Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Family Camp 2009

Family camp was challenging this summer. I went with my sister and her husband, my twin four-year-old niece and nephew, and my six-month-old nephew, the latest addition to the family. I’d spent whole summers here as a kid in the 80’s, and first attended family camp - a one week session at the end of August after the regular camps have shut down, in August of 1998 with my sister. Neither one of us had been on this land in years. Its just like regular summer camp; there are lots of outdoor activities, crafts, and a talent show at the end of the week, but you sleep in a cabin with your family instead of a bunch of kids your age, and there’s far fewer staff. My sister met her husband at family camp the first year we attended - he was on staff, and they’ve been back every year since except the summer she gave birth to the twins. I make it back about every other year.

We slept in a rustic open air cabin that had a doorway but no door, and a section along an entire wall starting at chest height that was open to the elements. Bunk beds lined the three remaining walls, ten in all. The twins each had their own bunk, and my sister and her husband slept with the six-month-old on two air mattresses pressed together in the middle of the floor. At night after everyone else was asleep I climbed into my bunk as stealthily as I could, my sleeping bag squeaking against the cheap thin mattress underneath it that was covered in plastic ticking. I was amazed that I didn’t wake anyone up in the process. At regular intervals during the night first one twin and then the other would wake up needing to pee. One of their parents would help them down from their bed, pull down their pajama bottoms, and sit their bare bottoms onto a plastic potty on the floor, inches from my head. From my perch I listened as a rain of piss exited their blameless bodies, and they settled back into their bunks. Sometimes one or the other of them would wake up inconsolably cranky, and with no closed-door space available, would keep the rest of us up for as long as it took to settle them back down.

It’s not like I didn’t know how this arrangement would work. I’d done the same thing last summer, in the same cabin in fact, but in the way that its easy to forget the pain of stubbing your toe, getting a paper cut, or giving birth (so I’ve been told), I had forgotten about the nightly sleep interruptions and subsequent haze that passed over me the next morning. There are people who can function on little sleep, I’ve never been one of them. If I don’t get a full eight hours I have to make up for it the next night; its one of the main reasons I’ve never become a straight A student, a type A personality or a superhero. Parenthood necessitates functioning on little sleep, and my sister and her husband have become as accustomed to it as they’ll ever be. I, however, have not.

One night the drumming circles at Vermont Witch Camp, just across the lake, mixed with hoots and shouts and floated across Woodward Reservoir in the dark. Somehow I was the only one in the cabin that lay awake listening, although I heard reports the next day that others at family camp had been disturbed from their sleep too. They sounded like they were having fun, and I secretly wanted to slither out of my sleeping bag, tiptoe out of the cabin and follow the sounds of drumming until I found them. Hannah, the program director for family camp, said the witches go through three urns of coffee every morning, compared to just one at Family Camp. No wonder they were up so late.

There was a square dance last night, and the camp is sleeping in this morning. I’m at the waterfront watching mist rise from the top of the water and move across the surface towards route 100. Amika, one of the lifeguards, is sitting in a rowboat waiting for the early morning swimmers to arrive. The last time I saw her she was an infant. I babysat for her once or twice in high school, now she guards my life at the waterfront. She’s not the only one with that distinction this summer - Cody, the nurse, was a baby the last time I saw him. Now he dispenses ibuprofen to me in packets containing two pills each, and takes my temperature with a digital thermometer covered in a sanitary plastic sleeve before telling me its 98.6 and sending me on my way. I’ve felt slightly off the entire week, and its become a subject of conversation among the neighbors. Three people have approached me with “I hear you’re not feeling well.” Its not the kind of information that would generally make headlines, but among these hundred people, out here in the woods with no electronic distraction, it becomes news.

