A Date with Nathan and the Elephants

Nathan was the first date I’d had in 26 years. Based on his emails, I was pretty sure it would be magical. He was brilliant and literary. He’d gone to Harvard and worked — in a somewhat vague capacity — for a think tank in Washington, DC. I pictured him spending his days lounging with other think-tanky people on leather chairs in some opulent office on Massachusetts Avenue. From what I could glean, he doled out advice for less-smart people somewhere, and that was plenty good enough for me.

His emails contained perfect spelling, and this seemed important to me, as if bad spelling were a character defect I wanted to avoid in a man. His messages were didactic in spots, but then he would write, “I really like fun. I want to be part of a fun couple.” I sent him my telephone number. He called when he said he would. We talked for a while. He didn’t seem like a serial killer.

“Shall we meet at the zoo then next weekend? That might be worth a giggle,” he said.

I shuttled to the back of my head a few red flags that had surfaced during the call. For a man who’d grown up in Michigan, he had quite a British accent going for himself. I could tell he didn’t think I was funny. And I am funny.

I was game. “Baltimore Zoo or Washington Zoo?” I asked.

Was that a snicker? I believe it was. Nathan was clear he didn’t actually ever leave Washington, which he called The District. He suggested we meet at the Elephant House, and added, “It’s the National Zoo.” But he wasn’t finished. “And, by the way, the name of yours is the Maryland Zoo,” he added, just so I’d know I got both zoo names wrong.

Traffic was horrible, and then I missed the exit for Connecticut Avenue. I was almost 45 minutes late. I didn’t want him to think I’d ditched him, so I ran for the Elephant House as soon as I parked.

There he was, at the entrance of the smelly building, jacket slung over his shoulder. Black hair, very tall. Eyebrows that had merged together to form one serious, knitted line, probably years ago.

“So have you ever been to our zoo?”

I hadn’t.

“How about our Smiths? Our Hirshhorn? Our Corcoran?”

We kept walking, and Nathan kept talking and taking credit for Pierre L’Enfant’s life work. The history of the zoo, the pandas by name. He knew a lot about the llamas, too, which didn’t surprise me. He was like the Chamber of Commerce with a unibrow.

Nathan had planned ahead — lunch at a restaurant within walking distance after we’d seen everything the zoo could teach me. My feet hurt in my ill-advised shoes. He’d chosen a place known for its wine list, which sounded like a great idea at this point. But it also felt like we were walking to Philadelphia.

When we finally got to lunch, the mere act of sitting down felt glorious. Especially since I knew there would be a glass of something earthy, with mellow tannins and a strong finish on its way. For the last five blocks, Nathan had been talking about his wine collection. I had no idea what tannins were but I was in favor of them floating down my throat. Soon.

As soon as the waiter passed out menus, my first-date jitters arrived. I like to stay ahead of worries, so I was already nervous about how the whole paying-the-bill thing would play out. I’d brought lots of cash, in all denominations, covering my bases. I knew most men were now comfortable splitting the bill, so I came prepared. If the bill had come to $350, I was still prepared, so I probably had nothing to worry about.

“What are you thinking about having?” Nathan asked, peering at the wine list. He was asking about my food choice, I knew, because I’d come clean I knew nothing about wine in bottles (although I was hardly a neophyte when it came to wine in boxes, my little joke that had dropped dead on arrival).

“I was thinking of the chicken and pasta.”

More looking at the wine list. More eyebrow. When the waiter came back with his pencil poised, Nathan seemed pleased that the waiter answered, “Excellent choice!”

It seemed like a lot of work just to get buzzed after a long day at the zoo.

Then Nathan leaned over the table and touched the top of my hand. It was the first physical contact beyond the awkward introductory hug we’d shared hours before at the Elephant House.

“So, Linda. . .”

A pause followed. It seemed to last a week.

“I have just ordered an expensive bottle of wine, and I will pay for lunch.” (Another pause almost as long as the first one.)

“But I don’t expect you to sleep with me on our first date.”

On my way home, as I exited Nathan’s Capital Beltway and Baltimore came into view, I was wondering how I was going to tell him. I thought, “Nathan, Nathan, Nathan. Not enough grapes in the Napa Valley for that to happen” was much too harsh.

