Authors: Lesley Choyce
Mr. Miller tromped on his effects pedal and closed his eyes as he played a short but effective guitar blitzkrieg.
“I lost seven hundred dollars that day but learned a very important lesson of logic. The gambler's fallacy. I fell for it. I thought the odds were, um, maybe ninety percent that the next flip would be tails but, in reality, the odds were still fifty percent. He could have won or I could have won. And if he had lost seven hundred
clams, what would it be to him? But I lost. I haven't gambled since.”
The bell rang then before he could hit a final chord. The HMMWMT turned off the power to his amp. “Tomorrow I'll tell you about the liar's paradox, and if we have time, we'll nail down some of the ideas put forward by Immanuel Kant.”
So this is why school was not such a horrible place to spend the day.
Meaning of Life
You probably haven't spent a lot of time thinking about Immanuel Kant. This is because he was a German philosopher who lived in the eighteenth century. Philosophers spend a lot of time thinking instead of watching television, but this is obvious in Immanuel's case because they had no TV back then. He wrote a lot about ethics, which is the science of telling right from wrong.
We make ethical (or unethical) decisions every day, even every minute of our lives, and each of us has our own set of ethics that we follow.
Immanuel Kant was really into this ethical thing and trying to figure out the meaning of life. I don't want this to
turn into a big rant on Kant except to say that he saw every individual as an end, not a means. In contemporary terms, this suggests that we are all here for a purpose. We are here for a reason.
That makes a person feel pretty good about him- or herself, but the problem is that we probably never figure out what that reason is. Some people pretend to be confident about who they are and what they are all about, but I think that's mostly a front.
I think most of us are confused. We are baffled. We are searching. And it doesn't matter if we find answers or not. The searching and questioning is the important thing.
Dave had been after me to get my father to open up. My father was working way too much and when he came home he appeared exhausted. He planted himself in front of the tube and watched basketball or football, or hockey or tennis or golf.
He was a good father, I know, but since Mom died he had shut his life down. Lilly and I didn't know what to do about it. She shopped and stocked the refrigerator and pantry with lots of food and we fended for ourselves. If my father ate at all, he didn't do it on the premises. Coffee and maybe three bites out of a bagel in the morning. At night, he came home claiming to
have consumed something â although he never said what â at the office.
Then he did the TV plant. When the power went out one night, he just sat on the sofa watching the empty screen.
One time I was taking out the trash and I accidentally dumped the big green plastic can in the driveway. Out spilled a whole bunch of photographs, some of them torn â of him, of her, of us. I took the trash can back into the garage and went through the whole mess. I saved old movie stubs of the original
, which he must have gone to with Mom. There was a lock of her hair. There were old letters they had sent to each other before they were married. And a lot more.
I salvaged what I could and took it back to my room. I taped up the photos. It was like putting our lives back together. I cleaned everything up and put it into a box. Some day he would want this back.
I lay on my bed staring at a picture of me as a toddler. I could only find half of the picture. There was me on my feet with two outstretched adult arms holding me up, keeping me from falling. I looked very unstable. The look on my face suggested I wasn't used to having my head so far above my feet. But, aside from the arms, the rest of my mother was missing from the picture. She'd been ripped away.
I was thinking about shutting down my website because I thought I was getting a little too weird, writing about a German philosopher, getting all cerebral, but it was getting a lot of hits these days. Darrell had added some great 3-D graphics. Maybe that was all that kept people coming back to it.
“Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Does that name ring a bell for any of you?” Mr. Miller asked.
“Did he play drums for Rush?” Scott Rutledge asked.
“That was Mr. Neil Peart. You're way off.”
“Bass player for AC/DC?”
“Not even getting warm.”
But the class was warmer. HMMWMT always had a way of loosening up an otherwise uptight and irascible group of young people. I wasn't about to raise my hand. I knew who Leibniz was but I knew better than to open my yap and draw attention. I had inherited some of my father's skills of being invisible and I used them when I wanted to.
“Our friend Gottfried Leibniz came up with something we call differential calculus. Actually differential and integral calculus. He and good old Isaac, Mr. Idiscovered-gravity
Newton. But Leibniz was really into math.”
“Surprise, surprise,” Scott Rutledge added.
“Well, the surprise is that he also came up with the concept that we â us, you and me, all of us â live in the best of all possible worlds.”
“Right.” It was Scott again.
“Did I detect a bit of sarcasm in that reply, Mr. Rutledge?”
“Just a tad.”
The class loved this sort of dialogue and so did Mr. Miller. “Don't worry, I'll get on to the important stuff in a minute â going over your homework, that is. Everybody who did your homework raise your hand.”
Most hands went up. HMMWMT, as was his habit, counted. “I counted thirty-one out of thirty-five, if you were all honest. And I know you are honest because you all promised, one hundred percent of you, back in September that you would live by my code of ethics: be honest, be cool, be yourself. Thirty-one out of thirty-five. That's 88.572 percent if I round it off to the third decimal place.”
