A Week Away without Chris Matthews

Last week I was in Vermont on Lake St. Catherine, a beautiful area where I attended summer camp for six years. I had made the reservations in February, although I had been worried about being away from my father for seven days. I took the leap of faith and made the plans. He died in April.

I’m not sure what I was looking for when I picked this spot. I know, as Thomas Wolfe has written, “You can’t go home again.” Maybe I was trying to reconnect with a time when everything seemed safer and simpler; when I could be around tall white birch trees and a lake that looked like glass in the early morning hours. The daddy long legs spiders no longer frightened me; I remembered the furry caterpillars with fondness.

I brought my laptop, as the thought of hundreds of e-mails waiting for me when I returned was daunting. There was no cell phone service without a twenty-minute drive. The adrenaline rush that always hits me when I get an electronic missive, asking for an immediate answer or action, was dissipated by that fact that there was not much that I could do. Each response included, “I am on a lake with limited access…”

There were enough hyperlinks from correspondence and listservs to keep me on the periphery of the stressful world I had vowed to put aside for a week. I saw Keith Olbermann’s special comment railing at those working to sabotage health care reform, and the article in the New York Times about the rape of men in the Congo. But I had promised my son to keep off the e-mails when he was around, so I settled into a finite block of time to stay connected to what we had purposely left behind.

We tried our hands at rowing, canoeing, and kayaking. All my small craft training came back in a flash. We played tetherball, volleyball, and badminton. We struggled to get the dog to swim (Who said the doggie paddle is second nature for canines?). After two strokes she flipped on her back, thrashed in panic, and sank.

It was the first vacation I had taken since my honeymoon, when my son was conceived. In those sixteen years, there has been a lot of growth and change – most of it not easy. His dad and I have separated, but we were able to come together as a family and enjoy each other’s company.

We worked out a routine. While they trolled the environs for the best place to fish, I stayed at the lake with our city dog; she couldn’t stop eating the fragrant grass. I worked on my manuscript, made headway into two books, and polished off three months of unread magazines I had dragged with me. We bartered fishing time for shopping time. The boys trailed along to outlet stores and antique shops. I, in turn, sat in the car with the dog – scribbling down thoughts while they checked out streams best suited to throwing a line. The air was cold and crisp in the morning and became that way again at night, just as I remembered it. The moon was full and reflected on the lake. I had no complaints, except for my sunburn and mosquito bites.

We went to Manchester, where I had been twenty-three years earlier with my parents. At that time, I was trying to break up with a boyfriend, Iran-Contra was on television, and a neighbor’s brother had just died of AIDS. When we visited my camp, the social hall and some bunks were still standing. Now, nothing was left except a lane that bore the name of the camp. The land had been divided up between individual buyers and the state park.

Driving around, it seemed that every Vermont town had a white clapboard church and a monument. There were physical remembrances of people, actions, and veterans …pointing to the state’s historical past. A bronze plaque recounted that Vermont was the first territory to abolish slavery. A statue of a Union soldier erected by Eugene McIntyre stated, “In memory of my comrades of the Civil War 1861 – 1865.” Pearl Buck, who made Danby home for the last years of her life, was acknowledged as a “Mother, wife, writer, humanitarian, and civil rights activist” on a simple sign hanging near a burbling brook.

Like life, nothing is perfect. The lake had notifications about being treated with an aquatic herbicide to fight off an infestation of invasive watermilfoil. (I had wondered what had happened to the sandy bottom.) We spoke to a police officer who gave us directions about politics. He told us about the foreclosures in his closely-knit community. He had voted for McCain, but wished Obama well in moving the country forward. When I complimented people on their amazing Senators, some agreed effusively while others shrugged. A state with numerous colleges, the people we met ranged from young students with multiple piercings to a man attired in NRA duds from his hat to his shirt to his pickup truck. It bore a bumper sticker declaring the Second Amendment as the “best form of homeland security.”

We met two “homeless” men within the space of an hour. One had the exact look of the wraiths that ride the New York City subway, disoriented and disheveled. The only difference was he spoke to us about the weather. The second was pushing bottles in a shopping cart. He engaged me in a conversation about a recent robbery in town, mentioning something about a chain saw used in the break-in. “They’re gonna catch them,” he told me. I nodded in agreement. He was a dead ringer for Billy Bob Thornton in “Sling Blade.”

Upon our return to the city, as the air changed, so did my mood. There were no more silos or grazing animals to look at. Cell phone service returned, as did calls we were not yet ready to answer.

Sunday, while I sorted laundry and potted the Canadian plants that I had bought at a nursery between Pawlett and Manchester, I watched my usual round of the Sunday morning talk shows. Maybe it was too much too soon. I listened to the conversation about contentious demonstrations at health care town halls, but I was not prepared for what I saw on the next day’s news. When I turned on Hardball on Monday night, it seemed like I had never left. Chris Matthews was still talking about “the Birthers.” On Tuesday he interviewed the man who had attended the Obama event in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with a gun strapped to his leg. The irate citizen who had been ejected from Sen. Arlen Specter’s gathering was “interviewed” on MSNBC on Wednesday morning. The news cycle took on the air of a Fellini movie, American style.

I spent a week away without Chris Matthews. When I came back, everything was the same.

Except me.

2009-08-15-Vermont002HP.jpg © Marcia G. Yerman  2009

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