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Passions Pursued

At adult camps, YOU put the icing on the cake, rake in the chips, learn to jam and even throw a wicked left hook.

We sent writers to four popular camps for adults, and they found one common denominator: joy. For Jorma Kaukonen, Hot Tuna guitarist and a founding member of Jefferson Airplane, joy is about making music -- and helping others do the same -- at his guitar camp in Ohio. The same emotion pours out of people learning how to pipe garlands in cake camp, throw jabs in boxing camp and bluff blinds in poker camp. And each camp costs $1,500 or less. We hope these stories inspire you to do some passion-pursuing of your own.

Guitar Camp:
Where Guitars do the Talking

For now we're not consultants, contractors, systems analysts or shopkeepers. We're guitar players. And at Fur Peace Ranch music school, we're determined to pack in as much playing as possible. More >>

Cake Decorating Camp:
More Than Just Icing on the Cake

At Cake Decorating 1, we're not kidding around with our buttercream swags and chocolate roses. By the end of the class, we will produce -- and taste -- enough icing to clog the Holland Tunnel. More >>

Boxing Camp:
Lacing up a Pair of Golden-Age Gloves

For three days at Gleason's Gym Fantasy Boxing Camp, our white-collar boxing group eats sleeps and trains beside champions and top contenders. More >>


Poker Camp:
You're Gonna Know When to Fold 'Em

When the betting comes to me, I check my cards and look up to find myself fixed in the poker pro's unblinking stare. I feel like a chipmunk in a hawk's cross hairs. More >>

Guitar Camp:
Where Guitars Do the Talking

Software programmers speak in code, accountants in numbers. But at Fur Peace Ranch's guitar camp in the Appalachian hills of southeastern Ohio, they speak 12-bar blues in the key of E.

The conversation goes on well past midnight -- hours after the day's last workshop ends. Micky Rigby, 57, a banker from Little Rock, Ark., starts with a riff on his Taylor acoustic guitar, and soon the rhythm swells like a warm Delta breeze. A thump, a slap, a twang and a new verse begins. Other campers answer in kind.

Even though this is the first night of the four-day camp, we amateur musicians are determined to squeeze in as much playing time as possible. For now we're not consultants, contractors, systems analysts or shopkeepers. We're guitar players.


And we're lucky to be here. At Fur Peace, a music school dedicated to the study of guitar and roots music, classes fill up months in advance. The popularity of this camp and others like it is mirrored by the explosive popularity of the instrument itself. The guitar is the top-selling musical instrument in the U.S., with more than 3.3 million acoustic and electric models sold in 2004, up 40% from the year before. The trend started in the mid 1980s, when the oldest baby-boomers began hitting middle age and developed a passion to connect with the music of their youth, says vintage-guitar guru George Gruhn, owner of Nashville's Gruhn Guitars.

Hot Tuna

Even in 1998, the campers who first rolled up Fur Peace's muddy gravel ruts were forty- and fiftysomething professionals, says owner and president Vanessa Lillian Kaukonen. Initially, they were attracted by the camp's marquee instructor, Vanessa's husband, Jorma Kaukonen, guitarist for Hot Tuna and a founding member of Jefferson Airplane.

The camp sits a mile off Ohio's Route 33 in rural Meigs County. It's November, and red, gold and brown leaves cling to the trees that cover the surrounding hilltops. The compound is compact and comfortable, with cafeacute; and workshop buildings flanked by two-bed cabins. On a small rise to the north is Fur Peace Station, a small concert hall that on Saturday nights welcomes guest musicians, such as David Bromberg, Fareed Haque and Tommy Emmanuel, and on Sunday afternoons hosts student performances.

This weekend there are four workshops, including Jorma's master class on fingerstyle blues. In his class, Jorma first plays through a song, then explains the phrasing. After this, the students practice what they have just learned and refine their technique under his watchful eye.


