This is the world’s best dessert. Made by Thomas Haas, it has a shortcrust pastry base (though “pastry” sounds far too pedestrian to describe it), a filling of sour cherries with some cognac and kirsch, and a dome of pistachio cream. The combination is indescribable. You will hear angels trumpeting when you bite into it.
For the last few years, I have been searching for The Whimsical Piglet. Written by Hilda Boswell, published in London, England, in 1948, it was a favourite book from my childhood. I remembered that Septimus was so called because he was the seventh son of a seventh son and that he was musical.
Some childhood memories are surprisingly powerful, even when they are fragmentary. A wistful phrase or two from The Whimsical Piglet would occasionally dance on the edge of my memory: a house “tucked away amongst the hills;” the “music of the wind and the rain.” I regretted the loss of the book but didn’t ever expect to find a copy.
A few years ago, I realized that with the existence of Abebooks, BookFinder, Amazon, eBay, and so on, there was a good chance I might be able to find one. It took a couple of years before an entry showed up on Abebooks. I immediately sent off for it, hardly flinching at the exorbitant price for a book described as:
No date listed, probably 1948 therefore the First Edition (printed in accordance with economy standards). Original grey cloth boards with green titling to front, minus the dustwrapper … Black and white illustrations illuminate each page, plus 5 full colour plates. The boards are grubby with small tear top of the spine; rear hinge pulled but pages intact; neat inscription inside … page 35, closed tear and corner creased plus one other crease …
The condition didn’t matter. This might be my last chance to find the book.
It arrived earlier than I expected. Opening the package was exciting. The book was smaller than I’d remembered, but the grey cover and green titling were immediately familiar and the text and illustrations revived more of those half memories. I had forgotten the verse:
The seventh child of a seventh child
Is not the same as others;
He’s whimsical and odd at times,
And different from his brothers.
I had forgotten that “Septimus became famous throughout the countryside, even beyond the hills that encircled his little world, and even to the hills beyond those hills.”
And here I am, removed far beyond the hills where I grew up and removed by quite a few decades as well. How amazing that I can reach back in time and conjure up an artefact from my early life. What a magical time we live in.
You wouldn’t think it would be difficult. After the walk by the water (a glorious morning — sunny, blue sky, a sailor’s breeze), go to the store, point at the gift, and give them my credit card.
It was not that easy.
I arrived at Cookworks by 9:15 and it didn’t open until 10:00. No problem, I thought, I will just see what is open in the neighbourhood. There was a shoe store a few blocks away that I could browse.
At 10:07, I returned to the store. I hailed a clerk (though, since this was an upscale place, perhaps she was a sales associate). I want to buy an item from a gift registry, I said. After a lengthy lookup process, we arrived at the list. I want to buy that coffee maker, I said, pointing at it. Oh, we don’t have it here, she said.
It transpired that they were moving all of their inventory to the other store across town, at Howe and Hastings. I would have to go there. She promised to print me out a list but, after ten minutes had gone by, nothing had appeared.
Undaunted, I set out. Navigating downtown was a bit of a challenge, since there are one-way systems and major road works involved. By the time I got to the area, I was not in any mood to have to hunt for a parking place. So when I saw one only a block away and felt it was mine, I drove into it regardless of the fact that a Hummer coming in the other direction appeared to feel it belonged to him. In my defence the traffic noise outside, compounded by the number of helicopters landing and taking off, caused temporary insanity. The Hummer driver could have just crushed my car if he’d chosen to, but perhaps I wasn’t worth the potential damage to his bumper.
I put in a quarter — because how long could it take? But the meter registered only three minutes as important-downtown-business-people rates apply here: not long enough. I ended up feeding the meter with $2.50 to park for 24 minutes.
I entered the store. The place was overloaded with inventory. No problem, I thought. I approached the woman behind the counter and explained my mission. She asked me to spell out the names. Normally, I would go through the lengthy process according to her view of what was needed out of some misguided sense of politeness, but this time — You only need a surname and first initial, I said. And it’s item number 2: the coffee maker.
Her computer must also have been overloaded with inventory, as time slowed down while we waited for the list to appear.
Oh yes, she said. I don’t think we have it.
? said my eyebrows. It’s not in stock, she said. It’s discontinued. No … it’s (she appeared to be searching for a word like “back-ordered” but failed to find one) … we can’t get it until July.
No problem, I thought. Let’s just get the duvet cover. That’s at The Bay. I’ll go to the one at Park Royal. Of course, I took the printout from her and walked around Cookworks for several minutes first, since my misguided sense of politeness had returned. Also, I had some very expensive parking minutes remaining on the meter.
At the Park Royal Bay store, I cheerfully went to the gift registry machine and printed out my own list. I took it to a Sales Associate. The Sales Associate looked it up. Oh, we don’t have it here, she said.
Might you have it at another store? I asked. Oh yes, she said. I waited, but no offer to check at other stores was forthcoming. Nor was any other suggestion.
I left and drove home, wondering why I had ever thought the personal touch would have improved my shopping experience.
At home, I ordered the duvet cover online. I completed the information for the gift card. I paid extra for gift wrap. It will be professionally done, though I won’t experience the enjoyment of selecting the paper and ribbon.
Should the recipients of the gift ever read this, I hope they will understand that the morning was a valuable learning experience for me and that gift-giving is a joy, even when the process is not straightforward.
And I will be wearing a pair of the shoes I bought at Freedman’s between 9:15 and 10 to the wedding.
Wabi-sabi is a Japanese aesthetic that encapsulates the ideas of impermanence and imperfection. So it’s completely unlike Western ideals such as the golden ratio that require mathematical exactness. Wabi-sabi is appreciated with another part of the brain.
Some clothing manufacturers feel the need to label garments that are hand-knitted or made of some kinds of silk with little tags pointing out that oddities or apparent imperfections are characteristics of the fabric or the process, not flaws. This is a good example of wabi-sabi (the characteristics, not the rather condescending tags …). Of course, many people appreciate that hand-made items have a charm and value no machine-made perfection can match.
In his book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, Leonard Koren describes the qualities of wabi-sabi:
- The suggestions of natural process
The effects of the natural process of decay, as shown in weathered wood or rusted metal, are valued.
We probably all have a favourite garment that becomes more precious as it ages: a cosy sweater, maybe, or jeans that are well-worn to just the right degree of softness and shabbiness. A wooden table that is the right size, has some family-inflicted scratches and has the patina of age, has wabi-sabi; a new glass and steel one doesn’t. We may have an object like an old coffee mug that is valuable because of the memories associated with it and because it is the perfect size and shape to fit the hand, so that drinking the first coffee of the morning from it becomes a ritual and a meditation on all the other mornings.
I like to extend the wabi-sabi of objects to that of people. Wabi-sabi is a wonderful counter to our Western obsession with youthful perfection. All those bland Hollywood clones are so sadly meaningless compared to an older face with its lines of character and experience. The aging process can be appreciated as not just natural and inevitable but, from the wabi-sabi point of view, beautifying.