Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Category Archives: Coffee

Lending My Coffee Shop a Hand

So I’m not sure whether this counts as one of drew’s blurry lines or not, but this morning I found myself in my coffee shop, surrounded by an unusual amount of apparatus (even for me). I had the laptop connected to the power cable I supplied some months back, was installed in my regular table, had the laptop on, course materials scattered around the table, and was wearing headphones because I was waiting for a call on Skype… In walks someone doing a book on Melbourne coffee shop culture – who was, apparently, spending the morning visiting this coffee shop, as well as the coffee shop the reading group frequented prior to this one. They had wanted to photograph the place before it became crowded – I was the sole patron on hand… One thing led to another, and I soon found myself signing a photo release form – just in time for Lynda to walk up, hoping to catch me in my “office”, and get caught in the photo shoot herself.

The photographers asked me to “Just keep doing what you were doing”. Then they asked me to tilt my laptop (“otherwise we can’t tell what it is in the photo”), such that it was impossible to work on that. Then they circled around as Lynda and I spoke, flashing at us from different directions and occasionally leaning over to reposition coffee cups, papers – and, eventually, Lynda’s head. They were comparatively uninterested in my head. With me, it was my hands. “It looks good when you move your hands in the shots!” the photographer volunteered, seconded by the person holding the lights. Er… okay… I tried to concentrate on the conversation with Lynda (wasn’t the idea to capture us actually, you know, doing what we would normally do in the coffee shop?). The photographer started making motions with his hands in the background, willing me to move my hands more so he could get a good shot. I shifted my gaze so that I could look at Lynda without seeing him. This brought the light persons more clearly into view. He obliged the photographer by making vast hand motions at me as well, wafting the light around in great circles behind Lynda’s head.

I explained that the hands moved when I spoke: if I wasn’t speaking, the hands would be silent too. I went back to talking to Lynda – flash! snap! – the hands must have moved… They asked me to take a sip of coffee. The hands don’t move while holding a coffee cup. “It’s probably cold, too, isn’t it?” the light person asked. It was indeed.

My favourite moment was when they apologised to Lynda for interfering with the meeting. “Not at all,” she tried, “didn’t even notice.” Mmm-hmm… Completely unobtrusive, naturalistic research…

The Daily Grind

I love the fact that I am so expected to work in my coffee shop, that people who are trying to reach me leave notes with the staff – and that the staff promptly give these to me, treating the matter as so urgent that they can’t even allow me to order my coffee until the message has been relayed. 🙂 (And to the person who left the note: you aren’t the first to have done this, and I will get back to you soon… 😉 )

The Accident of Design

impromptu light fixtures attached to the ceilingSo for the past few weeks, when I’ve been able to fight the crowds to get to my usual spot in my coffee shop (as I type this, one of my postgrad students has walked past and casually asked, “Oh! So is this your office?” I’m getting emails from people I don’t even know, asking whether I’m in my “office”, where the emailer clearly means this place… The regular use of this term for this place has to come from students talking to one another, since I don’t advertise it – er… other than writing about it to the entire net, of course… But no one gets their information from the internet, do they?), my view as I look upward is something like this.

I’m taking these photos on the webcam built in to my laptop, which is not what one would normally call a high resolution device… So, in case it’s impossible to tell what this is a picture of, the photo is meant to show the padded tiles along the walls (yes, folks, I voluntarily place myself in a padded room on a regular basis), looking up toward the purple ceiling. You can see the previously-blogged ceiling power point – the white cord dangling down is the extension I’ve donated to the place, so I can plug in my laptop without scaling the furniture. For some weeks, my extension cord was the only thing regularly suspended from that power point. But recently there have been a couple of additions – the two light fixtures (presently turned off) that have been plugged into the power point, and then clipped with random office supplies to the beam that runs across the ceiling.

garden of eden muralThis gives my regular table a veritable wealth of light sources (all the others have one at most) – the fruits, I suppose, of sitting under a power point. But who am I to argue. I’m used to the interior of this place changing quite often, as the owner stumbles across new objects from which he creates found art. There are some fixtures, such as the Garden of Eden mural next to where I normally sit, which are constants.

But most of these bits and pieces on the ceiling, for example, are new. I’ll just walk in one morning and find – as shown in this photo – that someone has strung a flag, or hung up lots of clear plastic streamers with glistening foil fish taped to them, or found a convenient spot to prop a pair of stray blue legs…

objects dangling from the ceiling

In context, the fact that my table suddenly sprouted two new light fixtures in addition to the one it’s always had… not really that strange…

So I didn’t ask.

This morning, though, the owner wandered over personally with my coffee. His eyes followed the line from my laptop, to the extension board, up the way to the ceiling power point, and then, leaping back – “WTF?! Where did those lights come from?!”

“I thought you put them up,” I said, startled.

“No – no – not mine,” he stepped back to appraise them from different angles. “I like though… I like… They’re very nice…”

And off he wandered, looking pleased.

