Wednesday, November 21, 2018

A Vista of Neon: A Wabi-Sabi View of Las Vegas

Perhaps it is a matter of landing in the city just at dusk, the desert skies a crosshatch of jet plane vapour trails as Friday afternoon provides the prelude to the artificial lighting that will keep the stars out of view in this most darkness-deprived of places.

The artificial light, whether the fluorescent blasts of the slot machines and VLT's, the traditional neon and the enchanting new LED variations that throb through the night to achieve sensory overload and ensure that the place has the allure of the new, polished and appealing. This is the way Vegas is. The way it has to be. Apparently.

As with even the lowest stakes tables in the smoky lairs and basements of the casinos, there is a high cost of entry if you are to thrive and have the type of experience that Vegas promises and that peer pressure expects us to have. It is the place to get away with things as the commercial mantra -- which goes supernova on the cliche scale here -- and which peer pressure further asserts during the preamble and debriefing of a trip to Vegas.

The price of entry is high, whether you are trying to get a seat at even at the lower stakes tables or if you are trying to carve a niche for yourself in the wavering consciousness of people walking the strip. The two CVS Drugstores on the strip pitch themselves for their 24 hour availability and contribute their own lumens to the visual cacophony of the light shows and sheen that make this landscape. The darkest spots on the strip are for the closed businesses that have not been able to carve a niche in people mindsets in this place of acute, commercialized attention deficit. There is a darkened 10 metre sword, kissed by the ambient neon. The steakhouse it once provided a beacon for idled by the declines that face businesses everywhere but the fate here was decided by the inability to thrive according to a formula that is unique to Vegas. It is hard to tell here whether the rules are different or merely amplified by the scales that are required to sustain here.

The hotels, casinos and other venues need to have the architectural botox required to vaunt their brands to the levels that justify the mark-ups and price points that appeal to the high rollers who come here to amplify the one aspect of themselves, whether shopper, gambler, self-debaucher, that they want to flaunt at the expense of the wholeness of who they are. On the retail level, there is a certain sadness for those on the strip who aspire to do no more than sell they typical souvenirs that tourists would seek. Without even darkening their doors, the lighting there a subtle, but noticeable and off-putting coolness of older fluorescent fixtures that will prompt more shoppers to move on to a newer place with a different tone and a bombast that assaults a different sense with a different blatancy. Without the maintenance to ensure that the experience of the Vegas "machine" is compliant with the expectations that have been built to trick the senses in to forgetting the passage of time and the cycles of the day.

The formula in in Vegas is a simple one. It has been adapted and calibrated over the decades and the influx of gambler and investor money has refined the city into a well-oiled machine for distracted play. The effort to expand the senses is overwhelmed by the ambition to define each experience. The scents that are pumped through the hotels and the corridors between the smoky casinos are another way that the setting is micromanaged and the range of experiences is controlled rather than expanded. It sounds paradoxical to suggest that there is both sensory overload and a limited experience in Vegas but the stereotype of excess that is associated with the city and the Strip do not leave much room for a wide variety of experiences as might be the case in New York or Paris. The possibilities are in the intensity rather than in the variety of experiences that the city accommodates (or tolerates.) One thing that further distinguishes Vegas from Paris and New York is that so much of the city is derivative from those cities and others. There is probably much about city's surroundings that can be drawn upon - the desert, the western heritage, the wonders of Hoover Dam are a few examples, but these seem to be exiled to the suburbs of the imagination in favour of preserving the playground mood.

Little is allowed to age on the Strip, and less still allowed to go dark. Opposites are not allowed to balance. Even if legislated, the acknowledgement that gambling is in a realm that risks inducing addition is merely given lip service while the lures remain untethered. Youth, not age. Excess, not restraint. Vegas makes no apologies for what it is and it should not have to. The lack of nuance or the slick calibration of the Vegas "machine" leaves it unlikely to adapt to changes in the future and reinvent itself. While Vegas is the oasis or enclave for the play that it promises makes sustainability a challenge. It is disconcerting, but telling to see so much energy invested in maintaining a certain look. It is illustrative that Cher's 72-year-old face looms over the strip, her presence projected in neon while the collective restraint to not comment on cosmetic surgery indicates the willingness to buy into the illusion that here, at least for the weekend, in these snapshots and postcard moments the ideal has been attained, regardless of the price of entry. Can all of these illusions be sustained, especially in the desert as other resources dwindle away?

