Saturday, June 28, 2008

Thoughts on Air Travel

With exploding gas prices, air fares have skyrocketed and the airlines are reeling. However, this is actually good news for certain frequent fliers like myself.

Miles Have More Valuable - Airlines over the years have consistently increased the number of miles required for a free ticket to the point where frequent flier miles were hardly worth anything. With higher gas prices and corresponding ticket prices, all the sudden the leverage is back on the side of the consumer.

So I just cashed in the equivalent of $3200 using nothing but points. I did have to move my plans around to correspond with blackout dates and the like, but at these prices it was well worth the shuffle.

Status Means More - Those of us who are frequent travelers are seeing other benefits since we are the business airlines crave the most. For example, the new nickel and diming policies are largely bypassing us:

Customers who purchase domestic economy class tickets on or after June 15, 2008 will be charged $15 each way for the first checked bag and $25 each way for the second checked bag...Exceptions to this policy include customers who purchase First or Business Class tickets, AAdvantage Executive Platinum®, AAdvantage Platinum® and AAdvantage Gold® members

Consolidation Helps Frequent Travelers - As airlines band together to survive, it means that we will be getting to the point that there are only a couple of airlines left - or at least only a couple frequent flier programs left standing. This means that all miles can start going into a single master bucket instead of being spread out around multiple airlines. For me, the United/Continental merger is a very good thing:

Continental and United today announced plans to cooperate globally, linking our networks and services worldwide to deliver new benefits to you. In addition, Continental plans to join United in the Star Alliance®, the most comprehensive airline alliance in the world...
First and foremost, this partnership will include new frequent flier reciprocity that will enable you to earn miles when flying on either airline and redeem awards on both carriers. Travel on either carrier will count toward earning elite status. Similarly, members of either airline's airport lounge program will have access to both Continental's Presidents Club network and United's Red Carpet Club® lounges.

These are all good for me - as long as traveling stays a part of my job description.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Cheery Thoughts of Death For A Monday Morning

Millennia passed before I was born. Millennia will pass after I am dead. Thus my life is a spark between two vast and identical pools of darkness: the darkness existing before my birth and the darkness following my death.

Doesn't it astound you how much we dread the latter darkness and how indifferent we are to the first?

- Vladimir Nabokov

Friday, June 20, 2008

Nokia Needs to Learn Only the Paranoid Survive

Looks like the iPhone and Blackberry are putting dents into Nokia, which is hurting even more as economic softness hits their largest market, Europe.

Just another example of how those who lead the market can't get complacent. In this case, however, I do think Nokia will bounce back, unlike Motorola, whose shares just plummeted to a five year low and probably won't come back for a long time, if ever. Mot will definitely make a good case study when it is over and done with.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Camp: The Final Analysis

A quarter of a century has passed since I went to camp and returned this year as a counselor. I found the camp itself to be the same, a sort of timeless place that continues on as the outside world passes by.

But while the camp itself, as well as the activities, are the same, what has changed is the society that uses it. Parents, kids, and the administration of the camp itself have all evolved (de-evolved?) to deal with the present society.

And through the prism of camp, I have to say the view of society is not pretty. In light of the parents and kids that now populate the nation, is there any wonder that many are looking for the government to coddle them from cradle to grave, disavowing any personal responsibility from having to take care of themself? After all, if a child growing up never has to take responsibility for themself, why would we expect them to do it when they are grown up?

And while camp can be a place for kids to find independence and push themselves, the term I attended was too short to do that. The camp does have longer terms, and the short session I went to is billed as "a taste of sleep-away camp". I would like to think that in the short time I had with the kids they gained something from the experience personally - not just having fun - but I think that probably only half the kids got some sort of personal growth in that short a time period.

On a happier note, the trip down memory lane was fun. Finding your name scrawled in a cabin beam from 25 years ago is a interesting experience. And if you think I should write a book about these past couple of weeks, it has been done . When I got to camp the owner loaned me a book about an adult going back to camp and documenting his experiences. The byline of Cabin Pressure is "One Man's Desperate Attempt to Recapture His Youth as a Camp Counselor". It hit way close to home, but is a great summer read and I highly recommend it for anyone who has camping in their background.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Happy Camper Part 4 - The Parents

I'm a parent, and most of the people sending their kids to camp are around my age. So when I am meeting parents it is a little different than most counselors since these people are my peers.

The parents who send their kids to camp mean well, and I found most of them to be sincerely nice people. It's that many of these people think that "being a good parent" means to overindulge their child, not discipline them, or to put them on a cocktail of pharmaceuticals to keep them in line (side note: I had one ADD kid in my cabin who was off his meds for the summer. If I had to rank my kids by typical ADD symptoms, he was in the middle - in other words, he was an average kid whose parents put him on drugs during the school year).

For example, the camp has a strict "no candy, no video game" policy that is communicated to the parents. The first day of camp I went around taking away contraband, mainly candy, away from the kids. Apparently the rules didn't apply to these parents. Then there were several kids who didn't show up at camp with horseback equipment (jeans, boots, helmet). These kids "didn't feel like horseback" or were "scared" of horses. Good job, parents. Boys who are afraid of horses who don't overcome their fear end up as men who are afraid of horses. Plus the whole purpose of camp is to expose kids to new experiences, even if they aren't sure they will like them.

