My roommate arrived before I did; I met his stuff before I met him.
Meeting his stuff first was fine with me, because the truth was that I was a little afraid of him. Wilfred Carter Boiteaux III. From New Orleans. Or maybe of New Orleans? I had not known anyone with a name like that before.
A month earlier we had spoken on the phone. I had expected Thurston Howell but he didn’t sound quite like that. He sounded like a decent guy who would make a good roommate. If anything he sounded as anxious and nervous as me.
And now, as I gazed at his stuff, I saw nothing to concern me. Nothing violent or bizarre; no gaudy signs of wealth. A suitcase, unopened, stood in his closet. A small black-and-white television sat on the corner of the desk, next to the folder of orientation materials we’d received in the mail. On the top of the folder was the yellow sheet with the room assignments, just like the one I had, only in the blank for roommate, his sheet would have my name instead of his own.
Jacke Wilson from Cadbridge, Wisconsin. Just how disappointed had he been to see that?
Well, what could I do about it now? Maybe I’d grow on him.
Then I looked up and noticed something else: his bookshelf. It was completely full.
In most respects our separate halves of the room mirrored one another: we each had the same desk, bed, dresser, and closet, in reverse. And a bookshelf that ran the length of the room.
I had brought only two books with me: a dictionary I had received as a graduation present, and a copy of King Lear, which I had purchased at the mall’s bookstore on one of my breaks from working at the shoe store. I don’t know why I bought it. I didn’t know what else to do. Shakespeare seemed college-worthy.
Suddenly the mirror image of our room looked very different. On his side, knowledge. On mine, emptiness.
I couldn’t help wondering if I had missed some instructions.
And what kind of books were these? They did not look like anything I’d seen before. A tall pair stood in a cardboard box that had a little drawer built into the top to hold a magnifying glass. You needed the assistance, I soon learned, because the print was tiny. The book – the Compact Oxford English Dictionary – contained the definition and first usages of every word in English.
Great. My roommate, it turned out, had a dictionary that T.S. Eliot had helped to prepare. My dictionary had probably been dashed off by some prisoner.
But that wasn’t the only difference. My single Great Book was a paperback about as big as a box of crayons. My roommate had at least fifty hardcover books, all either green or red, which stood next to one another with imposing grandeur, like two legions of an ancient army in tight formation.
I didn’t dare touch any of his things while he was gone, but as soon as he arrived and we got some niceties out of the way I asked him about his books, first to make sure these were not required (where would I get the money?), and second out of curiosity. He and I were the same age and had chosen to come to the same college. How had I wound up with King Lear and he had dozens of these—well, what were they exactly?
“Oh, those,” he said, glancing up with affection. “My Loebs.” He pulled down one of the red ones. “These are great,” he said. “Latin on one page, English on the other. It helps.”
“No doubt,” I said, staggered by the pencil marks underlining Latin words and the neat translations in the margins. “What are the green ones?”
Fantastic. My roommate had taken five years of Latin and four years of Greek. I had stumbled through two years of Spanish and remembered nothing but ¡hola!
My high school career, such as it was, seemed like an eternity ago. My senior year I had run out of classes to take and had five study halls. It had been three years since I’d taken a math class, the most advanced one offered at my school. How could I possibly keep up?
My head was spinning and I went out for some fresh air. I circled campus a few times, but I had nowhere to go. I knew no one and had no idea what any of the buildings were.
When I returned, my roommate was relaxed on his bed, reclined on one arm like a Caesar, immersed in Catullus. I laid down on my side and stared at the concrete wall until it was time for dinner.
The next day at a registration workshop I raised my hand and asked about the minimum GPA that would be required to maintain a scholarship.
“Let’s say you don’t pass any of your classes. Or let’s say you pass but just barely,” I said. “Do they let you stay or make you transfer? And does this ever happen in mid-semester or do they wait to see what your final grades are?”
“Wow, those are some interesting questions,” the advisor said with a smile. “Are you asking for ‘a friend’?”
I was so disturbed I ignored the air quotes he was making with his fingers.
“No,” I said. “I’m asking for me.”
Everyone in the room laughed, but I didn’t care. This was serious business: I could fail, I would be ruined, my family would be disgraced.
