In order to get a week-long space at Camp Mather, one has to enter a lottery, provide proof of residency, and pay a not-insignificant-but-less-than-a-more-exotic-location fee. Every year there is more demand than spaces, but there are two winning strategies: if you're willing to live in a tent for a week or if you're willing to go up for the first week, before the public schools get out, there's always room. We have gone the first week for two years in a row, and I suspect it's going to become our tradition. The place is insane enough as it is without being full to capacity; I can't imagine what it's like later in the season. We already have to wait in line at mealtimes for long enough and risk our lives walking on the paths beset by children intoxicated by the freedom of bicycles. You take these city children, unable to cross a street without a grown-up's scrutiny, and put them on bicycles, and they become lunatics.
This is an ideal vacation for small children. There are arts and crafts, donkey rides, archery lessons, tadpoles to be caught... Whenever I talk to someone who went to Camp Mather as a child, that person always gets misty-eyed and speaks in a hushed voice full of superlatives. They may as well say there were unicorns frolicking under the rainbows who let the little city children ride on their silky backs.
For me, it's not a real vacation. My idea of a vacation is that I leave the country and go somewhere exotic, where I explore during the days (I always lose weight and come back with fabulous thigh muscles) and consume exotic foods and drinks at night. Bonus points if I see monkeys (the very best vacations include monkeys cavorting on tropical beaches at cocktail hour. Nothing spells relaxation like sipping a drink while watching monkeys). But nonetheless, in the interests of raising my native San Franciscans, I organize and undertake the annual Camp Mather expedition. Herewith my report:
We had a last minute frenzy of cleaning the house, packing, and loading the minute U-haul. Anton was inexplicably pitching an attitude about our housesitter (a friend of a friend I' met once before), and pissily informed me "I intend to write down the man's last name", as though he suspected me of arranging for a felon to stay in our home. When I overheard Anton telling Lola that "he's housesitting for us because he's homeless," I shouted "He is NOT HOMELESS!" down from upstairs. I informed the husband that if he wants to bitch about my choice of housesitter, than he can be in charge of recruiting and screening all housesitters in the future. This squelched the husband, but Lola had picked up the husband's attitude and yelled, "The stranger is here! The stranger is here!" when the housesitter arrived. The housesitter, an artist who reminds me very strongly of someone I dated in college, was too tactful to remark upon this, and indeed managed to charm the husband by volunteering his celphone number and last name to the crabby old husband, as well as committing to moving the husband's car to avoid getting a parking ticket on street cleaning days.
Throughout the entire four-hour ride, the children constantly yammered, "Are we there yet? Are we there yet? How many hours? Will we be there for dinner?" There was considerable tension in the backseat over whether the Camp Mather dining hall would still be open for dinner when we arrived. I had four bags of groceries and there's a little general store open until late, but one would think the children were on the Donner party fighting over that last femur.
We arrived in time for dinner, and we found our friends Phil, Joyce and the Baby Violet had beaten us to camp. After dinner, we unpacked. Lola took command of the U-haul and insisted that we carry only one thing at a time to the cabin. We obediently trotted back and forth carrying a single flashlight or a single pillow.
Later, we went to the opening night campfire. I brought a glass of wine along that I was nursing, as did Phil. The campfire is always modest and it's still daylight out 8 p.m. Iris toasted marshmallows and made a s'more. Lola arrived later, after the chocolate bar supply was exhausted, which made Iris's whole night. "She didn't get a s'more! She only got a marshmallow and crackers! I had a s'more!"
A boy shouted, "Let's throw that wine in the fire!" referring to my glass. He's not a teetotaler; he's excited about a possible flare-up, he explained. Joyce noted that the wine wouldn't have much impact, and the boy suggests that we get some rum. He runs down a list of alcoholic beverages which are high proof and would theoretically make an exciting addition to any fire. "How about grain alcohol?" I suggested. "Oh, ethyl alcohol would be great!" "Can I ask how old you are?", I said impressed by the breadth of his knowledge of alcohols. "Ten." He says his knowledge of alcohol is from a book he read.
At the cabin, Lola asked me to draw the curtains more tightly "so a bear won't see me."
I woke up exhausted, severely sleep-deprived. Lola slept extremely badly, and we ended up sending Anton to her top bunk and sending Lola over to sleep with Mommy in the double bed. She thrashed, woke up panicking over and over again, and generally kept me awake much of the night.
It was mindbogglingly hot, and we went to the tiny, icy pool. A twenty-something rode his bicycle right at me looking weirdly intense, which was alarming. It turned out that he had borrowed a bicycle helmet from a friend, and he wanted me to unbuckle it as he couldn't do it himself. I obliged. As he left, he shouted back, "I'm a lifeguard! It's my first shift!" We shouted back some encouragement.
