Only in Dreams

Early on in the summer I visited a bungalow village where Free-Range guru Lenore Skenazy goes every summer. I did my usual thing where I was overly enthusiastic -- and I don't do it in a phony way, at least I hope not. I just think a lot of things are cool. I loved the little cabins with linoleum floors, bunk beds and transistor radios, loved the idea of kids running around freely, grown-ups meeting for impromptu barbecues, popping over to each other's picnic tables, playing cards. It's a total relic from the past, that little village, where New Yorkers -- mostly Jews -- used to spend the summers when people were content not to do anything exotic, to spend time with the same group of people each year, to enjoy the outdoors and each other. 

Lenore is hoping to help combat the decline of these colonies. As far back as 2005 she wrote in The Jewish Daily Forward"Of the hundreds of bungalow colonies that once thrived throughout the Catskills, most are dead or very different now, killed off by the three A’s – air-conditioning, airplanes and assimilation. Once people could stay cool in their homes or fly someplace fancier for the summer, they did. Moreover, once Jews no longer felt compelled to cluster, they didn’t."

A big advocate for this particular bungalow village, Lenore is friends with the owner and has been going for years, staying in the same cabin, serving up snacks to kids scampering about, showing movies outside sometimes in the evening. And because I've admired her for the past two years since I heard about her campaign to let kids run around outside and play (now such a radical approach to parenting) I guess I was predisposed to like the place as much as she did.

As soon as I heard about it on her blog, I started fantasizing. Could I rent a place to share with friends and my sister and her family? Trade weekends, overlap sometimes, roast marshmallows and play guitar? Only an hour outside of the city, could this be the land of the lost American Childhood summer I see mostly only in dreams? 

It has a little luncheonette where kids can get ice pops in the afternoons, a pig that wanders around, a lake, a few pools, a tree swing, a dirt road, a little village nearby to get supplies. An old-fashioned Casino where entertainers come on Saturday nights. Since kids can and do go off by themselves there could I actually, maybe, guilt-free, read during the day one afternoon in the summer? Like sit down in a chair on the screened-in porch and read an entire book? Could I work on writing uninterrupted for hours at a time, stopping only to gaze up at the sky then back down at the page? Could I write postcards? Could the days unfold hour by hour, the only reference to real-time being the drink on the bench next to me: hot coffee in the morning, iced tea in the afternoon, and when the sun begins its descent: a glass of white wine? Could I slip into that amazing, intoxicating feel of weightless, shapeless summer days, titrating caffeine and alcohol perfectly to give the hours a gossamer, luminous quality?

Could it not only be a chance for Wally to play tag, spit watermelon seeds in the yard and dig freely in dirt, but offer me a portal to those kind of carefree summer days, too? 

On Lenore's suggestion, we went for a visit one weekend afternoon in June. Because I had gushed with enthusiasm for the place over email, we were provided with a tour of the grounds by the owner. Lenore gave us mac 'n' cheese and cupcakes, we brought beer, which no one seemed to drink. (See second graph above as to who frequents these places: New Yorkers, mostly Jews.) We went for a dip in the lake--a bit further than we'd imagined, fifteen minutes walk through the woods or else you drive, which is how we got there. The luncheonette wasn't open. The place had a bit of an empty feel as this was early in the season and most people had yet to set up camp. 

It all still seemed like an incredible deal -- $4,000 for the summer -- if a cabin could be split up among various parties, if different groups could come for weekends.

But even as I took pictures of the lake and raved about the pack of teenagers wandering off together, in my head a list of various drawbacks began to accrue. One: from the age of 5 on up kids are required to go to the day camp across the dirt road. From the looks of it, it's a great, old-fashioned camp with tons of outdoor activities and relaxing little porches for afternoons of arts and crafts. But it's not particularly cheap, on par with other local camps I think. And I had kind of thought that the whole point was kids running free, swimming (supervised obviously), making up games, digging for worms, and basically finding ways to entertain themselves, the way we did when we were kids. 

I had envisioned this bungalow colony as a place where summers would stretch out endlessly, full of those magnificent empty days for kids like in the wonderful book Nothing to Do by Douglas Wood, where a boy dreams of "...building a fort, a secret place where no one can see you because you can't see them. And surviving for hours on peanut-butter sandwiches and lemonade."

