Chemists and economists speak of equilibrium conditions, where the concentrations of reactants and products, or supply and demand, are in balance. If you have a bottle of soda water with the cap on, carbon dioxide bubbles up from the water, but molecules dissolve back into the liquid at the same rate. Neither state gets ahead.
I’ve been thinking about this analogy as we prepare for our annual vacation to the lake. It’s a muddy little reservoir in western Pennsylvania, where I grew up. Our friends are going to Greece; Banff, Canada; and Mount Desert Island, Maine.
I used to feel inadequate about our holiday plans. Going to the lake was so prosaic. But I have concluded that there is a kind of equilibrium at work in the matter of vacation choices.
The summer our oldest got married we rented a cottage on Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts, across the road from one of my sisters.
It was very fashionable. Chappaquiddick is beautiful. The beach was sandy. The fishing was stupendous. My brother-in-law and I rented a boat and guide and caught flounder like we were professionals.
The Chappy ferry runs all day to Edgartown, and the girls, who are coffee snobs, would go to Espresso Love for lattes in the morning, just because they could. And buy stuff.
That’s on the plus side. On the other hand, the cottage cost about a zillion dollars. To get there, you had to book passage on the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard a year in advance. You land at Oak Bluffs and sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic behind cars belching exhaust at you for the six miles to Edgartown.
Because I had foolishly waited until February to make arrangements for our car, I had to ferry it back to Falmouth on Wednesday and stow it in a parking lot. I forget how we got our goods off the island.
Compare that now to our beloved Lake Pymatuning. In the winter, when the ground freezes, we bring in truckloads of sand to make a kind of beach. If the water is high in the spring, the sand gets sucked into the lake. The nearest coffee shop is 32 miles away. If you are into shopping, there is a Tractor Supply that sells good tools and chicks (baby Plymouth Rocks, Orpingtons and Leghorns). There’s also a Walmart.
On the other hand, it’s free. Mother and Dad gave the cottage to the children some years ago, and we take turns using it. The state runs a fish hatchery and maintains a bird sanctuary, so you can catch walleye and muskies, and see bald eagles. To protect the wildlife, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission forbids motors over 20 horsepower. So people sail.
Because it’s remote and unfashionable, there’s no one there. It’s so quiet you can hear frogs at night and mourning doves at dawn. There are no fancy restaurants, but if there were, they’d be cheap.
Our children and grandchildren think it’s heaven on earth. This is mostly because they don’t know better. Martha’s Vineyard, for all the inconvenience of the ferries, is far more beautiful.
But other people know this, so the vineyard is really crowded. And it would be like Times Square if the market didn’t screen so many more folks out by setting prices out of reach. My theory is that it has set them just at the point where it really is no better than the lake. The two destinations, in my mind, are in equilibrium.
And now that the population of grandchildren has grown to the mid-20s, fancier destinations would be out of our reach financially. It makes me glad the lake is just as good.
John Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington. Catholic University’s website is www.cua.edu.