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.