Tag Archives: Harriman Lodge

The Lodge, Part V: Figuring it Out

‘I really love it. It’s crazy. I’m here with people from all over the world, we work around the clock and we get one day off per 13. It’s perfect.’ I said. I meant it.

‘Joey, I’m so happy for you. I’m so excited.’

‘Thanks. It’s just a lot, but I think I really like it.’

This was my first call home after the guests had arrived. After the week long, 9AM-9PM trainings we were all ready to get to it, whatever it was. Even with that much time spent learning, with that many people who’d done it before there was no amount of preparation that was going to give me so much as a clue as to what that first day would entail.

‘I got picked to be on the bus that went into the city to pick up the guests. It was crazy. Unbelievable how much could happen in so short a time.’

This is not the staff picture from my 1st year. 3rd year, maybe?

About half of us staff were selected to ride the bus down to the city that first day. It really was a good omen, even if I didn’t know it yet. I’d be prepping the busses and coordinating the drop offs and pick ups within a couple of years and would continue to do them for many years after. You really had to trust the people on that crew. Any number of issues could arise, between the guests and their anxiety or separation or some other totally unexpected thing having to do with their diagnosis to random cars breaking down in front of you in the Lincoln Tunnel, car accidents, staff walking off never to be seen again (this happened more than once, place could drive you mad), incidents between guests on the bus, anxious, angry or just plain mean parents (as a rule they were ALL lovely. As a rule. Rules are ocassionally broken), mixed up medication, short fuses, insane heat, torrential rain. Whatever we ran into, whatever ran into us, we were there to check in 60 or so individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, process their personal effects and account for them, ensure they were fully stocked with meds, check in money get them on the bus and start to entertain them and continue to do so, and to be entertained by them for two weeks, sun up to well past sundown. It really was the most amazing thing I’ll ever do. Having and raising kids will mean more, but we can relate to so many others who’ve done it. But this, this was a singular experience.

‘Guests?’

‘Oh, yeah. Thing is they aren’t campers really. They’re grown ups and face it, grown ups don’t go to camps. They go on vacation. So they aren’t campers, they’re guests.’

‘That’s interesting.’ Mom said.

‘Yeah. Not so much, it’s just what it is. You forget about the word after a day of using it. Not even when you hear it so much during training. Truth is I was ready to see some guests by Sunday. They got here, Sunday.’

I was already spewing my person first language, practicing my committment to treating people respectfully and in line with their life experience and not the way I had before those trainings, which would have still been sensitive, but wouldn’t have been mindful of age appropriate language. In real terms I have learned a hand full of things in the 22 years since that week of training, some real valuable things, but none of it will ever come close to what I learned in those two weeks. Two because the training really didn’t end until after the first week that you were putting it into practice with the guys.

The training wea almost all centered around the arts and crafts room that was off the kitchen, the dining hall and the administrative/infirmary hallway. It was painted grey cement floors with knee to ceiling roller windows lining the walls to either side of our rows of chairs we lugged back and forth to and from the dining hall between meals to reset our classroom all day every day. I was given basic, sanctioned safety trainings, by the book and repeated yearly or near yearly since. I was given first hand trainings on what it meant to work in a field that was still populated with residents and former workers at Willowbrook State School. I met some of those who transformed our entire service system, from the inside, from one fraught and underfunded, filled with systemic abuse into one that was so truly person centered that we busted our asses to ensure that every person was given every ability to choose every single activity on their own and we would modify everything to ensure they could do it regardless of ability. I learned what it was like to be a sibling or a parent of a person with a disability from one of those parents. I met some of the heroic figures who said no to Doctors in the fifties who told them to put their child with a disability in the institutions and forget them. I met many of those children who found their way, through decades of darkness, both literally and in every other way and emerged on the other side heroic and still in touch with their tender and delicate humanity which had been so forsaken. They taught me. And I soaked it up. I loved it.

