Camps

Sunday, July 17, 2005

I’m trying something new, something I have not tried before. I’m going to inject my pain and suffering, the very same pain and suffering that you, the tired reader of my writings, have suffered with through the last few years, into my stories. Why, you may ask, am I going to do this? My answer is simple and yet simple (I was going to say it was simple yet complicated, but then I realized that what I consider complicated is only complicated so long as it remains fuzzy in my brain. Once it comes out, and it does usually come out in one form or the other, the complication turns into disorganization or simpleness. No thought, once properly organized, is complicated. The complication is in the not understanding of thought, not in its expression). The simple answer is because I can and I need to pad words and explain to myself why I am doing things. I do not know if these clever words—for what are these words but an expansion of my most selfish thoughts—will survive in the final drafts. It’s enough that they survive in this first draft and let me throw out my consternations into the altar of what I want to say, which is anything, when I admit the truth, but an anything that will hopefully turn into something that someone actually wants to read, instead of something I want to say, which, I know, is not one and the same.

The story I will attempt to write is a mishmash of experiences I had during my camp years. After attending (and hating attending) a Jewish day camp during my childhood years, I went back to that same camp as a counselor through the end of my high school years and into and through my college years. It wasn’t until I left college that I decided it was time (and time enough) for me to stop looking after children for money. I enjoyed my counselor time much more than my day camp time. I was not a good camper. I had a tendency to be scared of everything, from getting on the camp bus in the morning to swimming in the pool. There wasn’t a thing I wasn’t scared of while at the day camp. But as a counselor, those fears turned into power. Here I was in my element. I was a man amongst boys. As I grew through the counselor ranks—and I grew quickly as most of the boys (not so much the girls) outgrew the ranks of counselorhood and decided to pursue real summer occupations, such as working in bagel stores and pizzerias, and taking on summer internships that would prepare them for real life, which was something I didn’t concern myself about for many years into my adult life, the real life, that is. There was something reassuring about staying in the day camp world and moving up through the hierarchy of the counselors. There was a certainty that I would excel. It’s like I imagine the military: if you stay there long enough, you’ll get ahead. I know it’s more complicated than that, but that’s how things look to me from the outside never looking in.

By the time I left the day camp world, I was a god. I had a walkie-talkie and they only gave the walkie-talkies to important people: the adults, teachers mostly, who ran the camp, and the senior most counselors, most of which, when I look back, were related somehow to the staff or were the types that people hung about because they were cool, even if their coolness was only relative to the younger people they hung about with.

I’m getting tired already. This style is exciting but awfully tiring—well, that’s not absolutely true. It’s not the style that’s tiring but the sitting here in the coffee shop thinking about how great this would be if any of these words were at all useful. I’m word counting again, even though I don’t want to. I’m thinking if I can set goals for days and go off, not rereading but instead expanding upon what I’m working on, I might start hitting goals of unimagined expanse. I know, it’s funny to me also. None of this will ever happen. I’ll grow tired and hit the road, Jack. And, let me tell you, I might not come back.

Getting back to my story, the mishmash of events that I’ve decided might make a good tale. I’m throwing stuff together. It didn’t happen like this, and the characters I’m drawing up, while their names might sound like real people, are in fact not as they were. I don’t remember how they were. My brain has long since flushed that kind of knowledge. I can perhaps remember anecdotes (I originally wrote antidotes, which I guess in a way this is to the poison of my childhood—but even so, that wasn’t the correct word), but I didn’t know enough at that time to throw those people into groups and categories as I do now. I haven’t been able to create these categories, like in a dictionary (although, I can imagine, drawing a book of caricatures of these characters, which, still imagining, would probably be funny in that near-truth type of humor), but my study of people didn’t happen until I became self-aware of myself—I mean, really, how do you expect to truly know anyone around you unless you can pretend to know yourself. As to self-awareness, I’m still not sure I’m there, but I know it’s a pursuit.

I start the story with high drama. I’m in the gymnasium at the end of camp. I’m the head of counselors in my group. I planned to throw everything out here, what was happening, but I realized if I did, it would only be a few paragraphs long. What will make this interesting is if I created the characters, told you a bit about them, and maybe made you care some for them—and I’m not talking about just the main character and the evil head of the sports group. There’s more to it than that. There are all the precocious five year olds that run around the protagonist’s feet. You should know about them as well.

