Cabin Pressure: One Man's Desperate Attempt to Recapture His Youth as a Camp Counselor


What happens when a grown man returns to the site of his fondest childhood memories? A wry, clear-eyed, and laugh-out-loud look at the transition to adulthood.

Three months before getting married at age thirty-four, Josh Wolk decides to treat himself to a "farewell to childhood" extravaganza: one last summer working at the beloved Maine boys camp where he spent most of the eighties. And there he finds out that there's no better way to see how ...

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What happens when a grown man returns to the site of his fondest childhood memories? A wry, clear-eyed, and laugh-out-loud look at the transition to adulthood.

Three months before getting married at age thirty-four, Josh Wolk decides to treat himself to a "farewell to childhood" extravaganza: one last summer working at the beloved Maine boys camp where he spent most of the eighties. And there he finds out that there's no better way to see how much you've changed than to revisit a place that hasn't changed at all.

In these eight hilarious, uncomfortable, enlightening weeks, Josh readjusts to life teaching swimming and balancing on a thin metal cot in a cabin of shouting, wrestling, wet-willie-dispensing fourteen-year-olds who, contrary to the warnings of doomsaying sociologists, he finds indistinguishable from the rowdy fourteen-year-olds of his day in any way other than their haircuts. With his old camp friends gone, he finds himself working alongside guys who used to be his campers. Moments of feeling cripplingly old are offset by the corrosive insecurities of his youth when he's paired in the cabin with Mitch, the forty-two-year-old jack-of-all-extreme-sports whose machismo intimidated Josh so much fifteen years earlier, and whom their current campers idolize. And throughout all this disorienting regression, Josh's telephone conversations with his fiance, Christine, grow increasingly intense as their often-comical discussions over the wedding become a flimsy cover for her worries that he's not ready to relinquish his death-grip on the comforts of the past.

A hilarious and insightful look at the tenacious power of nostalgia, the glory of childhood, and the nervous excitement of taking a leap to the next unknown stage in life, Cabin Pressure will appeal to anyone who's ever been young, wishes he was young again, but knows deep down it probably isnt a good idea.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Wolk bids adieu to carefree living by returning one last time to summer camp before he gets married. In his account of his eight-week stint as a counselor at Camp Eastwind in Maine, he takes the reader on a romp through male adolescence, which, for Wolk, has retained an archetypal purity. Through the humor ("apoopeatersayswhat?"), the diving board games ("arrrgh, ya got me!"), the smell ("a mixture of feet, old olive loaf and an un–air-conditioned morgue"), he captures the essence of the male teenager with tender, wistful insight. The book evokes in the reader the same nostalgia for camp—and even adolescence—that Wolk feels as he anticipates his return to Eastwind. What propels the memoir, though, is Wolk's frank description of his own re-emerging insecurities inherent to his adolescent self. When he receives a tepid reception from the other counselors, for instance, he calls his fiancée and expresses his reservations about his plan, sounding like a homesick camper calling home. Then there is Mitch, the "action-sport junky" counselor from Wolk's youth, creating the perfect balance between tension and fun-loving innocence: Wolk's domination over his campers in backgammon just cannot compare to Mitch's speedboat rides. But Wolk undergoes a significant transformation, leaving behind his adolescent misconceptions about manhood and re-entering the world on his own terms. (June)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
In his first book, Entertainment Weekly senior writer Wolk chronicles his return to his old summer camp as a counselor the summer before his marriage. Wolk writes with passion of bug-filled nights and the odor of mildewed clothes. At 34, while his betrothed plans their wedding, Wolk runs away for a final summer at the boys' camp in Maine that he attended as a kid. There he herds 14-year-old boys through the rituals of swimming, archery lessons and the fine art of bonding through mutually administered insults. Nostalgic to the extreme, Wolk starts out the summer in a near-trance, remembering all the great times at camp from his childhood. It's not long before joy begins to fade, as Wolk dredges up some less pleasant memories, especially those involving Mitch, a bullying hyper-jock who's also back as an elder counselor. Wolk also starts to doubt his ability to relate to boys two decades younger, settling for gently razzing them and giving everybody nicknames ("Action," "The Fog," "Patrioticus") that they proudly accept. By the end of the summer, bonds have been formed and lessons learned, though rarely in the expected cinematic manner ("I'd miss them. Less so on rainy days, though"). A genial writer, Wolk can overstate his point, but he's never afraid to highlight his general cluelessness. An entertainingly meandering trail toward self-discovery that's in little hurry to get anywhere.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781401302603
  • Publisher: Hyperion
  • Publication date: 5/30/2007
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.75 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Josh Wolk is a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly where he writes about pop culture and television. His work has appeared in The New York Times, the Boston Globe, Time Out New York, Sports Illustrated, and Golf. He received his masters in journalism at Columbia University. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and their daughter. This is his first book.

