Monday, July 13, 2009

Mid-July, 2009. Living in the suburbs. Wife and kids. Semi-stable family construction business. Verging on 40. And still going to Summer Camp.

Mrs. Ditchman would go, too, I think, if we had some safe place to leave our kids for a week. This past weekend was our annual camp counselor training event, which was a compelling twenty-four hour display of wit, wisdom, and anecdotal evidence of our "leadership" prowess. We had a good time. The past few years have been a collection of seasoned counselors and directors, meaning no first-timers, which changes the structure of the camp a bit. These twenty-somethings keep coming back to volunteer to spend a week with 150 high schoolers out on a literal desert island. Someone must be doing something right, to get such a group of thoughtful, committed, caring young men and women together, but, of course, none of these people can be trusted with your children.

I often think I'm getting too old for this, but then, so do we all. Summer Camp today is not as mysterious as it was when I was running the place, back in the 90s, which was then not as mysterious as it was the decade before that. Today it's all Facebooked and YouTubed. As well, in times past it was a parking lot of tearful reunions and goodbyes, bookending a week of escape that upended the adolescent comfort zone so that they could get a better perspective on the life to come. Now you just text everybody.

Every kid has a cel phone, or an iPod, or a digital camera, or a PSP, or all four packed into a little gadget that can be hidden anywhere. There is WiFi on the island, and the cel signal is strong enough now, but we try to get kids to leave that tech-junk at home. We tell them it'll get stolen or broken, (which it probably will) but it's really to diminish the competition for their attention. In many ways, the job of Summer Camp counseling is harder today than it ever was, but kids are kids. It's just different.

Examples. There was some discussion of having a "Camp Blog" with daily updates so that parents could check in on their fragile offspring. Lots of parents insist that their kids keep their phones on them at all times, which puts us all at odds. Some camps have tried the daily blog with varying degrees of success -parents comment and email that they don't see their kid in any photos, that there aren't enough vegetarian dishes being served, that their kid hates sunscreen and needs it constantly, etc. So we're still debating the concept. And a lot of kids who have phones end up sitting in their bunks posting to their Facebook pages about camp happenings. Someone suggested that we demand that they all make their counselor their Facebook "friend" upon their arrival at camp, so then we can check up on how the camp is faring in real time from the director's cabin. (Camper: "Just had boring team competition. Our leader is lame. This sux. Can't wait to sneak out tonight with Villa 4." [Thumbs-up emoticon] Your counselor likes this!)

And then there's all the legal stuff. Hours of carefully-worded prep and training videos are required viewing now, and all counselors have to sign, declare and affirm that they put the time in and watched them. Subjects such as safety, bullying, and child-abuse are covered, (as if we'd never thought of it) and the information is helpful, I guess. It's boring, but necessary, and there is a distant nagging feeling that none of these lawyers have ever been to camp, have never worked in a community youth group, and are dubious of your intent and ability altogether. The volunteer application was at one time a single sheet with probing questions like "Why do you want to work with kids?" Today it is a multi-page legal agreement that requires a hundred initials and twenty signatures and you get done with the thing and feel as if you just bought the property. But we all sign and date it, every year now, and just so you know: last year's application is not on file to copy, since this year's version has been re-packaged to head off the latest lawsuit scare.

The camp director and I were chatting yesterday and he reminded me of something I'd said years ago, which was that it is far easier to make the case that I am unqualified for the job, rather than that I am qualified for it. It was not a revelation about me, but a criticism of the direction of this legalistic camp mentality. Molestation and child abuse are such a fear now (however justified) that counselors are not allowed any contact with campers outside of camp without written/signed/dated/verified parental consent. This means no emails, or Facebook befriending, and, we imagined, no exchange of greetings upon a surprise run-in at the local mall. Also, no one in camp is allowed to change their clothes in front of anyone else. It all sounds all right, until you consider that 150 kids and leaders are changing in and out of their bathing suits all week, that we play daily games where kids and leaders alike get covered in mud and ketchup and shaving cream, and that the bathrooms are communal and the cabins have no doors. (Some don't even have walls!) So, yes, the lawyers have little idea what they're talking about. They have a window to the world, framed at night, the shades drawn.

A few years ago the event of "Pier Diving" was banned by these office-bound barristers. It's not as dangerous as it sounds: a ten foot jump into calm seas, thirty feet deep, near shore, and with a fully-staffed team of well-trained and attentive lifeguards -hardly different than a public pool high dive. There has never been an injury, but evidently the lawyers shook their heads in the negative and the insurance companies refused to cover it. That same year, a second rock-climbing wall was installed on the field, just south of the elaborate ropes course which includes something called the "Power Pole" -a telephone pole easily three times the height of the pier which one climbs to the top of, and then leaps off into a thrilling free-fall, collegiate camp staff manning the harnesses. (Oh, but they wear helmets!) Strangely, kids preferred the Pier Diving event, and now, every summer, it must be explained why the event is held no more. This will be the last year they complain about it, however, for next summer that generation of high schoolers will have moved on, and no returning camper will have ever remembered the event enough to ask for it.

I know what will happen, though. Years from now, all the staff will change out, and one day some innovative camp director will have an idea for an event called "Long Walk Off A Short Pier", or something. The event will be organized, leaders will rally, lifeguards will be arranged. No one will think to stop it, and it will be a huge hit. They'll have to think of something to do after all those ropes courses are banned after the first cracked rib from the first accident leads to the final lawsuit.

It's amazing they even let us swim in the vast, unwieldy Pacific! Or let us hike on that desert island amongst the thorny cactus and poisonous rattlesnakes! Adults nowadays are always complaining that the kids don't get outside enough, but what kid would want to leave the house wearing all that safety gear?

Which is why I go. I want that battle. I want to think up and be a part of something more fun, more fulfilling, and more real than the Internet or the lawyers could ever imagine. I want kids to be able to be kids, while they have the chance. There are too many adults today trying to be kids themselves, making up for all the screens and paperwork they're mired in, and it's sad, because we need more reliable Grown-Ups in the world. And one of the reasons these forty-somethings are still chasing their youth is because they never went to Summer Camp.