Friday, July 10, 2009

Help, I'm trapped in the Smithsonian!

It occurs to me, as a guy who prefers sharpening a straight razor over throwing mountains of cartridges in the trash, wears grown-up hats instead of ball caps, considers a sport coat a minimum requirement for dining in a decent restaurant, and often writes with a decades-old fountain pen instead of buying plastic bags full of disposable pens (oh, OK, maybe the pen is just an eccentricity), that I'm in imminent danger of being nabbed and turned into a museum exhibit.

I'm as big a defender of consumer culture as anybody. I'm a big believer in choice. People should have options available and be able to select what suits them.

But my choices tend to veer sharply from those of the prevailing culture. Where most folks go for the lowest common denominator under the banner of comfort and convenience, I like quality, durability and a little style.

Razors I've written about before. I hone and strop my razor because I resent buying a "razor" that's nothing more than a handle that comes with an obligation to buy expensive cartridges. The vintage blade I'm using now cost me twenty bucks in a junk shop, which isn't much more than the price of a pack of Fusion blades. Yes, I have to maintain it, but it still gives a close shave after a half-century or so. Ten years from now, the Gilette Fusion will have been retired in favor of some vibrating 12-blade monstrosity, and my razor will still be going strong.

And, hats. I like hats. In fact, living under the Arizona sun, I need hats. But if you need protection from the elements, you can opt for something well-made, that makes you look good, or you can stick a cheap piece of polyester trash on your head. Actually, a lot of Arizonans feel as I do and wear felt hats in cooler weather and straw hats in summer. There's a tradition here of fine headwear. So there's really no excuse for sticking a ball cap on your head as the covering of choice. Especially since it makes you look like a 12-year-old boy.

Or is it the oversized logo T-shirt and cargo shorts you wore with the cap when you wandered outside that makes you look like you're developmentally impaired? Hmmm ... Let me think on that.

Don't get me started on how people dress for public consumption these days. Honestly, if you're going out for a nice meal in a restaurant where you plan to spend money on food that you trust will be well-prepared and delivered by at least moderately attentive wait-staff, why wouldn't you show respect to the place, the staff and your fellow diners by dressing for the occasion? Let's not go overboard; how about slacks and a collared shirt for starters? We'll work our way to a sport coat and tie.

Honestly, I want to be a maitre d' at a nice restaurant for just one night, just so I can tell everybody who shows up in a T-shirt and jeans to get lost.

But that would clear the place out these days, wouldn't it?

I'm not going to harp on the pen issue, since I grant that, maybe, insisting on using a fountain pen in 2009 is a tad ... off. But you gotta tip your hat to a writing instrument that still lays down ink after decades. My Pelikan Pelikano, the first pen I ever owned, dates back to the early seventies and still writes like a charm. My Sheaffer 500 "dolphin" dates to the early '60s, and my Parker 21 to the '50s (though it has been serviced once). These are well-made devices intended to last. I really appreciate that.

Again, it's all about choice. And I grant that some elements of the informal, disposable age make sense -- I'll take throw-away diapers over sterilizing cloth diapers every day of the week. And it's good to be able to throw a ball around on a hot summer day without being bogged down by the equivalent of business-casual clothes. Also, disposable means affordable -- to everybody, including folks who might have just been shut out in the past.

But I think there's value to well-made things that last, to acting like an adult, and to dressing in a way that shows respect for yourself and for others.

But thinking that way seems to put me in a dwindling minority. Maybe I'd be happier in a museum exhibit.



Blogger Jon said...

There's nothing eccentric about using a fountain pen. It's the best type of writing instrument available, just higher maintenance than a ballpoint. I read that Americans will throw away about 4 billion disposable pens this year. I'm using pens that are as much as 80 years old and still going strong. But, even with their good looks, interesting history and "green" credentials, I probably wouldn't use them if they weren't a better writing experience.

July 11, 2009 6:12 AM  
Blogger Kent McManigal said...

I tend to prefer old well-made stuff to modern plasticrap. For shaving, I either use my pocket knife or my old electric razor- which I got for my 17th birthday. I'll not say how long ago that was.

I think I used a fountain pen years ago, but the ink smeared everywhere. And leaked. Maybe my memory is faulty, though.

But I will admit I detest suits and ties, and am suspicious of anyone I see wearing such. I have never had anything good come from an interaction with a suit and tie. It may come from my days in Colorado when the only people you ever saw wearing anything like that were people from out of town who were there to stir up trouble. But, I don't ever wear T-shirts or jeans, either. I do own a couple of T-shirts and one ball cap in case I ever need a disguise.

