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Below the Beltway

Scared Straight

An experiment in masculinity guaranteed to leave you red-faced

By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, December 5, 2004; Page W15

During a recent online chat, I mentioned that I shave using a badger-bristle brush and a mug of soap. The point I was trying to make is that I am a Real Man. Unfortunately, within minutes I received an e-mail from a guy congratulating me on my masculinity and dryly inquiring whether I also used a straight razor, as he did.

For the benefit of my younger readers -- those born after the second McKinley administration -- I should explain that a "straight razor" is, essentially, a cross between a scalpel and a bayonet. It is one of those long, flat, naked blades used most famously by barbers in old westerns: Typically, the customer was smoking a cigar through a froth of shaving cream. The barber was smoking a cigar. The horse was smoking a cigar. Toughies.

(Eric Shansby)

Of course I did not use a straight razor. This is the age of highly engineered, four-blade, mistake-proof "shaving systems." Even though these products have macho names like the "Gillette Phallus-IV," they can also be safely and effectively used by a blind man wearing boxing gloves. Only an idiot would use a straight razor.

Now, the typical woman, upon receiving an analogous, ridiculous, one-upping challenge to her womanosity ("Do you sew your kids' Halloween costumes?" "Do you moisturize your cuticles?") would have simply laughed, said no, then dealt with her mild feelings of guilt in the time-tested womanly fashion of consuming brownies. This is because the typical woman lacks a certain quality which, for want of a better word, we can call "stupidity."

I handled the challenge like a typical man. I didn't answer it until a few days later. By that time I had made a frantic search of retail stores, and, finally, I was able to respond by saying that, why yes, like all Real Men, I do indeed use a straight razor.

I have been using a straight razor for five days now, and I can confidently report that it is just like using a safety razor, except for two elemental differences: the element of fear and the element of pain. As I type these words I am seated at my desk wondering if my co-workers can actually see the pain molecules that are leaping from my head, trying to escape the flaming tarmac that is my face.

My wife has been mostly supportive of my new morning routine, considering that this purchase has increased my bathroom stay from roughly six minutes to roughly the time it takes to do a valve job on a tractor. In fact, my wife will occasionally stop by to offer commentary and reassurance. Once, carrying the laundry basket, she announced, "I'm headin' down to the crick to pound our britches clean with stones." Another time, on the way out to shop for dinner, she said, "Goin' to check the traps for possum."

A straight razor costs about $175, including the leather "strop," which is a tough, cowboy way of saying "strap." ("Strap" won't do. Bras have straps.) One hundred seventy-five dollars might seem like a lot of money, but straight razors last forever, so, as any moron can see, this is a sensible, cost-effective purchase, something I have patiently explained to my wife several times while standing at the sink, during the periodic breaks for blood drainage.

Straight razors do not come with instruction booklets. I am guessing this is for reasons of liability. ("Our product is not responsible for this man's grievous injuries," the CEO testified. "Why, the damn fool tried to shave with it.")

On the Web, however, there is no shortage of straight-razor literature, none of which is hugely helpful. ("Avoid amputating nose.") To show the direction of hair growth, however, the literature does supply a map of a man's face, divided into a dozen sections. This looks exactly like one of those charts of a cow you see in a butcher shop. I have so far partially filleted both my tenderloin and my brisket.

I can't say, in good conscience, that I am going to continue shaving this way for years, but -- as a neurotic middle-aged Real Man -- I will try to keep it up for a while. If you see what I mean.

Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is weingarten@washpost.com. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon at www.washingtonpost.com.

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