Next the advisor handed out the results of our placement exams.
Will had tested out of two years of Latin and a year of Greek. A kid down the hall placed out of so many semesters of Chinese he could graduate in three years, if he so chose.
I had tested out of all the physical education requirements, which drew some envy, but in secret I was cursing myself for outperforming because now I would not be able to use gym classes to boost my grade point average.
I needed every trick available; academic performance alone was unlikely to do it alone.
Things were not going well. Everyone else had placed into one of three levels of Calculus. I did not seem to have made it to the first level. I had to raise my hand to ask how to sign up for one of these remedial math courses; to mask my shame I repeated a joke the advisor had made earlier.
“What if we’re in Math 101?” I forced a chuckle. “You know. Math for Jocks.”
The advisor smiled in a pained way. “Actually,” he explained, “Math 102 is Math for Jocks.”
“Oh,” I said. “Then what’s Math 101?”
“Math for Rocks.”
I nodded, my face burning, as everyone laughed at me again.
Sometimes panic can be productive. That year I launched into a course of study that attempted to overcome with sheer effort what I lacked in training or natural ability. Around me everyone else had fun and struck a healthy balance between study and leisure. Not me.
Toward the end of the year, my roommate invited me to a party. I told him I was going to stay in because I was working my way through Plato for my Human Being and Citizen course.
“Midterm already?” he asked.
“We don’t have a midterm,” I explained. “We’ll get paper topics in a couple weeks. But I don’t understand the reading yet.”
He nodded, having read and understood everything years ago. “We’ll miss you at the party,” he said. “But Plato’s good company.”
I smiled. As terrible as my academic career was going, I could not have asked for a better roommate. Will was kind and patient and never seemed to care that he’d been stuck with me. He explained things with seriousness and without condescension. His own intellectual curiosity, in addition to being inspiring, had given him the selflessness and temperament of a Socrates: my stupid but earnest questions were opportunities for clarifying his own thoughts.
The roommate thing could have been so much worse! I could have had some weirdo, like the kid who slept all day and roamed the streets of Chicago all night, getting mugged on purpose for the experience.
Or I could have had Del Denson, the guy who had promised his girlfriend at home, a woman named Amy, that he would take whatever foreign language was closest alphabetically to her name. This led him to Akkadian, a dead language studied only by two other students who were getting their PhD in archaeology. The Akkadian textbooks were in German, a language Del did not know, so he had to translate everything twice. After the first trimester the professor threatened to fail him but said he’d give him a C minus if he promised not to take the course again.
Del transferred to a community college closer to his home in West Virginia. At Spring Break he came back for a visit and bragged about how cool it was that his new school let him fulfill his language requirement by taking sign language.
I didn’t know what to say. “Well, um, I guess with Akkadian, and now sign language, you’re basically trilingual.”
“That’s right!” he said.
“Yeah,” said Will. “If you ever run into any deaf Babylonians, you’ll be all set.”
I was astounded by the quickness and ease of his wit. I have never met anyone, before or since, who would have come up with that joke.
No, I could have had any number of freaks. I had lucked out and gotten Will.
But still, I didn’t want to go to the party. And in a larger sense, I didn’t just want to hang around with Will and the other geniuses he had befriended. I wanted to be with him on his level. I wanted to know enough to be able to wrestle with great thoughts and great thinkers. To push my own mind to their limits. To challenge myself.
And to be able to make jokes as deft as the one about deaf Babylonians. To have a brain that would think like that. All that knowledge, all that history and philosophy and science and math and rhetoric and logic and ethics and religion and politics and economics and every other great subject – all there, all the time, at his service. Keeping him company.
I didn’t want the books above Will’s bed to be soldiers who lined up against me, their shields presenting a formidable wall as I marched toward them with my feeble wooden spear. I wanted them on my side, helping me conquer new territories like the soldiers just behind Alexander as he flew across the desert on the back of Bucephalus.
“You’re really enjoying yourself,” Will said, nodding at the paperback copy of Plato’s dialogues in my hand. I often amazed him like this.
“I have a lot of catching up to do. Hey, maybe I should make a deal with the devil. Sell my soul for knowledge. It’d be a lot faster.”
