The Weekend Worrier

Summer is a vision of the good life, where you can leave behind the cares of the city, live in a manner and with people that you choose. It’s supposed to be a better place. Paradise! But then, after the interminable purgatory of the Long Island Expressway, you see … Cerberus, in the guise of Lizzie Grubman, guarding the crossing. Surely there must be some mistake. Instead of the earthly paradise you’d hoped for, you’ve arrived in HadesHampton, with tortures—Brazilian waxing—to fit every one of Manhattan’s crimes. And, come to think of it, it’s hot.

The Hamptons are in some sense Manhattan made visible, a clearer view. In Manhattan, idiosyncrasy, like almost all of life, is behind closed doors. Summer is performance—a time to flaunt what you’ve earned, show who you are, let your freak flag fly. Summertime means freedom, and, as Donald Rumsfeld said, “Freedom is untidy.” Without the stabilizing influence of work, people follow their impulses, and Manhattan’s worst impulses run riot. Consumption—the infamous $65-a-pound lobster salad from Loaves & Fishes comes to mind—is beyond conspicuous. Transportation is impossible without a high-end European car or a Hummer—and there’s no place to park. Reservations are always necessary, and never obtainable. There’s always someone richer or smarter or better-looking than you are. The denizens feather their nests with shiny objects, squawking and preening like so many magpies.

This is a cartoon, of course, an image in the mind’s eye of those who prefer Rhinebeck or Monticello or Martha’s Vineyard or Maine. Summer communities have an almost religious hold on their devotees. Oceans or mountains. Tennis or horses. South of the highway or Westhampton. Up Island or Oak Bluffs. And one way of saying who you are is by saying who you’re not. Thus, the Hamptons, in their most caricatured and excessive form—and horrible they can seem—are necessary to make their more modest vacation Edens in the Catskills or the Hudson Valley seem paradisial in comparison. Or, to put it another way, summer is the season of snobbery. To have your own fun, it appears to be necessary to have contempt for someone else’s.

Freud called this principle the narcissism of minor differences, and it seems to flower in the summertime. More than in Manhattan (where the stereotyped variations between uptown and downtown, East Side and West Side, Brooklyn and Manhattan, have been gradually lessening over the years), the East End still seems proudly balkanized and tribal. The people in Sagaponack think the people in Springs are hillbillies. Springs dwellers wouldn’t be caught dead in East Hampton shops, even if they could afford them. East Hamptonites want as little truck as possible with Montauk’s grizzled surfers, who tend to see the rest of the Hamptons as an extension of the L.I.E. And to North Fork residents, that other fork provides a useful buffer in case of hurricane, but otherwise, they’d rather not think about it. Summer’s golden rule is, look down on others as they no doubt look down on you. Sharing paradise has never been easy.

A new book out this month, Status Anxiety, by Alain de Botton, provides one framework to think about the hell-is-other-people paradoxes of summer communities. Botton’s 1997 book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, invented the genre of philosophical self-help. In Status Anxiety, he contemplates the mystery of conspicuous consumption, and with the help of an all-star team of Western thinkers from Herodotus to Karl Marx, he shows the various therapies—artistic, bohemian, religious—culture has devised to escape it.

Summer is often about trying and failing to keep people out and looking back across the years to the way things were before the barbarians came.

De Botton sees status anxiety as a basic drive—“our quest for love from the world,” as he puts it—and material possessions—like, say, a beachfront mansion, or a string of polo ponies—as ways to manifest it. Status Anxiety is a surprisingly earnest term paper of a book, lacking some of the charm of De Botton’s previous work. (Its wit can be so dry as to make one wonder sometimes if it’s there at all.) But it provides a clarifying lens through which to look at summer’s social dance, which is not always pretty.

