Spring is in the air: apricot blossoms burgeoning on their branches, daffodil 10-packs floating in plastic pots at Trader Joe's and summer camp brochures stuffed into our mailboxes.
I am a big fan of camp. Every summer from 1973 on, I packed my trunk and headed to Malibu. Camp Hess Kramer shaped my teen years and reinforced my Jewish identity. It was my second home from age 12 to 22, and to this day, whenever I catch a whiff of pancakes frying in hot oil on a griddle, I close my eyes and return to camp. My life revolved around those precious summer months. If somebody offered me a job at camp today, I'd roll up my sleeping bag and hop on the bus.
When it came time for my own children to go to camp, one would have thought that with all my experience, knowledge, and leadership training I would have been better prepared. But, from the mother's standpoint, summer camp is whole different adventure.
I'm not one of those plan-ahead moms. I like to follow in the footsteps of mothers before me. If some mom did the research and decided it was good enough for her kid, then it was good enough for mine. Car seats, strollers, sneakers, bicycles, preschools, camps, whatever -- who am I to question? Besides, why do all that work when someone else just did it? It's a time-management thing.
A number of years ago, when my first son was halfway through kindergarten, I tried getting my feet wet in the elementary school scene by attending a PTA meeting. After the meeting a few moms invited me for coffee at some new place called "Starbucks," which had just opened on the corner.
"So," Janis (an obvious expert at motherhood) said as we squeezed four chairs around a tabletop the size of a cookie tin. "Have you sent in your applications yet?"
"My what?" I asked, burning my tongue on a ridiculously expensive latte.
"Applications," she said. "For camp."
"What camp?" I asked.
"Summer camp," Elaine, another veteran, chimed in. "It's March. You know they're due pretty soon. If you don't send them in by next month, it'll be too late."
"That's right," Janis said, "camps fill up by April. Do you know where your son is going to go?"
I had no idea where my son would be going, but I knew that I'd be going to the place where bad mothers who don't meet deadlines go.
"I ... I don't know anything about it," I confessed, panic rising in my throat.
"Calm down," Carrie said, "it's not too late."
I immediately pegged Carrie as an ally.
"You still have a few more weeks," she said. "And if you miss the deadline, there's always summer school. That's what my kids are doing, and then three afternoons a week they'll go to nanny camp."
We all looked at Carrie.
"Nanny camp?" Janis asked, skeptically. "What's that?"
"It's when my mother-in-law takes my children. She loves it, the kids love it, I earn major in-law points, and the best part is it's free."
I had met my guru.
"Well," Elaine looked askance, "mothers ought to put a little more thought into a child's camping experience. Last year, Tommy went to science camp and loved it. This year I'm signing him up for two sessions -- each week they do a different project. There's rocket week, nature week, history of the Earth week...."
"Do they offer college credit?" Carrie asked.
"What?" Elaine asked.
"And then," Elaine prattled, "in between science camp, he'll do a three-week session of regular day camp."
Janis chewed her lip thoughtfully: "That probably only takes you to, what, mid-July? You should consider six weeks of day camp, then throw in a week of art camp, or maybe that music and fencing combo-camp thing at the enrichment center."
"Hmmm," Elaine sipped her cappuccino. "That might be a good idea."
Carrie broke off a piece of currant scone: "So Elaine, what's all this camp gonna cost?"
"Oh, puh-lenty," Janis interrupted, scribbling figures on a napkin. "You're up to at least $1,000 so far. And that's without the music/fencing combo."
"And don't you have something like three kids?" Carrie asked.
My head-held calculator spun wildly. The deadlines, dollars and decisions -- my overpriced latte swirled in my stomach.
Elaine wiped some crumbs onto the floor. "Well, I have time to think about it, but you, little missy," she stood and pointed at me, "had better get started. The clock is ticking. And take it from me, a kid with nothing to do makes for a very long summer."
Thus began my introduction to the chaotic camp frenzy that would become a fixture in my life every spring. I wish I could say that never again was I caught unprepared, but each year I live through my own version of March madness. As fate would have it, after experiencing all types of fun-filled, exciting camps, my boys have ended up right back where I began -- at the same Jewish camp in Malibu, where life-long friendships bloom and religious identities are formed and enriched.
Now that I firmly belong in the "experienced mother" category, I've had younger mothers ask me about sending their kids to camp. Well, as I said, I am a big fan of camp. And take it from me, a kid with nothing to do makes for a very long summer.