BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Here is what I did on my summer vacation: I went to my lake.
We all have a lake. Some of us just haven't been there for a while. Think summer camp, band camp, church camp. Think wet swimsuits and rowboats and inner tubes and bamboo fishing poles. Think bonfires and sunburn, chiggers and mosquito bites. Think first outdoor kiss.
See what I mean? You have a lake, don't you?
A lake is different from an ocean or a river. Just as wet, but not as fancy. It's away from work, someplace you can wear cutoff shorts and T-shirts. Rocky Fork, Charlevoix, Caesar Creek, Cumberland, Brookville, Leland, Cowan, Herrington. It doesn't matter which direction you point your car.
The Tension Zone
Our lake is in Ohio, not far enough north to be chic -- not Northport Point or Harbor Springs -- but close enough to get there in under three hours. Any lake will do, but the best one is a place you've been before, preferably when you were young.
My friend Sally, who has been going to Michigan for as long as she can remember, says there's a distinct point along Interstate 75 where she crosses out of the Tension Zone.
Crossing that line also gives you permission to eat bad food. Well, actually, the food is very good. It's just bad for you. Fat-counters and tofu-eaters will tell you that a regular diet of fat-free everything and broiled everything else eventually will retrain your palate so that you will no longer be tempted by the bad stuff.
They are in deep denial.
There's a fudge store every quarter-mile in Michigan, and it tastes heavenly, just as it did 20 years ago, according to Sally. Myself, I ate fried bologna sandwiches and onion rings the size of manacles. If the cook at the Minnow Tank Tavern had been willing to french-fry the cole slaw, I would have eaten that too.
Then I would have washed it down with a beer that was not lite.
Stuffed fish and neon
The dining establishments reserve their resources and attention for the deep fryer and the beer cooler. Decor is by Davey Jones with an assist from Budweiser -- oars, nets, stuffed fish and neon. My favorite place has a portrait of Yosemite Sam on black velvet.
The Donut Shop has been in the same spot for decades. Owners have gamely tried different names, new products. One disastrous regime tried to sell fat-free muffins and fresh juice. The next season a sign appeared: "Now under former management." We knew what they meant.
We also know the real name for Turkeyfoot Inn is the Tiltin' Hilton, Imperial Market is the Dented Can and J's One-Stop is the Fat Ladies' Store. We know where to buy night crawlers and ice.
Some of my friends travel on their vacations. They squander valuable brain cells figuring out exchange rates for yen or how to ask for Pepto Bismol in Farsi. Others use vacation time to improve their minds or, at the very least, their resume. I use mine to improve my outlook. I like to think of it as down time.
Of course, this is not real life. The lake is so wonderful because there is no telephone and there is no television. There certainly is no desk. You can't work.
Despite the buzzing of the personal watercraft and the obscene roar of the occasional jet boat, it is quiet. There is no road rage, no stadium rage. No rage of any kind. Just bugs and an honest fishy aroma.
When I drove back to Cincinnati after a week, I didn't mind. Really I didn't. I don't like it there better than I do at home.
But if you ever find your real life becoming more than you can bear, if your dentist tells you that you have been grinding your teeth, if your kids complain that you are crabbier than usual, if your spouse says you are no fun anymore, I have a remedy with very few side effects.
Go to your lake.
Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org