Nerd Camp

By Irene Zion


As a kid, Victor had glorious times at summer camp. He claims his best childhood memories to this very day are from summer camp. He still talks about it. Marilyn Monroe came up to his camp with her husband Arthur Miller to visit his kids one year on parents’ weekend.  Since Victor and his friends were just dense little kids, they treated her just like any old mother.

He claims his very best year was the year that polio was rampant in the United States and there wasn’t a parents’ weekend for fear of spreading the poliovirus. This was before the Salk vaccine. All you could do was try to avoid getting infected. It was really serious; kids were getting really sick and ending up in iron lung machines. Kids were being crippled and dying. Even today, I don’t think anyone knows why it hit kids so much harder than it did adults. The campers were mercifully oblivious and loved being free of their parents for the whole summer long.

Victor began going to camp when he was five years old and continued for nine years. He keeps in touch with campmates he met when he was five years old. That’s sixty years! He wanted our kids to have the same wonderful experience that he had.

Benjamin at first went to a regular sports-type camp. He went for three summers until he, himself, researched other alternatives. He hated sports camp. He said it was dirty there. Of course, camp was outside in the woods and there is undoubtedly dirt there. He was in a bunk, not a tent, but he found that to be too dirty also. He told us he would rather be doing math and science. So, the next year he went to science camp.

He preferred science camp, but it turned out that science camp was also outdoors in the woods. He wasn’t happy there, either. “It isn’t rigorous enough for me. It’s too easy and it’s too dirty,” he said. So he only went to science camp for one summer.

Then I did some research. He needed a camp sort of environment that was indoors, clean and let him do science or math all day. I found out that Northwestern University had a summer program for kids who could pass the required tests. Benjamin always passed any tests he ever took. So the summer of his 8th grade year he started taking college-level math at Northwestern every summer. He was besotted. He proudly called it “Nerd Camp.” He was in his element. He went to “Nerd Camp” again after his 9th grade year. Loved every minute. Made life-long friends there. Ben wanted to go again after his 10th grade year also. We gave him the application to fill out.

Understand, the only reason that I read through the application was to fix spelling errors. Ben can’t spell. Seriously, he can’t spell at all. He’s entirely missing the spelling section of his brain. Mind you, he always aced his spelling tests in elementary school, but the moment the test was over, the correct spelling was lost in the ether. He could only learn short-term spelling.

So. (Pay attention, here.) I’m proofreading his application. I get to the part where he had to fill in whom to call in an emergency. Ben wrote in his roommate, “Will.” I read on. Then the application asked the relation of the emergency contact to the applicant. Ben wrote: “Lover.”


I explained to Ben that the emergency contact had to be the people who were responsible for his medical care, which would be his parents. He acquiesced without a word and erased “Will” and “Lover” and replaced it with Victor and me and “Parents.”

But then we were in a pickle. We agonized over how to best explain to him that his gayness did not matter to us. We loved him just exactly as he was. We told him as much. But we hadn’t encountered anything like this before, so I read up on being a good parent to a gay son. I read everything available at the time.

We questioned all his siblings. They all knew that Ben was unusual, but they were all surprised to hear that Ben was Gay. We instructed them on the importance of validating him, reassuring him and encouraging him. We spoke about how best to comfort him when he came across teasing or worse. We spent weeks preparing the family to make Ben feel good about himself, no matter what might come his way.

Each of his siblings came to us at different times and expressed doubt. No one was sure, but they just didn’t see Ben as being Gay. Finally, after tiptoeing around Ben for all this time, the kids just asked him outright if he were Gay. He laughed. He said he only wrote that as an experiment. He wanted to see how we would react and was very pleased with how effective his ploy was. He was delighted with the outcome.

So. If anyone needs to know what to do when they first discover that their son is Gay, ask us. We already did all the research. It turns out that we just don’t personally need it after all.

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IRENE ZION has been married to the same curmudgeon for 40 years. She has 5 children, none of whom sufficiently appreciates her. The one you probably know is Lenore, who frequently gives her mother hives. Irene paints oil portraits and makes her own frames. She has been described as an outsider artist. Most of her paintings creep people out, especially her family. She finds this to be greatly satisfying. She writes non-fiction for TNB and loves every minute of it. She is writing fiction now too, but is too chicken to show it to anyone. She has two golden retrievers who will inherit anything of worth she leaves behind. Her kids will delight in dividing up her famous cork collection and her notorious stockpile of bubble wrap.

145 responses to “Nerd Camp”

  1. Frank says:


    I’m the first to comment! Must be either a group of late risers, or early risers who work, at TNB Commenter Headquarters…

    I thought there was something fishy about this whole story when you got to the “Lover” description of the ‘next-of-kin’ Ben supplied… Neither you nor Victor’s ever said anything about a gay member of your family…

    But it sure worked: got your attention pronto, LOL! Perhaps even more impressively, it got his freres et soeurs consideration as well.

    And I must admit, I thoroughly enjoyed your description of Ben as a ‘short-term’ speller. And yet another tidbit from the Zion family vault…!

    And so it goes…


  2. Irene Zion says:


    You and I are the only ones awake now. So glad to know I’m not alone here.
    Many of the TNBers live on the West Coast, or some other continent. You never know WHEN they’ll wake up!

    • Anon says:

      Ha. In fairness, I was awake – I just wasn’t coherent. Still can’t make any guarantees there since I’ve only had two cups of coffee and am in my office.

      I grew up with gay siblings and knew there was some awkwardness with my parents but didn’t understand the confusion and tension until I was much older. Had I known, I could have simply suggested, “Why not have them fill out an application and see what happens?” and saved them much angst. Thank you for the excellent idea!