“Like Faust?” he asked.
I stared at him. How did he know these things?
When the year finally ended I felt better. In spite of my cluelessness I had passed – but then again, I guess that’s the whole point of school. School is designed for the clueless. What are the assigned readings but a set of clues?
That summer I drove a truck for an industrial laundry. The job gave me long stretches with nothing to do but listen to sports radio and classic rock and Chicago’s all-news stations, which I found comforting because they reminded me of my life on campus, which I couldn’t wait to return to.
For three months I lived at my parents’ house in comfort. I had friends and a sort-of girlfriend nearby. And for some reason I decided that this was when I had better test the extent of my intellectual powers.
It’s embarrassing now to recall this. But I thought with all seriousness that I should explore whether I had it in me to come up with some new set of ideas, or invent a philosophy as I thought of it then. Will seemed satisfied with studying Plato, and that was all well and good. But what about being a Plato? Was that ruled out for me?
I would not say that I went so far as to believe that I was capable of coming up with some new idea that had never been thought before. But I did think that if I was capable, I had better do it now. Nietzsche had published The Birth of Tragedy at 27; David Hume started on A Treatise on Human Nature at 22. Epiphanies come to the young, if you have the right stuff.
Why not me? Why not now? Nineteen was not quite over the hill, but it was getting there.
So as I drove my routes that crisscrossed the farmland and small factories along the border of Wisconsin and Illinois, in my personal Bermuda Triangle between Madison and Milwaukee and Chicago, I thought the deepest thoughts I could think.
I had learned enough philosophy to know the flaws in just about all of them. Descartes, for example, who started out with a solid premise—reduce what you know to only things that cannot be disputed, and build your way up from there—had then bungled everything with circular logic that assumed the existence and the features of the God he had all along been trying to prove.
Or the formidable Karl Marx, once a titan, but whose theories and predictions did not look so bright that summer as the Soviet Union crumbled. Or the mighty Bertrand Russell, whose elaborate system was skewered by a paradox his theory could not resolve. Even Socrates took unwarranted leaps of logic when you looked closely enough.
The more I thought this through, it came to seem that everyone who pushed things too far in one direction wound up being wrong. Wrong in an interesting way, maybe, but wrong nevertheless.
And then it hit me: that idea itself was an epiphany! That could be my contribution! Nothing too fancy or absolute would ever succeed. Truth only came from balance and moderation.
Everything is average.
It seemed so clear to me, all of a sudden. Of course that was the truth! One theory after another tried to buck this idea, and in the end they all had problems. Because greatness, pure unmitigated greatness, was unnatural and nonexistent. Everything was flawed somehow.
My excitement mounted. I could hardly believe it: I was like a kid who had set out with a bamboo pole and a measly worm and had wound up landing a whale. How could I have done it? I, who had gone to such an undistinguished high school and had no real training beyond one middling year of college?
But that was it, wasn’t it? That was the answer! Maybe this theory could only have been discovered by someone like me, a Wisconsin boy! Real insight, exciting new ideas—ha! Mediocrity! Hesitation! Uncertainty! Those were the real paths to truth! The only paths.
The Wilfred Carter Boiteauxs of the world could not know these things, because they were blinded by their own proficiency! It was left to the meager, the measly, the ridiculously underprepared Jacke Wilsons to sense the real truth. Ideas, like people, were merely average.
As soon as I got home I started outlining this theory. But that was the easy part. I could come up with plenty of examples. The important thing was that I had found the key to unlock everything. And I was sure it would. You could not come up with a thinker who was beyond reproach, they all screwed up in one way or another.
Every great philosophy has flaws, I wrote. Because everything is average.
Did I even need to write more? No, probably not, but I did, I tried to flesh this out with a fuller scheme, like Aristotle and Kant and Hume. I no longer possess this document (thankfully!) but it involved numbered paragraphs and may have coined a few new words, which seemed like something all the best philosophers did.
What can I say? I took a shot. It was then or never.
When the fall rolled around I returned to campus, eager to learn. Will and I had gotten along so well we decided to share a room again. Over the summer he had lost fifty pounds in the New Orleans heat and looked like a new person.
“Will! I barely recognize you!” I cried, pumping his hand.
