Observe, Don’t Absorb

“Observe, don’t absorb.”

Words from the barista, Roger, as he hands me my almond milk latte with a shot of hazelnut. Roger doesn’t approve of hazelnut shots. Grown up milkshake, he calls it.

“I’d have your photo up on the Do Not Serve wall if this was my place,” he informs every time I order it.

Roger claims to be the oldest living barista outside of maybe Italy. He came to it late in life, part out of necessity, part natural inclination. A coffee guy, he told me. From way back. Always the youngest guy in the sports clubs out along College, Dundas. When you could still smoke inside. He was in there, elbow to elbow, with the old timers. They taught him coffee. And soccer, but that never took. Football’s football. Not futbol.

He’s been a cabbie, janitor, roofer (“Worst job ever, Barnaby.”), sales associate in electronic stores and music shops, parking lot attendant and striper (“Not on the same gig.”), movie usher, martial arts instructor, during periods of mental and physical fitness, construction worker plying various unskilled trades, bellhop, a skip tracer and process server (“Dangerous and unpleasant, Barnaby.”), and, of course, a bartender.

“Lotta lost years,” according to Roger. “Too many. Occupational hazard.”

Before all that, Roger was a rock ‘n’ roller, an aspiring musician in what started out, again according to Roger, my preferences tending more toward jazz which Roger finds not at all surprising, as a glam band. “Probably 10 years too late,” he tells me. “I do not know what we were thinking. Nobody was looking for more New York Dolls in the 1980s, Barnaby. Even David Johannsen had moved on.”

I didn’t know what any of that meant but understood the gist. A failure to launch. A suboptimal trajectory resulting in waning and faded dreams, and Roger’s subsequent itinerant life.

“Too much drinking. Too many drugs. The rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle without the actual rock ‘n’ roll career. Boring, I know. Clichéd for sure.”

Years on, decades on, Roger, the oldest barista outside of Italy, he reminds you again, looks, to my untrained eye for such things, no worse for wear. He even sports a handlebar moustache of which he is quietly proud.

“My one and only masterpiece, Barnaby,” he says with a twirl.

Latte on the table in front of me, I mull over today’s maxim from Roger: Observe, don’t absorb.

I imagine, as one who’s known struggles throughout his life, Roger’s no stranger to the various schools of self-help, a pedagogy of re-creation and reconstruction, a posteriori clues for a priori conditions. Puzzle-piecing pattern seeking. Explanations supplanting justifications or rationalizations. All that meant this. Exactly how it was meant to be. How could I have done otherwise?

Too dismissive?

How many of us, this latte sipper included, consider ourselves to be genuine self truth-tellers? Authentic Socratic life examiners. Thorough debunkers of our personal myths and folk tales. Honest to god brokers about our inner lives.

Observe, don’t absorb.

A technique, if I recall, a protective maneuver to slip the gravitational pull from the black hole of the narcissists in your life. Timely, to be sure, what with the former leader of the free world still in all our heads. How could he not be? Making headlines on a daily basis, for all the wrong reasons most of us would agree, but when your self-importance and aggrandizement is the mask you wear, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, as the saying goes.

Observe, don’t absorb indeed.

Unfortunately, a sticky presence. Like the proverbial gum at the bottom of your shoe. Not merely a glitch as many once hoped. The feature, not a bug.

Perhaps emblematic of our age.

The Age of Narcissism.

Observe, don’t absorb.

After a couple generations indoctrinating the supremacy of the individual, the outcome could only be a collective narcissism if such a thing is possible. Solipsists, the lot of us. I think therefore it’s true. I think therefore I don’t care what you think. I think therefore it is.

A global pandemic certainly didn’t help matters.

Keep six feet apart.

No more than 6 person gatherings.

Wear a mask.

All forced into our own respective corners. Social lives severed. Social media fills the gap. The wider world of others at an enforced distance. Only me time now. Me, me, me.

Cloistered minds leading to closed minds.

A narcissist walks into a bar… The rest of the joke doesn’t matter.

Not mine. A retelling.

Observe, don’t absorb.

I see you but don’t hear you.

Competing realities. Each of us interpreting the shadows flickering on the cave walls, unable to even agree on the source of the images. Shadows as fact? The fire behind us? The sun in the sky above when we’re unchained and left free to wander outside?

There is no telling of hard truths when we can’t even agree on what truth is.

The narcissism, it’s coming from inside the house!

Observe, don’t absorb.

A legitimate act of mental self-defense gone awry in a world abounding with self-centred self-regard. No longer a protective mantra but a catchphrase for self-interest. Self. Self. Self.

In a world full of uncertainty, the self stands as the only thing one can be certain of. That’s just the Enlightenment talking, isn’t it? Who are we, the bastards of Voltaire, as a wise man referred to us, to argue? And it isn’t as if arguing will prove to be particularly fruitful anyway since we all refuse to let go or our own foregone conclusions.

Man concludes. Sitting alone at a four person coffee shop table. Arguing with himself.


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