The quaintest thing in De Botton’s quaint book is a genuine sense of outrage about snobbery—it’s spiritual poverty, a social problem to be solved. He sees the need for status as a need for love. “The conditional nature of a snob’s favor may seem so offensive because adult love retains as its prototype the unconditional love of a parent for a child.” One wonders what wounds De Botton might have suffered—what birthday-party invitations he might not have received as a child—to produce such a poignant perception of a social slight. Largely, De Botton cleaves to the Jean-Jacques Rousseau–noble savage view of conspicuous consumption, whereby, in some lost world before history began, a man’s possessions were essentially his good word and his suntan. Then somebody developed a taste for trinkets, and all hell broke loose.

“Rather than a tale of greed,” writes De Botton, “the history of luxury goods may more accurately be read as a record of emotional trauma. The legacy of those who have felt pressured by the disdain of others is the perceived need to add an extraordinary amount to one’s bare self in order to signal that one also may lay a claim to love.”

Jerry Seinfeld’s emotional trauma has given birth to a claim to love in the form of a vast mansion, with its 22-car garage and regulation Little League baseball diamond in place of the obligatory tennis court. Another fashionable rumpus room these days is the full-size indoor basketball court, like the one in mining billionaire Ira Rennert’s 110,000-square-foot complex, with its six buildings, 29 bedrooms, 40 bathrooms, basketball court, and bowling alleys. Rennert’s pile is orders of magnitude bigger than any cottage contemplated by Astors or Vanderbilts in Newport a hundred years ago, and his Sagaponack neighbors waged bitter nimby war against the fortress, six years in the making, claiming that he plans to put it to use as some sort of religious retreat—but Rennert has maintained that it’s simply a family house, his own vision of the good life apparently involving houseguests.

Ira Rennert builds his dream house, and there goes the neighborhood. Of course, at a vacation community, the neighborhood is always going, or in danger of it. Whereas in the city nostalgia and sentimentality are tamped down, in the summer they’re given free rein. Summer is often about trying and failing to keep people out, and looking back across the years to the way things were before the barbarians came. Moaning about the excesses of the neighbors is almost always part of the summer experience. The garish landscaping next door. The many-gabled McMansion plunked down in a pasture as if by a tornado. The shiny modern sculpture erected on a waterfront pier, marring the nineteenth-century seascape. Newer residents, eager to reinforce the idea that they belong, tend to greet these things with anger. The locals don’t tend to put up such a fuss, possibly because they sold the land to pay their real-estate taxes. Nostalgia is a luxury they can’t afford.

Summer is a story wealthy people tell themselves, of showing who they are, and of course who they’re not. While for affluent New Yorkers, Newport was the Hamptons of its time, albeit possibly with a more refined taste level, New England developed an idea of summer that reflected its Puritan roots. Rather than a sybaritic idyll, New England summer often replayed the early-to-bed, early-to-rise virtue that enabled people to afford their summer palace in the first place. In New England, status was usually married to rectitude, and snobbery was always propped up with an ethical foundation. Ostentation was frowned upon (you could spot the new-money interlopers by the fact that there was no mud on their cars). On Martha’s Vineyard, said Lillian Hellman, plucking a cherry tomato from the top of a salad, you don’t want to be seen as decorating food. Hedonism is banked and circumscribed, put in the context of some other activity, like sailing, that requires skill and patience.

Part of the social drama of the Hamptons has to do with the fact that the East End began its life as an outpost of New England—Connecticut is a short boat ride across the Sound—rather than of New York City. There’s a continuing cognitive dissonance involved in grafting all that New York flamboyance and ostentation and diversity on the much more demure visual framework of a New England village like East Hampton, home sweet home despoiled by an endless procession of unruly houseguests. Who invited them?

Martha’s Vineyard appears to have a looser culture, but in some ways it’s much more tightly controlled. An Up Island social center, just a few miles from Jacqueline Onassis’s estate, is Alley’s Store, a general store with tools, milk, eggs, fishing lures, and Frisbees, a post office, locals in work boots getting their coffee and grumbling—with reasonable good humor—about the tourists who are taking their time. It’s an image of a bygone, communitarian America (it’s owned, in fact, by the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust) in the midst of great wealth, and a beautiful one, too, carefully art-directed though it might be. It’s a vision of the way the world might be like without … Republicans!