Now I’m finding myself reappraising the interior: how much of this place, exactly, has he deliberately created? I’ve seen him do some of it – I had assumed it was all his… Now I’m wondering… How much of the regular, ongoing transformation of this place comes from people like me – people who decide to make… just a little change… add just that little bit… to feel more at home… A cord… a light fixture… a pair of blue legs tucked in the corner just so… Maybe even a mural of mutual temptation… Found objects… donated ones… deliberate designs… detritus… How much of this place did the owner discover one morning, to his surprise, and then accept with a pleased “I like… They’re very nice…”

Moving In

I often work on my laptop in the coffee shop. Read more of this post

Weekend Relations

My coffee shop has recently begun opening on weekends. Read more of this post

Coffee and Spirit

So, in a flashback to last summer, I’ve been working on Hegel in the coffee shop. My habit when working on a difficult text is to photocopy or print out the section on which I’m intending to write, so that I can scribble over the text and in the margins, while working up how I want to characterise the argument. I also, though, carry the entire text with me in book form, so that I can flip around in sections I haven’t printed out (and I often scribble on this text too – I just try not to obliterate it with notes in the same way I do with my printouts).

So I’m at a table, printouts scattered all around me, scribbling madly on one page, and with the book sitting neglected in an outside corner of this chaos, when an older couple wanders in. I can see them staring at me – this isn’t unusual, and it’s probably somewhat inevitable to attract some attention when sprawling papers all over a table in a public space. After a few minutes, the gentleman wanders over: “Excuse me, could I borrow your book?”

Looking up, “Uh… sure.” I figured that he must know the text, but he volunteered, “I was curious what this was, because I’ve never seen the word ‘phenomenology’ before”. I volunteered a three-word suggestion for contextualising the term, and he said, “Could I take this back to our table for a bit?” I said sure, figuring he’d have a quick flip through and then bring it back.

Instead – and this was just unspeakably cute – he pulled his chair over beside his partner’s, and they sat there for a good forty-five minutes, reading through bits of the preface, pausing often to share impressions. I couldn’t hear much – the coffee shop plays music, and they were speaking quietly. I caught isolated words and phrases – “Oh! It’s philosophy!”… “Nature”… “Science”… “This isn’t easy…” They kept at it, long enough that I stopped trying to eavesdrop and went back to my own reading. Finally, the man wandered back over, somewhat regretfully returning the text: “That’s some difficult stuff!”

Given the lack of progress I feel I’m making, in trying to decide how to write on the section on Force and Understanding, I’m inclined to agree…


head in handsThe other day, I received an out-of-the-blue apology from a friend. This deeply confused me, as I had no idea what had given them the impression they needed to apologise. I eventually worked out that they had passed by me on the street, said something to me, and I had walked past without acknowledging them – and that they had interpreted this as a deliberate act, and then tried to work out what they might have done, to cause me to treat them so badly.

This morning, I have had three separate people finally manage to attract my attention while I was working in a coffee shop. Two were able to do so only by grabbing my shoulder and shaking me. The third had to tolerate my staring at them blankly for several seconds while I tried to remember who they were (which, in context, was quite a ridiculous thing for me to need to do).

The moral of these little anecdotes is: I am spending an enormous amount of my time at the moment in another world entirely. My body may in fact be wandering aimlessly down the street, or enjoying a cup of coffee, or doing whatever it is that bodies do when their Cartesian counterpart has drifted away, but I am, unfortunately, utterly and completely oblivious to pretty much everything going on around me at the moment because, whether or not I physically look like I am writing or revising, I am writing or revising. I might look like I’m staring directly at you on the street, but all that I am actually seeing are awkward turns of phrase that I want to correct. I might appear to be smiling at you in a coffee shop, but what I am actually doing is grimacing at painful holes in my own logic… At the moment, my gaze is directed almost entirely inwardly, and I am much more than oblivious to whatever else is going on around…

At some point – hopefully soon – some of this writing will start spilling out here again. The kind of writing I am doing at the moment, involves a lot of recasting of earlier sections as later ones fall into form. Since much of what I’m recasting has already gone up on the blog in various forms, it seems at best impolite to inflict very rough interim redrafts on readers here. So I’ll wait until I have something like a complete rough redraft, and then toss the whole thing up for feedback prior to the next round of revision.

