Sunday, October 27, 2013


Few things evoke notions of perfect imperfection as easily as vinyl.  The passage of time has attempted to render vinyl obsolete (highly questionable) and extinct (far from it) with the appearance of compact discs and more recently MP3's have provided convenience, some measure of durability and perhaps, perhaps superior sound quality.  Still there is the warmth of vinyl and the nostalgic crack and pop of the needle on the vinyl as the contact is first made.  It is an element of the music experience that speaks of the imperfection but brings an undeniable comfort or nuance to the occasion where one sits down in a armchair and spins an album.

It has been 30 years since the death knell of vinyl first sounded and the format may not be selling at the rates it did in the 1970's but there have been various occasions where the format and its dimensions have been lauded and longed for.  Whether it is the dimensions of album art and liner notes that surpass the CD and shame the MP3 formats or the warmth of the sound, the format has persisted in living on, even among those who were born in an age where CD was the master format.

The vinyl format decayed gradually, unless it was abused.  The round scuff of the colour where albums pressed most heavily against each other was just one of the details where the passage of time was far more welcome with vinyl, especially compared to a shattered CD jewel box, which is either a nuisance or minor frustration.

The arguments for the CD or the MP3 would be their durability or their convenience, but there is reason to argue that the convenience has made the music on them something that further and further disappears into the background.  We have little to tell us that 69 minutes and 3 seconds just passed since we pressed the play button on a CD.  A tap of the pause button, shuffle setting or something else, can make music something that we lose track of rather than commit our time to, especially if we are listening to a longer piece that was recorded on vinyl but had the ambitious length that waited and waited for the CD format to allow uninterrupted listening.  Vinyl required us to commit ourselves to listen to the recording for its 20-25 minutes and listen to it carefully, with as little intrusion on our space or time for that moment until we rose to flip the album over again.  We took our time to stop and listen to it regularly, the type and depth of commitment that evoked the passion for music that was so evident in the movies Almost Famous and High Fidelity.  No matter how compelling and brilliant music recorded directly for CD or MP3 formats may be, it is unlikely that we see to evoke the devotion among its fans that music recording for vinyl has.  Listeners just don't make the same type of commitment today.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


We often share quotations about being enslaved by possessions and wealth and in many instances it would be a call to rid ourselves of our possessions.  It would not be realistic to get rid of everything that we might own, though it would be ideal to review what we possess and dispose of anything that is not of vital value or use.

In all of that, however, there would likely be heirlooms that are rich with family history and show the clear wear and tear of use and the passage of time.  The ease with which we would associate sentimental values with those objects, whether it is something that has been hand-crafted or has been passed down from our parents, grandparents or even earlier ancestors.

There is more than just a romantic or sentimental notion to the possession of those heirlooms.  In my own case, the three things that standout the most would be a leather hat from my grandfather, a gold watch I received from my aunt and the guitar that my father built.  The guitar of course gets the most use and there isn't a modern rival for its time and attention.  It is aging well despite the dry climate I subject it to in Calgary.  Each time I play it or simply glance at it or the other items, I am a bit more aware of my mortality, the wear and tear I've inflicted on it with the wilder attack on the strings and the fact that it will be my son's, along with the watch and the hat and the stories that I can tell about and associate with each of them, not to mention the stories yet to be lived between he and I.

With those heirlooms it is a matter of possessing them and committing entirely to possessing them in way that we do not commit to things we accumulate and keep because they were cheap or serve some other purpose.  The GPS-guided, heartrate-tracking training watch that I wear will likely not get handed down.  Ironically enough, it will likely become dated or obsolete before the pocket watch I have ever does.  The watch and the hat are no longer merely about the functions they were intended to serve when they were first acquired some time in the last century.  The watch tells time by a different means because of the extra care that is required to gently wind the spring and ensure that it is well-enough cared for to do its job if and when required.  In those tasks of caring and learning about the item rather than struggling with the mysteries of a more modern replacement or version that bares little hint of its purpose, we become involved with and committed to the things we own and we become more mindful in tending to them and tending to the memories they were intended to evoke when we received them.

