Thomm Quackenbush, author

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08.10.07 2:51 p.m.

Our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we really want is for things to remain the same but get better.  

-Sydney J. Harris

 


Expectations' Ashes

We strive for consistency in our vacation to the shores of Lake George, down to stopping at the same mediocre bagel store we visited last year. Likewise, Emily and I spend the first night in Lake George verbally circling the differences on the main street as though playing an unpopular game in the back of the Sunday comics. We bristle when anything changes in Lake George, even if ostensibly better (such as the feculent public restroom engulfment by a visitors' center that keeps them comparatively spotless). Our fetish for consistency goes so far as to working against logic as when my mother suggests to my father and older brother that they binge on alcohol Wednesday night rather than Thursday night to forestall a harder morning packing Friday. (They take her up on it, though only to the extent that they end up getting very drunk Wednesday night and slightly less drunk the following night.) I even hold small delight in noting that the shared bathrooms still features a cracked caddy hanging over the showerhead. It would cost the owners of Scotty's Motel only a few dollars to replace, but they never have and I hope to see it just as broken next year. I indulge a brief fantasy that the other families who use this cabin cherish this minor imperfection as much as I do, but must concede that they are likely sane and therefore don't. Yay!  Lake George!

One of our neighbors at Scotty's Motel is a man who sits outside his room all day and smokes fat cigars. He is as much a fixture to us as the wooden tables that slope forebodingly outside each room. We recognize him and nod in greeting, but that is largely where the relationship stops. Until this year, I didn't even know his name, Tom, though we've crossed paths for the better part of a decade for one week each year. He looks much thinner than in years past, but it is nothing upon which I would usually see cause to comment. He is at least here and this all the stability I demand of him.

He may not be here next year, through no choice of his own. Yes, you see where this is going because you have at one time indulged the guilty pleasure of the Lifetime Network. He is suffering from cancer on two fronts and is undergoing radical chemotherapy, ergo the weight loss. He still smokes his cigars, of course - neither cancer is in his lung or mouth so why should he cease a vice he enjoys, especially if he could die of something else? - and banters with my mother about our futures more than his own. She encourages me to converse with him owing to his cancer, but I find the proposition awkward and disingenuous, even when he bequeaths to us his remaining homemade peanut butter cookies because he had heard I like them. I wave and chat with him as I ever did and find him to be perfectly congenial, I just have trouble breaking through the paradigm and allowing this aspect of Lake George to change. I was given little say when the four people bought the majority of the store fronts in town to convert into identical tourist shops, but I silently registered my lack of permission. If I have a heart-to-heart with Cigar Tom, it would signal my consent for him to change and - for reasons I would not wish on an enemy - not show up at Lake George next year. I want him to be as immutable as the lake itself and I will quietly mourn and wonder if he is not sitting outside my parents' porch next year when we pull up in our caravan of cars.

Lake George exists as more than simply a destination in my mind. It is the unguent for my angst through the rest of the year, a name I invoke against the stress of work. It is the four and a half days a year to which I most look forward. My feelings have nothing specifically to do with what my family does while there. I have simply built it up in my mind as of the few things perennially dependable enough that I feel safe idealizing.

My family reenacts high points from prior years, trying to recreate or surpass what has come before. Even in the midst of a blackout that engulfed multiple states, we tried to keep tradition intact by finding a restaurant where we could eat our big meal. This is where I want to be with whom I want to be. More than anywhere else, I feel at home in my motel bed next to Emily, cycling through our traditions.

I should crave new experiences, but I sanctify the old into a superstition. This year, when Emily suggests we might not go mini-golfing at the world's oldest course, that we just golf at some other point in the year, I am taken aback and subtly push us in that direction before the night is out simply to make sure that it happens. I'm not even particularly a fan of mini-golf, but putt over par because that is simply what is done. It is almost a compulsion. I logically understand and appreciate the fact that nothing amiss will occur if we skip this particular event. Simply sharing a summer night with Emily promises to have glimpses of magic, so I don't need the prop of a colored golf ball and water jets the color of Tidy Bowl in Lake George. I know exactly what to expect in Lake George and will feel disappointed if this iteration of the vacation is not the best ever. There is no winning and I am returned to the little boy hiding from the inevitable end of a birthday party or holiday knowing I will not always be this blessed. I've systematically disabused myself of this neurosis in most other circumstances, but invest so much emotion in this annual family trip.

When I was much younger, I began a ritual to dive into the pool at my parents' house when I had discharged the last of my scholastic responsibilities, telling myself that my Summer Self - whatever that might be - would emerge as I came up for air. All that was forced and mundane, all of me that was not adventurous and free, would slough off and dissolve in the water. My responsibilities have since extended well into the summer, as I need to actually work to support myself, but I still attempt this rite without telling anyone what I am doing. If this silent sacrament has not yet been performed by our trip to Lake George, I feel it is the last chance before responsibility reappears to claim me for another eight to ten months.

