I’ve never much gone in for “two kinds of people” theories, but if I had to choose a way to divide up the world, it might be into those people who loved sleepaway camp and those who hated it. (As far as I know, no one is ever indifferent where sleepaway camp is concerned.) I myself hated it, largely because of the people who loved it. Their “camp spirit” embarrassed me, their competitive gregariousness exhausted me, much as their in-crowd Shabbat-o-grams eluded me. At school I was chipper, eager, enthusiastic about all things social and academic. By all rights, I should have brought this verve with me to the woods of camps Hillel, Hatikvah, Morasha and Moshava (I optimistically tried a new camp four summers in a row), but bunk pride, flash-relationships and the absurdist horrors of Color War were enough to turn a classic extrovert into a curmudgeonly cynic. Even now, I find myself reverting to my sour self whenever I meet the adult versions of my camp-loving foes. I have never, ever liked someone who loved sleepaway camp. And I like everyone.
Given the personality-altering effects that camp had — and, apparently, still has — on me, I was curious to see what my reaction would be to a new anthology, “Sleepaway: Writings on Summer Camp,” edited by Eric Simonoff (Riverhead). I approached the collection of essays, stories, cartoons, and poems with two questions in mind: First, would the correlation between “camp lover” and “person I do not like” continue to hold? Second, what is it about the camp lover and her particular brand of enthusiasm that
tests the limits of my tolerance? Initially it seemed that the statistical analysis of the anthology would be fairly straightforward: Out of 20 entries, 10 are pro-camp on the surface, 10 are anti. (I think this is true, anyway: It was a bit harder to pin down the attitude in poems, cartoons and stories where the main characters were horses.)
Some entries, though, defied easy classification when prodded. Margaret Atwood’s “Death by Landscape” begins promisingly enough. Atwood’s protagonist “hated the noisy chaos and spoon-banging of the dining hall, the rowdy sing-songs at which you were expected to yell in order to show that you were enjoying yourself.” But by 13, alas, she’s an “old hand” — and loving it. In the generally pro-camp “Queechy Girls,” Cynthia Kaplan admits that the fun drained out of Camp Queechy when she learned that the camp’s perpetual social outcast wasn’t actually miserable.
In his introduction, Simonoff explains that a part of sleepaway camp’s appeal is that, “far away from home, removed from the constraints of school, [it] offers a rare opportunity for reinvention.” Not so in the tiny, claustrophobic world of Orthodox youth. Attending camps Hillel, Morasha, Moshava, Hatikvah and even the Conservative Ramah lands you smack dab in a tight network of coastal Jews, a network that only will become tighter and more unavoidable as you age.
The two pieces in the anthology that deal with camps set within this network of sporty Yiddishkeit highlight this “in the thick of things” aspect of Jewish summer camp to perfection. In Josh Lambert’s “The Brief Summer of Amir and Ariella: An Allegory,” a busload of campers arrives in the wilderness with their social hierarchy unmoved by the trip; blond and filthy rich Ariella remains poised at the top. Ellen Umansky, whose main character in “How To Make It to the Promised Land” is in the unfortunate position of being an outsider among people who hardly acknowledge that outsiders exist, miserably derides “this Jew-Camp, which everyone else has been coming to since they were fetuses.”
Perhaps what separates a person who liked the sleepaway camp experience from one who didn’t is how earnestly a person enjoyed being a child. I think I only half-enjoyed it: I could do it happily for six or seven hours a day, but no longer. The same seems to be true for most of the ardent camp-haters in the anthology. There is ZZ Packer, wise and serious in grade four; Mark Oppenheimer, pegging the campified adults around him quicker than a mosquito can bite your ankle, and Kevin Canty’s tragic “Flipper,” the title character in the story of a fat-camp inmate, alone with his rolls of blubber and his need for chocolate.
One might point out that there is a place for kids like these — kids with one foot in adulthood, or at least without both feet firmly planted in the sphere of normal. There are camps with agendas. There is Lev Grossman at music camp, Thisbe Nissen at basketball camp. Reading through these entries, I began to wonder whether it was a mistake for me to turn up my nose at the one chance I was offered for an “alternative” camp experience when I huffily called the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth a “nerd farm.” Perhaps my whole life would have been transformed by those two months. As Grossman puts it in his essay “Cello, Goodbye,” about the summer he went to the Berkshires and learned he was not a musical genius, “People say that going to camp is about growing up and learning who you are.” Did I miss my chance?
My reassurance comes by way of James Atlas, who, in his wonderful “Summer Memories of Egghead Camps,” recalls what happened when he was swayed by the same reasoning. Arriving at an intellectual-enrichment program, he meets a camper who introduces himself by name, school and SAT math score (800, of course), causing Atlas to wonder “if I hadn’t been better off last summer putting up with Ollie Gunderson, a cruel, gigantic boy who wore a T-shirt with the legend ‘WANNA MAKE SOMETHING OF IT?’ emblazoned across the front and who used to shine his flashlight in my eyes all night.” Needling or bullying, obsessed with brainteasers or French kissing, in sleepaway camp your peers are still inescapable. When it comes down to it, maybe it’s easier to at least retain the low-grade version of that posture required for nincompoops, than the high grade version required by other over-achievers. When Atlas tries again the next summer at an even more intellectually rigorous camp, he finds himself at toleration’s end, the energy required for maintaining his intellectual persona simply not worth the payoff. “A week later my parents arrived and took me away, while the camp director stood in the driveway glowering like the Furies in Eurpides’ play. The following summer I stayed home and hung out in the back booths of Rexall’s Drugstore.”
Sitting in the back of a drugstore was the only truly appealing scenario I found described in these pages — and that, to me, is most telling of all. I think, on reflection, that sleepaway camp did teach me who I am, though it took this anthology for that intuition to harden into firm and fast knowledge. I am, absolutely and proudly, a very bad camper.