When parents found that their kids were with a sergeant for the summer, I got mixed reactions. Most of the parents were happy that someone was there to provide structure and discipline (and they didn't have to do it themselves). The true coddlers (the minority) were just glad to have their child back so they could envelop them back into a world where they have no discipline and get what they want when they want it.

But I don't blame the parents . The ultimate fact is that parenting in the 21st century has changed and these people are the product of their culture. So parents today are producing kids who for the most part aren't challenged or disciplined. If this is true, what does this mean for the long term viability of this country?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Camper Report Time

It's time to send camper reports home! Here is what a parent will see:

Johnny had a great time this summer, improving his skills in archery and riflery. He also made lots of friends in the cabin and I see him becoming a true leader in the future...etc., etc.

Here is what counselors really want to write:

  • Johnny is a little momma's boy who can barely take care of himself. I tried to grow him a pair this summer, but I am afraid he is going to turn out to be a real wimp...

  • Have you tested Timmy for retardation or brain damage? His favorite past time is sitting slack-jawed staring into space. I give him instructions while he looks straight at me, but even after multiple repetitions it still doesn't get through...

  • Freddy is a little $&!t who obviously has never been disciplined. You obviously have no parenting skills...

  • Franky is a nondescript kid who leaves one's memory as soon as he is out of sight. He's not a bad kid, but he has no qualities whatsoever that make him stand out...

  • I am so glad that I was able to get Tommy out of your clutches if only for a short time. He's a good kid, but you spoil him and don't allow him to do anything for himself. If you would only get out of his way and allow him to be his own person, you will be surprised at the things he can do...

  • We are not supposed to play favorites, but Mikey was my favorite kid in the cabin. His quiet intensity and self confidence made him stand out in a cabin full of boys who could barely take care of themselves. He pays attention in all activities, trying to learn and improve whatever skill he is trying. He is a fun boy to hang out with, and if I had a son I wish he could be like him.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Happy Camper - Part 3 - The Campers

The campers - why the camps are here.

My perspective has been that the campers are always the same, just their names change. In other words, the same boys are in the cabin year after year as different kids come through life filling the same slots:

The Perfect Camper - He excels in all the activities. He minds the counselor. He doesn't cut up. He is mature beyond his years. He's the "go to" guy when you need a "mini-me" counselor. The only problem with this camper is that you want to spend all your time with him since he is so fun, but he actually needs your help and attention the least. You have to let him motor on his own as you deal with campers who need your attention.

Typically these campers run in families so counselors yearn for one of the "Smith brothers" or one of the "Jones brothers" to be put in their cabin. And if you're really, really lucky you'll get more than one in your cabin.

Canon Fodder – They’re not the perfect kids, but they’re not bad kids. They have average talents and are just going along with the flow, generally following directions. They’re the meaty part of the distribution curve and make up the vast majority of the campers. The only problem with these kids is that it takes forever to memorize their names. The good kids and the bad kids stand out, but these guys are interchangeable. With some hard work, though, some of these kids can be turned into Perfect Campers.

The Cut-Up - He pushes boundaries and limits. He will purposely ignore you. And the worse part is that these guys can easily take other campers down the same path with him. You have to come down hard and fast on this type and establish who is the Boss. And there should be no doubt in his mind that the Boss is you.

Inexperienced, younger counselors will try to halfway do something about it, or worse, will just ignore it and hope it gets better. The problem is that if you give an inch he will take a mile. Since there is no corporate punishment (of course) and ideally no yelling, my technique is to simply ask the camper to look me in the eyes and dress him down as a drill sergeant: “When I asked you to do x, did I say it was an option?”, “What part of what I said did you not understand?”, and so on. My experience is that with normal, suburban campers, this works 99% of the time. Very few of these kids are talked to in this way these days, and usually just the shock of someone coming down on them is enough to get them to behave for the rest of the term.

The Loser – He’s quiet, can’t or won’t make friends with the other campers, and is afraid of or won’t apply himself at activities. This is the guy who needs the counselor the most. You’re job is to break him out of his shell to learn confidence, self-reliance, and how to fit into a group. I have one in my cabin now and I have decided he is my “project” for the term.

Monday, June 02, 2008

The Happy Camper - Part 2 - Lawyers

What do lawyers have to do with summer camp? These days, a LOT.

When I worked as a counselor in the mid 1980s, camps did a background check, interviewed (or already knew) the staff, required four letters of recommendation, and then assumed that the young adults they hired knew how to behave around children.

