Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Why Camp friends are the BEST FRIENDS!

            Camp friends are there for each other.
            I mean this seriously, and I don’t take saying this lightly, either. Other friends are there for each other, too. “Being there” for your friends is a consequence of friendship.
            But the way camp friends are hard wired to “be there for each other” stretches deeper than the typified ideas of friendship in contemporary America.
Friendship might be defined as putting someone else’s needs before your own, perhaps, but the sort of mentality that embodies camp friendships doesn’t separate that friend’s needs from your own. The friend’s needs, wishes, desires are your own. Getting your friend a slice of pizza is as second nature as buying yourself a slice of pizza.
And if your best camp friend happens to be vegan, then you order the cheese-less pizza. You don’t even think about it, you just do it. Pizza is still pretty good without cheese.
            Maybe it’s because we lived together, because we became ourselves together. I always used to think of it that way: that my camp friends knew me before I was me. I still think this is true to an extent. They knew the rawest version of me, the twelve-year-old who hadn’t yet discovered social pretense and the eight-year-old who only wanted to play soccer or play with her action figures.
            The people who meet me today will never know these things about me. I’m too good at hiding them now.
I do think, however, there’s something to be said about knowing why someone is the way they are. It’s a deeper kind of love, one that doesn’t place any restrictions on knowing someone. I’ll never forget the first time I saw my bunkmate Rachel cry. We were eight, and on an out-of-camp trip to Old Orchard Beach at the end of the summer, a tradition that persists at Mataponi even today.
Rachel was crying because she lost all her money, and seeing her cry broke my heart. Her green eyes were bulging and tears were pouring out of them, and this was all from someone who was usually so strong (as strong as you can be as an eight-year-old, but my perception is obviously different now).
It broke my heart, it really did, I’m sure that’s why I still have the memory with me, and I also remember that we all shared our money with her, chipped in to buy her an ice cream cone and a pickle on a stick. I’m sure it must not have been much, we probably had about five dollars each, but it was enough to get her to stop crying. It was even enough to get her to smile.
Knowing someone the way I know my camp friends is wonderful because I’m able to love them not in spite of their imperfections but because of them.
            I do think growing up together helps, especially growing up in as nurturing and vibrant an environment as summer camp.
            Case in point – as I type this blog post I’m texting with two camp friends. One who was my counselor for my three last summers as a camper, and one who was a camper two years ahead of me. We were also counselors together and color war captains together.
            I just found out today that I was picked for a new job, and these are the two people I told because I knew that these two people wouldn’t just be happy for me, they’d enter into that happiness and make it their own. The only other people who are this happy as a result of my success are my parents and sister.
            I talk to my former counselor, Dorrie, pretty often even though we’re both much older than we were during the time when she was my counselor. We still tell all the same stories, I still beg her to tell me the hilarious stories of her time as a camper, and even more fun is to recount the times we were at camp together.
            Maybe Dorrie is just a great storyteller. 
            This past fall, one of my campers was a contestant on “The Voice,” a television show on NBC.
Ten of my camp friends and I have a “Camp” chat in GroupMe, an iPhone app, and we all relied on this chat while watching Caroline on TV. We’d all be at it the whole time, messaging back and forth breathlessly, saying things like, “Oh my God can you believe what Adam just said about Caroline,” and, “WOW, she nailed it,” and the like.
Two of my friends, Amanda and Anna, even created a Facebook group where Caroline’s fans could gather in a single nexus. My Facebook newsfeed was overrun with statuses about Caroline, and I posted in my sorority’s Facebook group with pleas for anyone, everyone, to vote for Caroline. All my friends did the same in their respective Facebook groups. Social media was abuzz with Mataponi girls proudly announcing that one of our own rose to stardom. Don’t even get me started about what happened on Twitter.
The point is this: it wasn’t that we were happy for Caroline, the point is that our fates were so intricately entwined with Caroline’s that we were able to be happy with her, and because of her, we love her and we love each other.
We’re lifers.
A “lifer,” in camp vernacular, basically means exactly what you think it means. Someone who dedicates a large chunk of her life to her summer camp.
            And by “life,” I don’t just mean time. I mean emotion. I mean that when a “lifer,” laughs deeply it touches a reservoir of good feelings that were, for the most part, built by summer camp.
            Because we’re there for each other.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Confidence is...