My sister and her family left the dance early to put the kids to bed last night, and I searched for a spot to hang out and read. I came up short - the main lodge was still being used for dancing, and the first floor of the “cozy lodge” was being used as a sleepover spot for kids, so I climbed the stairs of the cozy lodge thinking that I remembered a room or two upstairs where I could take refuge. There was a light on in what used to be the staff room, and I knocked lightly on the door before opening it, revealing a scene of teenaged idle; all that was missing was black light posters, Led Zeppelin and weed. Four teens were reclining on old, musty couches, looking up at me laconically.
“Is this the hangout room?” I sputtered, and immediately regretted my choice of words.
“No,” came the lazy, pointed reply from one of the girls.
“I’m looking for a place to hang out,” I said, digging myself a deeper hole and proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am a certified geek - what thirty-eight-year-old comes to family camp and walks around alone in the dark with a backpack and a flashlight, asking kids if they can hang out? “And I can’t find one.”
“Sorry,” one of them says, I can’t remember which one, and I close the door. I stand in the dark hallway for a moment and am transported to a thousand terrible moments of rejection from my youth. Finally I walk ten paces to the room that used to be the camp library. I flip the light switch on and look around. The books are still here, some that I recognize - Our Bodies, Ourselves, to name one, and a closet full of motley dress up clothes that have been donated by campers and staff over the years.
“Well,” I say out loud, “this is as good as it gets,” and plop my nerdy, severely post-pubescent ass onto a hard wooden bench and dig for the book I’ve been toting around in my backpack all week - A.J. Jacobs’ “The Know-It-All,” a chronicle of one man’s attempt to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z. Reading about his quest makes me feel slightly less nerdy, and it comforts me as I sit alone, slumped over a bench in the dress-up room across the hall from a room full of self-satisfied teens.

I first came to this camp when I was nine years old. My parents had just split, and my sister, mother and I moved back to Brooklyn from a small unincorporated town on the outskirts of Geneva, Switzerland, where our closest neighbors were dairy farmers. A few days after landing, my sister and I were loaded up on a charter bus at Port Authority, and four white-knuckled hours later ended up in this green valley. I spent a month with a bunch of other nine-year-olds in a cabin called Crickets, which stood until sometime last year. Its been replaced with a new structure, also called Crickets, that’s cleaner and no doubt safer, but has none of the dark wood graffiti-ed charm of the original. Last summer, just before leaving, I walked through the old Crickets looking for my name scrawled into it, but couldn’t find it. It had been too many years, and I wrote it too small. I did find my friend Annie’s name in several spots. “Annie C. was here,” she wrote in two inch high letters with permanent marker. I remember being angry with her for doing it, thinking it was undignified and obnoxious to write her name so many times, in such big letters, and to do it the year after she actually lived in the cabin. Annie was about eight months older than me, and we knew each other in Switzerland, where we were enrolled in the same class at the international school that all the ex-pat kids attended. Soon after I moved back to the states her family moved to Germany. We spent our first summer at camp together in Crickets, the next year I stayed in Crickets while she graduated to a cabin about twenty feet away called Heffalumps. It was that second summer that she came back to deface Crickets. All these years later it was the only recognizable graffiti I could find. We ended up going to the same college for about a year until we both transferred out, and the last I heard she was living in a halfway house in Colorado.

The perfect stillness of the misty waterfront scene is broken when Amika asks “are you getting in the water?” to the only other person down here, “because I’d like to go to breakfast.”

Many of the qualities that define me come from this place: a skeptical view of all things political, a tendency to break into spontaneous song, and a penchant for nudity. The camps have changed since I was a kid. The outhouses are newer, they have doors on them, and are separated into stalls. They used to have two or three seats in a row with an open air window and no doors, sometimes a four seater set up with two rows back to back. The hygiene practices surrounding them has evolved too. Now there’s an elaborate process involving sawdust, bleach, and disinfectant to spray on the spigot after washing your hands. It had never occurred to me that after you wash your hands you touch the same faucet that you touched when they were covered in outhouse microbes. The spigots used to be outfitted with a bar of Ivory soap hanging limply in plastic netting attached to a nail. They’d melt in the rain, leaving a gooey gray stain in the dirt. Now there are plastic liquid soap dispensers mounted to the sides of every spigot. Hand washing before meals has gone through a similar evolution. I don’t remember what the process was when I was a kid, maybe some of us washed our hands but I’m pretty sure I never did; now it involves washing hands and then squirting them with Purell, dispensed from gallon sized pump bottles set up on benches outside the dining hall.