He nodded, as thoughtful as ever, but permitted himself a small smile. “I switched to Diet Cokes,” he said. “That was all it took.”
“You must feel totally different!”
He winced. “Well…I feel more like myself. That…last year…that never felt like the real me.”
I felt bad that he had felt that way. “I like you either way,” I said.
He smiled gently, accepting the affection, though it clearly made him uncomfortable to talk about himself. He asked how I had spent the summer.
“Oh, this and that…” I said. And then, because I could wait no longer: “I invented a philosophy.”
It came out less casually than I had hoped.
Will’s eyes grew wide, and he smiled in a way I had come to recognize. He found me incredible, in the “hard to believe” sense. Definition number five in his OED.
Ah well, who cared? I couldn’t really blame him. It was not his fault that I had no idea what I was doing. I pressed on. “Yeah, I needed something to do while I was driving the truck. So listen, I started out by thinking about all the philosophers we discussed last year…”
“Yep. And it struck me that they all had some flaw. You know, some problem that undermined their theory. There’s always something they got wrong. They go out on some limb, and they overlook some hole. A logical flaw. Or they miss something important.”
“And so it occurred to me…” I said, “Here’s the real truth. Everything is average.”
I talked a few more minutes in support of the theory I had developed in a burst of insight in the laundry truck and later refined and recorded for posterity in my parents’ basement.
“Ah,” said Will, nodding seriously. “Sounds a little like Aristotle’s Golden Mean.”
“What? Aristotle’s what?”
“You read Aristotle last year, didn’t you?”
I hesitated. I had read some Aristotle. Obviously I had not read all.
Will was lost in thought. “Mmmm. There’s the Middle Path of the Buddha, of course. Also sounds a little like Hegel. Are you thinking of his dialectic?”
I had not been thinking of that. I had not been thinking of it because I had never heard of it in my life. I did not even know what the word dialectic meant.
“Who? What?” was all I could say.
I was fading. Will was just getting started. He asked how my theory differed from William James’s pragmatism.
“Pragmatism?” I asked weakly. From the name alone I knew I had predecessors, and betters.”That’s a theory?”
Will nodded. He offered some more ideas about the Everything Is Average philosophy, which he took seriously, as he did any set of ideas that presented themselves for consideration. It soon became clear that he knew more about my own theory than I did.
I felt miserable. I had taken my shot and come up woefully short. I was not an original thinker on any grand scale. And now three more years of this! Of me not knowing things that others did.
The thought irritated me. But here was the thing: I was original, in my own way. I was me, the first me, the only me. No precedents!
“You know what? Screw this place,” I announced. “I don’t need these books and all of these ideas. I can just go live on a farm. That’s enough! That’s even better! I can pick up rocks again, and plant crops and milk cows and enjoy the sunsets and the evening meals with fresh baked bread and a dog by the fireplace and just be myself, my old Wisconsin self, without any of these stupid ideas running through my head!”
“Ah,” said Will. “Like Cincinnatus.”
I stared at my friend, who had just mentioned yet another guy I’d never heard of in my life.
“Yeah,” I said. “Just like him.”
Will went off to a party to test the theories of Epicurus. I stayed behind to plot my escape from the life of the mind. Milk the cows. Till the soil. Fireplace, dog. Rocks.
But as soon as the door closed, I walked over to Will’s shelf and pulled down one of his books. A green one.
Then I took it back to my desk, cracked it open, and started to read.
Another tough one! Why is it so hard to remember the days of my misguided enthusiasm? Was I really that far off? Hasn’t the rest of my life proved up my theory that everything is average? I was on the right track! You can read another college story at Object #4 – The Sweater or Object #12 – The Tickets to the Premiere. There’s more about the summer job at Object #16 – The Laundry. And of course, you can read the grownup versions of my personal Bermuda Triangle in my book The Race, in which the narrator traipses around the area with a politician trying to recover from a scandal, or in my other book The Promotion, in which the narrator returns to that particular Bermuda Triangle to pursue a woman he has become obsessed with. Both are available for under three bucks (e-version) or under five bucks (paperback version). Or you can run through all the other Objects in the series for free here on the blog. Onward and upward, people!
Image Credit: Blackwell Classics