Wordcarpenter Books

Chapter Four 


Socrates' Big Swinging Ice Pick


            Later, after the tryouts were over and he and Taylor were told that they had both made the team, they smuggled in a wineskin of Purple Jesus into the stadium to watch the big football game. Like the others they wore one-piece coveralls to combat the carnage of the game. They both had a riot. Maybe it was where they were in the stands but everybody was drinking from wineskins and squirting each other with the purple liquor and passing people above their heads, or maybe it was because they were happy to have made the cut, or maybe football games during Frosh Week were always that wild, it was pure mayhem. The experience was a never-to-be-topped peak to a memorable week. But the non-stop good times had to end, and with its end came the day Reid had been dreading: the first day of classes.

            That day was mass confusion and total chaos. Most students had no idea where their classes were. During registration earlier in the week they were given a wimpy little map but it was way out of scale. It was so crappy Taylor cracked that they must have done it on purpose. And half the buildings didn't even have signs. One would think that such a top university would have spent a little time making a decent map or at least made sure that the buildings had signs. Someone in the student government had dropped the ball. It was a fiasco.

            Reid wanted university to be different from high school, and expected professors to be sporting white beards and wearing tweed jackets and antique spectacles, and who used interesting words and clever turns of phrase, but that wasn't his experience for his first two classes.

            Making it to class one minute before it started because he couldn't find Dunning Hall, he entered the packed lecture hall self-consciously looking for Alex. Instant claustrophobia. Packed right up to the last seat. Not finding him, he sat down in the front row in one of the last available seats. When the professor walked in he didn't think she was the teacher. Instead maybe she was a secretary or teaching assistant. Very tall and thin and wearing a navy-blue business suit, she looked pissed off.

            "This is Commerce 101, section D. Anyone who is in the wrong class please get up and leave now." Tone very firm. After a brief silence a few people were in the wrong class. Raising a large Styrofoam cup of coffee to her pouting mouth, she allowed them to leave without disgrace.

            "My name is Dr. Deely. I am your professor for this semester." She lowered her head for another awkward sip. Why she was wearing a man's suit? What was she trying to be? Then she glanced at the student right beside him.

            "Will you please pass out these course outlines to the students." His heart jumped into his throat. He hated sitting in the front row, especially for the first class. No one spoke; you could have heard a pin drop.

            "As you can see from the hand-out, there will be a bi-monthly quiz worth twenty percent of your grade, a midterm worth thirty percent, a term project to be worked on in groups. That's worth twenty. The final exam in December will be worth thirty. Any questions?" No one moved. It felt like a starting gun had gone off at the beginning of a race. He had done enough racing to get into this university so the last thing he wanted was more of the same. When does it stop? After a minute he felt burnt out and indifferent, and wanted to get out of there badly.




            After the class he found Alex in the same flannel shirt he was wearing yesterday. He said he was sitting in the back row. Having the same math class they walked together. He seemed to know where he was going. Jeffrey Hall was two storeys high from the outside but it had a winding stairwell three levels below to a large auditorium. Descending the steep cement steps the air cooled so that sweat turned cold. Someone had turned up the air conditioning to a thousand degrees below zero. It was worse than a refrigerator; it was dangerous.

            "I should have brought a sweater," he said to Alex. "No, two sweaters."

            The lecture hall was over-crowded so that some students had to sit on the cold cement stairs, but he and Alex were able to grab the last two seats in the back row. They were so high up the professor lecturing at the chalkboard was actually a full level lower. Metal chairs scraped raw against the unfinished floor because the tips of the metal legs had worn through. It grated the ears.

            When Alex pulled out his textbook he saw Reid didn't have one.

            ""You don't have a textbook?" he said, looking concerned. A pronounced line between his eyes crept to life. He said he didn't.

            "Studying math at university seems so wrong when there are so many more interesting subjects out there," he said flippantly. His comment surprised even him.

            The teacher, carrying a large pile of papers, was a small Chinese man. The murmur died down and the tension in the room grew.

            "Ha. This is Math 110: Differential and Integra Calculus," he said with a thick accent. "I'm Mr. Wong." Straining to understand what he said through his thick accent, he wondered how many others could understand what he was saying. It scared him; a math teacher who couldn't enunciate well boded trouble. Short choppy words garbled were a bad combination.

