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The Illusion Of Sanctuary

The Illusion Of Sanctuary

Monday, August 17th, 2009

Our little bungalow in the Catskills isn’t much. A scarce one-bedroom dwelling with a shared porch, a single air-conditioner that only serves its purpose when the temperature is below 90, a circa-70s kitchen that doubles as the second bedroom and a bathroom that is probably better left undescribed. It seems to be a highly recommended tourist destination for flies and ants.

Still, this summer it’s literally my second home, the destination for long weekends, where I’m reunited with my family. The phenomenon of bungalow bachelors, men who commute to and from the Catskills during the work-week while their families vacation full-time is, as old as the development of Catskills themselves. I’ve been doing it for years, as did my father before me. Maybe one day my sons will continue the tradition.

At times it seems the best of both worlds — peace and quiet, perhaps the freedom to get together with friends or complete an overdue home improvement during the week, and the joys of family life on weekends, all with no custody disputes, acrimony or legal fees.

But as the summer progresses there is always the sense of the house being too empty and the road in between being way too long (120 miles each way in my case). That makes the arrival upstate, and the time spent there all the more precious.

In the cycle of the bungalow bachelor’s summer, we are well into the season of reverse migration, stuffing our cars for the downstate trip with the same loads of clothes and kitchenware we shlepped up throughout July. Fall is on the horizon, the days get shorter, the nights colder. The long weekends will be over soon.

Last weekend I wondered what it would be like to spend the year in that humble abode. All we’d need is a couple of electric heaters, and some heavy duty snow-tires for the cars. What if we never retreated from our retreat? Maybe we could find work in Monticello. Maybe the bungalow colony wouldn’t padlock the door. Maybe we’d find someplace in the area that stocks kosher food in the winter.

What if it was as easy all year to put aside our troubles— the pressures of work and school and the economy, the pain of a loved one’s illness — as it is to do every weekend for a summer, at a place where the biggest decisions are whether to spend the day at the pool or lake, or consider bowling or horseback riding.

The idea of a sanctuary always makes me think of Superman’s fortress of solitude, the icy retreat where the Man of Steel gathered his thoughts and sharpened his evil-fighting skills. In real life, presidents have Camp David. Mayor Bloomberg seems to enjoy weekends at his various homes around the world (Bermuda is said to be his favorite getaway) as a diversion from New York and its voracious media appetite.

For mortals of modest means, many retreat into diversions — hobbies, movies, socializing— for sanctuary. But what we all have in common is the rude awakening that sanctuary is almost always an illusion. Presidents and mayors and other leaders may come back from their retreats well-rested and with a fresh perspective, maybe some good advice from a spouse or confidant, but they still face the same pressing troubles. A change of venue in and of itself can only address your problems if you are a fugitive.

There will be one more visit to the sanctuary in the Catskills, one more press of life’s pause button for this year. Then, crammed into the minivan with all the laundry and bedding and junk will be the same problems we left with, plus a few new ones.

And, in what is bound to be a difficult autumn, the days by the lake and the pool, of breathtaking mountain views will seem only like daydreams.

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