And I LOVE hats. I even wear a sombrero on occasion. Hint- It is very hard to drive a car while wearing a sombrero.

July 11, 2009 9:22 AM  
Blogger J.D. Tuccille said...

Thanks for the support from a fellow fountain-pen user! I agree that fountain pens write better. I'm continuously impressed by the ease with which my Parker puts down ink, compared to the effort required for even a good ballpoint pen.

I like suits, but I rarely wear mine, because I live in a casual area where a simple jacket and collared shirt does the job for most occasions. That said, I'll break the suit out for an adversarial legal meeting in August and a wedding coming up in September, because I think that's respectful and appropriate to the occasion.

I guess it comes down to: We should look like we made an effort.

I was at a local college graduation in May, and there were people there -- spouses and parents of graduates -- dressed in dirty T-shirts, cargo shirts and sneakers. That just ain't right.

I believe you about the sombrero. I remember car shopping with an ex-girlfriend at a Saturn dealership. I'm five-foot-ten and my head bumped against the ceiling. There wasn't room for my (short) hair, let alone a hat. (But my pickup leaves me just enough space if I tilt the seat back a tad.)

July 11, 2009 10:05 AM  
Blogger akaGaGa said...

I use my old Parker for all "special" writing. Letters in this category also get some sealing wax stamped with a turtle, an old insignia.

I love hats, but I never wear them. They're not necessary in New York, and I just don't like to have stuff on my head. So what happens is: I see a great hat. I buy a great hat. I bring it home and show my husband how great it looks on me. I put it in the closet, and there it stays until it's time to clean the closet of hats. Then they all go to the thrift store. I get the pleasure of deciding how to cover the heads of the less fortunate.

July 11, 2009 7:59 PM  
Blogger Jim Wetzel said...

"Honestly, I want to be a maitre d' at a nice restaurant for just one night, just so I can tell everybody who shows up in a T-shirt and jeans to get lost."

= = = = = = = = =

Hear, hear! I, too, was moved to complain a while back about how people (don't) dress to appear in public these days.

July 11, 2009 8:49 PM  
Blogger J.D. Tuccille said...


Parkers are great pens. My 21 is my daily writer, though I'm waiting on a 51 that's in for repair.

As for hats ... Sigh. Yep, I've been known to buy things that I appreciate, but which then never seem to make it onto the rotation.


Maybe it started with the boomers, but the attitude has infiltrated down to the younger set. Slobbiness is now an entitlement, and dress codes are taken as personal insults. I'd say that I don't know how they're going to function in the workplace, except that I've seen people roll into offices dressed for a game of touch football. It's only a matter of time before I go to the bank and the loan officer is wearing pajamas and fuzzy slippers.

July 12, 2009 8:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hm. Why should I dress to impress anyone? I don't care what they think. If I show up to a restaurant with money to pay, I should be allowed to wear the T-shirt and sweatpants I always wear - or a garbage bag, or a Chewbacca costume.

I'm a telecommuter so I never have to dress to impress. After I gained some weight, I didn't replace my wardrobe, other than to buy a huge stack of $2.50 T-shirts (slightly irregular) and $7 sweats (slightly irregular) at Gabriel Brothers. They're comfy and convenient, as formal or casual wear.

Thank goodness you're in the minority and don't make any kind of policy. You would be an enormous pain in the ass.

In case you're wondering, I did buy a suit for $85 at the mall to wear to funerals. I think it's blue. It came with a tie and socks and everything.

July 12, 2009 9:53 PM  
Blogger J.D. Tuccille said...

Hey Anonymous,

You say, "Why should I dress to impress anyone? I don't care what they think. If I show up to a restaurant with money to pay, I should be allowed to wear the T-shirt and sweatpants I always wear - or a garbage bag, or a Chewbacca costume."

But you have it backwards. It's not about you. Oh, it could be partially about you, if you care about making an impression. But basically, it's not about you.

That you get this (a bit) is clear from the fact that you bought a suit "to wear to funerals" (weddings too, I hope). That's a matter of respect for the occasion, right? When grandma kicks off, you want to recognize the importance of the occasion by dressing a little formally, expressing the fact that you cared for her, and showing respect for the grief of the other mourners.

So it is with restaurants. People don't go out to a nice restaurant just for the food -- it's an event. If it was just the food they could do take-out and eat a fine meal at home. But they choose to sit down for table service, eat from fine china, get a drink from a mahogany bar ... Or maybe the setting is different. But the fact is that there's a setting, and dressing for the occasion shows respect for people who are spending money on having a full experience. It helps to make the experience for everybody.