After my ritualistic indulgence (helped along by Emily and I pushing one another into the pool), we cuddle by the edge of the motel pool, having temporarily exhausted our aquatic enmity. One can hardly spend time in a pool with a loved one without competing against one another, though my skills at swimming barely rise above the level of doggy paddle. My father, who had been futile sunning under the overcast sky, dives in and completes a few laps to cool himself off further before returning to the room. We banter with him about the vagaries of our impending wedding, but it is only once he has begun to exit the pool that Emily whispers to me that I have missed the perfect opening to discuss money with him. While Emily has a wedding fund given to her by her mother, we had yet to broach the subject with my parents. Money is hardly my favorite subject to such an extent that, when I have the means, I will simply pay what bills come to me rather than introduce the topic of their existence to Emily. I do not know where I acquired this distaste, but it certainly could prove maladaptive. I may be able to trust the universe to balance phone bills and insurance in the long run, but the cosmos wasn't going to do much toward acquiring a DJ, flowers, and the rehearsal dinner (the providence of the groom's parents according to common etiquette). Go Lyssah, Go!

My father swims back unexpectedly and I silently thank the cosmos for throwing me a bone. Emily holds my hand under the water and I blurt, "So, where do you want to have the rehearsal dinner? Because that is sort of what the groom's parents deal with, traditionally. That and the flowers and DJ and I think that is it. Right?" What is the use of tact when one can simply vomit out clauses and hope they make sense to the listener? To my surprise, this goes over well. My father asks what his options are and we tell him we'd like if he either took care of the traditional responsibilities or gave us about $5000 and let us deal with the planning. He says he needs to think about it, but does not seems nearly as shocked as I would be if my family member just asked for five grand for a party.

Later, I while I stare toward the lake, Emily approaches me and I distractedly ask what shape her patronus - the protective spirits JK Rowling's wizards can produce to scare off evil entities - would take. This is one of the many reasons she has learned not to ask what I am thinking unless she needs a laugh.

"It would take the shape of the $5000 we're getting from your parents," she grins, eyes twinkling in triumph.

I nod, not looking at her but feeling the glow of her smile give me a sunburn. "That's a hell of a patronus. Might not be too useful against dementors, though." I fretted so much, waiting for the right moment, and it turned out that my worry was unnecessary. It's an Ayannah!  Or a tribble...

Despite my apparent indulgence in magical thinking bordering on obsessive compulsion, I am not blind to the realities. As family vacations are inclined to be, Lake George is far from perfect. My post-toddler nieces need an almost constant stream of brightly colored, sugar- and fat-coated entertainment or they transform into feral imps and sow discord with a childish fervor that would vex Eris. While I understand it is typical at their age group and that I was likely once just as much a pain in the ass to my parents, I don't see this as their vacation. They don't have the aptitude to form unhealthy and possibly neurotic attachment to a glacial body of water and so I have no sympathy if they aren't having fun that very moment. I would much rather just have Dan and Becky unencumbered as we did the first year that she came and sophomorically resent that this early tradition could not have found more fertile roots. If we didn't have the nieces, we could have a lot more fun together, but I may simply be seeking scapegoats.

On the other hand, watching my mother and Emily play with Alyssah - she of the family genes and toddler speech - is often worth the tantrums of her elder sisters. This was particularly true when we visited Great Escape (consumed and assimilated by Six Flags year ago) and I discovered that Alyssah has both the skill and lack of social boundaries to deftly dance with the costumed characters employed to keep the crowd amused and complacent before the park opened properly. Everyone has the skewed perspective to believe that their offspring/young relation is the most utterly gifted infant on the planet, but they must be wrong given how clever Alyssah is.

Thursday night, Lake George hosts fireworks. It is one of our high points of vacation, thus the reason I chose then to propose to Emily years ago. She dares me to reenact the proposal this year, to get on one knee in front of a crowd of strangers and ask for her hand. For some crazy reason, she thought I would be averse to confessing my love in front of a throng of strangers when that is so often my modus operandi. I pull her in the middle of the public dock and, trying to sound convincingly nervous, proposed again. She kisses me and we notice how little anyone cares about our public drama for their benefit. It is almost funny how little any of us really notice what is going on around us, we are so wrapped up in our inner thoughts. I mope over the end of vacation, thus tainting the joy I could be having. This is particularly driven home to me after the fireworks start and a teenage boy sidles near us, turns away from the brilliant explosions in the sky, and proceeds to have a long, juvenile conversation with one of his friends on his cell phone. I whisper mockery to Emily in haiku, but I'm not much better, turning away from amazing moments to blather to myself about pain I should not be feeling.

After fireworks, I insist upon getting an ice cream cone, though my body has made my lactose intolerance clear previous nights. I do it because - goddamn it - this is my last night in Lake George and my last opportunity and I am damned well going to seize it even if it will literally sicken me. It is ridiculous and more than a little maladaptive, a fact I keenly know while I stand in the snaking line, but I persist out of a sense of obligation and desperation.

Emily asks what we can do to prevent these feelings. What could help is it not ending at all, but that isn't reasonable. If this never ended, it would become the baseline and I would mourn the death of some other experience. The cure is nothing external, simply the change in perspective that infuses my every other moment because I do not know what to expect outside of these family vacations. I would rather be persistently pleasantly surprised than confront the ashes of unmet expectation.

Soon in Xenology: Cape Cod.

last watched: The Simpsons Movie
reading: Reality Is What You Can Get Away With
listening: Avenue Q

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Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.



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