I’m acutely aware that I am here without my husband. M’s idea of a wilderness getaway is to stay in a closed cabin no farther than ten minutes by car from a grocery store that has electricity, indoor plumbing, and if not an Internet connection then at least a TV that picks up local broadcast channels. I got him out here years ago, before we were married, and despite the challenges he had a good time. There was a genuine thrill in seeing him try so many things for the first time. One of the many family camp traditions is something called "climb up the mountain", which happens just before meals when everyone stands in a big circle. Someone will call out an item, like: “climb up the mountain if you milked a cow today,” and all the adults and kids who did barn chores will walk in to the middle of the circle, receive a smattering of applause, and then walk back to their places. Then someone else will say “climb up the mountain if you did the ropes course today,” or whatever item they want to call attention to. The first year that M attended family camp, before one of the last meals of the week, the camp director called out “climb up the mountain if you tried one new thing this week that you’ve never done before,” and just about everyone walked into the circle. Then he said “climb up the mountain if you did two new things this week,” and a bunch of people walked into the circle. He kept upping the number of new things until finally only M remained in the circle, and I counted off on my fingers and said out loud to the group all the new things he’d tried, which went something like this: first time sleeping in an open air cabin; first time using an outhouse; first time canoeing; first time away from the Internet for a whole week since its invention; first time away from television for a whole week; first time not spending money for a whole week; first time going a week without driving; first time milking a cow (his reaction to touching a cow’s teat was a genuinely surprised “It’s warm!”); among many others that I no longer remember. The director told us that M had made his dream of getting a true city boy to participate in the wilderness of family camp come true, and M and I both felt like we’d accomplished something.

As fun as that first time at family camp with M was, it couldn’t really be recreated. Perhaps because he knew what he was in for, his approach when he returned a few summers later was that of a man who knew his limits, and it just wasn’t as fun without the element of adventurous novelty. Now when I come to family camp its with my sister and her family, and I go home blissed out on the wilderness, my legs and armpits hairy, a bandanna on my head, and I slowly re-enter the civilized world on an as-needed basis.

There’s a few of us here without our husbands or significant others, but not many. Some of the regulars who I’ve come to know over the years approach the subject gingerly.
“And uh, M…. is he still, uh… in the picture?” they’ll say, wanting to ask, but not wanting to pry. There have been a number of divorces among the families that regularly attend over the years, so it’s a fair question.
“Yeah,” I’ll say, “he’s at home, working to support me in the lifestyle to which I have become accustomed,” my standard hilarious unemployment joke. There is at least one other woman here without her husband - Betty, who I met my first summer at family camp, and always enjoy spending time with. She comes to family camp with various iterations of her family from year to year - some years with her husband and three kids, sometimes with an extended clan of sisters and brothers and nieces and nephews, other times its just her and one or two of her kids - this week she’s here with her nine year old and her sixteen year old. Sometimes her sister Carol, who I also met the first year I came to family camp, joins the group. They’re roughly ten to fifteen years older than me, and I look to their sisterhood as a model for my own; like me and my sister, Betty and Carol are six years apart, and like me and my sister, Betty and Carol live very different lifestyles, but they manage to find common ground and have a good time together. I can always count on being completely goofy with Betty and Carol, and this summer is no different. My first summer at family camp I led the three of us through the pitch dark to the sauna, without even a flashlight, relying solely on my powers of recollection from walking through these camps as a youth. They were duly impressed, and we spent the evening alternately sweating in the heat of the sauna and diving into Woodward Reservoir to cool ourselves off.

