Photo c/o Skip Ballou
I’m from Ox-Bow.
I’ve been saying this a lot lately. I’m okay with some bugs in the house, spiders, a welcome visitor. That hole in the screen? It can wait a few weeks. The old, the rotting– familiar and comforting. Just give it a fly paint job.
Jessica & I bought a house a few months ago, which signaled a major shift in my lifestyle. After 15 full summers of working at Ox-Bow, it’s finally time to hang up my chef’s hat. If you could see our house though, its more than a little reminiscent of the quirky, overgrown, vibrantly painted collection of shacks on the lagoon~ with probably a few less bugs inside. Though I can’t say that I consciously chose the house because of its campy-ness, Jessica says that she knew immediately that it was going to be our house because it felt like Ox-Bow. It felt like home.
There was a time when I considered Ox-Bow my home. I was in my early 20s and otherwise itinerant in where I laid my head. I was still in the needing-to-feel-as-far-away-from-my-parent’s-nest phase. That moment I first set eyes on the lagoon on that balmy afternoon in late July of 1998 is the singular most striking memory I have of the place. Experiencing that view for 100 days straight is probably the one thing I’ll miss most. The place felt totally familiar, I had spent a chunk of every summer of my childhood and adolescence in the sandy dunes and lakeshore of West Michigan. But there was a certain sense of grandeur– the vista of the meandering lagoon set against a dramatic backdrop of towering, densely wooded dunes. A palpable spirit quaking in the wind.
And those funny cabins, I got to live in four of them and had countless laughs, beers, and weird sleepovers in just about the rest of them. The buzz of campers in the old inn, enticing food smells, humid lazy lunches on the side porch. Cool grown ups. All those crazy artists everywhere.
I’m going to keep the sentimentality in check. The place is fueled by it. You’re living in your best memories in real time. Everyone feels like, well, your brothers and sisters. Time both flies by and feels like it’s lasting forever at once. You yearn for the place September through May, counting down the days. The magic, blah, blah, blah.
I think that for a lot of us (and I mean everyone who falls in love with the place), Ox-Bow provides us with what we struggle to find elsewhere in life. A connection to nature, belief in the unseen, magic. A feeling of community, family, home. Nothing wrong with that. I think for me, it was just that my parents never sent me away to summer camp. It was my place to be the me I felt unsafe being in the real world– to wear a dress and make up, to run around naked, to get wasted every night. A perpetual state of adolescent rebellion. But I swear I grew up at Ox-Bow, I really did…
I fell in love at Ox-Bow for the first time and maybe a couple more times. I met about ¾ of my best friends there. I got married at Ox-Bow! I felt a sense of community that has inspired and driven all of the work in my life since. I learned to work at Ox-Bow. I was a lazy kid, always looking for shortcuts, averse to hard work. As a work study dishwasher at Ox-Bow, for the first time in my life, I felt pride in labor– my sweat, a contribution to the collective endeavor. I learned that service and working with food were my life’s work.
But I also had my heart broken there. I fought with friends. Friendships collapsed. I buried pets there. My friend drowned.
Life in sharp focus.
I watched Ox-Bow grow up with me. The days of drum circles, daytime skinny dipping, and day drinking gave way to a more buttoned up professionalism. I was there, man, but shortly came renovation and expansion. And oh boy, did we not like it. How dare they bulldoze our sacred ground. What do you mean we can’t smoke joints whenever and wherever we want? But alas, the rebellion was shortsighted. We were lifted up out of hippy provincialism and became a world class institution. It was good that a handful of us old timers carried some of the old spirit into the new era, sharing our communalism and funky old ways. And I like to think that we passed down some of our knowledge to a new generation. That’s the thing, even though we had new big shiny buildings and dozens more campers, the vibe didn’t change all that much. But some of that sense of community was lost, things just got geographically spread out more, it was harder to get to know all those new faces.
There were bigger personal shifts going on as I grew up at Ox-Bow. As I was promoted to a management position and then witnessed the professionalizing of the services we offered, some of my romantic relationship with the place and feelings of “home” and “family” started to wane. But this was all okay. I was there to serve. Serve the mission of Ox-Bow. I took great pride in my job. The cushest service industry gig ever– a free place to live, surrounded by nature, free access to world class pedagogy, feeding and making happy friends and respected colleagues. In the end of the day, I came to terms with the fact that Ox-Bow was just a job, best gig in the world or not.
Back to that home and family thing. As I grew up I realized that Ox-Bow was only 3 months of my life and the other ¾ of the year inevitably had to take priority. I found a new home and family. Back at camp I started to crave privacy, normalcy, a good wifi connection. I missed my wifey.
Speaking of privacy, the hardest part of the job is sorting out the inevitably blurry boundaries between private and public. Where work begins and ends and really doesn’t. This is where all the trouble happens. My fatal flaw with my job was trying to keep everyone happy. Kinda fucked up to have to manage your friends– your brothers and sisters– though. My only regret is not telling my friends that they were bad workers sometimes and not telling my workers that they were bad friends other times. I could have been more forthright, less confrontation– averse and it could have saved me a lot of grief.