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Read an Excerpt


By Josh Wolk


Copyright © 2007 Josh Wolk
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4013-0260-3

Chapter One

EVER SINCE I MOVED TO NEW YORK CITY IN 1991 AFTER GRADUATING FROM college, the word "summer" lost all of its verve. Manhattan is many things-vibrant, thrilling, propulsive-but it most certainly is not a summer paradise. It isn't all New York's fault: Most adults have to come to terms with the fact that summer is no longer an extended vacation. But the city rubs it in your face. The giant skyscrapers lean over you, daring you to just try to get a glimpse of nature. The only oasis is Central Park, but as you squeeze in on weekends to claim a little patch of lawn, the buildings still loom around the edges like sentries; you and your fellow parkgoers are the prisoners who have been given a couple hours out in the "yard." Just try to swim in a pond and you'll be shot on sight. I resented everyone's forced exuberance as they trekked from their tiny apartments to convene in the park. It wasn't a real summer; we were just playing summer, the way you played doctor or post office as a kid.

Through eleven years of working in the city in television production and then in magazines, each summer I devoted at least fifteen minutes a day to closing my eyes and drifting into a reverie about the place that best idealized what a summer should be: Camp Eastwind. From 1980 to 1988, as a camper and counselor, I attended this all-boys camp on Maine's Sebago Lake. (Judging by the number of camps that ringed its 105-mile shoreline, I assumed that "Sebago" was an Indian word for "land of friendship bracelets and wedgies.") The more I thought about camp, the more it seemed insane that I would choose to be in New York. At camp, I spent every day standing on a dock, a fleet of sailboats available for a post-dinner jaunt, surrounded by my closest friends. In New York, I sat under an air-conditioning vent, attempting to store up as much chill as possible to hold me for the muggy trek home. At camp I was never more than forty yards away from a refreshing dip in a lake. In New York I debarked from the subway smelling like I had been soaking in a marinade of my cocommuters' sweat. When I really wanted to torture myself, I would recall that in one of the camp bathrooms, you could pee while watching a glorious sunset through the window above the urinal. Just try to find a urinal with a view in New York.

Eastwind was the repository of approximately 87 percent of my greatest memories. I had thrived as a camper there; during those summers I replenished all the self-confidence that was lost during the previous year spent in the ego-shooting gallery that was public school. Eastwind is a noncompetitive camp, which isn't the coddlefest it sounds like. It concentrates on one-man sports like boating, archery, and rock climbing, so you are able to better yourself without worrying about being crushed by others. The us-versus-them bloodlust of other camps' Color Wars is anathema to Eastwind. I was an extraordinarily tall kid ("extraordinarily" being a euphemism for "freakishly"), six feet tall by age thirteen, and six-seven by eighteen. When you're growing that fast, you have to give up all dreams of excelling at team sports. You concentrate on smaller goals, such as bending over to tie your shoes without tumbling into a ditch. But without the scrutiny of a scorekeeper, I threw myself into activities like archery and canoeing until I became quite good. At camp I was recognized for what I could do, as contrasted with school, where on a daily basis I was angrily confronted with why I couldn't dunk a basketball. I even had my first kiss at a dance with a neighboring girls' camp. Everything I couldn't get during the school year, I got at Eastwind.