I would not dare suggest that Vegas try to greater encompass the qualities or the wisdom behind wabi-sabi and recognize the impermanence, the incompleteness and imperfections that lurk behind the glimmering facades of the city. People would simply say that Vegas doesn't do that. However, I am curious about the cost of maintaining the playground's appeal and appearance in the face of changing tastes and the physical challenges of maintaining this city in the desert at the pace it maintains. It would be compelling to look behind the curtain and see the margins and machinations of sustaining all of this at its apparent peak. The challenge of maintaining this vista of neon will prove unsustainable eventually and it will be interesting to see what becomes of Vegas when and if the decline proves to be inexorable.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The False Promise of Progress

I was a reluctant adopter of digital photography. I held out against it for a long time, but have to confess that the 12 years that I have been shooting digital seem longer than they have been. I might even be tempted to confess that I was merely holding out for better technology before I transitioned from film. Today, I still have my film camera and there are a few rolls of film that I take out to breath that familiar scent.

Feel free to accuse me of rationalization, but there was an inevitability to digital photography's ascension in the last decade or so and it is one of several instances in our time where science or technology have distanced us from not only an older, more familiar world, but from reality as well. Perhaps it is merely an attachment to the analog on my part and the extra craftsmanship that goes into creating and finishing in analog mediums such as film or vinyl. I still find it more wondrous and miraculous that a precise concoction of sounds can be delivered via vinyl and stylus or a certain richness of colours and tones from plastic and whatever inky emollient the film carries, expectant to contact with an instant of light.

The digital, however, turns sound, light and countless other things into data and arranges them before us in mediums and dimensions for our reflection, absorption and distraction. In my case, it may just be trading the smell of film in for the benefits of digital photography, which would include the instant feedback, the control in the editing process and the opportunity to more accurately capture colours thanks to light temperature controls. The trade is more substantial than that, however.

When committed to an increasingly technological way of doing things you do so at the expense of having to stay on that path. There becomes an integration into a way of viewing and experiencing the world strictly by digital or technological means. Evidence exists that supports the theory that we are less attentive when reading e-books, experience less brain activity when listening to music via MP3's rather than vinyl. The digital is ubiquitous now and while we might make it universal it lacks the depth to have the required impact on us. The superficial aspects of the song or the image are captured and despite the suggestion that these digital artifacts are complete, we do pick up on the absence of "something."

Apart from the absent architecture that is absent from a JPEG image, but is more substantial (to an extent) in a RAW file of a photograph, there is something essential that we are unable to contemplate in the digital realm. The mediation, whether by computer, thumbnail screen on the back of a camera or some other means of transmission to convert that binary data into an experience is lacking something because of the digital nature of the form. There was a time when the material form of a photograph, a phonograph or a book had some meaning for us. With music there was not only the tangibility of the "software" of an LP, but an evidence of purpose in the oldest phonographs that had a horn to them to suggest that this was a means of transmitting sound.

Beyond merely being quaint and appealing for the obvious embodiment of purpose these things also linked themselves to our senses. Consider the form of the phonograph as a mechanical approximation of sound reception and transmission. Go from there to the approximation or consideration of vision that has gone into the creation and use of cameras, microscopes and telescopes. In an increasingly digital world, more and more of the old mimetic artefacts we were surrounded by have morphed into boxes that bear little indication of their purpose. Scale aside, there was little to distinguish a VCR from a strip mall. As we proceed further and further into the digital realm there is more and more expectation that we fulfill more and more of our needs through a laptop.

One possible conclusion of this convergence into the digital world as it closes in on that fading dot in the middle of an old TV screen became apparent to me a few weeks ago upon an OS update on my computer. For a moment after installing the update there was a sudden uncertainty about whether or not the digital photography program I have on my computer would be compatible and operable with the new OS. The fate of the photos I had stored in the program was in doubt and the possibility of not being to access those images a clear possibility. With a reset of the software, the images and program were restored but this may be a harbinger of the possibility if I continue to rely exclusively on the digital realm.

