Tag Archives: special needs 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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How I Became the Creepy Dude at Walmart

  With great power comes great responsibility, sure. But with middling power and autonomy there comes some amount of privilege. When that power and autonomy is exercised at great distance, and when it is accompanied by insane committment and endless hours, so many that you move to work for a few months to attack the job at hand, well, it comes with the privilege of ocassionally taking liberties. In my case my great liberty was I skipped first breakfast. I brazenly entrusted my senior staff, their staff and the staff they supervised with breakfast for the 6-12 year olds. 

It was understandable and in my defense I tried hard to be there by the end of Wawa breakfast to at least check in. My skills were rarely needed here and my support was hopefully felt in other ways. You see, the hours of a summer camp professional, roughly sun up to sundown to curfew to on-call until sun up, are the hours one keeps when they are a mythical creature or a college student. Being neither, being in reality a 33 year old man with a quite specific, though veiled case of Peter Pan syndrome, I felt it was within my capacity to do this job that I’d been doing in some capacity since I was the college kid getting up at the crack and getting my guys ready to be to breakfast on time. I was normally right. I did the job well, really well and by the end I at least maintained ‘well enough.’ This was probably the sunset of my ‘really well’ years and I knew how to operate. 

There is a specific thing that goes by the wayside at camp. Vanity. Actually, now that I say that I realize it’s a lie. I was awash in vanity. It just looks different at camp. Vanity is masked in disgusting personal habits, lax hygeine, scattershot bouts of shaving and an overall bedraggled appearance that screams for attention with witty asides and hats that once spoke whimsy that now speak to tradition. I did all the things. I was a fully institutionalized man you could say, a camp guy. Complete with my own unique quirks and a signature style of management. I was a guy that by all accounts was camp basic. Standard issue to all who were more than an arms length away. I was quick with a smile, easy in conflict, ready to stand up to anything and ready to help whenever asked and happy to be invisible when things were good. 

My day to day at the camp was as often at a desk as it was out and about. I loved getting out though. I loved stepping always from budgets, off the phone, away from my responsibility to my bosses who were based hundreds of miles away in the city. The camp day was a race to accomplish all the proactive planning one intended to do versus the reactive responding one was compelled to do and often it left you working until all hours. Then it left you waiting until the very end of the talent show to see the routine the cabin of 14 year old guys had been working on all week and responding to the girl who couldn’t understand why the girls she liked didn’t like her, or she didn’t think they did. 

Then it was the counselors, the hardest working 17-22 year old kids you’d ever want to see finding you to tell you all that transpired that day and the week leading up to that day (for context) and why it was all so unfair to them. Then walking the smartest, most talented people I’ve ever worked with through the experience they lacked in order to build them up to earn the experience they’d get from facing the challenges that come with being accountable to 30-40 kids with special needs, the parents and caregivers of all those kids, the bosses, like me and others they were working with and all their friends who now needed so much from them now that they were supervised by them. This last part was my favorite. 

On the day in question I was asked at breakfast, not the one I skipped, the second one, the older kids breakfast, If I’d be making a run. This was another one of my jobs. Making the hour plus drive to Walmart to get supplies. I wasn’t planning on it, but they were kind of stuck if I didn’t. It was for the girls cabin and I asked Lexi if it was stuff they NEEDED needed or if it was stuff that could wait til next week. I was home on weekends (more of that earned liberty taking) and had a busy day of commitments. She said yeah, it would be good if I could go.  She was uncommonly talented and knew at 20 how to gently tell her boss, ‘Yes, dummy, this is important.’ Being good at being the boss I understood her. I wasn’t going home til the end of the following day, so I was sure I could make it happen, even if it was at the end of the night. 

The day proceded however it proceded. As it was getting to the end of second dinner I was telling Lexi I’d be heading out and would drop the stuff off at the girls cabins when I returned, after evening program. 

‘Um, can you help me with something first?’ She said. 

‘Sure. What’s up. Do we need to step outside?’ I asked. 

‘No, but come with me.’ She grabbed her tray and radio and stood up. 

‘Go sit with the STEP guys. Hang out for a minute. Tell me if you see anything.’ 

So I did. STEP was our older guys, 18-24 or so, who were capable of coming back and having a work experience be a part of their time here. It wasn’t for everyone. We had at most room for 10 per session. Kind of a graduate level camper. They had need for support, but they had a great deal of independent skills as well. 

‘So, did you notice anything about Taylor?’ She asked.

‘Not particularly. Seemed to be in a good mood.’ I replied.

‘Yeah. I mean, he’s always in a good mood. But it took me a bit too. He shaved his eyebrows off.’

