On Starbucks and Recurrence

by tjmHolden

11 March 2007


This is something that many travelers have to contend with. How about you?

You return to a city where you’ve stayed before and where do you choose to hole up? A place that you have lodged and dined before? Or somewhere else different? Sure, I know that should depend on the quality of times past. And some other factors such as money in your pockets or proximity to those things you have planned this go-round. But, all things being equal – say it was a fine stay before and the place is close to where you will now be gigging – then what? You up for a new experience? Or would you prefer to fall back on what is known, what is safe? What will cause points of least resistance. After all, now you know the route to and from the station, you know the layout of the streets, the location of the convenience stores and the neighborhood noodle shops. You know which dog’s bark to avoid at just which house along the way.

In short, you have sunk time and resources sufficient to now produce economies of scale. Are you now up for capitalizing on the benefits?


Fortunately, not all of life is economics. Humans, thankfully, are not entirely rational, goal-regarding or end-driven entities. So, there is that. And philosophically, we could get into discussions of recurrence and eternal returns, also about the futility of trying to recreate discrete moments, as if one could ever pour granules of colored sand back into the bottle from which it was poured in identical shape or combination. Rarely do all the flakes make it back in, and – even if they do – rarely in the same configuration.

But this is really not that deep a concept, here. So why try to convert it into one? This is about choosing to live a moment or too with a certain level of comfort – gained in the pre-envisioning of future experience – or the desire to live a more seat-of-the-pants, fly-by-the-turn-of-the-moment, kind of deal. You know, one of the underlying themes in any of my peripatetic escapades.

And which would you choose? What kind of flavor are you?

The more I travel, the more I have to make these decisions. As vectors come to overlap one another. This summer I will have this decision to make in Paris; and since work and business opportunities are bringing more and more frequently to Tokyo, it is a decision that I face every few weeks now. This time round I chose a prior haunt. And what I found was one of those “six of one/half dozen of another” things; or maybe, possibly, it was even better: one of those “twofers”. Like the floor wax that doubles as a food topping, or the beanball that puts the winning run on first base and also allows you to enter the game as the substitute runner.

In other words, by picking a spot where I know the route, I am free to expand, to explore, to re-reroute and redouble, free of care. I know ultimately where I will end. So, I can relax and manage to stumble across this Starbucks where I am now sitting, ensconced in the picture window on the second floor that commands a view of the quadruple crosswalks topped by a train overpass.

Enough stimulation to keep me people-gazing and human condition-pondering, for minutes. And minutes.

My choice of Starbucks here is not unintentional. It is both metaphor and guide. For, one of the tricks that consumer culture has turned on us sustainers of it, is the way it has convinced us to sustain it. And how? Often by selling us the twin dollops of certitude and uncertainty. Huh? Sure. We want to know that what we are about to receive is something that we will be thankful for afterward. In that way it has to be safe, assured, predictable, bankable. It is also something that we hope is distinct, yet not so unknown that we won’t know how to receive, process, and use it. It must be fathomable, anticipatable, knowable; but not so much that we can phone it in. And Starbucks is probably one of the better examples of that. Certainly better than McDonalds which – save for the random teriyaki burger or fried shrimp balls – is ALL certitude. Starbucks, by contrast, is not supposed to be completely so. There is supposed to be diversity amongst the directiveness. And, in fact, the founder was recently quoted as complaining that his invention has gone off track, under the weight of mega-expansion. Now, it has lost its vision, its soul, its core concept. Starbucks, the brand, has become too staid, too cookie-cutter predictable; it has lost all individuality and, hence, spontaneity, within the assorted isles out in the stream. In short, there is a plea to please get back to delivering some uncertainty along with the certitude; inject difference and distinctiveness along with the mocha frappaccino.

Something with which I concur. As I sit in the picture window on the second floor that commands a view of the quadruple crosswalks topped by a train overpass. Not the window in the Tsutaya multi-media building overlooking the famous Hachiko statue in Shibuya, nor the window that opens into the hotel lobby in Sendai. All locales distinct enough, with surrounding different enough that each one of these generally-agreed upon, generally-comparable environments, will, nonetheless, deliver different experience.

So. Am I recommending the road more traveled? Is that what this life’s guide of yours is suggesting?

Is that what I am advocating? Well . . . yes, perhaps. Possibly so.

At least as long as you remember – as long as we have the understanding – that whatever transpires within that institutional oasis with a view of the world rushing by is ultimately on you. What you choose to see, what you manage to think, who you happen to interact with, and how—that is all up to you. It is ultimately you who chooses the road taken. It is you who decides whether it will be the one more or less often traversed.

It is you who determines how much recurrence, and in what measure, you will invite into your personal life history.

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