There may be a point where the scope of experience is radically altered by the dependence of the digital. On one level there is the doubt about how immersive an experience can be without the tangibility of an object. Beyond that, there is the doubt of how much we can realize about our world if double-down on the belief that continued progress toward the virtual and the self-selected versions of reality that we can cocoon ourselves within will provide us with the experience and the wisdom that can come from the absence of illusion or digital mediation.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Illusion of Culmination

Which of my photographs is my favorite? The one I’m going to take tomorrow.”

The Imogen Cunningham quote above is too precious for my liking, but it communicates the need to remain open to new perceptions and experiences rather than identifying a select few as culminations to build your worldview around.

Regarding a moment with a contented, "It doesn't get any better than this," expresses a gratitude that we ought to identify often, but it is a contentment based too often on lakefront cottage summer sunset conditions rather than a mindfulness that can enrich a wider variety of moments. There are things to appreciate at any moment, not just during the ones when we feel most favoured. The cloud and rainbow coexist at times and we ought to be aware of the balances that (must) exist rather than just the imbalances that favour us at a given moment.

If we are privileged, we often cocoon ourselves with the technological or material interventions that favour and comfort us with a preferred version of things that is less-than-realistic - comprised of slick, well-sold aspects that cloy with the built-in obsolescence lurking just beyond the flush modularity. The appetite for more comfort is a key thing that makes many reluctant to buy into a response to our mounting environmental crisis. Our contentment is bound up in the material and mindless rather than tuning our receptiveness to what can be experienced if we were to reflect on what we have and what we are surrounded by. The contented sigh that accompanies "it doesn't get better than this" expresses an aspiration to merely be sated. Humility and the potential for greater receptivity to simplicity, wisdom and the serene melancholy that is central to wabisabi remain at the periphery or hidden in plain view when we are locked in on the accumulation of material advantages.

The absolute, couldn't-be-better realm that we so often contrive attempts to dress up splendour as a substitute for beauty. Rather than cocooning ourselves with a false ideal, it is better to be open to a beauty that is subtler and more organic. It is better to adapt to full life cycles, rather than selected moments such as an unopened rose, and appreciate each moment for the various stages of life or passage of light we are witness to.

If we indulge in mere splendour rather than less evident beauty that accompanies each moment of time, we put ourselves on a roller coaster of peaks and valleys of contentment and dissatisfaction when the conditions do not suit us. The parental rite-of-passage visit to the ER will be stressful, but it can be a moment of peace and reflection if you acknowledge the visit's eventuality, especially if it is a minor incident that you can look back upon with a laugh. Grey hairs and wrinkles, despite the dread they provoke, are gentle reminders of the passage of time, of change, of a humble challenge to the perfection we attribute to newness and youth. We ignore the contradiction that we are looking to the future (newness) and to the past (youth) at the same time when we clamour to acquire such perfection.

Remaining in the present and accepting it poses the risk of being a platitude, but it gives us the possibility of achieving what Frank J. Barrett calls "radical receptivity" in his book Yes to the Mess. Listening, seeing and reflecting intently on our surroundings and the moment enlightens us. The pursuit of the perfect is paused as we extend our senses to more deeply engage in the moment and the realities that are layered around us as we amplify the passage of time moment by moment.

When we expand and maintain an openness to input and weigh those inputs carefully and sensitively, there is an opportunity to respond to our surroundings and integrate them into our view of the world continually. From a photographer's perspective, there is strong motivation to make use of what we experience and make what we can from what our senses are receptive to. Photographers may choose to enchant, bewilder or shock us. They may indulge in the option of breaking our hearts. Whether there is a camera or not, anyone can do the same, if they choose to be receptive. The same opportunities are offered to us by each of our senses, but opting to narrow our experiences by marking our life experiences with culminations that are ideal, perfect or conclusive shuts us off, bit-by-bit, from the depth of feeling that can come from new experiences.