Showing up at a nice restaurant in sweats says, "Hey, fuck table 12 and the money they've put aside from their paychecks for the last two months to celebrate their anniversary."

You don't want to impress anybody? Then don't. But don't insult them.

By the way, congrats on the telecommuting gig. It's a great way to go.

July 13, 2009 9:03 AM  
Blogger James Aragon said...

You can find those places. And they cost you too. If you want such a fine dining experience, then save your money.

July 14, 2009 10:00 PM  
Blogger jon said...

"thy silver has become dross," the wise man said.

the vast majority very probably have to prioritize for survival over success, whereas a less-slavish forerunner to today's american wouldn't have seen the two as a conflict, nor even bordering on it. the key is purchasing power: "enough of it," whatever that is, is a necessary condition to even begin talking about cultivating taste or discretion.

so in a vacuum of purchasing power, this works roughly the same as advertising: the trend in ad content follows the general public, it doesn't lead it. that's where the money is.

you wouldn't see people "getting away" with jeans and a t-shirt if the waitstaff themselves didn't earn so little that they, too, wouldn't be doing exactly the same thing at another restaurant across town. they are very probably not insulted in the least. that's just where the zietgeist is.

July 15, 2009 5:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pens! Ugh, After over a half century later I still remember the agony that I, a lefty, experienced trying to write with one. I still write backwards , in a contracted hand-- I love Ballpoints. About a straight razor, I still use my blade and remember when Wilkenson first arrives with stainless blades. Charles

July 15, 2009 5:55 AM  
Anonymous Skipjack said...

My parker 51 is the best writing instrument I have ever used. I keep it in my planner. I write all my letters with it. I use an inexpensive Waterman for just notes and rough drafts and so on.
I also love my straight razor - but you have to use a badger bristle brush, too!
As far as dressing, my mother always told me that the reason for manners is to make other people feel comfortable. Following social protocol, whether in dress, speech or action, is not to show off how you can do things 'right', but rather to put other people at ease.
Things change so fast these days, it's comforting to rely on some quality pieces that you use everyday and that always perform well and are a pleasure to use.

July 15, 2009 7:10 AM  
OpenID JumpinJesuits said...

Pens: I sympathize with your affinity for them, but they're just one arena where I go for cheap. I have so many cheap pens from hotels and just finding them at college that I haven't had to buy a pen in 4 years! The cheapos often last a year or 2 EACH, and if I lose them, I lose them, they were free to begin with, right?

Shaving: I use the cheap disposables, but once again, only when they're on sale, and I oil the blade after each use so they last a MUCH longer time than they normally should(approx. 1 month, instead of 1 week). Shaving with oil itself on your face helps a great deal too. I will probably go to straight razor once I stop finding such great deals on cheapo blades.

Hats & Dress Code: Completely agree! I was so disappointed to have finally grown up to see all the adults aspiring to act and dress like teenagers. I usually out of my way to dress casual formal (slacks, real shoes, IRONED shirt, tie, but no jacket or blazer), except when it's a hot summers day and I am doing mundane activities. I often get dirty looks and subpar service (especially at home in rural town, versus college in small city) from what I call The Dregs. It's time to drag society kicking and screaming by their crocs and sweatpants that say "JUICY" on the butt, back to respectability!

July 15, 2009 9:03 AM  
Blogger K. Michael said...

Any recommedations on good hats or fountain pens. I appreciate the old school take. I agree that quality, durability, and style lend themselves to a more cultivated way of living. Less clutter ... More simplicity. Thanks for the post.

July 15, 2009 9:52 AM  
Anonymous Andrew E. said...

Gentlemen, might a suggest a perusal of this fine publication's electronic representative. Fear not, those who feel as we do are growing in number. See for yourself:

July 15, 2009 10:37 AM  
Blogger Friend of the Predigtamt said...

Stumbled upon your site via the Lew Rockwell site.

My husband is a hat and fountain pen guy, and when we go out to a fancy restaurant, jacket and tie is his preferred attire.

I wanted a Montblanc one day buy I get afraid that I'd lose that pen.

July 15, 2009 11:45 AM  
Blogger J.D. Tuccille said...

K. Michael,
For fountain pens, you can't go wrong with one of the old Parker aerometric models. Specifically, the 21 and 51 from the 1950s. Many of them will write without any refurbishment, even after decades of neglect. Check ebay and Other models are excellent too, of course, including modern pens. That just gives you a place to start.

As for hats ...

