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.

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


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.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

A Perfect Meal

In many articles and podcasts about wabi-sabi the lede has been its status as imperfectly perfect or as a cure for perfection. Some writers even use it as an excuse to leave errors in their work rather than edit sufficiently when that option is available to them. That starting point is visited too often to really take a discussion of wabi-sabi as deep as it could go, but an examination of perfection or the perfect can illustrate how perfection, when it is achieved or, worse yet, imitated, can be inferior to things that embody the qualities of wabi-sabi.

We use the word "perfect" quite freely for a word that captures something we often regard as unattainable. There are times when it is the most apt word for what we want to laud. A perfect spouse. Perfect timing. A perfect touchdown. A perfect moment. On most occasions, "perfect" is uttered upon a careful, often silent, setting of parameters to ensure that its meaning is given heed. Otherwise, without those cautious parameters set, the user risks being hyperbolic.

So what is happening when something is called perfect? A perfect meal would be defined within subjective parameters. It could be the conversation, the company, the pleasing of the palette, the atmosphere, the appeasement of the fussy six-year-old or, if the pleasing combination of all of these. Once you have this perfect meal, though, what can you do with it? Replicating that perfect meal would be elusive. It would not work the next time you tried to bring the same combination together. There are intangibles to the perfect meal that resist replication. Conversation relies on too many elements that contribute to its flow and engagement. The briefest moment of inattention in the kitchen and a meal could go off the rails. The six-year-old could be fussy, lacking sleep or lured by a craving for chicken fingers to go another direction during the meal.

A key problem with the perfect is the temptation to replicate it or to strive for a predetermined definition of it. 

Striving to do a specific thing to achieve a preconceived notion of perfection can actually -- as counterintuitive as it sounds -- limit potential and possibility.  When aiming for perfection, we tend to tilt things in our favour when setting the standards or parameters.  Those concepts of perfection are bite-sized rather than ambitious achievements. Sometimes we may merely meet a superficial standard of perfection rather than an integral or deep standard.  Beyond that, is the likelihood that we have become more biased toward technological or efficient biases in defining perfection. A checklist of the obvious aspects of that perfect meal diverts our attention from the subtleties that made the occasion prompt us to call the occasion "perfect."

Pursuing the perfect and settling for the most superficial or obvious path toward it effectively takes options off the table. Asking people to replicate what they have done before, and devoting time and resources to the assumption that the rare, isolated convergence of possibilities and luck that contributed to a perfect meal is actually a prototype that we can duplicate is quixotic. The effort to replicate is one where the incidental and magical is broken down for the sake of mechanizing it.

As futile as it sounds int he context of trying to recreate a perfect meal, there is a prevailing tendency to slot countless products, solutions and interactions into mechanized or formulaic approaches. Institutions and businesses look to slot clients and customers into systems that are "perfectly" efficient, but lacking personal touches. There are management and self-help solutions that are simplified to multi-prong procedures or paradigms but very often they are zero-sum scenarios that only work for the first ones in the door or for the alpha-male who strives to exploit others. 

These mechanized approaches that elevate a single prototype to widespread use, with little regard for individual desires for autonomy or identity.  These are the consequences of a quest for perfection or a  one-size-fits-all solution. The focus on perfection starts to regard the most varied element in a formula - humans - as a cog rather than a unique element that deserves his or her right to be themselves at a given moment. The advantage of wabi-sabi, with its recognition that nothing is complete, everything is transient and nothing is perfect, is that a mindset that appreciates imperfection will also appreciate the perfect moment when it comes along and do so without deifying it at the expense of those who contributed to it.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

The Comfort Zone and Decay

I have not given it as much thought as I ought to, but one of my favorite films is a one-minute animated piece from the (Canadian) National Film Board titled The Egg.  Throughout my childhood it was one of those staples of commercial break filler on the CBC.  In the film, an egg does all it can to keep itself from cracking open. A failing adhesive bandage prompts escalation to paste then hammer, nails and board and so on. The irony of the arms being able to freely morph out of the egg to fight off fate, not to mention the threat of the nails being driven back through the shell all lost on the agent trying to close itself off and thwart inevitable growth. As more and more cracks appear, the efforts to ensure the egg's integrity are quixotic and, as a pan of the camera reveals, all-too-common. There several interpretations of the film, but it does illustrate how the attachment to or seclusion within a "comfort zone" can turn obsessive and perhaps even unhealthy as energy is poured into sustaining something that ought to be allowed to decay, not only out of deference to the passage of time, but for well-being.

The comfort zone is an ephemeral cocktail of the comforts, touchstones, opinions, habits and preoccupations that reassure us, provide us certainty and, supposedly, provide the launch pad from which to achieve and perhaps have a sense of control. It is by turns a sanctuary, a source of energy, a place of renewal or a hiding place when the world get too hairy or uncertain to bear.  It must, however, be allowed to morph or dissolve as time and growth mark the course ahead. New roles, opposing opinions, dynamics in our personal lives or in our communities peck away at the surface of the comfort zone. The breaches are a call to grow and it must be heeded rather than fended off or buttressed against.

