Saturday, January 30, 2010

Song and dance men

Late in Michael Chabon's essay collection Manhood for Amateurs--I referenced the book in a previous post--he recalls a terrible trip he took in 2005 to Little Rock. In the middle of the trip he went online and started reading his wife's blog, only to find her writing exhaustively about her condition--bipolar II--and explaining that 25% of people diagnosed with bipolar II eventually kill themselves. Imagine, if you will, being a couple thousand miles away from home, feeling lonely enough anyway, and then discovering--through her blog no less--that your wife is calmly discussing suicide. Naturally, Chabon was shocked and immediately called her. He managed to reach her and their subsequent conversation reassured him, but not entirely. As it turned out, things were even worse than he feared. He found out when he got home that only through the intervention of a friend, who had also read the blog, was she kept from swallowing a whole bottle of pills.

This story is interesting enough as he tells it, but it's especially interesting to me because I had a kind of ringside seat on the whole episode. Well, maybe not ringside. I guess you could say I was in the auditorium. Sitting in the back row. You see, the reason Chabon was in Little Rock was to carry out a two-day residency at my university, the University of Central Arkansas. (We're just down the road a bit, in Conway.) Looking back, knowing what I now do, what astounds me is this: The man was able to go through with it at all. He put up with the banal, meet and greet, smiling busyness of a reception in his honor hosted by the Dean of the College of Fine Arts; he chatted politely with all comers as protocol required; he agreed to be photographed half a dozen times with people whose names he could not possibly have remembered or cared about; he spoke warmly and asked questions: about our school and our state. Later the same night, before a literally overflowing crowd, he gave an animated reading of an essay he'd written: the story behind his composition of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh twenty years earlier. He stayed long afterwards to answer questions and sign books. Then the next day he came to campus again to meet with a small group of our Writing Department students, answering even more questions and rendering advice, without attitude, without impatience. I drove him from Little Rock to Conway on both days. I do recall some cell phone calls to his wife: touching base with her, asking how she was, reminding her where he was, explaining where we were going. He seemed concerned but not at his wit's end. And when the calls were done we talked about books, kids, churches, universities, reading fees, the novel he was writing, other trips he would be making. Before the small group meeting with our students began he did seem tense and a little ragged. Just tired of meeting so many people all at once, I thought. He was happy at my suggestion that we grab a cup of coffee instead of loitering in the classroom, waiting for the students to stream in. But this was nothing really. Really, I had no idea what was happening. None.

I can only remember the whole incident now with awe and respect. Thing is, Chabon went through with it. He was here to do a job for us, and he did it. Very well, in fact. He not only read his essay, he performed it. He proclaimed it. And if you don't know the difference between an impassioned proclamation and an everyday recitation you haven't been to many literary readings (which are dominated by the latter). Chabon kept his focus, kept his cool, kept up his energy when he had to. He earned his money. He was amazing, actually. The whole episode makes me recall the line Bob Dylan gave out at a press conference in the hurly burly of the mid-60s: "I think of myself as a song and dance man." At the time, the line was greeted with derisive chuckles, as just another example of contrarian Dylan sticking his finger in the eye of anyone who tried to impose on him and his music fixed expectations, especially committed folkies who practically rioted at the thought of him playing that "fake" electric music. Well, of course, that was all part of it too. But I think fundamentally Dylan was serious. He did--and does--see himself as a song and dance man. Or, stated differently, as a performer, as someone who takes seriously the job of bringing a song alive as best he can for the audience in front of him. Whether or not the song says something trivial or profound isn't even the issue. What "it means" doesn't matter. The issue is that song as a performance and doing your damnedest to pull the performance off. That is a seriously difficult challenge to rise to, time after time, year after year, decade after decade. It's difficult, and it's a calling.

Now I'm no Michael Chabon--that goes without saying--and I'm certainly not Bob Dylan, but as a teacher and a writer I think I can appreciate the determination and the expertise of the song and dance man. Or of anyone who has to Put On a Show. I have to Put On a Show whenever I read one of my stories at a festival or a writing conference. I have to Put On a Show whenever the student newspaper needs to interview me about the latest visiting writer or happening on campus. I Put On a Show everyday for my classes, four each semester. No matter what fatigue, disappointments, distractions, nuisances, or crises are bothering you at that moment--no matter how much you'd rather be anywhere than in front of a group of students--you have to do it and do it well. That means blocking out Everything Else and being fully present, fully energized, for your audience. You can always rest later. You can go home later. You get to be quiet later. Later, you can lick your wounds and return to being the wholly ordinary person you really are. For now, because you're a song and dance man, you tie up your shoes, you tune your instrument, you face your audience--and you deliver.

Thanks, Michael.


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