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Archive for Sunday, June 22, 2008

Campy ‘Camp’

Book proves that campers may grow up, but they are never out of the woods

June 22, 2008

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In 1985 at Camp Mah Kee Nac in Lenox, Mass., a counselor improvises some shade. The authors of "Camp Camp" received over 300 photo submissions from former campers around the country.

In 1985 at Camp Mah Kee Nac in Lenox, Mass., a counselor improvises some shade. The authors of "Camp Camp" received over 300 photo submissions from former campers around the country.

On the street

What are you reading?

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train,’ by Howard Zinn. He writes history from the point of view of the little people. I really enjoy all of his writing.

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Having thoroughly plumbed the joys and pains of the suburban Jewish coming-of-age scene of the 1970s and '80s ("Bar Mitzvah Disco"), the people at the so-called Academy of the Recent Past have turned their curatorial eyes to a book project so heartbreakingly rendered that it almost hurts to look too closely at the results.

But look we must. Stare, readers, into the woods deliberately (apologies to Henry David Thoreau) and come back with us to summer camp, in the acid-wash-George-Michael haze of a certain, brief era. Come for forced participation in sports; come fight the end-of-summer tribal color wars (or any variation of capture-the-flag); come for the mind wedgie. At 12, you get sent off to camp and feel homesick. At 36 (or 38 or 41), you'd do anything to go back to camp. This is a book about that longing.

"Camp Camp: Where 'Fantasy Island' Meets 'Lord of the Flies'" is being shelved in the humor section of your friendly big-box bookstore because, sure, it IS funny.

And yet, a few pages in, you start to wonder if it belongs to some whole other category. This is the real stuff, going deeper than any VH1 '80s nostalgia trip or a rerun of "Meatballs," Ivan Reitman's seminal 1979 summer camp comedy - which gets big ups in "Camp Camp." (Reitman pens a brief foreword, saying that all summer camp experiences are universal - "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah," and so on.)

But: "This is a book about summer camp in the same way Plato's 'Cave' is about prisoners in chains, or 'Hungry Like the Wolf' is about the animal kingdom," co-authors Roger Bennett and Jules Shell note in their introduction.

Sociology? Jewish American studies? Anthropology?

"We treat it as if it's all going in the Smithsonian, because to us it is that serious," Bennett, 37, says from his New York apartment. He once spent a summer in Camp Kingswood in Maine, on a sort of counselor-exchange program from Liverpool, England.

'Storm of awkwardness'

Ah, camp. The memories are not all good, but they are forever, Bennett says: "For many people, camp is a perfect storm of awkwardness and of leaving behind the world you were growing up in, and entering this ... this whole other place that existed all on its own. It's very powerful for people. There's this massive nation out there of former campers, people who are seemingly normal on the surface, working in their careers, raising their own families. But not very far down, they are just waiting for a color war to break out at any moment."

With personal photographs and assorted ephemera, "Camp Camp" ruminates on loneliness, herd mentality, class distinctions and the power of ritual. At least one of the accompanying essays deals with the fraught subject of boys who refused to go Number Two all summer, or tried not to. ("If they can do it, so can you, I told myself. Just get it over with ... ") There are many tales of boy-on-boy torture: "Gary Gersh ... got duct-taped into the shower stall for an hour. He got covered in mousse and shampoo as he slept. ... (T)he counselors would dunk his face in jelly and then start a chant for everyone to look at him. One time, a letter from his mother was intercepted and replaced with a fake letter saying that Grandma had been hit by a blimp."

On Page 22, we encounter a 1987 photo of Jenna Fallon and a friend at Camp Edward Isaacs in Holmes, N.Y., their bangs sprayed and teased into leonine, Tawny Kitaen grandiosity, the girls seeming like two magical sylphs in the woods. The photo, blown up, belies the haunting, flat fuzziness of the camera that made it: the Kodak Disc. (The authors acknowledge that cheap camera, first introduced in 1982, as "the weapon of choice for 95 percent of the thousands of photographs we received. The graininess and poor definition of your photographs are much missed and deeply mourned.")

A few pages later, there's a photo of three girls in tie-dyed T-shirts at Camp Walden in Cheboygan, Mich., in 1988, waiting for the white bleach on their upper lips to take away any trace of dark hair. "(We) spent the entire time at camp in the beautiful backwoods of Michigan beautifying ourselves as if we were in the city," explains one of the girls, Debbie Shell (sister of co-author Jules).

Neurotic network

After the success of "Bar Mitzvah Disco" in 2005, Bennett and Shell decided summer camp seemed like a natural next step. (Future projects for the Academy of the Recent Past include a book on teenagers who formed their own bands in the '80s and another on what teenagers hung on their bedroom walls.) They started asking people to send their pictures and other keepsakes from sleepaway camps. Fanning out from a neurotic network of New York and Los Angeles creative types (writers, filmmakers, bloggers), Bennett and Shell eventually amassed some 80,000 photos.

In some ways "Camp Camp" is very much a sequel to the bar mitzvah book, if only from noticing the list of names of former campers who sent in photos and wrote essays: Blumberg, Goldberg, Rothman, Silberman, Cohen, Israel, Koppel, Weiss. Though not all the kids in the book are Jewish, there is a high percentage of Jacobs, Rachels and Ariels here, again emphasizing the power of social rituals and tribes. ("Camp Camp" also reflects that almost everyone in this nostalgic world is white.)

Bennett says the project did not necessarily set out to become the story of Jews at summer camp, but he acknowledges how good some contributors proved at keeping the photos and objects that others might have thrown away years ago. For whatever reason, these kids kept things, and if they did not, then the book "never could have happened without people's mothers, who'd kept everything," Bennett says.

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