      • Irene Zion says:

        I can hardly take credit for the idea, since it was Ben’s. All I can say is that it certainly lit a fire under us to make sure he would be as safe and centered and comfortable in his sexuality as possible.
        Seriously, we were so easy to manipulate.
        The authorities probably should have taken our parents’ licenses away from us.

        • Anon says:

          If that’s all it takes to get your parenting license revoked, there wouldn’t be much parenting going on these days! Of course, based on many of the kids I meet, that may already be the case but I suspect it’s due more to laziness and selfishness than unlicensed nurturing and development. As already said, I commend you for being so supportive of him even if it was a false alarm.

        • Irene Zion says:

          Unfortunately, there’s so much more we did wrong because we were trusting and idiots and our kids are smarter than we were.
          I have lots of advice for parents, now.
          Of course, I learned it all the hard way.

        • Anon says:

          Ha! Those are the lessons learned best and held longest. And it’s better to have erred by “doing wrong” than by doing nothing. I was fed, watered, clothed and pressured to achieve but didn’t get much else by way of parental interaction. Your kids scored.

        • Irene Zion says:

          That is an interesting way of looking at it.
          I’m not sure.
          I’ll have to think it over some.
          (But Superthanks!)

  3. Christine W. says:

    That was smooth. I’m impressed!

    • Irene Zion says:

      Ben is not as simple a person to understand as he appears to be to the world.
      Not at all.
      Never was, never will be.

  4. Marcia (former next-door neighbor in Illinois and frequent visitor to Florida) says:

    I thought it was going to turn out to be a spelling error of some sort. This is something that only caring parents would fall for. I hope his (eventual) children give him a really hard time!

    • Irene Zion says:

      I am pretty sure we can count on that since I have yet to meet a child who did not give his parents a hard time.
      Done deal.

  5. Mary says:

    Irene, I’ve said it before, but I have to say it again. Your family is awesome. Last Thanksgiving, my whole family went to Disney World. We’re all pretty much grown up, and we hadn’t been on a family vacation in years, so this was pretty thrilling. For Thanksgiving dinner, we went to one of the nicest restaurants in Disney, one where you can watch the nightly fireworks from the balcony. That night, we all got pretty well toasted and happy, and while sitting at the bar waiting for our table (yes, we were drunk before they even seated us), someone made a comment “gay” something or other. Totally innocuous. Then my brother turns to me and says, “You know, I’m gay, right?” I said, “No, I didn’t know that.” Then, he laughed and said, “No, I’m just kidding. I’m not gay. I just wanted to see what you’d say.” So, I said, “Oh, ok. Well just for the record, if you were gay, I wouldn’t care.” To this day, I figure he still could be gay. I don’t really think he is, but I’m still curious… just because I’m nosy.

    • Irene Zion says:


      See? The thing is that he COULD still have been testing you. He might want to have seen what your reaction would really be, but he wasn’t ready to actually come out and tell people.
      Siblings can be so confusing!

      • Mary Richert says:

        For a while, I thought he was gay because even though he doesn’t act like the stereotypical gay guy, I didn’t know him to date many girls over the years, and instead he has a few very close guy friends, and it’s not like there’s anything wrong with him. Lots of girls have always liked him. Funny, smart, cute, etc. All that good stuff. So I just thought maybe he wasn’t interested in women. Still could be true. Or perhaps he dates lots of women and just keeps it quiet. I have no clue. I mean, the good thing is that it actually doesn’t matter… like, at all. But if he were dating someone, I would want to know just b/c I want to know all about his life and the lives of everyone I know. I’m super interested in them … aka nosy.

        • Irene Zion says:

          You know, Mary,

          I think I know what goes through your mind here. It goes through mine too. You kind of want to know that they are happy and that they have someone to love them and cherish them and hold them when they are sad. It doesn’t matter who it is or what gender they are, just to know they have a companion who they love and loves them. You don’t want someone you love that much to be alone or lonely. (And, naturally, someone to laugh with. To laugh with all the time!)

  6. Ducky Wilson says:

    Haha, a science experiment! How will the mice react? He sounds like a crafty one, that Benjamin.

    • Irene Zion says:

      Oh, my, oh, my, Ducky,

      They don’t come any craftier than Benjamin.
      No they do not.
      I have much more on him.
      I’ll tell more eventually.

  7. Ben says:

    If I remember correctly the whole thing made Will uncomfortable, because he was worried you would tell his parents, and then he would get sucked into my bizarre little lie.

    The werid thing is that you all seem to believe that Peddie would allow two openly gay kids share a room. Once it got out all the hetero kids would be furious a the double standard. (They couldn’t even go in the opposite sex’s dorms, let alone rooms.)

    I don’t know exactly what their policy is, but I don’t think a school can afford to have a couple of 14-year-olds have sex with each other and living with each other. (And believe me, if we were gay, we would have been engaging the desire. We were 14-year-olds. 14-year-old boys would kill to lives with someone who they could have sex with.)

    • Corey says:

      Ben, it seems like it’s about time you told your family about Borey. I’m just sayin’.

    • Irene Zion says:

      Yeah, Ben,
      I’m pretty sure 14 year old girls would feel the same way.
      I didn’t know you told Will about it!
      Poor Will! I could have easily met with his parents, had I been another sort of parent, which I wasn’t.

      Yeah, but if Peddie didn’t KNOW, they wouldn’t care. I figured that it was a secret from Peddie.

      HA! You’ll have to tell Will to read this now. I’m sure he’ll think it’s funny after all this time has passed. No one gets more embarrassed than a 14 year old boy, except for you, of course, my unusual son.