Confidence, for children, can be tenuous. Children need to believe that they can. In many cases, they need to be convinced.

Children need the warm rays of positive reinforcement.

And after spending fourteen years at overnight camp in Maine, I can say with full certainty that there is no better place to supply children with the encouragement they need to believe that they can than overnight camp.

That’s a fact.

Where else can a child climb to the top of a rock wall with nine supportive bunkmates and counselors cheering her on? Where else can she practice her soccer kick, her backstroke, her ceramic abilities, steering a sailboat, and improve her singing voice, all in one day?

Well, nowhere else.

Hopefully their schools are a positive, nurturing environment where they’re motivated to succeed. Hopefully. But the kind of astonishment a child will feel at her own abilities after she’s completed a math problem is different than the accomplishment she’ll feel when stands up on her water skis. I’m not trying to trivialize the importance of doing math problems. But I can say from experience that the joy, the sheer elusive joy on a child’s face when she stands up on her water skis for the first time, is unlike any other.

There’s only one thing that beats her smile when she stands up for the first time. That’s the grin that breaks on her face when she hears her counselors and bunkmates cheering from the boat.

And then there’s color war. It usually occurs near the end of any session at overnight camp. It doesn’t matter about the variations on the name. Some camps call it Color Days, some camps call it Color Games. At Mataponi, where I was a camper and a counselor for thirteen summers, we called it Jamboree.

It doesn’t matter.

I’ve worked at three summer camps, and at all three I’ve seen the same incredible sensation. The camp is divided into two teams, and then those two teams spend a certain amount of days competing against the other team in just about every camp activity.

This experience divides the camp, sure, but more than that, it glues them together. It bands children from different bunks, who didn’t know each other before. It makes them root for each other. They pat each other on the back, high five, hug each other, scream their heads off on their teammate’s behalf.

It’s amazing really.

What kind of confidence could beat the way a child will feel when she, bracing to begin a race, hears thirty other children screaming her name? I remember when I was twelve at Mataponi I was selected to compete in the watermelon-eating contest. And the entire red team was chanting my name. I wish I could bottle the way that felt.

But I know I haven’t felt it anywhere else but camp.

I can still draw on that feeling, though, that invincible feeling of encouragement that I have in my arsenal forever now, because of my time at overnight camp.

And what better proof of this is there than Caroline Pennell?

Caroline Pennell was my camper at Mataponi for two summers. During that time, a band called Julius C would come to Mataponi and perform. They would also give campers the opportunity to come onstage with them, and sing to the camp while they played their instruments.

This experience is what gave Caroline Pennell the confidence to perform onstage in front of thousands of people and celebrities, on national television, for The Voice, a television show that airs Monday nights on NBC.

She’s an amazing singer. Her voice is angelic. Check her out on iTunes if you don’t believe me. But the point is that when it came time for her to sing for her audition, she knew she could. Because she’d sang onstage before, at camp.

And now she’s on Cee-Lo Green’s team.

If that’s not success, I don’t know what is.

Saturday, June 15, 2013


This particular blog post is very prevalent for me this evening for several reasons. The first is that I'm leaving to drive to Maine tomorrow morning for another summer at camp and my task for tonight will be packing. As a result, I was digging through some drawers that are rarely opened in my family's guest bedroom, and I stumbled upon a folder I must have used at camp when I was thirteen. Inside were letters from my parents (and one from my Poppi) and a few unfinished letters that I must never have gotten around to sending.

I just had a laugh with my parents over one of them. I was thirteen and trying to maneuver words to suit my advantage. I described the first day of camp as "a frenzy of hugs and hello's" (which it truly is). I said I thought the no cell phone rule was perturbed. Then I said, I hope I used perturbed correctly. Perturbed means messed up right??

But the no cell phone rule isn't, as a matter of fact, perturbed (I know I'm still not using it right), because if I had a cell phone and I'd called my parents in 2004 instead of writing to them, I wouldn't have gotten to relive that moment with them, just now in 2013 in all the clarity with which I wrote it then.

