Wednesday, April 18, 2012

April Madness

by J J Cohen

I snapped the picture I've used to illustrate this post yesterday at about seven in morning, as I walked the mile or so to the subway on my way to work. I typically cut through what a sign used to call the Willard Avenue Park, before the sign fell and was removed. Now there's an expanse of grass where a playground and building once stood, a brook that becomes Little Falls stream, a forest of bamboo and other invasive species, some enormous trees, and an asphalt path that cuts along a streetcar route dating to the early 1900s (it's a pedestrian path now). At some point twenty years ago or so this area was renovated into an oddly shaped urban park that cuts behind some busy roads. Now almost everything the park contained has fallen into ruin or been removed. Yet I love walking through the area to see how the bamboo is growing, to look up at the trees, to check if the ducks will be in the stream. This morning I saw the white bark of a tulip tree reflected in the water, which for once was mirror still. It seemed the best moment of the day. It was certainly the most tranquil.

Things have been busy, and I knew once I got to campus they'd be busier still. As March is to university basketball teams, so April is to faculty and students. Though on the calendar the spring semester appears to be exactly the same duration as autumn, those of us who have lived through its agonies multiple times can attest that spring passes about 50% more quickly. (Fun fact: if you spend the entire spring semester running rapidly, Einstein passed a law that makes it so that spring semester will pass 50.000000000087% more quickly. My advice is to walk. Very. Slowly. From. January. To. May.)

This temporal acceleration has its most pronounced effect on April, which stays true to its mendacious beginning on the 1st of the month by skipping the first few weeks and proceeding immediately to the middle of third. And here we are now. April Fool. On top of a semester ending, though, there is also the problem of an academic year coming to its termination. Those of us who are students have multiple papers to write, exams to complete, and assignments to finish (which may include Big Things like a dissertation or masters or honors thesis). Those of us who are faculty must grade these endeavors as well as file annual reports, possibly compose reports for various committees we serve upon, conclude the business year ... and meet the writing deadlines that tend to cluster around the end of April and beginning of May. True, I am on leave, so I don't have the papers to grade, but I am drowning in project deadlines: the final copyediting of AVMEO (almost there!), editing the Ecomaterialism essays (almost there!) and composing the introduction (some ideas sketched out, and possibly a form), editing the Prismatic Ecologies essay and writing my own piece (nary a thing done). Plus, you know, other things. The end of the semester takes its toll. The stress was palpable on campus yesterday. I mainly avoided it by hiding in my office ... but I did meet with one student, whom I got to know in my Chaucer class last year. She is quirky, creative, brilliant -- but always one step away from breakdown. I meet with her from time to time to check in and give a (heartfelt) pep talk. She deserves a better life than the one her parents gave her.

Yesterday was somber partly for that rendezvous, one in which I tried to get my student to focus beyond the impossibles of the next two weeks (novels to read! papers to write! tasks to finish! not enough time!) and to think about the month with a little more perspective. What will April look like from May, when everything's done? How about when college is done? Who do you want to be?

I've also been dealing with a domestic problem. Ninth grade is the most difficult our son has experienced. Without going into the details, I'll just say that he has faced some fairly profound challenges, some the fault of his school, others that he has brought upon himself. Perturbations reached a crisis point yesterday after some choices he made that were not, well, good choices. The whole day I was on edge, knowing that we were going to have an evening talk about what had transpired. What surprised us, though, was that even though the problem arose from actions displaying a lack of maturity (and had to do with that most fundamental of high school questions, how to fit in with a group and not feel like an awkward freak), Alex punished himself harder than any parent would. Once we understood what was going on it became easier for us to brainstorm a solution together. And we did. It's going to be a long road, but as we emphasized to Alex it is during these uncomfortable, even painful periods in life -- the ones that we want to rush through just so that they will be over -- that we shape our future selves. Despite the hurt, at such times the best gift we can give ourselves is to slow down and make well considered choices. These are the times during which we decide who we will be. These are the times out of which our best selves arise. I've learned that fact from my own hard experience. And I relearn it every time I speak with someone who has been going through a rough period (lately, that is quite a few people I know).

Now I can see that this post is all about time: how when we don't want time to throw us forward, it does, and how when we wish it would propel us quickly out of that which hurts, fortunately for us it seldom responds to our request. To make an art of the gradual: what better can we do in troubling times?

Here's hoping that if April is not treating you well, thoughts of a better May will pull you through. Bon courage!


Fridrikr inn gamli Tomasson said...

Hi, JJ,

As the father of two daughters (24 & 20), I can assure you that you're not alone. Our daughters both have made choices that sometimes frustrate and infuriate us. But, in the end, two things remain true. First, they learn from their mistakes (as we do from ours as parents); second, we still all love one another.

I hope things improve for you. Hang tough!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for the encouraging words, Fridrikr. It can be easy to lose sight of the fact that these travails of passage are completely normal: a person has to go through them (and a family has to go through them) to grow. Alex is already a better (stronger) person for learning what he has about himself -- and, at this point, even though I'm distressed by some of his choices in the end I'm really impressed by the maturity and strength he has demonstrated in their wake.

Anne said...

I've been thinking I've gone insane all alone out here what with feeling like I'm running all the time and getting nowhere. Your post reminds me that there is a greater vortex sapping our focus and ease. Add to that, or beneath it all, love for our children and the worry and the poignancy, and well, yes, it's April madness all around. Thank you for writing this - it's hard. Your son is lucky to have you for a father.

Sarah Rees Jones said...

I think Ninth Grade is for 14 year olds? Anyway that is a tough time for all concerned (with biological roots) but also fun and exciting as you get to be more independent from your parents. There will be highs, I am sure, as well as lows.

Sorry I just added to your work burden too - but in fact I only noticed one query in relation to your piece.