Wabi-sabi and comfort

For my sins, I have perfectionist leanings. I tend to be distracted from the matter at hand if I see a spot on my new sofa, needing to get the alcohol and micro fibre cleaning kit out to attack and restore perfection. Now of course perfection is only something that can be approached in the physical world, never realised. In mathematics there is the beguiling satisfaction of a correct solution or a proof, but outside of abstract worlds, we have to live with imperfection. Nevertheless, I think most people can see that a newly painted wall or a brand new iPhone can be extremely close to perfect, close enough to perfect for me anyway.

Increasingly, though, I am aware of the stress caused by perfection. Imagine a house with freshly painted white walls, like an art gallery. Imagine the peaceful feeling that a clean, modern and simple space, painted in a perfectly even white. Given the rough and tumble controlled chaos of many urban environments, a space like that could be seen as a haven. Imagine further that you have some objects, art work or furniture that you find beautiful. Imagine the space is insulated against sound and that it is lit through windows that provide an easy, warm light. You would be living in your own personal gallery. Free of disturbance and free to contemplate the objects in the room, the calm nothingness of the space, the thoughts jumping around your mind or just your breath. Sounds good no?

Now imagine that the roof leaks during a rain storm and leaves a moist brown smudge on the sharp fold between the ceiling and one of the walls. To me, the calm of the place would be affected, the injury to the space would constantly draw my attention demanding remedial effort. The same way a zen garden, the ones made of raked stones, needs to be raked freshly, the perfect, simple space, also needs to be constantly nursed if it is to bring calm.

Now imagine a log cabin with a slate roof, freshly built, still smelling of tree sap. The floor made in rough planks. In its own way, also a perfect space, although maybe a more rustic and approachable type of perfection. In such a space the wabi-sabi inherent in the materials, the natural grain and randomness of the wood, the texture of the slate all seem, even when freshly produced, clearly apparent. In the same scenario, say the roof leaks a little or you spill a cup of coffee on the floor, the damage is almost immaterial. The wood may slightly change colour. Is that not somehow more relaxing than the meditative Zen modernist room? To continue the garden analogy, isn’t a forest somehow more wabi-sabi than a Zen garden? If a branch breaks or some leaves fall on the ground, the essence of the forest remains unchanged.

Going back to the white minimalist room, what happens if the staining and wear and tear becomes more uniform, say after a decade of use. Then I imagine there is an acquired patina, an acquired wabi-sabi that starts to give the minimalist room the comfort of the forest and the log cabin. So can I not conclude that wabi-sabi is a component of comfort? Maybe even a pre-requisite?



Soldiers, love and voting

“Because they stand on a wall and say, Nothing’s going to hurt you tonight not on my watch.”- Demi Moore as Galloway in A Few Good Men from 1992.

Today I was walking from the Badaro neighbourhood of Beirut back towards Achrafieh. On the road that connects those two neighbourhoods, lie several important buildings. There is the French consular mission and cultural centre, the Jesuit University and its new Youssef Tohme building (probably the greatest modern building in the city) and there is the Amn-al-am which literally translates as “General Security”. In fact, other than a cemetery, whose inhabitants are unarguably indifferent to a car bomb going off nearby, there is no building that does not merit a heavy Lebanese Army presence.

The time was late afternoon, the sun lit the city in an even cool light and the a chilly, humid breeze made me feel surprising cold. I was listening to the Freakonomics podcast, but since I’d left my headphones at home, was actually doing this by holding my phone up to my ear. I was also noticing the different types of soldiers. Some seemed like young recruits, they had Kalashnikovs slung around them, muzzles earthward and they wore fairly standard looking camouflage uniforms. Closer to General Security, they had some pretty mean looking compact and boxy machine guns and were wearing bullet proof vests.