Later as I was walking back to our cabin with Iris and Lola, who were on bikes, we ran into my 10 year-old friend from the campfire, the one with the age-inappropriate knowledge of alcohol, who called politely, "Excuse me, ma'am, but that situation may be dangerous! " At that moment, Lola was fussing because her ankle-length skirt was uncomfortably hiked up, and the boy kept trying to talk to me. "You may want to move your children; that area may be dangerous!" After all that build-up, a tiny preschooler biked by us. I got my children under control and as we passed our friend, I said, "Doing some dangerous biking?" In grave tones, he said, "Did you see that kid wipe out?" He shook his head to convey the horror of it all, the gore and danger of the Camp Mather paths.
After we passed out of earshot, Iris said bitingly, "I've seen that boy before when you weren't around, and he wasn't impressing."
In the afternoon, we managed a short nap, but my sleep deprivation was too great to be helped much. I drank Red Bulls all afternoon and finally perked up around supper time.
We took an evening hayride past the Camp Mather electrical substation and the maintenance are, where there were abandoned picnic tables and other debris cluttering up the natural beauty. With all the abundant natural beauty and picturesque little cabins, the hayride manages to take in all the Shame of Camp Mather. On the way back, one of the cowboys told another about how a prior summer, some staff member had made an effigy of an annoying child guest.
The Sober Husband is not much for vacationing and found a soulmate in the draft horses. "All those horses want to do is work. They only get to work an hour a day. They were pawing at the ground, wanting to do something, and there was some guy just standing there to calm down. It's just like me. I want to be working. Those poor horses."
Afterwards, we checked out board games night in the dining hall. "There's that boy," hissed Iris, who has formed a disapproving attitude towards my ten year-old friend. As we left, my ten year-old acquaintance furtively watched. I have the impression I'm somehow imprinting on him. I predict that eight years from now, a dark-haired, tattooed, buxom girl will make mincemeat out of him. Lola won at Junior Monopoly; Iris lost. Iris was bitter that she had guarded over the Pictionary set but our friend Joyce never came over (once Joyce partnered Iris at Pictionary, and this was one of the most satisfactory moments of Iris's life to date). It turns out that Joyce fell asleep around eight.
The breakfast was pancakes with sausages, and I had some communication problems trying to obtain four plates of pancakes with no sausage. Alas, I am always a bit of cholesterol in the Camp Mather food line, clogging things up along the entree point as I pursue either vegetarian or picky eater needs.
At breakfast, Iris told me that she has a recurring dream that Lola is chasing her around the house with a knife. Lola loved this and brandished a knife, greasy with toast butter, at Iris.
We tied-dyed t-shirts (tie-dying is a time-honored ritual of Camp Mather, probably dating from the sixties).
Iris took her first horseback ride:
There was a cowboy named Tony right in front of me, so it wasn't too scary even it first. My horse was named Modoc, she was light brown. We went on some hills, and rocks. We passed the lake... When we came there I started to look for Joice, I didn't see her.
Later Iris talked about good weirdness versus bad weirdness. She wants to be good in a weird way, but she says I, her mother, am just "weird in a normal way, not really weird." After a lifetime of being considered weird, my own child thinks I am normal. How can this be? "Well, you're not really like other mothers," Iris admitted, "But you're not really weird."
"How am I not like other mothers?" I asked, always happy to talk about myself.
Iris stopped to think. "Well, you let me color my hair." She thought more. "And you're more outgoing! Yeah, that's it. You're more outgoing than most mothers."
Anton, at a loss with nothing to do, strung up the Christmas lights I had forced him to pack (he first refused to pack them, despite their inclusion on the Official Packing List, because of his alleged concerns with "the planet and visual pollution, you know, all the stars." This concern struck me as misfounded given that there are STREET LIGHTS RIGHT BY THE CABIN, so I overruled him). Conveniently enough, there were little nails over the lintel, undoubtedly put there expressly for hanging such lights (which are a bit of a tradition at Mather). Inconveniently enough, he learned that there were hornets living under the shingles, in the very facade of our cabin.
We debated what to do about the hornets. I felt they needed to be reported to the camp management, but Anton contended that "we are a guest in their home." This argument spilled over into a visit to Phil and Joyce's cabin, where Phil made the cogent point "but the hornets are living in a manmade structure", which undercut the guest-in-hornet-home argument. I found it ironic that I, the PETA donor and committed vegetarian, was advocating for the destruction of these insects, while Mr. Carnivore was pleading for tolerance and acceptance. As the very debate raged on, I noticed Claudia the camp manager walking by, and I ran over and narked on the hornets. This fait accompli caused the Great Hornet Debate to peter out.
At night, there was a camp fire, with s'more fixings (Lola ate two). A child burned my leg with his fiery marshmallow stick. There were considerable announcements made, including, most thrillingly, the fact that someone left a cooler containing cherries and hot dogs on their cabin's tiny porch, and a bear was witnessed breaking into said cooler and consuming the food with gusto. This seized the imaginations of the child guests.
Subsequently there was a staff talent show, which was significantly lamer than last year's. Irritatingly enough it appears that many of the skits and shticks are traditional, repeated each year, and this year's staff was considerably less endowed with stage ambitions. (Last year there were two saxophone players and a number of singers). The lifeguard with the borrowed helmet turned out to be "Random Forrest", who had a number of "Random Forrest Moments" in the talent show. For one, he ran on stage with 32 clothespins affixed to his face.