            He turned to the chalkboard and began writing high school formulas on the board. Mr. Wong spoke as he wrote out axioms and formulae, board after board, looking tiny in contrast to the twenty-five foot high blackboards. When he filled one board he would push it up so another square of black came-up from below like a rotating chalkboard. He couldn't be bothered to write them down; Alex scribbled them into his notebook. What made it worse what how Alex breathed through his nostrils and made an annoying hissing sound. He didn't realize it but every time he breathed there was faint whistle that bugged the hell out of him.

            Two people sitting on the steps beside Reid talked the entire class, oblivious to what the math teacher was saying, in a language that was foreign to him. The chilled air emitted through the vents swept off the cool pavement into the marrow of his legs, so he reached down and pulled up his socks. Mr. Wong kept writing mathematical hieroglyphics in an endless mass production of squiggles and lines until the first board he wrote on resurfaced from a full rotation. After a while, the nostril hissing and the constant whispering bothered him so much he was steaming angry when the class finally ended.




            Reid trekked across the arts and science quadrangle from his calculus class to the philosophy department beside the music building, the uneven pavement cracked and scattered with trees and mountain bikes. Climbing the stairs to the third floor he found the classroom at the end of the hall, and sat down in the third highest row under a high sloping ceiling where he was level with two painted portraits of former heads of the philosophy department above the chalkboard. One was a portrait of a man leaning back in a big chair in a tan jacket with a bushy white moustache smoking a pipe, with a large window showing a field of evergreens behind him. The other portrait was of man with a white beard and grey tweed jacket with rows of books in the background. The most obvious thing about the portraits was the look of intelligence. This was what he thought classrooms would look like. These two men were different. They looked so together, like they were comfortable with the fact that they were outcasts. Being a philosophy professor had to be about as individual as anyone could be. They weren't trying to fit in anywhere.

            When Michelle walked in she saw him after a quick scan of the room. With her knapsack draped over her shoulder and red t-shirt and ponytail, she looked very laidback. Unlike his business class, there were no preppy button-downs or topsiders here. She climbed the worn steps and sat beside him.

            "I didn't-"

            "It's my elective," he replied, anticipating her question. She pulled out Fundamentals of Ethics and placed it on the desk.

            "My word," she said and smiled. Her green eyes were lit up as if electricity pulsed through them. Reid could see the light metallic green with little flakes of light in them. All he did when he listened to her talk was observe those incredible eyes of hers. He liked the lines around her mouth but those green eyes were really something.

            The mild rumble of voices quieted down when the professor entered the half-filled lecture hall. He was young, with a bowl haircut covering his forehead that made his head look perfectly round. But he was wearing a short-sleeved shirt. No business suit or tie or anything - just a regular short-sleeved golf shirt with the top button done up. And there was the way he walked too. He walked on his toes, sauntering. He was on time but he moved as smooth as maple syrup, floating on the balls of his feet. The only thing that was professorial was his wing-tipped Oxfords, and even those had seen a lot of action. He realized he had been expecting someone with a goatee and Birkenstock sandals and hair down to his ass.

            "Good afternoon everyone, I am Peter Bakhurst, your teacher for this course. I trust all of you have been keen and read the first chapter in your textbooks?" His voice was peppered with an English accent that could be heard when he said ‘chapter.'

            The classroom was quiet until the student to his right laughed. His stomach seized with panic. Reid thought the professor would think that his laughter was because of a comment that he had whispered. Bakhurst smiled and raised his hand, holding it for a split second and then whipping his finger in a that's it! motion.

            "That is what I would like to see in this class. That is what I want from each of you." Bakhurst surveyed the class, looking briefly into Reid's eyes until he stopped at the guy sitting beside him.

            "Thank you mister..." Bakhurst invited him with a nod to volunteer his name.

            "Pyke, Arthur Pyke."

            "Who's confused? Anyone?" Everyone looked uncomfortable. Reid certainly did, but Michelle was smiling - and getting it.

