“Where do you get your ideas?” is an understandable but impossible-to-answer question for authors. But “Nuns at Scout camp” will be one of my answers someday.

I’m often asked where I get my ideas for books, which is an understandable but impossible question to answer.

There is no well of ideas. There is no secret formula. There is no one answer to that question, as much as fledgling writers seem to want there to be.

Simply put, I hear something. I read something. I see something. The flicker of an idea is born.

Something Missing was born from a conversation with a friend over dinner about a missing earring.

Unexpectedly, Milo began with a memory from my fourth grade classroom.

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend was born from a conversation with a friend and colleague while monitoring students at recess.

My upcoming novel, The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs, originated with a story that my wife told me about her childhood just before falling asleep.

My unpublished novel, Chicken Shack, began with a dare.

All of these are simplifications of the actual origins of these novels. There are more complex stories behind the origin of each book. In all cases, additional ideas were grafted onto the original idea to create a more complex story.

But in terms of the initial spark, that was how each story began.

Which leads me to this poster, which is displayed in the Yawgoog Heritage Museum at Yawgoog Scout Reservation, the camp where I spent many of my boyhood summers.

I suspect that someday in the future, this poster will be added to the list of initial sparks for one of my novels.

A nun’s day at a Scout camp? How could this not be the basis for a novel?


The boys at the Big Swim Meet had no idea how fleeting boyhood is. Once gone, you will long for it forever.

This bit of newspaper was printed circa 1930. It describes the “Big Swimming Meet” at Yawgoog Scout Reservation, the same place where I would spend my summers half a century later.


As a boy, I also participated in swimming meets as the paper describes. Every Saturday afternoon, troops would gather at the waterfront to compete against each other in events not unlike the ones described in this clipping.

Like the boys who finished last in the competition so long ago, I also camped at Tuocs for a time.

Amongst the many events in which I competed was The Marathon Swim. One Scout from each troop competed in a sprint through water and over floating docks. It was the final event of every swim meet, and the honor of competing was given to the troop’s strongest swimmer. I won the event three years in a row and was awarded a “Mr. Marathon Swim” certificate from my grizzled Scoutmaster that I still have this day. It’s a small, handwritten, fairly generic certificate, but at the time, it meant a great deal to me.

Good times. Sadly, good times now lost forever.

I look at a newspaper clipping like this, and photos like these, taken at Yawgoog in the 1960s, and think about all of these boys, now old men if they’re lucky and dead if they’re not, and feel a deep sadness for all that has been lost.

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For all that they have lost. For all that I have lost.

Old photographs like these remind me of the inexorable grinding away of our lives by the specter of time. I see the smiling faces of boys in this singular moment of their lives, with the unadulterated joy of boyhood mixing with the promise of so many summers ahead, and I think about how fleeting boyhood truly is.

It’s one of the most special times in a boy’s life, and it’s over in the wink of an eye.

For the boys of Tuocs, Frontier and Musketeer campsites, that Big Swimming Meet was everything to them on that day. It was a moment that many thought would never be forgotten. It was simplicity, comradery, competition, and laughter. It was a time before the demands of life, the pressures of romantic love, the weight of regret, and the sadness of loss began chipping away at their innocent spirits.

Yawgoog was a blessing for me and so many boys because it removed us from the real world for a short time and brought us back to simpler days. No homework. No part time job.  No parents. No girls.

Just wind and water, dirt and stone, and boyhood friends, living amongst the trees and clouds in a quiet, enduring peace.

Those boyhood days are so fleeting.

I find myself wanting to reach into the photograph, reach back through time to the boys at the Big Swimming Meet, and warn them of how quickly adulthood will seize them by the throats and thrust new pressures and responsibilities upon them. I want to tell them to breathe in the air, squint into the sunshine, dip their toes into the pond water, and mark their moment in the sun in some way that will make it last forever. For them and for us who will follow. 

I want to tell them to remember. Remember hard. I want to tell them that there will be days, long after the Big Swimming Meet is finished and their time at Yawgoog has come to an end, when they will long for that happiness and simplicity again, if only for a day.