At seventeen I became a counselor, hired by the director and assistant director who watched me grow up; I couldn't ask for a more official handstamp into adulthood. Now I was in charge, and part of a staff I had revered for the past six years. I was finally the one whom the campers looked to for guidance, even idolized. And as it was my first "real" job with a regular salary, I embraced the image of myself as a working man. When I'd hang out at the Staff Lounge after the kids went to sleep, getting drunk with my friends, we saw ourselves as dads who relaxed after work with a drink. Granted, those dads weren't playing Quarters with Milwaukee's Best-the cheapest case we could buy-and then stumbling home at two A.M. over an obstacle course of tree roots, mumbling mushmouthedly about how that bastard Tom cheated by taking too-small sips when his quarter missed. And yet, hangover be damned, we'd still-incomprehensibly-be able to get up at seven A.M. and ably deal with the next fourteen hours of screaming kids. These truly were the salad days.

The summer of 1989, after my sophomore year at Tufts University, I decided to seek out more adult jobs and internships. I could sense the dreaded "real life" crouching in wait for me in just two years, and it would require a résumé with entries that involved more than greased-watermelon races. Nonetheless, I was certain that I would eventually be back. Nobody ever left Eastwind for good. Long-gone counselors were constantly reappearing, taking one last Eastwind summer before or after attending graduate school. A couple of alumni in their fifties had actually returned to work for a session alongside their second-generation-Eastwind-counselor sons. While they might have been a little out of place, no one begrudged their intentions, because no one wanted bad karma out there in case years later he wanted to do the same thing. If and when I did go back, I was confident I wouldn't be alone. In '88 I was a counselor alongside guys who had been campers with me at age eleven, of course, but I also had coworkers who had been my counselor when I was eleven. With that kind of constancy, I could always count on camp to be exactly as I remembered it.

Years passed, and I never found the opportunity to return for an entire summer. I visited regularly for the first couple of years, and then only sporadically for special reunions. These occasional gatherings, attended by dozens of familiar faces who would travel any distance to breathe their childhood air, always hit the "restart" button on my urge to return for a whole summer. But there was never a realistic time; either my career severely lacked momentum and I was too panicky to take two months off from obsessing about it, or professionally I was gaining momentum and I didn't want to risk derailing myself. Besides, I thought, as another June came and went, camp will always be there, and I'll try again next year. If it never changed, and I never changed, what was the hurry?

Then, in the summer of 2002, I got engaged to Christine and we set a date for September 2003. It was an exhilarating time, an enormous life landmark. And suddenly everything that was once in the hypothetical realm of "someday we'll have hovercars and live on the moon"-a house, kids, family vacations-was now becoming real. At thirty-three, I had long considered myself an adult, but as I prepared to cross the line of marriage, I realized that this was real adulthood. Everything before was just the Epcot Center version: It simulated all of the trappings (independence, career progress) but had none of the real ramifications. Now I was entering a phase not only rife with exciting possibilities, but also riddled with weighty responsibilities.

I come from a family with a proud tradition of worrying, so while other grooms-to-be might busy themselves, say, obsessing over the end of their promiscuity or time lost with their male friends, my hand wringing was more big-picture. I figured that after marriage, everything needed to be thought of in terms of a thirty-year plan, not a three-month plan. This was a time when money should be saved for something more than a big-screen TV. Mortgages, 401(k)s, IRAs, day care, preschools, college funds ... it would all soon be a part of my daily consciousness, and the many colors of my fret palette. The staples of my life up until now were screwing around, acting immature, and having ample time to watch TV or just stare off into space; they were the key elements of the innocent frivolity of childhood, and I was about to lose them. My silver hair would no longer be considered prematurely gray: it would be appropriately gray. And not only was this the next phase of my life, it was the last phase. The schedule from the wedding on would be worry-worry-worry-worry-death. I decided now was the time to give my life's carefree first act a farewell party. And where better to do it than Eastwind, the place I most closely associated with the joys of childhood?