            "Just for the record class, it will be easier for you to learn if you assert yourself and ask dumb questions." Reid rarely put up his hand to speak in class because the down side of putting yourself on the line is simply too great. There is very little up side, and too much to lose if you give a stupid answer or ask a stupid question.

            "The only stupid question is the question that is not asked. Questions are a rite of passage. The word ‘question' comes from the Latin verb quaestus, which means: to seek. It is a quest to understand. Through questioning one can seek enlightenment into the art of living. I call it Socrates' big swinging ice pick. One can use the question-and-answer Socratic Method to break up the frozen seas within us." There was some tentative laughter from somebody in the front row, but Professor Bakhurst walked confidently in front of the lectern and stroked his chin.

            "The word `ignorant' comes from the Latin verb ignorare, which means: `to ignore,' and to ignore is a choice." He wrote the two verbs on the chalkboard. Reid didn't know whether to copy them down or not, or what he was getting at.

            "Pyke, why did you laugh? Can you tell the class why you laughed?"

            "Because you couldn't have been serious," he replied. Some students looked uneasy as Bakhurst took a sip from a can of Coke he had brought in with him.

            "You laughed because you had enough courage in your interpretation that I wasn't serious. That is what I want like all of you to do in my class: to learn how to think for yourselves." At the blackboard he wrote: THINK FOR YOURSELF. His writing was a hybrid between writing and printing. He looked at the words on the blackboard, then at Bakhurst. He froze when he caught his questioning eyes.

            "The art of philosophy lies in its application to living life. Attend to thyself' is an old maxim of Socrates. The basis of moral philosophy is the investigation of how best to live your life. To do this you must wrestle with questions that arise as to whether one way is wiser than another. Most of us never think about these questions. Most people go through life ignorant of serious moral inquiry. They choose to adopt the norm when the norm may not be the right - or wisest - path for them."

            As he walked in thought to the lectern, Bakhurst looked at his pupils not as a mass of people but as a group of individuals. He looked at each of student in the eye. Reid had never heard people speak like this before. It was if he was talking only to Reid.

            "Samuel Johnson once wrote: `Wonder is a pause of reason.'  I want this classroom to be a sanctuary of wonder, a place to think with your imagination and to explore possibilities and find your true path." He put his hand back on his chin. A hand was up, and with a nod the student spoke.

            "What's wrong with reason?"

            "Nothing.  I have no beef against reason, in fact we cannot function without it, but reason, as you may or may not know, is only part of the picture." He put his head down and walked, hand back on his chin.

            "I want to be clear about something: we cannot function without reason, but reason is only part of the picture. Martin Heidegger, a twentieth-century philosopher, wrote `Thinking only begins at the point where we have come to know that reason, glorified for centuries, is the most obstinate adversary of thinking.'  And, just as Einstein believed, it is my opinion that imagination is more important than knowledge. Use your imagination to further your understanding of questions. As I used to say when I was a young chap, `too much reason makes a fake baby.'" There was some selected laughter from certain areas in the classroom. "And there's nothing more tragic than a fake human being." Something inside of Reid, like a light or a flame, suddenly came alive when he said these words. There was something in it that addressed a long and ongoing dialogue he has been having with himself. For the first time in his life he wanted a teacher to go on, to speak more and to teach him more.

            "Reason is crucial for survival but so is the imagination. Reason should not be given free reign over the imagination." Bakhurst stood with impeccable posture at the lectern, paused, and continued. "I regard that the two major components of man's mind are the imagination and reason but it is the job of the imagination to see over the harmonic interplay between both. Intellect lies in the synergistic interaction between reason and the imagination, and this balance is an art." Bakhurst held up his hand and brought it down to add meaning to the word ‘art.' Reid looked over at Pyke's notes. All he had written was: TOO MUCH LIGHT MAKES A BABY BLIND.

            "You will be learning about Aristotle's concept of the Golden Mean, and how it is the artful balance between these two given poles, which can channel this energy into a higher quality of life." Sue was on the edge of her seat still grinning, and trying to suppress her excitement. He sat back in his chair and noticed that Bakhurst's books had remained closed beside the lectern. Professor Bakhurst picked up the pile of papers on the desk beside the lectern just as the bell rang.

