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Incomplete: Fall Back

November 3, 2018



41 years ago it was dark.

“Daylight Savings” had not happened, but I was fully deficit spending any time I could steal. In the last 10 months I had done almost everything except what was the central purpose of going to college – my undergraduate thesis.

The idea was that I would get a Bachelor of Architecture degree a semester early, the quickest ticket to making things. Cornell had opted to make me a guinea pig for a full year’s Undergraduate Thesis (they normally did a semester), and so far I had completely failed their faith.

But my second semester’s Midterm was the Monday after this weekend in 1977. It was the end of the third quarter of a full year of intention without adequate effort.

The last semesters of my 4 first years were crazy because in trying to get out early I had overloaded courses, sacrificing 2 of them to pass others (i.e. I failed a couple of requirements) and so the make-up semesters of work were layered on in this last gasp. I know now that the distractions of that year were fully compelling – a woman, an arts festival, student senate battle, the crises of my Advisees as an RA, then a new job, and on and on – all blinding in their empowering gratification of my 22 year old ego because I had zero perspective, no advice, nothing but the moment to guide me.

My parents were away and silent – as old as I am today, but without any parental mission. My academic “adviser” knew me well enough to throw up his arns. My thesis professors were either drunk (one) or pretty sure I was dead meat (the other).

But, I had an extra hour.

I could turn the clocks BACK this weekend. I had an EXTRA hour. At 22, that was HUGE. Until I saw it for what it was: a sad make-up call of a moment that was inconsequential and soon spent.

But at Cornell the only answer was work – more than half of my class had decided to leave the program (“the best” then and now) or get a non-professional degree: they had perspective enough to see that the insane work load and impossible expectations were simply too much. So failure was all around me. as was the intoxication of work.

You can fail, but until death, you can work.

I stayed at it all those weekend’s 73 hours (up from 72) and pulled stuff together as best I could. at the end of the 72+1 hours, zillions of incomplete, overwrought drawings and scribbled-out perspectives were hung in some room, and a few professors showed up. They heard my desperate ramblings and looked unimpressed. My lead professor (the other, somewhere else, drunk) shook his head.

He knew, I knew, that I had a long way to go. Here, now, but in the arc of a life spent largely without parents, let alone siblings, or others who cared for me beyond my chosen family of contemporaries, I was fully with the results of my incomprehension. Choices have consequences, and the consequence for me was the inevitability of the necessity for extreme effort to avoid complete failure. A metaphor, but also a model that I and my favored few followed.

I had the family I chose in those mid-1970’s. A group who largely lived as I did: feasted on love relationships, artistic expression, the joy of reveling in near complete spontaneity and devotion to those devotions immediately before us.

There was no year beyond this one, no relationship beyond what awaited you for a few hours at 3AM after a long day trying to be a genius. No meaning beyond the night of drinking after the midterm review where I was, again, pronounced “Incomplete”. Accurately.

In truth pretty much my entire life to that moment had been “Incomplete”. I lived for the “extension”, the avoidance of accountability beyond the immediate explosions of daily life, which were many. I knew that there was a future. I knew that I could work. Other than that I really knew nothing.

So I lived for that extra hour. Unearned. Given. Fully used, appreciated, but in the end known to be meaningless, because thousands upon thousands of hours before it created the fires I now knew I had to put out.

In the intervening 41 years I still thrill at the extra hour. It lets me do this. It offers a make-up call to all the miscalculations I confront every day. Without perspective, or a careful plan, or even much more than work.

It has been enough, so far.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. November 3, 2018 4:02 pm

    School was certainly different than now (I too, never had enough time and ability to get the things done that had to be done), but I think I have a different approach to that extra hour. To me, it is a time to determinedly not pursue the current tasks and projects. Take a giant step backward out of my life for precisely one hour, and do something I otherwise wouldn’t have time to even consider doing. I read an actual book. I go somewhere I have been meaning to go to, but never can squeeze in, or go clean up a mess somewhere that I’ve been meaning to deal with for as long as I can remember, but have failed to address for too long.

    As painful as the loss of that hour is in the Spring, the gaining of the hour in the fall should be a celebratory event.

  2. Kristie Rubendunst permalink
    November 3, 2018 5:34 pm

    I love your reflections and this one especially resonates: I’m in my penultimate semester at YDS – an overwhelming place and time to “be.” There seems to me a much-heightened and inevitable quality of aloneness, even in the midst of a community yearning to be connected. But it is test time and term paper time. Time fleets and time management sometimes (at times like these) takes to much time. Extensions as well as grace are much needed by many. Usually seen through the lens of necessity as an extra hour before a deadline or an extra hour of sleep, it is never enough. Nonetheless, the gift of your perspective on a single extra hour illumes and inspires me afresh! 🌅

  3. Stuart permalink
    November 5, 2018 4:16 pm

    Love the story. Seems you were watching me under the microscope of the new 5 year program at SUNY-ESF. I can only look back and shake my head. Boy was I lucky. As they were about to finish the 1:00PM-Friday-due date-Senior-Project reviews (they were going alphabetically) the professor was called away. The last 6 students were told they’d continue the reviews on Monday. My academic career was saved by a really good grade on that project. If I remember correctly, it was finished Sunday evening.

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