In contrast with things that are much more disposal today, and items with which we have more fleeting use of, despite the variety of functions, those older heirloom items were crafted and have been owned with a care that has enhanced their value and meaning.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Wabisabi versus Neomania

In his brilliant book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb outlines the instances where society has erred by making actually things more fragile in an effort to improve upon them or take counterproductive efforts to reducing exposure to risk or the consequences of risk.  On several occasions, he uses the example of porcelain to demonstrate instances of fragility, but in one passage of the book on society's neomania (as he puts it) he makes a seemingly strong case for a wabisabi approach or outlook.  I do not know if this is incidental or not, but many of the things that he expresses discomfort with in our modern world, reflect the technological, slick or veneered substances or objects that go against the grain of wabisabi and its aesthetic.

Neomania is probably a neologism, but one that is not too far out of reach.  In Taleb's passage from Antifragile, it is the obsession with the next next thing, the desire to have the latest car, laptop, iPhone or widescreen television even though the one you have is just a year or two old and doing everything you need it to do and you would not use the replacement for a revolutionary new purpose that would change your life significantly.  Much of what Taleb asserts suggests that the aesthetic of wabisabi is not merely to be confined to the areas of design, art or poetry but has applications beyond.  In the context of what Taleb covers throughout Antifragile, wabisabi is worth reflecting upon when discussing the way organizations or societies organize themselves.

In both Taleb's writings and in wabisabi, the power of the passage of time is acknowledged and accommodated.  In Antifragile, time is the key arbiter on the fragility or antifragility that an object or organization has.  In wabisabi, time is on its inexorable march and leaving its mark on those items that respond to the passage of time organically.  A wooden cutting board, for instance, ages more gracefully and endearingly that a synthetic one.  The passing of so many blades across the wooden surface over the years enhances our relationship with it.  A synthetic board somehow invites early disposal and replacement even though it is less permeable to the influence of water that would get into the cracks or grain and further accelerate the take.  Take note of an object's or organism's permeability if you are trying to assess its wabisabi qualities.

On one level a comparison of the artisanal with the industrial reflects the qualities of the artisanal that draws people toward craftsmanship, whether it is in a bar of handmade soap, a wool sweater or a hand-thrown work of pottery.  Taleb expresses a similar fondness for the artisanal when reflecting on a fountain pen he has used for over 30 years (p. 323, Antifragile) and counters this with his thoughts on e-readers and their failure to capture the entire experience of reading a book.  So much sensual experience is lost in favour of mere efficiency and Taleb expresses this as well as any wabisabi proponent or disciple might talk about things that are of an intimate nature to us and are unpretentious. Think of the polishing of Taleb's pen after 30 years of use.  Think of the wear on a hardcover book that has been read and reread carefully and countless times.  The stain of the thumbs where they have held the pages back, the minute fraying on the corners and along the spine.  A e-reader will not age so well.

That e-reader is just another object that has been brought into popularity by neomania and it will, as Taleb puts it, "incur... treadmilling techno-dissatisfaction" (p. 323 Antifragile).  At this point it seems that Taleb is echoing the notions of wabisabi within strictly the aesthetic realm.  Taleb, however, goes a step further when talking about architecture and then about cities and talking about a "machine-organism dichotomy" (p. 326 Antifragile) in the instances of architecture and urban design.  More mechanical approaches to either have had less successful, if not disastrous, results when compared to more organic and consequently more comprehensive approaches.

As one reviews the other domains that Taleb examines from the perspective of antifragility, it would be an opportunity to determine where approaches or strategies guided or influenced by wabisabi would serve areas such as business, politics, education and media, not to mention art, which seems to get a bit too much of a corporate polish for its own good.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Our Pathways

The temptation is to take this a little deeper and suggest something metaphoric with paths and life
courses but I simply want to get into that patch of the world that leads from our door to everything beyond.

Those few steps that we retrace and a few times a day, perhaps more.  For many it is a child's first playground, the solid place where the wheels of dinkeys or the legs of dolls to not get tangled in the grass or the green strands to not get caught between Legos as towers are snapped together to achieve their heights.

Whether stone, matching interlocking bricks, cement slabs or some other combination, that path gets marked by time.  Despite the caution and care when we first lay that path from our door, time sets in to leave its mark but people rarely trouble themselves with the calculations to determine whether or not to tear it all out and replace it with something that will hold up better against the elements.

