What your enjoyment of sleep-away camp, or lack of same, says about your character.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
July 23 2010 4:54 PM

You Are How You Camped

What your enjoyment of sleep-away camp, or lack of same, says about your character.

Illustration by Nina Finkel. Click image to expand.

Summer camp is a rite of passage for many American children, whether they enjoy the experience or hate it. Four years ago, Timothy Noah dissected camp culture and found that adults will never escape the patterns they exhibited as camp-bound children, no matter how many years removed. The article is reprinted below.

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If there's a more reliable Rorschach than sleep-away camp, I'd like to see it. How you responded to being shipped off (often at an appallingly tender age) to a cluster of cedar cabins beside a mountain lake; to being taught Native American crafts, chants, and songs of dubious authenticity; and to being subjected to various painful hazing rituals—many of them involving underwear—reveals an awful lot about your fundamental character. If, as the Duke of Wellington claimed, the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, then the psychotherapy bills of our own great nation were run up on the tetherball courts of Camp Weecheewachee (or whatever the hell your summer camp was called).

Let's begin with the people who didn't like camp. I was one such person. The first camp I got sent to was Camp Lenox, an establishment in the Berkshires that is still in business. During my summer there, in 1966, it was run by and for males who thrived on athletic competition. I did not. My older brother was an enthusiastic jock, and it was his love for the place that landed me there. I don't remember seeing much of him after we got off the bus—he was seven years my senior—but he'd occasionally appear in the distance, wearing the black beret that marked him as my enemy in Color War. I was assigned to the orange team; our symbol was a baton. To this day I shake my head in disbelief that a responsible camp director would set brother against brother in the name of competitive sport. Perhaps you find my thinking on this point a little rigid. Well, I'm sorry, but I'm not the sort of person who can alter his loyalties so easily, even within such a character-building realm. (I would have made a terrible Kennedy.)

Illustration by Nina Finkel. Click image to expand.

Observing my perplexity with mild concern, my parents shipped me off to a different camp the following summer. This was Camp Arcady, in the Adirondacks. Now defunct, it was co-ed and less single-mindedly dedicated to sports than Camp Lenox had been. Arcady had other advantages over its predecessor, the most memorable being a waterfront counselor named Doreen who had once been a Mouseketeer on The Mickey Mouse Club. Visions of Doreen (who in the decade since her TV stardom had filled out quite satisfactorily) haunted my prepubescent dreams. Even now, in my mind's eye, I see Doreen emerging, like Botticelli's Venus, from a clamshell perched on the shores of Lake George, a whistle nestled chastely in her cleavage. It was probably because of Doreen that I learned to water-ski. Water-skiing is the only camp sport I remember enjoying. Otherwise, I was pretty miserable. For the evidence, click here (center row, fifth from the left).

People (like myself) who didn't enjoy camp tend to have a problem engaging in organized activities of all kinds. Later in life we often become criminals or sociopaths. The more respectable among us often become journalists. If we're extremely bright or creative (or aspire to be), we may become writers or scholars or artists. The common thread is an outsider mentality. A self-flattering analysis, I know, but such is my privilege as author of this article.

Some people hated camp so much that they made their parents bring them home. These people should not be confused with the outlaws described above. There is nothing outré about not being able to endure summer camp. The come-and-get-me set grow up to be neurotic and needy. These are people who can often be heard on C-SPAN's early-morning call-in program Washington Journal, filibustering from a time zone still blanketed in predawn darkness, until the host says, "Please state your question."

Illustration by Nina Finkel. Click image to expand.

Some people enjoy camp. These people grow up to be normal. My own two children, I'm pleased to report, belong to this category, assuming the blasé letters I'm receiving ("Pringles would taste pretty good right about now") reflect sincere contentment.

Some people really, reallyenjoy camp. I wish I could tell you that these people grow up to be really, really normal, but they don't. You know who I'm talking about. These are the ones who wept uncontrollably when the papiermâché numbers spelling out 1967 were set ablaze on a little raft that a camp counselor, under cover of darkness, towed stealthily to the middle of Lake Weecheewachee on the evening of the last group sing. These are the people for whom childhood represented the zenith of human existence and everything that followed an anticlimax. The women—they're mostly women—usually end up in abusive relationships with pathologically angry men who eventually abandon them and pay child support erratically, if at all. If the person who really, really enjoyed camp is a man, then he is unlikely ever to develop an intimate relationship and on occasion may be spotted in the back of a police cruiser speeding away from a grade-school playground.

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