One grown-up re­flects on the mis­ery of five sum­mers at camp.

Sum­mer camp taught Olivia Stren how to wa­ter-ski and eat mys­tery meat—and that per­se­ver­ance is over­rated.

ELLE (Canada) - - Insider - By Olivia Stren

at sunset on Sun­days at sum­mer camp in the Hal­ibur­ton High­lands, we’d sit around a fire in our pine-green polyester camp uni­forms and sing songs. I par­tic­u­larly loved “Leav­ing on a Jet Plane” be­cause it was a sad song, mak­ing it (quasi-) ac­cept­able for me to weep openly and blame it on the mu­sic. I also loved it be­cause it was about de­par­ture, and I longed for any kind of tran­sit—jet plane, Grey­hound, horse and buggy—to take me away. As I sang “don’t know when I’ll be back again” for the gazil­lionth time, I knew when I wanted to be back: never.

If I haven’t al­ready made it as clear as a sum­mer day, I hated camp. Camp was for the sporty, the hearty, the peppy, the out­go­ing, the game. My fel­low campers had cool uni­sex names like Syd­ney and Greer and Blaise and Tay­lor. They were the

kind of girls who would run to­ward the ball in team sports (not away from it, like I would), the kind of girls who, in the win­ter­time, had ski-lift tick­ets per­ma­nently ad­hered to their jack­ets, the kind of girls who left school early to play field hockey (by choice), their blond pony­tails swing­ing cheer­fully, while I scur­ried home early to watch The Young and the Rest­less. I was more of an ob­server. I should add that I wasn’t a loner—I was a so­cia­ble kid, but I pre­ferred to do my so­cial­iz­ing in a place that was close to a shower and, ideally, a Benet­ton and in a way that didn’t in­volve en­forced pep­pi­ness and clap­ping to “Johnny Ap­ple­seed” be­fore eat­ing “mys­tery meat.”

My fel­low campers at Gay Ven­ture (yes, that re­ally was the name of my camp) started look­ing forward to camp at the first pop of spring. I started dread­ing it in deep win­ter, when my dad would ask “Do you want to go to camp this year?” “Yes,” I would lie, a painful lump the size of a teth­erball tak­ing up res­i­dence in my throat. I was at that pread­o­les­cent age when be­ing (or feel­ing) dif­fer­ent felt like cer­tain so­cial doom. And I re­ally wanted to fit in, so I forced my­self to go for five trau­matic Julys.

My camp­mates learned how to wa­ter-ski when they were barely out of Pam­pers. I went wa­ter­ski­ing for the first time at camp, but my skis were too big, and as I strug­gled to get up, they flipped up to stab me in the thighs. I re­mem­ber a cab­in­mate be­hold­ing my bruises and ex­claim­ing in re­vul­sion “What IS that?” “I went wa­ter-ski­ing,” I ex­plained fee­bly, my bruises hav­ing as­sumed rain­bow colours to match the mir­rored Oak­leys she had perched, crown­like, on her sun-bleached-blond head. h

Th­ese girls also liked eat­ing peanut-but­terand-ba­nana sand­wiches ev­ery day, and they hated rainy days be­cause it meant they couldn’t go wa­ter-ski­ing. I was al­ler­gic to peanuts (as well as dairy and eggs and choco­late and pretty much ev­ery­thing else you eat at camp) at a time long be­fore it was fash­ion­able to have al­ler­gies and in­tol­er­ances, and I longed for a month-long mon­soon. My favourite ac­tiv­ity at camp was “rest.”

Dur­ing my last sum­mer at Camp Gay Ven­ture, I went on a ca­noe trip, which in­volved the par­tic­u­lar de­lights of portag­ing through a leech-and-black­fly-pop­u­lated swamp. My trip­mates emerged from the ex­pe­ri­ence tanned and strong and proud. I emerged so heav­ily bit­ten by black­flies that my eye­lids swelled, nearly seal­ing shut. An­other camper, whose name I have blocked, looked at me and laughed. “No­body is go­ing to dance with you at the re­gatta with the boys’ camp next week!” she cack­led, her tongue blue from a justeaten jaw­breaker and her braces glint­ing in the mid­day sun.

I re­call weep­ing with joy and re­lief on Par­ents Day at the sight of my mom and dad, the way a pris­oner might sob upon see­ing a fam­ily mem­ber af­ter weeks of wrong­ful in­car­cer­a­tion. They’d bring me ju­jubes and copies of Soap Opera Di­gest and fresh fruit and take me to lunch in the nearby town. Some­times they’d even get into a fight, and I’d feel a chest-split­ting home­sick­ness. “Why don’t you come home?” my mom would say. She was on to me. “No, I love it here,” I would say, tears as big as jaw­break­ers rolling down my black­fly-bit­ten cheeks.

I wor­ried that if I took her up on her offer, which I longed to do, it would be a loser move. I’m not sure why quit­ting camp was un­think­able when, frankly, I ex­celled at quit­ting other things. I took up drum­ming when I was 13 be­cause I wanted to be like Mary Stu­art Master­son in Some Kind of Won­der­ful, but I quit be­fore I grad­u­ated from my prac­tice snare pad. I also quit pi­ano, bal­let, gym (as soon as it wasn’t com­pul­sory) and cal­cu­lus. I even quit Writer’s Craft in high school af­ter get­ting poor grades. But quit­ting camp felt more like a per­sonal fail­ure be­cause it would be ad­mit­ting that I wasn’t—and would never be—like those peppy pony­tailed girls.

Par­ents Day was the halfway mark, a sort of tem­po­rary life jacket and a re­minder of life Out­side. But it was also a re­minder that I had two weeks left un­til the last day, the one I’d spend the whole month fan­ta­siz­ing about. Un­til then, I’d have to sub­sist on the let­ters my mom would send me. Dur­ing “rest,” I’d lie in my musty bunk and read and reread her let­ters; she’d write me de­tailed ac­counts (in French) about the go­ings-on in The Young and the Rest­less’ Genoa City. (“Nikki s’est mar­iée avec Jack Ab­bott,” etc.) I’d read about the re­cent baby swap­ping and Nikki’s pill-pop­ping ad­dic­tion. I’d pop a ju­jube and pine for home.

Other girls at camp, the afore­men­tioned ones, some­times got glam­orous in­juries (a bro­ken arm from horse­back rid­ing or a sprained an­kle from leap­ing for a vol­ley on the ten­nis court) that would ex­empt them from swim­ming and ca­noe trips. They’d lament their con­va­les­cence, and I’d burn with jeal­ousy. The last year I went to camp, I fi­nally sus­tained a proper in­jury of my own—dur­ing arts and crafts. While my peers might have hurt them­selves slalom ski­ing or show jump­ing, I got in­jured mak­ing a mug. The pot­tery wheel fell on my leg, and my foot got caught be­tween the burn­ing mo­tor and the spin­ning wheel. I was sent to con­va­lesce at the in­fir­mary. I couldn’t go swim­ming or wa­ter-ski­ing or portag­ing, I was told, and I tried to look ap­pro­pri­ately ag­grieved. Af­ter a few days of ly­ing supine with a plas­tic A&P bag on my foot, I left camp—not by jet plane but in some­body’s Mazda—and went to Sick­Kids Hos­pi­tal in Toronto. I had, it turned out, a third-de­gree burn on my foot and needed a skin-graft op­er­a­tion im­me­di­ately. I spent the rest of that sum­mer ly­ing in the burn ward at Sick­Kids with sta­ples in my foot and my leg in a cast—all of which some­how seemed a prefer­able fate to spend­ing my time at camp. I knew when I’d be back again. n

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