Saturday, May 23, 2009


Parents: I don’t know about you, but deciding where to send my kids for summer camp had to have been easier for my folks than it’s been for me.

There was the Jewish camp or the very Jewish camp. I started out at the former and ended up at the latter.

Today, there are so many choices it’s not funny.

When I was a kid at camp, there was sailing and fishing and hiking and all kinds of sports and campfires and singing and, yep, more singing. Now there are camps not just for music or for sports, but for particular kinds of music and sports.

It seems that everywhere I turn, some establishment is offering up some kind of camp. Every school’s gotten into the year-round enrollment for kids by calling their summer school “camp.” (Some of us are sending our little ones to the same place they’ve been going all year, but now we’re supposed to call it “camp.”)

I’m sure that other establishments with an entrepreneurial eye will catch on soon enough, too. I’m just waiting for supermarkets to start their own camp. I can see it now. After we drop our kids off at produce, they can learn how to hang off the carriage without falling; or learn how to ice cakes and slice cold cuts and scan items and, of course, for sports, run the aisles.

Every nail salon can have a camp for manicuring, or how about a camp that tilts more ethnic — Taco Bell offering burrito preparation?

When I was a kid, camps built character. Today, we shouldn’t let political correctness get in the way of business and profiteers joining in the camp craze. Why not have camps reflect our society in all its forms?

Let’s see who really has the bucks to fund all the fun at a camp. How about gas station camp — Camp Texaco? Kids can learn how to pump petrol, proper squeegee techniques, check oil and tire pressure, and all with a convenience counter at arm’s length, which offers hot dogs and Krispy Kreme Donuts and drinks right from the soda fountain.

When I was a kid, camp was about playing outside, exercising, swimming and baseball. Today, like everything else in life, camp is so specialized and focused around a few trees that we parents don’t even realize that our kids are missing the forest.

After searching in vain, most of what we find is the race toward specialization, now deemed so necessary to succeed in adult life, papier-maché-ed onto our children’s lives.

As a kid, I probably learned more about life in two months at camp than in the entire school year. A universe of experiences, along with great counselors (heroes I could look up to) and friends with whom I now Facebook, helped give me that gift.

After searching desperately in the back of parenting magazines, now, finally, we hope we discovered the lost land of our own past.

Desperately seeking summer, I’m at the edge of the ground where the spirits of camp past once lived. Hopefully — standing where the long road begins as I wave goodbye while sending them off on their first overnight experience — they will capture the flag that once flew for me.

It will be hard, as in the back of my mind I’ll be sure to hear the immortal lyrics of Allan Sherman’s ditty, “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh. Take me home, oh muddah, fadduh. Take me home.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Book Review - The Missing Person

The great Neil Simon once wrote that words with a “k” in it are funny. While I’m quite sure he didn’t have Kafka in mind, it’s surprisingly ironic that the master of existential anguish also displays an amazing degree of humor throughout this, his first major novel which he began working on in 1912.

With a new translation based on a restored text by Mark Harmon and published by Shocken, it’s a work that foreshadowed his later novels, which are filled with a series of strange and psychologically peculiar personal encounters.

Where it differs, is in the protagonist, Karl Rossman. Unlike Joseph K. in The Trial or K in The Castle, Karl possesses an innocent naivety that gives him a picaresque desire to get up, dust himself off and continue onward in his American quest. But Kafka never actually saw America and this rendition is an imagined expedition. Still, it’s a journey that, unlike his other work, ends on a theme of, well, optimism. Interestingly, one of Kafka’s key sources for American culture was Benjamin Franklin’s uplifting, can-do, and spirited autobiography.

Structurally Kafka’s tale is written in long, continuous paragraphs that don’t give the reader a chance to catch their breath. It is this trajectory that lends a sense of existential thrownness that steers Karl forward adding to a spiraling momentum that continuously lands him into one tense scene after another.

No incident demonstrates this more than when he is being forced to become a servant to Brunelda (an obese woman who puts one in mind of Shirley Stoler’s commandant character in Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties.)

Originally titled The Missing Person, Amerika was published posthumously in 1927, three years after the author’s death. But it was his good friend and executor, Max Brod who renamed it, branding it with the ominous “k” letter. That sense of “Kafkaesque” doom is captured in the very first paragraph, when Karl sails into New York harbor and sees the Statue of Liberty brandishing a sword, instead of a torch.

This latest version aims to provide the reader with an original understanding of Kafka, by omitting many of Brod’s alterations by infusing the story with a closer rendition of the original literal title's translation of Der Verschollene or The Man Who Disappeared.

Because the latter chapters are fragmentary, this translation provides a feeling of literary archaeology. And while incomplete, the ending describes Karl’s joy in encountering the Theater of Oklahoma along with a magnificent train ride.

With its wide-open landscape, we envision a new beginning--the perfect setting to start on a new understanding of Mr. Kafka.