A place where time (and boys) stand still

I visited my former Boy Scout camp, Yawgoog Scout Reservation, last week with two friends from childhood who love the place as much as me. 


Danny and I visited camp together last year, and a few years ago, before the birth of my first child, I took my wife to Yawgoog for a day so she could see the place that still holds so much of my heart.

This yearly visit has become a bit of a tradition. We hope to bring even more former boyhood friends with us next year.

Danny’s son is spending his first week at Yawgoog, and Dave brought his three boys to show them the place where so many of our childhood memories were made.

The best thing about Yawgoog is how little changes. Almost twenty-five years since I last spent my last summer day at camp as a boy, it is nearly identical today. The trading posts take credit cards now, the challenge course has added more high wire, they’ve added paddle boards and shotgun shooting to the endless array of activities for Scouts to choose, but the camp is essentially unchanged. 

While standing on the edge of Yawgoog Pond, on the edge of our old campsite, Dave said that he could still see our old friend, Jeff Durand, standing on the last of the an assemblage of rocks jutting into the pond, fishing pole in hand.

He’s right. The rocks are the same. The pond is the same. The sounds and smells are the same. And yes, I, too, could see Jeff standing there, balanced on a glacial stone, casting and reeling, casting and reeling,

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As we walked and talked, we recalled many fond memories from camp. Dave recalled my frequent hunger strikes and the battles with a troop from Long Island. We talked about the inordinate amount of time that Danny spent at the rifle range. We laughed about my continued hatred for the craft center. We crossed the field where our troop had won many a tug-o-war contest.

The only real thing that’s changes in twenty-five years is us, though even when I look at this photograph, taken at the end of the day, I can still the young, wide-eyed boys hiding behind the faces of these men.


If given the chance, we would spend another week at camp in a heartbeat. Yawgoog is a bittersweet reminder of the joys of boyhood and how much it is missed.

A World War II video went viral last week. It featured the citizen’s of Warsaw, Poland and their yearly tradition of coming to a complete stop for one minute every year in honor of the Warsaw Uprising, an attempt to liberate the capital from Nazi Germany in 1944.

While not as large-scale as this Warsaw’s tradition, a bell is rung at noon every day at Yawgoog in honor of Scouts who have lost their lives in service to their country. As the bell rings out twelve times to mark the hour, every person in camp comes to an immediate halt and stands in silence.

It’s a remarkable thing. It rang while we were walking down to our former campsite. Even though twenty-five years had passed since we had heard that bell ring, all three of us came to a stop instantly, our childhood programming still running just fine.

Whether they are under the supervision of adults, paddling a canoe in the middle of the pond or hiking alone in the woods, every boy at camp without exception stops until the bell is finished ringing.

I remember being engaged in a massive water bucket fight one year with members of my troop. When the bell began ringing, hostilities ceased for the thirty seconds it takes to ring the bell. Boys armed with water buckets, poised to drench their friends, frozen in place until the twelfth and final ring.

Yawgoog is a special place indeed.


My boyhood adventure land

One of my favorite moments of this past summer was the chance to visit Yawgoog Scout Reservation with an old friend and former Boy Scout.

I spent many of my summers at Yawgoog as a boy, and they were some of the best days of my life. I have asked when if I were to ever die (which is unlikely), I would like my ashes spread on Yawgoog Pond after a memorial service at Yawgoog’s Chapel in the Pines, the only church where I have ever felt truly welcome and happy.

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Walking the campgrounds with Danny brought back more memories than I could ever imagine, and every one of those memories made me smile. There was never a bad day at Yawgoog.

Never a moment when I was less than overjoyed with the location and the people around me.  

Actually, showering at camp was always a little disturbing. Every shower at camp is inexplicably placed adjacent to a dumpster, making the experience less than refreshing.


Yawgoog has continued to live in my heart long after my days as a boy came to an end. I can still sing the songs from all three campgrounds, still know the reservation like the back of my hand and can still recount so many of the adventures that I had during those long summer days.

Ten years ago I returned to Yawgoog for two summers as a Scoutmaster for a local Boy Scout troop, but when that troop folded, my days at Yawgoog came to an end once again.