This would be the first time — but hardly the last — that rehearsing exit lines would be a total waste of time.

It was a new world. Men appeared as words on a screen. They disappeared with no follow-up email, on their quest to be part of a fun couple. Which, clearly, I wasn’t ready for.

[Up Next Week: A Date with Ben and his Hair]

My 7-Word Brush with Helen Gurley Brown

The phone rang while I was making dinner. My kids were underfoot. It was 1986, we didn’t have Caller-ID yet, and I always suspected telemarketers at that time of day. I tried to answer with an attitude, making it clear we didn’t need new windows or a timeshare in Jamaica.

The voice on the other end was low and commanding, and her name was Myra. She was a senior editor at Cosmopolitan, following up on a query letter I had sent a month before. She was quick and to the point.

“We’d like to hire you to write the article you’ve proposed. We can offer $3,000 with a kill fee.”

I was not yet calling myself a writer back then for fear I would be outright lying. I was piling up meager checks here and there, mostly from parenting magazines and newspaper op-eds. When she said $3,000, I was conscious of not hyper-ventilating into the receiver.

I had queried Cosmo about an article idea I knew nothing about — not unusual for me back then (or now, come to think of it). The topic was the relatively new phenomenon of single career women deciding to have a baby on their own, without a husband or even a boyfriend in their lives. Tame by today’s standards, there was a time when this was groundbreaking.

Myra wound up our conversation with this: “The first draft will be due in six weeks. Of course Ms. Brown will have final say. I’ll be in touch after she reads it.”

I got off the phone, positively giddy. Then I realized Ms. Brown was Helen Gurley Brown. And my knees shook a little.

The next day, I began my research. Since email was not yet the communication of choice, I did everything by phone while my kids sat in front of the television, eyes glazed over by Gilligan Island reruns. It was not my best mothering moment, but — hey — I was going to have a byline in Cosmo.

I felt a connection to the women I interviewed even though I’d gone the conventional route toward motherhood. They were smart and savvy. Their stories were poignant, about their dreams to have a baby, about running out of time. Myra had made it clear in our first conversation that the magazine did not approve of this new way to form a family and my piece should reflect that slant.

I thought I knew better. On the day I put my draft in the mail, I believed I was going to make journalistic history. A few days later, the phone rang. It was Myra.

“We received your draft and Ms. Brown has seen it.  I’m going to read from her memo.”

Here is what Helen Gurley Brown thought of my draft: “This writing is smug, small, and sanctimonious.”
I’ve always loved the idea that she brought forth alliteration to cut me off at my writing knees.

Here’s the good news. There was a kill fee waiting for me that exceeded my wildest expectations. I thought HGB was wrong about my writing, but I still had some wounds to lick. So I licked them. And I developed a clever answer for  friends who kept asking when my article was going to appear in Cosmo.

And the bad news? There wasn’t any. My keyboard was still waiting for me in the morning, with all its possibilities. So I sat down. And I got back to work.

Yes, There Were Panty Raids

“I love being in charge of my own life!” I said these words aloud my first week as a college freshman. I’m so grateful the Internet didn’t exist, so I wasn’t able to carve that sentence into the memory of the Universe for all time.

The details of my newfound freedom? My parents paid all my bills and gave me spending money. The Residence Hall Director made sure I was in my room before curfew. The dining hall staff cooked my food and washed my dishes. Old women, who worked at $1.60 an hour, laundered my sheets and towels. But I was in charge of everything else.

It was fall of 1968, and on other campuses the unrest of that tumultuous year had captured students’ attention. The assassinations, the war, Nixon’s election. At Cortland, not yet.

At Cortland, social traditions that had been in place for 50 years were still holding on. You could count on those customs. Somehow, they promised life wasn’t about to take the severe bump you feared it might.

My favorite was the ritual of getting pinned. He brought his entire fraternity to her dorm, and they assembled as close to her window as they could. They chanted the girl’s name until someone in charge said it was okay for her to go outside. The boys dressed in jackets and ties for this, and serenaded the girl with songs like, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” and other tunes left over from the Herbert Hoover administration. Wearing your boyfriend’s fraternity pin meant that everyone knew you belonged to him.