  8. Amanda says:

    When I was young, my friends and I devoured Judy Blume books, largely for the so-called dirty parts. Like descriptions of frenching, going on dates, purchasing sanitary napkins, etc. Judging from those books, these were the heady days of mysterious belts, hooks, cardboard cartons of pads too large to fit inside any carry-out bag so girls were always lugging paper-wrapped parcels from the pharmacy. We were suitably horrified, and had no idea that by 1979, feminine products had evolved to include things like glue-strips and so on.

    The only thing more exciting and mysterious and horrible than frenching around braces with headgear and getting your period in gym class were her descriptions, in “Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great”, or polio making the rounds one summer, and terrified parents banning the children from the public pool. We had no way of contextualising the epidemic, and much like Victor thinking polio was a handy solution to awkward times at camp, we clutched hands and gasped and pretended to catch it while jumping through the lawn-sprinkler in the backyard.

    • Irene Zion says:


      Children are so lucky to be able to not understand serious things that could affect them. They can toy with the ideas, but they never really get inside their consciousness.

      Polio was such a horrible thing. You younger ones should read about the outbreak when there was nothing to do for it or to avoid it. Interesting, scary stuff.

  9. Slade Ham says:

    Ahahaha! Lovely flip, Irene. I think I like Ben’s sense of humor. And what a testament to you as parents to just take it all in stride. Only rarely does a kid have to have the “Mom, Dad. I’m NOT gay” speech.

    • Irene Zion says:


      The little shit never even told US! He told his siblings.
      Luckily, they told us because it made us look so gullible and they really had fun with that.

  10. Matt says:

    Good for Ben!

    My parents very likely would have punished me. Not for being gay, but for pranking them. Jerks.

    • Irene Zion says:

      Oh Matt,

      Ben is my baby.
      I don’t think I EVER punished him for anything.
      Ask the rest of the kids.
      He totally could have gotten away with murder.
      (Actually, he was really good. He has no idea how much he could have gotten away with had he tried!)

  11. James D. Irwin says:

    Brilliant. Genius.

    I wish I’d pulled more pranks when I was younger.

    I also wish we had summer camp over here…

    • Irene Zion says:

      Lenore was the only one who loved summer camp out of all of them, James.
      It’s all really hard to figure out.

      The pranks that were done in our house were almost exclusively done by Tim and Lenore. They were the King and Queen of mischief.
      Maybe malfeasance, actually.
      Mischief is too kind a word for them as teenagers.

    • Stefan Kiesbye says:

      I second that. I think summer camp, even a bad summer camp, is more fun than no summer camp. And if only to share one of the ritualized experiences of American culture.

  12. jmblaine says:

    I went to church camp once, for three days.

    I didn’t like being away from home but at church camp
    we listened to a lot of heavy metal and played capture the flag
    and looked
    longingly across the way
    at the girls in their summer nightgowns.

    • Irene Zion says:

      Our kids went to same-sex camps, 11, so there was no peeping on the other sex possible.
      (As far as I know, that is.)

      I went to church camp once.
      I hated it.
      It was kneeling on cold stone floors several times a day.
      I don’t know what my parents were thinking.
      All my friends got to go home after a week, but my parents decided that I wasn’t going to be a quitter and had to stay the whole two miserable weeks.

      • jmblaine says:

        What was that – Catholic?

        The Protestants did better church camps.

        • Irene Zion says:

          No, 11, it was some weird Protestant place.
          The lake was close to freezing and there was no sand, just really jagged shells for a beach.
          Hateful place.
          The only thing that wasn’t horrible is that I hammered out an ashtray for my dad.
          Otherwise it was all bad.

  13. jmblaine says:

    Was Ben the youngest?
    Youngest are always such tricksters.

    • Irene Zion says:

      Oh yeah, jmb,
      he’s my trickster baby.

      • jmblaine says:

        He might come back
        and tell you he really was(is) gay
        and he’s gotcha twice.

        I worked at a megachurch for awhile
        and they sent me all the sexually confused kids
        whose parents were giving them hell.

        This is the sort of nature that makes
        you so loved.

        • Irene Zion says:

          Well, 11,
          I suppose it’s possible,
          but he’s been happily married for two years
          and aside from Kate,
          his only other loves appear to be food and
          (Actually I count that last one as a vice.)

        • jmblaine says:

          Oh No!
          I am so sorry to hear that
          he’s gotten tied up with
          I know this must be difficult for you
          and Victor.
          Can I refer you to a good therapist?
          Is a family intervention in order?

        • Irene Zion says:

          One of the things you learn as a parent, 11, is to chose your battles.
          This one has been out of the gate and running for too long to call it back.

          (And, I have to admit, he is such a talented writer that he even makes politics interesting to read. He’s really got a gift in the turning of phrases. You can forget the subject, if you try, and just enjoy the prose.)

  14. Marni Grossman says:

    Were you disappointed when he turned out to be straight and you realized there was no need to join PFLAG?

    Also, I understand the gravity of polio. But. I’ve always found the idea of an iron lung vaguely hilarious. Probably because I have no conception of what it actually is.

    • Irene Zion says:


      I was really confused, as was Victor, because we were totally taken in.
      It took a whole rearrangement of our brains to come to grips with the new, new Ben.

      Oh Marni, Just google Iron Lung and look at the pictures. You don’t even have to read for it to break your heart.

  15. Becky says:

    I developed a really fierce crush on one counselor over a couple of years. And I went to church camp most of the time. I was maybe 9-10-ish years old. It was highly inappropriate. I remember getting really upset one year and crying because the counselor I had a crush on wrote way more on another girl’s frisbee than he did on mine. When the counselors made tie-dyed t-shirts later in the week, he gave me his, presumably because he felt bad or because he didn’t want a tie-dyed t-shirt. At the time, though, I assumed it meant I had won the battle against that other little hussy, so I was happy.