Planning our wedding had been the catalyst for countless arguments between Christine and me. Our opinions differed on every aspect of our wedding except who the bride and groom would be, and if I suggested vanishing off to summer camp for the two months prior to the event, she might change her mind on that, too. But she was surprisingly open to my idea. Perhaps some of this was a naive underestimation of how much work would be involved in planning the wedding, but a big part of it was her desire to live vicariously through me. Now a TV producer, she too had once been a devoted camper and counselor, up in New Hampshire. As a fellow too-tall teenager, she cherished those summers as a time when she was noticed for other qualities than her height, a happening that actually made her stand taller. She still had good friends from her camp days and could summon the lyrics of hundreds of her old dining-hall songs on command.

Getting a job at Eastwind used to be effortless for an old-timer. All you'd have to do was call up the director and announce your intentions, and you'd be hired. It was as informal as asking if you could swing by for a beer. Once you'd proven your worth, you had a lifetime pass. Now that the director I'd worked for was retired, I had to apply to his successor, Frank Mason, whom I had never met. In November of 2002 we had a long chat on the phone, and it felt strange having to sell myself for the job. I figured it would be no problem, since Frank, too, had started as a camper in the 1970s, become a counselor, and then left for seventeen years before returning in the early '90s with a family and eventually becoming director. This made him the ultimate camp recidivist, and he'd surely embrace my quest.

Frank was receptive, although businesslike. We talked about my desire to return to teach my old activity, swimming, and he seemed to be listening but waiting for a catch. Startled by the absence of an immediate "come on down!", my pitch became more fervent. As I filled him in on my life since 1988, I played down the journalism experience and stressed the patches of volunteer tutoring and big-brothering I'd done in college and afterward. The maxims came fast and furious. I believe that the children are the future! You never stand so tall as when you bend down to help a small child! A stranger is a friend you haven't met yet! You can lead a horse to water, but if you think you can get him to drink, I've got a moss-gathering rolling stone I'd like to sell you! I felt a familiar real-world professional anxiety take over, which was alien to my camp experience. If he accepted me, I hoped I could shake it off when summer came. I didn't want to be overachieving down at the swim dock, trying to invent new strokes to impress Frank with my initiative. ("The butterbackstroke, eh? That shows the kind of spunk, moxie, and grit I want on my team, Wolk. How does the title head of swimming grab you?")

A few weeks later I received a letter from Frank confirming my employment as a swimming counselor with a salary of $3,000 for the summer. Eight weeks of camp, preceded by a week of precamp orientation ... it averaged out to around $330 a week. Considering this included room, board, and all the refreshing dips in the lake I could take, this was very fair compensation indeed.

The cool June night before I left for camp, I stood in the bedroom of our apartment, surveying the piles of clothes that covered our bed. I was still unable to commit to what I would stuff in the empty duffel bag crumpled and waiting on the floor.

Every summer, Camp Eastwind used to send a packing checklist to each camper recommending what to bring: five pairs of shorts, seven T-shirts, two bathing suits, one flashlight, three packs of DD batteries, etc. The powers-that-be seemed to have arrived at this formula by averaging out the clean laundry requirements of the most vain, finicky camper and the stinkiest, the camper who would wear the same yellowing T-shirt every day until the only remnant of its original color was a small white dot that lay over a blocked sweat duct on the left shoulder. The numbers always worked for me, apparently putting me in the fiftieth percentile of filthiness.

