My father passed away in 1997 and for reasons I won’t go into here he was absent during the latter half of my teen years, locked in a prison of his own making, so this poem resonates very deeply within me, especially the section about shaving instructions.
The last time I saw my father alive I was 20. We met after having not seen each other for a number of years and I clearly remember his surprise when, among many other topics, it came up that I was still a little unsure of how exactly to go about shaving.
Later that evening we went back to the illegal “shelter” he was holed up in, armed with disposable razors, and we stood in its filthy washroom while he gave me my first and only shaving lesson with cold water and no soap.
It may seem like a trivial thing, but shaving side by side with my father that evening was a profoundly powerful experience, and I will never forget it. A significant right of passage occurred and something deep inside of me shifted after this simple, symbolic act.
I had taken an ineffable step closer to being a man.
Shaving, the daily assertion of male image in the west, has become a multi-billion dollar industry and while we spend a great deal of time bemoaning the effects of media on the female form, mind and body, it is largely taken for granted that men are immune to this kind of impetus, but we are not.
Daily bombardment with slick ad campaigns, selling uselessly extravagant and ever complexifying gadgetry, glosses over the profundity of facing oneself in the mirror everyday and preparing for the world at large.
The parallels to preparations for the hunt or war are no longer obvious, shaving is treated as a boring and irritating nuisance to be dealt with as quickly and as painlessly as possible, and the intrinsic manliness that is shaving has been marginalized, sexualized and trivialized.
Increasingly I hear men questioning what exactly it means to be an adult male in this modern age.
Boys play video games, but so do men. Boys read comic books, but so do men.
What then truly separates the two?
Getting a drivers license? Losing your virginity? Moving out? Getting a job? Marrying? Having a child of your own?
Where exactly does one cross the line to manhood?
The physicality of man has been usurped by the activity of man and I think this is where the disconnect in modern male identity occurs.
I am deeply fascinated with Marshall McLuhan’s notion that:
“Violence is the quest for identity. When identity disappears with technological innovation, violence is the natural recourse.”
– Marshall McLuhan
Daniel Beaty angrily laments the incarcerated father who cannot execute, among others things, even the simplest rights of passage to his son, and I wonder how different the world would be if we saw more power in activities like shaving than superficial body image and dollar signs.
This poem speaks powerfully of a significantly large group of men on this planet who yearn, most often without even knowing it, for a father’s hand to guide theirs and say, “No Son, this how you shave; this is how you be a man.”