And then there was the fact that I hadn't been able to rouse up anyone else's enthusiasm about it, couldn't gain any traction for that utopian image of summers in that little bungalow village, except, to her credit, my sister's, but the camp component negated it for her, too. She feels lucky to be able to be home with her kids in the summer and wants to keep it that way. It reminded me a bit of the opera situation last March. Something I thought was neat everyone else had to agree to based on some kind of unreasonable axiom I held that because you say you want to spend more time together, and here I'm offering you that chance, you must take it. (This is more for another day--the phenomenon I'm becoming aware of where people don't always want more time from you, they just want confirmation that you'd like to spend time with them.)

And there was also the fact that it just didn't make sense at all with our schedule. I realized this when pressed by Lenore as to how we could make it work. Alex doesn't have summers off. Wally was in "school" through to last week, and I had my hands full with work (a large part of which I could maybe do there, but with the wonderfully, spotty Internet connection I hear they have, perhaps not so easily).

Later that afternoon we thanked them for the tour and lunch, took a few pictures on the tree swing, and said goodbye, finding ourselves among those city-dwellers who dream of a place like that--one where you could have a sense of continuity and community, where kids would grow up spending their summers together--but in the end, don't make the effort or lifestyle change or whatever it is to participate.

End of story for any normal person, but not for me. In my head, debates about the bungalow's merits raged on. Perhaps a deal could be reached, Lenore proposed over email the week that followed, for just the weekends? That I considered for a day or two, then declined that offer, too. Just not tenable given the reality of the schlep factor of not having a car -- even though they kindly offered to pick us up and drop us off at the train -- and how many weekends (almost all) were already booked.

A few more days went by. Then Lenore wrote an email saying to call her. She'd spoken with the owner and there was an option to get a bungalow for free in exchange for working maybe 5-10 hours a week during the summer on promotion for the place. 

At first that sounded great, and I was momentarily submerged in the excitement of the whole bungalow fantasy again. I told Lenore I'd think about it. Hung up the phone. Grew increasingly agitated over the next few days. I felt maxed out with work as it was, and had just been given an offer of a part-time job, the acceptance of which would make any additional work impossible. Plus there was still the problem of having hardly any free weekends. If I accepted this new bargain -- a more than fair one, for someone with the right setup -- that would mean seeing less of my family and friends, having fewer quiet weekends with nothing to do, having to squeeze more things in during the week. 

I nervously called up Lenore's husband (I was supposed to discuss details with him) and told him I wasn't going to take the offer. I pictured myself stressed and overwhelmed, squeezing in the extra work, packing up groceries and blankets and whatever else we'd need on a Friday, taking the train up that evening, then back to the city Sunday night. There'd be this pressure to get "use" out of the cabin because of the barter. And we'd miss out on the community we have here in Chelsea on the few summer weekends we are in town. 

It would be, I realized, chasing some dream of simplicity, community, free-range kids and old-fashioned lemonade summers, by agreeing to a stressful, scattered blur of summer weeks, always worried about work, always turning down bbq's and river picnics because we'd be heading up to the Catskills or back down to the city, always just arriving or about to say goodbye. 


On the trip home from the bungalow village, Wally had fallen asleep in the car on the late side. That meant we had a longer night ahead of us, so after dinner we went to the lot across the street so he could ride bikes with a neighbor friend. I sat leaning against the fence with the other parents while the kids played. We chatted about not too much because they don't like to gossip and that's pretty much all I do. The conversation was light. Every now and then a ball came our way and we threw it back. It grew dark and we saw fireflies. 

And you just couldn't get any more symbolic really, could you? 

At that idealized little community of the bungalow, we know Lenore just a little, but we'd be pretty much strangers. We'd come and go on weekends, making us into transient, rootless figures. If we took our vacation up there for a week, for only this one year could Wally have free, unstructured days because next year he'd be in camp (if I could somehow afford and justify it). No one we knew was interested in joining that village, so it would not provide a place for us to recreate the scenes from my childhood summers I loved so much, where my parents and their closest friends rented houses in Vermont and we went to the lake, had big group dinners, played ping pong in the morning and cards at night, and sometimes the Olympics was on in the background on a little black and white TV with bad reception. 

