November 17, 2017

The Sharp-Dressed Man…

Category: News — Ira @ 5:30 pm


Clean shirt, new shoes,
And I don’t know where I am goin’ to.
Silk suit, black tie,
I don’t need a reason why.

ZZ Top, lyrics

I have no idea how it all happened, looking back. I mean, it sure wasn’t planned. But those journeys are the best, the ones that just come at you when you aren’t looking for anything except your ordinary day. And you don’t even realize the moment for what it is. This little foray was exactly that, back a few months ago.

A little bit of background, first. I will say. I’ve always been a rough and tumble guy from a real plain place in the country. A place where a man should be tough. His face should be seamed and weathered. Tanned by the sun. His hair should be windswept and uncontrolled. His hands should be calloused. And blackened by dirt and grease, from working the earth and working the machines that till the earth. His bread should be earned by the sweat of his brow. He should be gentle. His heart should be grateful and humble. These are some of the things a man should be.

Where I come from, it was the most lackadaisical world imaginable, when it came to men’s grooming. The men of my childhood, at least the married men, were dark and bearded and grim. Aylmer was kind of on the edge of things, when it came to letting your mustache grow. In most Amish communities, they’re pretty strict about that. Keep that hair trimmed down tight, on your upper lip. In Aylmer, not so much. It was one of the pet issues of the Stoll men, the mustache was. And looking back, it makes perfect sense, what they were saying. Facial hair is facial hair. There is no rational reason to say a beard is biblical, but a mustache isn’t. But Amish rules aren’t necessarily based on reason. The horse and buggy is the most visible symbol of that fact. (That, and maybe those awful barn-door pants the menfolk wear. Those are irrational, too.) Still, they roiled and stirred around a good deal, the Stolls did. Wear a blue shirt to church, instead of white. And it didn’t hurt to have a heavy midnight shadow where your mustache would grow. That’s the way things went a lot, back in Old Aylmer.

Mom wasn’t having any of that. I’ve mentioned it before. Her men and boys wore white shirts to church. Always. Never blue. And as for shaving your upper lip, well, there’s this little story from one fine Sunday morning, before my time. Dad had hitched up his horse and was trundling his family off to church. He wore a white shirt under his suitcoat, I’m sure. He clucked and slapped the reins. The horse clopped along contentedly. It was a peaceful morning. Until Mom glanced over and happened to notice. Dad had not clipped his mustache lately. It was clearly visible. It was, in fact, a mustache. This did not sit well with Mom.

“Dad!” She spoke sharply. And a little loud, over the rattle of the buggy. “Dad. You forgot to shave.”

My father generally remained calm under such an outburst as that. And that morning, he tried to laugh it off. Har, har. Oh, well. They had left home, now. It was too late, to turn back. It was soon time for church to start.

But there would be no peace. Not as long as Dad had that stubbled upper lip. Mom kept right on admonishing. And Dad kept right on driving. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know if church was to the east of our home, or to the west. I seem to recall hearing it told that Mom kept nagging Dad until he pulled into Nicky Stoltzfus’ place, a half mile to the east. Wherever it was, that family had not left for church, yet. And Dad went to the door and knocked. The door opened. Dad asked if he could borrow the hair clippers to clean up his face a bit. And that’s how Dad got to church with a freshly-shorn face that morning. And that’s why some other family passed down the story to the children, of the Sunday morning when David Wagler stopped with his family, so he could clip his mustache hair with the hand clippers. Such a tale as that was told. A tale that actually happened.

There wasn’t a whole lot of grooming going on among the men in my Amish childhood world. Not a whole lot of grooming of any kind, I don’t guess. I do remember a few things that signified a rite of passage, though. My older brothers had these things, I saw early on. A single-edged safety razor. A pressurized can of shaving cream. And a plastic bottle of green Skin Bracer. I’ve seen that hard green glint in just about every shade of light there is. Skin Bracer is good stuff. And it doesn’t smell half bad.