img_0191And I wasn’t alone. There was a core of us who made it through and reaped endless rewards because of it. There were at root about 30 or so of us who worked in cabins, lived with the guys. We were on call all through the night and working every waking minute (save the one hour break you lived for in order to shower and make a ten minute call to whoever to say how amazing the whole thing was or to cry because it was breaking you). Of those thirty about 16 or so made it through the summer. My cabin started with the full allotment of 6 staff. We lost Ausberto and Jim the Marine and I can’t remember who else, but one more. We made it through 3, two week sessions with just me, Mike and Tony. A suburban, an urban and a comrade. We cared for and loved 16 guys in that cabin every day. Two in wheelchairs? No problem, everyone will have what they need cause anyone of us would push ourselves miles past our limits to make sure of it. Truth is we did it to gut busting laughter much of the time. There were moments of discord and hot tempers, but they were over fast. Still love those guys and dozens more and would have the time of my life sitting around a fire all night reminiscing on those days. I can say confidently we all would. I met real family there.

‘Joey. I’m really proud of you.’

It’s still the most important thing I ever hear them say. Whenever they do I just eat it up.

‘Thanks mom. I think you would love it here more than anyone.’

And I’m sure I was right. It was a utopian society experimentation lab built on the ideals I learned from her. Love, compassion, understanding, committment, service and tireless giving that results in you getting so much after giving all of yourself.

The Lodge Part IV: Greatest Job Ever

As I walked away I could already taste the regret. I was making a mistake. I wasn’t sure how big a mistake. I didn’t really care either. It took all of a split second to determine that I was now going to go down on this ship, this manufacturing of a moment, perhaps a moment that would go down in lore as ‘Oh my god! Do you remember Joe? Remember when he was here, he stood right there. Oh my god.’ Really, what regret could I have that would ever make me feel like this was a mistake. So I had to change, put on some fresh clothes and act like it never happened.

As I walked around the corner I knew that everyone would be watching for me to emerge above the fence in the distance as I headed toward the dance/honeymoon suite building. My stride, for whatever reason, became easier. Less encumbered by the stress of the moment and even liberated by the squishing and dripping that oozed and fell from my clothing. I was getting comfortable with what I’d done.

Perhaps not as comfortable as my friend Evan.

Evan was a guest at the Lodge. Evan was about 50, fairly jovial and capable of being incredibly witty and acerbic. It wasn’t all an act, not by any stretch, but there was a peformative nature to Evan. He was in it for the attention, but he wasn’t over eager. He waited for his audience. He lived in my cabin the first year, when I was a counselor turned Lodge Leader. He was there in the second half of the summer when we were down to the skeleton crew/dream team of Me, Mike and Tony. A suburban white kid (me), streetwise city kid (I wouldn’t call Mike a kid back in those days, though in hindsight we all were) and a gangly Russian with an Italian-Americanized name (Tony. I’ve come to know home on Facebook years later by the name of Anton, a far more fitting name considering his surname. He taught me a thing or two about the world I didn’t know, a rapidly changing one in the 1990’s in Russia). I remember going to each of my cabin mates and seeing if they saw things I didn’t. I went to Mike to confirm that Evan was who he was after the following exchange. Before I tell you I should note that it was my first session in charge. It sounds cute, but it was running a cabin of 16 adult guests with various intellectual and developmental disabilities, including people with needs for physical supports, with 3 guys, all hovering around 20 years old, all with six weeks experience, who worked round the clock, 24 hours a day. No punch outs. No back up staff. It was stressful.

Anyway, about a week in to Evan’s stay I see him outside the cabin, at the other end of the fence we all hung out at outside (lodge) 12. I catch an eye, I look for his name on my ever present clipboard (I needed the prop to signify my authority) for head, no name counts…

Me: Evan, right?

Evan: Yeah, Joe.

Me: When was the last time you showered?

Evan (Shaking his head like Al DelVechio at Arnold’s saying ‘yup, yup, yup’): Five fucking years ago. Five long, happy, Jewish years.

Me: (5 seconds of silence) Bwahahahaha!