On Martha’s Vineyard, the social problem that causes the most concern tends not to be the ostentation of the superrich—for the most part, they know their place—or the decadence of the nightlife, but the riffraff, the day-trippers who are captivated by this vision of virtuous ease and swarm through it on mopeds. Some of them make it all the way to Alley’s, but many more succumb to the conspicuous unpretentiousness of the Black Dog, a restaurant and T-shirt emporium in Vineyard Haven, the faithful, friendly, sporty Labrador doing double duty as a badge of belonging and an advertisement that, actually, you don’t.

Paradise is worth fighting for. It’s not that surprising that summer’s tribal loyalties and conflicts occasionally erupt into physical violence. The John Cheever story “Goodbye, My Brother” is set on a Martha’s Vineyard–like island, in a sprawling cottage on an imaginary bluff called Laud’s Head. The brother in question is a lawyer who brings facts and dollar figures and reality into a family’s endless cocktail hour, pointing out that the family’s dead father—he died in a sailing accident—had made the house seem ancient by sheathing it in 200-year-old shingles, which were now infested with termites, that his mother was an alcoholic, that the house itself was in danger of falling into the sea—that the summer was an illusion, not real life at all. Finally, the narrator has had enough and, on a walk on the beach, strikes his brother in the head with a gnarled piece of driftwood, drawing blood … which seems a perfectly sensible thing to do in the context of the story. “Oh, what can you do with a man like that,” laments the narrator. The implication is that he’d done the only thing possible—vanquished the interloper, preserved paradise from a dangerous enemy.

It’s a very satisfying story, a version of, say, cursing out the lower classes—“Fuck you, white trash” are reputed to be Lizzie Grubman’s memorable words—before mowing down a crowd of them with a Mercedes. (Savage? Yes. But nobility is no longer in fashion.) When you’re trying to relax, the riff-raff can really get on your nerves. Part of the reason the Lizzie Grubman story retains its potency is that it plays on these same status hierarchies and resentments, making one wonder just who should be excluding whom.

Cheever’s story has an aching, almost overpowering emotional undercurrent, that self-love that’s cultivated in the summertime, lubricated with plenty of alcohol. It’s a relative of the sentiment one finds in the kind of coffee-table books like Rose Styron’s By Vineyard Light or any number of books about the Hamptons, mawkish photographic love poems to the landscape that are a distinctive form of summer porn—made for self-love, since a beautiful place reflects one’s inner beauty (and never mind that careful art direction is necessary to conceal the sprawl of subdivisions over potato fields). The simple life is fetishized, the ultimate luxury, because a beautiful place gives wealth a spiritual dimension. Thoreau’s outwardly simple, inwardly rich life now requires substantial outward riches, too. De Botton notes that when Thoreau built his cabin, it cost a grand total of $28.12, Paul Morrissey’s 5.7-acre Montauk estate, a rare tract of South Fork wilderness, is currently on sale for some $50 million.

De Botton sees the vastness of natural landscapes as a salve for status anxiety. “Whatever differences exist among people are as nothing between the most powerful humans and the great deserts, high mountains and oceans of the world,” he writes with characteristic faux-naïve pedantry. “There are natural phenomena so enormous as to make the natural variation among any two people seem tiny. By seeking these out, and experiencing a consoling sense of all humans within the cosmos, we may mitigate whatever discomfort we feel over our inferior position in the social hierarchy.”

So that’s why we go to the beach—that oceanic feeling overwhelming the narcissism of minor differences. And De Botton is right. At the beach, it’s possible to feel small and humble in the face of nature, to imagine the world as it was before the potato fields were subdivided for McMansions, before Seinfeld built his ball field, before Ira Rennert had ever heard of Sagaponack. “We may best overcome a feeling of unimportance,” De Botton writes, “not by making ourselves more important but by recognizing the relative lack of importance of everyone on earth.”

But money, too, is an ocean that sweeps over everything, gorgeous and captivating and destructive. And, as De Botton notes, it, too, can make one feel rather small.

The Weekend Worrier