By the end of my camp career, I had the formula memorized. Everything practically jumped into my trunk, as if lured by the familiar musty smell that puffed out when the box was swung open. Since then, my brain had dumped some of its old, long-unused inventory, and that included my camp packing list. As I stood in our Manhattan apartment, staring blankly at the heaps of T-shirts, shorts, and jeans on my bed, I had no idea what I needed. I knew how to pack for business trips, for wedding weekends, for funerals, for ski and beach vacations, for holidays home, for company retreats. But nothing that involved bug spray, a towel, and a canteen. I asked Christine to come look.

She walked in, twisting her long, brown, wavy hair into a ponytail, her reflexive getting-down-to-business hairstyle for anything from painting a room to picking out a book to read. She is an excellent problem solver, which comes in handy, as I am often stymied by the simplest of decisions. Her brows furrowed over her dark eyes as she stared at the tiers of clothes for a long moment. "What about a pair of nice pants?" she asked.

"Nice pants?"

"Yeah. You always need one nice set of clothes," she said.

I paused. "Really?"

"You never know what might come up, so why not be prepared?"

It was a sensible point. And so I went into my closet and browsed my sensible clothes. Maybe one pair of black, creased pants. And maybe my purple, point-collared dress shirt. Just in case. And then I stopped, remembering that nobody in the history of Camp Eastwind has ever needed nice clothes. Archery would not be going semiformal. The dining hall would not institute a dress code. Sure, I could have brought a couple of button-down shirts, but only to be used on cool nights, and chosen by the rule "Only pack something you don't mind getting a macaroni-and-cheese stain on." Trying to slide back into the camp mentality meant suppressing eons of social training. It was like trying to remember all the best strategies for Freeze Tag.

I wished I had my old trunk again. I had regretfully gotten rid of it in 1993, when a girlfriend instructed me that it no longer cut it as a coffee table, no matter what color sheet I draped over it. I knew if I could just open it, lean in, and huff that moldy scent, I'd be instantly reminded of every lesson, emotion, and experience I ever had at camp. The smell evoked pancakes in the dining hall and campfires, as well as the way to rig a sailboat and the most effective method to convince a twenty-one-year-old cocounselor to buy you beer. In essence, it would conjure up Utopia, which is the way I remembered Eastwind. It was the experience against which I graded all others: pure, refreshing, innocent, exhilarating, uplifting. And that's why I was going back.

The night before leaving, I lay awake thinking about Christine. Up until now, I hadn't been overly concerned with our time apart. The occasional separation was healthy, I thought. I still loved everything about her: Her ability to infuse the most quotidian task with creativity (early in our dating life, she sent me a letter from Nantucket written mazelike over a flattened fried-clam box), her ebullient and contagious passion for books, movies, and art (the word "feh" was not in her vocabulary), her flexible sense of humor (she tittered at the most urbane of bon mots, and yet never minded the many variations I came up with for pleas to pull my finger). She was the first woman I had ever realistically imagined moving in with, let alone committing to for life. And, considering that life-if it went according to plan-would go on for a long time, I hadn't worried about cheating us of a precious few weeks together. Sure, some would argue that life is so fleeting that every day is a blessing, but we can all admit that in long-term relationships, no matter how loving, some days are more blessed than others.


Excerpted from CABIN PRESSURE by Josh Wolk Copyright © 2007 by Josh Wolk. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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  • Posted May 6, 2011

    True fun!!

    I mainly picked up this book because I'm writer and I needed to do some research on the camp counselor experience, and this was what I found. The first few pages had me at a bit of loss, and wasn't sure if it was going to hold my attention long enough for me to get through, but I kept reading, and I was glad I did. Although I'm female and have never personally experienced many of things Josh describes in his books, I still found myself relating to him and his campers. When he talked about not wanting to admit it was his birthday in front of a bunch of people he barely knew because he didn't want them to feel obligated to put on some token celebration, that's so me. And the camper who whenever he failed at something took great pride in announcing at how much he sucked at such things, me again. So my description of this book is it's like a trip down memory lane even if you've never been there.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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