Tag Archives: camp

The Lodge, Part VI: Hello S–thead, How Are Ya?

‘Hello Sh*thead, how are ya?’ 

This was my morning greeting. Every morning. For two weeks each summer from 1995-2002. I can’t remember which session he came, but Devin was a legend. Well, maybe not originally. I think he was kind of a blender-inner prior to us boys of Lodge 12 meeting him and getting to know him in ’95. From that summer forward though, he was a legend. 

  I can tell you that he came session 3. There were five sessions and his was in my first as Lodge Leader. Yep, I was a camp counselor, the foundation of my 20 year camp career, for 4 weeks. Anyway, another story for another time. Just know that I was nervous. I was eager to do well, and as was and remains my custom, I really was very unprepared for what my position was. I work best when hiding panic and ignorance under a facade of confidence and competence. 

‘Oh, hi. You the leader.’ 

‘I am. Your Devin, right.’ I asked. 

We were outside the cabin after rest hour, before period 3 activity. I was all official, hiding behind my clipboard with my daily schedule and other forms I hoped no one would ask about. 

‘Did you take a shower, Devin? Like, just now?’

Devin was maybe 46. I was 21. Still, I was the Lodge Leader and he was the guest. 

‘Oh, no.’ He said, wistfully, voice drifting. ‘I haven’t showered in five f*cking years.’ 

I think I heard that right, but I better check. 

‘What was that.’

‘Five long, happy, Jewish years.’ Devin said.

I looked over at him and smiled. I then laughed. He reflected me. 

That was how I met Devin.

Devin lived with his mother, best as I could tell. He was the living and breathing definition of an ‘unreliable reporter’, so who’s to really say. He would often wake in the cabin, the one we all woke in, in sight of everyone all night, to tell his cabinmates and staff that he was hungover.

‘How are you hungover?’ we’d ask.

‘I was drunk last night. Oh, yeah. I had two Schaeffer’s beers.’ Everything he said was kind of sing-songy and benefited greatly from a delivery I can’t even begin to capture. He’d say these things, eyes getting big, face serious, holding your appraising eyes for a couple of seconds until his whole face would break out in a big jowly grin, eyes now softening and gleaming with mischief and humor. 

I came to seek out his familiar and always energetic salutation, ‘Hello sh*thead, how are you?’

  Devin, all our guys, they lived lives of limited independence. Limited, certainly, by their abilities. They required some level of assistance, some a good deal, some it took a while to find, but all of them were there for a reason. But they loved camp because we were new. New staff, kids and they were the old pros. Some might have seen all of us taking a guest ‘under our wing’ and developing real, lasting bonds and genuine connections. What you had to be there longer to see was them taking us under their wings, teaching us and grooming us. Befriending us and taking a shine to us. We got to know them and they got to know us and at some point we all had different roles to play and we loved playing them, but there really was just an ‘us’. ‘Them’ were left behind about half way through the first day the guests arrived.

Devin was funny. His sense of humor was a tool for him like it is for many of us. One that is hugely helpful and ocassionally misused and capable of getting any of us who use it into trouble. It helps us out of trouble more, though. It’s a powerful thing, the ability to make others laugh and I loved that he had it. Largely because it’s also a powerful thing to laugh and he made me laugh nearly every day. 

So when it came time to take him to the dentist I jumped at the chance when asked. I wasn’t in his Lodge anymore and I’m sure I had no idea what it was for. Whatever it was it wasn’t anything major. Still, I had to at least prep him for what was to come. I decided to do so in the van on our way down the mountain to the dentist. 

‘Now, Devin, I know you know this, but I feel like I have to say it.’ I said.

‘What?’ He said, in that overly expressive and delightful way of his. 

‘We’re going to be in the community. You have to mind your P’s and Q’s’ 

‘Yeah.’ He said, giggling.

‘Seriously. Gotta be careful with the language. At the lodge, we’re family, but these folks won’t know you.’

‘I know. Helen tells me not to swear at the dentist.’ Said Devin. 

‘Well, You have a very smart mother.’ I said. 

It was just that. He was more than capable of understanding and I was virtually sure that he did. The rest of the ride was just fun. If you haven’t worked at a summer camp you can’t know how fun it is to get in a vehicle that can in no way be classified as a bus, to go to that magical land known only as ‘off grounds’. To be doing so with a legend, well, that was just the cherry on the top of this already super awesome sunday of a ‘job’ I was asked to do on this day. 

