Rapid Rabbit Respiration
I gave up my adjunct teaching position at Pace College (now Pace University) after only three years, in 1990. The truth is that I grew weary of and exasperated by my students, by the petty disputes that seemed to sustain them, by their refusal to grant me any authority over them by virtue of my modest position. Perhaps, I said to myself, I hadn't earned any such authority, but I was convinced that were Max Planck to wander in to try his hand at teaching Physics 101, he would have been dissed in much the same way. It was cultural and it got worse from year to year.
The last class that I taught was called "The Use and Abuse of the Cliché in Modern American Literature." I thought that it would be fun to trace the origins of now-tired expressions and also to explore how, tired as they are, they might be used to place a character, by inference, into a certain sub-culture or social class, and how they might be enlivened by being used unexpectedly in a literal sense, for example. The man selling newspapers at the kiosk at 81st and Broadway who could not stop repeating his tale of a pedestrian that he saw killed by a box truck at that very intersection some years ago, the man left "flat as a pancake" for 20 minutes until the cops arrived and screened the corpse from view. In a much different narrative, a Perelman story in The New Yorker that traced a bear hunt in the Black Forest, was Hector's hound literally "barking up the wrong tree?"
The straw that broke the camel's back, as it were, was a singular dispute with young Andreas DeVoto about an otherwise forgettable tale of his, no doubt closely mirroring an incident in his own life, when, to escape a knife fight, it became prudent to fly down the stairs into the Chambers St. Station and jump the turnstile, with his enemies in hot pursuit. The doors of the Z train clipped one of his heels as they shut. It was a near thing. He came within "a hare's breath" of being stabbed or beaten, "to a pulp" of course.
Andreas, drawing on two trips to the Prospect Park Zoo, insisted that the respiration of a rabbit is both so rapid and so shallow that the animal, at rest, appears to get by without breathing at all. This is well known. And it's an illusion that has come to turn the respiration of the rabbit into a stand-in for any ephemeral iota. Something like that.
After that insistence that I could not wear down, I decided to fold my cards and my tent; I threw in the towel when it came to teaching.