June 26, 2006

Camp hell-in-the-woods

Among my recent chick lit reading was a novel by Isabel Rose that attempted to deconstruct the summer camp experience; however, as a survivor of such an experience myself, I noticed a few glaring omissions that she might want to address. The novel could have satirized the experience -- or even embraced it -- with far more attention to the irony of the enterprise than Rose seems to possess.

Ninety-year-old-plus summer camps for overprivileged Jews, at least in Maine, completely omit -- or they did in my day -- any religious references whatsoever. These are not the summer homes for the just-moved-from-the-Bronx-to-the-'burbs children; they are the homes of those whose mothers attended the same such summer camps in the 1930s and 1940s, if not earlier.

My cousin's children, for example, are third generation campers and one has already graduated to college age. She is teaching rock climbing this summer at the camp I was asked to leave -- and was I ever glad to go.

(Apparently there was an unwritten rule about 13 year olds bringing their own supply of cocktails to share with their bunkmates. Don't ask me what happened that night. All I know is I woke up in the infirmary the next day with an exceedingly bad case of bed-head hair, and I did not have a hangover. My parents were dispatched to pick me up in short order.)

It was a nasty, athletically competitive environment. Team sports have never been my forte; throwing and catching a ball of any size has never appealed to me. If my sister campers got to pick who they want on teams, I was dead last. Destined for the outfield, where I could do the least amount of damage and participate as little as possible, I suppose it was nice that no one expected much of me. That way, no one was disappointed.

Pre-adolescent and adolescent girls can be cruel -- as a late bloomer, physically and sexually, I took more than my share of comments about my flat chest and lack of make-out experience. The only thing I liked to do was go camping and mountain climbing, because it got me off the premises. The only way I would ascend a mountain today is if sherpas carried me. Apart from that, nature and I are not the closest of friends.

I bring this up because it's summer camp season, and as an adult, I wouldn't mind eight solid weeks of playtime, even if I would have to write my mother twice a week to get into dinner. Granted, I much preferred the art and dance focused camp I later attended, when my tennis game was considered sufficiently passable for me to play co-ed tennis with the boys camp, but that speaks less of my athletic ability than the fact I was a 14-year-old warm body, belatedly blooming, with proper tennis attire. I liked to be creative; I did not like to sweat.

The other revelations in the chick lit entry that lack clarity are a) the discovery that although you may be level competitors (not that I was or wanted to be) on the various playing fields and competitive sports teams, when you reach the age of the standardized test, you will realize that some of one's sister campers have less cognitive ability than others.

And b) not all princesses are created equal. Some are second or third generation inheritors, and as these women mature, they tend to become more aware of economic discrepancies than those who assume, incorrectly, that every camper has a nearly identical socioeconomic background. Most lacking is any indication that it is possible to be a) nominally Jewish b) well-off and c) not having any princessy tendencies.

I do wonder why we were taught to scrub bunk toilets when the chances of our doing so in our own parents' homes, much less as adults were slim to none (so that we would know how to instruct the maid, observes one of my genetically WASPier friends), much less make beds without contour sheets. Should I be grateful the camp I attended didn't push do-it-yourself laundry on us?

As an adult I have achieved heights of domestic incompetence that enable me to call myself domestically impaired, if not disabled. That I cannot blame on the summer camp bunk chart-wheel: when it was my turn to do left sweep, I swept. Right bathroom, I scrubbed. But it is a blessing that no one let me near a hot stove (last week I burned myself making a frozen pizza) or the laundry room (where I overloaded the washer with soap and flooded the entire room).

Then, too, there is an observation I honestly fail to understand: if we children knew, circa 1970, of certain counselors' Sapphic tendencies, why does it come as such a surprise to a younger generation? I went to all-girls camps from 1969 to 1975 -- the sexual revolution was in full swing, and, as Crosby Stills & Nash used to sing, "if you can't be with the one you love, honey, love the one you're with."

At camp hell-in-the-woods, I can't say there was anyone I even had a crush on; at my artsy-creative camp, I was entranced by a few girls.

But that was more than 30 years ago, and now summer vacation is a few long weekends at best. Alas, it is the one thing I would like to bring back from my childhood -- only with better food, fewer athletic demands, and maid service. Send me off to writer's camp, and I'll have leisurely mornings, intellectual afternoons, lengthy swims in the lake of my choice, and a few drinks at the local pub chatting about literature before retiring for the night. That, at the moment, sounds like the good life.

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