Wish You Were Here

Corporate wilderness retreats and fat camps have a few things in common: mediocre food, sleeping in tents, and lustful bloodthirsty competition. Todd Levin and Bob Powers report from their summer destinations.

Dear Todd,

I’m writing to you from the trenches of Camp Ladder Climber, my “professional growth wilderness expedition!” Jealous much? One more question: Can you really call it a “wilderness expedition” when you’re just outside of Rye, N.Y.?

We’re supposedly learning things about our coworkers that we could never have learned at the office. I’ve learned two things already. First, they’re even uglier in L.L. Bean. And second, they attack the gorp with just as much bloodlust as they do the cream-filled doughnuts in the break room. My boss calls this a paid vacation. I call it a kidnapping.

I’m supposedly being transformed from the selfishly free-thinking individual that I was, into a “maximized member of a high-performance group-machine!” For Christ’s sake, I’m just an assistant staffing coordinator. And the only transformation I’ve seen so far is a pretty severe anal inflammation from having to wipe my ass with the side of a tree.

They have us paired off into two tribes, and we’re essentially building two cities. Ours is called Lexington Beach. The other is Madison Settlement. Each city is dependent on the other for trade. As much as I loathe these people, I must say that the program’s structure is so intensive that I don’t really have to deal with their bullshit. Teamwork is kind of unavoidable, but when you have to build a bridge over a creek by sunset, it’s harder to notice what an assmunch someone is. For example, at a status meeting two weeks ago, Prakash’s nose was whistling so loud that the sound carried over into my dreams for the next three days and I actually set my alarm to wake me at intervals throughout the night so that I couldn’t fall into REM state. But out here all I can see is that he’s a natural at making mud bricks. If this is what they mean by erasing us as individuals, sign me up, man. I’ve been saying that these individuals need to be erased for a long time.

I know this sounds really dorky, but I’m beginning to understand the importance of a strong team. There’s a beauty in it, really, when you can look at a team from a less human place and take more of a craftsman’s point of view, finding the strong spots to build on and the flaws that need to be corrected. OK, I must have drunk the Kool-Aid, right?

Honestly, though, this trip is turning out to be not too bad, and I’m not saying that just because I’ve been taking hikes with a nice new friend named Marci. She’s a payroll officer, from down on the fifth floor. She’s a little on the skinny side, but pretty hot. We have a date to go swimming in the lake tomorrow after the evening “Trust-In” (don’t ask).

If nothing else, it’s just such a relief to be away from the city and out in the sun. I hope you’re having a good time, too.

Your buddy,


* * *

Dear Bob,

I hate my mother for sending me to fat camp, and I don’t care if that gets back to her. Since I’m five-foot-nine and 150 pounds, I don’t think a single physician in America would diagnose me with a weight problem, but my mother found a loophole and had me enrolled under a special “pre-emptive obesity” status, for campers who are fat on the inside.

I cannot express how humiliating it was to tell the review board at Yaddo that, no, I will not be able to accept an artist’s residency this summer because I have a prior engagement at Trim Pines Summer Camp, where I’ll be spending eight weeks suffering through a reduced-calorie diet and self-esteem exercises alongside kids half my age, most of whom need a respiratory-assistance device just to move their bowels.

I will surely die in fat camp, Bob, and then my bunkmates will eat me and shrug their obese shoulders when the local police come around to investigate my disappearance.

Hey, Bob, what did you eat for lunch today? A hamburger? A slice of pizza? Brunswick stew? No? Well, maybe you and I ate the very same thing—a small, plastic measuring cup filled with baby carrots, and a wheat cracker lightly grazed with peanut butter-flavored laxative paste.

At least your retreat has been rewarding. I can’t believe you already met someone there. Thanks for including the sketch. I “used” it. Here’s some trivia: Did you know I’m the only boy in my bunk whose breasts haven’t developed yet?

Hey, Bob, have they banned salt in Rye, N.Y.? (God, even writing the word “rye” is making me hungry.) Because they banned it here, though a handful of Trim Pines campers have gotten around this ban ingenuously, by crying hot, miserable tears into a piece of stretched cheesecloth, setting it to dry in the sun, and scraping away the salt content with the edge of a pocket comb. Then they sell the saline residue as a bootleg salt derivate nicknamed “Skritch.” Bob, I would rather eat a Cobb salad from a hobo’s diaper than spend another breakfast watching 250 overweight kids harvest their own tears for flavoring.