Take Hunter, for example. He’s the cutest of the bunch. So cute that the female counselors when they come around looking for cute young boys, always play with him, hold him, I guess they’re pretending he’s their child. None of the female counselors has children yet, although to call them too young to have children is probably inaccurate. His name wasn’t Hunter, I think it might have started with a Z. He had a freckled face and dark hair and light eyes. He was on my bus route and had a bunch of sisters and lived a few blocks from me. That’s a lot of ands. Like the rest of the children in my group, he was a good kid. All my kids were good, at least the year I’m thinking of. I thought they’d always be that good, but at least for that first year that I was a head counselor, they were good. They listened to the stories I invented, which, because of the time, involved many of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, turtles which I had a good association with because I always wanted to be a ninja, I liked turtles, and I was still a teenager.

This opening up feels good. I’ve been forcing myself into more conventional storytelling hats, and I found out that I suck rather badly at those conventional storytelling. I don’t think this is good, but at least I’m writing words, and writing words is better than the shit I’ve been doing over the last couple of weeks. I’m sitting here telling stuff and enjoying myself. But even as I sit here, I still feel the need to pack up and go home. The computer’s keys are mostly worn now. I press the keys too much and say too little. I read in the New Yorker three (really two, since the middle one bored me after I stuck with it for a page) debut fiction stories. The best of the lot was the first one, written by a twenty-three year old woman (the story’s main two characters were boys, and I had originally thought she was a man until I saw her picture and thumbed back to find the name of the author, which was female). It hurt to look at her picture (she, along with the other two authors, thirty-four, and over forty, had their picture in the magazine taken in the Strand bookstore in NYC). I had to fold the page over so I wouldn’t see her glaring smile making fun of me for my pitiful lack of words. But I’m over it now. So, she wrote a brilliant story at twenty-four, and I’ve written shit since I started over three years ago (can you believe it’s been that long?). I’m over it. Really. Stop looking at me in that way, I said I was over it and I’m going to get back to telling this story.

There’s Hunter or Zebra or Zail or Gail or Gabrielle. There are others, but I don’t remember much about them. There was the slightly overweight kid who was the leader of the kids. He would talk almost like a five-year old counselor, and would counsel us on some of the problems of his fellow campers. He was very good at sports, and while we taught the rest to play whiffle ball, he would analyze our technique. I would say: elbows up, square yourself on the swing. I didn’t know much about baseball. I was a terrible athlete, particularly as a camper. I knew a few things after graduating from camper since I’d been to baseball games and understood the sport from watching it on television and at the stadiums. I think my arms had always been too thin to swing fast enough to make contact with the ball. But to a five-year old, I was a god at sports. For example, I knew which base to run to if I got a hit, a rare occasion, even as I tried to play softball in the counselor’s games—I would sit out as the third person in right field, feeling like a five year old, standing out there hoping nobody would hit the ball in my direction, but also hoping to look good for the girl counselors who came out to watch us, especially C, the daughter of one of the big wigs. I always had a thing for her.

We sat on the rugged carpet that led up from the room outside the synagogue to the classrooms on the second floor. I was sitting with her—after being a counselor for a year, she decided she’d rather work in her father’s office and do administrative work (I would head to the air-conditioned office any chance I had to try to say a few words to her)—on the carpeted steps, and we were chatting. She was very pretty with a nice body, and she thought I was smart, which I liked. She seemed more nice than smart, but I didn’t care much at the time. She would listen to my weird theories and we would sit and talk. I probably should have asked her out then, or any of the other times that I would talk to her, but I didn’t. I heard a few years later that her younger sister, a very nice girl who decided to be a counselor instead of an office worker, had died of cancer. She looked like an uglier, darker version of C. Am I evil to say that? I liked her—she was more of an experimenter. She questioned her faith even after being raised in an orthodox home. She was also smarter than C.