The fingerstyle-blues workshop is the most popular (there are also workshops on jazz, funk and classical styles), but the one I attend is called JamStock, an electric-guitar jamathon designed to teach students how to interact on stage -- think volume, soloing and jam etiquette. It is taught by Michael Falzarano, who has performed and recorded with Hot Tuna, John Lee Hooker, Dr. John, Greg Allman and David Crosby, among others.

At first the class is raucous. Some players are overamped, and others are overexcited. But by the second afternoon, the dozen or so students are better coordinated and find their groove. During breaks the students exchange tips and riffs.

In one such break, Rigby, a four-workshop veteran, explains what draws him and others like him to places such as Fur Peace. "We're here for a total release and to do something we love to do. We all have day jobs, and most of them aren't very exciting. I'm a banker. And if you don't have a creative outlet, you wake up one day and you're 65 years old with nothing better to do than walk the mall in shoes with Velcro closures. That's not a pretty picture."


Fur Peace Ranch's 2006 schedule includes 63 workshops over 16 long weekends (Friday to Monday) from March through November. A typical workshop runs four days and costs $950. For more information, visit or call 740-992-2575.


Next: Cake Decorating Camp

Cake Decorating Camp:
More Than Just Icing on the Cake

We pick through cloves like a band of squirrels, trying to spot slivers that will best represent stems on our marzipan fruits and vegetables. As with every lesson in Cake Decorating 1, we take the exercise seriously. Anyone who spends more than $500 and a week's time learning to make buttercream swags and chocolate roses is not about to stint on the stem selection. My slivers look especially lifelike. I wonder if other students have noticed my culling skills.

Actually, they have, which is one of the pleasures of taking this five-day class with fellow fanatics at the Institute of Culinary Education, in New York City. Nine of us, including two lawyers, a medical consultant and an owner of a construction company, are honing our skills with cake designer Toba Garrett, author of The Well-Decorated Cake (Sterling, $15). Along the way, we will produce -- and taste -- enough icing to clog the Holland Tunnel. How many hobbyists can say that?

Lesson one: Listen to the teacher
Eggs? Whisked. Sugar? Sifted. Butter? Chunked. We gun our mixers like fighter pilots at takeoff, creating a buttercream as buoyant and glossy as marshmallow cream. Then, pastry bags loaded, we take aim -- only to be stopped by the chef, whose commanding presence bespeaks her earlier career in the public school system. "I'm the teacher," she says, peering over her specs. "You need to watch me." She squeezes the bag and squiggles the pastry tip forward and back, producing a lush, scroll-edged shell. A few minutes later, I pipe the first shell I've ever attempted that doesn't trail off like a salamander. Too bad Garrett never taught geometry.

Lesson two: Cultivate your taste
We try ruffles and frills, zigzags and braids. Finally, Garrett pipes a garland generous enough to drape City Hall. "It's pretty, but it's not pretty enough," she says, piping a tiny green string across the garland and a rosette at each end. "I always like to add something." Good pastry chefs, many of whom study fine art, know the tipping point between artistry and excess; this garland, exquisitely wrought, also shows restraint.

Lesson three: Gather ye roses
Wait -- was it seven petals for the full-blown rose, or 16? My rose, piped onto a flat-topped nail, looks suspiciously like a peony. "I'm making carnations," a classmate says of her frilly blobs. For all our mistakes, the buttercream flowers make festive gardens on our practice parchment papers. "You're here to enjoy the experience," says Garrett. "Whatever you learn should be icing on the cake."

Lesson four: Savor the show
We're elbow-deep in sugar when we hear violent thumps coming from the classroom across the hall. White-coated apprentices are hurling lumps of dough against a counter, one step in the lengthy strudel-making process. When we peek again later, the students are stretching a swath of dough, gossamer-thin, across the broad work space. In this world, chefs carry parsley bouquets, students trade pie-making tips, and every classroom presents culinary theater. In other words, it's heaven.

