When Do You Realize You're Not At Home Anymore?


I live approximately 2,800 miles away from where I grew up, and I can go months without thinking about the distance at all. Then something jolts me into the recognition that I’m not from here. This summer, it’s camp.

Specifically, it’s Timothy Noah’s Slate piece on sleepaway camp, first published a few years ago and reprinted this week, which alleges that “how you responded to being shipped off (often at an appallingly tender age) to a cluster of cedar cabins beside a mountain lake […] reveals an awful lot about your fundamental character.” The essay oversteps the bounds of good taste at certain points, as when Noah makes a strange and unfunny joke about women who “really, really enjoy[ed] camp” ending up in abusive relationships. My primary reaction to it, however, was “who the fuck goes to sleepaway camp?”

There are class issues here — apparently some sleepaway camps cost serious money. I wouldn’t know firsthand, though, because I never went — nor, as far as I can remember, did any of my friends. At least in the eighties and nineties, sleepaway camp was Not A Thing for the kids I knew in Los Angeles.

My brother and I did go to day camp in the summer. One miserable year, we went in the winter too, because the LA school system had adopted a bizarre schedule that gave us nearly two months off, and our parents needed somebody to look after us. That happened to be an El Niño year, meaning it rained all the time, including throughout the whale-watching trip our camp ill-advisedly took. During this trip we saw zero whales and 99% of the kids vomited. The lone holdout was me, although my jeans did become so sodden with rainwater that I had to hold them up with my hands. Given that this was my experience with camp, it’s hard for me to relate to stories of cabins, lanyards, letters home, summer romances, or mountain lakes. I know some Midwesterners, and possibly even some Californians, went to camp, but I think of the traditional sleepaway camp as an East Coast institution.

Others like this pop up from time to time. Last year, I came across an empty bag of Utz chips emblazoned with something like, “the taste you remember,” and felt a chill — not only do I not “remember” the taste of Utz, I didn’t even know it existed until I was 24. It’s also possible to feel displaced from one non-home to another. A few weeks after I moved from Iowa City (already pretty far from LA) to New York (even farther), a barista complimented my green pants. “Thanks,” I said, “I got them in Iowa City.” “Where’s that?” the barista asked. Somewhat confused, I told him it was in eastern Iowa. “Oh,” he said, “I thought it was, like, a store.”

There’s a literary model for this kind of experience. In Book XI of the Odyssey, the ghost of Tieresias gives Odysseus this command:

When, though, you have killed the Suitors in your palace, by cunning or openly, with your sharp sword, then pick up a shapely oar and travel on till you come to a race that knows nothing of the sea, that eat no salt with their food, and have never heard of crimson-painted ships, or the well-shaped oars that serve as wings. And let this be your sign, you cannot miss it: that meeting another traveller he will say you carry a winnowing-fan on your broad shoulder. There you must plant your shapely oar in the ground, and make rich sacrifice to Lord Poseidon, a ram, a bull, and a breeding-boar. Then leave for home, and make sacred offerings there to the deathless gods who hold the wide heavens, to all of them, and in their due order.

A winnowing-fan is a tool for separating grain, and only somebody who “knows nothing of the sea” would mistake an oar for one — this is how Odysseus will know he’s sufficiently far from home. Similarly, when I hear somebody talk about “orange teams” or “group sing,” I start to feel like I’ve reached a place where nobody knows what my oar is. I don’t sacrifice a ram, though. I usually just shake my head and call my mom, who lives far away from where she grew up, and understands.

You Are How You Camped [Slate]

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