And that single-edged razor. We used it for other things, too. Scraping paint. And it made the perfect blade to castrate little piglets. Dad always had a few sows around. A few farrowing pens in a dilapidated barn. And when the sows had little ones, we’d step in when they were a week old or so. We’d grab a male piglet, and one of us would hold it upside down, by the back legs. The other person would reach in, slice open the testicles, and slash, slash. It was done. Dunk a little peroxide on the open cuts, and back to Mama the piglet went. I’m sure it hurt, the procedure, but I can’t remember that we ever lost one because of infection. They healed up pretty fast. And that’s how I used a single-edged razor blade long before I ever shaved.

And I remember first using the safety razor to shave. Well, maybe it wouldn’t count as a real shave. I was probably fourteen, when some fuzzy hairs showed up on my chin and my upper lip. Barely noticeable to anyone, except to me. When could I use that razor, to actually shave? And I remember scraping the fuzzy hairs off, without any shaving cream. I just rubbed a bit of hot water on my chin, and scratched away. That was in Aylmer. After we moved to Bloomfield, I gradually entered the world of real shaving. And I honestly can’t remember what my first razor was. If it was a real safety razor, or one of those blue disposables. I dutifully scratched the hair from my face every Sunday morning before church, and splashed on some of that cold green Skin Bracer. And that right there is all I ever really knew about men’s grooming. Other than wearing deodorant, I mean.

One other thing I remember. Mom often spoke it, when the boys were cleaning up to go away for the evening, or to church. She always told us to make sure we wash that cow barn or pig barn smell off, before we put on any kind of after shave or perfume. The barn doesn’t mix with the smell from any perfume. Clean up. Wash up. Use soap. Then put on your Skin Bracer. That was her refrain. Barely a generation removed from a place where such words would have been rarely if ever spoken or heard, she boldly spoke to us what she instinctively knew. That’s how civilization develops, I guess. Maybe that’s how the Amish church develops, too.

And now. Coming up to today. Well, a few months ago. I had just quit drinking. Again. Certainly it wasn’t the first time. I’ve learned to never get too riled up when I quit. Never make any promises to myself or anyone else. I’m quitting for now. Today. Only today. Forever is too scary, too long. So just for now, I’m walking a different road than I have been. We’ll see where the road goes and how long I’ll stay on it.

I had just quit, for maybe two weeks. The liquid weight practically melted off me those first ten days or so. It was just astounding. More than a pound a day. And I was strolling around in the Giant grocery store, picking up a few things I needed. Some Glide dental floss, and this and that. After grabbing my items, I noticed, there, off to the side. Men’s shaving products. All kinds of disposable razors with every bell and whistle you can imagine. The replacement blades for those things cost a fortune. It’s a racket, is what it is. There were shelves and shelves of shaving cream, in pressurized cans. And then I saw it, there, packed in a nice orange box with black writing. Van Der Hagen brand. An old-time double-edged safety razor. It almost looked out of place. And I stopped, intrigued.

I picked up the nice orange box with the black lettering. Looked it over. The safety razor was a butterfly model, which means you can screw and unscrew the end of the handle. The top opens right up, and you insert the blade, then screw it shut. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, a memory shook loose, of how that worked. I had done it before. Decades ago. A lifetime ago. The Van Der Hagen safety razor came with ten blades, all neatly packed in a nice little package. That’s what the back of the box said. Twenty some odd bucks for all of it. I weighed the thing in my hands and in my mind. And then I placed the box into my shopping cart. I had absolutely no clue of the door that had cracked open, no clue that I had taken a first tentative step through that door, no clue of the vast new world I was about to discover. No clue at all, of any of that.

I took my little safety razor home. The next morning, I sprayed some foam from a can and rubbed it on my cheeks, and on my throat and neck, below my beard. And I scratched away. It felt good, and the result was vastly better than the electric shaver I had been using for the past few years. I don’t know what possessed me, to ever buy an electric shaver with those round spinning blades. It never gave me anything close to a close shave. By midmorning at work, the stubble shone from my face like a black and gray harvest. Me and my Van Der Hagen butterfly safety razor got along just fine from day one. This is the new me, I thought to myself. I’m gonna start paying a little more attention to how I look. Just the basic stuff. Nothing fancy.