I saw Darrell slide his calculator out from under his desk and check the math. He looked at me and gave me a thumb's up. We didn't know how Mr. Miller did it, but the guy was way out there when it came to math. Math and philosophy.
“Back to Leibniz. Another one of the old German intellectual types. Lived in the last half of the seventeenth century. The good old days. No distractions. People lived their whole lives, some of them, just using their brains to think up stuff. Like Leibniz here. He said we live in the best of all possible worlds. Why? First, because he believed in God. How many of you believe in God?”
Another count. “Twenty-five.”
Darrell checked his watch. The class held its communal breath.
“That would be 71.4285 percent.”
I looked over at Darrell. He silently mouthed the words, “Three seconds.” Mr. Miller was a human computer.
Scott raised his hand again. “Mr. Miller, I'm not sure you should count me in. I'm not sure I believe in God.”
“We call that agnostic.”
“I'll leave it for now because I need to get back to Leibniz. He did believe in God, he had no doubts whatsoever, and he was certain God was not only good but all-knowing and all-powerful. Therefore, if you follow my drift, God could only create a perfect world. Leibniz, if he were here right now to say it himself, would assure you that you live in that perfect world. Every darn thing that happens is right and good.”
“That's a bit hard to swallow,” said Scott, speaking on behalf of the class. All the girls looked at him when he had anything to say.
“Because you, Mr. Rutledge, are not Gottfried Leibniz. You're an agnostic. You have doubts.”
“So you are saying, if I woke up Monday morning and my head was all fuzzy from too much partying and it was cold and rainy and ugly outside and I had to get up out of my warm bed and go to school, then that would be perfect.”
“Precisely, because it is a perfect world. Things appear to you and me, because we are mortal, less than perfect. But that's only because our minds are limited in scope.”
I cribbed some juicy stuff from the HMMWMT for my website but I was afraid I might start losing my audience if I waxed on about too many German philosophers. So I promised myself to poke around for some other divergent ideas and interests.
Unfortunately, that very evening I was stuck in the living room with Jake while he was waiting for my sister to get ready to go out. Jake sat on the sofa looking at really stupid music videos. He was a big fan of any video that involved spitting, swearing, or guys sniffing their armpits.
I admit, I liked to taunt Jake with anything remotely intellectual. I hit the mute button and launched into Leibniz.
“Where do you get this wacko stuff from? You been watching the Learning Channel or something?”
“I never heard of anyone talking about stuff like this in school.”
“Maybe you haven't been paying attention.”
“School is like prison. You go in, they lock the doors, and you put in time. They unlock the doors, you go out. That's what school is.”
“Leibniz would say it's all part of the perfect world.”
“You need help.”
“I'm already seeing a shrink.”
“Oh, yeah, how's Dave?”
“Dave is good.”
“He have any more advice for you? Suggest any new hobbies like shoplifting or purse snatching?” Jake grabbed the remote and clicked on the sound of a video that employed a heck of a lot of snakes.
Lilly arrived downstairs. She had her black lipstick on, which I thought made her look ghoulish. It was complemented by a heavy red eye shadow and some kind of makeup that made the rest of her face look ultra pale.
“Sweet,” Jake said.
“Don't wait up for me,” she told me. And they were out the door.
Some of us caught it on the TV news Sunday night. Others didn't know until first thing Monday morning. It wasn't raining but it was cold and the sky was heavy and low with bruised-looking clouds. Before long, everyone in the school had heard the news: Scott Rutledge had proven his mortality by getting killed in an accident.
He'd been riding on the back of his brother's motorcycle, no helmet. His brother was showing off. There was a curve in the road, a dog. You could read all about it in the newspaper. It was all part of the perfection of the world.
If it had been anyone else, the school would have mourned, but it was more than that with Scott. Scott had been the golden boy. The girls had crushes, sure, but he had no enemies. He had looks, intelligence, and a way with everyone. If he'd made it to graduation, he would have been slotted for best-looking, friend to all, and that absurdly coveted most likely to succeed.
The principal called for an “extended homeroom” to allow kids to adjust to the news. Homeroom teachers cleared their throats and tried to say significant things about the death of Scott. Some stumbled over words, a few mouthed platitudes. One of them led her students in prayer.
Finally a bell rang, and we were to go to our second-period class, having skipped the first of the day. Kathy grabbed me in the hall by her locker. She had
been crying. “Walk with me. I'm not going to class. Let's sit in the cafeteria.”
We sat, the two of us, in the empty cafeteria. I wanted to tell her how much I cared for her. I wanted to tell her how screwed up the world was, how wrong everything was. I wanted to tell her that there was no meaning to anything.
“I think Scott was going to ask me out,” she said.
“You two had been spending time together?”
She shook her head. “No. It's not that. It's just this feeling I had. Scott had been interested in all those other girls but it never lasted.”
“He played the field.”
“But it would have been different with me. He knew that.”