Not once in two weeks has a car with diplomatic license plates careened by me, forcing me to the curb. This is only one of the changes in being away from Washington.
It's not that people drive any better here on Cape Cod--in fact they drive much more recklessly--but that no one is immune from anything. There are no legislators, no ambassadors, not even any riders in long, dark limousines whose whims, we always assumed, could dictate the course of momentous events. No--here we are all more or less equal.
But my wife and I have done more than leave for a summer in a resort community. When we first moved to Washington several years ago, we decided to rent a house in Bethesda and buy a house on a pond here in Pocasset. I say we have done more than come to a resort community because our Pocasset neighborhood, with its two beautiful ponds (the larger of which I insist on calling a lake) and its proximity to the ocean, is a mixed blue- and white-collar working community. Our neighbors work as salesmen, plant supervisors and fishermen or are retired plumbers from Quincy or pharmacists from Worcester.
Children go to the local public schools and, in the summer, wander about the neighborhood looking for little adventures on sleepy streets.
We have not just exchanged Bethesda and Potomac for Truro and Nantucket. If we had, we'd have found people like our Bethesda selves. The only difference would be that fewer of us would be working, and we would therefore make the adjustments necessary for an extended period of leisure. But we'd still talk about theater and politics and the new novels that are too good to be on the best-seller list. We'd drink dry wines together, discover wonderful out-of-the-way restaurants and plan quaint daytrips to Rockport and the Whaling Museum in New Bedford.
We'd be conscious of each other's need for space, dress during the week as we dressed on weekends "back home," and be supportive of each other's efforts to deal with our various burnouts.
But for our neighbors here the real world continues, as we vacation.
It's just as well. For one thing our house needs a lot of work. If I were spending much time making pa te' in the Cuisinart I'd never get around to replacing the studs in the rotten walls and laying new flooring.
Another reason it's just as well: The house, for all its structural flaws, is situated on a little plot of randomly and heavily wooded land. The "back yard"--a small clearing surrounded by tall sweetpepper bushes and craggy pines and oaks--borders a "kettlehole pond" of several acres. By walking down the little path through the woods and sitting in an even smaller clearing at the water's edge, I can watch ducks, kingfishers, cormorants, painted turtles, a zillion dragonflies and the sunset. This would be no place to discuss Reaganomics or Megatrends. It's not really a place to discuss anything much, lending itself instead to quiet watching and contemplation.
So we've left everything we're accustomed to behind: the pace, the topics of conversation, the neatly controlled environment, the sense of proximity to power. Our whole life style is different. Come to think of it, I've never even heard, in three summers here, the term "life style." Our neighbors, whatever their faults and shortcomings by Washington standards, seem in many ways to live more directly than our Bethesda neighbors, so conscious of the latest research in aerobics and education and even advising that I enroll in a home-rebuilding course before tackling renovation of our house.
I don't think our neighbors have a life style, certainly not in the sense that they have studied the options and, after an assertiveness-training course, chosen their clothing, house, friends and career so as to create an organically unified and coherent whole. They may or may not live any better than our Washington friends--or even as well--but they certainly make less fuss about it.
No one jogs. I don't think anyone even has a running suit. A few walk their dogs, and some are overweight, but the body does not seem to be an obsession here. The obsessions seem to be the weather and taxes (which are high here). None of our neighbors seem obsessed by any of the standard Washington concerns: health, power, the quality of life, money or social status. Oh, they'd like to make more money and some work two jobs, but their attitudes hardly constitute obsession.
They resent power arbitrarily exercized and sometimes seem to feel helpless in the face of political and economic forces, but their response is not to attempt to gain power themselves. They seem to sense a trap in that approach. Our neighbors may not have read Lord Acton, but they certainly seem to have a clear sense of the corruption inherent in the struggle for power. Or maybe they're just afraid to risk seeking power, or too busy, or not energetic enough. Whatever. The acquisition of power is of no interest tothem.
Most don't own, or even covet, antiques. They often buy things cheaply and then buy another of the same when the first wears out. There are many television sets. But no word processors, no hot tubs and more likely a motorboat than a sailboat. Our neighbors are still living technologically in what Toffler would call the "Second Wave."
But when I first set out to rebuild a wall with hammer and a saw three years ago, my retired neighbor and now friend Les appeared in my backyard with nail pulls, a square and a circular saw and said simply, "You'll be needing these." After the birth of our daughter his wife, Verna, knitted a tiny velour sweater, and cooed and fiddled with her out of a true and clear love for a child. Another neighbor lent me a drop light and jack when I dug my cellar, and we traded a shed for a crib with another.
My racially mixed nieces have provoked no conversations about the racial situation in America today. Their parents are not referred to as "the mixed couple." They are simply neighbors. Now they are the neighbors with the videogame.
When I'm tired of ripping off shingles I step out into the front yard in search of a neighbor to chat with. My neighbors may not have read Thoreau, but they are pleased to see an oak seedling or wildflower that has seeded itself. They think me a little strange, but seem to think everyone a little strange and let it go at that. We chat in my emerging front-yard woods and I find them kind and thoughtful. I also find them interesting and clear-thinking in an uncluttered fashion. Politics is not their passion, but their analyses of the situation in El Salvador are more than adequate.
I don't know what year after year of watching turtles on the pond would be like, or if ultimately I'd miss the bright flash of a new running suit on a passing jogger. But I do know that time here helps keep the controlled frenzy and self-consciousness of the Washington area in perspective. For a few months after returning South at summer's end I remember that these are the people who make the goods and pay the taxes that we in Washington are rather removed from. I remember that they are as basically good and tolerant and intelligent as one can reasonably expect human beings to be. I especially remember that to them whether one drives a BMW or an Audi is of no consequence, and that most of them never wonder on Saturday night who's having cocktails with whom.