Happy Birthday to Me: Camp Pooparazzi

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

Mos Eisley Spaceport: You’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy…or a more kickass birthday present for an 11-year-old!

After a week at camp...Mos Eisley Spaceport Cantina, where the droids wait outside.

After a week at camp…Mos Eisley Spaceport Cantina, where the droids wait outside.

There’s probably a photo somewhere of this Mos Eisley Cantina playset (and, yes, nerds, that is a blue Snaggletooth figure in there) with me posed proudly behind it. I was going to joke that my mom took the picture of the playset without me because she got tired of waiting for me to get out of the bathroom. You see, I had been at Outdoor School for the previous week and was emptying my bowels of a week’s worth—well, five-ish days worth—of camp food, over the course of several emergency trips to the bathroom.

TMI? Well wait, there’s more.

Anyway, I was going to joke about my absence from the picture, but the truth is, my mom was really cool about letting me stage a scene with my new toy and take a picture of it. Keep in mind that this was back in the days of film rolls, which were a bit spendy to buy and to print, and with no guarantee that the pictures were going to turn out. You couldn’t just delete the file and take another. No, you snapped those precious pictures carefully, over the space of however long it took to complete a roll of 20 or so pictures, then popped the roll out of the camera, took it to the store and waited days for the lab to process them. The stamp on the back of the photo shows that it didn’t get developed until April of the following year.  And, as you can see, I didn’t quite get the focus right.

Don’t get me wrong. The story of the excessive time in the bathroom is true. As I said, it was the week of Outdoor School at Camp Yamhill—meaning I had been away from home on my actual birthday, which fell on a Thursday that year. They brought us home on Friday.

Outdoor School was ostensibly to get 6th graders out into the wild to learn about the miracles of nature all around us—although I can’t remember a single part of the curriculum, aside from a lesson on erosion.  The lesson was memorable to me for what we didn’t learn, or, perhaps for how we didn’t learn it.  the camp counselor took us out on a hike, stopped along the trail by a fairly steep embankment that rose up and away from us, and then emptied some water out of a cup onto the embankment. The small group I was with had no idea what the counselor was getting at by showing us this.  And he got really annoyed when one of our group asked if he could show us again—because the counselor had already emptied all the water out of the smallish drinking cup he’d carried all the way out to this point on the trail.

Being something of a teacher’s-pet-type, I really wanted to be able to answer the counselor’s questions. But also being of a perfectionistic bent, I didn’t want to offer up mere guesses that may have been wrong. I finally said something, in response to him asking me a direct question. That led to him asking me follow-up questions. But I just didn’t know the answers. I hadn’t read up on erosion prior to the hike, and wasn’t particularly familiar with the concerns involved. Ultimately, exasperated at our lack of inquisitiveness and inability to follow the lesson as he presented it, the counselor just told us the answers we would need to fill out the worksheet on erosion that we had brought along in our camp folders.

To be sure, I have scads of memories of the week—just not about the stuff we were sent out there to learn.

For instance, there was the terrifying moment when, during dinner one night, they announced the birthday girls and boys for the week. Those few of us were supposed to go up to the front of the dining hall and stand there while the rest of the campers sang “Happy Birthday.”

I froze, despite the heat of a deep blush rising in my face.

Painfully shy, even around most of my own classmates, we were at camp with sixth graders from multiple schools—people I had never met before, and would experience only for a few short days, and in a largely cursory manner. My tablemates urged me to go bask in the attention. One of the female counselors came around in an effort to weed out the birthday campers. But the counselor from my own cabin, who went by the name “Lightning”—a name I had previously associated with a horse from Nebraska—quietly waved her away and shot a look at my tablemates, with the message to leave me be. I was immensely grateful in that moment—until a sense of regret crept in at my deliberate avoidance of what was supposed to be a fun and kind gesture by the camp organizers.

But there were plenty of things I dove right into.  We made “hobo stoves”—unthinkably unsafe tin-snipped coffee cans, with cardboard tightly rolled into tuna cans and set ablaze—to cook hamburger patties.

There were the camp crafts, and camp games—and, hey trendsetters with more energy than me, if there aren’t already adult Capture the Flag leagues, somebody needs to get on that.

And then there was Alan—a camper from another school who landed in the same cabin I was assigned—the mighty brown pelicans (all the cabins were named after endangered species)—and who almost immediately got into an argument with one of my classmates. That escalated into a physical fight by Tuesday, which resulted in a cabin-transfer for Alan. The loyalty of sixth-grade boys being what it is, I, of course, painted Alan as the villain in the situation. But regardless of my perceived need to choose sides, it was alarming and confusing for me to see two complete strangers develop such an immediate and intense animosity for one another, over essentially nothing, and hang onto it with such energy.