Lesson five: Take a bow
After practicing all week on parchment, cardboard and Styrofoam, the class finally adorns actual cakes. We slather buttercream, then pipe furbelows with the eagerness of kindergartners. The result? My shells are shaky, my zigzags drift, and a chocolate rose, fashioned earlier, looks pudgy. This hobby takes practice; still, the fun is in the learning. I leave the cake for a friend who works nearby and head for Penn Station.

Later, he reports back the collective response of his colleagues, with whom he shared my creation: "Wow!"


Cake Decorating 1, taught year-round at the Institute of Culinary Education (; 212-847-0770), in New York City, costs $520 for five consecutive sessions. The institute offers both recreational and professional training.

Next: Boxing Camp

Boxing Camp:
Lacing up a Pair of Golden-Age Gloves

In the red corner stands Scott Lowenthal, already glistening with sweat before the first-round bell sounds. In the blue corner is Al Roth, hands covering his chin, gloves tapping together as he rocks back and forth, twitching with anticipation. The bell rings. Roth pumps jab after jab, and the audience, as if it's watching Fourth of July fireworks, emits a wave of ooh's and ah's with each burst that snaps back Lowenthal's head.

Lowenthal, 52, and Roth, 69, are duking it out at Gleason's Gym Fantasy Boxing Camp. For three days, a group of 28 amateurs -- including six women -- eat, sleep and train beside champions and top contenders. Gleason's owner, Bruce Silverglade, sponsors monthly white-collar boxing nights at the storied gym's Brooklyn location. Boxing camp is held once a year at a cushy Catskills resort and attracts the same kind of crowd as the boxing nights.

Click image to enlarge

Mornings begin at 6:30 a.m. with a three-mile run for campers and pros. Then come discussions about the boxing business, its history and famous characters. But the real fun starts with coaching sessions and sparring under the guidance of top trainers, such as Hector Roca, who prepped Hilary Swank for her role in Million Dollar Baby.

Boxing experience isn't necessary, although most of the campers know their way around the ring. Camper and New York money manager John Oden, author of White Collar Boxing: One Man's Journey From the Office to the Ring (Hatherleigh, $25), epitomizes the type of professional who leaves the office, heads to the gym and straps on the gloves. He describes himself as "on the dark side of 50" and says boxing has "developed skills that transfer to other areas of my life, such as using fear as a motivator and setting goals."

I know my way around the ring, too. I'm a 42-year-old heavyweight who was trained by former NABF lightweight champion Darryl Tyson, and I've had some sparring experience with pro fighters. So I can attest that the camp's instruction isn't just authentic -- it's useful. For example, former Olympic and welterweight champion Mark Breland helped me hone the jab, left-hook, right-cross combination taught to him by knockout artist Tommy "The Hitman" Hearns.

Tips from Breland prove handy when I spar with former light-heavyweight champion Matthew Saad Muhammad. At 51, Muhammad is now a heavyweight, but he's still crafty with his stiff jab and sneaky right hand. His five- and six-punch combinations arrive in a blur. But he delivers one right uppercut too many, and I'm ready with a left hook that lands on his ear. After we finish, we discuss the strategies we used, and Muhammad smiles and says, "Big man, you're all right." Priceless.

Back to the fight. In the third and final round, Lowenthal, a transit police sergeant from Pomona, N.Y., barrels into Roth with a left hook and right cross that land against Roth's gloves and arms. Roth dishes it back with a stiff, piston-like jab and right cross. The blows rain steadily until Silverglade rings the final bell.

Roth, an alarm-systems expert from Long Island, fought in the 1953 Golden Gloves, then gave up the sport for 40 years. Against the wishes of his children, Roth picked up the gloves again. He worked himself into shape for a white-collar boxing show a few years ago, and with his children and grandchildren watching, bested a man half his age. His six-pack abs may be a small keg now, but sleeveless shirts proudly show his guns.

Favoring his right arm after the fight, Roth is undaunted. "I'm not concerned about pain because anyone over 65 is going to have aches of some kind," he says. "So what? The satisfaction of overcoming a challenge makes the pain insignificant."


