So farewell to Davy Jones, who died today of a heart attack. Others may remember him for his better known work, but I always think of this piece Your Personal Penguin. It's a silly song for a Sandra Boynton book by the same title, but… perhaps it's a fitting way to remember the guy who was, in the end, best known as the lead singer of a band from a 60s tv comedy. -JRS

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Antique Shaving Technology

Antique Shaving Technology -or- Bloodletting for Beginners

Once upon a time, around 30 years ago now, I faced the mirror with a loaded razor in my hand, and timorously began shaving for the first time. Like most young men of my generation, I learned the art watching my father. I recall he made the strangest faces while shaving, and he had, years prior to my first attempt, explained that these are to draw the skin tight and make it easier to shave. My father shaved, at that time, with an old fashioned safety razor. The kind that you twist open and a paper thin piece of metal, sharp on both edges, manufactured by Wilkinson Sword, falls out and you slip in another when it's dull. He used that same razor for years and years until, without my really understanding why, he switched to the then-new cartridge razor. Probably a Gillette Track 2.

I, of course, learned with double-blade cartridges. Probably my own Gillette Track 2, or perhaps a disposable of similar capabilities. I don't recall how much damage I did to my face in that first attempt, but since I don't have any scars that I've noticed, I have to assume it wasn't too awful. I don't suppose I cared for it that much though. In any case, the double-bladed razors of my youth, like the multi-blade cartridges of today, are forgiving of sloppy technique in exchange for a fairly crappy shave, but hey, I was in high school. We were all a little scruffy.

Fortunately for me, these were the Miami Vice years, when a little scruff was suddenly in, and as my beard didn't grow that fast back then anyway, I could go the better part of a week without shaving, before I found myself in violation of the school's dress code. (Catholic school. 'Nough said.) This suited me fine. After all, if Don Johnson looked reasonably cool in that 'yeah, just coming back from a weekend bender of cocaine and bimbos' kind of way, presumably I would too.

Somewhere in here, I got my first electric razor. It was, if memory serves, a Remington Microscreen. It shaved reasonably well, especially if you used their special face talc, which in addition to making your razor slide over your very dry skin more easily, also hid any unsightly stubble, at least until you began to sweat.

In college, my shaving habits fell further to the wayside. This is to say grew a beard. Bearing in mind I was 19 when I started college, it's safe for the reader to assume that this was not an attractive beard, nor a well kempt beard, or a particularly complete beard, but hey, I hadn't cut my hair in 8 months either. So yeah, I came home from my freshman year in college looking like a disheveled mop, more than anything else. I did shave the beard off, though I sported a mustache from time to time. Quite a few of my mustaches got shaved the rest of the way off because, in a hurried bout of shaving, I'd get one side shorter and closer to the centerline of my face than the other, try to trim the other side up, get it too short, and wind up with the Hitler/Chaplin mustache, and the whole thing would go down the drain. The Remington's beard trimmer was reasonably useful in this regard. Better, in fact, than the razor itself.

By the time I hit grad school, I did two things. I grew my hair long, and I decided that throwing away a cartridge every few shaves and/or getting a mediocre shave from a shaver more bent on pulling my (rather thicker those days) beard out by the roots than really cutting it was really not how I wanted to continue. Not being one to do things in half measures - who is, in grad school? - I got myself a straight razor. From a pawn shop. Along with a strop.

Did it shave well? Actually yes. Far better than the Remington ever had, better, in fact, than the cartridge razor it displaced. Once I learned to use it, it wasn't that hard, to be honest. Trying to find anyone in 1991 who knew a damn thing about shaving with a straight razor? That was harder. I learned (the hard way) that there's really only one rule for using a straight razor, and that is: do not for any reason move it along its length. If you do, it will bite you. Hard. Not only did I shave with a straight razor (several straight razors over this time frame) I used a brush and shaving soap and the whole 19th century approach. Once again, since I wasn't shaving every day still (though by that time I really should have been) it wasn't that big a problem.

Fast forward to my career in high tech. Working for Intel required two things. First, you had to be clean shaven or wear a beard bag in the clean room. Beard bags are wretched things, so best to remain clean shaven. Second, my shift started at 5:30am. The process of waving a three inch piece of razor sharp steel on my face and around the major blood vessels of my neck on four hours of sleep at 4:30 in the morning eventually drove me to reconsider my shaving choices. Fortunately, as one of the more interesting pieces I'd inherited from my grandfather's estate, I got a Shick Injector Blade. (Push pull, click click. I'd only ever seen these in Bugs Bunny cartoons prior to this.) So it was with this that I shaved for quite some years in the early to mid 1990s. Later, I had another flirtation with foil type electric shavers - a Braun this time - and ultimately went back to the Track 2 I first started with.

