20 June 2013

How to Find Friends & Meet People

A few short weeks ago, my friend called me up to declare that she'd signed up for an adult summer camp. "You need to come with me, it's like our dreams come true. Hurry, there's only a few spots left." For years I'd been thinking about how amazing it would be to attend a summer camp, to recreate the carefree times playing Capture the Flag and singing songs in the middle of the woods.

Since I was already going to be on the West Coast, signing up for Camp Grounded was a no-brainer. At the time I didn't know it was a camp for unplugging -- no computers, phones, Kindles, or even watches -- and friends wondered how I would survive. I mean, who am I without a laptop? The truth is, being device-less wasn't my greatest fear, I mean, my greatest fear is dirt right? Some people expressed doubt that I'd be able to handle the outdoors.

Well, boo on them, because I've had lots of experience doing outdoor stuff. No, seriously. While my OCD-ness and aversion to dirt define me now, in my youth George and I attended lots of campy stuff. Plus I was a Webelos Scout for a few seconds. (I still have the patches to prove it.)

With visions of Moonrise Kingdom swimming through our heads, my friend and I set off on Friday morning for Camp Navarro, about three hours north of San Francisco.

What we arrived to was an incredible group of dedicated counselors and more than three hundred campers ready to tackle a weekend full of fun, exploration, openness, and community. A few of the rules of Camp Grounded: don't reveal real names, don't ask people about their ages, and most of all, don't talk about work. The aim was to discover people as they are, not define them by what they do. It all seemed rather ambitious, especially the advertising talk about "[creating] a community where money is worth little...and individuality, self expression, friendship, freedom and memories are valued most."

I don't know how the Camp Grounded staff did it but less than twelve hours in, the outside world really had disappeared, and what filled that space was a happy, soaring, "is this really happening?" feeling. Everyone had really bought into the freedom of just relaxing and making connections with like minded people.

Each camper was put in a sex segregated village -- mine was Bear -- and beyond the ice breakers, we had time to do some bonding exercises. For me, it was really cool to see a group of twenty five men opening up and talking to one another, freely and without any posturing. I heard some of the other villages had mini-Marina Abramovic moments, where they just sat and stared at each other. Who has the time, or inclination, for that during normal life?

"Who are we? We are bears!
Grizzly, polar, cuddly, care
When we roar, some get scared
But we only have hugs to share!"

And while there was a lot of talk about being grounded and leaving our technology behind, what Camp Grounded was really about was celebrating yourself and others. Everyone there was willing to take two days off of work to drive/fly/rideshare to a 1970s era Boy Scout camp and open their hearts to strangers. There wasn't a bad conversation to be had and everyone was super cool.

I was a bit in awe to be honest. I wanted camp to last a week, not a weekend. Learning that many of the campers were Burning Man veterans cleared things up for me some, as that explained the communal atmosphere and positivity that radiated throughout Camp Grounded. If I weren't so afraid of crowds, and people, Camp Grounded would give me second thoughts about attending a future Burning Man. After I learn to fire dance of course.

Let's talk about what we did at Camp Grounded. I mean, there were so many activities. Afternoon playshops included solar carving, leather making, clown classes, meditation, poetry, pickling, rock climbing, super food making, hip hop dancing, acapella, song writing, etc. I took archery and friendship bracelet making. Of the two, I'm decidedly more Cinna than Katniss. Should I ever need to go into battle, my wrists will look real pretty...next to my sword skewered body. Seriously, the safest place to stand when I was archering was wherever my bow was pointing.

There was a giant game of Capture the Flag, a silent dinner, Color Wars, an Eighties Prom, and plenty of sing-a-longs. At night it was campfires for s'mores, hikes for stargazing, tea ceremony in a beautiful yurt, and a red bus that contained a live band for music and dancing. There was also a small river and swimming hole to lounge by when the weather made you lazy and sticky.

