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.

Monday, July 16, 2018

A Few Small Repairs

As I indicated at the conclusion of my last post, I did some sewing. Nothing elaborate; merely the replacement of buttons. I wrestled with the lingering ire and suspicion that the buttons broke the way they did to eke out more sales out of whatever brand loyalty the manufacturer cobbled together. (Yes, I regret to admit, the shorts were all the same brand.)

Conspiracies aside, there is a chance the heat of the dryer had compromised the plastic over time to accelerate the buttons to their ignominious pop when I tried to fasten my shorts on. The dryer, of course, stands as a reminder of how our supposed conveniences accelerate us down our paths a bit less mindfully and with little of what we could have accomplished actually done during our abundant, freed up time.

These shorts are relatively new to me. They have not been worn as often over the years as my T-shirts, a few of which are over 20 years old and become a little harder to part with as collars and cuffs fray away. There is a comfort in the older objects that will surrender a bit more of themselves with each washing. The shorts, despite my inclination to denigrate or doubt them for their buttons, probably earned a bit of fondness that is best summed up by this quote from Nicholson Baker in his meandering, observant vignette of a novel, Room Temperature:

"in repairing the object you really ended up loving it more, because you now knew its eagerness to be reassembled, and in running a fingertip over its surface you alone could feel its many cracks -- a bond stronger than mere possession." (p. 29)

While the texture of the shorts, plural, betrays nothing of their wear and age, there is a random attack of black thread at the waist that is only visible to me whenever I put the shorts on now, not to mention an extra snugness thanks to the buttons each being a  few millimetres from where their ancestors were. There may be something about a fondness or eagerness upon repair. A few of the pairs had been ignored since last year or even the year before. Whether it was my disdain for button-conspiracies or being too busy to sew merits a response best moulinexed with the admission that it was a bit of both.

There is a fondness for the things we repair and that may be a chicken and egg scenario, but it does not matter which came first - the fondness or the repair. I think of the shattered plastic containers for (game of) Risk armies that were taped together to ensure that each player's pieces were not lost. The ongoing maintenance of bicycles foster an ever-deepening fondness that comes with looking after a piece of equipment that contributes so innocuously to our fitness, our efficiency and perhaps our sanity as well. There may even be a similar attachment formed to film cameras because of the ritual with replacing each roll of film after it has been shot, and ensure that the freshly shot roll is looked after properly until it is developed.

There is something in the competence of making a repair, in demonstrating a small mastery that we do not really have to develop in this day that makes us fonder of those objects the require attention. In some cases it is something that is idealized. For instance with certain sports, namely hockey and baseball, there is a certain romance associated with the athlete's tending of his or her equipment. You can easily recall the slow motion montage of the pre-game build-up. It is, in some instances, the very thing that attracts people to certain sports or positions like catcher or goaltender.

Apart from the irritating buttons, how often are we prompted to simply dispose of something when it is past an arbitrary best before date? Bic products, of course, embody that mindset. There is little about those products that invite repair or fondness of any sort simply due to the constant churn of them. When I have been turned away by shoe repairmen who have told me that a shoe cannot be repaired because of the way they were made in the first place. I had a similar flicker of frustration when the thread passed straight through a pair of madras shorts as I tried to stitch a button on a back pocket.

The detachment that comes when technology and efficiency eliminate the opportunity to maintain, repair, change the film or (thankfully, still required) pump your tires goes unnoticed. Ultimately this move away from repair -- and I haven't even excavated the familiar lament of "it costs as much to get it fixed as it does to but a new one" -- fosters an ongoing churn of detached accumulation and disposal that raises questions about why we have so much stuff that we potentially may not like.

What are we actually paying for and accumulating?

And we exactly do we have so many recycled-reusable shopping bags?

Friday, July 13, 2018

Lament

As I write and read more about wabi-sabi, my aspiration to complete a larger piece -- I'll admit it, a book -- incites its own inner dialogue. Much of what I have read on wabi-sabi stops short to settle on wabi-sabi's potential influence on interior design - earthier materials, flaws for the sake of flaws and a litany that morphs into a white-noise yadda-yadda-yadda that prompts a snarky tone on my part that does not do the topic justice. (See?) In recent months there has also been a certain faddishness surrounding the wabi-sabi which has misrepresented it. I have wanted to take a certain defensive position to clarify what it really is but ultimately find it quixotic.

The thing that I've wanted to articulate about wabi-sabi is that, beyond merely being a visual
aesthetic, it is a moral one, a call for a commitment to integrity and an acknowledgement of truth. In the current political environment, the need for morality, sincerity and humility in the face of the current bluster has never been more pronounced and discouraging. The wisdom we need is so close at hand, but our collective laziness and our individual despairs have muted and immobilized far too many of us. Donald Trump is the very walking antithesis of wabi-sabi and he casts a tangential shadow on so many thoughts, no matter how hard we try to stay positive, but there continue to be people asserting their discomfort and an odd sloth of intellect and deed to keep us on the bleakest path.

