I've always been intrigued by straight razors. Many a Western shootout has been interrupted while someone is summoned from the barber's chair, and shaving like my grandfather did has nostalgic appeal.
So, set the scene for Tamara's Christmas stocking stuffer — the full gamut of traditional shaving paraphernalia. As I've said before, I have the coolest girlfriend in the Kootenays.
As I wend my way through nicks and cuts, I've discovered there's a meditative charm to shaving with a straight razor that reminds me of fly-fishing. You need a steady hand, to be sure, much like threading a line through the guides or winding fine hackle around a parachute post. And the shaving art itself — it surely is that — is contemplative and precise; patience is rewarded, just as when you're working a 20-inch brown in two feet of water.
At the fly-tying vise I'm modestly accomplished, but the, er, sharp learning curve with a straight razor is somewhat intimidating. After all, at any time you're just a brain sneeze away from Sweeny Todd, London's infamous demon barber who had his chair hinged to dump victims into the awaiting cellar, where his gal-friend made them the main ingredient in savoury meat pies.
Where was I? Yes, the gleaming blade, too, is a work of art: fine scrolling adorns the 'spine' like a receiver on an English-made double, though the blade I wield was made in France. The faux ivory handle is elephant-friendly and fits like a glove.
As for the shave itself — well, before anything gets wet the blade is stropped to a lethal edge. Sixty swipes — 30 per side. The rasping on leather sounds like boots on crusted snow.
Now it's time, at least for me, to enter the clawfoot tub. I've fashioned my own aquatic barber shop, complete with Ikea fold-out mirror and shelving for the shaving gear. It's my de facto hot yoga studio, except that the mat is porcelain and the attire primitive: in other words, Lululemon need not apply.
I didn't just wing all of this. First off, as part of my Christmas present, Tamara gave me a session with Connor at The Windsor in Nelson. He's shaved a thousand faces, probably more, and generously shared his knowledge with me as I received the shave of my life. Seriously, the best shave of my life. Afterwards, for the next hour, I walked the streets of Nelson fondling my face like it had just been born. Book an appointment with Connor and prepare to be Christened.
Secondly, I consulted Quinn Styles — friend, the Bow River's go-to guide, and someone who collects straight razors like others collect fly rods. His collection is amazing, and also includes soaps-of-the-world, leather strops, and the finest badger-hair brushes. I'm not sure whether Quinn has a bamboo-handled blade, but it wouldn't surprise me. He wields a straight razor with the same expertise and dexterity that he brings to fly-fishing, and that's saying something: he's the best caster and practitioner I know — a guide's guide in every sense.
Quinn's a big advocate of the proper lather. It must be stirred and whipped, frenzied into something resembling egg meringue. Too many bubbles means too much moisture; the aim is velvet in a mug. As with natural fly-tying materials, the only brush of note is made with genuine badger hair — silver-tipped being the pinnacle. When you rub that lather-slavered brush across your beard, you'll be tempted to quit right there, but that's only the start.
Now comes the focus, the blade and the shave. With the grain, across the grain — it's like a Saskatchewan farmer combining the crop, only the stakes, as Clint Eastwood said in For A Few Dollars More, is 'your life.' A violent tic could cost you your carotid artery; an unforseen siezure your throat. That ups the ante substantially, and suddenly shaving becomes, well — manly. You'll be forgiven if your testicles swell in the tub as the whiskers accumulate at the waterline.
It takes 30 minutes all told, for a neophyte like me. Maybe 45 with a double pass. Time well spent. Really, what's the rush? The older I get the more I realize that all the best things take time: smoking meat instead of ruining it on a cheap grill; tying quality flies instead of buying rubbish from a bin; going the speed limit and enjoying the scenery.
The final step is the application of a cold towel, to close the pores, and then patting down your face with a non-alcoholic after-shave balm.
When all's said and done your face will feel as if nature has annointed it. Go stand in the cold and feel your pores sucking at the air, filling with oxygen. Suddenly shaving is hip again, and not something you dread and put off for days.
I'm working towards a swipe at Tamara's shins, but she doesn't know that yet. I figure the risks are small, what with no major blood vessels involved, but the potential rewards are great indeed.