From Garofalo’s serious windup, viewers might think that she’s about to admit that she has no family or that she’s estranged from them. But no. Her camp world has become her other family, a group of confidants that most campers spend weeks or months building — and most adults spend their entire adult lives cultivating.
Bingeing on the eight-episode “Wet Hot” Netflix series this past weekend brought me back to my days at a summer camp in Yosemite, which wasn’t nearly as raunchy or wild as “Wet Hot” but was my first training in how to be a solo-ish adult.
Sleepaway camp helped me go from a shy and homesick kid to an independent adult who now lives 3,000 miles away from her nuclear family. It didn’t happen overnight; the first time I went to a five-day session at age 12, there were lots of tearful meals and one-on-one chats with my patient counselors. By the end of that week, I was done crying, had lots of new friends and was ready to come back for two weeks the following summer. And three weeks the summer after that.
Camp was where I learned to skinny-dip, jump from great heights, ask a boy to dance and repair friendships. I learned that loneliness or fear or a stomach ache would eventually pass. By the time I was 15, there was barely a trace of that wimpy kid I’d been when I started going away to camp.
Not that everyone enjoys it. Writing about her daughter’s “I hate it here” camp texts in the New York Times, novelist Jennifer Weiner highlights a big lesson of sleepaway camp. “I told her that this would be good for her,” Weiner writes, “that, even if she didn’t come home with a new B.F.F., she’d at least know that she could depend on herself and survive a tough time.”
There’s science to back up Weiner’s tough love, too. In an interview with the American Camp Association, Tina Payne Bryson, a psychotherapist and co-author of “The Whole-Brain Child,” talks about how camp helps strengthen the middle prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that regulates emotions, allows us to feel empathy and be resilient. “When kids have camp experiences that require them to overcome fear, be flexible, handle their emotions (especially away from their parents), be persistent to master something, build relationships, and so on,” Bryson says, “it builds this important part of the brain.”
“Camps can play a role in how these kids function in the world,” Bryson adds, “and ultimately who they become as adults, even on a neuronal level.”
Camp is intense. You’re living with a bunch of strangers, close friends and frenemies in tight quarters. You learn that the lines between stranger, friend and frenemy can blur quickly. Or, as Elizabeth Banks, playing an undercover rock journalist in the “Wet Hot” prequel, puts it to her editor: “These people are my friends. I’ve known them for 12 hours.”
Because that’s all it takes, right?
At camp as in real life, relationships are simultaneously really easy and really hard. A single day can drag on forever, which is why it’s so fitting that “Wet Hot” co-writers Michael Showalter and David Wain used eight episodes to tell the story of one day.
There are fast friendships juxtaposed with bullies. There are meet-cutes alongside romantic rivalries. In “Wet Hot,” we see Coop and Yaron compete for Donna’s affection, paralleled by campers Kevin and Drew making plays for Amy.
When one of my closest camp friends “dated” a guy I liked, I distinctly remember my counselor telling me that one day at camp was like four days in the outside world. It was her way of saying: They’ll break up soon enough. And by the time they did, I was over him anyway.
When Garofalo’s Beth billed her camp community as her other family, it was melodramatic. But there’s a more serious parallel: Building a life of your own doesn’t come with a map, a defined meal-and-activity schedule and a perfectly cast group of friends, lovers and villains. Some of the best and most fun work of adulthood is casting those people and weeding them out, in years rather than hours, all on your own.