As you might imagine I grew quite fond of Evan. Not only for the effortless way he used cursing as a tool in his comedy, but for who I found him to be. Who we all did. When I checked with Mike after this he said, ‘yeah, he’s on my side, he’s pretty funny all the time. Unless he’s talking about Helen.’ Who’s Helen? I ticked through the staff, the support staff, the nurses, his fellow guests (who would be campers elsewhere, but we were all adults here, our guys had agency, they were not to be treated as children. Guests, please.) ‘It’s his mom. Mike said. I think he still lives with her. Actually, he can be funny with her too. But you can tell it’s different.’

Evan became a guy. We loved all the guys, but he turned out to have a little Rock Star to him. He was hysterical.

He was also foul mouthed. Not in groups, and not with anyone that didn’t appreciate it. But for me and Mike and Tony, he’d be there, every morning one or the other of us would run up to the dining hall to grab coffees for the crew as we got to the incredibly challenging job of getting everybody up and out on time. Whenever we saw him he’d not do anything. But if we said hello or good morning it was always met with a huge smile and a ‘Hello shithead, how are ya?’ He always said it with a little bit of Squiggy in his voice. He emphasized the how are ya and the smile and it was just so damn funny. There’s no way to recreate it here, but anyone that was close enough to him would tell you the same, it was amongst the funniest and most adored greetings I’ve ever received in my life. Honestly, if I’d never had kids it would be the number one greeting of all time. Hello Shithead, how are ya? With a giant smile and a genuine twinkle in the eye.

What had been regret was turning. As I strode away, aloof and sopping wet, regret was changing. Not to it’s opposite, per se. Rather, I was just starting to own it. To feel no way about my decision. It was just something I’d done. I liked this feeling. I could hear the tittering masses left behind, still giggling, some even guffawing and I liked it. I liked the attention. I liked the silliness of it. I even liked the carpe diem of it all.

Later that summer I’d be charged with taking Evan to the dentist. It wasn’t something that we did at camp without an emergency, so he must have had one, but for the life of me I don’t know what it was. Perhaps they had to pull a tooth or something. Whatever it was it needed to be addressed immediately. It could not wait for him to go home and it wasn’t enough for us to insist he go home.

I took my job quite seriously and at 23 it meant having the conversations, gently, that I knew I had to have.

Me: Now, Evan, it’s not like camp. We’re going to be out in public and there will be others around.

Evan: Oh yeah. I know dat shit.

He burst a second of laughter and then looked sidelong at me to see that it landed. It did. Just saying ‘shit’ was enough to make it funny. I know. It’s immature. I also know that he was not immature, was in on the joke and actually understood why it was funny. Judge if you like, but we were and are good at this and it was merely a grown man getting a laugh with crude language. It was normalizing and accompanied by a very real sense of humor that lived along side his performance art of cussing for laughs.

Me: That. You can’t do that while we’re at the office. I know you know that, but I have to say it.

Evan: I know that. I tell Helen all the time, oh yeah, boy, I know that.

This was our Evan. I didn’t have to bring it up again. We just chatted for the half hour or so that it took to get down the mountain and to the dentist. I gave him one more respectful reminder and we went in.

It was clearly a family practice and they must have been well aware of where we were coming from, and by extension who Evan was, or at least they had an idea that he was different. I have to say, Evan charmed everyone. He is an excellent patient. Why shouldn’t he be. He’s an absolutely lovely person!

That said, he was teasing me a little. Giving me those sideways looks. Answering questions straight when asked by the Dr. then looking at me to let me know that he knew what would be the funniest way to answer. He’d even be smiling as the phrase would go through his head, and mine, but the smirk never turned into uttering a vulgarity. I shouldn’t have been so worried. He’s a good dude. A good friend to all and an excellent companion  for an adventure.

When his work was done and we left to go I gave him a wink of approval/thanks and he chuckled back. We were grown ups, out in the world, away from the camp. All that was left was to pay. I stood at the reception desk, Evan at my side and awaited the forms eagerly so we could sign them and head out for lunch.

Reception Staff: So we’ll just need you to sign this affirming that the work was done.

