Thursday, July 27, 2017

Diane Ackerman and the Expansion of the Senses

One of the most enchanting and wise voices I've read over the last twenty years is Diane Ackerman. I first came across her work with the creative non-fictions books Natural History of the Senses and A Natural History of Love which provide the template for much of the writing she has done throughout her career and also provide valuable touchstones if you are looking to get in touch with themes and topics of either book.  In other words, get out there and find them, stat.

From a perspective of one writing about wabisabi, Ackerman briefly references it in her 2009 book Dawn Light but throughout her career she has demonstrated a sensitivity to cycles in nature and connection to nature that encapsulate much of the spirit, the sensitivity and the warmth of wabisabi.

Throughout the writing she has done, Ackerman brings a poetic and virtually encyclopedic command of the topics that she addresses.  She illuminates subjects with a range of perspectives that are eclectic and inspired. Whether she is excavating the etymology of a word to unearth a history latent with depths that we have previous been ignorant of or bringing to our attention an eccentricity from some corner of the animal kingdom, her writing is nourishing with the breadth of wisdom that she brings to her subject.

Even beyond those discoveries there are explorations into old myths, superstitions and ways of doing things that will just as often evoke a fondness or attachment for quaint traditions in a way that would more likely prompt one to introduce them into your life rather than look back on certain times as uninformed or delusional.

Much of her writing comes directly from her passion for the environment and a knowledge of the cycles that occur around us, whether in gardens, the transitions and stirrings that start the day or the first stirrings and lasting confirmations of love. She finds constellations of connection in the cycles, moments and the seasons of life and never does she close her meditations on a subject to a single approach.  The eclectic approach to her writing is comprehensive and atypical of what many writers, including those crafting creative non-fiction, would bring to bear on her subject.

That comprehensive meditation on her subject also encourages the reader to take a similar approach to regarding their situation or surroundings and coming away from their experiences and observations with a more informed and intuitive interaction with their environments.  Writing (or reading) that prompts people to take a more personal assessment of what they observe gradually induces and expansion of the senses and prompts an interest in making connections between the things that are observed, not only inviting an expansion of the senses and a fonder regard for the cycles of nature and the tenuous balances that exist as our world goes through the continuous change that makes our world the vibrant engaging place that it is.

Ackerman's writing provides a model and a gateway toward a more intuitive and in-depth knowledge and connection with our world and her efforts to illustrate the interconnectedness of the constellations that she lays out are breathtaking

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Meditations on a Surviving Sears

One of the ongoing narratives in Canadian business news during the summer of 2017 has been the unfolding news of Sears Canada’s decline. Several stores and outlets are being closed as the retailer staves off bankruptcy.
One outlet that will avoid the chopping block for a while longer is the wilting anchor tenant of a nearly 60-year-old shopping centre near my home. The mall has gone through many retrofits and reincarnations over the decades and it still has reasonable traffic, but it lacks the glamour of larger, more recent consumer temples that feature bigger footprints, more square footage and underground parking. This smaller mall has the neighbourhood supermarket that I have relied on for the last ten years and nearly full tenancy with clothing stores, hairdressers, a food court, pharmacy and sundry others that maybe a little less likely to generate lots of traffic.  Still the mall appeals as a quick go-to place for the essentials. Even though one of those bigger more glamorous malls is a 10 or 11-minute drive away, it holds its own as a convenient place to hit without getting lost in a labyrinth.

A walk east through the mall, however, reveals the taint of the declining anchor, its Sears, even before you reach the store, which features the only escalators in the mall and perhaps the first Calgary ever had.  I frequently pass through this Sears as I make a short cut through the mall to my son’s daycare on my walk home. My assessment of the store is strictly a passing one without the motivation to stop and check on deals for socks or to replenish my Stanfield’s.  The fixtures and the linoleum tile floor speak of an ancient retail era and there is a sense today that the space is not distributed properly. There are areas that seem overcrowded with merchandise and others that seems sadly bare or empty.  There is even a hair salon, which I've only approached to determine if the lights were still on. Speaking of the lights, the lighting seems too dark or of the wrong light temperature to appeal. There is a dingy feel, but apart from the precise calculations that a retail expert would calculate to distribute the space more evenly, refine the displays and the colour palette for the store, there is little to distinguish it from any other shopping experience.  There is something desperate rather than quaint about the way this store has aged and that lack of aesthetic appeal accompanying the decline is, in part, a consequence of the effort to dress up the store with the most contemporary touches at the time that it was built.  A reasonable enough suggestion, but the use of chintzy man-made materials for such decorations all but guarantees that the store and malls in general will never age well.

With the decline of this particular outlet, it is hard to tell if the vicious cycle started with a decline in sales or the lack of resources to maintain or improve an inviting decor.  The shopping here is strictly functional — not a bad thing, but one that raises questions about the survival of the business and the place that shopping has in our society.  It has lost whatever appeal it had as a venue for that indulgent consumer experience by virtue of a few tweaks to its appearance to keep it current, or to ensure that its cache as a shopping venue is retained or that the atmosphere is enhanced to a point that the cash spins a little more quickly or fluidly. Sears is not the only dying brick-and-mortar retailer, but one of many which have clamoured to stay off the sidelines ever-so-futilely.  The puzzle is why is it that a slick, current, templated appearance similar to more successful physical competitors is so necessary.

The challenge for shopping centres is sustaining vibrancy in a closed-off, self-contained and private place the same way that the public space of a Main Street shopping district can retain a certain appeal, even if there are a few windows covered with brown kraft paper. Tenants come and go in both the shopping centre and street level modes, but the quaintness that prevails on an active street requires significantly more work to maintain a mall.  The skylights, kiosks and other innovations in a mall do not compete with the appearance and interactivity of a street. So much more effort is required to maintain the shops in a mall or the entire structure because of the control that is sought.  Perhaps it is that the incidental aspect of street life does not merely serve the retail purpose, which is the exclusive purpose of the mall. There is a need to refine the formula of appeal to a precise degree and calibrate it regularly to maintain it because it is an ecosystem unto itself and one that needs constant mediation and adjustment as change occurs and time passes.

A bit like an obsession with fashion, isn't it?

For too long, consumerism has gone beyond the need to assure survival needs to fulfilling more existential or perhaps more superficial desires as they relate to our self-esteem and our definition of self. The consumption has been intended to define ourselves, whether with the brands that we adorn ourselves with or to amplify personality traits with a degree of preparedness or foresight that we want to demonstrate. Like the shopping mall, the need to control the environment or situation and to project a certain image takes an enormous amount of energy and distances ourselves from our authenticity because we are striving to emphasize limited parts of it rather than letting characteristics be expressed as required in response to the circumstances that we encounter when we are interacting with a variety of people or in a range of circumstances that require us to be completely and consciously ourselves rather than a collection of traits that are isolated and amplified in the name of an ever-drifting definition of conformity.