On Wednesday night of my first week at school, a loud group of boys congregated outside our dorm. I opened the window, and heard, “We want Sue! We want Sue!” I ran to the lounge to tell my roommate, Randi.

“Quick!” I yelled, “Some girl named Sue is getting pinned!” Randi was studying, but she obliged me. One week in, and she was on her way to Dean’s List. I had become an expert on a bygone ritual in its last gasp of life.

We looked down at the growing crowd. I noticed the boys were all in shorts and t-shirts, some in bare feet, not the jackets and ties I loved. And they weren’t singing in harmony.

Randi listened. “They’re not shouting ‘We want Sue.’ They’re shouting, ‘We want silk.’ It’s a panty raid.”

 

panty-raid

 

Soon dorm windows on every floor opened, and bras and panties of all sizes (all white) began floating down, like a weird nylon snowstorm. For the second time in days I was overwhelmed at how exciting college could be. First pinnings, now panties thrown out windows. I wondered what miracle Thursday would uncover.

I wanted to be part of the fun, but I suspected my mother had labeled all my underwear discretely somewhere with permanent marker. I couldn’t chance it.

When it was over, boys walked back to their dorms, some wearing bras on their heads as their rewards. They slapped each other on the back and twirled panties in the air.

I wondered what they did with all the underwear.

I had so much to learn. But I’d get there.

The Girl Formerly Known as “Brillo Head”

To understand how surprised I was on my first day of college,

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you needed to know me at 13.

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A lot went on in those five years between 8th grade and my first day as a college freshman. Maybe ours was the last generation to have suffered through so much awkwardness in one lifetime. These days, girls at 13 are adorable. Maybe it’s hormones in the meat or global warming. Whatever it is, I’m happy for them.

All I know is that it took me a long time to climb out of a space where neighborhood boys no longer saw me coming and began collaborating on what name they would shout out. By my 16th birthday, my public humiliation phase seemed to be waning.  I felt I had a future as someone’s girlfriend, but most of that was wishful thinking.

In summer 1967, my mother and I were doing college tours. We were on a country road in upstate New York. We had left one state school (Oneonta) and were on our way to the next (Cortland). The radio reception was pitiful, but I kept trying, my hand on the dial. All of a sudden, there was Jim Morrison singing, “You know that it would be untrue . . . you know that I would be a liar.”

This was a little racy for my mother, and I knew it. I thought of changing the station. But I figured her mind would be elsewhere and she’d be tuned out long before Jim wanted me to light his fire.

No such luck. She was listening, and the lyrics jolted her.

She attempted an impromptu talk, the kind where I tried to get the car seat to absorb my body and pretend this wasn’t happening. What she came up with surprised me though. It was much different than her lecture after the “Your Changing Body” movie in 6th grade. That talk had zeroed in on what was about to happen to parts of my body I hadn’t yet located.

This one was oddly vague.

Boys could certainly be a problem, she told me, but she didn’t think they would be a problem for me. My mother hadn’t yet noticed that I was no longer standing in the shadows at dances. She was still bracing for some mean boys to call me names connected to smelly zoo animals. Or — their perennial favorite — “Brillo Head.”

And even though my hair was now blonde and shiny, and no one had called me ugly for a long time, I wondered if she was right.

Freshman move-in day at Cortland State –September, 1968 — was sunny and warm, with no inkling that in six weeks it would be snowing. Football and soccer players were given the day off from practice to help freshman girls move in. They were a swarm of handsome, affable types, dressed in jackets and ties.

“Please, let me take that box for you!” His name was Jack. He was talking to my mother.

“Oh, that’s so sweet!” She giggled. Really. My mother giggled. We were getting on the elevator in Alger Hall when he told us he played soccer. By the time we got up to my floor, she was saying, “Oh, you’re a goalie!” There were several trips up and down, during which Jack never let my mother carry anything heavier than a bottle of shampoo.

When we were finished, my father pulled a dollar from his wallet. “Oh, no sir. Thanks, but not necessary!”

