A Not So Close Shave

Image from Der Golem.

I made the mistake of looking at Instagram for the first time in a year and was completely traumatized by the juxtaposition of beautiful meals and glamorous vacation destinations alongside posts by friend’s exes and children in hospital rooms. What bothers me most about social media is the pressure to curate an idealized, alternate self. These alternate selves remind me of the Jewish legend of the Golem, a kind of medieval robot made of mud and conjured into consciousness. Initially protective the Golem, in some versions of the story, ends up going on a murder spree. I’m worried that our online, alternate selves are forming a kind of Golem army. We can thank our Silicon Valley overlords for making an old legend a painful force-multiplied reality.

And yet, every time I look at social media it causes me to ask how am I also complicit in the curation of an idealized alternate self via this blog and our books? How many times have I presented some neatly tied up homemaking/gardening tip when the actual results were more ambiguous? Or, to go deeper with this, how often have I presented a “failure” as a kind of false modesty?

At the risk of doing the latter, and via a long winded media theory laden introduction, permit me update my ongoing struggle with shaving. Most folks don’t know that, long before the advent of social media deep in the bowels of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, our government developed the internet precisely for the purpose of creating divisive shaving forums. The thought was that arguments over the merits of modern safety razors vs. the manly art of shaving and sharpening a straight edge razor would so confuse our communist adversaries that they would throw down their AK-47s and embrace the joys of Pumpkin Spice Frappuccinos® and Logan Paul videos.

For years, not wanting to blow money on modern plastic razors, I’ve instead used an old-fashioned safety razor like the one above that has just one metal blade that lasts maybe two weeks at the most. To use it properly, you need to shave three times, down, sideways and up, lathering between each shave direction. It works great if you aren’t lazy and care about your appearance. The trouble is that I’m lazy and don’t care about my appearance.

The trouble is that when I wear my favorite stained and sawdust caked hoodie, I look like that police sketch of the unabomber. Looking disheveled can be charming when you’re younger but once you hit fifty it’s just creepy. In order to, at least temporarily, reverse this sartorial slide, I recently had a proper haircut rather than have a friend buzz my head. My hair-cutting professional took a look at my patchy facial stubble and pointed to his own face noting that both of us don’t have much in the way of beard hair even if we wanted to grow one out. He recommended something I’ve never heard about, shaving with an Andis Outliner II, a kind of electric trimmer used for close cutting. Men of African descent often use trimmers like this for dry shaving as a way of avoiding ingrown hairs.

Does an Andis Outliner II give you a really close shave? No. Would it work for those with prodigious facial hair? No. Would it be good enough if you worked at a corporate law firm or are in the military? Probably not. Can women shove their legs with it? Yes, but it leaves stubble. Does it work well enough for an aging Gen Xer who spends most of his time doing manual labor alone? Yes. It’s certainly better than looking like an escapee from a Victorian mental hospital.

A Springtime Poetry Break

Image: Birds of Many Climes, by C.F.A. Voysey

If the Institute of the Present were to have an official poem this might be it. With the ever increasing distraction and abstraction of our over-screenified lives we might need to remind ourselves of what it means to be human: the joys, the pain, the fading of winter and the arrival of spring.

On Being Human by C. S. Lewis

Angelic minds, they say, by simple intelligence
Behold the Forms of nature. They discern
Unerringly the Archtypes, all the verities
Which mortals lack or indirectly learn.
Transparent in primordial truth, unvarying,
Pure Earthness and right Stonehood from their clear,
High eminence are seen; unveiled, the seminal
Huge Principles appear.

The Tree-ness of the tree they know-the meaning of
Arboreal life, how from earth’s salty lap
The solar beam uplifts it; all the holiness
Enacted by leaves’ fall and rising sap;

But never an angel knows the knife-edged severance
Of sun from shadow where the trees begin,
The blessed cool at every pore caressing us
-An angel has no skin.

They see the Form of Air; but mortals breathing it
Drink the whole summer down into the breast.
The lavish pinks, the field new-mown, the ravishing
Sea-smells, the wood-fire smoke that whispers Rest.
The tremor on the rippled pool of memory
That from each smell in widening circles goes,
The pleasure and the pang –can angels measure it?
An angel has no nose.

The nourishing of life, and how it flourishes
On death, and why, they utterly know; but not
The hill-born, earthy spring, the dark cold bilberries.
The ripe peach from the southern wall still hot
Full-bellied tankards foamy-topped, the delicate
Half-lyric lamb, a new loaf’s billowy curves,
Nor porridge, nor the tingling taste of oranges.
—An angel has no nerves.

Far richer they! I know the senses’ witchery
Guards us like air, from heavens too big to see;
Imminent death to man that barb’d sublimity
And dazzling edge of beauty unsheathed would be.
Yet here, within this tiny, charmed interior,
This parlour of the brain, their Maker shares
With living men some secrets in a privacy
Forever ours, not theirs.

Thanks to Fr. Mark Kowalewski for introducing me to this poem.

Saturday Tweets: Too Many Links

Notre Dame on Good Friday

When the roof of Notre Dame Cathedral went up in flames this week I thought immediately of the book I’ve been reading in the evenings for the past few weeks, J.W. Mackail’s Life of William Morris. Morris was obsessed with Medieval architecture and visited Notre Dame and many other French churches on a trip in 1855. Later in his life Morris founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (which still exists) as a response to the poorly considered renovations of Medieval buildings that grew out, ironically, of a Gothic revival movement during the Victorian era.

Morris’ believed that historical buildings should be kept in good repair and stabilized. As the University of Maryland describes his philosophy,

While the Gothic Revival drew renewed interest to the medieval aesthetic, some architects sought to restore old buildings to an ideal state by removing original detail and adding new construction- trends Ruskin and Morris both found troubling. Morris championed an alternative building preservation model based on retaining all surviving building fabric, no matter how flawed by the passage of time, while employing minimal, non-intrusive reinforcement of the existing infrastructure to prevent future damage. He coined the name, “Anti-Scrape Society” for the SPAB, a humorous shorthand that embodied his philosophy of honoring the artisans who constructed old buildings by preserving their work without alteration.

He would not have liked the 19th century spire that collapsed in the fire this week nor many of the other alterations that took place to Notre Dame in that period. I’m sure he’d also be worried about Macron and his fashion billionaire friends who have some alarming restoration notions. Hopefully cooler heads will prevail. Thankfully, Morris’ forward thinking ideas have become mainstream in the restoration world.

Ship of Theseus


The tragedy of this fire is also a reminder, as Nassim Taleb pointed out, that all building restoration efforts bring up an old philosophical paradox known as the Ship of Theseus. This thought experiment asks the question “If, during a journey, I replace all the planks of a ship do I arrive at my destination on the same ship or a different ship?” Anyone who has worked on an old building faces this weird ontological conundrum all the time. And the law can make this abstract thought experiment a confusing reality. Keep one wall of a building and a municipality will deem what is in reality an entirely new house a cheaper to permit remodeling. This can get absurd as in the flipper palace under construction in my neighborhood, seen in the photo above. It would have made for a much more interesting building had they kept that old wall rather than removing it as soon as the inspectors left.

Part of Morris’ philosophy is keeping earlier modifications intact so as to show the passage of time. Paradoxically that would mean leaving the surviving 19th century modifications to Notre Dame that he, no doubt, hated. Notre Dame has been altered and wrecked so many times that Ship of Theseus questions about how to fix the current damage will provide years of difficult architectural conundrums.