A philosopher doing his laundry

February 18th 2007

A comedy of errors today, largely the fault of my own. The children decided they wanted to go to Tropical World in Leeds so we all piled into the car and drove to Leeds.

We had timed our arrival to perfection. A mild, sunny Sunday at any time of the year, let alone summer, will produce crowds of biblical proportions flocking to this park, allegedly the biggest in Europe.

We found a parking spot not too far away from where we wanted to be and walked the couple of hundred yards to Tropical World leaving our coats inside the car as we knew it would be hot inside the large glasshouses.

We were straight into the attraction and we slowly made our way along the carefully guided circuit in the stifling heat. As we emerged from the exit doors perhaps one hour after we had so promptly entered, I was shocked to see an official on the entrance doors restricting the number of people being allowed into the complex which was now, presumably, full to capacity. I said we should go to the cafe for a drink before the emerging crowds got the same idea and turned the cafe into a reconstruction of the ‘feeding of the five thousand’ story but the children of course were caught in the honey trap the attraction had cunningly set for them by having the gift shop at the end of the tour.

Not wishing to spend interminable minutes vetoing every insane choice the kids made over their bit of expensive tat, I suggested I went back to the car to retrieve our coats and the packed lunch. My wife agreed and I asked her where we should meet.

“We will stay here in the shop. We’ll meet you here.” she said.

So off I went, back to the car. As I made my way out of the exterior doors I was even more surprised to see that the queue the official was holding back extended for fifty yards beyond the building. ‘Timing is critical in this game of Sunday recreation’ I reflected to myself.

On my return, now laden with several coats and a packed lunch, I was appalled to observe the queue had grown even longer and I had to fight my way to the glass windows adjacent to the entrance doors to try and catch my wife’s attention. But I couldn’t see her in the shop. I went round the back of the circular gift shop to see if I could see her through the window from a reverse angle but there was still no sign of her. Eventually I had to make my way through the exit door, inconveniencing the people wanting to come out because I was twice my normal size carrying several thick coats and a packed lunch. Inside the gift shop I was able to ascertain they were not in fact in the shop. I was slightly annoyed at this. We had a simple instruction and she had construed to renege on it.

It did occur to me one of the kids might have wanted the toilet and that’s where they were but I had been looking for them for maybe ten minutes so how long would they be in a toilet? I then thought, if I went to the cafe and had a coffee, by the time I came back they should be there. So I went to the cafe which was about forty yards from the gift shop in another building.

The cafe however was experiencing its peak rush of the day and several times during my wait in the queue I considered forgetting my cup of coffee and going back the shop but on each occasion the queue would shorten by one more customer. Eventually, after a long wait, I got my coffee and took it outside to drink it in the open and to keep an eye out for my family should they wander outside looking for me. I sat down at a picnic table that had a spare seat. The other occupants of the table were an elderly man and younger woman; a couple I had noticed sitting in the deserted picnic area as we came in to the attraction so they must have been sat there for some time. As I put some demerara sugar in my coffee to take the edge of its bitterness (I always find cafe coffee too strong for me) I started to hear snippets of the man’s conversation.

It seemed to concern some ancient religious argument about compassion. It was not your banal conversation about what happened last night in some trashy television soap; it was sounding more like a script from some Woody Allen comedy so I paid more attention to my fellow drinkers.

He must have been in his late fifties or early sixties. He sported a full grey beard, knitted scull cap and displayed on his collar and shoulders the worst case of dandruff I had seen for a long time. She was considerably younger and had shoulder length auburn hair which hung like a curtain and shielded her face from my inquisitive gaze. I noticed their, long since emptied, paper coffee cups were now in separate piles of torn jigsaw pieces as if they had been having some tortured conversation which had manifest itself in the shredded and twisted paper pieces. The man was doing most of the talking, she asking probing questions as if she were a journalist or psychoanalyst. And his conversation was getting more and more interesting.

He was complaining about his ex wife who had constantly complained that he thought too much and didn’t pay her enough attention. She wanted to dominate him, he said, and he was unable to convince her that serious thought was a valid and worthwhile thing to do. I was sorely tempted to foist myself upon them and join in this discussion but I resisted and I studied the man more closely. Initially I thought he was blind as his eyes seemed to gaze into the middle distance but then he focussed onto the woman’s face and I realized it was an idiosyncrasy of his. I wanted to introduce myself as a fellow thinker and tell him of my idea to form a ‘thinking club’ where interested people would meet and discuss various ideas just for the sheer pleasure of it but there was something about him that dissuaded me.

He was an eccentric. Being an eccentric, he might have idiosyncrasies which I might not like. Then I became aware of the paradox in that thought. I might as well have thought that I wouldn’t want to have a man like this at the meetings because I wouldn’t like his ideas. But that would be against the whole point of the thinking club! What would be the point of having like minded people get together and agree upon everything? There would be very little difference between that and a right wing rally.

No, in order to stimulate debate, people would have to proffer differing ideas, dangerous ideas; how else could you test your own beliefs and maybe modify them as a result of someone’s argument? And people who are freethinkers like this are usually eccentric. And this is why Dave Pollards utopia couldn’t work.

Dave, an environmentalist blogger who’s blog I read regularly, keeps advocating self sufficient local economies that are self regulated and administered; no hierarchical authorities needed. The problem with this dream is that the people who would be attracted to it would be freethinkers. The problem with freethinkers is that they question everything and think independently so organizing a group of people like that would be akin to herding cats.

I could be wrong. Maybe when the issues are life threatening, common sense prevails and people do what needs to be done, high I.Q.’s or no.

I still intend to found this club of freethinkers so it will be interesting to discover how freethinkers organize themselves and then with such knowledge it might be possible to extrapolate the organizational structure into a larger society.

Anyway, I finished my coffee and without saying a word to either of them returned to the shop. A furious wife awaited me.

“Where have you been!” she screamed.

“Where were you when I returned from the car?” I countered.

“He needed the toilet.” she hissed, pointing to our son who looked sheepishly at me.

She then went on to describe how she had rung my mobile ‘phone (which I had left at home), and had even asked a shop assistant to go outside and call my name (I must have been in the cafe queuing for my coffee when this happened because I didn’t hear her).

On a park bench, feeding the kids, we continued our accusation and counter accusation, each trying to prove to the other that they had not employed common sense in attempting to locate the other. In the end I think she check-mated me. I asked her why she hadn’t ventured outside to look for me like any logical person would have and she countered triumphantly with, “we didn’t have our coats!” I couldn’t find a flaw in this riposte so humbly had to apologize.

Thus, from serious thinking done for fun, to practical reality within five minutes. It might as well have been a scene from the sorry life of the bearded jew as he had described it to his companion at the picnic table not fifteen minutes ago as I sat and listened, sipping my coffee.

Anyone want to join a thinking club?

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