Then he turned his attention to me. “You should come to our first game on Saturday. It’s at two. I’ll look for you.”

My parents — off to the side and listening intently — beamed.

Jack shook my father’s hand. My parents looked over at me, as if to say, Well, isn’t he a fine young man. He would never do any of the things we didn’t think it necessary to tell you about because, well, we weren’t prepared for this particular moment.

Their little Brillo Head had finally made it. They weren’t worried. Not one bit.

Before I Was “That” Kind of Girl

When Oliver Hardy would turn to Stan Laurel, square his jaw and then give his tie a little twirl, you always knew what was coming. “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”

Exactly.

Our friend, Brenda, thought anything she could do, Jill and I could, too. This was almost always not true. Brenda had made JV cheerleading, and she was sure we could all make Varsity together. Her overflowing confidence sometimes coursed in my direction, and I would  temporarily lose my mind.

That’s how I ended up at Varsity tryouts. Cue Oliver Hardy.

We broke into small groups with an actual cheerleader directing us. I had expected a few hours of explanation, maybe a film about cheer leading, or some diagrams I could study before I actually had to do anything. She spent a minute introducing herself. (As if we didn’t know her name. She was a cheerleader!)

And then without warning she said, “Okay! Now line up and let me see your split jumps, one at a time.”

With nothing available to stave off the impending humiliation, I jumped.

She said, “Okay! Now you’ve just got to work on getting it in the air.” Her turn of phrase made me question if my feet had ever left the ground.

Jill and I didn’t go back for the second day of tryouts. We tried out for Chiefettes instead, a kick line that performed during halftime at football games. Chiefettes got to link arms with each other and keep one foot on the ground at all times, which worked out better for us.

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Brenda continued to conquer new frontiers. For one thing, she had boyfriends. Jill and I had dates — the sweet, unsullied kind where you went to the movies and then you ate French fries at the diner — the kind of dates our mothers went on.

One night after one of these, annoyed at the persistence of a boy I didn’t like all that well, I got to use the line, “I’m not that kind of girl!” I threw it out there indignantly, the way I’d heard it delivered on television.

The boy (embarrassed, I know now) walked me home in silence. As I was putting my key in the front door, he yelled out his parting shot from the sidewalk. “Oh yeah? Well, guess what? You’re a cold fish!”

Was I a cold fish? It was impossible to know where I was on the sexual continuum when I hadn’t yet had any experience of any kind. I’d read about “How to Fine Tune Your Relationship” in magazines like Glamour and Seventeen, but those articles were deliberately vague and sometimes alarming. I was petrified of being frigid, something that got a lot of ink. But — from all I’d picked up — it only afflicted married women so I figured I was off the hook.

In every picture I have of high school graduation, the three of us and our parents are all squinting into the sun. Brenda won awards, engraved charms she would put on a bracelet. I graduated #304 in our class of 616, my goal of slouching toward middle-of-the-road now complete. Our cakes had butter-cream icing. Our parents gave us the portable typewriters we would take to college.

typewriter

And then, two weeks later, our phone rang very late and woke me up. I heard my mother answer it and say, “Oh, dear! Oh no!” Then I heard her coming up the stairs to my room.

“Brenda’s mother is on the phone,” she said. Do you know where she is?”

I didn’t.

“They just found a note that says she’s gone away with that guy. To get married!”

That Guy was the name we had taken to calling Brenda’s latest boyfriend. We didn’t think he was going to be around long enough to bother with his real name.

That Guy was someone Brenda’s brother had brought home on leave from the army. Her family had been letting him sleep in their family room until he had to get back to his base and then leave for his second tour in Vietnam. It was supposed to be a week, but now it had been a month and he was still hanging around, lounging on the couch with his guitar all day.

We could see that Brenda was crazy about him, but we didn’t get it. He hadn’t gone to college. He was divorced. He was old (26). Three strikes. And his guitar playing was pretty weak.

Brenda had eloped, just like in the movies but without the whooping and happiness and the old jalopy sailing down the road, with the words The End superimposed on the screen. Two days later, the new Mr. and Mrs. That Guy got up their nerve and resurfaced back in Massapequa, to retrieve her clothes and be on their way to his base in Texas.

