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Teaching old dogs new tricks

© By Mike Keenan

  Inside the manned gates of the "Institution," I think that I have inadvertently stumbled upon a time warp worthy of study by famed British physicist, Stephen Hawking. I've never encountered so many canes and motorized wheelchairs. Is this where they enclose the feeble and elderly? Perhaps it's a huge nursing home adjacent to the lake, preventing escape. I'm at Chautauqua, a one-hour drive from the Peace Bridge linking Buffalo and Fort Erie to the southwestern corner of New York State. Being retired, I seem to fit in; however, upon closer examination, I notice strange behavioural patterns and a decided uniqueness exhibited by the inhabitants.
     First, the eyes. They all appear animated, almost on fire with a rampant enthusiasm that reminds me of Cocoon, the 1985 movie directed by Ron Howard when a bunch of seniors dive into a swimming pool and are immediately energized with renewed vigour. Don Ameche, Maureen Stapleton, Wilford Brimley, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Jack Gilford and Herta Ware were part of a well-ripened cast that captured two Academy Awards.
     On benches, amidst landscaped mini-parks and a commons area, they voraciously read. I watch a lady who sits under a tree as she carefully paints a watercolour. Someone nearby plays a violin. And, as the clock in a tower nears the hour, the Brick Walk that connects theatres, auditoriums, the Hall of Philosophy and other venues, fills with a swarm hustling to appointments replete with cushions, portable chairs, refreshments and notepads. Notepads. They are keen to learn. It's like being back in University watching students scurry to class.
     Chautauqua features nine theme weeks throughout the summer. I'm here during "Sacred Texts." The other themes include: The Media and News - Applied Ethics, Family: All of a Kind? All different? The Meteoric Rise of China and India, 21st Century Cities, The Middle East, Security and Preparedness, Music: Heart, Soul and Dollar and most appropriate for this graying group, Healing and Healthy Aging. At the library, I'm warned to arrive at lectures early if I want a seat.
     I wander down the Brick Walk to the Hall of Philosophy, an outdoor facility that seats about 500 set amidst trees and shrubs. The local newspaper in hand, printed on site, I arrive at one p.m. for the two p.m. lecture to be addressed by Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University. At 1.15, I look up from my newspaper, shocked to realize that most of the seats are filled. It's like the seventh and deciding game of the Stanley Cup Series between Montreal and Toronto. By two p.m., the crowd has swelled to 700, spilling out to adjacent parkland. Wow! Fortunately, I had been warned.
     Later that night, after purchasing Nasr's book at the local bookstore, I listen to the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra's rendition of Mahler's Symphony No. 9 with Uriel Segal acting as guest conductor. The Amphitheatre, seating a thousand, was only 99% full with a competing play, Much Ado About Nothing, staged at the Theatre.
     In addition to the regular program which fills the day, there are over 400 special interest courses including art, history, music, business, computers, dance, languages, recreational boating, crafts, hobbies, health, fitness, literature, writing and philosophy, enough to keep knowledge gluttons completely fed.
     And then there is the architecture featuring beautiful Victorian construction such as the Athenaeum Hotel which sits grandly on a tree-shaded hill overlooking the picturesque lake with huge wooden porches replete with gentle rocking chairs, offering the lifestyle of a bygone era.
     During my second day, I notice interlopers, young people who jog and ride bikes, their children climbing the sculptured fountains, apparently some intergenerational activity to observe here. After all, this incredible place encourages lifetime addiction. There are children's schools, family entertainment and clubs. Outside the grounds, there are golf courses, wineries, farm markets, campgrounds and hiking opportunities.
     The Chautauqua Institution began humbly as a camp for religious education, and it maintains housing for many congregations, but it has evolved into far more than that. It disproves the old adage concerning the futility of teaching new tricks to old dogs. Inspired by my surroundings, I make a firm resolution. As soon as I return home, I am determined to find a special interest course offered by Night School or Continuing Studies at the University. These old, eager, responsive people are my new heroes.
     Remember U.S. Vice-president, Dan Quayle? Dan was almost as good as George W. with his humorous misquotes. He once admonished us with "What a waste it is to lose one's mind." The correct quotation, my new motto, is: "A mind is a terrible thing to waste," the slogan of the United Negro College Fund. My grade six teacher, Miss Smith, was right when she said that we never stop learning and the more that we learn, the less we know. I didn't understand the latter part of the equation then, but at Chautauqua, it permeates the air that you breathe.

Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.

Photo Credits
Mike Keenan: Athaneum Hotel, Amphitheatre, Clock Tower, Author's Alcove, Bestor Plaza, Brick Walk, Bikers, Hall of Philosophy, Readers, Overflow crowd,

If you go
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The Chautauqua Institution: http://www.ciweb.org/
Chautauqua County Visitors' Bureau: www.tourchautauqua.com/
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chautauqua,_New_York

What's happening, money, distance, time?
Media Guide: http://www.abyznewslinks.com/
Currency conversion: http://www.xe.com/ucc/
Distance calculator: http://www.indo.com/distance/
Time zone converter: http://www.timezoneconverter.com/

Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/


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