I’ll skip the details of the appointment as they are not notable save this one factor; I can’t tell you the joy it brought me as ‘The Kaiser’, as he often referred to himself as, would just look at me sideways, smiling, ever on the verge of bursting, from across the room and in the chair. It was magical and sustained. He was giving me this look of not at all hidden conspiratorial mischievousness that was just great. And he did great. He was a model patient as I’m sure he always was. He was, after all, a simply lovely man. 

‘Sir. Can you sign this please.’ We heard as we approached the door to leave. 

‘Of course, I say.’, and we made our way back to the lobby window. It was a standard, midsummer, midday, midweek dentist office. Moms and kids mostly. Perhaps a few working people getting some work done on a workday. Nothing of note but the room was populated. 

‘Just sign here.’ I would have signed anything she gave me. I still have no idea how that appointment came to be and less of an idea of how it might have been paid for. I didn’t even look at or even for the number. But apparently, Devin did. 

‘Holy f*cking s*it, Helen’s gonna f*cking kill me.’ Devin sung. 

It. Just. Hung. There. 

Slowly I turned to look at him. I wasn’t angry or even bothered. I was just in awe.

‘What?’ He asked, eyes gleaming and smirk growing. 

 I know the moment now all too well. The moment when I am responsible for someone who is unaware of the proper way to handle a situation and I’m supposed to communicate something akin to, disappointment, I guess. The stern look of a dad to my child is what I do now but there are times where the overwhelming funniness of the thing they have done so outweighs the importance of the ‘teachable moment’ that we all just crack up in a ‘laughable moment’ of true and beautiful connectedness. Well, I can say for certain that the receptionist didn’t see the humor in this outburst. Her loss. It was instantly and remains one of the genuinely most joyous moments of my life walking out of there with him, both of us cracking up.

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After 20 Years, Summer Camp Still Breaks Me

2015-08-14 10.58.31I think camp is good for me for so many reasons.

It motivates me to do my best. It constantly confronts me with failure and insists I rise to the challenge no matter how many times I fail, and boy do I fail. It’s persistent, occupying each moment for a limited time. It makes me look at things through others eyes. My campers have extra needs for support and I’m constantly trying new approaches, tweaking attempts that end up solving only portions of problems. It makes me listen to so many voices and makes me value each one. Over time some become more reliable and others can only be relied on for misdirection. The nice thing about that is how regularly my expectations are turned upside down. By the ‘kid’ Jr. Counselor at 16 who has solutions and creativity that even he or she didn’t know was so helpful and even wise. By the parent that knows there child like no one else who comes through like the Kool-Aid man busting down brick walls to ensure we hear them, only to learn insights from people, kids, they’d never have thought to ever even consider listening to. By the teachers who choose to spend this precious free time continuing to work with the kids they love, who seem more like distant family then students in class. By the campers themselves, given a chance to have a fresh start with someone that might be able to help, might just be the right person at the right time to unlock something that campers been struggling with for some time. And by myself, surprised I was able to get up and at it once again, 20 years after heading to camp for the first time as a 21 year old with no idea I was jumping directly into my life’s work.

All of these things delight me and keep me coming back. They are the rewards so many of us continue to seek as we try to add value to the world while having an adventure and accomplishing small acts of greatness day to day. It’s always a concentrated course in self-improvement. Even this year, coming off an epic fail last year, one I didn’t think I was even capable of at this stage of the game. It was a good thing. It’s why I’m here at the office on the Saturday between sessions planning and communicating in order to avoid all the potential fails I now know, was reminded of last year, that still threaten to derail what was a largely successful first week.

Many of my friends in camp, all of them, really, are from the sleep away camp world. It’s where I’m from. I spent 19 summers working ‘away’ at camp. Moving up in the spring, commuting between the mountains and the office life in the city for the second half of that stretch, as my responsibilities grew beyond the 10 magical weeks of camp. Life now, in my little 2-week day camp, a short day at that, is not what it was, but I’m still getting what I used to from it. I love camp. I really do. What is watered down here is still meaningful and an opportunity that I’m delighted I have dived into. It’s giving me camp and I can’t tell you how great that is.

My wife will tell you, and she’d be right, that I’m really stressed by the situation. I’m a pretty laid back dude, but in the weeks leading up to camp I get tension headaches, can’t sleep and become quite unpleasant to be around outside of work. For certain folks, HR folks, it’s possible I’m even unpleasant at work at those times. But now that I’m here it’s all worth it. Because it’s good for me to have my walls breached. To be effected and to be visibly breakable. To be in need of others. To be vulnerable.