Back to oblivion now…


I’ve blogged before about my fondness for my favourite coffee shop – and about how, at times, my affection for this place causes me to forget that some elements of the environment might be slightly… confronting for certain visitors. I’ve ended up several times offering to meet people here, only to realise as they were arriving that it’s not a foregone conclusion that everyone will appreciate the… ambiance…

I just overheard someone having a similar experience: meeting a professional contact, who dealt with the outer chambers of the coffee shop just fine – but who then asked directions to the toilet. There was a long pause. You could almost hear cogs turning – should I maybe tell them it’s broken? that they don’t have one? And then, finally, the decision: “Well… Maybe I better take you. It’s just through here and – before we walk back here, I should warn you: see, you walk through here and you see people doing completely terrible things to one another…”

I personally tend to opt for just pointing the person on their way, leaving them to deal with the murals on their own terms. Mainly because I can’t really see that tagging along and sharing my own personal commentary on the murals, will really improve someone’s reaction, if they’re inclined to be offended…

And speaking of delicate sensibilities: I’ve been having a delightfully over-subtle exchange with the organiser of a conference about accommodation arrangements. I’ll be jointly presenting a paper with someone of the opposite sex, and they seem unsure whether this intellectual collaboration might be more than collegial, and whether this should then have some impact on how we’re both housed for the conference. What’s funny about this line of questioning is that, to be honest, I’d just as soon room with my co-presenter – I want to know that, in the evenings, I can just hole up and read, secure that my roommate knows that I’m like this, and won’t regard my behaviour as unduly anti-social… It had never occurred to me that this arrangement might be misinterpreted.

Coffee Blogging

I think my affection for my coffee shop has long since reached the level where I should just create a “coffee blogging” category and have done with it. I can’t imagine anyone actually wanting to read the things I write on this place – like the time that I spend here, the entries I write about the experience are personal indulgences. Below the fold, then, before I bore everyone visiting the site… Read more of this post


My coffeeshop has been going through a remodelling process over the past several months – a process we have occasionally had reason to suspect was orchestrated to make a lot of noise, so as to move us along, when we monopolise a table longer than our collective coffee rent justifies.

Aside from more structural changes, the remodel has also involved the addition of new furniture, including today’s novelty: a large “communal” table created out of a metal ladder, suspended between what look like those small metallic barriers occasionally used by street cafes to create a boundary around their outdoor tables. The rungs of the ladder are capped for the moment by ill-fitting metal plates salvaged from fire-escape-style staircases, but will eventually be covered by deliberately mismatched wooden planks. All pieces of the table – like the rest of the furniture and artwork in this place – have been created from materials salvaged and recycled from other places: the owner steadily collects, gathering materials into storage until he can visualise something that can be made from them. He also weaves people into his creations: the welding was done by a regular customer who happened to overhear the owner wonder who he should get to do that work. I’ve heard this kind of thing happen before here – been drawn into it myself, on occasion.

Because the owner deliberately mixes materials and styles, new creations tend to cause cascading transformations of the entire environment, as their idiosyncratic mix of stuff contrasts too starkly, or blends in too well, inspiring or irritating the owner to transform the space until things settle into a new dynamic tension. The interior of this space is thus in a constant state of transformation, occasionally interrupted by breathing periods of stasis.

The auditory environment is similarly bricoleured. There are times when I will swear the owner deliberately introduces profoundly irritating musical tracks just for the almost expressionist experience of relief it provides when the track has ended – it’s a thing of wonder and beauty, a genuinely novel way of experiencing a mundane and generally dull piece of music, when for the first time you hear it out of context, following something truly awful. Occasionally, I’ve been here when this kind of experiment doesn’t work as intended – when I’ve paused in my reading or writing in a kind of open admiration for how truly abysmal some cover or mix happens to be, only to have the music stop in mid-note and be exchanged for something else: at that point, I’ll know the owner agreed, and that the moment of transcendence I was waiting for – wondering to myself: what can possibly follow and complete this? – will never come.

This morning, though, it was the new table that was the centre of attention. I loved it on sight. I said as much to a member of the waitstaff, who at first smiled indulgently, and then realised I might be serious. They couldn’t contain their surprise: “You do?!” I think it’s wonderful, I repeated. They laughed nervously – I think they were convinced I was teasing them. You don’t agree? I wanted to know. More nervous laughter as they scuttled back to the kitchen.

The staff, apparently, are divided on the issue. The budding opera singer looked at the table with frank admiration. The owner gazes on it with no small mixture of externalised exhibitionism. The most senior staff member doesn’t see the table, only the owner’s tactile enjoyment of it, and that is enough.

Customers are divided as well. Everyone who ducks in for a coffee, even if they don’t normally investigate those nether realms of the establishment where the table resides, must come have a look. Again nervous laughs. Some customers clearly don’t believe this table will stay – it can’t be serious, this table. I mean, just look at it. A few offer suggestions for turning it into a more conventional eating surface: “Why don’t you just, I don’t know, cover it with a big plank of wood?” – “Oh I’ll cover it with several planks,” replies the owner, “but they have to be different colours, you see – they have to have different grains”. Some, too polite, reach for neutral words: “That’ll seat twelve people for sure”, one man offers. Others, more bluntly: “What happened to that medieval table thing you used to have here? I liked that.” The owner points to the fragments of what used to be one large tree-trunk table – now scattered against several pillars throughout the room, multiple tables now. He doesn’t explain that this multiplicity can also coalesce: if you hang around here long enough, you’ll occasionally see the fragments dragged back together into a plausible imitation of their former cohesive self.