Basically this was the all-star summer camp. Most of the counselors had extensive summer camp experience before so they were organized to the max. Seriously, everything was so fluid. For a first time effort, Camp Grounded was just incredible from an organizational standpoint. I don't know how they managed to stay visible and working in the background at the same time, or how they disseminated information when plans changed, but the counselors were amazing. And so damn talented too. In fact, the whole camp was full of talented people. The amazing talent show on Saturday night attested to that.

This was a camp stripped of all the bad bits you might remember from childhood, with the awesome pumped up. Bullies? Gone. Restrictions? Gone. Doing whatever you felt like? Encouraged. Showing up late? No problem at all. The idea was that wherever you were was exactly where you should be. In short, Camp Grounded was magical. It really was.

Sure I was pretty much ready to go by Monday, and yeah there were things that were challenging, but all in all, Camp Grounded is something I'd recommend for all, even if you don't think you'd like it at first brush. It's a unique experience. I mean, adult summer camp, c'mon! Camp Grounded was put on by The Digital Detox and they run other retreats that are probably nothing short of spectacular. I'm pretty sure Digital Detox is gonna do more Camp Groundeds, so keep an eye out and then get your camp on!

  • Some people felt that not talking about work after awhile started to limit getting to know each other. Since I generally hate asking people about what they do, that didn't bother me but I could see how having to artificially limit something could be a barrier to communication.
  • I overpacked. Huge. I could have gone with half the stuff I brought, and even then it probably would have been too much. The things I did forget to bring: soap and a mirror. The mirror would have been handy for putting on contacts, of which I lost two.
  • Each morning we were woken up by a bugle, but you didn't have to go anywhere if you didn't want to. I skipped breakfast most of the time, and since we didn't know what time it was, there was a feeling of just melting into your day as you liked. Being purely nocturnal, this was actually a semi-struggle for me as I hadn't seen this much daylight in months.
  • The meals were mostly vegan and gluten-free. I don't know if this diet contributed to my not going to the bathroom, but if it did I was thankful. I'm happy to report that I went #2 a minimum number of times. Willpower! Also, while vegan and gluten-free are not my preferred foods, eating it for just a few days was perfectly fine. The lack of freely available coffee though...ouch.
  • Playing icebreaker games should be de rigueur for any gathering. Or name tags, those would be handy. I was told that looking at someone in the eye and repeating their name is an easy way to remember people, but then I'd have to get comfortable looking at people in the eye first. Which I'm not.
  • Having a shared experience makes for instant conversation fodder. If you didn't have anything to say to somebody, you could always ask how they found out about Camp Grounded, or how they were liking it so far. If you wanted to get into something quick, you could start with the tried and true "What are three things..." Which generally makes me think that asking about someone's work is just a knee-jerk reaction to not having anything else to ask. So think of something better please.
  • For research last year, I read a series of Camp Confidential books. Golden Girls #16 contained a lot of stuff about Color Wars, and that was all I could think of when we were prepping for Camp Grounded's version of Color Wars. While ours was cut short due to tiredness and overall burnout, I really did want to have relays, water fights, egg tosses, and trivia contests. Instead I'll just have to settle for having passed a squishy banana around between our knees.
  • By the last day of camp, people were revealing their actual names (and occupations), and now there's a Facebook group going strong. Putting camp nicknames to faces and real names has been a trip. When you've only known someone as Safari, Cricket, Light Warrior, Asterios Polyp, etc. finding out they are named "Matt" is a shock.
  • My friend passed me a This American Life episode about the wonders of summer camp. "Stories of summer camp. People who love camp say that non-camp people simply don't understand what's so amazing about camp. In this program, we attempt to bridge the gap of misunderstanding between camp people and non-camp people." I'm listening to it now. Link here.
  • This is exactly what I'd like my wedding to be like. You know, my non-existent future wedding. I'd want all my friends to take a couple of days off from their lives and I'd hire these counselors to throw an adult summer camp. And then me and one (un)lucky person would get married under a canopy of trees while shooting stars pelted the sky and unicorns howled in celebration. Great idea right?