In his new book, EW senior writer Josh Wolk revisits his youth, literally, by going back to sleepaway camp at age 34. In this excerpt, his approaching birthday is an occasion for kidding around -- or is it?
Three months before getting married, EW senior writer (and avid EW.com Amazing Race and Real World recapper) Josh Wolk decided his childhood deserved a farewell party. So in 2003 he took a summer leave from the magazine and went back to work at the most idyllic spot of his youth: his beloved sleepaway camp in Maine. His comic memoir about this summer of nostalgia run amok, Cabin Pressure: One Man’s Desperate Attempt to Recapture His Youth as a Camp Counselor, arrives in stores today. EW.com presents an exclusive excerpt from the book, in which Wolk celebrates his 34th birthday at camp, and learns there’s no better place to feel really old.
Youth ends at age thirty-four. You can be a screw-up in your twenties and early thirties, but once past that, you’re expected to have your act together. And your midthirties begin at thirty-four. You can go to bed on the eve of your thirty-fourth birthday ironically wearing a yellowed, twelve-year-old ”Go Perot” T-shirt and scratching at your spotty goatee, but when you wake up, you’d better be in patterned boxers and have a full-time job with benefits.
There’s a symbolic science to that demarcation. Thirty-three is a palindrome, which gives the number an insouciant, free-love vibe that thirty-four just doesn’t have: ”Hey, dude, read me forward, read me backward, don’t matter to me, it’s all good.” But the fun stops at thirty-four; the fact that the three and the four are sequential symbolizes a plodding necessity to follow the rules. When you have three, it must be followed by four. Do not even think of going back to two, much as you must arrive for work at 9, not 10.
The second day of camp was my thirty-fourth birthday.
During lunch, I was summoned to the phone just outside the chaotic Dining Hall; it was my fiancée Christine, calling to wish me a happy birthday.
”So what’s the big plans for your big night?” she asked. ”Anyone throwing you a party?”
I toed the ground. ”No. Nobody really knows it’s my birthday. I don’t want to make a big deal of it.”
”No,” she corrected. ”You don’t want to ask anyone to make a big deal out of it. But I’ll bet it would make you happy if someone made a big deal out of it on their own volition.”
I’d heard many grooms talk about how their brides knew exactly what they were really thinking, and they portrayed it as a good thing. How was that good? Going along with my false modesty routine would have been preferable to Christine seeing me as the passive-aggressive narcissist I really was.
”I don’t want a celebration motivated only by guilt. I can see the card now: ‘Dear Josh, Happy birthday! Signed, Our collective sense of obligation.”’
She sighed. ”I love you, and I wish I was there to tell everybody. But I’m not, so go back in there and tell someone for me. I hate being the lone keeper of such a deep, dark secret.”
When I sat back down amidst the lunchtime din, Reg, the Australian waterskiing counselor with whom I supervised a table of five rowdy boys, said, ”Saved you some potato chips. Tougher than you’d think with these animals. Good phone call?”
”Yeah.” I grabbed the basket and dumped the lingering crushed chip shrapnel on my plate, then reached for the bowl of tuna. ”Christine.” She was right. Why not share the news? ”Wishing me a happy birthday.”
”What? Big secret at the table!” exclaimed Reg, raising his eyebrows.
”Happy birthday,” said a 14-year-old sitting next to me, punching me on the arm. He went by the name ”Action”; I had assigned everybody at the table nicknames during the first dinner the night before. I’d assured them that the quickest way to cultivate an air of mystery was to have a moniker, so why not get it done early? Action’s real name was Jackson, so I christened him after the ’80s Carl Weathers movie Action Jackson. Nobody at the table had heard of it, but I assured them that its obscurity made the name all the cooler. Also at the table were Rattler (a ten-year-old whose face was covered in freckles; the name ”Leopardo” seemed too on the nose, so we switched to another animal to keep people off guard), Patrioticus (another ten-year-old who had given an impassioned defense of George Bush on the first meal, undoubtedly patched together from stuff he’d heard his dad railing about at the dinner table), the Fog (a wispy, shy teen whose quietness Reg and I tried to give a touch of danger by constantly saying, The Fog: He mists, he kills!), and Big B (the oldest camper at the table, an eye-rolling wiseass named Bradford who got his name simply because it seemed to fit his opinion of himself).
”This is big, boys, very big,” said Reg. ”What’d everybody get the old man?”
”But…we didn’t know,” said Rattler. ”And we don’t have any money here.” His panicky look indicated that his mother had ingrained in him a strict sense of duty. His freckles seemed to glow redder with embarrassment.
”Didn’t anyone ever tell you that the best gifts are the ones you make yourself?” I said. ”Here’s my wish list. Action and the Fog, by dinner, make me a DVD player out of leaves and pine cones. Patrioticus, nothing special. Maybe use some beach sand and some fishing line and fashion me a Playstation. Rattler and Big B, use your best judgment. Just don’t knit me a stereo. I’ve already got one of those.”
”How old are you?” asked the Rattler.
”Thirty-four,” I said.
”Wow,” said Big B, a bit of mayo stuck to his sneering lip. ”That’s pretty old. That’s like my dad’s age.”
”Your dad isn’t thirty-four,” I snapped. ”You’re fifteen so, what, he had you when he was nineteen?”
”Maybe he’s not thirty-four, but he’s old, you’re old, so what’s the difference?”