One of them started walking purposefully towards me and I, realising there was no reason for him to want to talk to me, just kept walking, affecting a nonchalance that I only partly felt and keeping a corner of my eye on him while making an effort to show an averted gaze. I was not afraid, but his purposeful gait definitely left no doubt that something was going on. He suspected I had been taking photos with my phone. I offered to show him my photos-the most recent was a picture of a bottle of sake I had drunk and wanted to remember-he looked at them and then apologised profusely for having inconvenienced me.

I continued on my way, thoughts quickly drifting, as they do, and a couple of minutes later looked up and saw another soldier. He was standing, not looking particularly alert, but still, doing his job. I felt a surge of love for this man. In fact he was just a kid, maybe 20 years old, but as he stood with his heavy looking machine-gun, lazily scanning the area, I felt safe. I felt protected. And I loved him for it. I was surprised by the depth and quality of the emotion. I wished that my Arabic skills were adequate to know how to pass him in a few words some appreciation for what he was doing.

I was reminded of the scene from “A Few Good Men” from which the quote I started this post with is taken. It sums up in an emotional way what it is that a soldier can represent. For all his violent potentiality, despite the conditioning that has probably been applied to make him an effective killer, even considering that he may be machine-like in his willingness to execute orders and exercise obedience to the military structure, there is  a nobility and an honour in him. After all, his brief is to defend the group, to be ready to sacrifice himself for his fellows and for the people who put him on the front lines.

The historian Joanna Bourke in her book ‘An Intimate History of Killing’ tells us that only a minority of soldiers on the battle field, even under fire, shoot to kill. Often they do not even shoot. The US Army has actually done studies proving that the majority of soldiers in a given firefight do not fire their weapons. Bourke argues that the vast majority of killing that does occur is done out of love for one’s fellow soldiers. It’s a fascinating collection of arguments and observations about circumstances that most of us only really know nothing about, most of us having been misinformed by movies written by people who also know nothing about war. I have no personal experience of killing or the military (thankfully) but, while I can imagine a fringe of military folk who are in it because they enjoy killing, I suspect most of them are motivated by nobler causes.

The Greeks considered that of all possible occupations, only soldiering and agriculture were honourable. To them, there was no doubt that a person engaged in those professions was providing a societal service (in contrast a shop keeper has to sell you things whether you need them or not). Nassim Taleb pushes the point further, he says “there is no such thing as a failed soldier, dead or alive (unless he acted in a cowardly manner)”.

Taking as a seed the idea that it is honourable to serve the group at ones own risk, Robert Heinlein, in Starship Troopers, imagines a world in which the only people considered citizens, and thus eligible to vote, are veterans of military service because they have proven that they understand the value of the group. It is pretty clear that he imagines an individualistic world, but one in which the individual’s interests exist in harmony with those of the group . This idea struck me, many of Heinlein’s ideas do, as brilliant. I would willingly vote for it right now. I would vote myself out of the vote! It must be worth a try given how poorly democracy’s seem to be at choosing their leaders.

In any case, whatever logic or arguments one could make on either side of this issue, my feeling of love for the man protecting me was real. Knowing that there really are crazies out there who really are blowing cars up and killing people and that he, whoever he is, was willing to stand that post and do his best to stop it, to keep me safe. Well…Thank you my friend.

New, used, wabi-sabi: Meditation on a fork.

Yesterday brought me to the workshop of Nada Debs, a furniture designer who has brought a Japanese minimalist aesthetic, an American appreciation of functionality and a British respect for tradition to the world of traditional Levantine craft. As I walked around picking up pieces of coloured melamine cut outs, traditional Syrian inlay pressed into the surface of concrete and acid etched metal plates, I mentioned to her how difficult I found watching the transition of something new into something “imperfect”.

I recently bought stainless steel cutlery. The implements were beautifully designed and made. I chose these particular items because the shapes are organic, natural and don’t call attention to themselves. The heft of each piece was perfect: not light and cheap feeling, not self-consciously heavy. An effortless, functional minimalism. The polish or brushing of stainless steel , when it’s done right, can bring out a glow, a warm glow from the cold, indifferent basic material. My salad fork imbued in me a deep sense of perfection.