I don’t think throwing these memories out on paper will ever qualify as a story. If anything it sounds more like a badly organized essay on my life growing up. So be it. I can go back and organize it at a later time. I just need stuff to work with the organization, and this feels good, this remembering. I never think I have much of a memory until I dig back into the banks and look for something and find a mother load. Lots of words written today. I wish some of these words were worth something, but I’ll keep at it and not worry about all the shit that’s going through my head, like, why I wasted so many words and said almost nothing. Or, more disgustingly, how I said so many things (which I might work up the nerve to post, but I’m not sure yet) but how none of them have any value for my career as a writer. (That’s a funny one: ‘career as a writer’.)

The camp had a smell. Each summer, as I returned either as a camper or counselor, that smell would assail me. I read an article once that discussed the different type of people. There are what are called super-smellers. These super-smellers have more smell bumps on their tongue (our smell system somehow works through the tongue, I think—I’m trying to pull this all from memory, so you’ll have to excuse me if something of this is wrong). You can tell you if you’re a super smeller by counting the smell bumps (there is a more technical term for it, but I like smell bumps better). Being an omnipotent type of person, I am the best of all things, including a super smeller. I always thought this was an advantage, until I realized that with my super powers of smell and taste, I smell and taste the good along with the bad. And, in case you haven’t noticed, there’s more bad than good in the world. So, my super smell bumps would remind me each year when I walked in through the front door of the camp. The smell was a mixture of the polyurethane they coated the gym floor with and the smell of aged books and unwashed old men, which, when you smell those odors side by side, you realize are very similar. That smell haunted me as a camper and welcomed me as counselor. When I would go into non-camp buildings later in life and smell those odors, I would be instantly transported back to this rather large piece of my life: the two months of summer that happened every year for almost fifteen years. That was a long 30 months of my life.

It’s amazing how I can’t invent things. I can’t invent characters or things they do, but I can pull back all these memories that swim near the bottom of the pool, back to the surface. I wish I could now take these memories and manipulate them into something worth telling. Here I go consternating instead of moving this forward. I gave myself permission to do this because it helps me continue writing (it’s either this or start alt-tabbing—which I can’t actually do in this coffee house, since I refuse to pay the $4 per day to surf the otherwise free internets). The thought of it pushed me into a few moments of weakness. I’ll see if I can continue this reminiscing.

There were three main girls in my summer camp career: J, C (although I never went out with her), and S. I still have some of my pathetic letters to the last one. What does this have to do with anything? I don’t know. I’m trying to pull enough together to tell some sort of story. I though it was going to be the one about M and J (or maybe it was another girl, like M, I don’t remember now). But it sounds like it’s going to have to be a more complicated story to get the real feel of camp. Perhaps I’ll tell it from the position of the old and young David, the camper and counselor. The—my god, I can’t believe I’m wasting time on this bullshit. I thought I was supposed to be writing and giving these clever asides as part of the writing process, not dulling the story to an imperceptible bump on the page with over analysis and meta-writing, the only thing I’m seemingly good at.

I’m running into the end of my string, and my kite still wants to fly higher. I should call it a day (or at least an afternoon). I’ll do that as soon as the bathroom opens so I can pee before I walk to the bookstore (it’s another used one that’s going out of business—30% off! Ed. Note: it turns out that it was a new book bookstore, and there was little of the inventory left except cobwebs and Harry Potter books—I saw five people buy the new hardcover while I was there. It’s really not that good, people. I’m going to wait for the movie) and then to my car for my ride home. I wanted to bicycle this evening, and I need to call Scott and figure out what time works for him.

I eventually have to do this exercise for the other parts of my life: my pathetic college life, my childhood (which I’ve been mining unconsciously for the last couple of years), and my work life, which I haven’t felt ready to touch yet, probably because I’m too close to it. Then I have my love life (that’s funny)—which, since Doolies, has changed much for the better. But I think I do have a few stories there. The bathroom is open and I’m going to make a run for it. I’ll stop by later and see if I have any words left.

I tried to pretend that this was all my own idea, but I got it from reading another article about Gertrude Stein’s book, The Making of Americans. It’s a very dense novel that’s almost impossible to get through (I haven’t tried yet, but I do want to now after reading the article). In it, she tries to write a novel, but the more interesting part is her consternating about writing, as she talks to her readers about how hard it is to write a novel. This 900-page tome is full of her consternations, something I am infinitely familiar with, and, I mean, if it worked for Gertrude Stein, surely it won’t work for me.