And another little bunny trail, here. Ever since leaving the Amish, decades ago, I had been vaguely conscious of the fact that there was a subset of people out there. The beautiful people. They’ve always been around. I just wasn’t aware of them. They first nudged their way into my life (in a way that I noticed) at Bob Jones University, back in the early 1990s. I was too busy to pay them much mind, but I saw them. The GQ guys, always impeccably dressed. The guys who combed their hair swept off to the side, held in place by some high shine hair grease. Pomade, I learned later, it’s called. They wore the latest cool shirts and khaki pants, and shiny new leather belts and loafers. The girls had it a bit harder, having to wear skirts and all. Still, they stood out, too. It took a while for the whole scene to work itself into my awareness. Don’t get me wrong. The beautiful people were never rude, there at BJU. Just cooler than you could ever hope to be.

I remember, too, how Dr. Bob III, a gaunt giant of a man, ranted and raved against the beautiful people one day in his chapel sermon. They had all the wrong priorities, he roared from the pulpit. All their beautiful clothes and their cutting-edge styles would go down in flames and end up as dust and ashes. The Lord was not ever pleased with such things. I heard that sermon, dressed in my detestable plain cut suit coat. I looked around and felt a little bad for the beautiful people. It took so much effort, to look and dress like that. And now, Dr. Bob was hollering at them. Oh, well. I shrugged. It was a world I never knew or could even remotely imagine. I was a peasant, judging the elites of worldly society with disdain.

I walked on through life, far from the beautiful people. And it’s not that I considered myself particularly ragged or uncouth. I was just a guy who had emerged from a plain and simple place. I was clean enough, I felt. I splashed my face with Skin Bracer or some sort of cologne every day, before heading out to classes or, in summer, to work in the construction world. Around that time, a friend pulled me aside one day. She was the wife of a friend of mine, and she told me. You’re wearing too much cologne. It’s too strong. Be more discreet. I was very embarrassed, but I thanked her and meant it. After that, I splashed on way less of whatever it was I was using.

Going forward, I never paid much attention to the beautiful people. I was too busy to be bothered by them. And I had my own issues in life. But there was one other place I saw where those people proliferated. In law school. There, they were beautiful, and they were just a little bit better. Always impeccably polite, of course. And nice, and friendly. But it sank through my dense head, in those three years. These people lived on a different planet than the one I came from. I would have no chance at all of ever associating with them, of ever really being accepted by them. I could never go out with one of their women. I was way too ragged and uncouth for that. Not that the realization of any of that was a big deal. But at this level, relationships mattered. Connections mattered. And the beautiful people looked out for each other. I was never perturbed enough to be really bothered by it. But still. It was what it was, and I saw what I saw.

Moving along, then. Me and my new butterfly safety razor got along just great. After a few days, I got to thinking. I wonder if I should get me a shaving brush. You know, to get the lathered cream brushed in nice and deep. So I could enjoy a better shave. So I checked, on Amazon. And right away, I found a nice little set for fifteen bucks. A brush, a cheap, plain green shaving bowl, and a small round bar of hard shaving soap. Van Der Hagen brand, again, all of it. Hmm. I wondered how soap like that would work. I had never used any shaving cream, except the kind that spritzed from a pressurized can. I had never used a brush and hard soap. I placed my order. And while I waited for my new treasures to get here, I poked around a little online. What other shaving stuff was out there?

And it’s so strange, these days. And half scary. When I searched on Amazon for shaving products, and placed my order, all of a sudden all these shaving ads started popping up on my Facebook feed. And when I clicked on any one of those links, five more showed up. I’m telling you. It’s a jungle out there. But it’s a delightful jungle, too. Or can be. I’m not going into a lot of detail about brands, here. But I will mention a few of the first ones that showed up. Brickell Men’s Products. Right there on my Facebook feed was a nice flashy ad. Try our products for free. Free samples. Interested, I clicked the link. It looked like good stuff. All I had to pay was shipping. Six bucks. Good deal. I bit.

