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This article by Jamie Saxon was prepared for the March 2, 2005

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Camp Conundrum

by Jamie Saxon

There is a reason why I keep my Christmas tree up so long (this year I

broke a record and dismantled it on February 5). My family thinks it’s

because I’m pathologically attached to the Christmas season (which I

am, sort of, but that’s another story), but really, I loathe what

comes after – planning my son’s summer camp schedule. As I slowly,

sadly turn the kitchen calendar from January to February, my anxiety

level hovers precariously close to Paxil-perfect. Somehow I figure

that every day I keep the wreaths hanging up outdoors is one more day

I don’t have to think about summer.

If you’re a working parent, you know the feeling: a tightening in the

heart, dry mouth, rapid pulse, raging headache, an uncontrollable urge

to surf the net for camp information (and Canadian pharmacies that

dispense Paxil) when your boss is looking the other way (love that

minimize function). What is it that sets our teeth on edge about

summer camp?

My hatred of the summer camp philosophy started the summer after my

son finished kindergarten (until then he was in blessed preschool,

open year round). Taking a tip from friends, we went to the open house

for ESF (Education, Sports, and Fun), the camp that’s run on the

campus of the Lawrenceville School. There was still snow on the

ground. We were very impressed (and very naive) – nice counselors, big

swimming pool, top-notch facilities, well-rounded program. We thought,

great, we’re set. Sign him up. The price was a little steep, but the

school is five minutes from our house. Can you spell convenient?

Then Working Parent Nightmare No. 1 set in: you have to pay MORE for

after camp care. Why is it that camps think that just because school

gets out at 3:30 p.m. that parents want their children home at that

hour in the summer? I’ll tell you why. Because camps operate in the

same stay-at-home-mom bubble that schools do. Well, Mr. Camp Director,

let me illuminate you. Statistically in this country more mommies work

than don’t, and mommies who work are not home at 3:30 p.m., and if

Mommy has just written a check for $275 or $300 a week for day camp,

she is not going to be very happy about having to write another $50 to

$75 check a week for after-camp care.

Working Parent Camp Nightmare No. 2: You better fill out those

registration forms fast. The good camps fill up fast, baby. A few

weeks after the ESF open house, we received a letter in the mail

stating that the camp only had openings for two of the eight weeks we

had signed our son up for. This was in February, for god’s sake. How

could they be full already? (Remember. Naive.) My husband and I were

incensed. Why did this camp have an open house with cookies and cider

(and, my husband observed, very attractive counselors) when they were

already practically full? Since misery loves company, we called the

friends who had suggested the camp to us. They had been turned away

for most of their weeks, too, as had other friends of theirs. They

said, "We’re going to the Princeton Friends Camp open house on Sunday.

Why don’t you come along too?"

We did – and it was exactly what we wanted for our son. A nice

peace-loving, non-competitive Quaker camp where the kids spend the

morning swimming at the Hopewell Quarry Swim Club and then the rest of

the day in "villages" the campers build themselves in a spacious

wooded area. Each week has a theme, such as Castles, Habitats,

Planets, or Greek Gods, and all the activities surround that theme.

The ice cream man comes once a week. It’s the closest thing to the

olden days (i.e. when I was growing up) that I could imagine. The

campers start each day in a tranquil grove of trees, sitting on logs,

for "Community," which includes announcements – and a full minute of

silence (Remember. Quaker.) Imagine 200 children and a few dozen

adults sitting quietly, soundlessly, for one full minute. Camp

director Rip Pellaton once told me, "For some kids it’s the best

minute of the day. And for some it’s the hardest minute of the day."

The other great thing we love about this camp is the crazy cheers the

counselors make up for their groups. Each group is given the name of

an animal like Flamingos or Manatees, and the cheer, usually based on

the melody of a pop song, touts the attributes of that animal, often

with silly gestures. By the end of the first week, my son knew all the

cheers, which he sang for our guests at barbecues for the rest of the

summer whether they liked it or not. The real bennie? After camp care

doesn’t kick in until 4:30 p.m., with a grace period until 4:45 p.m.,

so if you can sneak out of work a little early you can get away with

no after camp care.

A couple of summers ago, however, we decided that our son was getting

a little older and would enjoy a little variety in his summer. So we

considered a slew of other camps. Needless to say, we couldn’t afford

the area’s two premier day camps: Frogbridge, which offers

air-conditioned door-to-door transportation, hot lunch, towel service,

and bathing suit laundering on 86 "acres of fun" that includes a video

arcade, computer center, driving range, 250-foot ziplines, and beach

volleyball (no child should have that much fun when their parents are

slaving away in an office) or Rambling Pines in Hopewell, which also

offers door-to-door transportation to "225 acres of fun."