‘WHAT?’

‘Yeah. I asked him why and he said, my mom told me to shave my whole face while I was at camp.’ She said. 

‘Oh my GOD!’ I said and started cracking up. 

‘I know. I asked him how he liked his new look and he said he thought it looked cool.’ She said. 

Now, I can’t tell you how much this is no big deal for someone like Lexi. She was poised beyond her years, emotionally and in all other ways intelligent and intuitive. But when you are 20 and you take your job of taking care of others kids seriously, and you are a tad shellshocked from being the point of contact for parents of kids with special needs, day and night for weeks on end, who are on ocassion quite nervous to be alone without them for what is often the very first time, well the potential for disaster in calling a parent to tell them their kids will be coming home with at best a five o’clock shadow where their should be eyebrows, well, it can call for some support from your boss. 

We talked and laughed and talked and laughed and finally arrived where we needed to be.

‘How’s your relationship with his mom?’ I asked.

‘Great. I mean, until now.’ She said.

‘How about we just laugh. Life is short and she seems like someone who gets it. I mean, I’d be happy to make the call if you like, but I think we should just treat it with her like we’re treating it now. No one got hurt, it’s super funny. We could present it that way. I’ve always known her to get it. What do you think?’

She was down, and she would make the call. But this was a risky approach. We had faith that she would have a good perspective, but I was going to be there. So, once whatever the activity was that was going on that night was off and running we stepped out to the office to make our call. Being a pro I took the pro’s approach…

‘Oh no, I’ve done a ton of these kind of calls, you get used to it. You want me to do it?’ 

‘No, I think I got it.’

Phew. She bought it. Now, lets see how this goes. 

Ding ding ding… We were right! His mom coulndn’t even stay on the line long enough to say goodbye in real words. She was in stitches. Crying, laughing. It was a highlight of my life hearing the volume of that laughter that came from that phone as Lexi joined her cracking up at something that was genuinely funny. 

So, dusk upon us I told her I’d be heading out. 

‘What do the older girls cabin need? In the hubbub of dinner I didn’t get a list.’ 

‘It’s not a list. They need a few cans of FDS.’ 

‘What’s FDS?’

Sometimes when you are young you forget that people who are right next to you don’t posess all your knowledge. She was dumbstruck. 

‘um, really?’ 

‘Really.’

She hemmed. She hawed. I waited, unaware why she was so uncomfortable.

‘Our girls are a little older. You know, we go up to 18?’

Nope. I’m still staring at her blank faced and innocent. 

How about this…

‘What does it stand for?’

‘Feminine Deoderant Spray.’  

I was inclined to say something like, Oh, like ‘Secret’, but the implication was that it was not ‘secret’, and  it was.  Nuff said.

‘Where do I find that?’ Okay, one more question.

So there I was, a list from the younger girls cabin in my cargos, unshaven and unkempt in clothes that were wearing me headed off into the late night to do my little part that took a long time. An hour plus each way to the Walmart in Kingston where I would ocassionally see several people I just knew were there doing the same thing. Making time where there was none to do things important but not important enough to be done earlier than the middle of the night. 

Now, all of this is context. I was away in the woods in a committed lifelong pursuit to make the world a better place. I was a man who cared about how he spent his time, but not so much how I appeared outside of this little world where all of us, dirty, tired and worn, understood who we were and why we were there. We were the good people, dammit. Breaking down barriers in the real world and in the minds of children who would go on to build on our small but hard earned successes. We were planting seeds and tending gardens that would bare fruit for our children. But to the other people in Walmart, I was just a clearly unwell man, one who could use some help taking care of himself. Someone to be cautious of, someone to perhaps be careful with. Who smelled funky. 

But there is no one who was more concerned for who I was or what I was up to then the woman at the cash register as I lay my admittedly very small pile of items onto the belt for her to ring up. If there were a silent alarm system under the till I am both thankful and concerned that she didn’t activate it. You see my list consisted of three items and three items only. The aforementioned Feminine Deoderant Spray. A few packs of multicolored underwear for little girls. Candy. 

I saw the look in her eye and rushed my way through all my explainations. I’m engaged to be married, I run a camp for kids, sleepaway. I was sent with this list. I didn’t even know what this stuff was a couple hours ago. Ugh. It was only making it worse. We both survived our one and only interaction, but we were both scarred, far as I could tell. 

As I dug into the candy for the ride home I did something I never did on any of the other nights I was out and about running errands throughout the Catskills. I set the cruise control. For the exact speed limit. If ever there was a night when the cops might be looking for me it was this one. 

Sometimes trying to make the world a better placed can be severely misunderstood. 

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.