Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Camp Days

My first visiting day: 1973.
The nest is empty again: The kids are off at camp.

As it was last year, Elianna is off to Camp Ramah in Canada, and Aaron is off to Ramah Outdoor Adventure in Colorado. The house is quiet. The food goes more slowly. The days seem longer... and yet they go by too quickly.

Arriving at her 2nd home: Camp Ramah.
I was a Ramah camper too, at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. For me, Ramah was a transformative experience. "From what to what?," I might ask in a less cheerful moment; but there are still things from that first summer that I keep with me. A feeling of warmth and belonging that I'd never quite had before. The sound of birkhat hamazon -- the grace after meals -- being sung by 600 kids in unison at the first camp meal, giving me the impression of massive bells ringing. Getting ready for shabbat on Friday afternoon, when we'd wear all white. The singing at the Friday evening services, where I could sing and not feel self-conscious about it. The sense of awe when looking up on a clear night sky with billions of stars twinkling, and feeling that I was in the right place in the universe.

That was 40 years ago, and as I think of it, thanks to facebook I can reach out to several campers and a counselor who were with me in Bunk A-4 that summer. Ramah was where I first kissed a girl, and first had a crush on a girl -- in that order, because everyone kissed on shabbat. I counted kisses that first year. And it was also a place where summers could get too hot or too rainy, where lightning could strike the beit degel (flaghouse) while our counselors were inside it, where pink eye could spread at lightning speed, where I could kill over 100 mosquitos while trying to write one letter to a friend (I counted those, too, but not the ones I missed), and where kids in the pre "no bullying" days could -- and sometimes would -- just be mean.

But I loved being there. It was my 2nd home, in my mind. Wingdale, NY. 12594.

Ramah Canada is like my old Berkshires camp, in some respects. It has a lake that's the centerpiece of the camp. The kids are grouped in to single-age groups (edahs). They have some mix of activities, and also swimming and boating, to fill their days. And they bond with one another. Their session is much shorter -- just 23 full days, as compared to 53 when I went. But I am in awe of their commitment to one another. In February, one of Elianna's friends had a bat mitzvah. In Montreal. Elianna had to go, it was a mission. So we all went. She is inseparable from her best friends at camp. And she is growing up. Last year all the boys grossed her out. This year, she reported -- to her grandmother! -- that "dressing up all pretty for the boys is half the fun" of getting ready for shabbat. Then there's this:

It took me a while to figure out what "braw" meant. Then, "They're 12. That's what they do."

The outfits aren't all-white anymore, but the spirit is the same.Friends at camp.
Communications have changed: In the '70's, cameras were rarely used. We all had them, but our little 110 film cameras maybe came out on visiting day or for a field trip, and the day before going home, and that was it. We'd get the pictures developed after the summer. There'd be one official picture of the bunk, and one of the edah. While we were in camp, our parents got no pictures at all; they'd get only the letters we wrote on the designated mail days.

Today the digital pictures come pouring in by the hundreds from the camps multiple times per week; I don't even need to receive letters to tell me what they're wearing or who they're with or if they've got a good smile going. I have become expert at recognizing my children from a wristband or a shoe. I email letters to the kids and they get the printouts the next day. Aaron still has to use stamps and envelopes to respond, but Elianna's letters get turned in to emails that I receive within a day or two. She is the letter champion so far this year: 9 letters home, 3 to her grandmother, and another 6 to a best friend, all in the first week of camp. And, I almost hate to say it, her letters are all riotously funny.

With not even half the days we had, camp time seems more urgent now. Summer camps de facto compete with other programs for parents' attention, and so the activities are often much more targeted than the "field sports" that typically ended up on my schedule. Both of my children have taken first aid courses at camp this summer; Elianna in CPR and Aaron in Wilderness First Aid.

As for Aaron, the camp name may say "Ramah," but when they say "Adventure," they're not kidding! His session -- 3 days longer than his sister's -- includes a pair of 6-day wilderness trips, with significant physical challenges thrown in. Mountain biking, rock climbing -- real rocks, in the Colorado rockies, extensive hikes over passes, making camp and surviving real wilderness conditions. The kids have to co-operate, in order to make their trips successful. The pictures are breathtaking. There's another thing about his Ramah: the kids aren't all from one area or of one race. I am openly jealous of the experiences he is getting now, and happy for all the lifelong memories and bonds he and his friends are surely generating.
Aaron hiking a mountain pass, July 24, 2013
Things will inevitably change. By next year Aaron will be thinking of what he will want to do after high school; maybe he'll have had enough of the camp experience. And it won't be all that much longer for Elianna.

For the next 2 weeks, though, the nest stays empty. The kids are off at camp.

addendum (August 2): While Ramah is certainly not the only summer camp with a strong aspect of l'dor vador (generation to generation) to it, I have learned of some of the impact of generational continuity there, in our case. Aaron's edah last year included a daughter of one of my co-campers in bunk A-4 in 1973; Elianna's edah this year includes a son of a woman who was in my edah starting in 1976.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Springsteen and I

ok, forgiven. The fan-sourced movie project Springsteen and I had its one and... almost only showing this evening. Culled from several thousand fan submissions, the film intends to tell the story of what Bruce means to his fans, interspersed with rare concert footage that bring to the big screen the magic, mystery and ministry of his rock and roll.