Jill and I were invited over to say goodbye. We walked in the front door just as Brenda’s father was begging them to get an annulment. But Brenda was 18 and there was nothing they could do about it. And she was in love, she told them. After the first wave of hysterics subsided, Brenda went into spin mode.

“We’ll have a church wedding as soon as he gets back from Vietnam,” she said. “Tell Father O’Connor we’ll be in touch.”

Brenda had mastered this skill in junior high school. She changed the topic just slightly, adding charming little details to warm up her mother, who was alternately weepy and angry.

“Oh Mom, the Justice of the Peace was so sweet. He sat with us afterwards and told us that he and his wife have been married for 55 years.”

Brenda’s mom said, “Did you at least have flowers?”

“Yes! Of course I did!”

* * *

 

So that fall, instead of her first-choice university, where she already had a room, a roommate, and a challenging freshman schedule waiting, Brenda and her husband drove to Fort Hood, Texas.

Jill and I, now freshmen in college, gave Brenda’s letters a big dose of parsing. I guess we’d spent all those years discussing the ins and outs of what married life would feel like, she figured she’d make good on the investment.

Their apartment on base: “Luckily it’s furnished, and it’s mostly Danish Modern!” Her dinner menus: “One thing I’ve learned cooking for a soldier. Buy plenty of meat!” The part we were most interested in: “I can’t tell you how much I love my late nights and early mornings with my husband.”

We analyzed every line. And we had so many questions we didn’t ask. Did she wear her hair rollers to bed? Did she close the bathroom door? Did they have sex with the lights on? Did she let him see her without makeup? Or did she wake up an hour before he did and put mascara and lipstick on in the dark? (I’d read “Tips to Keep Your Man,” recently and thought it resonated.)

As intrigued as we were by Brenda’s letters, Jill and I just dug in deeper to the way we’d always been. Our goals hadn’t changed much since 8th grade. Pristine, virginal weddings (in June, of course). A college degree. A teaching job. And a house where we’d sew gingham curtains and never think of cooking a meal unless it came straight out of our Betty Crocker cookbooks.

Apparently the news that we were coming of age in the late 1960s had been kept from us until this point.

But not for long.

 

[Up on Monday: A Reunion When I Least Expected It]

Wild Thing . . . You Make My Heart Sing

My friend, Jill, and I found out about the 17/18 Sign at Jones Beach as we were eating ice cream called Mello-Rolls. It was the ice cream of our youth but not without its hazards.

ice cream cone jb

You knew you weren’t a kid anymore when you could peel the paper away from the cylinder of ice cream without having it land in the sand. When you were young, this happened all the time. Then you cried. Then your dad trudged back to the concession stand to get you another one.

We were 16 now, and we wouldn’t think of being seen at the beach with our parents. And we never dropped our Mello-Rolls any more.

We were just back at our towels when a boy named B.J. Farley sauntered over and plopped himself down on the sand by Jill’s feet.

“So, I don’t think we’ve been introduced,” he said.

We were flattered because this kind of thing wasn’t happening much yet. We also laughed a little because we thought his opening line sounded like something Dean Martin would say.

“Where are you girls from? I know you’re not from Seaford or I would have seen you around.” Apparently, B.J. had an entire repertoire of lines the Rat Pack had tired of, and they were now public domain.

B.J. Farley was from the next town over. He was one of the St. William the Abbot boys we’d spied at Mass the week before. He called his church “St. Willie’s,” all at once adorable and blasphemous. We sat up straighter and listened intently. I concentrated on not dropping my Mello-Roll.

“Why are you all the way down here?” he said after a while. “Come on over and meet my friends at the 17/18 Sign.”

Jones Beach’s creators thought of everything. A theater, a band shell, a little golf course, paddle tennis. There were even numbered signs to help you negotiate the acres of white sand. The signs helped old people who might get lost looking for their umbrella. They helped little kids from getting separated from their parents. All good ideas. But now the 17/18 Sign gave us a geographical focus for making our summer memorable. To the self-absorbed teenage girls we were, that was much more important than dehydrated old people or lost children. So thank you to the sign inventor.

