The Tao of Summer Camp: Complexity in a Word

Last week, I spent many hours in the car and a few out in the wilderness north and west of New York City.  My oldest child and I were “touring” potential sleep-away camps.  I know that’s a whole year away.  But any educator (or child) knows the truth of these dog days.  The start of August only means one thing: it’s fall already.  August is when I look up from whatever I’m usually not finished with and move on to plotting the end of December.

But my coming sabbatical shifted this August’s gaze. Instead of looking up toward the future of the fall semester, my son and I looked out. We glanced past the borders of the Bronx and into the bunks, bugs, lakes, mountains and potential memories for summer 2013.  Here was the plan: three stops in four days and the perfect fit for my son’s first experience away would be revealed—a place that would match my big dreams and modest budget and his fantasy/nightmare of leaving home.

An element of the ridiculousness trailed me as I left the library and focused on the navigation system programmed for the occasion.  My friend, a social worker, helped me concretize the impossibility of this quest.  She asked me what we were looking for in a summer camp.  The reality of the question—was this not the ultimate example of helicopter parenting?—was as revealing as my answer.  I was in search of nothing short of the simplicity of childhood.  That’s all.  Sleep-away camp as enlightenment.

Two decades of devotion to deconstruction and Dylan and I was sure I had stopped worshipping the idols of ideals.  And months of reading systems and chaos theory settled me, I thought, comfortably into a realm of post-humanism that left aspirations like childhood innocence behind.

But it turns out that theory is no match for motherhood.  Three exits on the Taconic and I realized that I was on a journey for certainty and truth, if only achieved vicariously through my children.

I believe, really I do, in complexity.  No, I don’t believe in it.  We are it.  All of us live “in a moment of unprecedented complexity” as Mark C. Taylor writes in The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture.   We are active participants in transformations but not independent agents in this networked reality.  Information, knowledge, and change move in patterns not lines.  Whether cells or culture, pedagogy or parenting, systems evolve “between too much and too little order” (Taylor 14).  This is self-organization: the constant recursive process of emergence and enactment.

Where was recursion on this excursion?  I had signed up for tours where the guides convinced us that everything was in place for our children to have their four weeks of programmed nirvana.

The summer began with me rethinking the 1990’s and the culture wars, reading David Denby’s Great Books and Michael Berube’s Public Access. It was ending on a road to nowhere, navigating a minivan motivated by magical thinking and driven by the ghost of Rousseau.

So it was something of a surprise to discover that the search was, as it always is, about something other than finding a future.  And I found this at a place where the past persists and where where my memories–of childhood, family, fantasies of a future–are most muddled: deep regret and sorrow mixed with unparalleled (still) camaraderie.

On day two of our journey, my son and I walked down the steps to Lake Ellis.  Here was where I spent several summers as a lifeguard, my last one in 1992.  As soon as I saw our reflection in that water I realized what this trip was for. It wasn’t enlightenment.  And it wasn’t its counterthesis either. What I was after has a word but not a definition. I was after “crodje.”

“Defining crodje gives you crodje.” That’s how my brother David would reluctantly respond (head cocked, eyes glanced anywhere but forward) when a few hapless campers, confused enough to seek a definition from camp-conceived linguistic eurekas, would beg for meaning.  From the end of the 1980’s to the mid 1990’s, there was a whole vocabulary concocted  by David (and sometimes by my sister and me too).  In the ecosystem that is camp—ripe as it is for spreading viruses and languages—David’s lexicon spread fast and stuck. But none was as powerful as the ultimate camp word he coined.  “Crodje.”

Crodje is a word, but it’s also a place, a state, a way.  It’s the essence of the contradiction of childhood (and, it seems, near mid-life):  once we know we are in it, it’s already gone.

Crodje is not a perfect good time.  But it’s not cynicism either.  It’s being present in the middle of possibility and reality.

Here are some things that are crodje: sabbatical, summer, swimming.   They are emergent and enacted–recreating and already embedded in something. How do you hold onto that split second when you are not wet, not dry, not in motion but not still—suspended in air, about to submerge? Who knows.  That’s crodje.

So is the euphoria of (finally) finding friends who laugh at your jokes, only to understand that they disappear when the first fall winds of late August blow. You’re sixteen and fifty pages into Persuasion and then the realization: you’ll never again “find” Jane Austen. Crodje.

Crodje is recognition that matters and it’s nearly impossible to be without.

See you in September.

About Jessica Yood

I am an Associate Professor of English at Lehman College, The City University of New York (CUNY). Composition and Rhetoric is my primary field and research into the history and emerging role of writing in our contemporary culture continues to broaden my definition of this discipline. Work for my book project takes me into the history of literary criticism in America, complexity theories, the culture wars and the intellectual crises of the 1990s, and the enduring complexity of first-year writing and writers.
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