    I remember one year, it was really, unseasonably cold the first part of the week, and to get your “certification” to go out past the swim area buoys to the diving raft, you had to pass a little swimming test in the first couple of days.

    But it was too cold for me, and even though I was a pretty good swimmer, I couldn’t stand the freezing cold long enough to finish my test.

    So when the weather warmed up the second part of the week, I had to stay in the shallow end with all the non-swimmers. I begged and begged that they let me take the test in the nice weather, but they wouldn’t let me.

    It sucked. I was in swim area special ed.

    After that, I mostly went to horse camp.

  16. Becky says:

    Also, the outhouses were a good 150 feet from the bunk houses, so a lot of kids were scared to go pee in the middle of the night. One year one girl peed her bunk like 3 different times in a week, not because she was a bedwetter, per se, but because she was scared of the dark.

    We were told to wake up a counselor if we wanted someone to go with us, but she didn’t want to wake anyone up, so she just peed her bed. And it smelled, and the counselors would have to wash her sleeping bag and change her mattress again and again.

    God. Camp IS horrible.

    I never realized it, but yeah. Wow.

  17. Irene Zion says:


    Parents forget how perfectly horrible it is to grow up.
    Kids need so much hugging and laughing to get through it.

    • Irene Zion says:

      The thing is, Becky, some kids adore camp and some kids don’t.
      There is absolutely no way to know which one yours is unless you send them there.
      It’s so HARD to be a parent, too!

      • Becky says:

        I don’t blame my parents. I usually asked to go. Or they would ask me if I wanted to go, and I said yes. And I think, at the time, I mostly had fun. I don’t remember being miserable, except for getting homesick. For example, one year, our bunkhouse won messiest abode, and the trophy was an elaborately decorated toilet seat. And that was uproariously funny.

        But in hindsight, as an adult, I look back on those experiences and some of them were kind of horrific. Or they seem that way now in my grown-up brain.

        • Irene Zion says:

          You know, Becky,
          It’s just so hard, being a parent and doing it right.
          I’m glad you don’t blame your parents.

        • Becky says:

          I blame them for other things. Like my huge nose and never having had enough pairs of Girbauds.

        • Anon says:

          Nonsense! I think your nose looks quite petite. And pink.

        • Irene Zion says:

          I agree with Anon, Becky.

          Also your fur is so luxurious and beautifully patterned!

          What are Girbauds?

        • Richard Cox says:

          Girbaud jeans! Baahahaha. Those were the days.

        • Irene Zion says:

          How does Richard know what Girbaud is and I don’t?
          I’m being totally left out here and I’m feeling sort of slighted.

        • Becky says:

          Because Richard is (approximately?) my age and they were a brand name of jeans that were all the rage in the early 90s.

        • Irene Zion says:

          Thanks, Becky,
          I hate it when I don’t know what people are talking about.
          That was nice of you to explain it to me.

        • Becky says:

          They were profoundly unflattering to almost every body type. They came in a wide variety of offensive colors and patterns.

          I’m not sure what we were thinking.

        • Becky says:

          I keep trying to find a picture of the old kind, but the company is still making clothes and has apparently undertaken some kind of cover-up.

        • Irene Zion says:

          Why is it that we were so easily ruled by styles at that age?
          Even if we looked like idiots in actuality, we felt as though we were at the cutting edge!

        • Becky says:

          I think it has something to do with the brain not being fully developed yet. Still trying to make those neuro-pathways with regards to the subtleties of social navigation.

          Takes some time to learn that things are slightly more complicated than fashionably ridiculous pants.

        • Irene Zion says:

          I think the problem arises when a person doesn’t grow out of being “fashionable” for its own sake. Here in Miami Beach, there are multitudes of older than they should be ladies wearing short, short skirts and decollete that is WAY too low for their ages.
          I only dress like that when the kids are around in order to embarrass them.
          It’s worth it.

        • Becky says:

          Although, I have to admit, I would like to get to the point in my life where I simply no longer care what anyone thinks, and if I want to stuff my wrinkled arse into a pair of hot pants, by God, that’s what I’m going to do.

          I mean, in some cases, I find that kind of disregard for public opinion admirable.

        • Irene Zion says:

          The wondrous thing is that your kids don’t have a disregard for public opinion, Becky, so you have a fabulous weapon on hand at any time for humiliating them.

  18. ksw says:

    seems to me that you have a latent homophobia exacerbated by angst over an episode of canine masterbation in you anal phase.

  19. Irene Zion says:


    I have not the slightest idea what you just said, but, I think I take exception to it anyway!
    You have some nerve, ksw!

  20. Richard Cox says:

    I like Benjamin. I mean, not that way. Not that there’s anything wrong with that way. That’s just not what I mean. I mean I like his sense of humor. At least in this particular case. I can’t say about other situations because this is the only one I really know.

    I guess I don’t know Benjamin all that well. But I still like him. Just not in that way.

  21. Oh Irene– I love love love how you started to tell the story of Arthur’s camp experience only to segue into the possibility that Ben was bunking with his “lover” at Nerd Camp….

    I just need to know– was Ben the only Zion who tried camp?

    I think us TNB’ers who have a serious Zion fixation need some t-shirts– you know — something along the way of: I WANT TO BE A ZION!

    And please, Irene, keep it coming!!!

    • VICTOR!!!! I meant VICTOR—- Not Arthur! ACK!

    • Irene Zion says:

      That’s okay, Robin, I call him Arthur all the time. He’s sort of demented, so he never knows the difference. Really. Plus he’s half deaf and won’t admit it. So he can’t hear most of what you say to him. He’s awfully cute, though, gotta say that about him.