Why "forgiven"? For mangling the grammar in the title? Nah, Bruce did the same thing in Streets Of Philadelphia, and if it was good enough for him then I'm ok with it.

Maybe for not using or even responding to my submission; which for at least 48 hours was the best video I'd ever done. The only emails I got from the Springsteen and I crew were instructions on how best to pay an inflated price -- $15 -- for a movie ticket. Sure, there were soundbytes, but I wasn't sure if a line like "I lost my virginity to Thunder Road" was worth a laugh or a groan... or both. As I sat through the first half hour of the film with its often cringe-inducing moments of deification from middle-age fans or slightly dysfunctional families, I even started to wonder, without the slightest hint of irony, "they chose this over my submission?"

Elianna with Bruce, at the 9 minute mark. Video by Jack Schwartz

This hat is making me happy! (photograph: Amber Sigman)
After all, I'd had a story to tell. At least, my daughter had a story to tell, and I let her tell it. In the space of several months last year, Elianna started as a Taylor Swift fan and was mocking Bruce; she accompanied us to the first show because her older brother wanted in. That night, Bruce saw her down front and tossed a guitar pick her way, but her dad dimly gave it away. She had an amazing time, and traded smiles with Cindy Mizelle and Michelle Moore during the show. The next afternoon -- my 50th birthday and 11 days short of her 11th, she made a last minute decision to accompany her parents to Buffalo; she made her way up front by herself, where another fan sheltered her. Bruce found her and locked in on her during the harmonica ending of The Promised Land. She had the bug. I had to get tickets to whatever shows we could get to. Toronto: General Admission tickets didn't open up until the day before the show; we had to go. She made it up front again to the same person who sheltered her in Buffalo, and this time Bruce found her for Thundercrack and again for Dancing in the Dark. In Hamilton, with the same friend yet again, Bruce found her and a sign she'd made, and when the show ended Little Steven raced over to hand her a guitar pick. Finally, in Louisville, she gave Bruce something: her hat. Bruce responded: "I feel good with this hat on! This hat is making me happy!" There was a story in there, and we tried to tell it, but those Ridley Scott people didn't take it and now I was stuck watching 3-word genuflecting, shaky recordings, and concert clips I'd already seen. Or so I was grumbling, as I set my expectations lower and lower.

Then there was the promise that this film was entirely fan-sourced, but the very first concert clip was a 1972 recording of Growin' Up that not only wasn't fan based, but that has been released officially before, on an obscure tribute to John Hammond.

As it turned out, they not only didn't use the clip I sent them, they didn't use clips from pretty much anyone else I knew, either. All of the participants, except one, were total strangers to me. Except, of course, that we form part of this larger community. And perhaps that is part of the point: With a few exceptions, exchange one set of clips for another, and you'd get more or less the same film.

And there were notable omissions. I never expected this film to be a career retrospective, and I did expect it to be heavily based on the most recent events and tour. Still, I was a bit surprised that Bruce's 1992-1993 band wasn't shown on the screen, and his Seeger Sessions project was never mentioned at all. Nor, for that matter, did any fan's story go beyond Bruce, musically, in any meaningful way. We sure got a significant dose of people who listen to Bruce 24/7, listen to him nonstop in the car or dance to him in the kitchen, but if these people listen to anything else, you won't find out who it is from Springsteen and I. Some of the more jaded hard core fans will take some comfort in noting that there are relatively few children in this film, and no renditions of the widely despised child part to Waitin' On a Sunny Day.

Bruce with a Copenhagen busker, 1988

The inclusions, however, improved as the film progressed. The 2nd concert video in the film was something I didn't recognize. As was the 3rd. And the 4th. And the 5th. The stories, at least some of them, started to entertain. Some, like the Copenhagen busker who played with Bruce in 1988, are well known to many long time fans, but here the busker himself presented it and made it fresh again. The Elvis impersonator Nick Ferraro, who got on stage with Bruce in Philadelphia in 2009 is probably less well known, but he and his wife were hilarious in their retelling of the event. And the poor soul who was dumped the evening before that aforementioned Hamilton show, was probably very obscure except to those of us who were there that evening. I wrote Notes From the Road for brucespringsteen.net for that show, and I tried to remember what I could of the exchange for the write-up. Now we have the official footage of it, and also homemade video of the fan's back story and of him making the sign. I even get to see some of the mistakes I made writing it up: Somehow I managed to downplay Bruce's taunts of the girls who'd dumped him! As Bruce might say, I'm regretting that now!

The film had a generous sense of humor, none more evident than in showing extensive pieces from a man who feigned curmudgeonly indifference or worse towards Bruce, but went along to various European cities to appease his hard core wife. At one point, he nearly turned in to the infamous character of the Emperor in Amadeus who complained to Mozart that there were "too many notes."

