The letters from summer camp have started arriving.
Most camps insist that you write home regularly so your parents know you are alive, and consequently have no recourse to seek a refund. At my camp when I was a kid we couldn't get into the dining hall without producing a letter or a postcard home--which was sometimes an incentive not to write, considering the pancakes tasted like they came with a 30,000-mile warranty from Firestone.
The counselors preferred we wrote postcards so they could review them. Cards that said something like "My counselor Eugene is a sadist who wrapped me in flypaper last night, and then strung me up from the rafters by the belt of my bathrobe" tended not to survive the sorting process. It was a gulag situation, where the inmates had to communicate in veiled language, such as: "I truly marvel at my counselor Eugene, who hopes to someday conduct exciting scientific experiments on domestic animals."
Writing home creatively became such drudgery that after the first week all of us confined our cards to standard 1950s thoughts: "I am fine. Camp is great. Hitler was a terrible man." (I mean, really, how could you write your parents about what was really on your mind, like the cool way the fat kid next door would light a match, then fart into the flame, and blue sparks would shoot out?)
Sometimes, though, even the simplest postcards were too much of an effort. The camp directors were prepared. They had postcards made up with one-size-fits-all messages: "Today it was sunny. We played softball. Nobody in my bunk is a Communist. God bless J. Edgar Hoover." (To be a wise guy I sometimes wrote in, "The Rosenbergs were framed.")
But those were innocent times. With all the advantages of prenatal care, preschool and previously owned Mercedes-Benzes, my daughter has turned the drudgery of letter writing into an entrepreneurial opportunity. She begs for money so relentlessly, she should be on PBS.
She has more or less given up on me, though, because she knows I won't come across. The cost of the camp alone is enough to rebuild Kosovo. But she sends so many dunning letters to her grandparents, aunts and uncles the U.S. Postal Service is designing a special stamp in her honor: a teardrop in an outstretched palm.
In the first week, Elizabeth takes time out of her rigorous schedule of hair drying and polishing her nails to send out this form letter: "I miss you very much, and I wish you were here with me. I have put your pictures on the wall, and I tell all my friends about how wonderful you are. The kids here are very kind. When I am the only one who has no money to buy candy, they try not to make fun of me, though sometimes something slips out. After a good cry, I usually feel better, or at least not suicidal."
She's had excellent results with that one. Then later in the summer, Elizabeth writes a follow-up letter: "I hesitate to ask you this, as you have been so generous already. But could you send me more money. Oh, and a cell phone. All the kids have cell phones, and I wouldn't want them to think that my parents deprived me of such a valuable lifesaving communications device in case I am taking a vigorous hike in the woods and I become surrounded by angry grizzly bears. If you can't send me a cell phone, perhaps you can send me a phone card. I'm told they come in denominations of $25."
God, I love this kid.
My son's letters were different. He didn't want money. He wanted out.
His first year, by Visiting Day he was so anxious for me to take him home that he clung to my leg like Jeff Van Gundy clung to Alonzo Mourning. I practically had to Mace him to get him off. Driving home, I wept thinking that my son would hate me so much that I could forget about him making me that genuine cowhide wallet in arts and crafts I had my heart set on.
Clearly, you shouldn't force camp on your kids, but I wanted my son to give camp one more shot, so I foolishly promised him that if he went again and he didn't like it, he could come home. There's a technical, legal term for what I did: I, um, lied.
So Michael went to a camp that prided itself on providing a real wilderness experience. It's in Wisconsin, so far north the local Avis rents moose. It featured overnight hikes, canoe trips and survival training. Michael was excited because he was told the only time they made you take a shower was the day before you came home. You went away a boy, and you came back part of the cast of "Deliverance."
I'm not sure he gave it a real chance. He started complaining before he even needed a shower. He wrote letters demanding that I honor my promise to bring him home. I responded that in the long run he would feel so much better about himself if he stuck it out. He wrote back calling me the worst liar in the world. One letter said, "That genuine cowhide wallet you wanted me to make you? I'll send you the cow. Make it yourself."
His letters grew progressively more morose. We have framed his classic effort, the one in which he said: "All I want is to go home. And hurry. I am willing to hurt myself to get home." At the bottom of the letter he drew two pictures of himself: In the first he is stabbing himself in the leg; in the second he is being carted off to the hospital on a gurney.
The drawings were so lifelike I didn't know whom to call first, the camp directors or the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
To my great delight, by the end of the four-week session Michael loved camp. He discovered air riflery, and won medals at it. He willingly went back to that same camp this summer.
We got his first letter last week. I sense a real breakthrough.
He asked for money.