Frost heaves through each winter alter the ground beneath and twist and press the path with the passing of each year, until cracks appear and that flat surface takes new directions and angles.  Grass wins its battles and gets through the brickwork and the cracks.  Dandelions prosper and appear in full height, almost without any indication of the lifecycle that lead to that blemish beneath our first steps of the day or our last steps to arrival home.

A few of us might fret over that passing of time, but more often we shrug at it and accept it. There isn't much to philosophize about. We roll with it.  We still regard it as a place still clean enough for us to venture out in our sock feet to get the mail or the paper at the end of the path. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Juxtapose: Airports and Recycled Art

Airports seem to exhaust themselves projecting the modern image of travel and all of the conveniences and state of the art advances that a globalized community would pride themselves on.  For all the luxury car billboards, the duty-free shops that one could navigate blind and the ubiquitous Hudson News shops, there is little to distinguish one airport from another.  For all the sense of luxury and adventure they may aspire to, the tensa-barriered slaloms teeming with unshod travellers belie other realities about the fears that are either spawned or carefully incubated there.  The stress and tumult of those security procedures and the lingering fabliaux about the various ways luggage can be lost or travellers forced to bend to the whims of an airline undermine whatever promise the sheen and veneer of the polished modern surfaces hold.
When flying out of San Francisco International Airport in October 2013, I happened upon the most out-of-place of art exhibits.  The public art that fills airports is the one opportunity that these places have to distinguish their community with something other than the languages that echo off the high ceilings.  In this instance, the exhibit was a presentation of art the had been created through an artist in residence program with a recycling company called Recology.  The exhibit, intended to promote Recology's goals of reducing waste in the city of San Francisco, also demonstrates the charm of wabisabi as well. The range of pieces provided a stark contrast to the firm plastics and smooth steels of the airport terminal and pieces such as photographs of a stack of old notebooks or wooden installations made of old lattice had the gently worn look and the knack for evoking nostalgia that hand-crafted works, whether clothing, pottery or the unique pieces of art that were created for the Recology exhibit demonstrates so well.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Definition and Experience

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese term made up of two characters.  Pinning down the meaning of either words separately or the two combined is a task that escapes the grasp of those who desire clean, nuance-free translations.  At best, and fittingly, the pursuit of an complete definition will be frustrated by flexibility of each term and the history they share.

Still, it is worth getting in the ballpark and letting imaginations wander with the interpretations that may be molded by our experiences. The definition of wabi has evolved to conjure up notions of rusticity, simplicity or artlessness, though it was originally associate with the misery of loneliness.  Sabi has come to refer to a beauty or serenity that has come with the passing of time.  Though I lived for eight years in Japan, I never grasped the terms or concept on my own and have come to rely on a number of books, most notable Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers by Leonard Koren.

In total, the term wabi-sabi is an aesthetic that finds a poignant rather than monolithic beauty in acknowledging the imperfection, the impermanence and incomplete of the things that surround us. The term and its ideals are most apparent in art and design and have served as a source of expression and inspiration for designers, poets and home decorators to mention a few. For me it has also provided an invaluable touchstone or perhaps even Rosetta stone for analyzing and assessing other things in the way we organize our world or surroundings. I've developed an allergy to the formulaic or the over-veneered and regard either of these as an attempt to render inert and impermeable something the ought to evolve and respond to surroundings. There is a simplicity, essnetialism and authenticity about things that embody wabi-sabi that artifice and technological solutions lack. I'll dig into examples of that in future posts but for now an experience that helps me define wabi-sabi and its beauty.

During an early spring day in Japan, the dandelions were already going through the life cycle that marks the beginning of the season when a dusting of snow muted the colours of spring for a few hours one March morning.  Among the sights I saw on this morning were the dandelions, in that late stage of their cycle when their spores form that geodesic structure that awaits the wind or a child's breath.  The dusting of snow crowned that form.  I did not have my camera at the moment, otherwise that dandelion would accompany this post rather than the one above.  I went on my way, but the thought of that fragile balance that held the soft snowflakes in position until they melted and dissolved that structure has stuck with me.  Ever-conscious of that untaken image, wabi-sabi is:

and beyond that, seasonal
in the moment and perhaps the very briefest of moments
acknowledges the passage of time
and humble.