Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Good Read: Cabin Pressure

I never learned to dive, I never had my own set of Legos, and I never went to summer camp.

These are the disadvantages of my youth that my children will never endure. They dive (in their own way), they have more Legos than Legoland (although they seldom play with them), and they all (by the time they are 10) have gone—or will go—to summer camp.

What I have missed, I have recovered (vicariously, at least) through the words of Josh Wolk, who, at age 34, returned to Camp Eastwind to recapture the summer camp experience he enjoyed throughout his adolescence.

Wolk returned to camp not to impart any great wisdom or life lessons to young campers. His motives were purely selfish: to return to his favorite place on earth and bid a fond farewell to his life as a single person, as he was engaged that summer.

His experiences as a 30something camp counselor are documented in Cabin Pressure: One Man's Desperate Attempt to Recapture His Youth as a Camp Counselor, which I checked out from the library almost six weeks ago and had to renew because I'm enjoying reading some chapters again and again. (Maybe I should just buy the book.)

Wolk's memories and experiences are like fiction to me. All I know about camp, I learned from my kids. I once visited my son on Parents Night midway through a week of Boy Scout Camp. We explored the dining hall, the campgrounds, the lake shore. As we were walking from tent to tent, I asked, "So, where do you take showers?"

"Oh, I don't take showers. I just swim in the lake."

When he came home a few days later, I emptied his suitcase and found an unopened tube of toothpaste. "What's this? You didn't use toothpaste?"

"No, I didn't brush my teeth."

"The entire week?"

"No. The bathrooms were kind of dirty. You wouldn't want to use them either." I began to ponder other hygiene habits, but ultimately decided what I don't know won't kill me—although the stink might.

In the years that my kids have attended camp, we have amassed a respectable stockpile of unused disposable cameras and enough unused stamps to wallpaper a small bathroom. While kids are at summer camp, they become immersed in their own little culture. Best I can tell, preserving and sharing memories is not part of their camp experience.

But it was for Wolk, even if he did wait until he was in his 30s to do it.

An excerpt:
"In an all-boy environment with no parents to noodge them or girls to impress, many of the campers would go a whole summer without touching soap if their hands weren't forced. I always thought the real reason we had a barbecue dinner outside every Saturday night was because by that point of the week, the collective stink of the camp was too strong to risk being brought indoors. This was why on Sunday mornings every camper had to take a mandatory shower."

And another:
"When I was a camper and a counselor, I heard the same life lessons week after week, year after year. But they always moved me, because I felt the same things. It was like being in a political convention for your party, where every speech confirmed your worldview: I totally know what you mean about a canoe being like life, sometimes you need someone behind you steering, and sometimes you need to steer! And in pottery, we can make something out of a lump of clay, just like in life we have to make our own opportunities! And I will vote yes on mountain climbing being a metaphor for man's need to respect nature!"

See? This is good stuff! Especially if, like me, you never went to camp. When my kids return home each summer, I badger them with questions and pleas of "tell me more!" and "then what happened?" The uncomfortable part about Cabin Pressure is that I now know they probably aren't telling me EVERYthing. And that's probably also the greatest part.