And the other brand that came right up at me was WSP. Wet Shaving Products. A small company, it turned out later. But man, did they ever have some decent stuff at decent prices. Before I knew it, I had read pretty much through the entire site. There was a lot to learn, I saw right away. I checked out all the shaving soaps. And I looked longingly at some of those nice badger hair shaving brushes. I really needed one of those. That, and some hard soaps and maybe a nice little bottle of aftershave. This is how they get you suckered in. Not that I didn’t have my eyes wide open. I did.

My first order came, from Van Der Hagen. A stiff brush. Boar’s hair, I think. That, or synthetic. It was too cheap to be listed. A nice puck of hard shaving soap. And a swell little green shaving cup, that you use to brush the soap to lather. I kept perusing the Wet Shaving Products site. And the next thing I knew, I had ordered a starter kit. A real badger brush, a bottle of aftershave splash, pre-shave oil, and a small tin of Mahogany soap. And then the sample box arrived from Brickell. It had many small containers of the products they offer. Face Wash. Charcoal Cleanser. Restoring Eye Cream. Moisturizer. Aftershave Balm. I mean, it was all there.

I looked at that nice little package of men’s grooming products. And I looked at my shaving kit that had arrived from WSP. It was as good as advertised. The brush was soft. I opened the little tin of soap and swirled the wet brush around and around. The soap turned to lather. I felt a pang of joy. It actually worked. And then I thought to myself. What am I? Turning into one of those people I never had any use for? A beautiful person? I mean, look at this stuff. It’s made for men who have no idea what it is to hardscrabble your way out of nothing. It’s made for soft hands, not grime and grease. It’s made for a pampered, spoiled generation of men who never knew what it was to touch and till the earth.

But then I thought, too. Why not? Why not use these things? What’s wrong with keeping your face cleaned and washed? What’s wrong with moisturizing your hands and face? Why can’t I enjoy some of those things in life, as well? I’ve been a hard man, all my life. Never spent much time pondering over what it is to have a nice, soft shave. Or good clean skin. There’s nothing wrong with these things. So why not?

And so I started using the products, every day. In the shower, I scrubbed my face with the Cleanser. And after I had finished and dried, my routine developed into a little dance, almost. A splash of this, a dab of that. Wipe this goop in your hair. And I rubbed the Restoring Cream on the bags under my eyes. Every morning and evening, I did that. The bags tightened, then all but disappeared. Well, comparatively speaking, I mean. I marveled. Maybe there was something to this grooming procedure, after all, that was good for you. And through it all, I never touched a drop of liquor. And the weight kept sliding off, one pound after another. Day after day, and week after week.

I had made some fairly drastic lifestyle changes. Not for any particular reason, but just because I thought I should. And I turned my back on a few old doors and timidly walked through some new doors, into a great wide new world. A world with tastes and sights and sounds I can’t quite say I’ve seen before. At least not this vividly.

It’s a beautiful place. Each morning is a new high. I actually get up fifteen minutes earlier than I used to, to start the new day. Anyone who knows me knows that this is insane. That Ira voluntarily gets up early for anything. I never did such a thing for devotions, even, at least not in any sustained way. And it’s almost a ritual. I get up and rejoice in my heart and look with a grateful face to God. Thank you for life, and all that it is.

And then I wash and oil my face and use a shaving brush to lather up. The whole process is a production that I enjoy. I can fully shave with not a whiff of a cut, using the right products. And of course, the wet shaving world opened whole new dimensions I never saw or knew of before. Face moisturizer. Pre and post shave tonics. Hair pomades, and olive oil spray. Beard oil. The list goes on and on. I never knew there were so many men’s care products on the market. You can be a beautiful person without half trying. Or at least you can use the products they use to stay “beautiful.”