So for the past twenty minutes, I was hurled back to the summer of 2004. That's what these words have the power to do. Reading my half-finished letters enveloped me into my former state of mind, acted as a time capsule demolishing the laws of time and space. That's what will happen when you write to your child, or when you receive a letter from your child in the morning when you walk down the driveway to get the newspaper. Think of how exciting that will be.

I'm an enthusiast for the written word, so you'll have to excuse me if I sound a bit polarized. I won't lie to you and say your child won't get homesick, nor that you won't miss him or her. Nor, of course, that letter-writing can magically solve the problem that your child will miss you, and you will miss your child.

But it can come very close. The more time, detail, precision with which you approach your letter writing, the more your child will, too. Reading someone else's writing is literally the coziest one person's mind can get to another's. I feel closer with my parents because of it. There's an issue sometimes, in conversation, where people aren't really listening but are instead only waiting for their chance to speak. This is obviously not the case with letter-writing, as it's a solo narrative operation. If someone wants to interject into the conversation, they have to write back.

Also, here's a secret. Absence really does make the heart grow fonder. I can't really measure how much my friends and peers who didn't go to camp care about their parents, but I know that when I spent my summers away from my parents, and I missed them a whole whole lot, I realized how extremely lucky I was to have them, I charted and counted and measured all the things I loved about them in their absence. I yearned to hug my mom and to play one-on-one basketball with my dad. I couldn't wait to show them the amazing lake and the tile I'd painted in arts and crafts. And after I had showed them, these things became so much more special. I knew once my parents had visited me at camp, had found it as beautiful as I did, and were as excited about my water colored tile as I imagined they'd be, that I could be at home at camp.
Could it be possible that that elated, elusive, ebullient moment when I spotted my parents on visiting day and tore through the air into their arms in a euphoric, reckless hug is one of the happiest moments of my life? Could I even go so far as to state that this incredible moment when the two people I'd missed so much had finally emerged into reality and reentered my life made all the homesickness not only bearable, but worth it?

The night before visiting day is perfect. Every muscle and fiber in my body would ache to spring into my parent's arms and every neuron in my brain was focused on reimagining them. And then when I'd see them the next day, it'd really be perfect. It really was.

As a counselor, when one of my campers was homesick I would sit on their bed and ask them to list for me all of the fun things that they did that day. We are instructed to do this during pre camp, and it really does work. Sometimes, during downtime, children forget all the fun they had in the day.

The counselors that are hired to care for your children will really, truly care about them. I promise this. I remember once when my bunk climbed Mount Washington and I stood off to the side to let them all in front of me so I could see them all, and be visually reassured at a constant rate that they were climbing safely. That's how much I cared about them. All my friends cared about their campers this much too. Sometimes, on our days off, we talk about how much we miss our campers. Sometimes I would come back from time off to see that my campers had left me notes on my bed.

Camp is so special. That goes without saying. It's a cocoon of friendship, love, camaraderie, and tradition. Everyone involved is lucky. Homesickness does happen to be a negative amongst an array of positive benefits from camp. A friend of mine once said that without darkness, it'd be impossible to see the stars. This quote seems relevant right now.

Sometimes, when I was younger, I would lie on the beach at camp and try to imagine my house at home (the very house I'm in right now). I'd imagine myself in turn walking through the front door, and walking through each of the rooms. Then, the night when camp ended and I went home, I would traipse the house in a marveled awe, this place still exists. My parents are real. Our house has a scent. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Camp FAQ's