We do not work to change things as much as we work to keep things the same.

On a night when I wonder if writing about my obsession with this particular aesthetic, admittedly self-conscious about the possibility that I am appropriating it for myself to make a pointed argument against things I don't like because... because they just aren't right or they simply piss me off, is going to make any difference for me or for anyone who would deign to read this.

There is every possibility that I would better use my time tonight by sewing buttons back on shorts that I've been unable to wear, communing (even at a distance) with a trusted friend, reading a book or zoning out in front of the television I will attempt to drift away from the snark and frustration and plead the wabi-sabi case.

Earlier this week, I came across the following quote from Richard R. Powell's Wabi Sabi Simple, "we do not work to change things as much as we work to keep things the same." (p. 26) His book is one of the more in-depth and wide-ranging discussions of wabi-sabi and there may be the slightest chance that he has dented my literary ambitions this week, or at least help divert them.

It is true, though. Populist politicians have been put in power to turn the clock back, regardless of the massive paroxysms they may prompt as dubious supremacies prevail over diversity, inclusion and equality. It leaves me with the feeling that the pendulum has not only swung too far, but that it has broken as well. Technology may have amplified hatred a little to well, a deft tweaking of algorithm has provided a solid foundation for the regression that is being so willingly sought.

I could rail and rail about the absence of integrity, the willful blindness and hypocrisy of those who simply want their way at the expense of a remote possibility of being right about the facts or the fundamental ways that people ought to treat one another. It takes a lot of energy to summon up a perspective on this that would bend an ear or change a mind.

But there is so much that we have lost in the name of the delusion of control.

Just think of the seasons. We have done so much to defy the challenges they pose. Whether it is central heating or air conditioning or the elaborate extents we go to ensure that food supplies are as diverse as possible year-round. I am fond of my furnace in the winter and I'm not sure what accommodations I would make to get through a cold winter without one. Part of me knows that the adjustments we have made to ease our way through the winter have allowed us to escape the nuances of the season. Perhaps it is a time to curl up with your family a little more intimately, to slow down with a stack of books and reflect on what has passed and what is on offer in the year ahead. It could be a time to truly set the table to commit to resolutions and prepare for the challenge of keeping them. Or is it the heat of summer that brings the lethargy to stop with a pile of books. Probably not, there are things to be done to get us through the winter.

There is an affluence that has freed us from these cycles and it is not just financial one technological as well. We have been able to assume we are less dependent on one another or our environment and the notions of community coming together are rare, quaint and less practiced than they were during past generations. We heed the most poignant or urgent calls to support one another, but we are not as mindful of the people around us. We are responsive to one another only when the need is made most explicitly clear and, granted, may be that has always been the case.

Distinct seasons, that we are not insulated from, made us wiser and more attuned with nature and with one another and our senses. Whether it is the sharper tang of seasonal, local strawberries, the cooler tones of autumnal light that, or the song of birds that come to our attention as the months drift by. Beyond those seasons are those of life and the efforts we make to hide those. The elixirs to ensure that hair remains on our scalps or thwarts the passage of time with one tone or another. These indicate how we are compelled by the flattening of the seasons and the denial of time's passing to hurry ourselves in the name of keeping up, getting ahead or some other unattainable goal. What's it all worth though if we are not ourselves, truly our authentic, comfortable-in-our-own-skins selves?

A pause in the name of our own authenticity, to ensure we have our bearings, to breath, to laugh, to cry, to share, to bond and to accommodate a bit more reality will slow us down, and perhaps recalibrate the pendulum to a slower, more moderate cycle. Rather than striving to conform to some unattainable, foul-tasting normal we would be better served by enlightening ourselves with expectations of our own. They could be expectations that come from a strong sense of integrity accompanied by a deep self-knowledge. That honest would be freeing despite the abandon we might assume with a lack of integrity. There could also be the expectations that come with an expansion of our understanding. We could become more adept at marking the passing of the seasons each year or in our lives. There is a possibility for harmony with the pause we make to listen within and beyond.

I have to tend to my buttons.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Wabi-Sabi of the Strawberry


All too often we define our ideals in terms of what is convenient or cheap. The lowest common denominator fills our culture and our shelves with it and while the convenience appeals to us, we are often left detached and disinterested rather than engaged by the things we use or the things we eat. In my own case, the modern strawberry has become an object of flavourless disdain. 