 

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We arrived at the 17/18 Sign like it was base camp for the last good-looking boys in the universe. We recognized many of the boys from Mass the week before. I’d had the good fortune to tag along as a non-Catholic girl. Apparently, I was just in it for the boys in blue blazers and madras ties because I remembered their faces vividly.

We stayed there all afternoon. The Seaford boys played a card game called Hearts and sang along to the radio. They jumped in the ocean when it got too hot, and they thwacked their towels at each other. In other words, they were exactly like boys their age from any town on Long Island. Just not to us. There was something exotic about this bunch of (mostly) Irish Catholic boys who lived two miles away and had been forced to take Latin in school.

“Are you going to the dance at St. Willie’s tonight?”

That was one of the Fitzpatrick brothers, the group that had stolen my heart simply by walking down the aisle at church the week before. It would take some sorting out of names to know which one was talking — John, Joe, Kevin, or Brian — since they all looked like the same boy, just an inch shorter or taller.

Jill and I leaped at our chance for summer romance. We promised ourselves that once we got back to school in September, we would pay attention to Massapequa boys again. We had this discussion on the bus going home. We were perfectly serious about it, too.

The Beach Boys were our moral barometer, and they had been telling us for years to “be true to your school.” And we would. In September. Until then a few summer dances in another town wouldn’t hurt. Had we been given the chance to let the Massapequa boys know our decision, their response would have probably been, “Who are you?” Jill and I were working on our brand back then, still operating pretty much in obscurity.

The Nun at the door said, “Welcome to St. William the Abbot School.” She was smiling, but it seemed forced.

I felt at any second she would ask me for my card that proved I was Catholic. Then she shot a glance at my skirt hem, and I realized what she really cared about. Her face relaxed a little. I knew I had passed her short-skirt criteria for not tempting boys into a life of sin.

The Nuns were doing their best as the dance progressed, but let’s face it. These were not The Sound of Music Nuns, just waiting it out until a rich Colonel came and scooped them up. They were sensible-shoed, wide-faced women of God. I think they were wishing they were back at the Convent House watching The Man from U.N.C.L.E. instead of being called on to supervise teenage lust.

Summer took on a sort of Lewis and Clark charm. By day we camped out at the 17/18 Sign, being charmed and doing our best to be charming. In the evenings, Jill and I walked around for miles, in the dark, in a sometimes complicated route — often barefoot because I thought my feet looked smaller that way. There was a lot of roaming involved.

My friends and I might get to the corner of Park Boulevard and Franklin Avenue after a half hour’s walk. And then as if we were in some sort of hormonal relay race, three girls we knew would give us the metaphorical hand off: “Gary Sullivan and Mark Doyle were just here and they were asking about you!” Heading off in that direction, we might or might not ever find them. And even if we found them, it didn’t mean we would necessarily talk to them.

Sometimes there was a final destination. It was called Hubies, a hamburger stand on Sunrise Highway. For reasons unknown, it attracted hordes of teenagers who swarmed the parking lot night after night. We acted like it was one giant coincidence that we all ended up standing under that neon. I don’t ever remember eating anything.

These summer nights got replayed a lot when I became the mother of teenagers myself many years later. I wondered how, in 1966, our parents ever trusted us to stand on the side of a 4-lane highway, flirting so vigorously that our heads were probably spinning, and then top it all off by walking home in the dark. They had no way of contacting us, which now seems unbearable. I wondered if they worried. That’s not true. I wondered how much.

Now my kids are parents themselves. I’m one generation removed from the nail-biting years. My memories of the summer at the 17/18 Sign and Hubies are all carefree now. And I remember the sweetest moments.

Like the evening someone turned up his car radio as “Wild Thing” was playing. We started dancing in the parking lot. Tommy Henshaw was my partner. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt that was much too big for him, and he sang along as we danced.

Jill and I walked home. In the dark. Giggling and chatting. No cell phones. No Sacajewea. I was home by 10. And I was sure I’d be young forever.

