Monthly Archives: July 2009

The Camp Chronicles (Part Two)

            Learning about the “F” word from another camper was empowering, even if I didn’t believe what it meant. Now I was armed with a really bad word that I could, if I chose, toss around in front of the other eight-year-olds, or shock my older sister, who, I told my cabinmates, could be such a bitch.

            She qualified as an Older Camper and lived in a more desirable cabin, in the sunbelt of the camp away from the freezing lakeshore. I was permitted to visit her occasionally. I liked to watch the Older Girls reading on their beds, writing letters, or playing simple games like Chutes and Ladders or poker at $1 a chip. They read sophisticated periodicals like Photoplay, a movie magazine that featured stud-muffins like Rock Hudson and Charles Laughton.

            Although my reading level was more Little Lulu, I liked to borrow copies of  Older Girls’ popular comic books like “Archie,”    “Jughead,”  “Betty and Veronica,”  “Archie, Betty and Jughead,” “Betty, Veronica, Archie and Reggie,”  “Mrs. Grundy, Archie, Veronica, Reggie and Betty,” and “Jughead, Mrs. Grundy, Reggie, Archie, Betty and Mr. Weatherbee.”

            Confession magazines abounded including “My True Story,” “True Confessions” and “Modern Romance.” For the young teenage girls in a single-sex camp, the confession magazines were hot property, delivering suggestive stories in a tense, breathless narrative. Typical stories concerned such shockers as an unwed but pregnant teenager’s liaison with a married man, a cheating husband’s tryst with a pregnant teenager, or a woman’s torrid affair with a parakeet.

            Other than two college age kitchen helpers, the only males I saw at camp were the Camp Director and, if a nurse wasn’t in residence, the Camp Physician. The beloved Camp Director believed firmly in fresh air, exercise, outdoor sports and a good cigarette. He always wore a white t-shirt and white pants. When he walked outside on a chilly moonless night, encased in cigarette smoke, he resembled a ghost. This worked well with the youngest campers, already stuffed deep in their sleeping bags, listening nightly for sounds of thrashing water from the Devil’s Lake Sea-Creature. 

            Meanwhile, I scrupulously avoided the other adult male, the Camp Physician who inhabited the infirmary. I feared that he, like my pediatrician, would glance at me, then immediately rifle through a drawer and miraculously produce a prepared hypodermic needle, personalized for me, to meet his daily quota of shots, given for any conceivable malady including dandruff, malaria and black plague.  

.           Initially all campers were required to drop off all their medications at the infirmary. In an act of bravery, defiance, and avoidance, I hung onto my allergy pills and buried them in my suitcase. I worried what would happen if I got caught.

             We’re sorry, m’am, we had to expel your daughter because we found a bottle of Chlortrimeton allergy pills in her suitcase. Who knows what would have happened if another camper had taken one of her allergy pills. What if they had an allergic reaction?

             If a kid was really ill, she was— (said in a hushed voice)— “in the infirmary,” the camp black hole where they disappeared for the rest of the session. A few remained, never claimed by their parents.

            Despite the medicinal smells, the camp infirmary was, to insiders, the best place, the warmest place to sleep at camp. My unheated, windowless wooden cabin built in the 1920s, with wooden shutters lowered at night to allow the internal temperature to raise one degree, guaranteed I always had a cold. Ironically, when the Asian Flu (aka Asian Flu) pandemic hit camp two years later, I was one of two campers not to get it.  I was pressed into service delivering trays of food to all the other bed-ridden campers.  The National Health Institute has been looking for me for years to determine why I did not get that flu, and to see if I could be pressed into service delivering trays to victims of swine flu (aka H1N1-WD40).

            Years later, when I served as Camp Program Director, I finally had the clout to sleep in the infirmary. That year my original assigned room lacked heat (surprise!) and was traditionally used as the Counselors’ Smoking Lounge. The U.S. Surgeon General hadn’t yet declared that smoking caused ringworm and worse, so nobody was too worried.  I never smoked, but when, living in an ever-present blue-gray haze, I began to sound like Harvey Fierstein, I knew it was time to change lodgings. 