If you’ve read my work before you might think I’m a walking ball of vulnerability. You’d be dead wrong. Couldn’t be more wrong. Writing is where it appears sometimes, sure. But in real life, in the room, I’m guarded, aloof, pleasant but distant, funny as sincere and never really vulnerable. But camp breaks me. It gives me license to care too much. It makes me ask for help and it insists I take it. It makes me fragile. Being fragile is human and connective and altogether unpleasant when I’m strong enough to fear it. Thankfully camp, even this modified, watered down version of that which I used to take straight in huge gulps, makes me break.

Camp is a reset button that I need to feel the most fully realized version of me. The me that needs the world around me. The me that always exists but often hides within me.

The Lodge Part One; Getting There

Amongst the clearest and most treasured memories of my youth are the handful of roadtrips that I took with my dad, just the two of us.One that sticks out for me as particularly enjoyable was a trip to Pennsylvania where I needed to be on campus early for basketball camp check in the next day.

The day started at the Morgan Manning house for the 4th of July town picnic and fair. Its the kind of tradition I had no idea I’d come to love about the town of Brockport, NY where I grew up. After hot dogs (Zweigel’s, the only proper hot dog)  and my little brother doing the cakewalk and the barbershop quartet of high school teachers we went home, loaded the minivan and got on the road.

On this trip we were in the right mood. We were just relaxed and comfortable and conversation flowed and we talked about life and family, everything and nothing. I don’t remember the details and they weren’t important. We were relaxed, comfortable and alone. It was nice. It’s counter to my normal level of anxiety. Once when I was 5 or so I was in the bathroom while he was shaving. There were at least 8 of us, often more. As George Sr. said, watch out for hop-ons, you’re gonna have hop-ons.  With two bathrooms overcrowding was not at all unusual. Anyway after a moment of observation he looked over at me, face half covered in thick white foam and half smoothly shaven and said. ‘Are you breathing.’ I wasn’t. He said, ‘it’s okay. Breathe.’ So I did. I’ve always been self-conscious, still am.

We stayed in a hotel that night near the camp. It remains the one and only night I’ve ever eaten at an Arthur Treacher’s. I imagine this was true for him as well. Then we went to a movie. The only thing that lined up with our schedule that was agreeable to both of us was ‘Soapdish’. For a couple of hours we howled with laughter. A reserved 40-something dad and his jock 15 year old son cracking up at the antics of a cast of eccentrics populating the set of a daytime soap opera. It was downright hysterical, silly and perfect. It was one of the best days of my childhood. It shouldn’t surprise me that the most meaningful and metaphorical journey of my life was a road trip with my dad in a minivan across the state when I was 20.

Side note about my dad; He’s funny. Very funny. It’s a dry sense of humor, not needy, rarely reaching out, but often reactive and precise. I often feel manic in my need to get in a funny line at every opportunity, even inventing the opportunities, or just sticking a laugh line in as a non sequitur just to get the attention. It comes from a funnier place for my dad. He’s okay letting tons of good enough but not perfect pitches fly past, and then boom, HYSTERICAL. I’ve tried to learn from this, and to some degree I’ve calmed down. He’s such a good editor and knows when funny is funniest. My papa was that way as well.

Fast forward to what can either be referred to as my first Junior year at college or my second sophomore year. I prefer the former, but whatever your druthers.

I, remarkably, was in a night class. I say remarkably because my academic history is littered with classes that I never intended to attend and rarely did. But this was a 3 hour, 1 credit class and I showed up. It was part of a series of single credit, single night classes that were offered in the Human Services curriculum. I’d kind of backed and failed my way into the major, but it was in line with my personal ethics of being helpful to those less fortunate, at least in theory so I went with it. These single night credits were community based professionals in the field of service. This night happened to be the Executive Director of the Chemung County ARC. He was a nice if distracted guy who gave us a good history of the movement, the state of the field and the needs going forward. It was interesting and I wanted to get involved.

In the course of the evening Jodi, a less then friendly and somewhat overconfident young woman by my estimation (which was informed by little if any evidence, but firmly believed. Ah… youth) spoke of her experience the previous summer at a camp for adults with developmental disabilities. It was a camp run by AHRC of NYC, the chapter that was the progenitor of the entire ARC movement. I decided to approach her at the break. Turned out that being male, a decent fellow and willing made me qualified for a position there! Besides, Jodi would be there and I’d at least know one face. Might even get to see another side of her. So the dye was cast and my life turned at that moment and in many ways has never turned back.

