I’m tired but happy after my summer’s writing labor, feeling accomplished in the short interim before edits begin. It’s good to be back at tasks on campus with more defined schedules and to get outside to see the bursting-forth of strange seed pods and orchid-like flowers that signal cool weather to come. I even got notification a couple of days ago that I’ve won an award for my writing, which puts me in the company of James Jones, Dick Gregory, and Senator Paul Simon. How great is that?
So why, today, on only the third day of classes, did so many things go wrong? A car nearly ran me down as if I wasn’t there, students were angry about readings or unresponsive to questions, my cell phone wouldn’t call out all day, and my toes got the rheumatiz, apparently.
Crazy Larry knows why. “It’s Gaia,” he said when I’d finally walked far enough from the quad to complete a call. Gaia is the life-force he invented from his Lutheran upbringing, a trip to Taos, and too keen an interest in Star Wars culture. He went on to explain that Gaia was clearly out of balance, since a North Shore woman had taken his tray of food at the deli instead of waiting for her own, and that I’d better watch myself because portents were not good. He was going to watch Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and then go to dinner in the city with a friend, since Gaia wasn’t going to let him succeed at anything productive.
While I still subscribe to Larry’s newsletter just to hear what the others are up to, I no longer tithe ten percent of my family’s income to him, and I have my own suspicions about why things didn’t go well: I’m not used to the rhythms of my new schedule in a particularly heavy semester that includes a lecture-hall class of 240 students. I look tired and a little heavy. I was wearing a navy polo shirt with yellow stripes. Who knows what other imperceptible clues and amorphous social forces were at work? Still it’s a drag to feel like a ghost, invisible or at best unwanted.
ventually the only solution is to face it, and Chekhov, as usual, understands how it’s done. In a story titled “A Dreary Story” (trans. David Magarshack, available here), his doctor-professor writes:
Before me a hundred and fifty faces, all unlike one another; three hundred eyes all looking straight into my face. My object is to dominate this many-headed monster. If every moment as I lecture I have a clear vision of the degree of its attention and its power of comprehension, it is in my power. The other foe I have to overcome is in myself. It is the infinite variety of forms, phenomena, laws, and the multitude of ideas of my own and other people's conditioned by them. Every moment I must have the skill to snatch out of that vast mass of material what is most important and necessary, and, as rapidly as my words flow, clothe my thought in a form in which it can be grasped by the monster's intelligence, and may arouse its attention, and at the same time one must keep a sharp lookout that one's thoughts are conveyed, not just as they come, but in a certain order, essential for the correct composition of the picture I wish to sketch. Further, I endeavour to make my diction literary, my definitions brief and precise, my wording, as far as possible, simple and eloquent. Every minute I have to pull myself up and remember that I have only an hour and forty minutes at my disposal. In short, one has one's work cut out. At one and the same minute one has to play the part of savant and teacher and orator, and it's a bad thing if the orator gets the upper hand of the savant or of the teacher in one, or vice versa.
You lecture for a quarter of an hour, for half an hour, when you notice that the students are beginning to look at the ceiling…one is feeling for his handkerchief, another shifts in his seat, another smiles at his thoughts. . . . That means that their attention is flagging. Something must be done. Taking advantage of the first opportunity, I make some pun. A broad grin comes on to a hundred and fifty faces, the eyes shine brightly, the sound of the sea is audible for a brief moment. . . . I laugh too. Their attention is refreshed, and I can go on.
The salvation of process.