Frequently asked questions:
1. How can I prepare my child for camp?
It's normal to feel "pre-camp jitters" before camp starts - in fact, embrace it! Advise your camper to throw his or her nervous energy into picking out clothes to bring, packing, and pre-camp shopping (buying cool stationary will encourage letter-writing). With enough preparation, nerves will ebb into excitement. Get contact information for other children in your camper's bunk, encourage your camper to call one or two on the telephone and if a camper is in the area - get together for a pre-camp meal! This will make both campers feel more comfortable on the first day of camp.
2. How many campers/counselors live in a cabin?
About nine campers live in a cabin, with two counselors for older campers and three counselors for younger campers.
3. Are campers divided into age groups?
Yes. There are many times throughout the day when the whole camp is together, during meals, flag pole, etc., and some of the activities are multi-aged, but during most daily activities campers will be with children their own age. Nighttime activities vary, and special weekly nighttime activities bring the whole camp together for campfires and other camp traditions. Campers are with children their own age in the bunks and for most of their daytime activities.
4. How will I be in touch with my child?
Mail is delivered to each bunk daily (omitting Sundays and national holidays, because the post office is closed). Most camps require that campers send at least a certain number of letters home each week, as a camper I was required to write three letters per week. Campers are allowed one phone call per session, and are allowed to call home for their birthdays and family member's birthdays.
5. How will my child get his/her medication while at camp?
There are specific times each day when campers take medicine, usually before breakfast and dinner. If your child needs nighttime meds, his or her counselor will take them to the health center before bed. There are also specific times during the day, called "sick call," designated for campers who are feeling under the weather.
6. How will my child handle homesickness?
Usually homesickness occurs during downtime, before bed, or during other times of the day when they are not occupied or moving. The best cure for homesickness is fun, and counselors are trained during pre-camp to remind campers during down-time of all the fun they had earlier in the day, playing basketball or waterskiing or climbing the rock wall. If this doesn't work, there are other cures. When I was a camper a girl in my bunk mailed a tape recorder back and forth with her parents, so she could hear their voices. When I was saying goodbye to my parents as a camper, it always helped to remind myself that visiting day was a mere three weeks, or twenty-one days, away. That amount of time sound so small and truly does fly by.
7. How are counselors selected and trained?
Counselors are selected based on camp directors' impression of their "camp potential" and are required to spend a week of pre-camp, learning the ins and outs of each particular camp. Waterfront staff are required to be lifeguard certified, and ropes staff arrive at camp even a week earlier, to be sure that they're tested and trained in all safety precautions. Pre-camp contains extensive talks from directors, unit leaders, insurance personnel, and even professional actors who are trained for camp situations. During these exercises counselors are thrown into typical tricky situations and practice handling them with the actors.
8. What will my child do everyday?
Your child will most likely start his or her day with an all-camp lineup, an all-camp meal, and then an hour of cleanup. Then your child will be off to his or her morning activities, which could be anywhere from athletics to the ropes course to waterskiing, acting, or arts and crafts. Your child might even be traveling to another camp to participate in an inter-camp sporting match or perform an act of community service or put on a play. Then lunch time, usually an hour of rest hour, a time set aside for relaxing, free play and letter writing, and then afternoon activities (snack time occurs between two afternoon activities). After that, your child will head to his or her bunk for shower hour, and will then attend all-camp lineup and an all-camp meal. Then your camper will have an evening activity, which could be a fun and wacky activity, a scavenger hunt or a movie, or a social for older campers. After the evening activity your child will return to his or her bunk to unwind before lights out.
9. How will my child be eating?
As a child, the food at camp was delicious. We used to eat family-style meals, and then when I was thirteen my camp switched to buffet-style meals, which worked much better. At every lunch and dinner there is an extensive salad bar, with a multitude of options, plus delicious main meals. I can't speak more highly of the food at camp, and of course there are healthy options as well.
10. What happens when it rains?
Rainy days can be very fun at camp. Each division is split up to participate in a different activity, and can provide a much needed rest for campers and counselors alike from the constant running around that camp entails. Rainy day activities vary from board games in the dining hall, to an arts and crafts activity, to Zumba, indoor sports and tag games, and movies. If the rainy day occurs near the end of the summer, the drama director may seize this opportunity to stage the camp play.
11. Are there out of camp trips?
Yes. There are actually many attractions in Maine. Funtown Splashtown USA is a local amusement park, and everyone at my camp looks forward to this trip every summer. Our camp also journeys to Ogunquit for shopping and sightseeing, and the older campers have rite of passage trips such as white water rafting, climbing Mount Washington, and spending four days in Montreal. Counselors are instructed to be constantly counting their campers during these trips, and bunks are usually assigned a count-off to be sure that every camper is present at all times. Ask your camp director about the particular trips specific to your child's camp.
12. What should my camper be sure to bring?
Letter writing materials, envelopes, stamps and stationary are a must. If your camper enjoys playing soccer, be sure to send him or her with cleats and shin guards. If your camper loves baseball or softball, you could send him or her with his or her mitt, though the camp will probably have these available for all campers. Some camps have opportunities for rollerblading, so ask your camp director if your child's camp is one of them. You should probably send your child with some reading material, there is plenty of opportunity at camp to get summer reading books out of the way. Your child should also be sure to bring sunscreen and bug spray, as these are necessities of camp life.
13. What should my camper not bring?
Cell-phones are not allowed at camp. They demolish the camp environment, the purpose of which is to grant the children a deep breath from the constant stressors of Facebook and twitter and video iPods and computer games and to enjoy genuine human connection and the environment around them. Many camps don't allow video iPods either, or Nintendo DS's. You should contact your camp director to find out the rules for your particular camp. If your camp director asks you not to send your child with a specific piece of technology, please listen. I guarantee your child will benefit from unplugging from technology for the summer. You also don't need to worry about sending your child with band aids or other first-aid equipment, as your camp's health center will most likely be equipped with these. Also, your camper shouldn't bring soda or candy - it's typically not allowed in the bunk because of squirrels and raccoons, and I guarantee your child will have enough popsicles and brownies and ice cream and other camp goodies to keep his or her sweet tooth satisfied throughout the summer.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Love Actually is