The thing is, I feel beyond refreshed when I walk out the door to face each day. I feel alive. Each day brings what only that day can. And one night, well, one night about a month ago I stopped at Amelia’s to pick up a few things. It was still early on in the process, the new lifestyle I had started. I greeted the cashier as I checked out. She has worked there for years, and we always chat about life. And that night, she looked at me.

“Your face looks different,” she said. “It’s like you’ve been in the sun. What have you been doing with yourself? You look great.” Nah, I told her. I haven’t been in the sun much, not since I went to the beach a month ago. But I’ve been trying to take better care of myself, including my face. Thanks for noticing. She smiled, and we chatted about other things. And then I just floated on out of there.

And I’ve been accumulating a good bit of product, the last six weeks or so. You get on those web sites, and you can’t help but order this soap or that brush or that aftershave tonic. I don’t know. In some ways, I think, it’s a lot like the whiskey world. So many tastes and colors and scents and hardware. It’s like walking through a garden in full bloom. And plucking a few flowers from the garden here and there, to give to some pretty girl when you meet her. You just walk along and whistle to yourself.

It takes a while, to fill up your cabinet with decent stuff. Just like it takes a while to get a good assortment of quality whiskey. I’ve sent off for quite a few small to medium orders, and the little boxes have flowed in. From all kinds of vendors, with all kinds of brands. West Coast Shaving is probably my favorite vendor, with the largest selection. Fendrihan, for the Man of Distinction, is a close second. And the brands, well, those are numerous, like the stars in the heavens. Brickell Men’s Products. Caption’s Choice. Ghost Town Barber, by Chiseled Face. Pinaud Clubman, in all its glorious varieties. Col. Ichabod Conk’s Bay Rum splash. Dapper Dan (it’s a real product, not just in the movies). Lucky Tiger. Wet Shaving Products. Tabac. Stirling Soap. The Holy Black Trading Company. Fine Snake Bite tonic. Sir Hare (my favorite shaving soap, so far). Viking’s Blade. Son of Zeus. And on and on it goes.

These days, the boxes are barely a trickle, coming in. As the money was flowing out a bit, as I was getting stocked up, I thought about it now and then. I’m spending less per week than I was spending at the bar. And when you left the bar, the money was gone. Whoosh. Here, I was accumulating. So, yeah. Go ahead and grab a bottle of that premium small-batch brand of aftershave splash. And another brand, another flavor of hard shaving soap. And this open-combed safety razor is on sale. Umm. One more medium grade badger brush? And look at this pre-shave oil. I’ll take a bottle of that, too.

And you come back to earth, gradually. Eventually, you do. You look around. Yep, it’s a beautiful new world. It’s still there, and it’s still real. But I think I got enough stuff now, to last a while. I probably have enough really good shaving soap to last until I’m seventy. Which isn’t all that far away, when you think about it. Oh, well. It’s all good.

It’s a new process, and it’s a new pride. And it affects life right where it is. My face is soft and clean, every morning. Clean, and clean shaven, around my beard. And, of a Sunday, I’m dressing up now, at least compared to what I used to do. A starched white or striped shirt. A tie. A nice vest. Khaki pants or jeans. I even got me a silver pocket watch and chain, to wear with my vests. Because what’s a Sunday vest without a pocket watch and chain? I like going to the Lord’s house that way. Spiffed up a bit.

People notice. The other Sunday morning, I stopped at Sheetz on the way to church, for my coffee. Like I always do. The clerk looked at me twice, as I was paying up. I was all decked out in a white shirt, vest with watch and chain, a tie, shiny face, and slicked-back hair. I smelled good. Discreetly, like a sharp-dressed man should. I looked like a dude, a dandy from the big city. He took my money. And then he asked me. “Are you on the way to church?”

Funny, I thought. No clerk anywhere has ever asked such a question before, on a Sunday morning. Am I on the way to church? I smiled at him. I am, I answered. And then I said, kind of half kidding. You gotta look a little snazzy for the Lord. He laughed. Then he said. “Good thing the Lord only looks at the inside. Not that you don’t look good. But I’m just saying.” I laughed back. I hear that, I said. And, yes, it is a good thing.