Of course I started to use the fork eat with it, stab with it, clean it with a sponge, let it dance against other things in the dishwasher, and soon enough little scratches and nicks began to appear. While the shape and functionality were unchanged, the warm glow was losing its ability to charm me. What had been a lustre with depth, complexity of colour and hint of leaden grey to soften the brilliance of the steel, was changing into a more prosaic ‘scratched’ stainless look. I began to wonder whether I could have them rebuffed. I began to wonder whether I should keep these for everyday and buy a second set for special occasions. Of course that would mean that family meals, good food shared with my children would have to be consciously designated as ‘not special’ when I opened the drawer and chose the fork.

I asked Nada about the ageing process in what she makes. I asked her about how she could know and test whether her items would remain perfect or degrade. Whether in degrading they would reach that patina stage that in many ways we love more than new. She handed me a book on the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi.

Have you ever wondered why the weathered stone walls of a centuries old church or the pitted and damaged Victorian brick houses of London make us feel good. Why do they look just right. Why do people undertaking multi-million pound refurbishment jobs never try to correct the outer weathered surfaces? Me too. Why does a new replica-Victorian house look ‘fake’. It is not just that the techniques or materials might be slightly different. Even a house made of reclaimed materials (in London it is often required by the planning board that the outer surfaces of new walls be faced with reclaimed stone) and using traditional techniques (from what I can tell, basic bricklaying hasn’t really evolved much) looks somehow incorrect.

It is because Patina, authentic wear and tear, is not achievable by human intervention or short cut. One of the really cool things about the world is that despite the inherently random nature of the universe (as described mathematically in quantum physics and as observed by us all in many contexts) it is actually extremely difficult to generate random events. A computer, for example, can only simulate randomness using algorithms, but can not express true randomness without observing some external random phenomenon. So it would be extremely complicated to create the look of natural wear on a leather jacket artificially. One part of the problem is that we are not necessarily even aware of all the different random movements and effects that create patina. (For an example of the difficulty of authentically ageing clothing, walk down any major shopping street and look at peoples’ jeans. There are many pairs that have been artificially aged in a way that is transparently fake.)

So wabi-sabi, which is a hard thing to explain but you know it when you see it, is the ageing that occurs through natural processes. We see it in the wrinkles of our grandparents faces that somehow encapsulate the history of their experience (unless they are botoxed, a big time anti-wabi-sabi action). We see it in the greying of exposed stone, the blacking of the alpine pine they build chalets from in the alps, the decay of a leaf on the ground, the warm depth that century old wood floors start to exude. It is there in everything to remind us that life is ephemeral, nothing is permanent, all will eventually decay and disappear.

But there is still that period where something “perfect” in the modern, manufactured sense, is damaged and becomes used. To me this is the first time that something happens to the object that would make it fail quality control in the place it was made. I think the descent from the manufactured near perfection to used is an emotional blow of great intensity. There is an economic aspect to this. Think of a new car being driven off the lot. It loses a big chunk of its value in that moment of transition. But it is not, ultimately economic. I have driven a new car off the lot and felt the elation of consumption-it is pretty unalloyed that feeling-there is no element of regret or loss at that moment. The shock of degradation comes the first time you scratch the car, when it loses, never to regain, that fresh from the factory look. The point is that those initial shocks do not make the car wabi-sabi. Somehow there is a purgatory between perfection and patina. A collectible 1950’s Porsche Speedster may have been dented and repaired many times. The wear on its rubber door gaskets, the spidering of its paint. That is wabi-sabi. But that interim phase has not been brought out into the light. A truly great object, to me, would be one that could go from new to wabi-sabi without that horrible middle period.


The illusion of narrative

Politics in the Middle East permeates life in a way that forces anyone living here to notice things that are not so obvious in other places I have lived.