The finger-staining red softness of childhood memories have been replaced. Strawberries come from afar in plastic clam shell containers that can be stacked and shipped like a more durable good. There was a time when they came in flats with 12 wooden baskets. The thin wood of those baskets would be stained red and pink with the passage of time and regular use and the berries were treated with a degree of honour and delicacy granted to the seasonal. Those basketed berries were not to be laid into the bottom of a shopping cart while the haul from the rest of the rounds was stacked atop them without concern for their fragility. There was a need, a commitment to ensuring that they were well cared for. If they were picked up at the start of the grocery rounds, it was acknowledgement that berries were only in season for a few weeks and that everybody else would want them. In that instance, the berries would ascend the mounting pile of groceries, or better yet, have the child seat of the shopping cart reserved for them.

Of late, however, strawberries have grown larger and taken on the solidity of styrofoam. There is no longer a yield of pliant flesh to the first bite and a jammy, juicy sweetness. For that, we would have to open a jar complemented with ample doses of sugar to get. There is a white solidity and an absence of flavour that does not provide sufficient experience to grasp a philosophical discussion about the intensity and impact of a first taste of something. In this day of strawberries refined to ensure a consistency of (external) colour, a resistance to blight, and an ability to withstand the demands of a transcontinental shipment. These are what we actually purchase when we pluck one of those plastic containers of strawberries out of the produce section and take it home. We have purchased that combination of conveniences in a little — well, actually, larger than anticipated — red bundle that is an artifact rather than a eating experience.

I do not have the most refined palate, but I do recall real strawberries well enough to be disappointed with the absence of flavour of these "perfected" strawberries. Despite my attachment to them during childhood, modern strawberries have been drifted into the lower ranks of my comfort foods. There is little about modern strawberries and the adaptations that have been made to their monocultural approaches to growth — it is so tempting to reset to the word “manufacture” — and the sacrifice of purity and flavour in favour of the resistances to time and bugs and mold and whatever else may inconvenience farmers, shippers. Perhaps there has been an addiction to “one more improvement,” or an infatuation with technology’s wiles that resulted in a trade off between that last bit of flavour for the resistance to a blight that, in a rare season, might render the berries unappealing to consumers at that very moment when their appearance has to be pristine enough to close the sale. 

Flavour be damned.

This plate of berries sit next to me as I type this. The aftertaste of the first one I’ve eaten is still lingering and there is no need to eat one after another. The first one was a vibrant red, the surface after my bite a soft blur of surrender rather than a precise, white capture of my dental records. On the white plate, I also notice a sprinkling of the bristles of the strawberries that have fallen and recall how these would cluster on the surface of the milk what I had them in a bowl with cream and sugar. I wonder if these bristles have been bred out of the modern, efficient version that now prevails. I’ll have to look for this the next time I come across the dry, high-tech imitation of the berry.

We settle too easily for appearance alone. At the height of the space age, we anticipated foods that would be efficient and convenient. I formed my own image of freeze-dried forms that would contain the required nutrition in a format that, today, is best embodied by the power bars and other sports fuels that people consume on the go rather than when we sit down to a meal. Today, the reality is that the foods we do eat are just as much an assembly of technologies that have only emerged in the last few decades. They look for the most part the way they did 30-40 years ago, but it is a product of mechanical and technological inputs rather than the ecology that they came from. The appearance might be appealing but there is a sad lack of flavour and some might even argue nutrition.

These strawberries, locally grown and bought in a little cardboard panier with a handle across the top are a thing to behold. (I must admit the handle is plastic but the result is a reminder of the basket Little Red Riding Hood took to her grandmother’s or that Ontario peaches once came in.) Of the berries remaining, the next one I eat is bruised. It is not soft and browning yet. There are a few patches where the surface has yellowed from rough contact and I am happy to assure it of my approval. Gulp. There are a few long stems on the remaining berries and one has an amusing posterior cleft. The reds are not that uniform among them. One is a blood crimson but the others are somewhat closer to one another in tone. With each berry eaten those bristles rain down on the keyboard of my lap top and I sweep them aside. No, these bristles don’t appear quite so abundantly on modern berries.

And so I pause over these last seven berries, their naturalness far more enchanting, absorbing and wondrous than the efficiencies that are settled for. My taste buds are proudly rallying to say they still have some value and sensitivity. As June winds down, I take comfort in this reminder that the seasons are meant to pass and be savoured, like these berries, rather than defied by imports from California or Chile. There is a plain beauty to these berries that distinguishes them from the super model beauty of the consistent dimensions of the imported, flavourless imitators. Beyond the humble, unrefined randomness of size and shape and colour, not to mention the flourishes of bristles they rain down, there is flavour and with that a depth that awakens me to much more than the superficial and the technological.