That's such a personal question. You have to find out what you like and what looks good on you. There's no shortcut to finding the right one. Check out

July 15, 2009 11:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having diapered six children in the last 20 years, and using every type of diapering product, I can say that the minimal extra work required for cloth diapers is a small sacrifice for the kind of quality you admire about so many other things. Cloth diapers are so much nicer than the alternative paper and plastic concoctions. Thank you for an otherwise very nice article.

July 15, 2009 12:13 PM  
Blogger fiddlinshim said...

There is one advantage to a ball-point pen – it works well with multi-copy papers. Razors -- I haven't shaved in 25 years. Nerts to you all!

July 15, 2009 1:37 PM  
Blogger terry freeman said...

I always wear a suit to job interviews, as a way of showing respect for the prospective employer and job, even though I seldom wear a suit on the job itself. For one interview, my prospective boss - the CEO - wore a purple jogging suit. On another, I was asked if I had bought the suit for the purpose of the interview. The boss wore a plaid shirt, and one of his employees could have shopped from dumpsters.

July 15, 2009 2:24 PM  
OpenID lianneb said...

I love my fountain pens. They are so much easier on a wrist that tends to get sore after a single page with a bic stick. There's also something satisfying about that line coming from a fountain pen. And heck, you don't even have to go expensive. My workhorse pen at work for many years has been a Waterman Phileas that cost me $22. And I'd rather throw away a simple cartridge than an entire disposable pen when it's empty. Far more eco-friendly.

July 16, 2009 6:59 AM  
Blogger Jani J. Myshtari said...

While I must agree that standards of dress and product quality have certainly dropped in many cases in this country, it's not all bad. Looking good for a night on the town is great, but you can't beat the comfort of a t-shirt and jeans, and it is possible to wear such attire without looking like a complete slob.

As far as straight razors go, it seems like a non-issue to me. I have a three bladed, vibrating monstrosity that I use for shaving and I once made a package of 4 cartridges last for almost 2 years.

Next, fountain pens. I've never used one, and given my track record of misplacing writing utensils, an expensive pen that I have to refill and worry about losing seems like more trouble than it's worth. That being said, I buy the best disposable pens I can find and have never had any complaints about them.

Finally, all that being said, it seems somewhat superficial to bemoan the fashion sense and spending habits of the people of a country that is mired in global military conflict and economic turmoil. Who cares if some jerk decides to attend a swanky restaurant in his casuals when people are being blown up left and right and every indicator points towards economic collapse?

Also, if these restaurants are so fancy, then why are they letting the underdressed in in the first place? Seems to me that the owners of these fine establishments can (and in many cases do) reserve the right to refuse service to any customer that does not meet thier dress code. So if your favorite fancy restaurant lets any shmuck in a Chewbacca costume in and gives them a table, how fancy and special are they, really?

July 16, 2009 9:42 PM  
Blogger akaGaGa said...

I've been following these comments with interest, particularly the dress-code issue, and I think the world views reflected can be boiled down to three.

1. If you're purpose in life is to be free and have fun, your fellow man be damned, then you'll support the telecommuter's position of wearing whatever you want.

2. If you're concerned about the fabric of society, then you'll recognize JD and Skipjack's position that attire is a way to show respect and make other people comfortable.

3. If your focus is world peace and leaving behind a better place, then there's no arguing with Jani's point that jeans vs. slacks is a superficial issue. (I think he also presents the best classic liberal position that it's up to the restaurant owner to determine dress code.)

All these opinions become moot, however, when viewed through a longer Christian lens. If this world is just a stopover on our way to another place, it's better to keep our eyes on the pilot and the final destination.

For the record, I have a Parker that gets used for special occasions, several hats that never get worn, disposable razors for the shower, and my kids wore cloth diapers - not to save mother earth, but simply because they were cheaper. And there's a certain ascetic pleasure in folding velvet-soft, snow-white fabric destined for your baby's bottom, still warm from the dryer.

July 17, 2009 4:53 AM  
Blogger J.D. Tuccille said...

I think akaGaGa sums the matter up nicely. For the record (do I really have to say this?) I never suggested that people be tackled to the ground and wrestled into finely tailored clothing. I just expressed my preference for proper, respectful attire.

And yes, private venues have every right in the world to establish their own dress codes -- or no codes at all (the increasingly prevalent policy).

Let me add, though, that while Jani is undoubtedly correct that fashion is superficial relative to military conflicts and economic turmoil, that's always been the case. If we're going to wait on the arrival of peace and plenty before we give thought to day-to-day matters about courtesy, style and taste, well ... it's going to be a long wait.

July 17, 2009 11:52 AM  

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