I miss New York, and I miss trans fats. I’m afraid if this camp works, I’ll look like an “after” picture in an advertisement for the Auschwitz Diet. Here’s some advice, Bob: If you’re ever at my house for Thanksgiving and my mom asks you, “Would you like dark meat or white meat?” don’t answer, “A little of both.” Apparently, that’s some kind of red flag for an eating disorder. Thanks, Mom—I’ll see you in my memoirs!

I want out,

P.S. Guess what? I have a nickname now. Some of my bunkmates have started calling me “Kosher.” I am fucked.


* * *

Dear Todd,

Sorry about the crappy time you’re having. The menu here isn’t much better, but I, thankfully, don’t have to eat any of the tears that are shed. And there are a lot of tears being shed of late.

Here at Camp Ladder Climber, well, things are different now. I can’t go into specific details in a letter. But I mentioned previously how important teamwork was to our tasks at hand. Well, one of our team members was not performing up to par. He was, um, eliminated.

I’m not telling you this so that you can judge me with your “City Morality.” There are some things you can’t understand, Todd. Things born of the Earth. Blood’s meant to bleed sometimes, is all I can offer in my defense. Not that I’d ever be in a position to defend myself in the American court system (more like American fraud system).

What happened was there was a flaw in the team, and the flaw was corrected. Unfortunately, my teammate’s absence from the campgrounds has suffused these woods with an air of suspicion. One would think that a fear of being the next to be eliminated would bring everyone’s performance to peak levels. Nature would have it so, wouldn’t she? But apparently some people wish to defy even the laws of nature. What sort of mercy can such people be provided? Would they dare ask for mercy after committing as capital an offense as disobeying natural law?

The wilderness expedition has taken a detour into the darkest corners of the heart. Speaking only for what I sense from my own teammates, everyone is out for themselves. The group-machine is under siege.

I haven’t slept for two days for fear of someone sneaking past my bunk in the night and slitting my throat or stealing my bag of Baby Ruths (sorry). The two cities have ceased contact altogether, but they’re planning something over there, I know they are. I hear them building after the sun falls. We’re just sitting here like ducks on a log. Goddammit, we have to strike first!

I’m not sure whether I’ll make it back any time soon, as all of our vehicles have been disabled. I know I sound like I am in danger, but I implore you to keep everything I’ve written between us. Send no one. What has come to pass must be allowed to continue to its conclusion. It is a matter of the trees now.

I’ll see you in hell, Todd.

Your buddy,


* * *


Thanks for the marshmallows, and thanks for hiding them inside a hollowed-out copy of Dr. Phil’s Ultimate Weight Solution Prayer Book. It didn’t say, “Please share with your bunkmates,” on the bag, so I just stuffed them all into my mouth at once, while sobbing. Hope that’s cool with you.

Guess what the camp motto is? It’s “I Know You Are But What Am I?” It’s printed on all of the letterhead and kickballs and extra-extra large T-shirts and enema bags, and it’s every camper’s favorite thing to say. I have to admit, we’ve certainly mastered humility here at Trim Pines.

A spot of good news. One of my bunkmates smuggled in some margarine—I won’t tell you how, because I sincerely doubt you’ve got the stomach for it. You should have seen the kids go crazy for the stuff. I know we’ve both seen some terrifying things, living in New York City, but none of them can prepare you for the day you witness a 15-year-old girl in a developed country trade sexual favors for a small dollop of Parkay.

I guess by now you’ve picked up on the way I’ve been saying “we” sometimes when I talk about the overweight campers at Trim Pines. It’s a force of habit, I’m afraid, and probably not unlike studying abroad in London for a few weeks, then peppering your conversation with slang like “lift” or “queue” when you return to the States. (See?) Also, I’ve become what one of the weight-loss therapists here calls “Sympathetically Husky.” She says it’s fairly normal for the smaller campers—the under-200 kids. You start adopting some of the psychological baggage of being overweight, often as a gesture of solidarity or a defensive measure against being held down and licked for flavor. (I’ve seen it happen twice already.) Sometimes I catch myself exhibiting textbook SympHusk behavior—for instance, last week I went swimming with my T-shirt on.