I glared at him. ”I am this close to downgrading you to Little B, wiseass,” I said, snatching a chip off his plate and taking a bite. ”He who giveth the nickname can taketh away.”
”And you smelleth like old dude,” cracked Big B.
Reg cackled, ”Point for Big B on Grampa Wolk’s birthday!”
Dessert arrived, chocolate-chip cookies. The boys clamored for the milk, which emptied quickly, and we sent Patrioticus to get more. Since half of us had Patrioticus’ cold milk straight from the fridge, and the other half were drinking the lukewarm milk that had been sitting on our table the entire meal, an impassioned debate began over whether cookies were noticeably worse in warm milk. I delighted in this inconsequential quarrel; it was a reminder of what a wonderfully frivolous world I was a part of. Perhaps tomorrow tighty-whiteys vs. boxers would be the round-table topic of the day, but until then, we had milk.
It reminded me of the summer after sophomore year of college, when I was living at home and working as a waiter at a Pizzeria Uno. My good friend Chris was painting houses. Both were the kind of jobs that had only one benefit: as soon as we were done for the day, they ceased to exist in our minds. When I clocked out, I was done; no going home and worrying about the big pepperoni presentation I had coming up the next day.
This was the summer that Burger King announced ”Burger Buddies,” which were three tiny burgers served lined up in a rectangular paper coffin, and the sales pitch was that you could eat each one in only three bites. (It was a short-lived campaign, as Burger King had overestimated the target audience of People Who Are Sick of All That Biting.) The commercials were incessant, so one night, after work, Chris picked me up and we bought two orders of Burger Buddies to test its sales promise. We drove to the parking lot of a community swimming pool near his house, where we opened our cartons and each selected a mini-burger. After my third bite, I saw that I still had a sliver left. Chris had the same. We tried different angles on the second and the third, but both times found that the arc of the human jawline meant that, geometrically, three bites would always leave a small shred of Buddy in your fingers. We sat in the car, feet up on the dashboard, idly finishing off our fries and pondering what this all meant. Was Burger King a big liar? If we explained this smoking gun to McDonalds, would it end the rivalry for good? We talked for an hour about this turn of events, the car filled with an odor of greasy meat and chlorine wafting in from the nearby pool: if someone had squirted suntan lotion into the window it would have made the perfect summer hybrid odor. For years after, I remembered that as the last moment that my mind was entirely uncluttered with worry. It was summer, I was with one of my best friends, and the most important thing we had on our minds at that moment was fact-checking a Burger King commercial.
The cookie discussion was similarly relaxing. I sat back and listened to the various theses and rebuttals fly back and forth, the boys fervently dunking chunks of cookie into their glasses to further their points. I leaned toward Rattler, who had his hand in his milk glass up to his palm. ”Hey, be careful there! I like warm milk, too, but you can’t directly dunk a cookie into it.”
He looked at me. ”Why not?”
My aim was to play off the old urban legend about how Mikey from the Life Cereal commercial had died mixing Pop Rocks and Coke. ”It’s an explosive combination. You could blow us all up.”
Big B snorted at me. He loved to be the first to snort.
”You don’t believe me? You know who it happened to, don’t you?” I was ready to deliver the punch line: some young, just-forgotten child star had dunked a chocolate-chip cookie into warm milk, and died in the explosion. But I hadn’t thought it through yet, and I had no name. No problem, one would come to me, I wrote about pop culture for a living. Who was the 2003 equivalent to Mikey? I needed a famous kid who would have been big about three years before, the way the Life cereal kid had just vanished when his death became a nationwide rumor. As the kids stared at me, I rifled through my mental pop-culture rolodex. Olsen Twins? No, they were still too famous. The girl from the show Blossom? No, before their time. Were there any popular commercials with kids? Dammit, ever since I got TiVo I hadn’t watched a commercial.
The longer I paused, the more quickly my joke was becoming moot. My mind finally lit on the only movie kid’s face I could think of: Dakota Fanning. In the next couple of years she would go on to become a ubiquitous child star in huge movies like War of the Worlds, but at the time she had only been noticed in I Am Sam. I couldn’t even remember her name at the time, but I hated to leave my joke unfinished. ”The girl from I Am Sam,” I said, still trying to sell it. ”She went dunking and KABLOOEY! Killed her instantly.”
There was a moment of silence.
”Who?” said Patrioticus.
”Wait, what?” said Action.
”What’s I Am Sam?” asked Rattler. ”Is that like Green Eggs and Ham?”
Reg just laughed at me. ”The girl from I Am Sam?”
”Yeah, her. You know, like the Mikey thing?” I looked back at Reg for support. He just kept laughing. Didn’t they have urban legends in Australia?
The Fog said quietly, ”Who’s Mikey?” His hand fluttered nervously over his mouth when he spoke.
”The kid who mixed Pop Rocks and Coke!” I said impatiently.
They looked at me as if I had just quoted an old Burns and Allen routine.
”What’s Pop Rocks?” asked the Fog, his hand dropping to his lap in confusion.
I was three layers out of touch. I might still be able to convince myself that thirty-four wasn’t a one-step-closer-to-death sentence, but it was becoming harder to rationalize that I was still just another kid.
Copyright 2007 Josh Wolk. First published by Hyperion Books.
Visit the author’s website, joshwolk.com, for more about Cabin Pressure.