We considered the excellent programs at Princeton Day School, the Hun

School, and Mercer County Community College, which offer a

college-style program; your child can choose a morning "course" and an

afternoon "course" (yoga, chess, laparoscopic surgery, you name it) to

make up a full day of camp. A great concept, but my brain circuits

freeze when I have too many choices. I decided to wait on that for a

couple of years. But now, with our son turning 10 in August, we are

seriously considering Princeton Day School, which has won raves from

every parent I’ve spoken to who has sent their children there. "Worth

every penny," they all say, but I better act fast before the Harry

Potter course fills up.

Working Parent Camp Nightmare No. 3: Camp is not cheap and you have to

pay the entire cost up front in one lump sum – before the summer even

starts. I have no rich relatives who died and left me an inheritance

and neither does my husband. We’re just two average working parents

with two average working incomes. It’s a killer to have to fork over

something like $2,000 to $3,000 all at once. How do other people do

it? (Note: Recreation Department camps, such as Princeton, West

Windsor, and Lawrence are decidedly inexpensive.) We usually end up

charging part of our son’s camp expenses and that is anathema to us.

It is so annoying. Even colleges let you do a payment plan.

Working Parent Camp Nightmare No. 4: Where do you find out about all

the way cool camps? (Did you know there’s a clown camp at Princeton

Academy of the Sacred Heart and a Revolutionary War camp at the Old

Barracks in Trenton?) I don’t do a whole lot of the chit-chat thing

with other moms. At after school care, we working moms pass each other

with that

can’t-talk-now-I-gotta-go-get-my-other-kid-over-at-the-elementary-scho

ol-then-stare-at-my-refrigerator-and-figure-out-if-I-can-make-a-nutrit

ionally-balanced-dinner-from-frozen-chicken-thighs-and-ketchup-and-the

n-it’s-on-to-long-division-and

spelling-and-showers-and-bed-and-then-baby-oh-boy-I’m-gonna-slip-into-

a-nice-tall-bottle-of-Pinot-Noir. Therefore, I get my camp info

piecemeal. My son’s school take-home folder saved the day a couple of

years ago when he came home with a flyer for Science Adventures Camp,

a California-based company that holds science camps on various college

campuses, including the College of New Jersey, a clean eight-minute

drive from our Lawrenceville home.

This turned out to be a terrific hands-on program, very structured

(and since it’s held inside in the air-conditioned college classrooms,

it’s a welcome treat in August), with well-qualified counselors. (It

also has a location in All Saints Church in Princeton.) Each week has

a theme, like Fabulous Physics Fun or Space and Rocketry, and every

day my son came home with lots of stuff that he had made and other

bounty like dissected owl pellets (I guess that’s cool) and a smile on

his face. More good news: You can save money by signing up early or by

signing up for multiple weeks.)

This year I thought my son had outgrown the Science Adventures program

(which is designed for K-sixth grade) but he insists he loves it, and

this summer we’re sending him to one week, "Mystery of the Lost Pirate

Treasure." The catalog description says, "A mysterious message in a

bottle has washed ashore and the hunt is on. Unearth clues and seek

out stones as we explore the rock cycle in search of lost pirate

treasure. Discover caves, dissect a squid, and brave shark-infested

waters as we follow in the wake of Dread Pirate Pyrite, notorious rock

hound." How could I say no to that?

You can also go to camp fairs for info, but that requires knowing when

the camp fairs are (too much work). I actually went to one this year

at the Westin. It was OK, but word of mouth is better. This is the

only time you’ll hear me say this: stay-at-home-moms are a good source

of camp information. I learned about a great camp one year from

striking up a conversation with another mom in my son’s dentist’s

waiting room. U.S. 1’s sister paper, the West Windsor-Plainsboro News,

has excellent camp listings in its February 18 issue, which are also

available online at wwpinfo.com.

Working Parent Camp Nightmare No. 5: The scheduling nightmare. I’m not

really complaining about this, because hey, like, I only have one kid.

Imagine having to do this for two or three kids. I knew I was smart

when I quit at one. In the last year my son has become interested in

acting and dance, so I want to mix in an element of the arts this

summer, along with the science camp, and maybe a two-week session at

Princeton Day School, and we still gotta have at least two weeks of

Princeton Friends, because now my son is a veteran and summer just

doesn’t seem like summer without those stupid lovable cheers. I’m

considering Arts for Life, a two-week program held at Lawrenceville

Middle School, the Arts Council of Princeton drama camp (being held

this year at Princeton Junior School), and the Performing Center for

the Arts’ week-long "Kids in the Arts" camp in Hamilton. The Peddie

School has a good theater program but it’s too far from us, as does

Tomato Patch at Mercer County Community College, which is closer but

doesn’t fit with our vacation plans.

I made the cardinal error of trying to get my husband’s input.

"Honey," I asked tentatively (I’m well-trained by Dr. Phil and know

that timing is very important when you discuss things with your

husband), as he teetered on a ladder, trying to put up crown molding

on walls that, well, how can I say it nicely, are not straight? "Do

you think Mackenzie should go to an arts camp this summer?" "Whatever

you think. Hand me that drill." Gotta love that compassion. Mackenzie

is also interested in nature, so I’m considering the

Stonybrook-Watershed Association’s two-week Naturalists camp. You

know, worms and bugs and ponds in an "825-acre outdoor classroom" –

bona fide boy stuff. If I’m lucky my husband will take Mackenzie for

a week to Tennessee to visit his family.

