What little I know about hip cultural trends I get from glossy in-flight magazines, and that’s not exactly cutting-edge journalism, I realize. Nevertheless, it’s all I have to go on since my usual reading fare is limited to a steady diet of motorcycle books and periodicals and websites which, without the occasional fortification of airline fare, would steadily stunt my worldview and social vocabulary to little more than bike build-offs and tire sizes. And it was while flipping through one such publication that I came across an article that, at long last, put a formally recognized aesthetic principle to my long-espoused affection for weathered, ratty, crapped-out bikes, buildings, clothing and pretty much everything else.
That word is “wabi-sabi” and it’s reportedly the hottest trend these days in hip design circles (where it’s also referred to as “shabby chic”). It’s a sort of heir apparent to feng shui, which I never really got, and it has a lot going for it from my perspective besides its similarity to “Cabo Wabo” which is something I know a thing or two or three about. Wabi-sabi is an ancient Japanese aesthetic that celebrates the beauty of things weathered, ratty and crapped out. It is the appreciation of the beauty of authenticity, unpretentiousness, imperfection, decay, and, as such, my scooter and wardrobe—and even my personal hygiene. I felt lightheaded at the discovery since it meant that all of the wear and tear and dents and blotches and crud—all of the flaws of my possessions and persona that had as recently as when I boarded the airplane been considered shabby and disreputable—were now the very pinnacle of artistic refinement. I kicked off my shoes and wiggled my toes through the holes in my socks. When the lady in the seat next to me recoiled in disgust, I pointed to the magazine and winked.
I’ve given this a lot of thought since then and have come to understand that for myself and for anyone else attempting to pass off their sorry lot as aesthetically enlightened (and I can’t recommend this dodge highly enough) wabi-sabi is the hot ticket and has the added advantage of having derived originally from Zen. That’s been helpful since nobody in this hemisphere has any idea what Zen is really about except that it’s cool, so it’s a great fallback discipline for those of us who talk through our hats. It gets people thinking so that, for example, when My Personal Nurse comes home and finds wet chaps on the futon, cigar butts in the sink and malt liquor cans in the shower, she has to pause and reflect on the possibility that this is high art; an ethereal manifestation of the perfection of the imperfect no less than the careless cherry blossom petals floating on the pond of an immaculately tended Zen garden. It’s a riot.
Wabi-sabi has become an important influence across a whole spectrum of aesthetic pursuits from gardening to couture, cuisine to decor, poetry to painting. Where it’s most applicable, however, and where it’s been most overlooked and unappreciated by those who make it their business to observe these things is in biker culture. Here it’s been a prevalent aesthetic since long before it was mainstream hip. It’s gone by another trendy name in recent times, being referred to ad nauseam as “old school” (or “ol’ skool” among those who skipped class a lot). Think about it. Authenticity, earthiness, unpretentiousness, and imperfection pretty much sum up the leathers wabi-sabi bikers wear until they’re falling away in brittle tatters, and pretty much sum up the boots worn until the duct tape wears through, and pretty much sums up the bike ridden for years upon years with the philosophy that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And if it is broke, fix it cheap. Hose clamps are wabi-sabi. JB Weld is wabi-sabi. Zip ties are wabi-sabi. Bailing wire and bubble gum are extremely wabi-sabi. So are crazed finishes, cracked upholstery, blued pipes and baked-on oil.
My motorcycle is majorly wabi-sabi. It wears with elegance and quiet dignity its patina of 29 years of hard riding. My clothes are so wabi-sabi I occasionally confuse the laundry hamper for the rag bin and mop up spills with my Sunday best. My workshop is wabi-sabi right down to its oil-stained floor, sub-code wiring and crates of swap meet parts. I live in a wabi-sabi old Victorian with a yard and gardens rendered über wabi-sabi by gophers and drought. I’m so hip and aesthetically elevated these days it’s almost painful, and the best part is, all of these things truly are beautiful in the most essential and spiritual sense. Nothing is more beautiful than your own shabby, disreputable, dissolute existence—warts, cherry blossoms and all. The only thing about my whole earthly trip that is not wabi-sabi, in fact, is My Personal Nurse. I may be enlightened, but I ain’t stupid.
It’s all right here in the diaries.