I was recently compelled to create a metaphor for my parenting style.
After a serious think, illustrated by the geometric degree of the corners of my mouth and the furrows deep enough to sow pumpkins in on my brow, I replied. “My kids should think of this as summer camp. And I am the cabin counselor. I’m basically a bossy camper with more authority, but for completely arbitrary reasons.”
I mean it feels like summer camp, having kids. The accommodations are nice, but they always look just a little like Fisher-Price and Lisa Frank had a whole 72-hour amphetamine binge and threw up everywhere before passing out and disappearing. And it always smells just a little…exactly like you’d expect.
I have one summer camp experience but I was an only child who already had access to horses and large tracts of uninhabited forest land to roam, so they weren’t really showing me anything I didn’t already know. It was a bad fit, but in my parents’ defense, I did beg to go. I watched a lot of melodramatic tween sitcoms at that age. I had a twisted idea of what the whole summer camp experience actually entailed. I wanted to go because I had heard tales ’round the campfire of a magical land in the Spring Creek wilderness where someone could teach me to do circus tricks like stand and balance on the back of an appaloosa, or jump-mount a quarter horse and ride off into the sunset like Bradley Taylor.
I don’t remember how old I was, but I know I thought “The Ranch” would be the same as Hey Dude.
I really really thought I was going to come home looking, sounding, and being exactly like Christine Taylor.
So, off the bat, I was in for a disappointment. But the experience of being there was too much for me. I was a weird kid. Just as weird as I am now, as an adult, but it was harder to be okay with it then so I had even more social anxiety than I have now and it was…
A raging dumpster fire complete with mushroom cloud and hobos warming their hands over it.
A dumpster fire deluxe.
Mainly because being a weird kid eventually comes to a point of just reading banned novels three grade levels above your peers and having strong opinions on things like communism by the wizened age of 12.
Not the best fit for a conservative Christian summer camp that likes to play vicious games of bait-and-switch with fragile pre-teens.
Yes, there were sunrise trail rides complete with destination campfires and doughboy breakfasts.
I still haven’t been able to honestly evaluate why that particular excursion appealed to me so greatly.
Even now, lover of carbohydrates that I am, my stomach roils at the thought of repeating that meal.
I did, as a matter of fact, learn to stand and balance on the back of an appaloosa and I did, actually, jump mount a quarter horse by the end of the fourth day.
Because four days is literally all I lasted.
But I was also forced to play social bonding games like “close your eyes and choose an M&M and whatever color it is the genre of deep, filthy personal secret you’ll be expected to share aloud with the group” and “wander into a ropes course built by what appears to be a one-armed methamphetamine elf circa 26 years ago and trust fall into the arms of the girls you refused to reveal your secret crush to.”
I was on fire for Weird Al Yankovic for like eighteen months during a dark and confusing time in my psychiatric development.
Still kind of dig the corkscrew curls and way, way less ashamed of it now, at 37, than I probably should be.
I wound up calling my mother and demanding that she drive the 45 minutes to retrieve me on Wednesday evening.
I resented her for months for making me wait until Thursday morning.
I couldn’t take it. I couldn’t take the concrete communal lake water showers or the robotic, dead-eyed grins programmed into the adult counselor’s faces. I was very much not a Christian child, despite my parents’ best efforts, and it was apparent to everyone there. Have you ever seen that episode of The Walking Dead where Rick and the gang have to slather themselves in the viscera of the undead and parade through the streets of Atlanta pretending to be just another band of nomadic, voracious scavengers in order to survive?
That’s what I felt like by Thursday breakfast.
There’s no joy at summer camp.
I’d already told so many – apparently – “inappropriate” jokes, and defied too many direct orders to recite Philippians 4:13 and throw myself off a three-foot platform into the arms of my brothers and sisters in Christ.
I was clearly a whole other species, and in no way covered under the family life insurance policy.
That much was apparent.
So yeah. My summer camp experience notwithstanding, I want my kids to think of my house like a year-round summer camp.
Which I realize is a contradiction unto itself. Probably why I like it so so much. I mean, we do live next to a campground that is the throbbing, churning core of Lander, Pa., every Friday and Saturday night from June to September, so in the winter it’s a little less Tall Pines Summer Program and a bunch more Overlook Hotel, but it’s fine.
We’re all fine.
There are no hedge mazes.
But I do. I want my house to feel casual enough to show up at, muddy and sweaty and utterly exhausted from the ferality of it all, in the humid, purple light of a late-July evening. I want there to be memories of s’mores roasted in the living room and fireflies lingering in the wisps of fog above the grass at night. Peepers on the pond and owls hooting us to sleep.
I do not want my children to ever have a memory, even a phantom whiff of memory, involving me forcing them to recite bible verses and then entrust their entire existence to physics and my arms against their will.
But I do want them to remember that I was a cool camp counselor, but still a counselor. The one with the cool cabin. The one everyone hopes they’re assigned to. Where rules are fluid and circumstantial but everyone comes out of it all alive and well and having had a hell of a better time than the other camp pods in our cohort. I want them to have memories of my imagined idyll as the place they learned to be human. I want to be the cool older girl who helps them stay out of trouble, but shows them how to have fun too. I want to de-structure our days off, at least, to the point that they feel like one long extension of a warm honey dream. I want there to be nights, every now and then, where we huddle together around the light of a hearth fire and tell each other things about ourselves that make us love one another even more than we already did. When my daughters move away, I want them to long for those days and nights again, wherever they are, when their minds and bodies ache for comfort.
But I also need them to understand that I’m just a camp counselor, and there are rules about what kinds of people can have summer camps, and what kinds of things are okay to happen at summer camps, and if we don’t at least pretend to behave ourselves and blend in if we can’t stay under the radar of the crusty groundskeeper and the surly curriculum director and authority figures in Harrisburg we’re going to have to explain things to people who can shut camp down, man.
And don’t nobody want my hippie commune of a summer camp getting shut down.
I guess we should probably have a logo and a slogan and stuff, if I’m going to see this metaphor through to the end, like a responsible, grown up metaphor owner.
Camp Shady Pines.
Yo, you see those two pine trees up there, dude? They look shady.
Come do whatever this summer, at Campy Shady Pines.
I know. I’m ridiculous.
You know what though?
Register a domain name…