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Opinion

Op-Ed: How I’m spending my summer vacation: Dad Camp

VENICE, CA–FEBRUARY 16, 2011: Eli McBeth, 16, visiting from Vancouver, gets airborne while performin
A skateboarder performs a trick at the Venice Beach Skate Plaza in Los Angeles.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

When the last day of school came around this year, my daughter and I had a plan. Three months, more or less, stretched out before us, and we would take advantage of her free time and mine while we could — spending each long summer day doing something together.

I call it Dad Camp.

My wife and daughter and I moved to L.A. after five years in chaotic parts of the Middle East. My wife is a journalist, and in those days, she was often working as a war correspondent. Our family life was anything but routine. When we got back to the States, we looked around at what seemed normal for families here and followed suit. We enrolled our daughter in the local school and a kids soccer league. We carpooled. And then suddenly, school was about to let out.

It seemed like all the other parents we knew were signing their kids up for something called “camp.” Growing up, neither my wife nor I went to camp. (I remember being on my bike most of the summer and begging to watch TV.) But our daughter would go on to attend an art camp and a surf camp and a woodworking camp. Some of the programs were administered by nearby Loyola Marymount University, staffed by student “counselors” who always seemed to be galloping around and smiling big toothy grins.

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The two of us are extending a special and fleeting moment, a happy intersection between what she wants and what I can provide.

It worked out well. My wife’s hours are long. I teach undergrads at UCLA. When my daughter was in summer camp, I did my own writing. But this year, that didn’t look so great to me. My kid was about to turn 10. And I was about to turn 40. When LMU sent the usual emails announcing its camp offerings, it occurred to me: Maybe I could be the one with the grin, galloping around?

When I broached Dad Camp to my daughter, there was a nearly heartbreaking moment of silence. I prepared myself for disappointment. “Sure!” she said. “Sounds great!”

I started a list of ideas. Friends and colleagues weighed in. One no-nonsense coworker observed that parents all over Los Angeles couldn’t hire people to take care of their kids for the summer, so Dad Camp wasn’t very special. A few friends were pointedly envious of my job in academia, which makes Dad Camp possible. At least one friend was encouraged to see me breaking with the long history of dads who maybe make it to a summer ballgame or two, or take two weeks off for a family vacation of some kind, but aren’t in the habit of spending all summer with their kids.

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I thought about my own dad, who when I was young, worked a lot, including many Saturdays. I remembered the day in third grade he was supposed to help chaperone a field trip, forgot, arrived late, and for some reason brought me a package of these markers that had some kind of smell agent so that the purple one smelled like grapes. He handed the gift to me, sweating through his suit, and then he had to go back to work.

I know how fundamentally lucky I am. And I know this summer may be one of my last chances to cash in that luck with a daughter who still enjoys spending time with me.

Together, we sat down at the beginning of June with a fresh iCal and began populating the summer weeks with the ways we could be together. Plans include Dodgers games, the opening day for “Toy Story 4,” a birthday campout at San Onofre State Beach, various hikes, museum visits, surfing, more campouts, and also some chores, doctors appointments, house maintenance and a dose of what you might call “service learning”: volunteering and job shadowing.

The first morning of Dad Camp we were supposed to go to MOCA downtown and have lunch at the Nickel Diner. I was making coffee when I heard her voice, hesitant: “Dad, I don’t think I want to go to a museum.” I could have hung it up, graded the last of the semester’s straggling papers. I gripped the kettle, grit my teeth, tried not to get upset. Was our summer over before it started?

“Well, what do you want to do instead?” I asked.

My daughter smiled at me, laced up her roller-skates and told me to grab my skateboard. We hit the Venice boardwalk and then after lunch and a nap we went surfing.

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So here’s how it’s working out. The calendar is a work in progress. Our plans keep changing. We fight a little, mostly over adding TV to the “to-do” list. There have been a lot of requests for ice cream and sometimes I worry about the “real” work I’m not doing.

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But then I think about how the two of us are extending a special and fleeting moment, a happy intersection between what she wants and what I can provide. My own dad died young, at 59. He had talked so often about the trips we would all take, when he retired, when everything would start happening.

It turned out the Nickel was closed anyway. And we would go to MOCA another time.

Nathan Deuel is on the faculty of the UCLA writing programs. He is the author of “Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East.”

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