The last spell of foul weather found me in a mood to match, going through a week's worth of catalogues. Most of them were full of clothes designed for the barely adult, all of whom seemed to be on vacation in the tropics or on their way to bed.
There was one catalogue from a company specializing in aid and comfort for the elderly and infirm. It was more depressing than the bikini-on-the-beach bunch. And then, at the bottom, I found the Elderhostel summer catalogue, all 95 pages of it, and my heart started to rise.
The Old Testament tells us that "the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong," but Franklin P. Adams suggested that, nevertheless, that was the way to bet your money.
I am on the shady side of the hill, a fact that is borne in on me every day as the fleet of foot race past me on the Metro steps. So imagine my joy at finding something absolutely wonderful, something exciting and interesting and different, and all designed exclusively for those 60 years old and up. The swift and skinny need not apply unless they were born in 1925. Or before.
Most people by now have heard of Elderhostel, and know it is an organization that offers a week of college courses and campus life for $195 (Hawaii, $210; Alaska, $230; Canada, $200). The price typically includes six nights' accommodations; all meals, Sunday evening through Saturday breakfast; and five days of classes.
Over 700 colleges and universities, here and abroad, participate in the program, which was started in 1975. The choices are endless. To get serious about it, one first has to decide on dates, and then whether location or course content comes next.
I was hoping to go to New England this summer, and I found 98 offerings in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. For example, this is surely my first, last and only chance to go to Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Conn., where, on its 30-acre campus of colonial, federal and 19th-century houses I can attend an acting workshop, learn something about bioethics and study the revolutions of Russia and China.
I have always wanted to go to Maine, and, while I am not up for a week of "Canoeing and Kayaking on its Waterways," which is offered by the Wilderness Canoe Basin at Pleasant Lake, I am drawn to the University of Maine at Machias. It is the easternmost university campus in the United States, about 85 miles from Bangor. It is surrounded by spruce-fir forests, blueberry barrens and tidal inlets. In July it is offering "F.D.R. -- Triumph Over Disaster," which includes a visit to the Roosevelt Memorial at Campobello.
I am also tempted by another course, this one at Bradford College in Massachusetts, titled "Don't Get Mad, Get Even: Politics in the Home of the Cod and the Bean," which includes visits with Massachusetts politicans.
There is something for everyone, that's all there is to it. If New York City is your idea of a vacation, consider a week at Fordham, 90 beautiful acres directly across from the Botanical Gardens and the Bronx Zoo. The Lombardi Sports Center offers complete health-club facilities, and the dorms have elevators and private baths. Fordham is offering a variety of programs this summer, many of them making use of New York's unique resources. A group of seniors from Australia will be present the week of July 14.
Something closer to home? How about an intensive course at Mary Baldwin Collge in Staunton, Va.? (Intensive courses concentrate on one subject instead of the usual three and require additional academic effort.)
"1935 -- What a Difference a Year Makes!" will be offered there three times during July. In 1935, the Nazis reintroduced compulsory military service, President Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act, "Porgy and Bess" opened in New York, jazz become swing and, for the first time, oil pipe lines were opened between Iraq, Haifa and Tripoli.
The catalogue suggests we think about how the world changed in that year and mull over what changes the next 50 years will bring. All this on a beautiful campus in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley.
Another intensive course is being offered by Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, this one focusing on the Civil War and ending with an all-day field trip following Lee's retreat from Richmond to Appomattox. Elderhostlers will stay in the air-conditioned dorms on the medical school campus.
I ended the day quite drunk with the notion, and I hadn't even looked at the section on hostels abroad. I had flipped past the eight pages of Canadian offerings, too, although the very first Elderhostel in the book is an intensive two weeks at Fairview College, 50 miles west of Peace River, in Alberta. Subject: Beekeeping.
Clearly I needed a cooler head, so I found friends and friends of friends who had already explored the world of Elderhostel and could give me eyewitness accounts and perhaps keep me from signing up for the rest of the foreseeable future.
One friend, who has attended two hostels alone and six more with her husband, gave it a rave notice. She allowed that some people seem unprepared for dormitory life and cafeteria food, but she set out as though on her way to camp, and enjoyed all of her trips. Indeed, she raved about the quality of the teachers and the courses, and said they had met fascinating people.
I caught one couple between hostels -- just back from one off the coast of Georgia and on their way to two more, one in the Catskills and one in Vermont. They couldn't say enough for the whole concept. They have spent time on nature studies in the Rockies and on modern art in Boston.
They said the food was just fine, and that there is usually a good restaurant on or near the campus. They also pointed out that most schools have additional facilities available, like tennis courts and swimming pools.
All doubts removed, I got down to the actual choosing. There are application blanks in the back of the catalog (which is available in all public libraries), and enrollment begins on March 15 on a first-come, first-served basis.
Registration by mail continues after that, and there is even telephone registration beginning on April 22, requiring a Visa or MasterCard to cover the necessary deposit.
Elderhostel suggests that the applicant make an alternate choice in case the first one is already full. I filled in the blanks for the one in upper Maine and the one at Mary Baldwin in Virginia. I hope this is the beginning of a long academic career.
For a catalogue, write: ELDERHOSTEL, 80 Boylston St., Suite 400, Boston, Mass. 02116, (617) 426-8056.