Me: So would you like me to sign or Evan?

Evan: You can do it.

Reception Staff: That’ll be fine. It was a pleasure meeting you, Evan.

Evan: You too.

He smiled bashfully. Even tilted his head. When he did he fell upon the number, the thousand or so dollars that the procedure was going to cost. That’s when the bubble burst.

Evan: Holy fucking shit. Helen’s gonna fucking kill me!

It boomed. I held back my laughter and you could tell. It was an active denial that was seen by all. He laughed outright, big and jovially, big belly bouncing. The mom’s with kids in the waiting room bristled. One laughed, thank god. The dentist, the assistants, all the staff snickered and smiled, some nervously and some like me, holding back. It was the one instant when we were in the middle of everyone in the whole damn building.

I suppose you had to be there, but it was amongst the funniest moments of my entire life and a good part of that was due to my discomfort next to my man Evan’s seeming indifference. He could have said that in church and his heart rate wouldn’t have budged nor a bead of sweat been anywhere near him. The man just knew himself, had reacted sincerely and was damn funny for it. He knew it.

My regret was fully gone by the time I was rising above the fence line and I was happy, damn happy I’d done what I’d done. My job in this magical place hadn’t really fit me right yet. I was still struggling to wear the ‘uniform’ of big boss man now that I was in my second year and first year on the Admin Team, the four or five of us who were the big bosses. I would be invisible as I strode from activity to activity counting names and looking stern. I was a little overwhelmed by the job at hand and I was trying so hard to look the part that I missed the whole damn point. That being, if you can’t have fun at a job where you are changing the world, making others lives magical and being transformed by that same magic coming at you from all angles, than what the hell are you even doing there.

I think that was why I did what I did that day. Instead of quietly opening the gate to the pool, popping in and eying up the lifeguards and the staff, ensuring everyone was where they were supposed to be, doing what they were supposed to be doing and leaving as quietly and stoically as I’d arrived, I did something different. Of course I still made sure everyone was where they should be. Of course I ensured all was safe. Then, in what amounted to street clothes, I strode right to the middle of the pool and fully clothed proceeded to make a show of the whole damn affair. And it was great. All the guys started laughing, but I stayed in character, never even cracking a smile. Which only made the guys laugh more and even some of the staff, who had to be tiring of my ‘transitional’ phase to leadership. It was a moment. Forget all you normals, we’re the weirdos and we’re proud of it. It was a story they’d tell at lunch. It was something so simple but so special that it had to have turned at least someone who was there’s whole day around. In fact I can guarantee it did.

No matter how much they screamed, or hooted or called my name as I walked up that hill, I wasn’t going to turn around. But as I got to the top of the hill and rounded the corner of the dance building a giant smile broke across my face. From that moment forward until I left years later I had the greatest job on earth.

 

The Lodge, Part Three: Family.

783_41971287745_2761_nAs I stood there counting names, not heads mind you as heads can be counted twice, it was mighty distracting to have so many trying to get my attention. Yelling things at me like, ‘Joe!!’, and ‘You’re still in your pants!’, and ‘What’s wrong with you…’ All to the unending guffawing of these supposedly ‘special’ people. My people. On top of it, this was a high risk area. The pool. Where we are all to be on extra high alert.

To their credit the reaction was the one I sought by coming down to do my name count in the same fashion I always did, at 6-10 activity areas 4 times a day but proceeding to walk directly into the middle of the pool, fully and normally dressed, while maintaining as stern an authoritarian countenance as I could project at all of 23 years old. All the while never breaking from my task of making sure all were accounted for and safe. Once I was done I left, not saying a word, just soaked through from the waist down, dripping all over and smiling ear to ear on the inside. I was making a memory that would last for all those who saw it. My attention seeking behavior pointed to bringing a smile to the faces of our guests. My guess is I’m the only one that really remembers that. I was pretty cool.

I really was.