            With the young resident doctor’s permission, I moved into the delightfully toasty and surprisingly empty infirmary.  After my first week’s residence in the infirmary, the young doctor offered to give me a cervical (as in neck) massage while I was stretched out in my sleeping bag, When the altruistically motivated doctor, who was engaged to be married in a month, began to include an unscheduled physical exam of me, I bolted upright and glared at him.

            “Doctor,” I snapped, “You have your wires crossed!”

            “Well,” he said smoothly, before gliding out of the room, “you have your legs crossed!” 

            Ultimately I was relieved to find out he became a psychiatrist in Oregon, so he could mess with peoples’ heads rather than their torsos.

[To be continued…..]

The Camp Chronicles (Part One)

            Let’s face it: there are misguided parents who send their children to summer camp for the wrong reasons—outdoor activities, like sports and games, or specialty programs, like theater or music. At a local private college, weekend campers, ages 7-17, learn programming, Web design, robotics and video game designs. Nerd campers supposedly leave the weekend with lifelong friends and social skills.

            None of these programs are really camp.

            Camp is, based on my years of experience as a camper, counselor, and camp program director, the place where kids go to play and meet friends, but the true American summer camp is an institution where children learn about sex. If the camp, religious or secular, does its job, kids will come away with a rudimentary sex education that allows nervous parents to wait for “The Talk” until kids are sufficiently mature enough, like ages 18 or 19.

            My parents sent me to three-week sleepaway camp on the Oregon Coast when I was eight. That’s third grade, in case you’re wondering. I could barely make out the word balloons in my Little Lulu comics. Little Lulu was a girl who always wore a red dress and dark hair in ringlets. I didn’t know anyone like her, but I identified with her because she never laundered her red dress and she had two dark dots for eyes and an upside down “V” for a nose. I may have been unattractive, but even I looked better than Little Lulu. And if she could get a boyfriend named Tubby, there was hope for me.

             The setting of the camp was a forest perched on pristine Devil’s Lake, a relatively shallow coastal lake linked to the Pacific Ocean and sharing its seawater temperature as gullible campers discovered. The camp’s PR brochure had shown kids with big grins frolicking in the lake, when in truth their jaws were locked at the first dive into the 33 degree temperature.

            Devil’s Lake itself was fed by the connecting D River, “the shortest river in the world” at 120 feet, that runs through the town formerly known as Delake. That name came from the early Finnish homesteaders who were heard to say, “I’m going to de lake,” as well as “I’m going to buy de salt water taffy.”

            Years later, a group of fifth graders in Great Falls, Montana, with nothing else to do except killing the state bird, mounted a challenge and claimed their Roe River was shorter. In the interest of equality, the wussy Guinness Book of World Records stripped the D River of its title. Since the entire economy of  adjacent Lincoln City, Oregon depended on the letter D, (“D River,” “Delake,” “Delake Recreation Area, Delake Chamber of Commerce”), the city contested the Guinness ruling. In response, Guinness created a duel title for the shortest river, distinguishing between measurements during low tide or high tide, so that the Roe River and D River shared the title. When the dispute continued, Guinness resolved the matter in 2006 by issuing a judicious opinion that began “To Hell with it,” and eliminated “the shortest river” category. 

            When I arrived at camp, the first story I heard about Devil’s Lake was the local Siletz Indian legend that a creature long ago had emerged from the water to capture a group of Siletz warriors, and pulled them down into the lake.

            The second story I heard was that eight year old campers, the youngest, were required to take swimming lessons early every morning in Devil’s Lake.

            This did not make for good sleep habits.

            Nor did the fact that if I wanted to use the bathroom at night, I had to find my way in the dark across a grassy slope and over to the outdoor, five-stall wooden latrine, where during the day giant Oregon slugs, overcome by the ever-present scent of the latrine, hung off the outdoor log walls.

            The latrine was where I first learned about sex.

            It was so puzzling. One moment my counselor was reading Winnie the Pooh to me and the other eight year olds, though not in the latrine. The next moment I was trying to decipher in the privacy of the wooden stall certain handwritten expressions like “bool crap” and “Esther does it.” Apparently Esther was well-known because she was written up in the other two camp latrines.