      When Sara, my firstborn, was an INFANT, he used to make me cry by saying that he was going to send her away to 8 week sleep-away camp when she was five years old. I would just sob and sob, thinking of being separated from her. Then one day it occurred to me that I should stop crying already and save it for when she was five and see if he really meant it. He didn’t. They used to send kids off at five for eight weeks back when he was a kid, but not when my kids were that age.
      So I learned a lesson, an important one, actually. Don’t dry about something until it’s in front of you already and you find you can’t do anything about it. Saved me a lot of grief, that lesson did.

      Yeah. All five went to camp. Most went when they were eight, but Lenore went when she was still seven. Sara liked it alright, the boys hated it, but Lenore was the princess of all of her camp. The entire camp revolved around her. They all adored her and she was just where she belonged.

  22. Simon Smithson says:

    So, correct me if I’m wrong: is summer camp not a school thing? As in, you go to summer camp with all these people you’ve never met before?

    • Irene Zion says:

      The first year, Simon, you go with no one you know.
      Usually most of the kids don’t know each other at first, but when thrown together they get to form a community of sorts pretty quickly.
      Nope. Nothing whatsoever to do with school. Just a way to get the city kids out into the country for a change and get them a new environment, new friends and away from idle hands and the things idle hands might make them do.

      • Simon Smithson says:

        Hmmm. Over here we just have school camps, generally – you go to camp with the same people you’ve known for however long you’ve been in school.

        • Irene Zion says:

          Here it’s kind of interesting.
          Since you have two totally separate groups of friends who don’t know anything at all about your other life, you can become someone else.
          Maybe someone you’d like to have been.
          Maybe you’d just like to try on a different personality for size.
          Maybe you want to make up a whole new history for yourself that is unlike anything you’ve actually experienced in your own real life at home.
          Or, maybe you just want to be yourself in a whole new setting.
          The possibilities are endless.

  23. Summer camps are something I’ve heard a lot about thanks to the pervasiveness of American culture, but not something I’ve experienced. Lots of British students go Stateside to supervise these camps (yeah, I’ve seen Friday the 13th – I know what these horny freaks get up to…) but I never did. And I doubt any of the camp councilors ever went. We just don’t have that kind of thing in Britain. I don’t know why.

  24. Irene Zion says:


    Most of the camp counsellors were campers who grew out of camping, plus a few kids from other countries who wanted to come here for the work and to be in a different country for the summer.

    Not once, all the years my kids were at camp, did Freddy Kruger show up, or Jason. Honest.

  25. Quenby Moone says:

    As usual, I think everyone who isn’t a Zion would like to sign up for the privilege if any Zion chooses to drop their contract. I will sign up too, if there’s open enrollment.

    I love the casual social experiment your son perpetrated! Hilarious scientific inquiry. Big, BIG fan of the whole pickle.

    • Irene Zion says:


      There has been and always will be open enrollment in the Zion family.
      Ask, and you shall receive.
      You are officially adopted.

      Benjamin is a strange one.
      All my kids are strange, but Ben is strange from another planet strange.

  26. Frank says:

    Summer camps and iron lungs… Polio shots, Salk vaccines, oral doses…

    I’d forgotten a lot of that stuff, and then rather glossed over it in your amusing account of Ben’s faux gaiety non-Parisian.

    My dad had polio, and while I could not have told you, or anyone else, the difference, I was reliably informed by my mom that one of his legs was some fractions of an inch shorter than the other because of it. I suppose that was one reason why I was always first in line to get vaccinated -and not just for polio -for ANYthing!

    And I remember going into the school gym, teams of nurses dressed (in dresses, of course) in what is now horribly outdated and antiquated starched whites with those funny hats, sitting behind lunch tables dressed in white tablecloths (or were they really white sheets?), with long lines of kids in varying states and stages of fear and loathing and sometimes tears and wailing, attended in many cases by overbearing, overly concern mothers, all awaiting their turn to be shot with NEEDLES..! Mom sheparded me to the gym for the first series as I recall, but I wasn’t sure, exactly, why -she ought to have known I was a good child (wasn’t she always thinking that?) who got really good grades and followed instructions and did what he was told by his superiors (back then that was every adult (i.e., anyone more that 5 years older than me) in sight).

    I was, of course, vaguely anxious, but I, along with every other kid there, had seen the pictures of all the poor unfortunates who’d been paralyzed and who couldn’t even BREATHE! so had to have a machine -the feared, nay dreaded! -IRON LUNG.

    So I braved the whole experience, got stuck with a sharp needle and injected with the mysterious vaccine, got a band-aid applied to where they’d rolled up my typical mid-50s horizontally-striped short-sleeve shirt, and was advised not to hit it or something like that, had a sore deltoid for a few hours, and that was about that.

    And I therefore avoided the iron lung.

    Later, I would gloat to the kids in the 60s who got the Sabin vaccine. THEY didn’t have to be brave, be a man, and take a needle for the team. All THEY had to do was swallow a dose of some pinkish stuff out of a paper cup that I’d later come to associate with a Cuban coffee dispensed from windows in the front of Miami Cuban markets.

    And summer camp… I went to a couple of them, or maybe three or four, I really don’t recall the number. What I DO remember was that I could actually afford to go -I’d grown up not poor, but what I suppose might be described as a financially-stressed home, and there were, chronically, more things we couldn’t afford than we could, it seemed -and so the expense of summer camp being somehow afforded always somewhat amazed me.

    At any rate, there are only four things I really remember about “summer camp”: a couple of girls I met in two of them, one of whom I followed up with after coming home for the rest of summer (the other one, alas, lived someplace upstate ), being -along with three friends, the ‘camp kings’ or ‘big shots’ or whatever you call a bunch of early teen boys who essentially were at the top of the camper totem pole at camp, and, until a recent prostate biopsy, the only enema I ever recall having. The girls were great, having the run of the camp was cool, and the enema was… strange… but I would have appreciated reading Dave Barry… and should have… before its administration. The funny thing was, I couldn’t tell you why I got one except I’d felt bad and had a stomach ache.