Early this week Betty and I came up with the seed of what will become a very silly talent show piece, and when Carol joined family camp mid-week (during the first half she was cycling from Portland, Maine to Plymouth, Vermont), we got her into the act - a mock infomercial for a set of CDs of family camp songs. I write the text, and Betty and Carol go over it with me and offer suggestions. Betty is a writer and Carol is a voice coach, so between them I get all the advice I need. We rehearse rigorously, meeting before and after meals, and going over notes. I have no idea if anyone else will think our act is funny, but we have so much fun rehearsing that I don’t care. People overhear us as they walk past our open-air rehearsals with amused expressions on their faces. Friday night arrives, and Betty and I both get stage fright even though we’re so far down on the bill that half the campers have already gone to bed by the time we're up. Carol, being a performer, is in top form. When we’re called to the stage we take our places and I launch into my spiel.

“Are you like me?” I begin, as Betty and Carol stand on either side of me, miming deep thought, “do you cherish the week you spend at family camp and wish there were some way that you could capture the essence of family camp magic to take with you into your everyday life?” Betty and Carol nod vigorously. “Well wish no longer, call now for this limited edition, never before released recording of all your favorite family camp hits, such as…” and we launch into our medley of campfire favorites.

A few minutes later the piece is finished, and the audience applauds our efforts. After the talent show is over, Jonah, the precocious fourteen-year-old who MC’ed the event along with my brother-in-law, approaches me. Jonah is a strong presence at family camp, he and his diminutive eight-year-old sister spend several hours every day helping in the kitchen, and Jonah announces what we’re having at every single meal, stepping into the middle of our pre-meal circle wearing a white apron, sometimes a chef’s hat, and without a smidge of self-consciousness tells us what to expect at our tables. He’d spent the summer as a political intern in his home state of New Jersey, and follows the Daily Show and the Colbert Report with an insight as sharp as I’ve seen on any adult.

“I just had to tell you that when I think something is really funny I cough,” he begins, “and I coughed through your whole skit. Did you write that?”
“Thank you so much Jonah, yes, I did write that,” I say, and we begin what becomes a half hour conversation on writing, politics, and anything else that pops into our heads. Its raining steadily outside, and I have a poncho and an umbrella. Jonah has neither, and he disappears into the cozy lodge to look for rain gear. I consider how much effort it would take to walk him to his cabin under the shelter of my umbrella, and then come back to the lodge by myself. I go into the cozy lodge after him. I don’t see him on the first floor so I climb the stairs, the light is on in the staff room and someone shuts the door abruptly before I reach it. I go back down the stairs and find him on the first floor.
“I can walk you to your cabin,” I say, “I have an umbrella.”
“Did you see the teens up there?” He asks.
“Yeah, uh, I think Britney is up there, and uh, some others…”
“Thanks,” he says holding his hands up to his chest, palms out, a look of earnest gratitude in his face, “but I’m going to go hang out with the teens now.” There’s no trace of rejection in his voice, just the honest acknowledgment that he and I belong to different sociological strata at family camp.
“Okay, have a good night.” I say, and walk back to the adult world of the main lodge.

The rain gets harder, and by the time I walk into our cabin its so loud that I don’t have to be stealthily quiet as I change into my damp pajamas and climb into my squeaky bunk. Everyone slept well that night. I woke up once to find a small person squatting on the potty next to my bunk, but the sound of dispensing urine melted in with the rainfall, and I slept right through both the preamble of waking up and asking for help, and the postscript of being led back to bed and tucked in again.


Oski said...

I love this so much, Jess. And not just because of what you wrote about you and me and Carol and how much fun it is, but because reading it, I felt whooshed right back to camp. You nailed all the conflicts, the confusions, the powerful nature of the place and experience!

Stay tuned. When I get my tech savvy self in gear, I'm going to send you the video of our performance!!!!

j.cro said...

I loved reading about your experiences as a kid and in the now. In a certain way, your writing lets me feel like I was there with you.