After a week or so home from school I was off to the Catskills with my dad. It was a 6 hour drive, one that I’d make several more times over the years. The ride was long and disorienting. I’d never noticed the glorious mountains that buttress and soar over the New York State Thruway as you make your way east across the state. They existed there without my notice for the many trips I’d taken across the state over the years. But when we got off and went onto the local roads it took only a few miles until we realized we were heading to a place neither of us had known to well. Other than some summer vacations when my dad was a kid even he had never really experienced the vast mountainous region of New York that stretched from the area city-dwellers called upstate and the northerners thought of as downstate all the way up to the top of the world in the up at the Canadian border. It was the spine of the state and we lived in the panhandle out west. He was from the New York Metropolitan area, so this vast middle, encompassing the Catskill Mts. and the Adirondacks had managed to be avoided.The long looping curves of the valley roads gave way in an instant to roads that seemed to have majestically green, steep,  natural walls. It was like the mountains and there fauna were cradling the pavement that now wove a twisting and turning road that revealed which travelers were local as they bore down on the vast amount of out-of-towners there to feed the economy and reconvene with nature. Finally, out of the hairpin at the Kaaterskill Falls trail head the roads started to stretch back to long and looping as we arrived in the higher valley on this side of the mountain into town. Tannnersville is a small, humble and charming mountain town that would become my nearest ‘civilaization’ for the years ahead. But the directions took us right through and up the mountain that hovered over it, all the way to the picturesque stone church at its peak and back down the other side. Right at the General Store/Post Office onto a beautiful, meandering river of a small residential road that ended at Colgate Lake. Rather, it didn’t end it turned to dirt and we continued through a tunnel carved through the forest, looking at each other partly worried and partly as Doc Brown looked at Marty at the end of Back to the future… Where we’re going we don’t need roads!

I can’t honestly tell you what conversations were had on this journey save one. I remember saying it and my dad has remembered it too. I told him that I had no idea what to expect. I told him that I was a little nervous but that I was thinking of it as 90 days and I can endure anything for 90 days. I’ve heard my dad proudly retell of hearing me saying that and he always follows it up by pointing out that after he left me that day he knew a change was coming for me. He was right.

While these have the stench of ‘famous last words’ they turned out to be true, I could most certainly endure what lay ahead. I had no idea that it was the start of a journey with as much learning and growing and failing and succeeding as I could stand bottled up in 5 two week sessions of sleep deprived sleep-away camp that would change my worldview, broaden my understanding of humanity, enhance my ability, grow my confidence, open my eyes to a world that was rich and vibrant and dynamic and revolutionary and introduce me to an instant community of friends and acquaintances who would create and sustain magic on a daily basis, all with the aim of righting a societal wrong and providing people with the opportunity to have the time of their lives. It would keep my otherwise antsy and unsteady and frankly dangerous life of excess in check as I discovered that when you are fully engaged in a thing, 20 hours a day is not enough. It was enough to get the work done, at least usually, just not enough of the experience. I was enjoying all of it, the joy and the pain, the wins and the losses, the new experiences and the vulnerability you were discovering in yourself and the world and you didn’t want it to ever end. We’d drink and sing and dance and swear and smoke and hookup and breakup. During the day we’d bring people that would never have the chance otherwise to the top of the mountain, whatever that meant for them. If we couldn’t we’d not hesitate in getting to work building them their mountain, to spec, because we were delighted to be given the opportunity. We fought and created cliques, then we broke them and cross pollinated.  We created a utopian society their and we thought we were the first ones to do it. I’m still convinced we were the best who ever did. But on that car ride, a ride that was both familiar and different it turned out that dad was dropping me off at the end of a dirt road in a beautifully landscaped world that was designed to make the world a better place and it certainly did that for me. The home that would take it’s place next to the big blue/gray house on Clark St. as my spiritual and literal home. When I’d leave I’d yearn to be back. When I was there, even in the cold, dark, lonely and depressing winters, I never wanted to be anywhere else. I loved her even more then. Even when it was emptied of all the people that made it what it was. It was even more beautiful to me as it sat stoically dark waiting patiently to be enlivened once again. After the departures, after the work, after our irreversibly changed lives, after the love and the struggle and the ultimate experience, the  walls were my companions for months on end and I loved them as I had learned their potential. I loved everything about that place and I still do. The Lodge was where I was able to make mistakes and miracles and to witness transformations, including my own. Where I learned to push myself and accept who I was. It was the greatest experience of my life to that point and would inform all the other wonders that were to come.