Without taking note of it, we regularly bestow the status of "culmination" on experiences in our lives. Ultimate cakes or kisses come to mind first and there are other experiences and states that can suspend us in the past and narrow our receptiveness to the present. Nostalgia takes root and it keeps us out of the present. Advertisers and opinion-makers offer that recollection to us with an empty promise of restoring a vanished moment in time, but pursuing that is an exercise in delusion.

Turning away from both nostalgia and the teched-out future perfect, we can come to appreciate the transience and the instructive change unfolding around and within us. Rather than regarding them as moments as peaks which ought to be preserved and maintained by whatever means necessary, acknowledging and accepting their transience might nudge us away from the pursuit of that material culmination and toward a more spiritual and reflective grasp of the textures of time and material that are available to enrich a moment if we are receptive to them.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Applying Japanese Design Aesthetics to Design Thinking

As more businesses become flatter organizations, increase collaboration, avoid command and control models, and move more deeply into the practices of systems thinking and design thinking, the transformation that is occurring within has been quite profound. There are still tendencies presently among some organizations - whether corporations, churches, or political parties - to assert a more resolutely hierarchical structure and interaction with employees and clients, granted, but some of these have struggled to adapt to the social changes that have resulted from the freer access to information. British Petroleum, the Catholic Church and several self-declared political sacred cows all have assumed that they were well-ensconced and able to conduct themselves according to an eroding status quo, but have discovered this not to be the case.

The organizations that are getting the most attention for their achievements and perhaps even their bottom lines are doing so by taking a design-oriented approach to achieving their goals and assuring that their internal and external stakeholders feel involved, respected and - not to be overlooked among the touchy-feelies that might be associated with "collaboration" and "design" - satisfied.

In recent years, design-thinking has emerged as one of the approaches that has made significant contributions to those 21st century successes and its application has expanded beyond the development of products to the structuring of organizations, operations and corporate cultures.  The processes of design thinking infuse development processes with the collective creativity that generates a wider range of possibilities than can be generated by the sole genius or leader at the top of a hierarchy intended to generate the desired result, regardless of the realities that make success as intermittent as it is.

As design becomes a more influential guide or reference in business, the opportunity to explore a wider range of design aesthetics should be considered to expand the granularity with which products, processes or organizations are assessed and improved.

One valuable resource in the application of design would be the Japanese approach to aesthetics known as wabi sabi. The main tenet of this approach to design and art is the appreciation of things because they are incomplete, imperfect and impermanent. Acknowledging these three components of everything that we create or organization would be a valuable point of reference in the design process or the application of design thinking.  Most instances of corporate hubris can be traced back to occasions where this basic acknowledgement within wabi sabi has been overlooked.

The aesthetics have been further expanded upon to the point where there are lists of what is wabi sabi and what is "modern" for comparison and further explanation of how the concept applies to design currently.  I have provided a list adapted from Leonard Koren's book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers and from Richard Powell's Wabi-Sabi Simple.  I have also contributed further pairings (in blue) that would apply as we look more closely at organizations and the challenges that they face.

The lists may not get off to a resounding start with the proposal that wabi sabi is "private" while modernism is "public" but the orientation is one where "private" suggests a less ostentatious approach rather than a secretive one.  From there, however, the emphasis among the concepts associated witwabi sabi favours a more comprehensive view or process and a greater willingness to take a more democratic and collaborative approach.  The modernist approach is one that suggests the presence of an impressive veneer and, to use the modern parlance, spin rather than daring to acknowledge those principles that nothing is perfect, or permanent and that it is always changing.

Wabi sabi aesthetics, if applied to processes, systems and organizations, would help establish a disciplined and regular assessment of where things are and encourage ongoing assessment and adaptation rather than intermittent grand projects to replace those which have outlived their usefulness.  An aesthetic that makes us more knowledgeable of the flaws that will emerge over time, on their own schedules, will make us more attentive to the challenges that present themselves over time and equip us with the means to identify them and address them.