    So I suppose the moral of the story is, don’t get sick with an unexplained stomach ache in summer camp in the early 60s.


  27. Irene Zion says:


    People were so afraid to let their kids out of the house or let friends in to play with them.
    Sending them to school was a leap of faith.

    Do you remember the fear in the air?

    I might just write a not-at-all-funny piece about those times.

    (I’m sorry, but did you just say your parents scrimped and saved to send you to

  28. Melissa (Irene's Friend) says:

    Ahhhhhh, now in my non NyQuil induced haze, I can make sense of it. I totally missed the part where it was a prank. Geez. My youngest tells LIES. LIES , LIES, LIES. The oldest two I can always tell. This boy is good. Must be in the last child gene.


  29. Irene Zion says:

    Well, Melissa, maybe in your family it’s just the last child.

    In my family, I’m pretty sure that Sara is the only one that ever told me the truth.

    That leaves four seasoned, talented liars.

  30. Love it. Just love it! Never a dull moment at the Zion household!
    And yes, it’s my total dream that my kids can go to that Northwestern nerd camp someday–I’ve totally heard about it before. It sounds like it would have been my husband’s wet dream as a child, but instead he had to go (with his little, 9 year old scientific/skeptical/atheistic mind) to Presbyterian church camp, where his dad was a counselor.
    I lived in the ghetto, of course, so I had never even heard of summer camp except in books, or movies like Little Darlings . . .

    • Irene Zion says:

      Oh, sweet, husky-voiced Gina!

      Your husband would have adored it, certainly more than what it sounds like he did instead.

      If you can send your kids there, they will have the time of their lives.
      They sort of have to embrace the being a nerd thing, though.
      That’s important. Although going there inspires that in the kids.
      Pride in the self-itentity of nerdiness.

  31. Tim says:

    Camp was stupid. Nothing but bar mitzvah practice (in which we did not participate) and sports. Sports are stupid. There were mosquitos and it was hot and disgusting.

    Turns out Ben is gay.

    • Lenore says:

      yeah, last i checked, he was gay.

    • Irene Zion says:

      Okay, Tim,

      First of all it was SUMMER. Of course it was hot.
      Second, all you kids thought camp should be indoors in air conditioning. Camp is an OUTDOOR thing!
      Third, mosquitos are everywhere in the summer.
      Fourth, I think sports are stupid too, but to get into the fraternity of boys you had to at least learn the basics of sports, even if you didn’t like them.

      • Irene Zion says:

        and Tim?
        I very much doubt that Ben is Gay since, you might remember that he is happily married to a woman.

        You’re just trying to tease your brother. I know your game, buster.

  32. Phat B says:

    We had church camp if you wanted to get laid and boy scout camp if you wanted to get high. Parents were always confused about the “neck rashes” going around and why we could be out in the woods for hours without earning a single merit badge. Meanwhile, back at home, our parents were probably smashed on margaritas having sex on the kitchen table. I think camp is just a hedonism break for the entire family.

    • Irene Zion says:

      So Phat B,

      Were the “rashes” hickies? They could easily be poison ivy, being in the woods and all.
      No, that doesn’t make sense, it’s the church camp you had sex in.

      Why would you get “rashes” from getting high in the woods? I don’t understand.

      Church camp should have known enough to have separate girl and boy camps REALLY far away from each other. Except for Nerd Camp, all my kids camps were single sex.

      (Although Victor’s was both sexes and there was plenty of, shall we say, mingling, as I understand it.)

      • Phat B says:

        Rashes were hickies. Church camp was coed, as were most of the activities. The girls and boys had separate cabins, divided by an insurmountable 20 feet of open dirt. One time we came back to boy scout camp shitfaced on whiskey, and one of the kids immediately began puking. The 3 parents with us thought he had food poisoning. Denial ain’t just a river in Idaho.

        • Irene Zion says:

          Honey, (Phat B)

          Don’t I know it.
          I raised my kids on denial.
          Just ask them.
          You know Lenore, right?
          Ask her.
          I’ve written quite a bit about it.
          Pathetic parenting skills, we had.

        • Phat B says:

          I’ve always wondered whether some parents knew and just didn’t want to acknowledge it. My Dad had a keen eye for shenanigans, so I wasn’t used to these parents who couldn’t recognize a drunk kid. I thought they were faking cuz they were embarrassed, but then I remembered that some parents actually have kids who behave and tell the truth, and it makes a little more sense. Shit, my mom used to give me the fake hug as a cover to smell my breath when I came home at night. It was tough to slip one by my folks. They were like wilderness trackers for sinning.

        • Anon says:

          I think I only remember one time in my entire childhood that I managed to get a Hail Mary pass of bullshit past my mom’s detector. I was probably fourteen or so and – ahem – may or may not have been in a fight resulting in some discoloration around both temples. I had iced my face up damned fast right after so it never really bruised per se but you could still make out the sort of jaundiced, pre-bruise hue. My mom was seriously in my face, eyeballing it, demanding to know if I’d been fighting and I was inspired to tell her that it was a reaction to some new anti-zit medication I’d been applying.

          Seriously. I don’t even know where the words came from. And she just stared at me like a hawk at a mouse and then told me to stop using that shit right away because it was staining my skin. First I couldn’t believe she bought it, then I questioned whether she knew it was crap but was actually letting me walk for a change, then I remembered who I was dealing with and contemplated getting religion since I had obviously just witnessed a miracle. Apparently, the fact that I was discolored evenly on both sides gave credence to the “topical medication” bit. Thank God the other guy knew how to use a backswing, too, or I’d have been in real trouble! (:

        • Irene Zion says:

          Phat B and Anon,

          Your parents were Nobel Laureates next to me and Victor.

