Excerpt: Plato for Plumbers

Doctor Kenneth McLaughlin (the PhD kind, not the medical kind) woke up at five in the morning. It wasn’t a willing exercise. He had set his alarm for five-thirty the night before. And because he knew he had done that, his body had obviously woken him up ahead of the alarm so he could start work early. He groaned as he turned over under his large flannel sheets. Birds chirped just outside his window. In a huff, he tossed the sheets off his body but remained in bed.

He didn’t want to admit it, but his morning rituals always reminded him of Immanuel Kant. Kant was a moral philosopher and a really, really uptight guy from the 1700s. It was definitely too early in the morning for Ken to think about moral objectivism and whatever else Kant espoused in his long tomes. No, what reminded Ken of Kant this morning was Kant’s airtight schedule. Except for a few months during the revolution, Kant would always wake up early, write for a few hours, and then go for his afternoon walk. He became so predictable that the townspeople even set their watches by him. Ken often imagined a make-believe scenario where the city dwellers in Kant’s hometown had discussed their favorite recluse.

“What time is it, Jimmy?”

“I don’t know, Mum. Almost half-past Kant’s walk.”

“Oh, my! We’re running late.”

Ken turned over again in bed. Light filtered in through the blinds in his bedroom. He had first told the Kant anecdote to his 100-level philosophy class when they got to the transcendentalists. It was always so much easier to humanize the philosophers so the students could recall their small quirks and foibles and keep the theory attributed to each thinker straight in their minds. He often told his favorite Kant story with a smile on his face, joking about Kant’s predictability.

“Kant must have been a devil at the bridge table,” Ken had lectured. “So stoic and focused, with a million thoughts going through his head. But as soon as you got used to someone like him, they became so transparent.”

Ken sighed. He really didn’t want to think he had become that transparent or predictable, either. At forty-five, he still lived alone in his small condo, where bookshelves and papers lined every last surface. His kitchen was full of take-out containers; his fridge held nothing but white bread, lunch meat, and mustard. Dust lined his dining room table. Ken had spent so much of his career making sure he published before anyone else among his grad school cohorts that he missed becoming good friends with any of them. He took up so many extra teaching positions that he got used to grading on Friday nights. He had even read all the great classics in philosophy for more than just the sound bites of theory, but for the philosophers’ quirks as well.

All of that hard work had paid off. Ken had tenure at a prominent university, a good job, and a sizable income, but what else? He tossed and turned in the mornings, his body ready for its job before Ken was. The annual philosophy conference, two hours away in another state, was in a week. Ken knew he needed at least three days of waking up early during the March break to write his conference paper, which he then hoped to turn into a chapter of his philosophy book. He had written one chapter a year, always based on the conference paper he had presented, for the past seven years. This routine, as much as Kant’s daily walks, was ingrained into Ken’s very body.

So why does everything hurt? Ken asked himself. He had only another twenty minutes of solace in the bed before anything was expected of him. He ran his hands through his dark brown (but turning gray) hair and over his weak limbs. Academia didn’t provide a lot of opportunity to get out and about. He used to be a runner but had stopped in graduate school. Now he wondered if he would ever start again.

“What time is it, Jimmy?” Ken repeated the dramatic scenario in his mind, only he swapped out the village children watching Kant for himself.

“Oh, I don’t know. It looks to be like a quarter to Ken. I see him now, coming over the hill.”

Ken sighed. He waited another ten, fifteen minutes before he finally got out of bed. May as well face the inevitable. He turned off his alarm clock before it even had a chance to ring.

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