“Have a nice day!” the barista recommended to me, in a voice of maternal aspiration. I carried the steaming cappuccino back upstream of the multi-ethnic queue to find a seat among those who weren’t as paranoid as they should have been at how their laptops were literally screaming out loud - electromagnetically of course- their unencrypted data on Starbucks’ unsecured wifi network most likely sidejacked by adolescents who didn’t need to be begoggled hirsute grease-transuding computer-science majors to know the difference between http and https.
I’d ordered a wet cappuccino. Not the dry shit that some cost-cutting executive made default, its ultra-light foam barely weighing the cup down during the most benign of zephyrs. You had to prefix your order with the word wet. Few loyalists knew this. Fewer convince themselves that knowing such a thing is what makes them different from all those superficial coffee consumers whose gustatory systems have been vestigialized by their “drink-don’t-think” instincts. I thankfully don’t belong to this snobbish subset, but can always pretend to be, which confuses me. How much of one’s life is pretense and how much genuine? Are they truly two different modus operandis? Are they necessarily opposites? Can one be the adjective of the other - genuine pretense or pretentious genuineness, in which case, are they inseparable? Then what about mens rea? Does it make sense to convict murderers who genuinely intend to inflict death but pretend to be innocent and not soldiers who pretend to intend to inflict death but are genuinely innocent? Maybe the problem is with language. “Murderer”, “Soldier”, “inflict” , “innocent”, “genuine”, “pretend” are words whose definitional spaces are overlapping, making it difficult to disentangle them and arrive at some truth. But if language is used to convey truth - no, reality - and language is so garbled, then reality should appear garbled too! But “reality” is also just another word, so I shouldn’t be too surprised if it’s likely to seem as garbled as any other concept, like “fiction”. So upon subtracting the garbling due to language, am I then left with reality’s inherent garbling? But there I go again, applying concepts like subtraction to things that defy any notion of quantity! What we’re left with then is Tarski’s inescapable theorem: “Snow is white if and only if snow is white.” Has humanity ever heard a more profound yet meaningless revelation? Here’s another one: the last line, the thundering conclusion, of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” which achieves its full nihilistic force in German: “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.” This is the state of human understanding. Where reason dissolves in this plasm of absurdity. Like the sugar in my wet cappuccino.
The barista was clearly an undergrad, perhaps coping with some difficult concepts in the Arts and Humanities, judging from the cover of the book on the countertop which had grown a significant taper from spine to fore-edge from the absurd number of fluorescent yellow and pink post-its protruding like torchered tongues from the pages, titled “Poetry for Dummies”, its familiar cringe inducing shade of aureolin yellow , its alienating subtitle “A reference for the rest of us”, its wide-eyed lizard looking mascot pointing shamelessly at some promotional device like “for more, visit us at dummies.com”. The series of books began with one written for young enthusiastic DOS programmers at a time when computers didn’t belong in social settings. Apparently Hungry Minds Inc., now acquired by John Wiley & his Sons, are of the impression that the formula that makes engineering problems appetizing to the application oriented palate is the desired template for all subjects (“subjects” here refers not to various fields of study, but to the customers). This seemingly crackpot wishful thought is realized through a series of preceding paradigm altering marketing strategies: First make the customer feel more stupid than he/she originally feels by agreeing that his/her self-loathing is an authentic feeling that must be embraced and not corrected. Once the “dummy” is stuffed with a sufficient number of metaphorical saccharine lollipops and reassured that his/her feeling of entitlement to knowledge sans any serious work ethic is justified, proceed to distill concepts that took what is left of humanity generations to construct and refine, on the basis of publishing logistics like page limits, word limits, illustration limits and ultimately “average end user” limits. Upon adequately undermining “competing” authors and professionals (publish or perish remember?), climbing up the bookshelves by brutally, year after year, convincing students first in cities and then in an entire nation that their capacity to read “big books” is marginally better than a retarded child’s and that they shouldn’t shit themselves that they can actually grasp complex ideas independently, what with all the mass media having increased average endocrinal activity across the board. Encourage students to believe that everything (not just topics like fishing, carpentry, photography and combinatorics but interpreting Shakespeare, Heidegger, Heisenberg and Monet) can be understood if it were only presented properly, replacing the burden of learning with the burden of teaching. This should afflict a growing number of Professors with “teaching hypochondria”, debilitating them to take refuge in and learn from pop-culture so that more students don’t fill the feedback forms with “failed to make the class interesting”. The entire textbook industry has to get with the plan before they’re eliminated - effaced - from this life-size version of Monopoly. They reduce pages and increase font size, multiplying the number of books by the number of solipsistic character traits of the intended reader, flooding the market with the euphemistic Choice(TM). The academic inflation proceeds like a runaway chain reaction, gobbling up and delegitimizing the high standards of inquiry, and what once served as a gentle reminder of your stupidity is now a megalomaniacal institution founded on that single fact. Brace yourself, for you will soon witness an apocalyptic cultural impulse to know everything by doing nothing! Everything must be compressed, as lossily as possible, and delivered in between and alongside scheduled social gatherings and unscheduled social networking. Learning is now another form of entertainment, having inherited the nomenclature of advertisers (in all fairness, this needn’t have been the original intention of Arthur Nielsen). Good