Camp was home in a way I’ll never really experience again. It was a childhood home. The home I was an integral part of, but not one I was in any real way in charge of. I was an older brother maybe, or a young uncle that sometimes seemed more like a cousin. I always would be perceived as a kid there as they saw me at my finest and my, well, not so finest in my early twenties. Not so finest covered a LOT of territory back then.

Still, it was home. I discovered the world there. Discovered myself in the process. When I was done, at least when I thought I was, I launched. Out into the world armed with the confidence and skills I would never ever have found without having spent my four years there. Yep. Four years, 2 of which were year round. Unlike other camps that do year round programming this camp was not one that was really set to have tenants in the winter, other than those that come up for weekend programs and the director. But that director, she liked me and trusted me and needed the help so I had the chance to stay. To be the kid leaving dishes in his room. To be the teenager too big for these little beds, ready to push off on his own but not yet willing to pull the trigger.

Four years in I started to get self conscious about it. I should really be going I thought. So I did. I moved to New Hampshire where I went to start a new life, one that was supposed to be a lifetimes journey.

10 months later, having shown thoroughly that I was not yet ready to make that step, I was lost. Not yet 26 at this point, the summer of 1999, I loaded my belongings, said all my apologies, cried some tears that hurt because they were the first final tears I’d ever cried for myself, and I headed back to camp. I could be a driver. That was alright by me. Just what I needed. I knew they didn’t need a driver, not often enough anyway.

The journey back was terrible. I was full of failure and judging myself harshly, the way I could back then. But at the end I was home. For whatever reason it always felt like I was already there when I passed through the traffic light in Palenville, some 15 or so miles down the mountain, headed toward the winding roads that were so harrowing the first few times, but came to be second nature to me as the years passed by and this road became the primary means of egress from my mountain life.

That summer, the one I spent as part time asst. director (Not in title, but I sussed it out when I was tasked with firing people and covering for the director on days off)/Driver, was when I came crawling back with my tail between my legs. But when I got there I was welcomed happily by the few senior staff I knew and the guys. Oh, the guys. They were  the reason we were there, all of us, everyone of us, but that year they were the actual reason I was there at all. I needed to be somewhere where I was loved and so many of them loved me without reservation. The camp was really a lodge, and our ‘campers’ were known as ‘guests’. Intellectually and developmentally disabled adults that had no idea how much it meant to me to hang out at the store those nights at after hours with them, playing pool and listening to music on the porch. Or sitting with them on the swinging benches that were placed around the Gazebo. Or just hanging out in the office listening to the camp live around me while I felt so securely and perfectly placed in a life I loved. How much it meant to me to be somewhere where I knew what I was doing and how to do it well. Where I was openly and obviously seen as someone worth spending time with.

I didn’t get close to any of the staff that year. It was the year the guests became more my family than the staff. They were permanent after all. Staff turned over, mostly, every year. There were returners, but by year three there’s only a handful left from year one.

That said, this past week I got a tweet from a man who was a kid there working at the camp that summer. Peter. He was an Irish lifeguard and he remembered me. Stuck out to him that one night I afforded him the privilege of breaking curfew on my porch. I was given the exec’s cabin for the summer and I took full advantage and knowing I had no one to really hold me to account for an infraction I knew to be minor I said come on up, have a drink and a smoke. And we did, and we chatted. It was nice. And he remembered.

It’s funny what you remember. I have memories that die every day now. Ones that have just lost space or priority or value for one reason or another. Sometimes it’s age and distance that are crowding out so much. But for whatever reason it didn’t crowd out that one extra beer and smoke after curfew for Peter and his bringing it up to me rescued it from the waste bin I’d yet to empty in my mind. Now it’s there, given a lifeline, safe for a few more years.

I’m certain on my death bed I’ll think of my son’s. The times I’ve spent with them in this short time we’ve already had have filled me to overflowing. I’m sure I’ll flash to the night I met my wife Karen. It’s a memory I visit often to thank my lucky stars. I’m equally sure I won’t think of that night on the porch with Peter. Won’t happen I’m afraid. But I’m glad it made another appearance, because family, the family you grow up with, well all of it is significant. The silly times you made everyone laugh as you walked away beaming from the inside, and soaked from the waist down and the times you came crawling back, embarrassed, with all your life in tow and they didn’t for a second see you as anything but welcome and they were even thankful, happy that you were there.