And then, ah, the wonder of it. The blade companies began adding blades. First three, then four, and now five, count them five blades per cartridge. Not content with all that steel, they also put lubricant strips on the cartridges, good for about 3 shaves, that dispensed slimy goo on your face to make the cartridge go more smoothly. I stopped with a three bladed cartridge, used them until the blades were dull instead of replacing when the goo strip was dried out, and that brings me up to late last year.

Late last year, I discovered a store in the mall called the Art of Shaving. I'd been looking for a place like this for 30 years. A place where you can get the nicer shaving creams (the kinds that come in a tub and are applied with a shaving brush), along with the after-shave oil, pre-shave oil (never found a use for this) and of course, razors. Since they had a razor that took my beloved mach three turbo cartridges, I got one.

And then the damn thing fell apart.

I like the Art of Shaving's product line. But I'd never buy another razor from them. Their razors are overpriced garbage.

Disgusted, I began, last week, looking for a new cartridge razor. And I started doing the math of just how much these damn cartridges cost, even at Costco. My mach 3s are about two dollars a whack. The Gillette Fusion pro five vibrating shave head monstrosity was what I was coveting, but cartridges for it were almost four dollars a whack. And like their predecessors, they're really designed for two or three shaves before the goo strip runs out, and I expect the blades are pretty soft so they don't stay sharp too long either.

I balked. There had to be a better way.

I didn't really want to go back to straight razor. Keeping the thing sharp was always a chore, and I've reached the age where some stubble does not, in fact, make you look like Don Johnson in the 80s, but more like Jan Michael Vincent in the 2000s - like you're a raving alcoholic and sleeping under a bridge. (A little grey in the beard does that to you.) so I'm trying to shave more often.

A little more digging and I discovered that those old fashioned safety razors are still around. Yes, in fact, you can still buy the Wilkinson Sword blades my father shaved with when he was my age (though by all accounts they're not what they were.) And most important to my newly parsimonious approach, even a best-in-class blade made in Japan and ordered from Amazon is about 50 cents, and it's good for the usual 3 to 5 shaves. So I ordered a razor and two double-edged blades, and a blade safe to put the used ones in for about 30 bucks total.

It got here tonight. I tried it.

The good news: It shaves very, very close. I haven't had this close a shave since I stopped using a straight razor. The shaving process is almost as smooth as a cartridge razor, and leaves /me/ much smoother.

The bad news: The skin around my throat is not as tight as it was when I was using the straight razor or the injector blade, and a safety razor is unforgiving about lack of skin tension when shaving. Fortunately, I still had my styptic block from my straight-razor days, so getting all the little nicks to stop bleeding was less a chore than it might have been. That thin squeal you might have heard? That'd have been me. Styptic /stings/. Especially when applied to a square inch of skin best described as abraded. Ye gods.

The takeaway: Remember those funny faces I mentioned my father using when he shaved? Now I understand. Now I see. And so, at the end of this long and rambling missive about razors (without asides for shaving cream, styptic blocks (man, that stings) and the fact that you need abrasive on your strop to keep a straight razor sharp (which I only learned while waiting for my safety razor to arrive. D'oh), we come full circle. Tip of the razor to you Pop. Next time I shave, I'll be making those faces too.


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Um… Drop-Pack, anyone?

Those of you who've read Irreconcilable Differences may recall a skydive from suborbital space, based on THIS article, and the jump of Col. Joe Kittinger in the Excelsior III jump, August 16, 1960. One may recall that I specified a "Drop Pack" with winglets that helped Micki and Rae stabilize their flight. In my head, it looked rather like THIS. So it amuses me a great deal to see THIS picture, where Baumgardner, who is attempting to beat Kittinger's record, is wearing something not too different from the drop pack I imagined. It's admittedly a long way from covert suborbital insertion, but hey. It's a drop pack. :) Nothing much else going on. Work is proceeding apace on Brass and Steel: Inferno. I think I've finally untangled the mess of that world and understood why some things are the way they are, because the chapters are fighting me less on the way out. -JRS

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