            One day I saw someone had written the “F” word. An older camper—–for this is the purpose of Older Campers, according to the American Camping Association—-explained to me in couple of sentences what “F” meant. After listening to the Older Camper, I was certain she had some serious mental defect.  I could believe in the Sea-Creature of Devil’s Lake before I could believe what “F” supposedly was.

[in consideration of the ridiculously short attention span of blog readers, this post theme will be continued…]


The Brain Invaders! (Part One)

            Five days after our son Andy graduated UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, doctors at Kaiser Permanente’s Redwood City, California hospital performed major surgery on me to remove a brain tumor.

             The tumor was discovered when I had an MRI to check why my left ear was behaving oddly—notably, exhibiting a high-frequency hearing loss, a little feeling of fullness, and routinely receiving local radio broadcasts from Spanish-speaking stations.

            Following the MRI, a Kaiser doctor sent me a brief e-mail (this is modern medicine) that revealed my left ear didn’t show a tumor, but there was “an incidental finding” of a tumor in the right temporal lobe. Next to the doctor’s name he’d added a yellow winking Happy Face.

            When I saw the neurosurgeon a week later, he pointed to the MRI film where the tumor appeared bigger than my eye.  He gave me the choice of excising the tumor or watching to see if, over the years, it would enlarge.

            Now I’m no dummy. I’ve watched all the 1950’s sci-fi movies about men (almost always men) who are arrogant about science and their personal lives, and as a result, when an alien life form comes to earth, it invades their brain and takes over. I didn’t like the idea of the tumor gradually expanding inside my skull. The guys in the movies with the invaded skulls always became automatons, showing no emotion, and forced to carry out the aliens’ unspeakable orders—- like killing people, taking over a town, or voting Republican.       

             Knowing what I know, from what I learned watching those cautionary tales, the 1950’s movies, I agreed to have the tumor removed.

            My first surprise about the imminent operation was that Kaiser didn’t require I attend a class. I’m a relative newbie to Kaiser, but every time I’ve had a medical issue, they demand I take a class about it. When I developed low back pain, I was signed up for the two hour “Back Class.” When I noticed the peculiar left ear sounds, Kaiser ordered the class for “Tinnitus.” (Pronounced “Tinnitus.” Also pronounced “Tinnitus.”) Because my ears were receiving radio broadcasts from Spanish-language radio stations, I was also required to take “Spanish for Tinnitus Patients.”

            Thankfully, Kaiser did not mandate a class in Brain Tumors. I did have to wait a month before surgery, which was stressful, but I knew if I mentioned that to a doctor, I would’ve been ordered to take the Kaiser class in “Handling Stress” or the advanced class, “Handling Stress When You Have a Brain Tumor That May Grow to Fill and Crush Your Brain. (Meditation, Exercises, and Helpful Suicide Plans.)”     

            Alan and I agreed not to tell Andy about my health before his graduation, so he could enjoy the ceremony.

            Six days before surgery, we drove down to L.A. The following overcast, muggy day, we joined 250 people as well as an abundance of displaced bees and flies out on the lawn of the UCLA campus to watch Andy and his theater buddies receive their diplomas. I tried to keep focused on the impressive commencement speakers and not dwell on the brain tumor. When the Dean of the Theater School  introduced Haskell Wexler, the Oscar-winning cinematographer, I was o.k. until he mentioned filming One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

             I thought about lobotomies. 

             Actress Ellen Geer delivered a concise speech, wishing the candidates good luck and to “take the first job that comes along so you can afford to audition for movies or plays.” Since few jobs are currently open for college graduates, I knew some grads were thinking about waiter jobs, the classic actor’s employment, or bagging groceries. Fortunately Andy’s nude play experience at UCLA gives him a leg up. He can always find some type of temp work, such as temporary porn roles.

            Later when we unrolled Andy’s diploma scroll, we saw it was an IOU for the formal diploma since Andy, like most of his class, still needed to take a couple of courses this summer to make his graduation official. Only five students, in fact, had totally completed all requirements of the School of Theater, Film and Television. They were the actual graduates. The remainder, about 100 students like Andy, on  UCLA’s Financial Exhaustion Plan, were permitted to participate in commencement and pretend they were graduates, just as they had for the previous four years pretended they were students.