There were the camp sing-alongs including the camp theme song, which, as far as I remember, consisted solely of repeating “Camp Yamhill” over and over again at varied rhythms and pitches.

In perhaps the ultimate shot at provoking horrible embarrassment in the campers, each cabin group had to take turns performing skits on different days. We, the brown pelicans, did a skit so profound and accomplished that I can’t remember a single thing about it—aside from various cabin members arguing about the details of the skit until the absolute last minute—details still undecided as we took the stage in a swirl of hushed, urgent, and contradictory orders given by multiple self-appointed artistic directors. ‘Thank God,’ I thought, ‘we are not being graded on this.’

And there were the campfires each night—where I frequently caught myself staring through the darkness at one or the other of two crushes, there faces illuminated by the yellow-orange light of the fire, as acoustic-guitar-toting counselors led us in songs. I’m guessing we sang classic rowboat songs, like “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” and rounds of “Row Row Row Your Boat.” But the song we sang at camp that stuck with me most as I reached the landmark of wisdom that is age 11, was Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game.” A counselor or two would sing the various verses, campers joining in on the chorus:

“And the seasons they go round and round

And the painted ponies go up and down

We’re captive on the carousel of time

We can’t return we can only look

Behind from where we came

And go round and round and round

In the circle game”

…which would be a lovely and poignant place to end this post if I didn’t feel obligated to point out that, not actually knowing the title of the song, or the correct words, for years I sang that last line as “The circle again” as well as substituting “captured” for “captive.”

Also, I still haven’t explained that bathroom situation.

So, on the first day of camp, shortly after arriving and heading up the hill to get settled in our assigned cabins, I walked across the open space to the communal bathroom. Multiple other boys were cycling in and out. I procured a stall and began to relieve myself. A sudden commotion interrupted the peace of my flow, as an eruption of shouting, laughing, and the banging and slamming of the (lockless) door rocked the stall adjacent to mine.

From the various yells, I quickly discerned that a classmate—the occupant of the next stall over—was now the subject of a sneak-attack photo.  The horror!  Captured on film in the act of pooping!

At that very moment, already wary of having to use public restrooms as a general rule, and arguably allergic to the very thought of actually sitting on a public toilet, my sphincter closed itself off to business for the remainder of the week, lest any other bathroom paparazzi (pooparazzi?) turn up.

Now, the human body can do some amazing things, especially when prompted by fear. I have no recollection of feeling any ill effects over my defecation-avoidance scheme. It’s possible I may have made my way to the toilets once or twice during low-traffic times. Being a teacher’s-pet-type generally meant an absence of suspicion when requesting to use the bathroom.

Still, I was way off of any regular routine I may have had, so much so that by the time I made it back home, despite my tremendous joy and excitement at receiving the Mos Eisley Cantina playset, what may have been the best gift that year–well, for at least a few hours–was immediate access to a full bathroom, complete with a locked door, as my sphincter re-opened for business with an hours-long, albeit sporadic, inventory liquidation.

Ahh…memories.

Advertisements

Dad’s Grave

by J.C. Schildbach, MA, LMHC, ASOTP, Preacher’s Kid

The Summer of 1977 is forever burned into my brain as a collection of hallowed moments experienced while on a cross-country, family car trip in a Pine-Green Chevy Impala Station Wagon: Seeing a lightning storm roll toward St. Louis from the top of the Gateway Arch, enjoying a traditional Chinese wedding banquet in San Francisco, swimming in Lake Michigan, watching “Star Wars” at a theater in Chicago when we were unable to procure tickets to the King Tut exhibit. (As a decades-long fan of the movie, it pains me to note that I nodded off sometime after the scene of R2-D2’s capture, later jarring awake to the battle cry of a Tusken Raider).

There were days-long visits to farms in communities we had lived in before I was old enough to remember, where I got to ride a horse for the first time, play in a rubber raft in a flooded cornfield, and experience the frightening speed of an angry mother pig as a newfound friend and I were made to race it to the fence of its pen after said friend pelted the sow with a dried-out corn cob. There was the morning I inadvertently released the inmates of a henhouse as I made a rather misguided effort to helpfully gather the eggs before breakfast, and the wonder of first experiencing the Beach Boys’ “Endless Summer” surf anthems from a landlocked farm community in the midwest.

