Monday, July 13, 2009

Diary of a Small-Time Philosopher

I spy her ten rows away, coming down the plane aisle. There’s no place for me to escape: it’s clear that the empty seat next to me will shortly be filled by that woman. Not that there’s anything wrong with her, at least to the innocent observer.

Except that, to my expert eye, she is obviously friendly.

“Hi!” she says exuberantly as she slips her carry-on overhead.

I will not capitulate. Nowhere is it written that one must return an unsolicited greeting, especially one that is so irritatingly warm. That’s what the book I’m reading is for, after all—something to briefly look up from, then instantly return to.

“Hi,” I reply pleasantly, miserable.

Now it’s only a matter of time. This woman is already super enthusiastic about getting to know her new friend.

“So what do you do, Andy?” She asks this, I swear, before her rear end has even touched the seat. (And when did she extract my name from me?)

But there it is. My first instinct is to break the window and dive out of the fuselage. My next is to initiate my usual fake coronary, but that’ll no doubt lead my seatmate immediately to begin mouth-to-mouth. Should I pretend I’m deaf? Start speaking in tongues?

“I’m a philosopher,” I mumble, defeated.

That’s it. It’s out. Like ripping off a band-aid, plunging into the ice-cold pool. Not that I’m comfortable, stating it so boldly like that. It seems sort of pompous to call oneself a philosopher. Like handing someone your card announcing you are a prophet. I imagine Jesus, at a party, extending his hand and saying, “Hi. Jesus. Messiah.”

But I am what I am.

I ought to be used to it by now. For so many years, my undergraduate days as a philosophy major, my years in graduate school and as a young professor, I’ve been telling people, at dinners, on airplanes, wherever, and watching as their eyes glaze over or they instantly change the subject. How many women have moved away from me, at bars, just moments after the dreaded subject came up? How many parents have clutched their children more tightly?

Then there are those who go on the offensive. “What can you do with philosophy,” they ask skeptically, “other than just make more philosophers?” “Well,” another might concede, “I suppose someone has to teach college students.” And some have simply hilarious senses of humor. “What did the philosopher say to the executive?” they ask, chuckling. “What?” I reply with a sigh. “Would you like fries with that?! Ha ha!” We both guffaw, except for me.

But almost worse are the few people who actually find my profession interesting. I imagine that psychotherapists, financial advisors, plumbers have similar experiences: here it comes, the request for advice, for a hot tip, for help unclogging the toilet. Only in my case it’s usually a request for wisdom, or for the meaning of life; or, God forbid, help with some ethical dilemma. Once at a wedding a tablemate lit up and said, “Oh! So tell me, which is more intelligent: the East or the West?” I didn’t even know where to begin with that question, other than to ask what he had against the North and the South. Another time at a bar-mitzvah somebody’s third cousin wanted to know whether it was morally worse to beat someone up on the Sabbath or on a weekday. That conversation actually had some potential, until I realized he was talking about beating up his teenaged son, who was sitting at the table. And of course there was that woman I met at a gallery opening during graduate school, who perked up and asked me what my philosophy of life was. “Three words,” I said, tragically encouraged by her enthusiasm, “Sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. Or I suppose that’s four words, strictly speaking. Or maybe six, if ‘rock’n’roll’ is taken as the full expression ‘rock and roll.’” By the time I’d finished clarifying she was nowhere to be found.

The most pressing question for me now, however, is just which category my new best friend Brenda will fall into. (When did she tell me her name by the way?)

“A philosopher!” she exclaims, her eyes twinkling. Okay, first two categories ruled out; trapped as we are in these seats, this is not auspicious. “So tell me: what are some of your sayings?”

My sayings?

With great regret on all those previous occasions I have had to explain to people that, in fact, contrary to public perception, actual professional philosophers do not have any particular expertise in wisdom or the meaning of life, and are probably the last people you want to consult about your ethical dilemmas. But I have never met anyone who thought that actual professional philosophers would have, you know, sayings.

But now, why shouldn’t we?

We write all those articles, we speak at all those conferences, we teach all those students. Mustn’t we have something to say, if we are doing all this? And if we actually have something to say, shouldn’t we have sayings?

In my head I run through a few possibilities. “Never listen to a philosopher!” comes immediately to mind. No; too annoyingly clever. “Every choice we make presents two options,” comes next, “the one we choose, and the one we instantly regret not having chosen.” Too Woody Allen. I go for some profundity: “God exists or He doesn’t, and either way it’s a staggering thought.” Whoa, too heavy. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”--perfect, if only Wittgenstein hadn’t already said it. Tear down the wall: Pink Floyd and Ronald Reagan. I have a dream. All you need is love. Happiness is a warm puppy. All taken! “What if,” I ask myself, in a final desperate shot, “the Hokey-Pokey is what it’s all about?”

I got nothing.

I find myself experiencing a new sensation: I’m actually speechless.

Not that Brenda seems to mind. Apparently we’re getting together on Friday with her husband’s family to celebrate somebody’s ruby (or somebody named Ruby’s) wedding anniversary. She’s so very excited to have a met a genuine bona fide philosopher and it seems I’ve agreed to speak at the occasion.

I’ve got three days to think of something to say.

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