Thursday, July 12, 2012

What I did in the Summer of 2007

             The ocean is a hundred yards away, just as it said on the campsite’s website.  I glance over at the crashing waves, wishing we were done with the tent nonsense and already burying our toes in wet sand.  Our two sons sit on a log staring at Daddy who attempts to connect two poles over his head.  He’s been at this an hour and tent parts still litter the ground. 
“That’s one long one and one short one,” I say to him.  “I think the poles that connect have to be the same length.”
“This is the door, Brett.  So it’s a longer pole than the others,” says Pat in a voice full of suppressed rage. “The directions say to insert this pole first.  Then the others will pop into place.”
“I think that’s the middle pole.  The one that holds up the roof.”
Pat lets out a groan that’s louder than the ocean, “If you would take a minute to look at the directions, you’d see that the roof pole is the one that the boys were playing with earlier.”
We both throw a glance to the boys who look back at us blankly.
“Where’s that pole?” Pat asks them.
Spence, the seven-year-old shrugs.  Murphy, the three-year-old says, “What pole?”
Pat drops the poles he’s been wrestling with and walks over the gravely road.  He looks down the road and mumbles something. 
“What’s Daddy saying?” asks Murphy.
“I don’t think he wants us to hear what he’s saying,” I say.  “Let’s find that bendy pole and Daddy will feel better.” 
The boys and I look around a couple of trees and find the pole pretty quickly.
“Found it,” I yell to Pat, who doesn’t turn immediately.  He continues looking down the road like it’s viable option.  After a moment of nothing but the sound of waves, his back straightens and he walks back toward us purposefully, “You guys go to the beach.  I’ll put up the tent.”
“Are you sure?” I say, hoping he is.
The boys and I grab our buckets and shovels and head out to the beach.  Three hours later, Pat joins us looking beleaguered but triumphant, “It’s up.  We just can’t unzip the window or the tent will expand and fall over.”

             A month later, the bones of the tent are laid out in our backyard. I’ve decided I need a tutorial since I’m taking it on a “women and children only” camping weekend. 
“Lay out poles to insert in sleeves,” Pat says, reading the directions.  I’ve glanced at the same directions and they are indecipherable to me, like encrypted directions to an undiscovered Anglo-Saxon Burial Mound.
            “What poles, Pat?” I say.  “There are long ones, short ones, and the two bendy ones.” 
            Murph lets out a scream of frustration.  Apparently, Spence took one of the tent pegs he was using as a rocket ship.
“Spence give it back,” I say.
Spence pitches it at Murph’s feet.  Normally I’d take him to task. But I can’t afford the digression.  All my attention must be on the tent.
            “Now I’m going to write this on the directions,” says Pat, taking out a pencil and writing on the worn paper.  “Short poles first.”
             Pat’s penciled clarification is useless to me and he knows it. But he persists, as all spouses do, with the hope that one day his mate will wake up and decide to change her most annoying trait.  In my case, the trait has no name -- I shut down when I look at a set of instructions.  I start to hyperventilate when a cashier at the drug store hands me a rewards card application to fill-out.  I’ve been known to giggle and cry when faced with a long form at the doctor’s office.  I perceive instructions to be a test I have failed long before I put pen to paper or fingers to the keypad.  The result of this phobia is that I cannot assemble anything, cook anything, or apply for anything by looking at instructions.  I need to be told and shown how to do it two, maybe three, times. 
               It takes an hour for Pat to take me through all the steps.  It takes another fifteen minutes for him to repeat the steps a couple more times.  After I am confident that I understand the tent, we all high five each other and stand back to look at it. 
               “Then there’s the rain cover,” Pat says, waving a piece of fabric that clips over the net roof, to keep out rain, dew, and wind.  “That’s the easy part.  We don’t have to do that now. Just strap it on like the picture on the front of the tent bag.” 

                 At the Big Sur Campgrounds, the moms and the kids are impressed when I’m the first to erect my tent, pretty much single handedly.  Spence and Murph half-heartedly attempted to fulfill their peg job, but gave up when the ground proved too hard for their lackadaisical pounding.  Never mind. I’m feeling positively macho about having assembled the tent.  I don’t even care that it lists to one side and the door is blocked by a boulder that we’ll have to scootch around when getting in and out.  The point is that I assembled something.  From an intimidated non-assembler, this is a seminal moment.  It is also notable because the boys have seen me do a job that would typically be Daddy’s.  I look into their eyes for recognition of this fact. 
                “Nice job, Mommy,” says Spence, in a more casual tone than I had hoped for.  “Can we get in now?”
                “Just let me get this rain cover on,” I say confidently.  I look at the picture on the tent bag.  The rain cover is diaper shaped with stretchy straps on each corner.
                 I slide the rain-cover over the top and stretch one strap down to a key at the bottom of the tent. When I move to anchor the other side, the strap won’t stretch that far and I find that the position of the rain-cover leaves half the tent uncovered.  All right, it’s on backwards, I think.  I turn it around, and make another attempt.  It’s a tiny bit better, but when I stretch the second strap is zings loose, stinging me in the elbow.  I stifle an invective. 
                   After forty minutes of more zinging straps and increasingly audible invectives, I’m no further along.  How could Pat have thought that this part was so simple?  By this time, the other mothers have moved luggage into their tents and poured wine into jars, brought to serve as glasses. 
                Cathy brings me over a jar of wine, “Let’s take a look.”  She glances at the front of the tent bag and shifts the rain cover.  No luck. 
                “Let’s look at the directions,” she says.
                 I hand them to her. 
                 “These are indecipherable,” she announces.
                  YOU SEE, I think, feeling vindicated, even though I’ve barely glanced at them.  The sisterhood gathers around with their jars to collaborate as the kids zip through the other tents.  Twenty minutes of a collective attempt bears fruit when I notice that the logo of the tentmaker is shown on the front of the tent in the picture.  Cathy finds fabric loops half way down the sides of the tent, Paula moves a tent pole in making the roof area smaller, and Mo stands back to direct the whole enterprise.  
                   That evening, as the campfire casts shadows on our tents, we tell stories and roast marshmallows.  I glance over at my tent and congratulate myself for resisting my initial impulse to throw up my hands and walk away from it.  I have given these jobs over to Pat through the years because of our differing skill sets and also out of laziness.  But in doing so, I realize that I have robbed myself of the sweet satisfaction of succeeding against my own odds.  
                   I look back at the other mothers’ faces glowing in the firelight, reminding myself that it also doesn’t hurt to know when to accept a little help from your friends.
Murphy and Spencer asleep that summer in the tent that Mommy and her friends built.


  1. Brett, great post! I took Calvin camping by myself this year and was looking forward to the satisfaction of setting up the tent myself, but the older Cub Scouts insisted on building it for me, and I couldn't rob them of that great feeling of accomplishment!

    You're a great Mom and a great writer!

  2. Brett,

    Great post. Makes me almost want to go camping ... at the Four Seasons. Seriously, what a great sense of accomplishment to do that on your own. I am lucky if I can put together an IKEA bookshelf, or spice rack. Or open a can of tuna.

    I am a new follower of your blog, but I have read your book and loved it.

    I will be back to catch up on your archives!