             "Please don't forget to pick-up the course outline as you leave. They're here." He pointed at the pile. "Try to read the first half of chapter one for next class. It's only a half dozen pages. If I could give all of you some advice about reading philosophy: please take your time. Re-read it if it doesn't speak to you directly. Every sentence should help describe a thought; please be patient in your learning." Students packed up their books but Michelle and Reid sat still listening to Bakhurst. "And remember people, the trick is to always carry a dictionary with you because language is the nomenclature of expression, and wordcarpenters are never caught without one." Michelle nudged him in the elbow, and pulled out a brand new Funk & Wagnall's Standard College Dictionary. Like a mechanic with her toolbox, Michelle was not going to let any word pass her by.



Chapter Five 

Life As An Adjective


            After the first few weeks of classes Reid's life began to settle down to an agreeable degree of sanity. Rowing filled his early mornings and classes filled his days, and social engagements filled his evenings. Tests for his commerce classes he I still didn't care about. It was his philosophy class and the readings that had his interest. Never before had something spoken so directly to him. He had no idea people wrote like that; it was like discovering a new colour and new smell and new vista all in one. Not only did he make a point of doing all his required readings, he tried to read the recommended readings too, which he hadn't ever crossed his mind before. But that's what happened; he had finally discovered a source where words meant something. Finally he had found a lair of writers who got to the point.

            The early mornings became a time to enjoy rowing on the water. Getting up was tough at first, but after a couple weeks he and Taylor had developed a system of waking each other up just in case one of their alarm clocks didn't go off. It was usually still dark out when they hopped on their mountain bikes to ride off to the rowing club. And the darker it became at dawn, the colder it became. Getting rid of the shivers was his first task when he hit the morning air. There were some mornings when Taylor could hardly get himself out of bed due to the previous night's excessive partying. He was a work-hard, play-hard maniac. Somehow he could party all night and then get up to row for two hours at the crack of dawn. On the mornings when he was hungover Reid could smell the alcohol fumes emitting from his pores. Reid rowed in the number-one seat, or bow seat, and Taylor was in front of him in the two-seat so they became known on the crew as Bow Power. There were more than a few times Taylor didn't come home at all. It was not uncommon to see him leaving the campus pub with a girl and spending the night in the girl's dormitory. Despite his carefree lifestyle, Taylor never once let the crew down or failed to be there in spirit as well. That's the way it was with him.

            At the first regatta on the last weekend in September at Trent University the crew raced to a distant fourth, two full boat lengths behind the winning crew from Western. He and Taylor had loads of fun at the regatta. Since they were in the novice division they raced first after the initial heats so they had lots of time to drink the traditional drink of regatta culture, schnapps, and get into all sorts of mischief. But the rowing coach Loren Orris, whom Taylor had started to call Orson Buggy, wasn't happy at all with the crew's performance. So when they returned to Kingston he made rowing practices tougher. Orson Buggy started to include the dreaded twenty-minute piece during each practice. Orson Buggy yelled from his little outboard motorboat as the eight rowers splashed atop the water with burning legs and weakened arms. The twenty-minute piece was a grind but Reid kept his mind off the pain by enjoying the scenery along the Gananoque River. The only good to come out of the dreaded twenty-minute pieces was where the crew ended up: miles away from Kingston surrounded by ducks and flocks of Canadian geese. When resting after twenty minutes of fast rowing they listened to the sound of golden-eyed loons in the slow rising mist surrounded by tall straw-coloured marshes and rich smelling maple, some mornings being like a Group of Seven painting.

            Both he and Taylor continually went out to the campus pub, but it was Taylor who seemed to be expanding. His happy-go-lucky nature grew over time. His Mohawk a constant conversation piece when he met new people, he brought out the best in his fellow schoolmates. His ability to love life intimidated Reid's inability to comprehend how gregarious people embraced life, so he chose to remain aloof.

            The second week after the Trent Regatta Reid relaxed on the couch after an economics class. Just as he was beginning to relax Drake came in.

            "Reid, how 'bout we go up to the farm." He had been so busy with rowing and the pub he hadn't been up to the farm with Drake since the summer.

            "Nice one. I need a break from graphs and charts."