            At the reception Andy made the rounds of friends and professors, stopping at length to schmooze with the retiring Dean of the School of Theater, Film and Television. The Dean awkwardly bid Andy good-bye, and later told the Theater Department’s costume designer that he hadn’t recognized Andy with his clothes on.

The Brain Invaders! (Part Two)

            Andy’s choice for his graduation dinner was Benihana in Santa Monica. During dinner at the shared counter table, I accidentally bumped my bowl of Hibachi Chicken Rice, which flew off the counter and fluttered down onto the silk dress lap of the woman on my left. Later, during dessert, I dropped a heaping spoonful of chocolate ice cream on my lap.

            “Oh, Mom,” Andy said cheerfully, sitting to my right, “Lighten up. Try keeping food on the plate. This isn’t brain surgery.”

            He began to tilt his neck and swing it in a slow curve from left to right. I recognized this as an exercise to relax tight shoulder and neck muscles. He started making guttural moose noises, the first of a series of vocal exercises designed to loosen up throat muscles and help an actor’s voice resonate. As the entire table of  watched transfixed, Andy stuck his tongue far out of his mouth, let it dart in and out several times, then stretched the tongue from left to right, downward out of his mouth, like a frenzied frog or Quasimodo. The Japanese grill chef, who’d been pouring ginger sauce into individual ceramic cups, looked over at Andy and warily picked up a meat cleaver.

            I tried to signal Andy by eye movements that the table patrons were freaking out because he was acting like he had an Abby Normal brain. But, encouraged by the rapt attention of his captive audience, and despite competition from the agitated grill chef who kept flipping shrimp into his 12 inch white chef’s hat—-and missing—Andy transformed himself into Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird and launched into his favorite monologue, even as an occasional shrimp inexplicably flew at his face.

            “To begin with, this case should never have come to trial…” I heard him drawl, as I escaped to the restroom.

            The next morning before Alan and I drove back home, we ate at Junior’s, the Westwood deli-restaurant. Parallel to our table sat a stooped-shouldered white-haired woman in her late eighties and her son, a thin, hawk-nosed man in his sixties wearing frameless glasses. We heard him berate his mother at length about her personal finances and her will, and what she needed to do about them. When Son left to use the restroom, his fragile mother picked up the table’s silver creamer and drank the entire cream contents.

            This is what happens when you don’t have a brain tumor removed, I thought.

            I picked up our table creamer and put it on an empty table behind us.

            As I chewed on my corned beef sandwich, I flashed to a scene in the classic film “Invaders From Mars,” where a father with his alien-invaded brain becomes abusive. His horrified eight-year-old son sees Dad has a round red scar the size of a quarter on the back of his head, just above the nape of his neck. This is either where the aliens had performed neurosurgery to control Dad’s behavior, or Dad had picked up a case of scalp ringworm.

            Gosh, Dad, what happened to your head?

            Sheriff, everyone of the people who have those scars behaves strangely!

            Five days later the Chief of Neurosurgery at Kaiser used his medical ice cream scoop to remove my brain tumor. The three-hour surgery apparently went well, and I was relieved to find there was no round red scar the size of a quarter on my scalp, and that I wasn’t behaving more abusively than normal. I did have a zipper of silver staples across the shaved right side of my head and down my face alongside the right ear. My right ear lobe had been painted with a dark blue permanent marker so the neurosurgeon wouldn’t operate on the wrong side of my head. The incision itself—the “zipper”—was in the shape of an eight-inch question mark because an exclamation mark is too narrow and my neurosurgeon hadn’t mastered when to use a semi-colon.

            After surgery, my 24-year-old son Jordan called me Frankenmom. My right eye and the right side of my face looked similar to Marty Feldman’s pop-eyed character “I-gor” in Young Frankenstein. Actually, my husband later admitted, Marty looked better.


             Don’t worry, m’am. We’ll find your husband. There aren’t such things as space aliens.

The End?