Friday, October 19, 2007

Living the Law of Chance

It was said of Louis XIV that with a calendar and timepiece, you could predict exactly where he would be and what he would be doing at any given moment of the year. His routine was legendary. Like the sun—the image he adopted as his emblem—Louis rose and set and made his way across the firmament of Versailles with absolute regularity.

Monday, for me, was a Louis XIV kind of day. I woke up at 5:45 and knew, down to the minute, what would be happening during every part of the day ahead. It was a teaching day for me, so I had exams to finish grading and a lecture to prepare. We were also hosting a birthday party for Ethan, so I knew in advance that I would never make it through the day unless I had every moment fully choreographed. By 10:00 am I had a clean house, dinner in the crock pot, and a day’s worth of bottles (for Nora) and a Coke (for me) chilling in the fridge. I had to pause for a moment to bask in my own dazzling competence. But I only took a moment since prolonged basking was not on my schedule.

In one particularly efficient swoop, I ordered the pizza for the party, dropped off Nora and Gabie at their cousins’ house, bought movie tickets in advance, picked up the pizza (paid for with a coupon that for once I did not leave behind on the kitchen counter), and arrived home with 5 minutes to spare before the first guests arrived. After pizza and games, I drove the boys to the theater and sat with them during the movie, grading exams by flashlight. By the time I got to campus to teach my class, I felt like Louis must have felt when—after a day of diplomacy, statesmanship, and politics at the French court—he spent the evening dancing a ballet (in which he played the starring role of the Apollo the sun god, of course).

So despite my frequent blog descriptions of my life as chaotic and out of control, I do have those occasional days of order. I’ve decided it’s probably a good thing that they don’t come very often because: a) I would get a big head, and b) my life would be extremely dull.

Tuesday, in contrast, was a day of surprises. I knew in advance what I thought the day would bring, but several unexpected encounters reminded me that life is often ruled by a powerful force called the Law of Chance. I learned about the Law of Chance from the Dada artists, a group of delightful subversives who following World War I, rebelled against common sense, good taste and the "whole prevailing order" of society. Jean Arp wrote in one of the Dada manifestos, "The law of chance, which comprises all other laws and surpasses our understanding. . . can only be experienced in a total surrender to the unconscious. I claim that whoever follows this law will create pure life" Arp applied this philosophy to his various “Collages Arranged According to the Law of Chance.” He created them by tearing paper into pieces, dropping them onto a background and gluing them in place wherever they landed.

The strange thing about these collages is that for “random” productions, they seem rather well organized. Not to discredit Arp’s stated intentions, but if you look at the rows in this collage, it seems quite unlikely that they were created with the arbitrary method he describes. There is too much balance. None of the squares overlap, even slightly. What are the chances of that?

In fact, this work is not meant to be random or accidental; Arp implied as much with the title, which begins with the words: “arranged according to…” The pieces are still arranged. They are composed according to a certain law. It is a law that surpasses our understanding, but it is still a law. In this, Arp said, his creative works are closer to nature and pure life, which also grants us chance arrangements—surprising things we could not possibly have predicted or created entirely by ourselves, but things that still carry meaning and purpose on their own.

For example, if I see a certain student named Gillian in my classroom every other day for three and a half months, I would not think it terribly remarkable. But if the class ends and two years later, on a Tuesday morning in October, I run into Gillian in front of the fish tank at my eye doctor’s office, we would both be surprised. And if it has been a difficult week for me, a week in which I have graded 90 exams (some at my kitchen table while my two youngest children sat in front of the TV watching back to back to back episodes of I know not what on the Discovery Channel, some in a darkened theater with the voices of animated rats in my ears) and I have been wishing I could quit teaching and wondering if my students are even learning anything, and then Gillian tells me that she loved my class, still remembers it, and “learned a ton,” and my teacher’s ego perks up like one of those puffer fish (and if there were one in the tank next to us that would be really cool, but there wasn’t), I would say that it was quite a remarkable encounter. I might even say something like “This is exactly what I needed to hear today.” What are the chances of that?

So this was how my Tuesday started. Then on my way home from the eye doctor, I stopped at the thrift store in search of a book—something well-written yet funny, something along the lines of David Sedaris, I thought to myself as I walked up to the stacks. And there he was. Well, not exactly David Sedaris himself, but one of his books. What a stroke of luck. Granted, I do live in a county with more Mormons per capita than anywhere else on the planet and David is a bit irreverent and naughty which is probably why someone gave away this pristine copy to begin with and why nobody had snatched it up before I got to it, but hey, it was still a pretty amazing find. The Law of Chance strikes again.