And that is just one way that designers and creative people can bring their aesthetics and approaches to bear in a broader, more nuanced manner.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Distraction, Presence and Wabi-Sabi

For much of my writing about wabi-sabi, I have found myself circling the terms "integrity," "authenticity," "veneer" and "facade" on a regular basis. I may not use these terms explicitly, but they have informed the posts I have added to my blog over the years. When I have focused on these, there has been an underlying aspiration to take the wabi-sabi aesthetic and expand it beyond its application in design to a broader interpretation that could apply to leadership. At the same time, however, I have been conscious of not striking the balanced Buddhist tone that other writers on wabi-sabi achieve.

This afternoon, however, I was struck by an oversight that I have cultivated over the years: distraction.

Much of what is happening in the public realm in 2018 is aimed at distracting us. The public discourse is clad in a fanfare and sensory overload that asserts that something is indeed a big deal and big deals in 2018 are as close to truth as we can get when we want to be distracted and so many organizations and public figures are happy to grant us this wish.

It would be interesting to determine how much of our economy, our carbon footprint or our time is devoted to nurturing or maintaining a certain level of distraction amongst us. The challenge there would be splitting the hairs and determining if something is indeed distracting us, or if it is sparking a thought or cultivating an advocacy of a public or personal nature to defend what we value.

Whatever energy we put into creating or consuming distractions is that they not merely give us a quick hit of an endorphin or some other neurochemical that alters our mindset, they may also dull our sensitivity to or awareness of subtler aspects of our lives. To illustrate this with a personal example, my palate is quite attuned to the explosive fat-bomb of flavour that a fudge brownie can offer but I struggle to discern the nuances of a glass of wine.  I digress.

In lives dedicated to responding to or seeking one distraction or another we are tuning ourselves out to the potential and realities of our own lives and the depth of the relationships we have, the routines that we can establish. My six-year-old son begins grade 1 tomorrow and the rituals the come with the end of summer are being entrenched with familiarity. I recall the sweater he wore last year, the Expos hat that bonds me to him, the weather, the emotions and I look ahead to tomorrow's variation on those themes. The sweater and hat still fit. The weather is cooler and shorts won't suffice. And he is so much bigger. The recollections of 2017 and tomorrow are snapshots that are and will remain vivid. The passage of time, the moment to check in on the memories from last year and what I anticipate occurring tomorrow all activate memories, experience and ultimately, a self that is more personal and more attuned to where, and who I am at a given moment than is the case when I am more striving to distract myself.

When you are distracting yourself, the intention is to be out of our minds, to tune things. Sometimes it is ideal to do this, but we are probably at a point where we may be encountering diminishing returns on the amounts of distraction that we surrender ourselves to. It is done at the risk of de-personalizing ourselves or sacrificing self-awareness. As we have seen in the public realm, distraction has served to undermine our collective potential to be active, engaged citizens. In other ways to may exacerbate our frustrations about finding our identity or achieving happiness or contentment.

In the Japanese film After Life (1998), recently deceased individuals are asked to identify a memory from their life that they would want re-enacted for them to take as the sole memory they would take with them to heaven. A late-teens, early-20's female says in her early debriefings that her preferred memory to reenact would be a trip to Disneyland. One of the staff members bristles at this and diplomatically works to bring the young woman around and increase her awareness and consciousness of other, more personal memories. To make the case, the staffer points out that 30 people had recently cited a Disneyland memory as well. Eventually, the young woman comes around to a more personal, sensually sharp memory of her mother during early childhood.

Such a memory (of distraction) is not a defining or particularly personal one. Beyond that, there is the likelihood of a sensory overload that numbs us and eliminates the possibility of not only fully absorbing the experience of a Disney visit but, as is the case with my grasp of wine, numbs our ability to appreciate the simple beautiful moments of the daily that -- if we are present enough in the given moment to reflect upon them -- beautify our lives. (Note: I need to thank filmmaker Gokonada for the tap on the shoulder regarding this overlooked character arc in After Life.)

Pausing to find, reflect upon and appreciate the inherent beauty of the moments that go into raising a child: watching him grow and savouring the moments of walks to school or home, are rich with details that are far more nourishing than any distraction. They are familiar and see easy to forget or overlook, however. The distractions may make for good photo album fodder or an amusing Facebook post, but may distort the reality rather than accurately represent it.