The term "comfort zone" is relatively new. It increasingly came into use in the early 1990s, perhaps it is a concept or space that distinguishes Gen Xers from boomers. The possible connection to one generation or another is not as significant as the questions of whether or not we allow a comfort zone to stretch and dissolve or if we strive to shore it up and maintain it against the changes that are inevitably going to breach its walls. Is the comfort zone, beyond merely being a new term, a construct that allows us to close ourselves off from the world and inhabit the exclusive island of like-minded that so many express a desire for and even manage to place themselves within.

The vagueness and uniqueness of the comfort zone is what we choose it to be. It, in turn, defines us as we select the risks that we wish to avoid or deign to expose ourselves to. There is a symbiosis between ourselves and this space we essentially cocoon ourselves within. Adjustments of comfort zones, while possibly a response to legitimate threats to our safety more likely reveal an arbitrariness that ought to be reflected upon.

Does a comfort zone assure us and provide refuge in between exchanges with the unwelcome realities of the world we dare to engage with, or does it control and filter what we hear, see and deal with? The efforts people make to ensure the integrity of their comfort zones indicates that their intention is to create and maintain the latter and that engaging with the more taxing or unsavoury realities of our world are avoided regardless of the cost.

We wear ourselves down when we are unwilling to accept life's rhythm, rather than embracing what grows and awakens...
Agneta Nyholm Winquist
Wabi Sabi Timeless Wisdom for a Stress-Free Life

Children begin unaware of the risks that they might be exposing themselves to and one of the steps they take toward establishing autonomy or independence is to take it upon themselves to define their comfort zones rather than have them imposed upon us. My son's fondness for dogs, even at their most ornery, is evidence of this. One of my favorite stories of his indifference to canine ire is of him laughing right in the face of a friend's black lab as it did its most vociferous bark to mark territory. Totally undaunted, he clutched his hand in front of his chest and laughed as dog saliva came his way. Childhood is defined by an openness and even a voracity for experiences. The comfort zone is permeable as a child aims to not only expand experiences but the senses as well. The neuroplasticity of children is well-documented and each opportunity to build pathways is seized. The opposition to a comfort zone imposed by adults is regularly apparent.

With time and hard knocks, the comfort zone becomes more solid or adults become more timid.  Adjustments to the comfort zone favour establishing a reassuring rigidity rather than maintaining the permeability known in childhood. While there are legitimate threats to our comfort, many adjustments to the comfort zone result from knee-jerk, unconscious responses aimed at asserting control and shoring up this intangible structure. The openness of childhood is replaced with an intolerance that may not become apparent in all of the adjustments we make to our comfort zone. There is some rationality to this, but when the comfort zone changes arbitrarily to keep possibilities out, there is a certainty that we are sacrificing our growth and vitality in the name of maintaining a stagnating self. Either that or we are making an inordinate effort to stabilize an artificial and arbitrary realm that is cultivated to limit our experiences.

People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. They prefer suffering that is familiar to the unknown.
— Thích Nhat Hanh

Too often, we reinforce our comfort zone instead of letting it yield to the things that can improve our lives: new ideas, experiences, relationships, and opinions are all opportunities for growth and reflection. We cannot let our way of looking at the world ossify, especially if it provides us a lens that frames the world as we like to see it. We must remain open to the paradoxes and ambiguities and the discomforts that will stir rather than sedate us.  Stirred, we will become more engaged in the world and perhaps we will be more inclined, to listen, to reflect, to accept and ultimately be present enough to adapt to the dialogues, debates and realities that are presented to us.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Permitting Wabi-Sabi

When you see an aging building or a rusted bridge, you are seeing nature and man working together. If you paint over a building, there is no more magic to that building. But if it is allowed to age, then man has built it and nature has added into it -- it's so organic.

But often people wouldn't think to permit that...

David Lynch, from Catching the Big Fish

I lived in Japan for eight years. It would be easy for me to cultivate the assumption that my interest in wabi-sabi resulted from long study there and regular, intentional exposure to things that embodied its qualities. The reality is I only came across the term wabi-sabi after leaving Japan. An internet article about PowerPoint presentations cited the aesthetic as one to deploy for the sake of avoiding "death by PowerPoint." In that article, wabi-sabi was a coherent aesthetic that stood in sharp contrast to the modern, the modernist or the out-of-the-box framework and yawn induction of a Microsoft product. In the effort to extend the metaphor of wabi-sabi to as unusual a topic as PowerPoint, the article took a much deeper look at the subject and its application than many articles about design and interior decoration. Once a point about appreciating the flawed or old or textured is made, the discussion of wabi-sabi is truncated before its depth is plumbed. The thing about wabi-sabi that seems overlooked within the design perspective is that wabi-sabi has to be permitted or perhaps cultivated rather than added in, even if it is after a visit to a garage sale.

After reading that article, there was no retroactive bolt from the blue that left me reminiscing, "THAT was wabi-sabi" and "That so wabi-sabi as well," and "That too!" There was some careful reflection on my experiences in Japan what what aspects of my life there could inform my reflections on it. At the time I struck upon it, I was more inclined to examine things that were close at had to determine where they fit into a discussion of the differences between wabi-sabi and the modern.