I don’t own a Blackberry. I’m not even quite sure I know what one is

but my friend Ginny, a corporate flight attendant, sent me an E-mail

last week from hers: "I’m in Aspen!" I hate her. I plan my son’s

summer the good old-fashioned way – on an 8.5 by 11-inch piece of

lined paper. I write each of the 11 weeks of summer on it. With all

the scribbles and arrows and parentheses and cross-out lines, it could

double for a math problem in Good Will Hunting. Several camps overlap

with each other, and I still don’t know when we’re going to New

Hampshire because we always coordinate with another family we met up

there. I usually take Mackenzie to see my sister in Trumansburg, New

York, for a week or part of a week but she, how do I say this nicely,

played hooky the day in vitro where they hand out the organizational

gene, so I don’t have a clue which week it will be.

Really, it’s all still up in the air. And my psychological profile is

edging closer and closer to that of the little blob guy in the Paxil

commercial. While I am highly organized (you can’t be a working mom

and not be) I am also a terrible decision-maker. My biggest fear right

now is that I’ll lose my piece of paper and have to start all over

again (God forbid, I should photocopy it – I mean, who actually

photocopies their address book in case they lose it?), so I carry it

with me in my bag – to work, to the gym, to Panera, where every other

day or so, I pull it out, like a security blanket, dog-eared and

coffee-stained, and stare at it, and make a few more scribbles. I kind

of like my little "planner." It has a lot of information on it and

makes me feel like I’m doing my homework.

Working Parent Camp Nightmare No. 6: Camp must be enriching. The

February 18 issue of West Windsor-Plainsboro News also has a good

article by Euna Kwon Brossman about the trend of camps for older kids

adding another academic or do-gooder feather in the college

application cap. The story made me sad, actually, because I still

cling to the anachronistic notion that summers should just be about

having fun, a break from school, go outside and play, you know, what

we did as kids. "Go out and play and don’t come home until the

streetlights are on." I grew up in Stamford, Connecticut, and never

went to camp. I played on a big rock in our woods (aptly named Big

Rock) with my best friend, Beth Judd. When we got bored we rode our

bikes to Friendly’s, then to the Stamford Nature Center and fed the

ducks and looked at the totem poles. When Beth’s parents had an

addition put on their house, we’d run around the perimeter of the big

hole in the yard after the workers had gone, then leap through the

sprinkler to cool off. We’d ask her mom for a Popsicle and then we’d

ride our bikes to my house and ask my mom for a Popsicle. The plan

worked out well.

I struggle with the way things have changed. Is it OK for my son just

to have fun at camp? Does camp have to have a greater purpose? I hope

not. I can see the just-you-wait wagging of fingers by readers whose

kids who are entering the college application stage. But for now, I’m

choosing to look the other way. Mackenzie can volunteer as a Russian

translator and master algorithms when he’s older. We as a family find

that 1960s idyllic slice of summer at our little rented cottage in New

Hampshire, where Mackenzie hangs out with the same gaggle of boys,

kayaking out to Blueberry Point, the rock island in the middle of the

lake; jumping off the floating docks; playing a pick-up game of

baseball on the little beach; and at night telling ghost stories and

roasting marshmallows by the campfire. For no matter what camps we

pick for Mackenzie, that one week in July is what summer is really

about. It’s "camp" for Mommy and Daddy too. No cell phones, no

television (OK, the laptop works up there). Just the loons’ wailing,

the creak of the screen door, and the moonrise every night over the

mountains.

Working Parent Camp Nightmare No. 7: There is no day camp the last two

weeks of August. What’s up with that? Sorry to break it to you, Mr.

Camp Director, but while you’re puttering on your motorboat down the

shore, working parents don’t necessarily get the last two weeks of

August off – and we need something to do with our kids. I suspect

there is no camp the last two weeks of summer because either a) the

directors want a vacation after managing a bunch of screaming kids all

summer or b) all the counselors go back to college well before Labor

Day. I scoured the Mercer County section of the program guide of the

camp fair I went to and found five camps that go past August 19.

They’re not fancy-schmancy, but they’ll do in a pinch. Hopewell Valley

YMCA Summer Fun Camp in Pennington wins the prize for being open

through August 31, and the Hamilton Area YMCA Camp at Sawmill, the

Princeton YMCA Camp, the Howell Living History Farm Camp in

Titusville, and the CYO Day Camp in Yardville are open through August

26.

Dear readers, here is a message for the entrepreneurs out there: You

could make a million bucks in one week if you held a really good day

camp the last week of August. Working parents, I guarantee you (I’ve

already taken an informal poll) would pay through the nose for it.


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