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Notes from Chautauqua — Reality (?) TV

July 9, 2008 - Phyllis Sigal
I sort of feel as if I’m in a reality TV show.

Picture this ... A group of strangers, all living in a summer community guest house for an entire week. The community is Chautauqua Institution in western New York. The house is The Vera, a quaint three-story Victorian on South Terrace.

The cast of characters includes a mom, with her Ph.D. in writing, teenage daughter and friend, from Allentown; a retired English teacher and husband, an Episcopal minister who dabbles in Eastern thinking, from Kansas City; from Zelienople, a retired airline pilot, here for the writers before heading to Buffalo for a convention of atheists/agnostics. There are others, of course, but they live on different floors and haven’t mingled much with the “third-floor” crowd.

Oh, except for one woman, who ventured to the top floor looking for one of her belongings. It seems as if “Adrian” — the ever mysterious young man who helped her and her husband bring in their things — may have absconded with her cooler that carried her homemade jam. The cooler, the jam and Adrian are nowhere to be found.

And, of course, there’s us; a mom and her two young twenty-somethings.

We’ve gotten to know bits and pieces of each other’s lives; a gift of trinkets from strangers.

Sitting on the porch before dinner seems to be the unofficial gathering time. Wine and comparing notes from the day. What did you do? Who did you see? What programs did you attend? What did you think? And more details of our lives divulged.

Bill’s seat cushion was swiped from the Hall of Philosophy; Wally’s “humanism” was mentioned at the lecture; Leland met his favorite poet; Amanda attempted to understand the brilliant theology speaker; I was inspired once more by the morning lecturer.

We jockey for bathroom time, shower time, kitchen time, porch rockers, refrigerator space and the two (only two!) wine glasses on the kitchen shelf.

If it were time for the one-on-one interviews when the characters divulge their “true feelings,” would our housemates be saying: “She practically takes over the kitchen!” or “That young girl spends way too much time in the shower.”?

No, I think not.

Because there are no cameras rolling. And we’re all on vacation. Relaxed. Generous. No need for conflict.

In fact, conflict at Chautauqua is usually confined to discussions – on the amphitheater stage, at the Hall of Philosophy, over that glass of wine on the porch, maybe on a park bench at Bestor Plaza. And, of course, the ongoing battle between parent and child at the beach when it’s time to come in for lunch and a nap.

No, it’s close to idyllic here. And people have no time for pettiness; they’re always rushing off for lectures, classes, book signings, brown-bag lunches, the beach, a plaza bench or an ice cream cone.

And then we’ll go home at the end of the week, tucking our newfound housemates away in our memories, possibly never to meet again. So, I suppose it’s more of a 1950s sitcom than a 2008 reality show. And I don't expect any reruns — although, I'd welcome a sequel.


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Here we are .... Phyllis & Leland, Amanda, Wally, Linda and Bill ....


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