Up in that village we wouldn't be recreating that little sense of community, unless we formed a new one with all new people. But that would just add to the quantity over quality mania of the age we live in, the scattering relationship dispersal, the high surface, low density friendships in the age of Facebook. Keeping in touch with everyone; really talking to, confiding in, finding continuity with or relying on almost nobody.

Through these recent posts -- or maybe all along on this blog -- it's become obvious that the one essential element that underlies the pursuit of most things I associate with a simpler life and childhood is time. Having enough of it, knowing how to manage it, not trying to constantly fill it up, not depriving kids of it, spending enough of it with people you care about and doing things that matter to you. 

Sure that evening after the cheerful trip to the country, back here in the city, we were surrounded by ugly buildings, sitting on an ugly blacktop, but we enjoyed the summer twilight with friends, no rushing off, no hassle, no schlep, no plans to interfere with and undermine the experience. We had time. Wally rode his bike with a boy he's known as long as he can remember and may very well know his whole childhood, as few people ever leave this neighborhood. When we were ready to go home, we said goodbye and walked a few steps back inside.

The pastoral fantasy of living in the country or spending the summers there can be the same thing as the fantasy of finally enjoying your life and your family "some day" and meanwhile missing out on all the days you have.

Maybe it's a grass is greener type thing that makes me so vulnerable to pastoral fantasies (it's certainly greener out there, in the bungalow village). Maybe it's just the difficulty of seeing things clearly for myself, being so easily persuaded by others. Every time I disillusion myself in one of this situations, I question why it is I'm so quick to imagine something is incredible, why I have such a hard time seeing things for what they are.

To come to this same conclusion again and again is jejune (a word that, to me, sounds nothing like what it is). That the ideal quiet life you seek might be best found in the noisiest place. That the sense of small community might be more readily available in a giant city than a lovely, little village with a luncheonette and a casino. That you might often be searching for something you already have.

I know there has to be more to it than that. There is also the fact that I've grown somewhat less enamored of the spokesperson for the place and free-range kids both, for a variety of probably trivial reasons. But basically the sense that this is a business person, with an agenda.

And there is the thing Alex's friend who accompanied us said about it as we were driving away. "They're not selling a summer rental. They're selling a lifestyle." To me, that made the rejection of it all the sadder. It wasn't just a cabin that was unaffordable for us, it was the fact that we weren't part of that community of people who chose to spend their summers in that quiet, old-fashioned, community-minded way.

And there is another piece to my delusional thinking. 

Yes, for city folk, in the hot kitchens of stuffy apartments, that little stretch of land up there with grass and a little lake and surrounding trees was the country. But to me, who grew up in the rural suburbs of Boston, went to college in New Hampshire, and spends time in the White Mountains in the summer, the bungalow country would hardly be put in a separate category from Central Park. It's mostly flat, the lake was more of a pond, still water, with that muddy, soft, leafy ground where you can't get a foothold underneath. The water practically bordered right up against the woods, no sand to play in, no room to spread a blanket, really. (I suppose you could argue that makes it more rustic, more natural. I won't completely overlook my own squeamishness when it comes to real nature.) But all in all, by any account this was a city-folks' version of nature. There wasn't too much of a breeze, and though it was maybe the start of the Catskills, I saw no real sign of any mountains. It wasn't really the country, wasn't really all that grand.

I'm stuck on that, too. That I would be taken in by someone's influence? Good marketing? My desire to please or, not quite as cynical, to connect? That I would walk away thinking that was the tableau of country summers, but not completely feeling it, and yet not trust the feeling that for days I wrestled and batted away until I finally turned the whole thing down, by a strange series of degrees, the way I turn against most things, hedging, debating, wondering if I'm missing out or turning someone down unfairly, trying to see every side.