I've moved past the days when his stillness at night prompted a horrified hand to reach for the assurance of a rising and falling chest. Those moments, which are so familiar that they can either risk being forgotten or, with care come to be regarded with an intimacy that makes them echo with others who know those same experiences and enchant and comfort us. It is that intimacy, that fine-tuned, sommelier-level awareness of the emotional beauty of a moment that enriches our lives more deeply than the distractions we may pursue.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

With a Nod to Time's Passing

"The tap drip-drip-drips into the sink. Given a thousand years, it will erode a hole through the stainless steel with its soft but persistent caresses. The milk in the fridge moves, second by second, toward its "best before" date. It is an inevitable reminder of time passing and how, through the very act of existence, the unmarred, unspoiled purpose of things moves inexorably toward expiration."
Bradley Somer, Fishbowl, p 140-141.

As I reflect upon wabi sabi, I am not sure which I appreciate more: direct references and commentary on it, or passages such as the one above, which making an incidental comment on the transience that is such a key aspect of wabi sabi. These passing, more "Western" references to the essence of wabi sabi underline what Richard R. Powell says in his book Wabi Sabi Simple, "you may know it well, but never named it." (p. 2)

Reminded that the core principles of wabi sabi -- nothing is permanent; nothing is perfect; nothing is complete -- are not unique to a Japanese aesthetic or worldview, we can take a more critical look at the situations where these principles are ignored in the West.

While we are willing to accept the passage of time and the way it impacts us and our surroundings, we are still inclined to place inordinate faith in the new, especially if it is modern or technological. With these there is the hope that time and gravity can be defied by the new, whether it is genetic innovation, more powerful batteries, a management guru's new insight or a pre-fab composite that lures DIY'ers to Home Depot.

The temptation with the new is to presume that it is a panacea, or utopian with the solutions they offer. We know of the power of time and we are familiar with the gentle degradations it brings. Whether it is the graying of hair, the sprouting of crow's feet, and the peeling of paint or more existential declines spawned by tinctures of hubris, complacency or lesser, latent demons we rust -- individually, collectively or in the institutions we gather around. Decline is inevitable. It is noble to resist it and fight it off, but it is a battle best fought by attentiveness and vigilance rather than by late, drastic interventions that can as Somer put it in his quote above, mar or spoil the purpose of things, not to mention their essence or character.

The new, and especially the new and technological, enchant us with the promise of defeating time, at least on one front. The promise is often such that we presume them to be the ultimate step, that finishing touch that in itself will defy decay as well. The optimism of our neomania makes us confident that this new thing will not only enhance our well-being but defy the passage of time as well. We presume that new treatment will heal people indefinitely and the targeted scourge will not adapt, that new way of motivating or managing people will work with everyone and not cloy with cliche or simplistic approaches. We are certain everybody's Teslas will evade rust and decline.

That optimism reserved for the very new is not always instinctive or incidental, however. Sometimes it is part of the sell job that accompanies the new. The promise of the new or next decays quickly and the assertion that it will unshackle itself from the passage of time and evade the need for maintenance. There is the insistence of perfection, a promise that feeds into our desire to hold on to things more tightly: our youth, our strength, our appetites for more, for our delusions about our place and our potential to, like the new, escape the insistence of time. The siren call of the new tempts us regularly, luring us into futile consumption that will never fulfill the promise of youth but eventually amplify the extent of the inevitable decay.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Of Peeling Paint and Retro Diners

"They say that these are not the best of times, but they're the only times I've ever known."
Billy Joel, "Summer, Highland Falls" (1976)

There is something appealing and quaint about a building dated by an old sign or advertisement that
is peeling away from the brick. The patchwork, the reminder that time has passed here has a melancholy comfort. If there is an old, but recognizable logo that prompts reminiscence the warmth and attachment to the place may multiply further. Picture an old gas station on a country road that has been bypassed by a divided highway and there are other feelings. We travel in time and we attribute simplicity, a slower pace, a better day forgotten in the modern rush. We acknowledge how our distracted gazes take us to the universes of frustration that we thumb through without restraint. The peeling paint invites us to pause and time travel for a moment.

