Living slow and other summer vacation resolutions

The Baltimore Sun

CHAUTAUQUA, N.Y. - I suppose a week's worth of lectures on writing might be considered a busman's holiday for someone like me, but when the lecturers are Billy Collins, E.L. Doctorow, Joyce Carol Oates, Amy Tan and Garry Trudeau, it's a bus you want to be on.

To hear these masters in the "institutional sublimity" of Chautauqua is to be at least twice blessed.

For me it was thrice. I hear all these stars and I begin, as I do every summer, thinking about how to start doing the things that really matter. It happens when you get a minute to slow down.

I've seen a few "Live Slow" T-shirts. I met a miniature collie named Sherman that sneezed on command (for a treat). And I met a thoughtful teacher-professional storyteller from Rochester, N.Y.

In these contemplative summer sojourns, you're hoping for insight, moments of clear vision - the shock of recognition. Who knows what might yield that new start? It could be as simple as the recasting of a throwaway line, a stock phrase tossed off to end a conversation.

The week here is always filled with wise and humorous discussion of critical issues. You sit in an amphitheater (called "the Amp") for an hour or so every morning. You're there with several thousand others as eager to hear the well-spoken and well-written word as you are. You are seldom disappointed.

Mr. Collins read his hilarious lanyard poem, especially appropriate for the camp season. It's an account of a young man's idea of a gift for his mother. It's all about a braided plastic necklace - a lanyard - as a fitting expression of gratitude for the woman who gave him life, sacrificed for him and loved him unconditionally.

The poem is actually an exposition on the impossibility of ever finding anything to repay the gifts of your mother.

The poet said (tongue in cheek) that a poet's way with words is superior to mere prose. Poetry picks up, he said, where prose is simply inadequate. It was a highly debatable proposition, well illustrated a day later when Mr. Doctorow arrived. He, like Mr. Collins, was interviewed in the Amp by the essayist Roger Rosenblatt.

A reading from Mr. Doctorow's Ragtime illustrated the writer's work: to make us see. A reading from a funeral scene in Ragtime showcased the writer's gift, with its imagery of an elongated Pierce Arrow Opera Coach, festooned with flags and as reflective as a mirror.

The author then talked a bit about his beginnings. He had written a profile of Carl, the doorman at Carnegie Hall. Carl wore mismatched clothing. He had survived the Holocaust. World-renowned musicians loved him because he was a sweet man and he knew their music.

Mr. Doctorow's teacher loved the writing and was preparing to have the interview published in the school newspaper. She thought there should be a photograph of Carl to go with it.

"I don't think that would be a very good idea," said the young Doctorow. "Carl's very shy."

"Well, he spoke to you, didn't he?"

"Not exactly," said her pupil. Then he confessed. He'd made it all up. He knew he had done something wrong, but when the teacher said he hadn't been very honest, he said, "I was just doing what journalists always do."

On my rented bike the next day, I rode slowly. I tried to take account of everything I passed: a line of three-story blue spruce, puddles from an overnight shower, the lush ferns and flower boxes along the Cape May-like Chautauqua streets.

I swung into the farmers market to see if I would be tempted to buy a muffin. There I ran into my new acquaintance, Jay Stetzer, the teacher and storyteller I'd met after the week's first lecture. We had a good talk over the crimson chrysanthemums, the golden daylilies, green paper boxes of blueberries and the irresistible home-baked muffins.

The storyteller talked about the two-minute live performances he does every week on the radio in Rochester.

We wondered, chuckling knowledgeably, whether Joyce Carol Oates would be as mordantly weird as her subjects made her sometimes seem. In fact, she was engaging and voluble.

After 20 minutes or so, I said, "Well I guess we'd better get on with our day."

He said, "This is our day."

Of course it was.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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