But all I ever wanted was to keep the peace. Seriously folks, listen up haters. Even though you can blame me for walking around with too much swagger for my own good and incessantly turning the volume up, sometimes at the expense of the peace of my neighbors, everything I did at Ox-Bow on the clock, ever, I did for the realm.
I grew up at Ox-Bow. And many other wily young artists will for generations to come. Somehow the place takes care of it self, it’s about regeneration. My best pal, Carmen said this at a summer end burial. My other best pal Sarah Workneh shared a kernal of wisdom passed down to her as she was parting with the place, by the astute elder, Ellen Lanyon, “Ox-Bow will always be okay.” As I walk away from this cushest of jobs, I remind myself this. After spending every summer of my adult life at the place, it’s hard to not get a little hung up on legacy or fret what will happen in my absence. But I know its gonna be great. The place takes care of itself.
Okay, I’ll end with sentimentality. Of course I’ll miss the damned place. I love Ox-Bow like a living, breathing person. This is not goodbye. I will be back time and time again throughout my life to enjoy the caress of the warm summer breeze coming in off the lagoon. I know she’ll welcome me back. Afterall, I am from Ox-Bow.
I’d like to thank all you beautiful campers, who I had a beer or a thousand with:
George Liebert, Jakub Kucharczyk, Rafael Vera, James Schneider, Olivia Petrides, Molly Muste, Margaret Herbert, Karl “Ze Moon Belongs to Ze People”, John Rossi, Heather Macintyre, Lani Johnson, Rachel Fenker (Vera), Beylka Krupp, Mikey Henderberg, Special K, Hank Adams, Maryann Lipaj, Chainsaw Dave, Andrew Winship, Linda Charvat, Winslow & Gus Liebert, Mike Noise, Janel Rouge, Yoh, Draga Susanj, Matt Federico, Catherine Sky, David Baker, Kathleen Markland, Sally & Liz, Lindsay Madden, Alex Herzog, Shari Doyel, Becky Wehmer, Dawn Stafford, Bill Padnos, Tim Straubing, Matt Helander, Rick Malette, Liz Wheeler, Ken Burak, Nick Higbee, Zack Peavler, Katie Herzog, Erin Zona, Jess Bohus, Jerry Catania, Rob McClurg, EW Ross & family, Sheila O’Donnell, Mark Pascale, Jeanine Coupe– Ryding, Holly Greenberg, Michael Ryan, Marion Kryczka & family, Andrea Peterson & family, Colin Browne, Mike Wolf, Liz Nielsen, Dan Mackessy, Peter Barrett, Tedders Nathanson, Matt “Skip” Ballou, Lindsey Brashler, Pam Zimmerman, Reid Thompson, Amanda Cohen, Amy Bucciferro, Sarah, Lisa Wainwright, John Corbett, Lane Relyea, Mikronaut, Matt Marsden, Siebren Versteeg, Joe Kleeman, Dahlia Tulett, Jesse Baker, Luba Halicki, Monica Marin, Jeremy Holden, Steamer Seamons, Ryan Fenchel, Andy Malone, Melissa Hogan, Shannon Mustipher, Liz Nurenburg, Leslie Vega, Maria Stubbs, Sarah Workneh, Laurie Price, Anna Mayer, Shara Hughes, Katie Hammond (Halton), Lauren Casteel, Stacy Shierholz, Jamisen Ogg, Rob Bell, Eric Mirabito, Al Halton, Pauly Lukachinski Mendoza, Rachel Clark, Rich Foshay, Michelle Grabner & family, Tom Bartel, Cassandra Chambers, Chresten Sorensen, Kate Gronner, Phil Hanson, Alex Hanson, Deirdre McConnell, Jessica Williams, Lonnie Potter, Shanna Shearer, Stacy Holloway, Caleb Lyons, CJ Matherne, Nate Wolf, Pat Rios, Kelly Reeves, John Phillips, Israel Davis, Jeff Blanford, Kevin Putalik, Andrea Oleniczak, Steve & Bobbi Meier & family, Betsy Rupprecht & Jan Cunningham, Todd Warnock, Norm & Connie Deam, Phil & Cindy Visser & Family, Scott & Nancy Bruursema, The Severances, The Leutzingers, The Suarez Family, Pete Palazollo, Dave Seidel, Emily Wallace, Todd Knight & Michael Leonard, Mike Rossi, Carmen Price, Michelle Froh, Lakela Brown, Rambler, Tyler Poni, Grandma, Marianne McGrath, Danny Z, Miles Votek, Lauren Anderson, Vanesa Zendejas, Megan Reilly, Oli Watt, Aline Cautis, Piper Brett, Daniel Petraitis, Frog, Mustache