And the new pride spills over, right into my life here at home, too. I’ve lived in this house for seventeen years. One night, a few weeks back, I found myself cleaning and scrubbing the cabinet above my bathroom sink for the first time, in all that time. It had just never occurred to me before, that I should.

And it hit me, as I was washing the little glass shelves. It had all started with the wet shaving. You take the time to do that, it becomes a production. A ritual, a process. Then you start grooming, a little, how you look. Then you start accumulating all kinds of oils and aftershaves. And then you start cleaning up the place where you keep your stuff. It all flows naturally, from one phase to the next. Clean up your life, clean up your face, and you’ll clean up your house, too. It sure is strange how that works, I gotta say.

I am absorbing and enjoying the twists and turns and curves and hills on this new road. Who knows, where it will all end up? It doesn’t really matter, I guess. For now, for today, I will seize and savor the moment. I will embrace each new stage of the journey, and revel in it. And I will keep walking.

Happy Thanksgiving to all my readers.



  1. When I see a new post of yours pop up, I feel as though I have a new present to open! Tonight I read most of the story to my husband and he enjoyed as much as I did. Our daughter went to BJU as well, and it is always fun to hear a story about the university from another former student. We look forward to reading your new book!

    Comment by Ann — November 17, 2017 @ 7:27 pm

  2. I love this story. I love the consciousness of the moment and finding joy in Little Things. I think my husband would actually really enjoy a shaving set like this. Any recommendations for a beginner to all of this?

    Comment by Judith — November 17, 2017 @ 7:34 pm

  3. Happy Thanksgiving, Ira.
    Enjoy your shaving products. You got a smile out of me. Thank you!

    Comment by Cynthia — November 17, 2017 @ 7:34 pm

  4. A very absorbing blog tonight. I enjoyed all of it. I remember those screw on-off razor types. That was all my dad used to use when he was alive. A Happy and Blessed Thanksgiving to you, also.

    Comment by Rosanna F. — November 17, 2017 @ 8:42 pm

  5. Oh my gosh you crack me up. Next stop the skin spa….laser procedures, dermabrasion, fillers and botox.

    Comment by lisa — November 17, 2017 @ 9:19 pm

  6. Would love to see a picture!!

    Comment by Judy — November 17, 2017 @ 9:27 pm

  7. A virtual wolf-whistle is winging its way to you! Happy Thanksgiving! :)

    Comment by Selah — November 18, 2017 @ 9:38 am

  8. Good stuff, Ira!

    Comment by Ed — November 18, 2017 @ 9:51 am

  9. Ira, I’m a few months older than you. If you can make the transition toward being one of the beautiful people, and cleaning and scrubbing the cabinet over the bathroom sink, to boot, then maybe there is help for me.

    PS – I noticed you mentioned Nicky. I passed by his tombstone near Rich Hill, MO a few weeks ago, on my way to visit David and Ada from Belize at the home of Enos and Edith.

    Comment by Jay — November 18, 2017 @ 2:58 pm

  10. Hello Ira, I really enjoyed your story about shaving. I know where you are coming from. My father would only shave on a Sat. night. He was raised Amish and had no training in grooming. I don’t know how in the world he managed to court my mother because I know she would really get perturbed at how he looked and smelled especially if he was supposed to look decent.

    I hope you can enjoy your new life and self for a long time. I also hope you can stay off the spirits especially if it isn’t helping your health that much.

    Take care.

    Comment by Mary Maarsen — November 18, 2017 @ 5:08 pm

  11. Thank you for sharing; it was great!

    Comment by P. Liang — November 19, 2017 @ 8:39 am

  12. Great little story.

    Comment by Forsythia — November 19, 2017 @ 11:18 am

  13. Great blog. I am having trouble with my computer. I enjoyed the blog but couldn’t get my comment to post.

    Comment by Linda Morris — November 25, 2017 @ 12:56 am

  14. Really enjoy reading your stuff!

    Comment by Sho — November 5, 2018 @ 1:38 am

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