y eight-year-old son, Eli, is at an outdoor adventure camp this week whose motto is: The dirtier the better. Give them taboos as sanctioned activities. Let them throw ninja stars and shoot metal arrows at targets. Teach them to start fires by rubbing sticks until their fingers blister. Praise them for throwing knives. Help them carve pointed branches with eight-inch blades. Then take them to a stream and a lake to hunt. Watch them gouge out fish eyeballs and examine sticky fish brains.
Parents suppose there might be a value in this summer choice, as abstract as our lives are. We can’t do Boy Scouts for political reasons. We choose this as an alternative, pleased to have our kids come home filthy and happy.
We see a value in letting our child eat bottom-dwelling filter creatures. These animals are forever interrupted from their existence in water possibly laced with chemicals, people’s flushed meds, used motor oil, and caffeine. The camp wants the kids to taste meat in an almost pure form. Or kill slugs out of curiosity, watching them shrivel on the fire. Parents believe this will connect their children to a forgotten primal existence. Then they drop their kids at swim class and check their iPhones.
We hope for a transcendent time—something fresh borne out of a rigid camp formula and debt added to our Visa bills. We bet that a week given over to care by strangers with scars from facial piercings will shape our child, so he can look back at age eight with awe. We have to admit that a week sucking down Otter Pops and half-chewed hard-boiled eggs while staring at Phineas and Ferb and their endless summer would be, at some level, just as satisfying.
Eli comes home with mental lists of what he does and what he eats. I wonder why we make them, why we catalogue what we put in our mouths. When we were still in China, after we adopted Eli, we wrote lists about what went in and what came out, figuring that attention to that schedule, started at his orphanage, meant we were parents of some sort. We weren’t not parents. We were something, even if he screamed every time he saw us fill a bottle with pulpy, sugary formula in the sink area of the hotel room. We guessed he thought the bottle was for some other hidden child, some child not him.
He still has a high need for control. About a year ago, Eli refused to use other people’s silverware. He felt that the germs would enter his mouth, even from silverware blasted by a hot dishwasher. At my friend’s house, I sat by him on the couch and waved a fork and bite of pasta by his mouth—more worried that he would seem rude than concerned by his actual fear. He held his mouth shut and cried.
Later, at home, I said, “Can’t you take the thought out of your head? Can’t you imagine it and destroy it?” Eli went upstairs and got a toy gun. He held it to his scalp and pulled the trigger. “See? It’s not destroyed. It’s still there.” With thoughts of Kurt Cobain dancing in my head, I made him promise to never do that with a gun again, even a fake one. His fear of germs continues.
My son regularly decides he won’t eat meat. Yet this week at his outdoor camp, he wades in a stream close to Oaks Bottom, marshland abutting the poisonous Willamette River. His team collects three crawdads, which are the size of one of Eli’s middle fingers. The boys and counselors move slowly through the water so as not to kick up mud. The campers catch each crawdad on its back so it won’t get them with its claws. They put the crawdads in a jar.
Curious about this switch in eating habits—both germ-phobic and meat-phobic—I ask him how they killed and ate the crawfish.
ELI: We stabbed it with a stick through its body. The crawdad was still alive. Then we made a fire with coals and ashes and matches.
PROPELLER: When they were in a jar did they have sticks in them?
ELI: No. We put them in a jar first, then poked holes in each one through their body, except the female. We put the female back. We ate them once we were done broiling them. We ripped them apart.
PROPELLER: You broiled them on the fire while they were still alive? How did that make you feel?
PROPELLER: Did it make you feel weird?
PROPELLER: Weren’t you taking a break from meat?
ELI: Hmm. I only had a tiny bit, like a dot.
PROPELLER: Did you have to eat the brain?
ELI: Other people did.
PROPELLER: Was it gross?
ELI: It looked gross. It looked like a bunch of red stuff, like whitish blobs.
PROPELLER: What else did you kill?
ELI: We saw a dead rabbit.
PROPELLER: Did you skin it?
PROPELLER: Did you eat it?
ELI: No. It was dead and already flat, like as flat as my fingers are laying flat right now.
PROPELLER: What did you do with the fish? How did you catch them?
ELI: With our hands, but we put them back.
PROPELLER: What does crawdad taste like?
ELI: Kind of like fish or shrimp.
PROPELLER: What would you serve it with if you had it at home?
ELI: Anything so I wouldn’t taste the meat.
By the end of the week he tells me that he is almost over his fear of silverware, but not quite. The camp has done more for him than has any adoption counselor we’ve dragged him to. His dad hunches over his guitar in the basement, hooked to electric cords and pedals that let him create looped parts. I hunch over my computer keyboard, writing about my son. This summer we let him run outdoors to find friends. We let him loose more often.
Maybe this camp will let him experience life more like Huck Finn—I have to reach for a literary hero to capture our desire:
We catched fish and talked, and we took a swim now and then to keep off sleepiness. It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big, still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn’t ever feel like talking loud, and it warn’t often that we laughed—only a little kind of a low chuckle.
Eli wants a knife with an eight-inch blade to carve sticks for stabbing. If he’s good, he’ll get one.
Alex Behr is a staff writer.