luck trying to deliver a compelling thought without the aid of a soundtrack, animation and a subscription package, all of which, incidentally, increase one’s arsenal to bullshit their way through life. Syllabi are truncated, TAs are hired and the job market is streamlined, now that the average college graduate is a lumbering mass of such astonishing stupor, conformity training isn’t even playfully considered as a worthwhile investment in “leading” corporations. So desensitized is he/she, that ideas like Democracy and Equality which are tectonically shifting right underneath his/her feet, fail to cause even the faintest of stirrings. But of course! Your ability to stand on your feet will determine if you can perceive the ground beneath you moving or shaking. But if you're dangling like a puppet in the hands of those who refuse to drop you, what strange meanings freedom, liberty and justice take?! Right to food isn't right to nutrition, its just right to food. Right to education isn't right to learning and questioning authority, its just right to education. Meaninglessness abounds because being philosophical, i.e. discerning, is what a drunk person is accused of when digressing from that ever-fecund topic of boobs & bums by raising some unnerving question on existence or purpose using an articulation broken and stunted by alcoholic incoherence. Orwell’s dystopia is nothing but a cheap horror film compared to DFW’s. The Dumminess that was all the while silently gaining market space has completed its transition to something far more impotent and lethargic that even the puppet masters didn't foresee but are nonetheless rejoicing: Sheer Mass Dumbness.
And just as I was independently discovering the roots of Postmodernism, teetering on the cliff of sanity in an exhausting effort to distance myself as much as possible from the threatening imminence of a syllogistic avalanche, I heard a tune that restored my mind’s balance, at least temporarily, via appeal to my nostalgia, wafting through the caffeinated air in the usual way that Starbucks manages to make even the harsh acoustics of punk rock sound like white noise:
She screams in silence
A sullen riot penetrating through her mind
Waiting for a sign
To smash the silence with the brick of self-control
I started pondering the relevance of the Green day lyrics to an ongoing exchange within earshot, between the barista and the next customer, apart from them both being girls.
Maybe the barista has little to no choice in the economic circumstances that made her pick up that book and not a compendium of World War I poetry which is the best place to start IMO if you want to experience the stomach-tightening amphetamine-like lyrics - written by articulate warriors thronging in bloodshed, longing for peace, of mind and nation (in that order) - that can erupt in one a feeling of Gestalt unique to one’s Erfahrung which mitotically splits into an incalculable Zustandsumme of perceptions that flagellate one’s mind into submission to this greater unknown wisdom and bestowing a sense of humility that textbook publishers couldn’t give half a rodent’s turd about, this realization never getting the chance to dawn on her fast lane life because of the bullshit she’s had to put up with since that time when some widowed art teacher told her her crayon drawing of her golden retriever resembled a horny capuchin monkey and that her talents would be better “harnessed" in learning an instrument, which she did, only to discover that she couldn’t concentrate on her finger-key coordination whether it was Beethoven’s Fur Elise or Billy Joel’s Piano Man because the piano was next to a goddamn window through which you could always see kids - orphans perhaps - playing on the lawn, the frustrated instructor having exhausted all her innovative teaching strategies including a glucose rich reward system, informs her parents that she had ADD, and like all those parents not one of whom suspected the window (or the glucose), they shovelled into their problem child’s pried open oral cavity adderall, ritalin and dexadrine in whimsical proportions until Mommy learnt how to use the internet and promptly stumbled upon webmd and/or a Tom Cruise interview that revealed to her that she could be killing her daughter with the bulldozer dosage, so she threw the pills and started consuming her own out of a self-inflicted depression arising from feelings of being an inadequate mother, thus spiralling out of self-control until her husband found her drug-riddled body one day laying on the bed naked with a cocaine moustache and “who-needs-boys-when-you-have-toys” toys, causing him to file for divorce, further contributing to their daughter’s disillusionment with the matrimonial institution of love, and later all semblances of love and similar romances, like Poetry, which she could never get even if she tried because most of her life had been the pursuit of things decided for her on her behalf, like the time when she felt that shoe-shopping was an empty headed excursion to the mall designed precisely by overrated fashion companies and their cold-blooded advertising minions to lure children away from the Library and into a world where stupid insecurities like the color of your skin, hair, shoes and nails would give rise to zombie consumerists who’d open their Lavender Lambskin leather handbags to pull out their Crimson Cowhide leather purses to pay for the latest fashion trends manufactured by WTO-protected cigar smoking CEOs like her presently-disowned-merely-biological father, all this she was scared to tell her bffs because they’d bully her and seduce her pussyclined bf in an act of teenage alienation which was too much for her to handle, worsened by her bf dumping her anyway for this chick who’s older and taller than him in a dominatrix kinda way that made her more anxious and insecure than ever before, driving her insane during a period wherein between being eiffel-towered by strict-protein-diet quarterbacks and cruelly speculating on the psychotic thrills in poisoning this year’s prom queen, a tiny voice inside her head (where the fuck else?) was gradually mustering the critical impulse load to get her to finally visit her now rehabilitated mother who responsibly advised her to join a Community College and get a degree in Literature or something for a fresh start, except that it would never be a fresh start without electroshock therapy and what comes next can only be worse but she’d do it anyway, yet Poetry could suck a bagodicks cause she had to make a living by working at a coffee shop serving random ungrateful judgemental strangers.