Tuesday evening, I took McKay to a Parent Teacher conference where we waited for over an hour because (and I’m talking from 3 years of experience here) parents with children in a “gifted program” can’t shut up about their kids. While we were waiting, I decided to stroll down to the office for a few minutes. I knew that the new Vice Principal, Mrs. Bestor, was a former English teacher of mine from High School and I hadn’t seen her in over 20 years. She was in fact my favorite English teacher ever. My entire sophomore year she wrote praise and suggestions in the margins of my juvenile attempts at poetry and told me I had talent. I wanted to thank her for that.

I was standing in the office, rehearsing what I would say to introduce myself, when she walked around the corner. Without hesitation, she said, “Julie!” and gave me a big hug. Incredible. I was shocked that she remembered me. After all these years, she still knew my name and even asked if I was still writing. As far as I’m concerned, this woman has earned a permanent spot in the pantheon of saints.

My Aunt Bonnie had called earlier in the day, out of the blue, and offered us tickets to an orchestra concert that evening. I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to go and after the long delay at Parent Teacher Conference, I had just about decided to bag it when McKay begged me to take him. I don’t get to spend much time alone with McKay (alas, the poor overlooked middle child, the un-squeakiest of my four wheels). So I decided to take him to at least the first half. I was already in a carpe diem kind of mood anyway.

Another surprise awaited us, and it wasn’t the good kind this time: the orchestra was terrible. In their defense, it was the first concert of the season and they are all unpaid performers with little time for rehearsals, and I have been spoiled by the consummate professionalism of the Utah Symphony in Salt Lake, but still, I am not exaggerating when I say that they fumbled their way through the music, often out of synch and out of key. Ouch. Their second number was “Petrouchka” by Stravinsky. I like Stravinsky, but his music is hard to play and hard to listen to, even when it’s done well, which in this case it wasn’t. So I kept looking over at McKay, trying to judge by his expression and body language if he was suffering as much as I imagined he was. For a boy who hates to sit still and on Sundays spends the hour of Sacrament Meeting flopping around on the bench like a trout on a boat deck, he was strangely calm. I wondered if he had fallen into a catatonic state out of sheer boredom. I wrote a note to him on the program: “Do you like this?” And he wrote back, “Yes! Espesialy the loud and fast parts.”

Wonders never cease. This was probably the biggest surprise of the day. My son saw something in this death-by-musical-torture that I was completely missing. I sat through the rest of the piece in awe of McKay's sweet, boyish exuberance for all things loud and fast. At the intermission, we left to go home because it was late and still a school night. We found my aunt Bonnie in the lobby and she too asked McKay if he liked the Stravinsky piece. He told her, "I liked it because it wasn’t boring. It's fun when you never know what's coming next." I had to smile. He's got a great point there.


Ann Kroeker said...

This is one of those, "How'd she do that?" posts...weaving in dadaism with your daily activities, some history with King Louis XIV, a bit about your kids, a clever thread of humor...a memorable phrase or two or six...and then a great ending that ties it all up just right.

I'd like to borrow your brain for a day, stick it in my head, and see what it's like to live with those thoughts, images, and concepts flashing around and synthesizing with such powerful insight. That would be fun. I could borrow it to write a super-cool post on my blog, maybe even write several to save for later, when I don't have your brain anymore and I'm stuck with my own puny one.

I suppose that would be like my husband test driving a Porsche and then having to turn the keys back in and return to his eight-seat minivan. The van is nice, don't get me wrong, but it is a lot slower and utilitarian by comparison.

Ah, well, I'm stuck with the brain I was given, just like he'll never have the Porsche.

An Ordinary Mom said...

Umm, Ann about summed up my thoughts entirely. Although she is quite the Porsche, herself!

I wish when we met earlier this year that some of your brain cells would have rubbed off on me. The blogging niche I have found myself in is so full of excellent writers that I often feel like a fish out of water. All well, I am hoping to learn from all of you!

mindyluwho said...

I'll ditto the feeling of being a fish out of water, but I am enjoying being surrounded by great writers because I am learning so much.

I loved the line about your son "flopping around on the bench like a trout on a boat deck", it's such a great image! I'm going to laugh out loud in church next Sunday when I see my boys with the wiggles!

While both days were completely different, they sure sounded nice!

Geo said...

Dada with Mama

Excellent days, fine post. I think I'll go with the random today.

My Ice Cream Diary said...

Randomness has never sounded so wonderful.

Luisa Perkins said...

Would it be inappropriate to tell you that I love you? Don't worry; I also love Sedaris and Stravinsky. And McKay's note.

Theresa Bakker said...

This is the kind of essay that makes me wish essayists were rock stars, celebrated and feted and compensated accordingly. Wonderful stuff. Please tell me you work at this. That is takes a tiny bit of effort, at least.