Phil, Taylor Kurrle, Tony Amato, Kelsey, Chris & Sam Ferris, Jason Kalajainen, Richard Deutsch, Jimmy Wright, Elizabeth Chodos, Brian McNearney, George Gittens, Ji, Erin Cunningham, Alex who was into house music, Julianne Shibata, Jerry Saltz, Scott Reeder, Tyson Reeder, Jim Lutes, Carl Baratta, Rut Baratta, Kate Nakamura, Kara Hall, Sara Coffin, Trashley, Efren Arcoiris, Geoffrey Hamerlinck, Teena McCleland, Dan Johnson, Tony & Tina Larson & family, Melanie Schiff, Erin Chapla, Dempsey, Katie Scanlan, Ashleigh Burskey, Caroline Woolard, Kari Rinn, Nate Dorotiak, Amy Stibich, Stuart Snoddy, Teruko Nimura, Victor Sun, Mike Andrews, Alex Chitty, Rachel Niffenegger, Justin Swinburne, Dan Osediacz, John Parot, Justin Goodall, Andrew Svec, Nick Johnston, Chris Powers, Julia Asherman, Nate Tonning, Mari Miller, Kathy Leisen, Becca Baldwin, Rob Doran, Gordon Hall, Hugh Zeigler, Caiti Hackett, Chris Mrozik, Sarah Faux, Anja, Beau & Lily, Alec Appl, Metals tech John, Joel Dean, Craig Doty, Aspen Mays, Michael Thibault, Sara Condo, Stephanie Nadeau, Max Hegedus, Martin Basher, Arlen Austin, Kelly Kaczynski, John Bartlang, Adam Eckstrom, Lauren Was, Tim Roby, Lisa Rybovich– Crallé, , Kari Reardon, Andy Pomylkaski, Tommy Coleman, Daniel Lane, Chris Bostwick, Kate Clark, Ben Love, Eric Steen, Sarah Rabeda, Mac Katter, Evan Jenkins, Moira O’Neil. Casey McGonagle, Mark Benson, Jonah Groeneboer, Kate Ruggeri, Carson Fisk– Vittori, Arend deGruyter– Helfer, McKeever Donovan, Sofia Leiby, Tiana Tucker, Betsy O’Brien, Mickey Pomfrey, Blake, Oliver Apte, Ben Medanski, Ben McCarthy, Natalie Edwards, Stephanie Brooks, Isak Applin, Lone Wolf & Cub, Hannah Tarr, Priya Wittman, Ye Qin Zhu, Henry Crissman, Ginny Torrance, Dulcee Boehm, James Payne, Jonas Sebura, Jill Mason, Jovannah Nicholson, Theaster Gates, Bill O’Brien, Chris Johansen & Jo Jackson, Erin Nelson, Sally Jerome, Peter Linden, David Schmitt, Scott Carter, Jovencio De La Paz, Anthony Creeden, Sophie Roessler, Alex Gartelman, Harrell Fletcher, Crystal Baxley, Rimas Simaitis, Tre Reising, Neal Vandenbergh, Andrew Mausert– Mooney, Biff Bolen, Danny Giles, Marianne Fairbanks, Jessie Edelman, Sam Davis, Jamie Steele, Eileen Mueller, Jenny Drumgoole, Patrick Sarmiento, Miah Jones, Kirk Faber, Elijah Burgher, Rebecca Walz, Ryan Pfeiffer, Jesse Harrod, Rebecca Rinquist, Ector Garcia, Amanda Wong, Rachel Browning, Kendell Harbin, Nate Ellefson, Carol Hu, Stephen Kent, Will Sieruta, Olivia Blanchard, Molly Hewitt, Lauren Taylor, Marcel Alcala, Dana Carter, Paula Wilson, Jo Dery, Carrie Vinarsky, Lori Felker, Jesse McLean, Andy Hall, Andy Yang, Mac Akin, Woobie Bogus, Susannah Dotson, Crystal Heiden, Jackie Furtado, Andy Jordan, Sara Greenberger Rafferty, Jon Brumit, Judith Rodenbach, Eric Fleischauer, Aline Cautis, Heather Mekkelson, Chris Kerr, Cauleen Smth, Ali Chitsaz, Dan Conway, Lindsay Cashews, David Torres, Ryan Shrum, Laurel Shear, Diana Lozano, David Alekhougie, Moe Beitiks, Rachel Gervais, Brandon Mathis, Kimber Shaw, Paul Warfield, MC Richardson, JR Magsaysay Stanley, Andy Roche, Jason Lazarus, Noah Singer, Richard Hull, Shannon Stratton, Michael Milano, Etta Sandry, Tegan Brace, Jesse Malmed, Raven Munsell, Anthony Stepter, Julie Ault, Zach Cahill, Abby Satinsky, Andrew Doty, Krzysztof Lower, Emma Pryde, John Elio Reitman, Nick Grasso, Osiris Zuniga, Carly Conelley, Winslow Funaki, Annie Miller, Sofia McDougal, Howard Fonda, Claire Ashley, Erin Washington, Ben Fain, Carrie Schneider, Jayne Glick, Nate Large, Alyx Harch, Anthony Renda, Dash Sheffield, Rebecca Parker, Chris Renton, Aay Preston– Myint, Alex Valentine, Dan Gunn, Karolina Gnatowski, Meg, Lupe Rosales, and finally to the love of my life, who put up with this for six summers and will be by my side, finally, for the rest of the summers of my life, Jessica Labatte.