Our inclination toward reminiscence is regularly exploited. I can think of occasions where carbonated beverages are clad in old livery and scripts to take us back. Perhaps it is done to recall a youth that was not clouded by the consciousness about calorie counts and the impact of high fructose corn syrup. Those throwback labels are occasionally degraded with the addition of a label announcing the use of cane sugar, the "instead of's" unmentioned.  I recall the same reach for the past done once with cigarette labels in the 90s.

I am not intent on portending pop following tobacco's fate among the disdained. Instead, I am conscious of the effort to repackage in this way and the effectiveness that it has. We see it in gentrified neighbourhoods that preserve century old peeling paint in the name evoking a certain cachet. It occurs with new restaurants that adorn themselves with the dated fixtures of the 1950's: naugahyde stools at the counter and in the booths, curved chrome and formica that assure you that the strawberries milkshakes are thick rather than tainted by antibiotics and the tall glasses they come in heavy and promising Verelux refractions that paper denies while we worry whether they are compostable or recyclable.

There is a sensual feel when those components of the past appear before us. Perhaps they numb us as they enchant. Does immersing ourselves in those details built or preserved from nostalgia suspend our judgement or our awareness of where and when we are?  Advertisers regularly evoke nostalgia to pull a heartstring to mute the ambiguities and simplify a purchase decision that might otherwise be suspended by awareness of second thoughts. My intent here is not to analyze nostalgia's use in marketing and advertising, however.

The main thing I want to draw attention to is  that nostalgia is often deployed rather than merely incidental. When it is deployed, such as it is in advertising, the trinket
of old is polished to an ideal that often surpasses the artifact it is paying tribute to. While it is a tribute or a reminder of a simpler time, it is isolated from that time it comes from as well. Such an object is familiar when it appears in our present context, but it nudges us toward sentimentality and away from reflection. We become emotional rather than aware, detached or preoccupied instead of engaged. When this greases the wheels to purchase a pop, or a pack of smokes, or to gravitate to a certain neighbourhood, the consequences of this are trifling.

However, if we become nostalgic, our awareness of the present becomes narrowed by a fondness for a bright and burnished version of the 'good old days.'

While these are exceptionally complex times and it is reasonable to attribute a rare bleakness to the current situation, the past was fraught with challenges that we tend to forget or, if we are too young to know, avoid Googling.

For all the shine and relief that some old item might bring us -- be it a '66 Corvette, stubby beer bottles, moon shots, or the various homogeneities and the privileges that came with them -- those times had their heartaches and still were not immune to the lure of a perfected, polished version of a more distant past. Nostalgia is also an insistence that perfection had once been attained and that our evolution ought to have stopped decades ago. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The baubles of nostalgia are not in themselves harmful, but the longing look to a past that was flawed tempts us to close ourselves off from the breadth of what we can or ought to experience and engage in presently. A longing for the past is the result of a skewed assessment of the present. Rather than looking to the past, we ought to survey the realities, opportunities and challenges of the present. Carefully looking at the present and responding to it, deploying the resources available now and engaging with the challenges that are at our fingertips will be far more productive and lasting than an initiative to blindly affix these polished, abstracted aspects of the past over this present.

If the times we are in are not making sense to us, it is on us to adapt and learn about the times we live in and the people we are surrounded by. Yes, there are universals that remain throughout time, but the most insistent of those universals are those identified as the core principles of wabi-sabi: nothing lasts, nothing is complete and nothing is perfect. Latching ourselves to an imperfect, bygone past is an assertion of narrow-mindedness, and a refusal or inability to adapt. Rejecting the entire current in favour of fragments of the past is a futile quest for control of one's situation rather than an expressed willingness to pause and reflect upon the present and ourselves. Slowing down to acknowledge the present and live in it will enlighten us and save us the energy we expend in trying to tame it or distance ourselves from its realities and its opportunities. The flags, values, privileges and trinkets that we may obsess ourselves with and build our lives around are fleeting and will ultimately disappear. We have to determine whether what is important to us and take the time to consider which of these things are of universal value, such as the love, friendship and support of the people closest to us and the purity of the food, water and mindset that sustain us and which are constructed out of something of lesser value and quality. Distinguishing clearly between those to is essential to ensuring that we live in the present and bring comfort and assurance to the people closest to us.