But lawsuits obviously overwhelmed the camping industry in the subsequent 20 years, meaning that there are now rules like the following:

  • There is now a "no touch" zone for a camper from the waist down to the knees. If a need arises for medical reasons, then the counselor is to send him to the nurse. If it is an urgent emergency (like, say, bleeding to death), then the counselor ideally needs another counselor nearby to witness.
  • Digital Cameras are banned for counselors. There can be exceptions made to the rule, but even with the exceptions no pictures are allowed inside of cabins or living quarters at any time for any reason.
  • One-on-One Counseling is not allowed. If a counselor needs to talk alone with a camper it has to be within sight of another counselor.
  • Under no circumstances is a counselor to be alone in a cabin or living quarters with a camper. If he finds himself in this situation he needs to leave or bring in other people as soon as possible.
  • Two counselors must be on duty during showers and the counselors may not enter the shower area (so if a kid slips, I guess he is SOL).

And so on. You can see the gist here: there needs to always be two "adults" (or 19 year old counselors) around at all times to provide witness for one another. Don't ever put yourself in a situation where it is your word against the camper's, or present any kind of scenario that would allow the Texas Department of Child Protective Services to sieze all the campers.

So it will be interesting to see what setting up an aura of paranoia will do to the counselor-camper dynamic when the campers finally arrive.

Another requirement is that counselors have to take "sexual abuse identification, prevention and reporting" training - which I have tomorrow, and will report on if it is interesting at all.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Happy Camper - Part 1 - Counselors

For my 40th birthday (next month) Mrs. Director graciously gave me a gift of allowing me to go away to camp for half of June to be a camp counselor. She is basically humoring my mid-life crises by allowing me to re-live some memories from my childhood and early adulthood. I am returning to the same camp I went to from 1980-1986 as a camper, Counselor in Training (CIT), and fresh-faced 18 year-old counselor. The next couple of weeks I will list my thoughts and observations on what the camping process has become during my absence of 22 years.

What is Summer Camp?
For those of you who didn’t go to camp, the movie “Meatballs” with Bill Murray actually captures a lot iof it. Camp is a chance for kids to get away from parents, learn independence, learn new skills and have a lot of goofy fun. The camp I go to is a sports-oriented, boys-only camp, concentrating on goals and achievement to build a kid’s self-worth and confidence. Activities include archery, canoeing, swimming, horseback riding, riflery, rock climbing, hiking, tennis, team sports, and about a dozen other activities. Boys aged 6-15 (they become CITs at 16-17) are running around from first bugle at 7am until Taps at 10pm. My camp is Christian oriented, but not religious, with “thoughts for the day” and non-denominational chapel services on Sundays. Character building, making friends, and interacting in a group environment are also big parts of the camp process.

The camp I am at has been around for nearly 100 years and is one of the more prestigious camps in the Southwest. When I was here both the Texas governor and U.S. Senator Phil Gram sent their boys here (and I had a chance to meet both on parent’s day).

Section 1 – Camp Counselors
The Camp Counselors are the people who “teach” camp – whether it is an individual skill like archery, or the person who takes the cabin of kids around to their daily activities.

My camp’s yearbooks from the late 1940s show that the average counselor was in his 30s and in the teaching or training profession. Couches, teachers, and even instructors from colleges like Texas A&M made up the bulk of the staff. They were actually real adults with real experience teaching and coaching young people.

By the time I was a camper the average counselor age had dropped to 21, with the average counselor being a U.S. college student on summer break or on the gap between college and the real world. Counselor retention each year was over 50%, with a very large portion of the staff being former campers, so the culture, history and institutional memory of the camp was constant year after year. When the staff showed up at the beginning of summer everyone pretty much knew each other, the various activities, and how the camp operated. “Orientation” lasted a day or two and was basically just time to get the cabins and activities ready.

These days summer camps can’t get many U.S. college kids to be counselors. The general feedback from the camp’s full-time staff is that U.S. students are too self-absorbed to bother being a counselor (“narcissistic” was the word actually used). College kids don’t want to work at all during the summer, much less a summer camp where they have to give themselves to others. College age students who might be interested have other commitments, too much pressure to do an internship, or want a job that puts something more “real world” in their resume.

The result is that these days summer camps import college students from English-speaking countries overseas. Orientation now consists of nearly two weeks teaching a bunch of Australians, New Zealanders, English, Scotch and the like what camp is all about. The average age of these counselors is 19, and most of them are here for just one summer to see America and do something a little different. These counselors largely don’t come back the following summer, making the institutional memory of the camp nearly zero, requiring training of a whole new bunch the following summer.

This process makes me something of an oddity since I am a former camper and counselor, and at 40 one of the “old men” at camp. I spin tales of the “old days” and the various personalities and pranks that happened way back when. Surprisingly, I find that I am in better shape than about 80% of these boys half my age - the Anglosphere is definitely catching up to the U.S. on its eating and exercise habits – but some of the guys will make good counselors. There are several very serious rock climbers, archers, equestrians and athletes in the group who will definitely help the boys under their tutelage. Because of overseas gun laws, very few of them have fired a gun, so manning riflery is a little tough.

As for giving, I’ll go with the camp director, who states that they really don’t care about the kids, but rather to have fun, see America, and tried to get laid. I suppose there is nothing wrong with those goals in a 19 year old kid, but the question is do you want them to be your kid’s camp counselor?

Next Post: How Lawyers Are Messing Up Summer Camp