Posted by on 2010/06/23

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.”

RIP dad.

Links:

Daniel Beaty

Comments

  1. Gishy Mom
    2010/07/23

    Wow, Charlie Brown,
    You brought tears to my eyes on this friday afternoon.
    Thanks for sharing that very powerful experience and now I love you even more.

  2. Shane Berry
    2010/06/24

    Melissa,

    What a great observation, I think even the most macho of macho guys is playing a piano to an empty house somewhere in his identity.

    A very powerful image of modern man, thanks for that.

    As you know the codes for male behavior have always frustrated me, how to dress, how to walk, how to interact with other males, bravado, machismo, getting smashed, playing sports, never ever, ever, ever a kind touch or gentle moment. Even more frustrating is how, as you pointed out, these are often usurped by attention to a “white wedding dress”.

    Thank goodness I was privy to enlightened men in my life, my father was very tactile, we bathed together, held hands in public and kissed each other good night well into my teens. My friends, our friends, were openly gay and unapologetic, not to mention our teachers!

    I remember once bumping into an old friend from primary school at a the Randburg Waterfront. I was walking with my friend John and we passed a group of rowdy guys drinking up a storm at one of the many outdoor restaurants. My old friend saw me first and he waved me down, happy and excited to see me. I was so genuinely happy to see him too that I gave him a bro-hug and handshake (he ducked a full hug) and I placed my hand on his shoulder and left it there while we caught up. At one point in my excitement however, I rubbed his shoulder and patted him on the back.

    It was if I had jabbed him with a cattle prod. He squirmed convulsively and in a voice loud enough for his buddies to hear (they had actually fallen dead silent by this time) he said, “What are you? GAY!!?” and leaped back a full metre with a look of such confusion and anger on his face I was stunned into silence.

    I knew he was happy to see me, and I also knew that his theatrics were more for his buddies than for me but there was no other course of action for him, he had to behave in a certain way or forfeit membership in his new tribe.

    I was deeply shocked and saddened.

    John, who had witnessed the whole 2 minute “gay assault” in silence, was equally flabbergasted and the only reaction we could muster was to hold hands and merrily skip away. I never saw that friend again.

    I still carry that meeting 15 years or so later, in that moment I heard his piano playing.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

  3. Shane Berry
    2010/06/24

    Thanks Rhythm Droid,

    Always great input from you, and our face to face chat yesterday afternoon was invigorating and stimulating. Thanks for pointing out the spelling of “rite” vs. “right”, I think I’ll leave it as “right” though, I like the play on words.

    As for taking your future son for walks in the woods I highly recommend watching this interview with Richard Feynman talking about his father.

    I agree with you that this unclear delineation of childhood and adulthood could be a major factor in the general confusion and angst permeating male culture at the moment. I think the rise of gang culture and prison culture is testament to this. Where else these days can young men execute rites of passage and belong more viscerally than in a gang? We tend to forget that this tribal behavior is a deeply ingrained, possibly even hardwired, social operating system and it may take many more years before we even begin to grasp the true extent of the impact of media on our collective extended nervous system and social operating systems.

    I often contemplate the fact that if we consider our bodies to be hardware (that hasn’t had a significant upgrade in more than 30 000 years) and culture to be software (that is constantly upgrading and evolving) it puts us in a situation where we are increasingly forcing ourselves to run a sophisticated
    operating system on the equivalent of a first generation computer.

    I think our “software” already largely supersedes our “hardware” at this point, not quite at Kurzweil’s Singularity, but damn close. Of course the human brain is far more flexible than a manufactured chip, but the ramifications are similar – the inability to process enough data to make sense out of it and consequent glitches.

    This could be the drive to nostalgia you bring up, a desire for when “things were simpler”. What is interesting about the “hipster” movement for me is how rapidly they turn to the past for identity.

    What I think is happening with this escalating re-upgrading of our social systems is that for the first time in history our older generations are obsoleting in real time. The time honored tradition of seeking world views from the elders has passed; grandpa doesn’t really know what YouTube is (and he’s only 40 years old) and Google doesn’t require you to listen to non sequitur war stories on the off chance of getting an accurate answer to life, the universe and everything.

    It reminds me of this quote by Mark Twain –

    “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

    Except that these days when we reach 21 we realize that our fathers are just as confused as we are.

    Ultimately what I think is lacking more and more is the physical and emotional acknowledgment of passage from one phase of man to another, boys are gleefully pushed into adolescence but once in the mist of puberty largely left to fend for themselves and figure a way out of the hormone jungle by themselves.

    That is why a walk in the woods, or as in my case a shaving lesson, with a father can be so powerful. It goes above and beyond joining the army, team sports or graduating from university.

    It is the time honored tradition of the elder imparting survival knowledge to the younger, and the responsibility it bears.

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  4. Melissa Adey
    2010/06/24

    Hey Mr

    I love this. So true. I always think there is so much hype about women and feminism and attention focussed on our emotions blah blah. And men seem far more rudderless in this vast modern world of ours in terms of their identities and what it means to be a man.

    I helped out at a colleague’s wedding recently. It was small- 14 guests for the weekend in thsi awesone house on top of a mountain.

    And all the focus was on the bride and her dress and all that crap. The groom was so freaked out and really had no platform to express is all. Bearing in mind this was a pretty traditional, conservative South African couple.

    It was so unexpected to come down the stairs of this mansion, in the wee hours of the morning before the wedding and he was alone playing the piano to the empty house. I was so glad he wasn’t getting rat faced with the boys- but expressing his angst creatively and beautifully…. needless to say his Dad or brother were not around.

  5. Rhythm Droid
    2010/06/23

    Thank you for sharing. I am touched and moved. It is no lie that every day that goes by I find myself wanting to be a father more and more. Wanting to provide that stability for someone, provide that example, that unconditional love and presence. When we become fathers I think we get a chance to heal a part of ourselves that didn’t get what we needed from our own fathers.

    I totally agree about the violence connected to lack of identity. It is hard to *prove* anything, but I really feel that some of the declining facets of my own culture back home in the USA are due to the lack of clear distinction between childhood and adulthood. McLuhan was totally right when attributing technological change to the creation of adolescence. Thanks to all these post-adolescent hipsters with their ironic pining for childhood days, it’s becoming clear that the separation between childhood and adulthood is becomong even more UNclear.

    I’d love to try and see technology’s role in this. Video games are a great observation…plenty of adult men are way into them. I wonder if the strength and widepread adoption of the “ironic hipster retro throwback” way of life is becoming stronger over time in directly in conjunction with advances in media technology. Could interconnectedness and nostalgia for simpler times be related? Just a thought.

    Anyway, we need new traditions! I don’t know about you, but I’m taking my future son into the woods (or urban jungle?) and having him survive alone for a few days when I think he’s ready.

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