The movie “Love Actually” is one of my favorite movies because it illustrates a wonderful point: love actually is. Love exists despite anyone who tries to say otherwise.
            There is, in fact, a corner of the earth where love is completely unscathed and is flourishing brighter than any other phenomenon. Love exists at summer camp in abundance, in every gesture, swimming in the lake and waterskiing tethered to the back of a jet boat. Love is in attendance at Saturday night campfires, resonating between the campers while they hold hands and grinning, scream the alma mater.
This brings me to another point. I am always startled by the Maine stars, and seeing them in the presence of so much love and brilliant a fire is breathtaking. The stars in Maine shine with more clarity than many campers have seen before and are thus the subject of much amazement, as they are unaffected by the light pollution that plagues many of the campers’ hometowns.
           The movie “Love Actually” cites airport terminals as a place where love actually exists. But because of airport security these days, loved ones can no longer embrace their travelling friends and family members in the gate when they emerge from the plane. They to greet their loved ones at baggage claim. And everyone knows how stressful and congested baggage claim can be, and even though there are still delightful moments to witness, they typically only last between fifteen and thirty seconds.
            Summer camp, however, well that’s two months, or about fifty days, bursting at the seams with moments that are drenched, literally soaking in love. The first day of camp at Mataponi is nothing short of magical. The giddy girls surge from their buses and drop their suitcases to fly into each other’s arms to begin the summer. Everyone is ecstatic to be back at camp and drenched in love once again, the whole day is absolutely euphoric. Even my first summer at camp, before I knew hardly anyone, I was aware that I had arrived somewhere special. I’d never seen anyone this excited about anything, not even on the first night of Hanukkah. The scene on the first day of camp at Mataponi is something to behold indeed and has brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion.
And of course these two months are much longer in the minds of children for whom the months are still incalculably long, and even longer because everyone knows that one day at camp is equivalent to five days in the real world. Love isn’t just at Mataponi on the first day of camp. It’s there every day, in every hour and gesture at camp. No one is strangers, everyone is family and hugs are as common as hello’s at Mataponi. Campers can be seen holding hands on the way to meals, skipping and laughing and basking in the beauty of positive social interaction that so enhances the experience of life.
I once asked my dad if he cried at the end of his overnight camp (he went to Pine Forest in the Poconos). I spent my entire camp experience at Mataponi, an all girls’ camp, so I was unsure how boys handled the end of camp and especially my dad, who I had only seen cry once at my Bat Mitzvah. He admitted that yes, he did cry at the end of camp. He said that he and his best friend, nicknamed Bubba, would sneak away to the shower house on the last day of camp and cry so that no one could see them. The fact that my dad, someone I thought of as always stoic, found camp’s ending sacred enough to cry over made sense to me. I loved camp more than anything else in the world.
So next time you’re looking to witness love in action, drive to your city’s airport. But don’t stop there. Take a plane to Maine, step outside and breathe in the air from the pine trees and watch. Soon enough, you’ll understand.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Too busy playing tennis to tweet