            When they arrived at the farm and the smells seeped into his nose he felt the tension of the day evaporate under the October sun. Beside a red barn with the word SALISBURY painted in faded white paint was a traditional gingerbread house with four proportional windows and corners of beige brick. The porch housed some old furniture and a rustic table. Like a postcard of a country home. A footpath laid with freshly cut wood chips starkly contrasting the dark rich soil led to the stables where a few people milled around with horses. The freshly hoed soil emitted a strong aroma of earth that was a medicine.

            Through the open doors to the stable a women was sitting on an upside-down metal bucket in casual conversation with another woman who was brushing her horse. The stable smelled of fresh leather and horses.

            "Good Day Mrs. Wilkins," said Drake, half a step in front of Reid. "How're doing today Madison? Looks like you got those new boots." They both casually greeted Drake. He left Reid there to speak to the daughter of the owner of the farm. Reid saw that she was blind in one eye.

            "'Bout time," Madison replied.                       

            "Who's this?"

            ""This is Reid," he said. That was the extent of the formalities. Embarrassed, he glanced at both of them and hesitated.

            "Hi Reid. Ever been here before?" Madison's plentiful blond hair carefully tucked under her riding hat, boots hardly creased, pretty features bred like a good racehorse.

            "No." In the silence he felt a paralysis of not knowing what to say. "Been busy at school I guess."

            "So you're friends with Drake?"

            "Best friends you could say."

            "He's a good rider."  The sweaty cotton shirt clung to her skin revealing her style of sports bra.

            "Is that Reid with an e i or a double e?" Expecting a punch line to a joke that never came.

            "Ah, it's with an e i," he said, feeling as if he may be falling for it.

            "Did you know that your name means red in Gaelic?" In her paddock boots and chaps Madison looked at him with her welkin eyes.

            "Yeah?" He asked her if she was a Queen's student.

            "I'm a fourth year English major." She smiled. "What about you?"

            "Commerce." The word hung in the barn like an impostor, and Madison took her eyes off Reid. A horse sneezed.

            "I should let you get back to your horse." He straightened his posture and left the stable for the practice field. The sky cloudless and the grass along the fence dry like straw. Putting his foot on the bottom plank of the fence he breathed deeply and watched a flock of birds fly out from the red and orange and yellow maple trees beside the barn as the breeze picked up. He thought about how he spoke to his father less frequently as the days went by, a result of his growing indifference to an old life and goals.

            "Reid!" He was startled.


            "Want to take a run?" Face full of colour as he pulled up on his horse. "Get you in top form for the championships next month."

            "Yeah, alright." He trotted on his horse named Phineas while Reid ran beside him along the perimeter of the field. The breeze warm and fresh with the aroma of fall.

            "Did you see who I was talking to?"

            "From afar. Who is she?"

            "Lynn lives here on the farm. Plans to go to Queen's next year. Really kind person."

            "Love interest?"

            "One never knows. She's absolutely stunning though." Reid thought of the eye.

            "Did she have a bum eye?" Drake sighed.

            "One of these days you'll see that beauty is inside Reid." Tone impatient. "Let's just say Lynn had an accident when she was a girl."

            "So that's why you've been spending so much time up here."

            "You're smarter than you look." Drake seemed as happy as he had ever seen him at that moment. "Speaking on which, how is that philosophy class you and Michelle are in? Liking it?"

            "He's a pretty sharp guy, our prof," he said. "There's something about Bakhurst that's different, which is refreshing."

            "Have you told your father yet?"

            "I think my parents would have had a hernia. They're paying for my education and if I turned around and told them I was studying philosophy, I think they'd have a baby. And why should I?"

            "Because they'll find out eventually. And because your father pays for your education."

            "So let it be eventually then. You know the irony is that it's way more interesting than commerce - the most boring subject in the history of the world."

            "I have been thinking about my own little philosophy," he said glancing over at Reid.  He pushed his riding hat back exposing his sweaty yellow hair. "I've been thinking that you could look at life as either a noun, a verb, or as an adjective. For me life is a verb." Drake negotiated Phineas over some wooden debris along the perimeter of the forest as Reid watched out for grasshoppers flying into his face. "Life for me is something to be achieved through action. Through my actions I define who I am, right?"

            "Alright. I can se that."

