Jeannie Yoon

Notes on Camp


ISSUE 67 | CAMP | AUG 2016

Camp as in summer, camp as in sleepaway—lake swimming, mess halls, bunk beds, capture the flag, bonfires, skits, stories, singalongs, shenanigans. Camp as in that auxiliary zone, that other place which is the same but different each time you go, that is, go back.

Camp: distant, idyllic, primary, out in the woods and dirty but in the good way, earthy, fun. Camp as in a community that is reiterated but not repeated, refreshed while remaining in reference to tradition, or an idea of one, a lineage, a map of precedence. Camp as in a temporally bounded collusion of persons in a typically rural space.

Camp as in that other place that comes into being anew with each annual repetition. The cast of characters always slightly morphing; the roles remain; the players change.

Camp as a time of timelessness; an arena in which relationships and transformations are intensified by the pressure of certain finitude. The summer ends. Remember that time. Second verse, same as the first, a little bit louder and a little bit worse.

***

I spent five summers between the ages of 9 and 14 attending a day camp, Camp Deer Lake, in some Scouts-owned woods in southern Connecticut. I envied those who went away in the summer and returned in September brimming with annoying stories from sleepaway camp—of camp friends, camp boyfriends, camp selves. There was an intensity and intimacy that seeped from their reports of rivalries and rule-breakings and romances. A dirtiness, a perversity, a freedom. Both of my parents worked full-time, and neither of them trusted me or trusted residential summer camps or knew about them at all. My parents are Korean immigrants and sleepaway camp as such is a very American thing, phenomenon, institution.

Deer Lake was actually a lagoon, a murky man-made swimming hole that was always warm. In order to swim out where it was deep enough to dive, out by the far floating dock, you had to pass a test of treading water for 20 minutes. I didn't qualify until the summer before I entered seventh grade.

That was the summer and the session I was in the Kickin’ Kangaroos, the oldest girls ‘tribe’. At Camp Deer Lake, campers were organized into groups by age and sex that were called tribes, and each 'tribe' gave itself a name and carry around a 'coup stick' on which it could mount feathers won at the end of each camp day for participating in activities (archery, canoeing, arts and crafts, etc.). We all assembled in the field at the beginning and end of each day and greeted each other by saying "how how".

What strange syncretisms had to congeal and by whose agency in order to obtain that zone of mainstream American cultural imagination that we call summer camp? I wonder if those ‘traditions’ still hold at Camp Deer Lake twelve years later, in 2016. I don't remember any instances of discussion of or engagement with Native languages, customs or people. I don't remember any of the camp staff being anything other than white. Most of the counselors were in their late teens or early twenties; most of them were irritable and laissez-faire—kids got stung by yellow jackets and broke arms climbing and falling from trees. I remember often overhearing what I learned later were so many epithets for smoking weed and having sex.

***

Camp, as a verb, can be defined in one sense as temporary lodging or residence in implicitly transient conditions. Tents, RVs, national parks, music festivals. It can also be construed as the act of “remaining persistently”, impermanently but indefinitely, wilfully or not. Homeless encampments, Occupy!, refugee camps, internment, labor, and concentration camps.

Camp as a training ground, a reformation, a social laboratory. Boot camp, fat camp, Jesus camp, band camp. Not to mention: seasonal work. Migrant labor. Fire lookouts. Burning Man. Vacation homes. Cults. Homesteads. Liberal arts college. Annual corporate retreats. Startups.

***

Sontag articulates camp as an aesthetic mode marked by the theatric, artificial, and the excessive, even in understatement—a stance both naïve and self-serious. Camp, in another sense, circumscribes a field of experience contiguous with the everyday but also discontinuous and intensified by the certain finitude of its term. A space within which time is compressed; a time during which space takes precedence. In which real things happen in accelerated fashion given a context whose reiterating and temporary nature absolves you of follow-through.

Maybe the catalytic potential of summer camp as an idea is a virtue of its remaining decisively outside of ‘life’. Camp friends, camp boyfriends, camp selves, camp lives. This sense of camp shares certain qualities that Sontag deliberates in her essay—a kind of earnest self-seriousness, an unintentional naiveté.

Camp holds out the promise that there is another community, a somewhere else, where we can be our full or fuller selves, where the main thing is being with each other and being in nature. These values stand in opposition and marginality to the everyday—to the school year, the work week, the regimentation of urban living.

At Camp Deer Lake, all campers are encouraged to partake in games, songs, and hands on activities, allowing each individual to gain knowledge of nature and the environment while having fun in the great outdoors.

But I always had the sense that camp was not quite camp, that something of the idea was sorely lacking in the experience. I hated being dirty, sweaty, and hot, and I remember always being these things. I liked swimming, I liked playing capture the flag in the stand of trees called The Pines, which was riddled with slopes and stumps and roots that tripped and injured running campers all the time. I liked the Powerade machine in the barn that was always sold out of the dark blue flavor, my favorite. I didn’t relate to the weird obsession of my fellow Kangaroos with John Paul, this tall, surly blond lifeguard who wore a thick gold chain and who had six toes on one foot and who let them paint his nails at free time and who was totally gross to me. At the end of each day I rode a dusty school bus that dropped me off in front of a boarded-up motel on Little Meadow Road, and I walked to my parents’ house, went inside, and turned on the air conditioning and TV.