I Learned One Thing at Summer Camp

There are decisions you make when you’re in a good mood. This was one of them.

At the end of a triumphant first year of teaching 5th grade, I accepted a friend’s offer to work at a summer camp in the Berkshires. My boyfriend, Jeff, (who would in a couple of years become my husband) took a job there, too.

We dreamed of wholesome fun in the rolling countryside of Connecticut. We thought of it as a summer “off.” Rustic log cabins, fresh mountain air. Trust falls, color wars, and camaraderie up the whazoo.

Hindsight arrived about two hours into the first day of the campers’ arrival. Kids were being unloaded from their parent’s station wagons and everything got ahead of me and my trusty clipboard. Returning campers were hugging each other and — I thought — wary of the new staff. It was noisy. It was crowded. There was running and jumping everywhere. And who knew the Berkshires sun could be so blazing at 9 in the morning?

I sensed immediately that I had a big problem. It was called camp.

Here’s the thing. I had never been to camp. I had never even been at a camp. I had never been in charge of 13-year-old girls. I didn’t know that 13-year-olds bear no resemblance to the 11-year-olds in my class back in upstate New York who spent a whole year thinking I was mildly cool. I didn’t know that everything in a camp is about half a mile away from the next thing in a camp. Trails were dusty. Instead of a cabin, I slept in a platform tent. There were mice.

Whoever built this camp had the foresight to put the girls and boys sections as geographically inconvenient to each other as humanly possible. This kept adolescent campers from the dangers of proximity after dark.

But it also meant that the only time I got to see Jeff was at meals. We’d look at each other from our respective tables, across a cavernous room made noisy by camp songs, the lyrics of which I didn’t know. I never caught on to the ten minutes or so of rhythmic table slamming and chants that sailed back and forth after dinner every night about who had spirit. Clearly, spirit was not in my repertoire.

camp-dining-hall-action

Our day off was consumed by hours at the Laundromat trying to get the campfire smell out of my clothes and cataloging the new names I was being called behind my back by the girls in my section. Jeff, on the other hand, was having the time of his life. He’d found that afternoons at the waterfront trying to upend canoes were much more fun than being a graduate student back at Syracuse University. He loved all of it. A week in, he announced he wanted to come back the next year.

So the problem wasn’t camp after all, I decided. It was me.

I bailed out of the job after the first 4-week session, and I’m not sure I ever apologized to my friend about that, so I will now because I know she’s reading this: I put you in a bad spot leaving the way I did. I’m sorry. I’m all for being out of my comfort zone once in a while, but after four weeks as a camp counselor, I was out of my mind.

My supervisor insisted on putting my evaluation in writing even as I was packing my things and sobbing out of embarrassment and shame for not seeing the summer through. Her comment at the bottom of the page remains one of the truest sentences ever written about me: “Linda’s personality is not in sync with the intensity of the camp experience.”

I went home to my parents’ house on Long Island for a week. I went right to bed and stayed there for a day or two. Then I ate grilled cheese and watched television until I felt better about myself.

I kept rethinking the opaque wording of the evaluation. I was 23 and thought I knew myself. Not fitting in at camp was a failure. At least until I got tired of grilled cheese and watching I Love Lucy reruns and felt like my old self again.

Then I regrouped and went back to teaching in September. To anyone who asked how my summer had been, I would force a little laugh and say, “Well, now I know I’m not cut out for the camp life.”

In all the years since, I’ve realized that camp was only the first indication that I am not cut out for large groups of anything. I am fine at cocktail parties, but they are work for me. Volunteering for field trips when my kids were in school was an act of pure love. I will never know the joy of Black Friday that some people get all breathless about.

I’m a person who needs down time, and the older I get the more I seem to thrive on it. I’m a person who opens my front door at the end of the day, takes a deep breath, and loves the idea that I don’t have to talk to another person until the morning. Being alone for part of Wednesday is what fuels me for Thursday.

Thanks to camp, I was able to make two life decisions. I knew at my core that I would never become a member of a cult. They usually have to eat in dining halls, too. And I believe there may be chanting involved. Maybe about spirit and who has more of it.