***

Here are the tidbits I started with this morning.

I’m feeling overconfident. I walk into the gymnasium. I have a date later with Jessica. She said yes when I asked. Friends and sister had pressed me into her. I dallied by the entrance and talked to other counselors. M, the sports director, came over to break us up. M is an albino, although we do not know the name for his condition, or even that he has a condition. He has white hair and white skin and wears dark glasses. He never takes the glasses off but if he did his eyes would be pink. I know this now but I didn’t know this then.

Jessica is a short dark-haired girl. Her hair is curly and always looks wet. She is quiet and has a younger sister who goes to the camp. She hunches over and looks a bit like a mouse. I forgive her that. She showed interest and I pounced. Although, pounced is probably too strong a word. It had taken me the entire summer to ask her on a date. Tonight the campers put on an end of summer performance for their parents. Tonight is also the night that most of the parents give tips. The tips are usually cash and stuck into white envelopes with our names. The parents give the envelopes to their children who in turn hand it to us. We thank the children graciously and then look up and smile conspiratorially at the parents.

I like her name: Jessica. It reminds me of Jessica Rabbit from the real-action cartoon that came out that year. My Jessica doesn’t have the body of her Rabbit namesake. But her name does add something to the experience.

“Split up this group,” Maurice says when he approaches the circle of counselors standing behind the children watching the television. “Go back with your groups.”

The circle breaks apart and I take a step toward the back of my campers. They sit in front of a television on a rolling, metal stand, and watch Roadrunner cartoons. I count five campers from my group. It is still early for most of them to show up.

“David, I thought I said to go with your group,” Maurice says.

“They’re right here,” I say and point at the five children sitting a few feet in front of me by the television.

“Then go sit by them,” Maurice says. He puts the whistle in his mouth and blows it away from me toward two older campers running around the gym as if it’s a gym or something. The campers freeze and walk back to their groups.

Maurice turns to face me again. “I thought I told you to go by your campers.” I take a few steps toward my group again. Anger flashes across my vision. When I look I see the red veins highlighted in my eyes as if I looked inward instead of outward. Doesn’t Maurice know that I have a date tonight? Doesn’t he know that I’m not one of the campers for him to yell at? I look back at him and don’t say anything.

“Do you want me to kick you out of here?” he asks. I don’t have an answer for him. I cross my arms across my chest

Live in the camp: Color War; Jessica is the life guard of the small bank of pools at the back of the Jewish day camp in Brooklyn. The yarmulkes or hats. The religious verse not-so-religious children. The separation of the boys and girls. The counselors. The food.

Scenes: Maurice and David in the gym. David and Jessica in the pool with the children. Does Jessica like David? Dark skinned, clear face and whites of her eyes. Black, single-piece bathing suit with large breasts and dark, wet hair. She’s younger than David. She’s religious and I’m not. I’m conservative. She liked me last year but I thought she too young for me. Now I like her but I am going to college next year. I have a group of five-year olds that I sit on a rug in the coat room of the synagogue where the camp takes place. I’m sharing head counselor with Michael because neither of us are old enough to have a group. This might affect our tips as our group has two head counselors instead of a head and an assistant. We did “Pretty Woman” with the children. I choreographed the dance and Michael chose the music. He made a good choice and the campers pretended like they were hitting on woman. I drew a large picture of Jessica Rabbit for the song, which one of the campers walked across the stage with at the beginning of the song, showing that she was the pretty woman. One of the counselors asked for the poster at the end of the show. Her sorority’s mascot is Jessica Rabbit—which I didn’t think strange but now can’t understand it—and she wanted the life-sized poster for her sorority house. I should have said, “sure, if you’ll invite me over to install it,” but I wasn’t that clever. I’m still not that clever.

***

David longed to be the type of guy who, after buying a clock based on its aesthetics and realizing after a week that it didn’t keep good time regardless how beautiful it looked on his wall, would bring the clock back to the store and demand a replacement. Instead, he was the type of guy to think these thoughts, but leave the clock on the wall as a “thinking” piece, in which he challenged the conceptions of visitors to his house.