Chautauqua: Idyllics on the Lake
Later today, I will be packing the family into the minivan and doing something novel: taking my wife and children to a three-day book event. We’re headed to the Chautauqua Institution, where I am giving a lecture tomorrow in the Hall of Philosophy, on the gulf between the military and civilian culture, and the America veterans are returning to. There’s a sentence I never thought I’d write. The organizers at Chautauqua have generously offered to host my whole family, so we’re driving 90 minutes south, to stroll the streets of a place I haven’t been in twenty years.
Since I grew up with it in my backyard, I was slow to appreciate how well-known or respected Chautauqua is. Around here we just call it the Institution. With a name like that, as a kid I had always assumed it was an insane asylum, distantly related to the sinister Sanatorium. Eventually I learned otherwise, but it was a barely-examined curiosity that former Presidents and diplomats and writers and musicians would come to a little town near me to visit and give talks. Why would anyone want to go to extra school? And surely everyone around the country must have something similar close by. No big deal.
My impression was confirmed on my first visit as a teenager. A high school friend’s parents had a “cottage” at the Institution, and he invited a bunch of us to come visit so he wouldn’t be bored. We wandered among lecture halls and Victorian mansions. We got yelled at for bringing our skateboards. I tried hard to convince the girls we should all go swimming in the lake – how else to get them in their bikinis? We tried hard to get in trouble, but never managed more than a stomach ache from eating too much ice cream.
Chautauqua is a slice of the nineteen century next to a lake in Western New York. It is not so much preserved as continuously functional, like an exquisitely crafted chronometer still in use because it works so well that modern technology cannot improve upon it. The Institution is nine summer weeks of music and thought and theology. But you knew this. Like Tanglewood, its reputation has surpassed its humble origin or setting.
“Will they have wifi?” my wife asked last night as we packed.
“I don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised if they have a cell phone jammer and cut the power most of the day,” I said, tongue only slightly in cheek.
It goes without saying, I hope, that I never expected to be headed to the Institution as presenter rather than paying customer. I mean, I’m opening for Paul Simon (well, if you ignore the 28 hour gap between us taking the stage). I’m humbled they picked a hometown boy for their book club, and I’m planning on soaking in the three days.
Now, to think of something worth saying in a place called the Hall of Philosophy.