          I gotta show you now, and it’s only ONE example:

          This is the first thing I ever wrote on TNB.
          It’s from the old TNB, so I don’t think you can comment anymore about how stupid we were.
          You could tell me here.
          I deserve it.
          Hit me full-bore.

        • Anon says:

          Sigh. I might not exonerate you entirely but I could at least put you in good company. However, while my father has passed on, my mother is still with us and I wish to preserve her illusions – and my hide (she’s old but still frigging fast) – so I will not share examples of my personal and direct guilt.

          In my teens, I had this great (for me) knack for talking my friends into stealing their parents’ cars. Repeatedly. And often. Had to cycle them, otherwise the odometer would start to rack up fast on just one. They all slept through it, including the time I convinced my friend to escape from his house (after throwing the keys down first, of course) by rappelling from his second-story window. To a teenaged male, this means not so much honest rappelling as “holding onto the rope really, really tight and trying not to pee yourself”. It was worth it (again, to me) – his dad’s ride was a cherry ’68 Cadillac convertible, white with gaudy-tomato-red interior, replete with a cowskin cover for the retracted topper. Of course, his van was nice, too…. Ah, youth.

        • Irene Zion says:


          Did you get caught for any of this?
          So far as I know, the only car my kids stole was ours.
          How did you know how to turn back the odometer? I thought that was impossible.

          I’ll bet your mom would get a kick out of reading about your exploits now. After we know you turned out alright, then whatever you did, (that didn’t hurt anyone,) would be forgiven and also found to be interesting. She will spend a lot of time trying to figure out when you were doing these things and how you hid them from her and your dad. I really think she’d enjoy it now.

          (I know that I would love to hear more!)

          When all this first came to light, I thought that the kids were slipping out the window. Turns out they were just walking into the garage, opening the garage door and driving out with the car, the keys being conveniently hung on a hook by the door out to the garage.

        • Anon says:

          I never got caught because, by letter of the law, I never really did anything (devious little bastard). The closest I came was when we took a friend’s mother’s car that was parked on the street. Came back a few hours later and someone had taken the spot. A little tense there and I didn’t trouble him again.

          I never turned back the odometer because I didn’t know how. That’s why I had a “car pool” of sorts – good little parasite that I was, I didn’t want to overtax my hosts. (:

        • Irene Zion says:


          I misread the first time you were speaking about odometers, I understand now. I have to admit to being pretty impressed with your prowess at odometer fiddling. Well, I suppose I’m just as impressed with your excellent plan of using many cars only a bit so that the mileage wasn’t noticed.

          What happened when the parking space was gone? Did the mom just think she parked somewhere other than she remembered? I can see why you wouldn’t try the parked-on-the-street ploy again!

          You know though, I’ll bet the kids whose parents’ cars you finagled had the time of their lives. You provided some excellent entertainment for oodles of kids!

        • Anon says:

          Yeah, that’s it – it was a public service! Re: the parking space, it was a great scene. Picture a car full of 14-to-16-year olds, cruising around joy-riding and returning home to the “oh shit moment” of no space. The other guys split but I wasn’t going to leave my friend to take the heat alone so, since we were going to wait things out together anyway, I suggested we double-park and wait… right there. God smiled. The guy who’d taken the spot must’ve been a baker or something because he got in the car and left about an hour before my friend’s mom normally woke up. The second he left, we snagged it back and split for the night/morning – no one the wiser, unless his mom wondered why the interior didn’t feel colder. I’ve got a semi-charmed life.

        • Irene Zion says:


          Whoever you are, & regardless of whether you are wearing any clothing under your trench coat, you have the luck of the Irish for sure.

        • Anon says:

          Aye, but dat’s anudder story al’tagedder.

          I typed that as a bad Irish brogue but just highly amused my teammate visiting from Belfast and nosily reading over my shoulder, I might add!

        • Irene Zion says:


          Obviously you should ask your friend to say what you want to say and then transpose it phonetically! That would sound genuinely Irish!

        • Anon says:

          I would but I can’t understand a single frigging thing he says (I’ll make sure I leave this on-screen for his eventual return)…. (:

        • Irene Zion says:

          When the Irishman comes back, ask him to speak ssslllllloooooooollllllyyyyyyy.

  33. Ursula says:

    The idea of summer camp did not exist where I grew up. Victor’s experience obviously made a life long impression. Ben had a different outlook on what “summer fun” should be. He must have been an intimidizing child. What an idea to test his parents with the possibility of him being “gay.” You handled it well and your research on the subject should be utilized somewhere. How is Ben as an adult, still challenging the world.

    • Irene Zion says:

      You know, Ursula,

      all the kids were brilliant, (if I do say so myself, totally without prejudice,) but Benjamin was just different. All the kids will tell you that. He always saw things from another place than other people, therefore his vantage point let him think differently.

      Benjamin is still totally different.
      Yup, he’s still challenging the world.

  34. D.R. Haney says:

    I’m envious that Victor was ever in the presence of Marilyn Monroe, even if he wasn’t old enough to appreciate her.

    It’s interesting that you and Victor both had brushes with movie stars in childhood. I’m remembering your encounter with Michael Douglas, though of course he wasn’t famous at the time, as you hadn’t become TNB-famous either.

  35. Irene Zion says:


    I think that probably most everyone had brushes with people who later became famous, but no one remembers. The only reason I knew is that my dad told me later on that Kirk Douglas’s son was one of the kids I was playing with on board the Andrea Doria.