Are you locked up in a world
That's been planned out for you?
Are you feeling like a social tool without a use?
Scream at me until my ears bleed
I'm taking heed just for you
Or maybe the barista was a senior scholar with no history of traumatic events, reviewing the book in an intellectually honest attempt to inform posterity to abstain from shallow simplistic works for sound Aristotelian reasons articulated in a disinterested yet stirring fashion.
Whatever it was, the Chinese girl on the other side of the counter couldn’t care less. She was clearly new to campus. And the English language.
Barista: Hey! How are you today?
Chinese girl: I’m wanna coffee.
Barista: Which one?
Chinese girl: One.
Barista: I’m sorry Mam. You need to pick a coffee.
Chinese girl (bringing her right index finger to the right side of her nose adorably): One.
Barista (vigorously gesticulating at the giant menu behind her- large fonts for beverage, small fonts for price, smallest drink is called a “tall” - which was suspended from the ceiling at an angle so as to optimize ease of viewing): You’ve got to PICK a drink on the menu.
Chinese girl (points at a not-to-scale picture on the menu of a steaming black liquid that resembled inviscid tar in a porcelain cup placed on a saucer that didn’t make much sense for coffee but looked pretty all the same, as though driving home the point that inanimate objects can look photogenic too): That!
Barista: I’m sorry Mam. But you have to tell me which one. I honestly can’t make this decision for you.
Why the flaming fuck was this barista increasing the complexity of her sentences when she was more than capable of understanding that the customer was a foreign student with a local-language-limitation? I momentarily thought of drilling a hole and tunneling this insensitive bitch through it and into a hypothetical PRC that had exchanged ideological roles with USA, where she’d have to pay for an overpriced education in a country that thinks or at least behaves like all other countries are inhabited by people who bathe in shit but since her own country can’t provide a decent education because of a restricted system that conflicts quite obviously with their undemocratic authoritarian tradition, she ends up being surrounded by people with different values, all of whom she reasonably expects to fathom the globalized world order and its inherent inconsistencies and injustices but is shocked to realize that she can’t find the most minimum of sympathies from even baristas (forget the customs officers) who address her in complicated Mandarin, a language she promised to the PRC government that she’d intended to learn during the time she’d spare herself when everyone else went clubbing and boozing in the weekends which gets her thinking about how fascinatingly different this culture really is and finds no compelling reason to hate it until this ignoramus barista’s limited imagination in what constitutes a universal cup of goddamn coffee assaults her perceptions of multiculturalism to the point where she’s trying to remember which finger it is that conveys the unholy trinity of insubordination, impatience and intolerance.
She's figured out
All her doubts were someone else's point of view
Waking up this time
To smash the silence with the brick of self-control
Chinese girl (looks around helplessly and then strains with all her might): Regurrarr!
Barista: Will that be a tall or a grande?
Chinese girl (bringing her thumb and index finger together to indicate the word "small" hoping that this barista would not think she meant lobster): Smarr!
Barista: Ooookay! That’ll be one ninety five.
Chinese girl produces a one dollar note, three quarters and two dimes, balancing her turquoise colored purse between the palm, ring finger and pinky of her right hand with the other fingers designated to hold the sleeveless hot cup of coffee, maximizing the arm's neural flux, causing visible tremors in her shoulder that eventually caused her to drop the money which was in her left hand on the floor, so she bends over spilling the coffee on her crotch, Billie Joe Armstrong joining in the scream:
I decided to walk outside. The stuff was wearing off.