First there is the intensity of political feeling and identity. Of course the English identify as Labour or Conservative and the Americans, perhaps more dramatically, as Republican or Democrat, but in Lebanon the depth of adherence to a political grouping is heightened by two things: religion and violence. It is impossible to imagine someone supporting a politician who once ran a militia who was involved in hurling bombs at you or whose soldiers were responsible for killing a family member, irrespective of his current politics. It is equally difficult to imagine supporting a politician who is inciting his followers against you using sectarian language.

It is abundantly clear when two Lebanese discuss politics, that the discussion is really a superficial cover for an argument about identity. And when people insult each others identity, the rifts are deep and often irreparable. This linkage between politics and identity is true everywhere, but the weaving together of them is not quite as complete. In the US, though, it seems the link is stronger than in the UK. Most UK political arguments are about policy, redistribution of wealth and hew closer to the real issues, less to identity. In the US, aside from the fact that the arguments about redistribution of wealth and welfare have a more violent tinge to them, there are also the religious and ethical aspects of political issues such as abortion, drug legalisation and race that are kindred to a persons identity in a way some of the more abstract issues are not.

But even worse for being less evident is the way that counter-posed narratives prevent people from even the most basic agreement on facts and shut the door on dialogue. I have never personally seen a more dramatic example of mutually-exclusive narratives that in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The cleft between the two sides thinking is so complete that listening to even the most moderate versions of the two sides’ story is to listen to two different tales.

Palestinian: when the early zionist settlers arrived from Europe, my grandparents sold one of their houses to a family from Prague. They were good people and well educated. The man had a doctorate in history but he became a small shop keeper. My parents saw the world burn. There were a succession of attacks by zionist groups who would kill whole families and empty villages of their inhabitants. The British were not able to protect us. And then, of course the UN gave our land to the settlers and Israel was born. My parents lost most of what they had, but we were lucky and managed to emigrate to the US. many of my cousins live stateless in Lebanon, the luckier ones in Jordan. One day, inshallah, we will find a way to move back to our home and our lands and defeat the zionist invasion.

Israeli: In 1934, when things were already tense for us Jews in Poland, my father took the decision to move to the settler lands in Palestine. We were the lucky ones. My Uncle and his children, who stayed to run their business, were all murdered by the Nazis. When the catastrophe of World War Two finally ended, we opened our home to a family of survivors, one of the thousands of families who somehow survived the attempt to kill us all off. When the UN voted to give us a state and especially when Harry Truman recognised our new country, we cried tears of relief for ourselves and sadness for those who never saw that day. Of course we knew that some rogue elements of the Haganah were doing things we were not to proud of, but it was a time of transition and, in the end, we established a democracy based on the ideals of the Enlightenment and look how well we have done. I served in the IDF and while I do not support the settlements, the barrier wall or the current government, I would go back and fight to the death for this country, my country, the only place the Jews will ever be safe.

How could these two people ever reach a common understanding of history? How could they find a middle ground from which to build a common project?

We need to be aware that we are all drowning in our own narratives, this seems to be linked to how human beings understand the world (story telling). We need to be aware that our story is definitely partially right and partially wrong. Then we can discuss.

Note that I am not equating the value of each narrative. I am not claiming that all sides have an equal claim to truth. In fact careful analysis of two narratives usually reveals that their are critical facts that are agreed on but explained in different ways. Other facts are overlooked as insignificant in one story but are important in the other. For example to most Palestinians, the UN vote of 1948 was one in a long series of injustices. To an Israeli it is the critical act that supplies legitimacy to the Israeli state. Those two views can not be reconciled.

So why do we speak to those who disagree with us? If the reason is to persuade the other side, it is futile. The power of narratives is too strong, the emotional identification is too binding. But if it is to find a settlement, then we need to be aware of the different parties’ stories. An Israeli will never accept that 1948 was a Nabka (Catastrophe) but he may accept that it was a tragedy for the person opposite him. The Palestinian may never accept the Israeli’s “right” to live in the lands he once occupied, but he may accept the impossibility of reversing history.