    Probably all of you played with kids you forgot who later became famous.

    I still think it’s hysterical that the boys at camp treated Marilyn Monroe just the same as any old camp mother!

    (I imagine the counsellors might have had a different reaction, but Victor doesn’t remember that.)

  36. Erika Rae says:

    Summer camp was awesome. Instead of Nerd Camp, I went to church camp – which is sort of the same thing with a different name and objective. Camp was so much fun, though. Especially the year I performed an exorcism on one of my friends. She deserved it, too. She was puking up demons in the girls’ bathroom, or so she said. I always wondered if the demons got down in the camp’s septic system or whether they flew out before they hit the bowl water.

    • Irene Zion says:

      Damn, Erika!

      You went to EXORCISM CAMP!
      I would have killed to be in the presence of the expulsion of demons!
      Are you telling me that you never got to SEE any of them, even though you exorcised them?
      That is not fair.
      You get to perform an exorcism, and the damn particular demons you kick out are the invisible kind!
      I, myself, would feel cheated by that.

    • Richard Cox says:

      When is this memoir of yours going to be published? Every time you mention a story like this it fascinates me. Puking up demons in the girls’ bathroom. And I thought I’d heard everything.

  37. Irene Zion says:


    Get “The Summer of Naked Swim Parties” for now. I’m in the middle of it and it’s fabulous!

    • Jessica Blau says:

      Ah, thanks for the shout out Irene! YOU are fabulous!
      Okay, about this post: think how great the world would it be if EVERY gay kid who came out (in whatever way) had the support you and Victor were willing to give Ben.
      And, I must say that what Ben did was hilarious and so clever!

      • Irene Zion says:

        Jessica Anya,

        I love your book. You can get it on kindle now, which a lot of traveling folks prefer.

        Ben is clever. A clever little shit.

  38. sara a z says:

    you and victor are such awesome parents. i went to a summer camp only for one or two years. it was a polish camp. i couldn’t drink milk so they suggested i have cereal with orange juice. i didn’t like that camp.

  39. Irene Zion says:


    Sara a z,

    That sounds so repulsive. I assume you didn’t eat it that way. Are you allergic to milk or is there some prohibition against milk in Polish camp?

    Seems like people loved camp, hated camp, or didn’t go to camp but wanted to. Weird.

  40. angela says:

    irene, your piece was such a fun reprieve after quenby’s, which had me worrying about my lack of health insurance (still a terrific piece though, queunby!).

    i also hated being dirty as a kid. once in kindergarten we took a class trip to a farm, and i was disgusted by having to walk through the mud.

    camp would not have set well with me.

  41. Irene Zion says:

    You probably would have ended up at Nerd Camp too, Angela!
    You would’ve loved it there.
    Nice and clean and brilliant people who liked to study all around you,
    along with brilliant professors who loved teaching special kids.
    From what I’ve read of yours, you have all the trappings of a special kid!

  42. Tawni says:

    Late to the party! I just saw this linked on your Facebook page and realized I missed it. I apologize for my oblivion. Story of my life.

    I went to Girl Scout camp. I grew up in the country, so the living amongst nature aspect didn’t really impress me. What did leave an impression was how quickly the girls went Lord of the Flies. There was a nearly instant social hierarchy established. Amazing stuff.

    How much FUN are all of your children? Seriously. I’m sure you were less than thrilled about being tricked by Ben back then, but I had to giggle that he filled out his camp application that way. What a little character. I think you and Victor handled the perceived situation beautifully. Thanks for sharing this story with us. (:

  43. Irene Zion says:


    I don’t know if it makes as much sense to send a kid who isn’t from the city to the country for camp. Seems to me that a country kid should go to the city somehow for the experience, although I can’t think what’s there besides Nerd Camp.
    Tawni, I have to tell you that if they go Lord of the Flies at camp, it can’t hold a candle to public school in Champaign, Illinois. Particularly the girls. Girls in upper elementary school and middle school and a bit less in High School are vicious animals. It broke my heart to have to keep sending my girls there and hearing about what I could do nothing about. It makes a mother crazy to not have at least some solutions.

    My kids were a blast. It turns out that they were more of a blast when I found out what they did after years had passed and their dangerous shenanigans had already proven not to kill them.

  44. Lorna says:

    “He could only learn short term spelling”. Hahaha. I love that line!

    I don’t think I would have been nearly as the patient when discovering the lover answer in the application. I would have questioned then and there. “Lover? What?” and then I would have gone out and bought all those books if needed. What a little trickster you have there.

  45. Irene Zion says:


    When Ben was little and he had spelling tests, we would go through the list and I’d ask him to spell the words first, to see what we needed to concentrate the most on.
    Once “lamb” was on the list.
    I said, “Ben, this one is really counterintuitive. Let me just tell you how this one is spelled.”
    (I was trying to lessen the frustration level.)
    “I want to give it a shot, Mom,” he said.
    “Okay,” I said, “lamb.”
    Ben said, “S….”
    I totally lost my cool and burst out laughing.
    “Why are you laughing,” he said.
    “Well, Honey, I apologize, but why would you say ?”
    He was really annoyed at me.
    said it was counterintuitive!” he replied.

    • Irene Zion says:

      Sorry, Lorna,
      The power to edit has been taken from me and my attempt at using code failed.
      I asked toward the end
      “Why would you say ‘S?'”
      I think you got the point, but it’s frustrating when I can’t fix my mistakes like I can on the first page.

      Thanks so much for reading!

  46. in college i learned to never assume, because it makes an ass out of you and me.

    • Irene Zion says:


      I spent my entire years bringing up my children as an ass.
      Unfortunately for them, Victor was an ass too.
      We were the ass-parents.

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