Monday, March 16, 2009

Who Will Teach the Kids?

This weekend Rebecca and I visited her parents living in Green Bay. We did the usual: went out to dinner, watched a movie, got brunch (or reasonable facsimile), and did some shopping. We went to Target at one point and I picked up a couple nice Hawaiian shirts, much to my surprise. Rebecca's father, Eddie, purchased a new Braun electric razor.

Once we got home and swapped out several bulbs with energy-efficient bulbs, Eddie went up to charge his new razor and gave his old one, still serviceable, to me. He tested the new razor, shaving around his jaw, his chin, and upper lip. To do the latter he pinched his nose and tugged it upward, giving him a clear ground for shaving but also looking like a cartoon character, his face stretching like rubber.

I was suddenly struck with the realization that some of my personal grooming habits come from Warner Brothers cartoons. Other people learned their techniques and the rules of conduct from their fathers, but my parents divorced when I was seven years old. Through incidental observation I picked up my father's routine of always keeping a comb, a nail clipper, a tube of ChapStick, and a packet of Sen-Sen in my pocket, but my shaving technique comes from Bugs Bunny.

The Warner Bros. oeuvre represent a magnificent cultural document: clothing, sociology, marketing, politics, gender roles are all preserved and represented frankly. Elmer Fudd was often going along with them and Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck were foils to them, or they embodied them when it was ironic they should do so, such as being rewarded with a smoking jacket, plush chair, and finest Cuban cigars after a spree of antisocial behavior. We learn that women like to dress up and go shopping, men have short fuses and their fists are made of iron.

We also learn the details of daily life: Bugs Bunny cartoons are full of barbers sharpening their straight razors on leather strops, steaming a man's face with a hot towel, and lathering them up with a mug of shaving soap. When I made the move from shaving gel in aerosol cans to Burt's Bees Bay Rum Shaving Soap, there were no instructions with the soap and (at the time) no online guides to how this was done. I had to dig deep into my Saturday morning cartoon-watching precedent to remember how this ritual was performed, but I did it. It wasn't that complex but there were no other guides available to me and I wanted to make sure I wasn't missing anything. As it turns out, the Warner Bros. cartoons were a comprehensive record of the era.

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