Somewhat more mundane moments have stuck with me as well—attending a Saturday night church service in Sheboygan; staying up late to watch “Sssssss” on TV on a rainy night in Independence, Missouri; settling into the perfect stereo situation in the back seat of the Impala as my brothers played Blue Oyster Cult’s “Agents of Fortune” on the car’s cassette deck—“This ain’t the Garden of Eden,” indeed.

But there was one great disappointment in the whole epic adventure: the trip to my father’s grave in a small town in Nebraska. The victim of a stop-sign-running driver, and the shoddy engineering of the late-60s AMC vehicle he was driving, my father, the local Missouri Synod Lutheran minister, lost his life in the late summer of 1971. I am writing and posting this on the 43rd anniversary of that unhappy day—a day I was too young to remember or properly process—a day that gave birth to the attachment issues referenced in the subtitle of this blog.

Pops at 21...on his way to change the world.

Pops at 21…on his way to change the world.

The occasion, for me, was already lacking the appropriate sense of solemnity, with the shouting from a baseball game just across the road filling the bright, evening air. Things seemed even further amiss as we headed in the direction of…well, what seemed to be nothing.

Where was the towering monument? The magnificent marble Pieta? Or at least a moderately ornate cross?

Being a big fan of horror movies, and fascinated with the ornamentation and mythology of the church, I had built up the idea in my mind that my father’s grave would be marked by something appropriate to his stature as an important religious leader. My ideas were perhaps weirdly informed by my recent reading of Scott Corbett’s “Here Lies the Body”—a story set in a graveyard, and involving a massive grave marker with a statue of a pointing, judgmental angel—not to mention occult symbols scrawled in blood, and a murder mystery. On top of that, to pass the time on the drive from state to state, I had also read and re-read a book of “real life monsters,” which included stories of Vlad Dracula, and Haitian zombification procedures.

So when I saw the flat, drab grave marker, I wouldn’t say my heart exactly sunk, but my 8-year-old mind certainly underwent some shifts in its understanding of the world–shifts I filed away for later examination.

A little over a decade later, when I bought a copy of Tom Waits’ “Blue Valentine” album, and heard the song “A Sweet Little Bullet from a Pretty Blue Gun” (about the 1977 suicide of a 15-year-old girl who jumped from the 17th story of a Hollywood hotel with her guitar) which contains the line, “Nebraska never lets you come back home,” that scene of my father’s grave came back to me, despite not having given it much thought at all in the interim.

The passage of time, and hopefully the acquisition of some tiny bit of maturity, led me to reassess the precise meaning of my father’s grave. I realized that that grave marker wasn’t about his importance in the world, or his stature in a small Nebraska town. It was just some sign, marking the place where the material–or perhaps more preciseley, the matter-bound–part of his existence was left. His influence, his importance, extends way beyond that little concrete or stone marker.

My father’s influence in the communities he served extends to this day, in part through the connections my family made in those communities.  His impact, which, combined with the hard work and diligence of my mother, who raised five sons and a daughter in the years after my father’s passing, extends out into the world in myriad ways, through the hard work and community involvement of all of my siblings and their children—all in their own ways striving to make the world a more humane place.

For my own part, struggling to understand my father’s path in life before it was cut short, and trying to find my connection to it, has been a lifelong endeavor. And while I may have, at times, viewed my father and his life in weirdly iconic terms—iconic in the sense of symbols, signs, and signals to the outside world—I now view it as iconic in the sense of legitimate meaning and influence, the ability to impact the world positively by being a decent person…the same sort of influence I can only hope to emulate.

Happy death day, pops!

I WAS A MERCENARY IN THE WAR ON CHRISTMAS

I fired the missiles at the exhaust port then yanked on the reins of the goats that were pulling my sleigh, steering them up and away from the trench (goats being the sleigh-pullers of choice due to their magic-corn-induced ability to fly in space, not because of their association with certain dark lords).  They flew hard, keeping us just inches ahead of the debris from the explosion of the Christmas Star.  It was a direct hit!  We had destroyed the Christmas Star!

We knew it was just one battle—a minor setback for an enormous holiday—that another star would almost certainly be built.  But, still, we flew back to our secret outpost and had a ridiculously ornate awards ceremony at an ancient, abandoned, pagan temple.  As the Princess slipped a medal around my neck, I swelled with pride.  I thought, “Take that, Christmas!!”

* * *

Many years have passed since that first assault on the Christmas Star.  I won’t detail all that has happened in the time since, only say that I am a changed man.  Now my days of rebellion are behind me.  Still, ever a mercenary at heart, it only makes sense to go where the money is.  And the real money is on the side of Christmas.