I also figured out that my personality wouldn’t be in sync with the prison experience. So I’ve always tried to make sure that’s not an option.

So no surprise that you’ll never find me searching the Internet for a group of tortured souls in Colorado who have found bliss by eating radishes for breakfast and worshiping Zeus. I’ll continue to stay on the sunny side of the law, too.

If anyone wonders why, it’s because of what I learned. At 23. At camp.

13 Things I Once Heard (And Believed)

1. “Girls shouldn’t do that.”

2. “The Dave Clark Five are better than the Beatles.”

Dave Clark Five

3. “A tiny bit can’t hurt.”

4. “You look terrific!”

haircut

5. “It’s not you. It’s me.”

6. “Relax. Nobody’s gonna vote for Nixon.”

nixon

7. “If you breathe correctly, childbirth is not painful.”

8. “You’re the best mother in the whole world!”

9. “You’re the worst mother. Ever. Of all the mothers in the world.”

10. “I guarantee you’ll fall in love with running the way I have.”

running

11. “Buy it. It’ll make you happy.”

12. “You’ll get over it. Just give it time.”

13. “You look good in pink.” (This one actually turned out to be true.)

When Surf Was Up on Long Island

High school Study Hall. Is there such a thing anymore? I’m guessing no, but I feel too outmoded to ask anyone. The other day I was talking to my college-aged niece, who asked for advice on a paper she was writing. I suggested she look at the microfiche files in the library. Her head tilted. I could see by her baffled look I had — once again — forgotten what century we’re in. I’d rather not feel that way twice in one month.

So for those of you who may have missed it, Study Hall was a period built into your schedule when you were supposed to crack open those books and get to it. As far as I could ever see, it was split right down gender lines. For boys, it was a chance to put their heads down on the cafeteria table and close their eyes until the teacher patrolling the room poked their backs and said, “Sit up straight!” Girls were better at using the time wisely. We spent a solid 45 minutes passing notes. And again, for those of you who may have been born after Richard Nixon resigned, passing notes was texting with paper. Slower but with better spelling.

And if you don’t know who Nixon was, I can’t help you.

Brenda and I sat across from each other, experts at writing quickly, then folding the sheet of notebook paper into a tight white triangle. When the teacher was looking the other way, we flicked the note across the table. As I recall, there was always a lot of punctuation involved in our notes. And lots of P.S. messages at the bottom.

In Study Hall one afternoon, Brenda shot me the first note of the period, and it came with exciting news: “Richie Valenti asked me out!!!” We didn’t know much about Richie Valenti, but the sketchy facts we did have were exciting. He lived on the water in the section of Massapequa called Bar Harbor, where all the cool rich kids lived. And he was a surfer, hence three exclamation points. Hyperbole was required with surfers.

Richie Valenti had all of the surfer prerequisites, while most boys had two or three. He owned his own board. He had a wardrobe of madras and sandals. He was blond and he drove a Mustang convertible.

Looking back, I think the part about actually balancing on a giant piece of fiberglass in the ocean might have been optional. Maybe surfing on Long Island was the beginning of my generation being all full of ourselves and trying to educate our dowdy parents with a universal truth we had discovered: Appearance is everything.

Gilgo Beach Inn

Since I didn’t have boyfriends of my own back then, I made it my business to take Brenda’s very seriously. Lucky for me, Richie invited Brenda to Gilgo Beach often to watch him surf, but her mother insisted I go along, too, because there were bikinis involved, and it made her nervous. The ocean still made me a little nervous, too. As a teenager, I went back to barely attempted standing in the ocean beyond my ankles. I was fearful what I’d witnessed happen to Susie Patterson’s bikini top in the rough waves would happen to me, and then I would have to move to a different state.

This much I will say for Richie’s timing. It was impeccable. Every single time, just as we arrived, he would manage to be wet and running out of the surf. He’d stick his board in the sand, slightly out of breath as if he’d just finished conquering the Bonzai Pipeline. Then he’d take a long time to shake the salt water out of his long blond hair. For the entire summer, we never actually saw him do more than that. But our adoration never faltered.

I’ve always hoped he found his way into advertising.