I’ve said this to everyone who’s ever asked about camp and it’s true today. ‘If everything falls away, if my life literally crumbles around me and I’m left with nothing, I’ll always have camp.’ After all, if it all were to go away where else would I go other than to family.

Cheers 95

The Lodge Part Two; Faking It

I have a good deal of respect for the fraud I was at that time. My bravado and false courage was believable. I was 22, driving a 15 seat van from deep in the Catskills down to Union Square where I would pick up families that included at least one member who was diagnosed with an intellectual and/or developmental disability. Pick up was at 5pm on Fridays in the middle of Manhattan. I was the host and the boss. The looks I got. I ignored them, but they were evident. I would drive families that had never met before through the dark and snow to a camp in the mountains that was so remote that the road turned to dirt about a quarter mile out. No houses or light emanating from anything but the vehicle. It had all been arranged by a finely tuned, though still almost totally pen and paper bureaucracy that I had a good deal of responsibility for. They were startled and perhaps a tad frightened by me.

‘You’re Joe MEDLER?’ They’d ask. ‘This Joe Medler?’ They would hold the letter, sometimes pulled from the envelope with my handwriting on it, looking very official, with the logo for AHRC of NYC across the top and a list of board officers and members cascading down the left hand side and point to my name under my signature.

‘Yep. You’re in the right place. Is this Daquan, then? Hey man. Are you excited to head up to the mountains? We’ve got so much fun stuff planned for you.’ I’d say, moving right past the doubts of these now very worried people and instead engaging the kids. I had at least the accidental wisdom of engaging thoughtfully with kids without patronizing them. Usually at least.

Smartest In the World. And Robert.Thank god I didn’t recognize the doubt they must have been feeling. I mistook it for something I wanted to help change. It motivated me to be brave and bold and try honestly to change the world. Had I any of the wisdom I’ve gained since becoming a parent, wisdom that often is cloaked in fear and worry, I’d have known they were judging my youth and inexperience. I’d say they were right to have made such a judgment in general, but to this day, and I suspect for the rest of my life, this is the place and the job I was most perfectly suited to. Which isn’t to say this piece of the job was my strongest suit, but this place was the place that fit most perfectly with my emerging sense of right, wrong, fun, learning, priorities. It perfectly reflected my sensibilities. Harriman Lodge. Its my home, the one in my heart and it will always be to some degree.

I arrived at the place from across the state a summer or two ago. I don’t remember the timeline that well anymore. I was driven by my dad as it was the tail end of childhood and the leaping off point for my whole life. My confidence may have had little foundation, but it had good bones. I was a person taught to do what I believe even when it’s hard, especially when others aren’t. I had not yet applied these teachings, but somehow just being here, jumping in with two feet to a new and strange world and becoming a native felt like a stance. Taking the concerns of a person with disabilities as seriously as they took them, feeling like you were literally providing and caring for people that must have had innumerable amounts of ‘no’ and inadvertent and quite intentional discrimination heaped on them over a lifetime that often included severed family relations, neglect and institutional abuse felt world changing. It felt like I was making their lives better and as a result I was finally important. I was important for taking the care of and showing respect for people that needed help to have their voices heard. I was alongside the most wildly diverse assemblage I’ve ever been a part of, young people from all over the globe looking for a unique way to grow up while having fun and being the change they wanted to see in the world. It turned out that the people that were in our charge had a far greater impact on our lives those summers then we EVER could have had on theirs.

That first year was the moment I’ll always think of as my time of discovering the world and inventing myself. Leaping on opportunity and working 7 days a week, up to 20 hours a day, and no less then 16. Even when you were asleep in the cabin you always had one ear open in case a person that needed help was seeking it. You and 5 other counselors in a cabin of 18 guys. Then the leader of the cabin walks off the job, unable to deal with it. Then the Marine, couldn’t hack it. Finally it was me, Mike and Tony. The suburban, the urban and the Russian. And we did it. We had help, but we gave ourselves completely to our guys for more than half of the ten week summer. Ragged and bedraggled. Excitable and exhausted. It was and remains the greatest accomplishment of my professional life. I was 21, a knuckle headed post-teen finding purpose with the rest of us.