I’m thrilled about the prospect of taking my son to Yawgoog someday and determined to find a way to make the opportunity available to my daughter as well. During our visit, Danny and I saw a handful of girls at camp as part of Venturing, a youth development program of the Boy Scouts of America for young men and women who are 14 years of age.

It’s not the same as the Boy Scouts, but it’s a start. And it will permit her access to Yawgoog during the summer if she is interested.

She will be interested.

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Parenting is supposed to make you sad, frightened and neurotic. Don’t make your kids suffer by mitigating the pain.

When I was a boy, I spent much of my summer at a Camp Yawgoog, a Boy Scout camp in Rockville, Rhode Island. My troop would spend a week at camp, and then I would spend another 2-7 weeks at a campsite designed for boys who wanted to spend more than just one week away from home. It was called Camp Baden Powell, and it consisted of a mishmash of boys from various Boy Scout troops around the country and abroad who were overseen by a theoretical Scoutmaster but were essentially on their own unless they got into trouble.

These were some of the best days of my life. The freedom, the independence, the personal responsibility and the decision-making that I was afforded helped to make the me the person I am today.

It was also fun as hell.

Parents were invited to visit the camp on Sundays, but this was an opportunity that my parents never exercised. I was also required to send a postcard home every Wednesday. If I did not arrive at the dining hall with one in hand, I would not be served dinner.

I often opted to eat a candy bar for dinner or stockpile bread at lunchtime rather than take the time to pen a missive to my parents. For my time at Camp Yawgoog, I was blissfully disconnected from the rest of the world.

As a parent, I will probably send my children to summer camp someday. Ideally, my son will find his way to Camp Yawgoog like his father did, and if I had my way, my daughter would as well. While my children are away at camp, I know that I will miss them a great deal, and I may even find myself nervous about the prospect of turning them over to the care of people who I don’t know all that well.

But as a parent, this is part of my job. I want my children to experience the same level of independence and personal responsibility that I did while away at camp, even if this means cutting the cord for weeks at a time.

It is not supposed to be easy. It may be hard on my children (for about four seconds), and it will most assuredly be difficult for me and my wife. Heart wrenching and frightening, even. Of this I have little doubt.

I have seen it many times before.  

For the past several years, I have taken my fifth grade students on an overnight trip to a nearby YMCA camp. For some students, this is the first time that they have ever slept away from home for any reason. Over the years, I’ve had to work hard in order to convince some parents to place their child in my care for those three days. Though I was always sympathetic to their needs and feelings, I never truly understood how difficult it was for some of these mothers and fathers until I became a parent myself.

A few years ago I had a student whose four older brothers and sisters had never spent a night outside the family home until after graduating from high school. As you might imagine, the idea of sending their youngest child away for three days was unfathomable to these parents, but through much discussion, repeated reassurances, some light-hearted cajoling and a smidgen of tough love, I managed to convince her father (the decision-maker in the family) to send his daughter to camp with me.

On the morning we were set to leave, he arrived at school to tell me that he had changed his mind, and once again, through hard work and many assurances, I managed to convince him that sending his daughter to camp with her peers was the best decision he could make.

When we arrived back at school three days later, her father was standing in the parking lot, waiting for me. As I climbed out of my car, he reached out, took hold of my arms and hugged me. He told me that the first night had been incredibly difficult for him, but by the time the sun was setting on his daughter’s second night away, he had come to realize how important this experience would be for her. “It was like a door opened for me,” he said. “I had to realize that this was not about my feelings but about what was best for my child. I called my other children and apologized to them for not realizing this sooner.”

I think I learned as much about parenting that day as he did.

This is why the recent trend for sleep-away camps to keep parent and child intimately connected via technology is one that I find disappointing and foolish.

From a recent TIME piece on the subject:

Summertime’s rite of passage — sleepaway camp — looks very different than it did a generation ago. No longer are children’s weeks away marked by subdued parental longing and the occasional piece of snail mail. Camp used to be a place kids went to learn self-reliance and discover themselves away from the watchful eyes of mom and dad, but now technology is allowing parents to keep tabs on their kids even from afar.