            "Living life as a verb is revered because men of action achieve things. They achieve greatness."

            "Yes, like Sir Francis Drake."

            "The example I always think of Sir Edmund Hilary." He glanced at Reid.

            "Life as a verb. All right." Salty sweat slid off his skin stinging his squinting eyes.

            "Life could also be lived as a noun. I would say the majority of people view life as a noun, like it was something one is born with without working for it. It is a thing and idea that is just sort of there - like a couch - with no impetus or desire to do anything, except to look around and enjoy the scenery." Drake rode with confidence with his new thoughts.

            "Life as a noun. The modern phenomenon of a couch potato. Yeah, just take a look at Michelle's roommate Barbara. What does she do with her free time? Watch soapies."

            "Exactly. They watch life go by. They don't do anything. They regard life as something they own for nothing."

            "Sure. Static as opposed to dynamic." Reid dodged drooping branches from weeping willows wavering in the wind, hindering him of a smooth run.

            "The third way one could live is as an adjective. This is the way of the artist. That is the way that I think Taylor lives. This, I believe, is the most admirable. Somehow the artist can extract the manifold of adjectives from the everyday and, as it were, live in a finer array of colour."

            "I can see Taylor as a poet."  A butterfly grazed his lip.

            "So in all life's harshness, the adjectival poet is able to enjoy the irony in life. Taylor, I would say, is a unique case. His yoke is particularly wide." Drake straightened his posture and looked at Reid.

            "Yes, a wide yoke. He can enjoy the poetic flow of each day""

            "Right. I'd call him an adjectival dilettante."


            "Yeah, Taylor seems to have a far reaching albumin." They approached a group of sparrows darting through the ruffling branches.


            "The egg white which I think is almost a hundred percent protein. Taylor has both a wide adjectival yoke but also a far-reaching albumin of coordination." This was precisely what Reid had seen in Taylor throughout the rowing season. Then he remembered a quote he had come across from his Nietzsche readings.

            "The product of the philosopher is his life (first of all, before his works). That is his work of art." Drake kept riding as if he hadn't heard what Reid said, but he could tell he did because of the way he was riding Phineas.

            "Yeah, I like that: living your life as a work of art."

            "That's a line from Nietzsche."

            "Someone's studying."

            "It's not studying. It's reading for the sake of figuring out life for Christ's sake."

            "Maybe you're going through a grammatical metamorphosis?"

            "I'm sorry?" They approached a fork in their trail, one path veering left back towards the farm and the other veering right to an unknown path.

            "You're unknowingly morphing from a verb into an adjective." Drake picked up his pace and chose to take the path to the right. Reid followed the horse up the path until they came to a hill where he passed Drake to take the lead at the crest of the hill. The new path opened up to a forest of red, orange and yellow leaves. In a flash Reid saw his life as a sentence: at birth a noun then being led to an adjective via the trail of the verb. Despite the rocks and incongruities their new path was more exciting than the trail along the perimeter with its inhibiting weeds and incessant grasshoppers.




Table of Contents

1.     The Student Ghetto
2.     The Living Tree Principle 
3.     Overcoming Neophobia 
4.     Socrates' Big Swinging Ice Pick 
5.     Life As An Adjective 
6.     The Timestealer 
7.     Range of Multiplicity 
8.     The Banks 
9.     The Means is the End 
10.  The White Haired Doctor 
11.  Mortally Wounded 
12.  Visigoth Code of Ethics 
13.  Cognitive Dissonance 
14.  The Chinese Laundry Café 
15.  Catching a Crab 
16.  Sheer Recklessness 
17.  Shattered Glass 
18.  In His Father's Voice 
19.  The Dreamstealer 
20.  The Vine of Resentment 
21.  The Golden Mean 
22.  The Altered Eye Alters All 
23.  Missing the Middle Part 
24.  Anima 
25.  Taylor Not Afraid 
26.  Beyond the Monoperspectival Norm 
27.  The Grip 
28.  Visigoths in Tweed 
29.  The Unseen Hand 
30.  Dislocation 
31.  Pouring Heavens of Valhalla
32.  So Then...       

For Reid's first philosophy class,
The Alan Parson's Project's
"I Can Read Your Mind"


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