We’d all go on to have challenges and struggles. We’d resist the responsibilities of adulthood, shrink at times we should have roared and not use the springboard we were given to jump ahead in life. We’d all come back and do it again and again. I stayed 8 years, often through the long and lonely winters where I’d carry comfortably huge responsibilities only to crumble during down times that allowed me to wallow in ways I needed to in order to grow up. It was the formative experience of my life. One ONLY matched by becoming a parent.

Cheers 95For the first few years I identified as ‘Staff’. God that was awesome. We were weirdos and tough guys and earth mom’s in training and world explorers. Intellectuals bent on bending the world and lifelong service providers. We were on the one hand always ready to be silly and on the other hand so new at adulthood that we applied aesthetic judgment to the way we held our cigarettes. We were terribly vulnerable and horribly self-conscious and lacking the self awareness necessary to avoid embarrassment. I can look at the pictures for hours. When a new one shows up on Facebook I pray all of us will jump on and relive those times and speak of reunions. I can’t tell you how much I hope one comes to fruition. I love those people like my family. They were the people present at my coming of age story and I was present at theirs. I am of these people and I couldn’t be more proud of that.

Something strange happened over my time there. Fully integrated with the staff at 21 I started the slow move away from the group. It took a few years and a promotion or two, but before you knew it I was starting to realize that I was a lifer. I only stayed eight years, but in that time I became part of the permanent structure of the place. Before long I stopped having the bonds with the staff. The staff I’d always thought of as the ‘permanent structure’ that stayed in place as groups of ‘guests’ would come and go throughout the summer, two weeks at a time. I would be emotional when they’d leave and I’d reminisce with my fellow staff, the others left behind. You have no idea how much you bond with someone in this type of setting. How many emotions and experiences you can share in just a few days. But eventually as I got more involved in the year round operations my staff family became ‘big mama’ (Director), Big Joe (Caretaker extraordinaire of the facility) and Jessa-Lee (Year round rep for the AHRC NYC organization for the first couple years). To this day they feel like family to me. Jessa-Lee, though I haven’t seen her in ages, is still one of my very best friends. These people knew me as a pup and not only allowed me to grow up, they facilitated it. Put up with my shenanigans, the false starts and the inconsistencies and knew I was able and entrusted me. Partly because I was the only one who would do some of it, but lots of times because they had faith in me. So I had faith in me.

After that, my family became the guests themselves. My former self, my ‘staff’ self looked out to a horizon that went as long as the evening light. Perhaps into September. It was a short view. By the end I knew that I was with the guys. I was there every year, like they were. It was the staff that changed. Some returners every year, but eventually they all left. We stayed. At least until we didn’t.

There are times now when I look back and know I couldn’t do now all I did then. On the most basic level, it’s a young person’s game. The commitment, the hours, the emotionally raw feelings that come with the whole endeavor, it would be too much now. But I still wish I could do it. I still draw on it, like all of us who were lucky enough to have been there do. It provides a soulful foundation for me. Remembering the whole thing. It’s where I’d fall to if all else failed, if every imaginable tragedy were to befall me, I could always go back there and live out my days working for a roof and food. Sounds crazy I know, but it’s a real thought. It’s even a fall back plan in my mind for me and Karen. We hope to live out our days in our lovely home and have a fully realized vision for what our future will look like. But when discussing fall back plans in the event they should become necessary, the idea of camp has come up on several occasions.

I guess you have to fake it when you start. I did, at least. There wasn’t anything to draw on so you make it up. All of it. Then at some point you realize, I’ve been making it up for so long that in the process something has been made. The whole of the experience has to amount to something. It just has to. For me it amounted to me. I faked it, I made it and that made 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.