For inspiration with my various novels, I recently turned again to Natalie Goldberg. I had loved her two books on writing, and yet now they are somewhat ruined for me, like the bungalow village, inauthentic, because -- as I mentioned before here -- her single novel was such an abomination. She is an authentic writer-as-advice-giver, and a terrible storyteller. Now even reading the great advice just feels too much like you're being sold something that isn't there. Lenore Skenazy -- as she calls herself, free-range "generalissimo" -- puts her kids in camp every summer. All day every day. If I were to join that picture-perfect old-fashioned summer community, I'd be virtually trading in all the ones I've already built. Natalie Goldberg, writer of sentences about writing so glorious you could fall down on your knees, like "At the same instant we have these magnificent hearts that pump through all sorrow and all winters we are alive on the earth. We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand. We were here; we are human beings; this is how we lived." This same writer cannot write a non self-referential sentence to save her life. Her one novel is such an atrocious, abysmal train wreck of a novel, so clearly her own mangled, self-centered, neurotic autobiography, reading it stripped away the power her advice once had to inspire me.

"False idols fall" rings in my head on heavy-rotation, from that all-time favorite Dylan song of mine. I've put Goldberg's books away. I've stopped following the free-range kids website with the devotion I once had. False idols falling isn't necessarily a bad thing, in fact it's the opposite. It means seeing things in a more honest way, trusting yourself rather than others.

Listening now to Weezer's "Only in Dreams", I'm submerged under memories of the summer of 1994, between high school and college. 

Maybe the key is to separate the realm of the imagination from imaginary, and to stop trying so hard to please others that I make every effort to see everything they see. Seeing what’s not there, when it comes to writing, creating imaginary worlds for kids, and thinking about how to address climate change-- the three obsessions which compel me most these days-- is even more important then seeing what is.

Outside our windows, now, we can see lovely green grass, flowers in bloom, plenty of water and fruit carts overflowing. If I didn't know better -- if I couldn't see what wasn't there -- it would certainly look like everything was okay.


  1. Your writing is so honest- I'm glad you posted what you did about FRK- I've had a bad taste in my mouth about her whole shtick for a while now...and I'm not even sure why. (though I loved the article in the sun that was the impetus for her book, blog, and also- you and i graduated from high school the same year! :)

  2. I loved that article too...and so many things about her. Maybe it's a natural outcome of pinning too many hopes on one person. Thanks for appreciating my honesty. Between the FRK stuff and the idealized vision of bungalow life it had really become this classic "block" where I felt like I couldn't continue with the blog until I'd addressed it. Same year from high school!!! That's so funny.

  3. i loved this entry and tried to relay the blog to S and she said it was the worst storytelling she had ever heard me do - long and drawn out with no point. So much to the story that can only be captured in written text...the let down, the scenery, the anticipation...which you do so beautifully. It is really brave for you to post such an honest assessment on your blog- and also makes me think of my mom, obsessing over how every trend is just capitalized as another business opportunity.

  4. I love hearing that you found the story worth repeating...sorry that it didn't translate. I can see how all the back and forth and then just petering out of the whole enterprise could be excruciating.

    I remember your mom early on recognizing "organic" as a potentially powerful marketing tool!!

    Thanks for what you wrote. Means a lot.

  5. This is fascinating.

    I think your observation about time is a good one. My life the last year has begun to feel very "free range" and it's that-- time-- that feels key. Also the lack of effort involved. It;s really just day to day.

    Atlanta isn't perfect, but living where I do, the way I do, with the kids in public school and no long commutes, and me staying (working from) home. No activities for the kids, etc.... we have long empty hours. Afternoons of reheated coffee and walking the dog. Not a lot of extra cash, but also no real sense of need or urgency. N'hood full of kids, lots of plastic swimming pools in front yard, etc.

    I find that anything that requires real planning tends to undercut the sense of time and relaxation. We can walk to the ice cream place, run to the library, go grocery shopping. But much beyond that (travel, birthday parties, etc) feels disruptive to the "endless" sense of these years...

  6. Laurel - I love your description of the "long empty hours" planned activities, no long commutes...walking to the ice cream place...plastic swimming pools...really conjures up that sense of openness of summer...

    In some ways it seems obvious - in order to feel like you have time, you have to give yourself time. But sometimes the choices involved aren't as clear. Activities, playdates, "better" schools (that require a commute)...these all create pulls, require planning, cause interruptions...that take us away from our center, interrupt that daily rhythm...

    I've also been thinking about the fact lately that in the past it would have been okay to have a friend visit while you were maybe doing laundry or cooking dinner...that people could come in and out, you didn't have to set aside open time for people...lives were more interwoven...that helped free up time, too


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