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Today's Story by Benjamin Wachs

It seems to me that the most interesting, important, thoughts are the ones that only happen outside of the laboratory.

Made not Born

Denise kicked me out of our apartment two weeks before my 30th birthday, and Roy said I’d always have a place to crash with him, no problem.  But my habit of working late into the night, of getting phone calls when he was trying to soak his feet, and the fact that I’m a terrible wing-man all added up fast.  A week later I was going to a conference, and he offered to drive me to the airport, and Roy told me, on the way, that he’d be changing the locks while I was gone and giving my stuff to Shane to hold on to.  I was leaving Chicago a homeless man.

“You’re just impossible,” he said, right before pulling up to the United terminal.

I flew to Missouri, for the 9th annual Midwest Regional Philosophy Symposium.   I forgot to bring toothpaste.  The room at the University of Missouri campus was nice and there was a manmade lake with swans.  The food was good, and included in the package.  But the campus store sold tooth paste at a ridiculous $5 mark-up, and I decided I couldn’t afford it.

I went to the opening seminar on the state of philosophy in America, and heard that the future is in experimentation:  not thinking great thoughts, but thoughts that are provable under laboratory conditions.  At the reception afterwards, a blonde woman from Oberlin was the first to notice that my nametag didn’t have a university affiliation.  “I’m not a philosopher,” I said.  “It’s just a hobby.  I’m more of an amateur intellectual historian.”

She said “that’s charming,” in a way that made me realize I wasn’t going to make any friends.

“You pricks,” I wanted to say after a half-hour.  “Aren’t I the public you want to be reaching?”

I walked outside and over to the lake.  With no moon it looked like it went on forever, merging with the ground on the other side … and yet somehow there were still dark hills over the horizon.  I stared at this for a long time, trying to square that odd image in my mind:  an infinite lake, and hills beyond it.

The next morning seminar was on using computers in analytic philosophy.  It was my birthday.  After lunch it was using MRI scans in philosophy of language.  A department chair from Purdue said that all real thinking happens at the level of the neuron.  It was my birthday.  By dinner it had hit me that I might never talk with Denise again, and that I didn’t have any friends left in Chicago.  There was no one left who I could crash with.  I should be doing something about this.  Instead I went the evening keynote on statistical analysis.  It was my 30th birthday.

And it was wrong. All wrong.

During the Q&A I went up to the microphone.  I waited in line.  I could see the people I’d met the night before staring at me, wondering.  “I’m sorry,” I said when it was my turn.  “I’m so sorry.  But it seems to me that the most interesting, important, thoughts are the ones that only happen outside of the laboratory.  Shouldn’t we be thinking those thoughts?”

“Where do you teach?” the speaker asked.

I walked out.  I walked back to the lake.  To the infinite lake and the dark mountain.  This time, the swans were sitting quietly under the new moon.  This time, there was a paddle boat sitting at the dock.

I got in.  I paddled with my feet and did my best to steer.  I glided out into what might have been the center of the lake.  All alone, even more alone than when I’d been tossed out of two homes in two weeks, I stared up at the stars and cried.

Eventually I asked “What am I going to do?”

I stayed there until morning, and had no good ideas.  I watched the sun come up, and paddled back to the dock.

I went back to my room.  I passed a group of people from the symposium on their way to breakfast, two old men, one young guy … younger than me … and two attractive women.

“Hey,” said the old man.

“Hey!” he said again, to get my attention.  I turned, bleary eyed.  I stared.  “Yes?”

They gathered around me.  The old man shook my hand.  One of the women put her hand on my shoulder.

“Thank you,” the old man said.  “Thank you for having the courage to say that!”

“Somebody had to,” said the young guy.

“You’re a hero,” said one of the women.

It was the first time anyone ever told me that.


Benjamin Wachs has written for Village Voice Media, Playboy.com, and NPR among other venues.  He archives his work at www.TheWachsGallery.com.

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