Inconspicuous Presumption

To everything there is a season, and a time to… well you know the rest. I first heard it from my grade 6  teacher in a Winnipeg classroom when she caught me reading the Classic comic book version of the book we were supposed to be studying. I remember it struck me as a rather profound thing for her to say at the time -a clever put-down: fancy, old fashioned words to demarcate her status, and denigrate mine.  I’ll bet nobody else even knew I was being chastised except the two of us, because she never continued on to the part about ‘a time to die’. Grade 6 does not contain many cognoscenti.

It was my first introduction to inconspicuous power, though. Under-statement. Hidden teeth. And yet, despite my admiration for its subtle innuendo, I kept it fallow for many years, preferring instead a trail of docile verbiage intended to impress but not offend. I chose vocabulary to obfuscate, rather than opaque literary allusions -just words to pretend a status I never had. Mouth-honour… But lately, at least since my retirement, I’ve come to realize that one can’t always use words for pretense –they require an audience. An excuse to say something. An invitation.

I suppose we all think we’re special –lights hidden under bushels, as that same teacher might have put it- and yet even exceptionality is only such if it’s displayed, contrasted with the usual -flaunted, in other words. If something is not noticeably different from what surrounds it, then it’s not, well, exceptional. The task, then, is to stand out somehow. I don’t mean with an ostentatious exhibition of bling, or expensive-looking clothing –everybody can do that nowadays. And besides, those kind of people don’t usually ride the same buses as me anyway. No, I felt a compelling need to present an unmuffled yet subtle signal of my existence, of my right to sit at the same table. Nothing garish, mind you –just something to convince them to move over.

Fortunately the BBC came to my rescue, although probably not as they had intended:

Does it seem strange to want to stand solo after all my years as a figure-ground that has oscillated between internal identity and its perception by others? To want to deny the ravages of the mirror –or worse, the empty mirror? Better to be ignored than not noticed, I figure -at least it’s an acknowledgement.

The interface is predictably opaque and likely highly contextual, however. I mean, even if I did sit somewhere and pull out an Economist magazine like the article suggested, what’s the end-point? Applause? Or someone ripping it from my hands and burning it in front of me? You see my dilemma? I want to be noticed, not singled out –a being-or-nothingness conundrum, I suppose.

Then I had it –the answer to my existential angst, as it were: I would buy a semi-large copy of Sartre’s L’Être et le néant and pretend to read it at a prominent table in Starbucks. It would be my Deux Magots. And, just in case it spurred some interest, I decided to buy the English translation –Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology– and skim through it so I could answer any questions that the French edition might spur.

They were both available on Amazon, so I waited impatiently for them to arrive via the Free Shipping option. It took almost a month, but that gave me time to plan. You know -what to have on my table while I was reading. My usual sausage and egg breakfast sandwich didn’t seem right somehow. Black coffee, perhaps? And what to wear? I decided on a baggy grey sweatshirt and faded jeans, to convey the idea of detached erudition. Then there was composure. I settled on humble quietude -background stuff befitting someone more comfortable in the quiet deep mahogany recesses of academia than the noisy cacophony of a coffee shop. I was not trying so much to emulate Sartre or the war years in Paris, as the fascination and post-war engagement his writing engendered. You really have to plan for something like this.

The books arrived, finally. I glanced at the French one, but my high school French was just not up to the task. Unfortunately, even my post-adult vocabulary was not equal to the English translation either, so I speed-read the Wikipedia entry. It was like reading those conditions you’re supposed to agree to when you update your phone, though, so I decided to wing it. Who, especially in Starbucks, would know what to ask anyway –let alone in French? They would just smile in wonder, shake their heads approvingly, and point me out to their table-mates. I couldn’t wait.

I waited near the window outside my favourite Starbucks outlet until I saw the table I wanted was empty and strode humbly into the abyss carrying my book casually under my arm. I had decided, in the interests of verisimilitude, to eschew deodorant, and to leave my face grizzled with an overnight burden of grey –the picture of an academic who had outwatched the Bear, in the words of Milton. I hoped this silent but clever literary allusion would not go unnoticed either.

Unfortunately, by the time I had worked my way through the line, and waited for my whole-grain bagel and black coffee, my chosen spot had fallen to a group of women laying plans for a dinner with their partners that evening. I had to settle for a table in the inconspicuous middle ground with only one rickety chair attached. But we academics are used to ignominy, so I settled in it with an easy, if reluctant, grace and placed the book, title up and beckoning, in front of me.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the response was certainly far from whelming. One man, admittedly in his dotage, glanced at the book as he was hobbling by, stopped, and then asked, “Donde, esta el bano?”

He might have been kidding, but I pointed to the bathroom anyway. He held my eyes for a moment and then smiled mischievously. “Merci,” he added and padded his way northward, the thud of his cane barely audible in the chaos of voices all around.

I hate black coffee and so I nibbled disconsolately around the periphery of my bagel and waited –for Godot, apparently, because nobody so much as pointed at me. I began to despair of my ill-conceived venture and a deep, existential sigh escaped me as I surveyed my toppling ideation and the crumbling edifice of my Heideggerian constructs. I realized that I was, in fact, haunted by my own ens causa sui –my own inability to cause myself and achieve completion…The Wikipedian summary loomed over me like a suffocating pall –a stifling shadow- until I realized that it was actually the old man back from the bathroom who was standing by the table and staring at me.

“I don’t like, either,” he said, leaning heavily on the table top.

“Pardon me?” I pretended to be surprised at his interest so I was about to protest his opinion and tried desperately to figure out how I could work ‘being-in-itself’ into my riposte when he clarified his assertion.

“Black coffee,” he added, pointing at my cup. “You haven’t touched it, I see…”

“No… I…”

That’s what ‘being-in-itself’ entails, I think,” he added with a wink and slowly shuffled his way through the door –and as far as I could tell, maybe into nothingness as well.

Isn’t it remarkable the difference a book can make?



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