"Where are the simple joys of maidenhood?" Julie Andrews sings, her unparalleled diction somehow communicating the peculiar mixture of frustration and insouciance that teenagers embody. "Where are the simple joys of maidenhood?" my daughter sings along, her voice soaring as it never could before, still burdened by the cares of the past month, but struggling to be free.
We are on our way to Kingman, all the way across Arizona from our Tucson drive, a five-plus hour drive that I might normally be dreading, but am today thrilled to make. I certainly needed the break. Month after month of caring for my parents without a break has me feeling threadbare, longing for the vacation I am not yet in a position to take. But what I need to put behind me most is the turmoil at home. Skylar seems to feel the same way.
The conclusion to her three years in middle school had turned unexpectedly dark. With her grandfather in the hospital, a series of unfortunate health problems, and unprecedented tensions on what I refer to as the "home front," the prospect of celebrating her promotion no longer held any appeal. So instead of putting on one of the two dresses we had special ordered and going through a long faux-graduation ceremony, she opted to sit at her usual spot on the couch and read fan fiction.
We did have big plans for the next day, though. While her classmates would be going through the motions during their last day of school, I was going to drive her up to pick out her "graduation" present, a purebred Bengal kitten from the best-sounding breeder her mother could find. As overwrought as Skylar had been over the preceding few weeks, as exhausted as I was myself, I was going to do everything in my power to make the trip relaxing and fun. No, this drive to Kingman and back was not going to compensate for our annual family vacation to the beaches of Southern California. But it was better than nothing.
Although I knew Skylar planned to watch movies on her laptop—an activity that obviously excludes the driver — I had brought a long a stack of CDs in the hope that she might want to take a break to look at the landscape: the soundtrack for The Great Gatsby, which we had just seen; her go-to albums for singing along, such as Wicked and Les Misèrables; a few records that I wanted to hear, which I was hoping she wouldn't complain about; and a new copy of the original Broadway cast recording of Camelot, purchased the previous night on a whim, to replace the one that had gone missing when she was still in pre-school.
I wasn't sure how well she remembered that last one. She had gone through a brief phase of listening to Camelot with pleasure as a three-year-old, but the disc had gone astray before she had reached the point of selecting her own music to play on the stereo. My Fair Lady, West Side Story and Hairspray eventually become staples, both of her exercise sessions on the trampoline and her forays into trying to master showtunes herself. Camelot, by contrast, had been consigned to the dusty corridors of her mind,
But as I heard her singing along to her favorite songs from the musical, I realized that the decade it had been missing from her life made it the perfect soundtrack for this trip. It was like she had found the key to a door inside her mind, one that would allow her to connect her pre-school years with the present. She wasn't being transported back to an age of carefree innocence, though. Even as a three-year-old, she had been intense and, from her parents’ perspective, high-maintenance, prone to worrying about things that most children her age hadn't even noticed. Rather, Camelot was providing access to a time when she didn't feel compelled to hide the depth of her feelings.
If this trip to Kingman was a crucial outlet for both of us, Camelot made possible its emotional realization. At numerous junctures on the drive, I found myself at the point of tears. And I can count on one hand the number of times I've cried since pre-school. Skylar is not so pent up. Yet I could tell by the way she was singing and, more difficult to explain, sitting, the tilt of her head and placement of her hands, that she was also experiencing a powerful sense of release, of being temporarily liberated from the thick-gauge chains of middle-school identity.
As she played her favorite songs over and over, this feeling of freedom started to transform for me into reflection. I suppose it's obvious that Camelot is about the desire to preserve a place apart from everyday concerns, but it had never really struck me how self-conscious the musical is about the impossibility of doing so. It is shadowed by a melancholy that can only be warded off with enormous effort.
The title song, cheery as it is may be on the surface, conveys this beautifully. The subjugation of nature can only be accomplished by force of law:
I know it gives a person pause,
But in Camelot, Camelot
Those are the legal laws.
The snow may never slush upon the hillside.
By nine p.m. the moonlight must appear.
But the fact that Richard Burton's incomparable delivery turns this into a song of seduction undercuts the rationality of this utopia from the outset. When he caps off this declaration of power—it's his kingdom, after all—with the conclusion that
There's simply not
A more congenial spot
For happily-ever-aftering than here
we can already see trouble looming on the horizon.
Camelot testifies both to how badly we long to find a realm where reason reigns supreme and how unlikely it is that this quest will succeed, even for a short while. Paradoxically, however, this realm is identified with childhood, that period of time when we aren’t considered sufficiently rational to manage our own affairs. We know at a very young age how things should be, but aren’t granted the power to make the world conform with our words until after we have come to understand that "should" almost never makes the passage into "is" unscathed.
The longer we drove, the more my thoughts drifted towards politics. I had long known, of course, that the Kennedy Administration was figured as "Camelot." Yet the full measure of this trope had eluded me. It was only as I pondered my daughter's existential predicament that I realized what it meant to make this equation. All the President's indiscretions, his doomed forays into military action, even his stalwart refusal to give ground during the Cuban Missile Crisis: all were draped in the mantle of the boy who knows best, because he hasn't learned what it means to be a man.
And that got me thinking about President Obama and the unrealistic desires projected on him by many of his supporters back in 2008. Although remarkably free of the salacious scandals that were always looking in the background of the Kennedy White House, the Obama Administration was burdened early on by the dream of a place apart, the conviction that he would be able to bend Washington's political weather to his will. Even though the nation had supposedly learned its lesson with Kennedy, millions and millions of people indulged the fantasy of Camelot once more.
Perhaps that sort of wishful thinking is impossible to eradicate. No matter how badly I might want to protect my daughter from the disappointments of growing up, it is inevitable that she will experience them for herself, as she was already starting to do at the end of middle school. What is more, the grown-ups who vow to never get fooled again are deluding themselves if they think they can reach a post-fantasy state and stay there. That realm is every bit as fantastical as Camelot.
Maybe the only way to manage our desires without destroying their transformative power is to approach them under the sign of regret, looking for that elusive door that will lead us, however briefly, back to the time when they hadn't yet been deformed by the reality principle. Because it is ultimately just as dangerous to abandon them as it is to acknowledge their inevitable disappointment.
As we struggle through the greatest American political crisis since the Great Depression, with cynics directing us to the failings of government at every turn, we would do well to remember the conclusion of Camelot, in which King Arthur, about to die fighting a war he recognizes as folly, tells a young squire to leave the battlefield and return home with a message: "Don't let it be forgot/That once there was a spot/For one brief shining moment that was known/As Camelot."
When Skylar and I arrived at the breeder's ranch in Kingman, we found a place dedicated not to profit, but the rescue of creatures that would otherwise be euthanized. All the proceeds from the sale of kittens like the one we soon picked out were reinvested in this remarkable preserve, a place simultaneously suffused with hope and sadness. As I started to fill out the paperwork, I looked down at the header to see the name of the facility, which had until then escaped my attention: Camelottaspots.
Charlie Bertsch was a founding member of the Bad Subjects editorial collective, at UC Berkeley in 1992.