The next Gleason's Gym Fantasy Boxing Camp is September 7 to September 10, at Kutsher's Country Club, in Monticello, N.Y. The cost is $1,500, which includes food and lodging. See, or call 718-797-2872.

Next: Poker Camp

Poker Camp:
You're Gonna Know When to Fold 'Em

The woman across the table bears a striking resemblance to my sainted third-grade teacher, Mrs. Maloney. Even here on the floor of the Mirage casino, in the middle of a poker tournament with a very nice grand prize, I am flooded with warm feelings.

But now this Mrs. Maloney doppelgauml;nger has just pushed a small mountain of chips to the middle of the table and declared, "All in." For players of no-limit Texas hold 'em -- we are both at a poker camp devoted to the game -- that's the equivalent of Remember the Alamo, Death Before Dishonor and Banzai rolled into one. I push my stack of chips in and watch as she confidently flips over a pair of queens. I slowly roll over my two cards -- aces -- and see her smile evaporate like a snowflake in hot soup. Oh yeah, baby. Pocket rockets. Read 'em and weep. "All in" THIS.

What a rush.

On the plane to Las Vegas, I read this nugget about no-limit Texas hold 'em: "No beginner should even consider playing it. It is not a friendly game." Maybe not, but that bit of advice was published in 1997. Now the game has become a national obsession, infesting cable channels, college dorm rooms and probably old-folks homes.

The game is awash in beginners, and most have discovered the hard way that no-limit Texas hold 'em "is a one-way love affair," says fellow camper Carlota Gonzalez. So we don't fall into the ranks of "marks" and "patsies," 60 of us have anted up $1,500 to learn the intricacies of the game from professional players.

And if you've never played -- or never played well -- you'd be surprised just how intricate a game it is. No-limit Texas hold 'em is to five-card draw as chess is to checkers. Your betting position on the table is a factor. The different reasons to bet, the amount to bet and the odds -- not the chances of just making your hand, but those odds versus "pot odds" -- are other factors. Add to that getting a read on your opponents based on everything from betting patterns to eyelid twitches.

Of course, intimidation plays a big role. I learn this from poker pro Cycalona "Clonie" Gowen after she deals a practice hand. When the betting comes to me, I check my cards and look up to find myself fixed in Gowen's unblinking stare. She is pretty, fine-boned and 110 pounds soaking wet, but in that instant chills creep up my spine and I feel like a chipmunk in a hawk's cross hairs.

The two-day camp is an excellent and practical way to learn poker. You sit at poker tables in a conference room, so after lectures on strategy you can play a couple of hands and immediately internalize what you've learned. Also, clips from World Poker Tour events (the camp is owned by former corporate-training executive Ron Rubens, who runs the camp as a licensee of the WPT) are played both to demonstrate key points and to engage in "what if" scenarios.

The campers come from all walks of life, but are mainly white-collar types who play regularly. Gonzalez is a personality on Las Vegas hard-rock station KOMP 92.3. I meet engineers, systems experts and two doctors. Every fellow camper I ask says the $1,500 tuition is worth every chip.

The camp tournament's winner is Jim Caplan, a Los Angeles doctor. For besting the rest of us, he receives a seat in a World Poker Tour satellite tournament, worth at least $1,000. The WPT camp, Caplan says, gave his game structure and foundation. "Now I am playing much more methodically."

Caplan uses his newfound skills to knock his girlfriend, Fay Gauthier, out of the tournament. As Gauthier recounts how his flush beat her pocket tens, I notice the look in Caplan's eyes. It's part adoration for her, and part Oh yeah, baby. Ace-high flush. Read 'em and weep.


World Poker Tour Boot Camps cost $1,500 for a two-day camp and $3,000 for a "champions event," which is a three-day camp that guarantees the winner of the camp tournament a $10,000 seat in a WPT event. The camps are held at casinos across the U.S. Visit for the schedule and details.