Have you checked your Twitter, your Facebook, your email, your text messages, your Instagram yet today? And once you’ve done that, you need to do it at least fifteen more times within the hour. You wouldn’t want to miss a notification.
            This is the reality of today’s technological landscape. In 2013, when you can have every person you might want to talk to literally at your fingertips, it’s easy to miss out on actual real-life interactions. I saw a statistic recently that said the average six-year-old spends about two hours a day looking at a screen. The rest of the statistics are almost too scary to share.
            These social media tools are altering the way children today are learning. Children in their most formative years should be outside, using their imaginations, playing in the dirt. The virtual world may possess cool special effects but it absolutely pales in comparison to a child’s imagination. I know that when I was a child I lived in a castle, I maneuvered a tunnel on my elementary school’s playground to become a time machine, and my friend Daniel and I rescued Abraham Lincoln from assassination.
            The statistics regarding children and media really got me thinking, and it occurred to me that they couldn’t possibly apply to me since I’d spent every summer at camp, with no access to technology whatsoever. Since I spent two months out of every summer windsurfing and kayaking, playing kickball and soccer, learning to climb a rock wall, there’s no way the petrifying statistic that today’s children will spend 40% of their lives staring at their screens could apply to me. Dan and Marcy (the owners of Mataponi) don’t allow video iPods, computers, cell phones, or any other sort of debilitating technology for that matter at camp. Campers are too busy playing tennis to tweet. In the place of the buzzing distractions and stress of the material world comes real, true, actual friendships. Instead of staring at a screen, the children are looking at the dew on the grass, or they’re watching the sun as it sets over Sebago lake at dusk. This is a joy unmatched by any sort of media, and especially not a computer screen.
If I wanted to contact my parents while I was at camp, I needed to write to them. This is a novel concept indeed for today’s children who may hardly ever pet pen to paper once they learn how to type on a computer. This was much easier for me than it was my sister, because I always loved to write, and always knew I was a writer. Campers at Mataponi are required to write three letters home a week, and this often a struggle for my sister. When it became Thursday or Friday and she still hadn’t met her quota, her Unit Leader would start to put on the pressure and she would send home extremely short letters, much to my parents’ entertainment, that would contain such phrases as “Hi mom and dad. Please send magazines. They made me write to you. Love, Stef.”
In fact, my parents have retained all of our letters in a cabinet in our kitchen having the ability to peruse through my childhood and relive my teenage musings on my summers is an indispensible pleasure.
My “Sub” summer at Mataponi, when I was fourteen, was far and away my best letter writing summer and certainly helped me hone my story telling abilities (which went well, since I’ve just been accepted to several MFA programs for creative writing). My dad, to this day, quotes a letter I wrote about a time that my two friends Sean, Casey, and I went canoeing during boating and our boat flipped and we had to swim our canoe to shore. He found it hilarious that I was aghast, our counselors were making us boat during boating (the nerve!), and “of course the flipping canoe flipped.”
This is, of course ironic to me now, as I sit in chilly March Pennsylvania weather. If I could canoe out on the beautiful sun sparkling Sebago lake right now in summer Maine air it would be an extreme improvement indeed.
 My favorite, though, was the letter I wrote the night my division performed “Sing,” that summer of 2004. Sing is a competition at Mataponi between all of the age groups. Each age group writes and rehearses three songs and creates motions and dance moves to accompany them, and the thrill of screaming them in unison to the rest of the camp is unmatched by any thrill I’ve experienced since. We won that year, in 2004, and my letter encapsulates the wild joy that me and the forty other girls in my division felt that night. In my letter I said this, surely, is the reason girls come back to camp year after year, the reason everyone sobs at the last service and while they’re watching the year burn on the last night of camp. This is the reason the traditions are as sacred and as well cultivated as any religious practice at Mataponi. It’s all because of the shared community, the shared consciousness, the laughter and tears and inter-camp sports games and accomplishments and triumphs. We try together, at Mataponi, and that’s why when we succeed it’s all the more wonderful. When a girl falls down, her friends are there to pick her up. Sharing that night with forty girls who I loved with every ounce of emotion my fourteen-year-old heart could handle was an incalculable joy that I get to relive every time I read that letter.
And it’s the kind of experience that a fourteen-year-old girl who spends her entire summer on Facebook will never get to have.