Examining my surroundings through a wabi-sabi lens did not prompt me to conclude that there was a particularly Japanese quality in, for example, the worn leather hat that I received from my grandfather or the 20-year-old T-shirt that was serving its regular turn in my wardrobe. Instead, given the challenge of translating the term directly into English, I borrowed the word as a shorthand while I determined if my attachment to wabi-sabi was about the aesthetics than a nostalgic or sentimental impulse.

The quote from David Lynch, above, is significant because it briefly embodies a great deal about wabi-sabi and it comes from a western perspective. We appreciate things that have been weathered by the passage of time: listing barns, rusting bridges, life-softened Levi's and the well-worn hand-tools of a carpenter. Lynch confirms that this appreciation is not uniquely Japanese. He talks about a harmonic partnership between man and nature and it could be added that the relationship extends to what man can do with nature as well. Creations made from natural materials show what people can accomplish when they accept the natural materials available to them and work within the limits that are imposed. We form attachments to things that have done their duty and we appreciate the skill and wisdom that ensured they were made well and with appealing materials.

These attachment are often quite personal. There are probably lots of old things that we are less indulgent about seeing: the 1977 Ford Wagon on cinder blocks in the neighbour's front yard. Beyond that eyesore, there are things that as a society we would not be opposed to seeing come to an end. We can so easily be induced by efficiency or purported savings to see buildings, artifacts, processes and jobs fall by the wayside because these are modern times and we live in a modern community. In the end though, efficiency and technology do not lead to simplicity though they may strive to simplify. It may actually be better in the long run to tolerate the quaint snags of slower, more human or more organic processes and hang onto them along with the resilience and flexibility that we might have if we retain things that are more closely aligned with our senses and our needs.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Decay Reveals What Technology Amplifies

Yesterday, I walked passed a fence made of synthetic materials rather than wood. It was constructed to look life the post and rail combination we would see at a large property rather than the pointed picket fence one would associate with the suburbs. A piece of the fence had been repaired with screws to restore part of the recycled plastic in place. The effort to pass off this plastic construct as the equivalent to a wooden fence was blemished by the realities we face when a modern "solution" fails.  The reminder that these materials are synthetic rather than natural disappoints. The composite has been installed instead of real wood for reasons including price, ease of maintenance, ostensible durability, quick installation or construction, and pre-cut pieces. Corners are cut, efficiency is achieved, but the product is the technology that created that modern convenience rather than the fence.

When the plastic fence begins to decay or gets damaged, its shortcoming - namely that it is not wood and does not age or weather as wood does - presents us with an eyesore. The screws fastening the plastic back together are no aesthetic match for repaired or replaced wood. The look is provisional and makes it easy to picture a handyman's helpless shrug while saying, "This is the best I can do with this stuff. You know how much it costs to replace this?!" In another situation where plastic attempts to feign the elegance of wood we have an imitation Adirondack chair that eventually goes flaccid under the long term penetration of UV rays. It may look good, but it may not be as reliable as appearances suggest.

Whether the possible precision of screws or multipurpose assault with duct tape, the quick patch-up of a modern solution is an unattractive sight when we are more familiar with natural materials. Beyond the unsightliness, the patch-up of the synthetic - whether this plastic fence, vinyl-siding or a botched Botox job - reveals the delusion and hubris behind the creation of technologies or  decorations that propose to surpass the natural or organic.

These technologies strive to facilitate convenience or to offer a false promise of beauty, perfection, youth, defiance of gravity or time. These new technologies, however, amplify the values that informed their creation and when they are damaged or begin to decay, the sight is nowhere near as pleasing as a more natural decline. The peeling of paint from a wooden fence desiccated by years and decades of exposure to the elements fosters a fondness and perhaps a temptation to add to the sensual experience. You know you want to touch that dry wood despite the threat of a splinter. With a plastic fence, you just want to look away.

The regular celebration of the new, the high-tech and the state of the art -- whether a new composite or a self-help guru's pitch of a new way to improve yourself or the way your organization can do things -- belies the likelihood that these modern, technological interventions may prove to be futile or worse still, damaging. A wooden version of that damaged fence would certainly be more expensive and require more maintenance or a more expert hand to maintain it, but it would remain a more pleasant sight. It might even prove to be something that can be maintained - a sharp contrast to the hidden surprises cloaked in the maintenance-free promise associated with the synthetic.

The realization that we must stop hiding from is that there are similar modern, technological or in approaches to relationships and the way we engage with one another int he public forum that are influenced by the promise of something that is easier and more efficient than older, less technological more merely more quaint approaches to engaging with one another. Of late, it has becoming increasingly evident that the detached, technological approaches that we take to our relationships and the way we organize the work we do and the people that we do it with are starting to have negative consequences because we have become less adept or less inclined to interact in a more coherent, personal and natural manner.

As relationships, public discourse and organizational function are threatened by the inability to communicate effectively with one another and parse out the meaning of everything that one might say int he context they are speaking in, there is concern that this vital aspect of communicating and relating is being devastatingly undermined by modern "solutions" to the way we engage with one another.