Like you, I’m not sure I’m ready to come back to New York right now. Bob, I think these fat kids are trying to teach me something. It’s like the way you were joking about listening to natural law and stuff. You were joking, right? Or did you just copy all of that “blood is meant to bleed” stuff from the G. Gordon Liddy autobiography I bought you as a gift for Secretary’s Day? (Oops, I mean Administrative Professionals Day.)

Your friend,


* * *


The Earth was thirsty today and she drank of much blood. Men rose to their feet and roared as giants to do the Earth’s bidding. Still I hunt, and still I am hunted. If you receive another letter from me, I will be writing on behalf of a kingdom. If you never hear from me again, a maximized life will have met a proud end tonight. Sorry so sloppy.



* * *


Thanks for sending along the synopsis of your new one-man show. Sounds promising. “Still I Hunt, and Still I Am Hunted,” would make a great working title. But I have to ask, is everything OK? When I was placing your letter back in the envelope I noticed the paper felt strange, like tanned animal hide. Do they not have stationery at your hotel?

Things grew a little out of hand at the O-Slim-Pics Games last week. Trim Pines did not win the competition, but we did score a tremendous moral victory. And I’m not trying to justify what we did, but I do think it’s just common sense that if you’re running a weight-loss camp for obese kids, you do not choose an animal mascot that can easily be chased down, apprehended, and then rendered into both ham and bacon. Needless to say, it was a dark day for Camp Wheelchair-Bound Suckling Pig, and a succulent day for Camp Trim Pines.

I have a confession: Like you, I’m not sure I’m ready to come back to New York. Honestly, the thought of seeing all those pleasure-starved FlatBodies (that’s what we call skinny people here) has grown somewhat repellent to me. They’ve got it all wrong, Bob. The way we heavy (or 3-D, as we’re called at Trim Pines) people see it, the Society of Two-Dimensions is making us suffer for our simple pursuit of pleasure. That punishment is patently absurd. A few of the counselors here are going to take off the next month and follow Cherry Garcia across the country; I might join them.

Oh! And I lost 15 pounds this summer. That’s six more than the average camper here. I won the Maximum Metabolism Lifetime Achievement award, but I am going to share it with the whole camp. We’re all winners, except for Camp Wheelchair-Bound Suckling Pig’s mascot, I guess.

“Lick the spoon!” That’s my new credo, Bob. It has two meanings. Did you find them both? : )


P.S. I know I had a good time this summer but that does not change things vis-à-vis my mom being a cunt. Just for the record, you know?


* * *


All the sun’s glory upon you and your blood! Much has come to pass since our last correspondence. After my urging, my teammates and I struck first upon Madison Settlement, and we were triumphant. Blood fornicated with Earth and a true society of the soil was born. Some were spared, those who I had previously observed to be diligent workers and the women with the better hips. Marci previously had admitted to being barren, and so she had to be shaved for meats (again, sorry). Several members of my own team have been pruned as well, to allow efficiency to prevail. What is best for the team is law.

Camp Ladder Climber has been razed. We are no longer human resources administrators. The Earth and all its gifts shall be our only resource. Humans exist merely to feed the soil with their blood. We are now residents of the Klan of the Riverbed and our flag has been flown. (I wonder if I can get my doorman to forward my mail. Ha ha.)

I shall never return to your America of weakness and lies. Much work is ahead for me. I have been recognized by the others as their king, and they demand that I rule by the blade of a dagger. I have not stopped writing, however. Presently, I am developing our new nation’s language. The new word for pussy is now “Kana Hoooo!”

I hope things turn around for you at your weight loss retreat. I would like for you to visit my new home at some point, but I won’t be allowed to welcome you unless your physical state has improved. Those who cannot work must facilitate those who can. Unless you arrived in peak physical condition, we would have to split you from your hide and ration your mass. It is just.

Obey that which flows from the blade, Todd. And by the way, nope. I only catch one meaning from that “lick the spoon” remark. Am I a retard? I’m a retard, aren’t I?

Your buddy,
Zandfar, Immortal Lord of the Riverbed