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Summer thoughts; In the welcoming confines of Chautauqua's amphitheater, ?some of today's leading voices sit down for a chat

Iasked NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell about the recent problems with the Saints."

"I got Fareed Zakaria's take on the ?problematic relationship with Pakistan."

"I had a weeklong conversation with Jim Lehrer about the upcoming election."

For people who find their way to Chautauqua Institution in the next few weeks, those may ?be their answers to "What did you do on ?summer vacation?"

Goodell, Zakaria and Lehrer are among dozens of influential leaders, thinkers, artists and advocates who are appearing in Chautauqua's lecture series this season, giving their audiences ?a chance to encounter individuals who are among those shaping our world.

But feel free to wear shorts when you go ?to see them.

"It is unremittingly enjoyable," is how author Roger Rosenblatt describes visits to the resort's amphitheater stage. He is returning Monday to host, for the third time, a week of "conversations" with his friends. This year that includes "All in the Family" creator Norman Lear, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer and, on Friday, Dame Julie Andrews, with her daughter, children's book author Emma Hamilton. (Hamilton works with Rosenblatt; he says getting her mother to join them was "just dumb luck.")

[JUMP] Chautauqua's covered open-air venue, tucked into a hillside a short distance from the glittering lake, helps give the events there a more casual atmosphere, less like summer school (but with the best professors ever!) and more like an exclusive picnic where you get to talk with the most interesting people.

The audiences for the morning lectures are large, but "You feel so familial," Rosenblatt says. "And as a family, they will forgive you for any flubs. It's a very comfortable feeling."

That feeling extends outward from the stage. Audiences always have a chance to submit questions, and sometimes more. As when, on a past visit, Rosenblatt's conversation with Jim Lehrer (who has his own "week" this year, July 2 to 6) hit a bump when the two realized that Lehrer hadn't brought any material for a brief reading that was to conclude the event. "We're sitting up on the stage, with 6,000 people staring at us, and we're just smiling," Rosenblatt said. "But in the audience, in the front row, is a woman named Marie, who says, ‘Well, I have one of Mr. Lehrer's books with me.' "

Marie saved the day, but that wasn't the end of it. The next day, Marie was back, carrying the next guest's writings with her, just in case. "And now," Rosenblatt said, "she's wearing makeup!"

Connections made in the amphitheater don't necessarily end there.

Asked about how he spends his "down time," Rosenblatt laughed. "There's no freedom in Chautauqua – they jump out of the trees to talk about things. You're minding your own business when a motorcycle gang of intellectuals jumps out and takes you into a conversation you're not prepared for at all!"

When the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, director of the institution's Department of Religion, describes how themes and lecturers are brought together each year, that personal relationship makes even more sense.
"The directors of each department are involved, the head of the [Chautauqua Foundation], and the President [Thomas Becker]," she said, "but we also ask for ideas from attendees and the general public. We receive hundreds of suggestions, sometimes with suggestions for the speakers."

While there naturally are disappointments, she said one thing came through loud and clear for 2012: To have a week dedicated to the national elections. Hence, former "PBS NewsHour" anchor Jim Lehrer hosting "What Informed Voters Need to Know" July 2 to 6 with pollsters, political strategists and columnists Michael Gerson and Mark Shields (that's 10:45 a.m. July 6).

Other themes for the nine weeks in 2012 are "Inspire. Commit. Act.,"July 9 to 13; "Water Matters," July 16 to 20, with several speakers from National Geographic; "Pakistan: Straddling the Boundary Between Asia and the Middle East," July 23 to 27, with CNN's Fareed Zakaria on July 23; "Digital Identity," July 30 to Aug. 3; "The Ethics of Cheating," Aug. 6 to 10, with Roger Goodell on Aug. 8. For week 8, the theme is "Radicalism," Aug. 13-17, and the season concludes with"The Presidents Club," Aug. 20-24, with editors from Time magazine, the former director of the Nixon Library and presidential daughter Susan Ford Bales on Aug. 22.

The morning lectures, which start at 10:45, usually last about an hour and often are followed in early afternoon by book signings or other opportunities to meet the speakers. Then, at 2 p.m., the Department of Religion picks up the theme and puts its own spin on it with more guests appearing in the Hall of Philosophy.

"We present another ‘angle of vision' on the theme in the interfaith lecture series," said Maureen Rovegno, assistant director of religion. "The afternoon lectures are much more intimate, and it is a more idyllic setting." (Of course in serene, idyllic Chautauqua, that's all relative.)

At the end of each week, people who want to continue the discussion can take part in something new, Friday dialogues – described by those at the institution as a "friendly discussion about religion and politics."
"People will sign up any day at the Hall of Philosophy and we'll give them a ‘ticket' for the location of their conversation," Rovegno said. The meeting places won't be "advertised," because the groups will be limited to about 15 people. Facilitators will lead the discussions, a chance for visitors and vacationers to enjoy a "seminar," again with no test or paper to write at the end.

Participants should expect to be involved, however.

"We do get a different kind of audience [from the morning lectures], a very faithful audience," Rovegno said. "We present ‘lived' religion, not just theology or religion, but ethics and how it all affects life."

Some weeks have a different speaker each day, but on Monday, a popular favorite will be back for the entire week. John Shelby Spong, the most reverend Episcopal bishop of Newark "breaks all attendance records," Rovegno said.

During Week 3 (July 9 to 13), Krista Tippett, whose "On Being" show airs via American Public Media, will be doing interviews for future shows. Best-selling author Karen Armstrong is there July 27 and former U.N. ambassador and civil rights activities Andrew Young speaks on Aug. 7.

Chautauqua Institution also has swimming, sailing, its own golf course, eight fast-dry tennis courts (two with lights for night play), kayaking, hiking and a fitness center, along with a full compliment of theatrical and music shows, making it a sort of a "full service" vacation stop for body, mind and spirit.

The full list of events, along with information about accommodations on the grounds, can be found at www.ciweb.org.

email: mmiller@buffnews.com