Plus, all I have to do on this side of the war is sit around and whine and complain that people are attacking Christmas, despite the fact that it is ever-present from early October until sometime in January.  But as a white, American male, that is my birthright—to complain that traditional values are coming under attack, just because there are people in this county who don’t do the things that I do, and fail to honor my traditions while I berate theirs.

Take that, Christmas, indeed.

Relaxation for Nerds Part One: A Carbon-Thawing-Based Stress Reducer

Ideally, therapy will involve a component of providing clients with new tactics for addressing everyday difficulties. For example, one way to get clients to develop skills in the area of anxiety management is to walk them through a relaxation exercise, maybe even aiding them in creating or recording one that works well for them. While doing my practicum, my supervisor had me create a stress-reduction ‘scenario’ of my own and present it to a very high-anxiety client.

Now, while the relaxation exercise I actually used in session had to do with the client feeling warmth spread through his body, thawing ice/tension in his veins, it actually came to me first as a relaxation exercise that I didn’t dare do. For the original relaxation exercise involved a certain space pirate emerging from a block of carbonite, inside a desert palace (carefully avoiding overly-specific references that might result in cease-and-desist letters from the lawyers of a certain film director who is still apparently cheesed off about those pirated copies of a certain 1978 ‘Life Day’ Holiday Special that frequently pop up on eBay). And, hey, for any of you overly-ambitious types who want to turn this into a full-blown relaxation video production suitable for YouTube, I’ve been told I have a voice that’s made for radio…or was that a face for radio? Both?

Anyway, it goes a little bit like this…

Close your eyes.

(We start with deep breathing, so sit comfortably in an upright position feet flat on the floor, arms resting on your lap or the arms of the chair. Now breathe in slowly through your nose. Take in a deep breath, all the way into the trunk of your body. You want your trunk to expand. You want to breathe from your diaphragm. You want to do some belly breathing. When your diaphragm has expanded with the air to its maximum stretching point, pause for a few seconds, then breathe out through your mouth, slowly and deliberately. Try to make the count of your breath out match the count of your breath in. Do a slow count as you take in air through your nose, expanding your belly…four, five, six, seven. Your breathing is at capacity. Pause, two, three four. Now breathe out…four, five, six, seven. Continue your breathing in this fashion, aware of the feeling of calm it brings.)

Everything is darkness, and silence, and immobility. In fact, you cannot remember the last time you saw daylight, the last time you heard anything other than the faintest, muffled sounds. You cannot remember the last time you were able to move, to stretch. You realize that this lifelessness, along with the negative feelings it brings, the fear and anxiety, are all the result of your inability to move, to experience the world around you. But you still feel your calm, measured breathing. You still feel a sense of hope…a new hope?

You have a vague sensation that you are in an awkward, standing position, as with your hands up in front of your chest. But you cannot move. Still, this realization of frozenness brings awareness, and this awareness brings with it the possibility of movement.

You have the briefest sensation that you are falling, and feel a slight, jarring in the solid material around you. And then all is silence and darkness again, but you feel a change.

As you continue your deliberate, measured breathing, a slow warmth starts to expand near your forehead. The warmth spreads slowly down your face. You feel as though your head is no longer pinned in one place, that you can move it ever-so-slightly. You feel the stiffness begin to fade from your head and neck. Along with the warmth, you begin to take in other sensations. Your eyes are registering light, even if only a little. There is a reddish light to the transformation that is freeing you. The confined space begins to give way to open air.

Another wave of warmth begins in your fingertips and spreads over your hands, up your arms, to your elbows, your biceps. The warmth moving down from your forehead meets the warmth climbing up your arms at your shoulders. You feel the tension melting out of your facial muscles, out of your neck, out of your shoulders, arms, and hands.

The warmth spreads down your chest and your breathing becomes easier, deeper. The warmth envelops your torso, trunk, your hips, your buttocks, your groin, your thighs.

Your senses are still overwhelmed by the chemical changes, and mechanical whirring around you. But soon, smells other than the faint chemical burning start to reach your nose, smells of desert air, of stale but fragrant smoke, exotic fruits, odd beasts.

As the warmth reaches down past your knees, releasing the tension in your calves, your ankles, your feet, you feel a sense of being freed. And you recognize in amongst the smells reaching you, something familiar, intimately familiar. As the tension, and the binding solidness melts away, you feel no fear, even as you realize you begin to fall. For that familiar smell that reaches you is the smell of security, the smell of one who will not let you fall, of one who will catch you, the smell, the words, the touch all grip you at the same time…the smell, and clutch, and declaration of “someone who loves you.”