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Commentary: Searching for the essence of Chautauqua

Chautauqua, N.Y. — My kids think of it as nerd camp, that place Dad goes every summer.

Like almost every description of Chautauqua, it falls well short of the mark.

It’s not a serious effort, of course, and yet it becomes part of the effort to find the essence of this place in northwestern New York.

The nerd thing derives from official descriptions of the nine-week, summer-long series of discussions, one big subject per week. The future of capitalism, the ideal public school, the role of the arts in a democratic society are examples of questions you hear discussed at the “Amp” — the rustic, cathedral-like meeting place where erudition is presented by the stars of various disciplines.

Chautauqua proper would remind many of Cape May, N.J. — lots of gingerbread houses with flags on porches hedged about by hydrangeas and hostas. There is lots of white wicker furniture on wrap-around porches.

From a few of these houses you can see Lake Chautauqua, a shimmering expanse at the bottom of a steep hill beckoning boaters, bathers and dogs.

All of that doesn’t add up to a full description either, although it’s part of the small-town feeling that makes you feel, for a moment at least, that life is manageable.

The heart of the place

The heart of the place is the Amp. The day begins there with a 10:45 a.m. lecture, a presentation of something central to the theme. Last week it was literature and writers, presented via conversations between authors and Roger Rosenblatt, a writer, commentator and teacher.

For me, this program — the second of its kind under the antic, caring eye of Rosenblatt — got pretty close to the heart of Chautauqua.

Roger and “friends” set about exploring what drives writers: Jim Lehrer of the “News Hour with Jim Lehrer” and the author of more than 20 books was there. Also present were Alice McDermott, the National Book Award-winning novelist and Johns Hopkins University faculty member; Ann Fadiman, a reporter, essayist and teacher at Yale; Alan Alda, the well-known star of “M*A*S*H” and author of “Things I Overheard While Talking To Myself,” and Marsha Norman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright.

Their work was the official focus, but Rosenblatt’s own most recent book — “Making Toast” — was the subtext. The title comes from his touching account of how life changed when his physician-daughter, Amy, died at 38 of an undiagnosed heart condition.

He and his wife, Ginny, moved into Amy’s house to help her husband, Harris, care for the couple’s three young children. Making toast was Rosenblatt’s job, his humble, daily contribution to the new order, something he could do with competence and élan.

As many as 5,000 people came to the Amp for these morning talks. Most of them, it seemed, had read Rosenblatt’s account of love and loss.

Friends McDermott and Lehrer, he said, had been there for his family in the hours after Amy’s death. The Lehrers made their house available, the sort of thing friends and communities do in such moments.

The essence of mutuality

On the morning of Lehrer’s appearance in Chautauqua, Rosenblatt asked him to read something from one of his books. Lehrer had forgotten to bring one. But a woman in the front row, Marie Weaver of Elizabethtown, Ky., held up a Lehrer volume she had brought along.

Every morning after that, Rosenblatt began his presentation with “Good morning, Marie.” She had become a celebrity — a lesson for our time. Suddenly, he said with a wink, Marie was being interviewed and wearing makeup. She had an agent. Her whole persona was constructed, he said, on the “incompetence of one man.”

More than anyone’s incompetence, Rosenblatt’s wit — and his brave accommodation with fate — transformed the week.

Marie became Everyman. Rosenblatt’s bond with her extended to the entire audience.

Here, I submit, was the essence of Chautauqua. It’s all about books and thoughtful discourse and a place out of time, to be sure. But it’s also about a sustaining spirit, a testament to the value of traveling this road together, learning from others, sharing with them – joy and sorrow.

“We exist only in community,” said the Rev. Alan Jones, a retired Episcopal bishop from San Francisco and one of several other speakers at last week’s session. “Hell,” he said, “is the absence of mutuality.”

Chautauqua is the essence of mutuality (even for nerds).

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. He is the author of “William Donald Schaefer: A Political Biography.” The Johns Hopkins University Press. His column runs Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail is fsmith@aol.com.