In a nod to helicopter parents’ inability to cut the cord, overnight summer camps are hiring staffers to take pictures of campers and post them on their websites or on their Facebook pages, or on the website of Bunk1, a service that hosts camp photos, facilitates emails between campers and their parents and exists solely to allay — or feed — parental anxiety.

I realize that the world changes constantly, and with it, parenting methods change as well. I am not opposed to change, nor am I foolish enough to believe that the way I was raised was ideal.

Nevertheless, I do not support this recent trend, and I think it is reflective of a overall trend in parenting that concerns me. In recent years, I have noticed more and more parents attempting mitigate the hardship and pain sometimes associated with good parenting by failing to impose limits on their children and refusing to allow their kids to struggle and suffer and learn life’s hardest lessons. Unwilling to make these difficult decisions, these parents are placing their own emotional needs ahead of their child’s developmental needs, regardless of the effects this may have on their children.

These are the parents who know they shouldn’t allow their toddler into their bed every night but continue to do so because stopping would be too difficult or painful for them.

These are the parents who feed their child chicken nuggets every night for dinner rather than providing a more balanced diet and sending the child to bed without dinner if necessary.

These are the parents who complete their child’s homework for them rather than forcing their child to face the consequences the next day at school.

In short, these are the parents who cannot be tough on their children because tough decisions are difficult decisions, painful not only to the child but to the parent as well.

Parenting was not supposed to be easy. Difficult decisions need to be made, and quite often, these decisions are most difficult on those required to make them. A crying toddler locked out of his parents’ bedroom will forget about the pain long before the parent who had to bury his or her head beneath a pillow in order to drown out the wails.

This is the cross that a parent must bear.

Whether my parents disconnected from me at summer camp because of thoughtful decision-making on their part or a general disinterest in my life (based upon the majority of my childhood, it is probably the latter), I cannot tell you how pleased I am that I was permitted to spend my summers at a Boy Scout adventureland where I was forced to fend for myself, fight my own battles, battle the occasional bully and develop a strong sense of  independence.

I don’t have a single photograph from my days at Camp Yawgoog, and while it would be nice to have a few of those memoires captured on film, I would take zero photographs over the prospect of being followed around by staffers whose job it was to document my existence at various times in the day in order to post my progress on Facebook so my parents could be happy.  

In the words of psychologist Michael Thompson, who wrote Homesick and Happy about the importance of summer camp:

“You can’t have your child away from you at camp physically but attached to you psychologically. That’s missing the point.”

How to win at tug of war

Victor Mather of the New York Times proposed 10 Olympic events that should be resurrected for the upcoming London games, including tug of war. Tug of war was an annual competition at Yawgoog, the Boy Scout camp where I spent many of my childhood summers, and my troop, Troop 1 of Blackstone, Massachusetts, was a frequent winner.

Unfortunately, we were also frequently accused of cheating.

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In order to ensure a fair competition, a weight limit was set for each tug of war team. Only so many pounds of boy were allowed to pull on the rope during a competition.

Our strategy was to place as many boys on the rope as possible, regardless of their size or strength. In fact, the smaller the boy, the better, since an especially small boy meant we might be able to squeeze an additional body onto the team. My Scoutmaster, an apparent tug-o-war mastermind,  understood that lower body strength was far superior to upper body strength in a tug of war competition. So while the opposition might have a half a dozen muscle-bound monsters on their end of the rope, we would have a dozen or so kids who were less than half their size pulling on our end while I anchored the end.

To an outsider, it looked like our troop didn’t stand a chance. Our team consisted of small, wiry, middle school boys whose voices had yet to change, and we were competing against teams of high school juniors and seniors who looked more like men.

Yet almost without fail, we would win with ease, causing the other troops to question our compliance to the weight limit. More than once, our team was  forced to mount the scale and confirm our total weight.

It was one of the few instances in life when the little guy was able to defeat the big guy in a contest of strength.

Heady days that I will remember with aching fondness until my last breath.