Too many notes.

The main body of the film ends with a near-obligatory round of "thank you Bruce" in various modes and languages, and had the film ended there it might have been more or less on par with offerings such as Wings for Wheels, the bonus DVD that was included in the Born To Run: 30th Anniversary package. Nice, maybe not quite worth a premium movie ticket price, but it had surpassed my expectations.

The add-ons changed that, for the better. Sure the 2012 Hyde Park performance has been easily available on the internet since it happened, but seeing 6 of its songs presented on the big screen was worth staying on. Highlights include Because the Night with a massive 10-twirl Nils solo, and two fully powered songs with Sir Paul McCartney.

There is also a bit of a surprise epilogue that ties together several of the stories. I think Bruce even made a fan of the curmudgeon.

This morning I sent Elianna off to summer camp. I needed to get her an mp3 player so she could study her bat mitzvah lessons, and before I left I added recordings of her new favorite band, Chameleon Circuit. They have created a canon of songs to themes from Dr. Who. But I added one track: A conversion I did of the Toronto performance of Thundercrack. Her and Bruce. Or, should I say, Springsteen and She.

Monday, July 08, 2013

It's All Ducky

We bought a house with a swimming pool. I don't think I'd do it again, but what's done is done, and the pool has water, and ducks like to swim in water, and every spring before we open the pool ducks come and try to swim in it. This sometimes prompts a most curious scene as Lori or Aaron try to chase them away... though they always come back, at least until the water warms up.

In some years ducks have started nests in spots near the pool. One time was a duck war, all the eggs were smashed, and a male duck with a very broken neck ended up in the pool. Another time, a duck abandoned its last egg. The children tried to hatch it, but nothing ever happened.
June 19: 9 ducklings, unable to make it over a bubble in the cover.
On June 19th, our history changed. Lori suspected we had another duck with a nest, and its nearby male partner, but on this chilly morning we found out. Ducks in the pool! Or, since we had covered the pool the previous night, it was ducks on the pool! Mama ducks like to teach the ducklings to swim right away, and don't seem much bothered by little details like... the water being covered. One mother duck and 9 ducklings stepping across the new pool cover.

Ducks and ducklings in home swimming pools can cause several problems, though. For one thing, they poop a lot, and no one wants duck poop in their pool. For another, ducklings just aren't very strong. The ducklings weren't even strong enough to navigate a small bubble in the pool cover to follow their mother's voice; a few found a gap between the cover and the wall and made a go for it. Four got trapped under the cover; only three made it out alive when I removed the cover. So then we had a mother duck and 8 ducklings in the pool, and one dead duckling.

June 19: Eight surviving ducklings follow mama's voice but are stuck in the pool.
But we had another problem beyond a dead duckling: the other ducklings couldn't get out of the pool. Oh, from time to time one or two made it out by managing to hop on each others' backs, but they couldn't all get out of the pool. In millions of years of evolution, the duck species accounted for lakes and places where the newborns could walk in and out of the water... but they never accounted for a step of even a few inches. Mama duck would hop out and the ducks would follow her quack, but inevitably they remained in the water, forcing mama duck to come back in. They wouldn't hop on a raft or a board to climb out, either.

Finally, Aaron came up with a solution. First, he got mama duck out of the pool. Two ducklings managed to hop out as well, but the other 6 huddled together. Aaron then used a net to scoop the 6 up and deliver them to mama duck, out of the pool. Mama duck and her 8 survivors quickly made off for the other side of the property, where we'd spotted a male duck waiting some time earlier. We haven't seen the ducklings since.

But that evening, Aaron saw a female duck and a male duck hanging out together at the pool... without any ducklings. Could the ducklings have perished that quickly? Or was this another pair?
July 8: Eleven ducklings! Mama duck also appears to have a bit of a wing injury.
This morning, we got our answer: A mama duck with eleven ducklings, in the pool! This crew was quieter than the first one... maybe because they could go straight in the pool without having to deal with a deadly pool cover. Of course, these ducklings had no more hope than the first of getting out of the pool on their own. Mama duck got out, and a couple tried to jump... typically smacking their beaks halfway up the wall from the top of the waterline. So Aaron got out the net. We got the mama duck out of the pool, and the net... held eight ducklings! So now we had eight out, three in, and a very confused and somewhat distressed mama duck. No matter what she did, she'd be abandoning some of her ducklings. Finally, we got her out of the pool and with her eight ducklings, while Elianna rescued the other three one at a time. One duckling tried to flee, and another tried to play dead, but Elianna got them all. Once Aaron released them, they'd follow mama duck's quack to reunite in the bushes. Mama duck then led them away, we don't know where.
July 8: Rescued ducklings, forced to wait for mama.
Where did the two duck families with their 19 surviving ducklings go? Did the ducklings all survive? Did they avoid predators and cars and other deadly hazards? Will we have a dozen ducks trying to nest here next year? We might need more nets.
July 8: Rescuing the last duckling