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Happens every day

October 1, 2009

Gillies_book_jacketIsabel Gillies‘ recent memoir, Happens Every Day: An All-Too-True Story, about the breakup of her first marriage, is tremendously good reading. By turns poignant, funny, sober, and thoughtful, it is neither ponderous nor self-pitying, and one can easily empathize with Ms. Gillies and her all-too-true tale.

Her book comes across our transom here because, as the New York Post‘s review pointed out,

Gillies and her [ex-]husband are WASPs, rumpled and clean like fresh sheets, vacationing in Maine, taking baths with the Sunday Times, drinking highballs with intellectuals. She is deeply invested in her assumption that everyone envies them. She later admits she was wrong.

The Post is not wrong in its labeling, but that paper’s reviewer makes the common mistake that we must refute at all times in this blog: that being a WASP has mostly to do with highballs and the Sunday Times and clean sheets, that our way of life is a commodity “lifestyle.” This cannot be correct, because no WASP can exist in isolation, and there are certainly many highball drinkers, New York Times readers, and Maine vacationers who are not (and should have no interest in being considered) one of our people. Indeed the Post seems to suggest that Ms. Gillies believes that everyone envies their WASPishness; this is inaccurate, as what the author believed enviable is not her stock, but her happy marriage and household.

However, it is not this point but the preceding note – that our people thrive on and within community – that we should most like to unpack here. Even a cursory reading of her book will reveal that silent underpinnings of Ms. Gillies’ story are those of community. One notes that the friends she mentions are old friends, and that the thread between them is both strong and current, no matter the time elapsed since first meeting. Consider the following passage, falling when the author is faced with moving home to her parents’ apartment with her two young boys:

I called my friends in New York and started arranging playdates with their kids for my Ohio boys. I made arrangements to visit preschools. I accepted invitations to Christmas parties. Protective friends I had known since grade school offered to drive out there and retrieve Wallace, James, and me and all of our belongings so that we would never have to return to the town once we got to New York. I loved the idea of my old pals making a road trip to save their friend who had gone off course…1

In a time of American rootlessness and despair,2 how wonderful it is that Ms. Gillies was able to call upon her old friends, that those relationships remained current after many decades, and that more than a few of those friends remained where they had come from. While our people by no means possess a monopoly on such relationships, the sort of extended community which Ms. Gillies inhabits is among our most distinctive attributes. Many outsiders and cynics will scoff and write off the “old-boys’ network” as an exclusive and waning anachronism, but at its root, such a network is no more than an extended community of kindred and their friends, who have spent a lifetime around and amongst one another. From these long relationships are formed, at best, deep affection and loyalty mixed with a certain hard-headed realism about one another’s foibles and faults, and at worst one finds enduring grudges and feuds. Such a network is the natural product of enduring human communities, and and to all people we commend this way of life.

In the present day, it is an unfortunate thing that the majority culture either willfully forgets where it came from, or that it has a horror of remaining there. Too many Americans set out for fame and fortune far from their roots, only to miss the heights to which they had aspired. Worse than failing utterly is failing somewhat and being relegated to the trod-upon and quietly despairing middle (or the status-anxious upper middle). Of course it the birthright of every man to aim high, but aiming both high and nearer to home (both physically and metaphysically) could yield more happiness than joining in the rootlessness and clawing of the acquisitive classes. The media give us everyday those images that we consumers quest after, but these dangling baubles, once grasped, seldom offer the satisfaction that they had seemed to promise.

Without unduly championing our Puritan predecessors in this land, it is worth noting that when John Winthrop preached in 1630 about his project in the New World, saying that “we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us,”3 he was not speaking of McMansions and SUVs for all people, but of the kind of moral and spiritual excellence practiced in community with one’s fellow-man. It is not incidental that the earliest New England villages were laid out around a central green and a central meeting hall. In the Chesapeake, where 17th-century settlers were brought by ambitious planters solely to extract cash crops from the land, the patterns of settlement were more diffuse: no village green, no ordered physical community. They planted their fields until the land was exhausted, and then they moved on, taking their axes and ploughs to virgin land that they imagined to be in unlimited supply. But how can community exist where men merely arrive, take their profits, and move on? Who belongs? What even endures to which they could belong?

If this sounds surprisingly contemporary, it should.

It is an unacknowledged truth, when we speak of the underpinnings of community, that personal loyalty is not enough. It should not be scandalous to remark that personal loyalty is usually subservient to what might be called “institutional loyalty” – that is, loyalty to a place, culture, class, or more tangible institution (such as a school or college or club) – because such a remark is true. Personal loyalty comes out of the close associations we form as we share particular experiences in particular places. We are social animals, after all, and it is in our nature to form little societies, little tribes of camaraderie and shared values and a sense of special-ness.

Such loyalty explains why we tolerate people we cannot stand: we may really hate the jackass in our fraternity, or sitting next to us at the Yankee game, or comprising one quarter of our bridge group, but we speak the same language and share common institutional values (love of alma mater, or the Yankees, or bridge), and those common values provide an entry point into one another’s lives.

Conversely, institutional loyalty explains why we fall out of touch, or why, in this time of easy and immediate communication, we often can find nothing to say to our beloved old college roommates who have gone off to some distant place to pursue their separate lives. We may have a great time at reunions, or rehashing the good old days at somebody’s wedding, but the daily material of our lives – the people, the places, the social and material landscape – all of it diverges too much to support any connection beyond the vague and vanilla commonalities shared by Americans everywhere.

Consider the family, the most institution-bound society of all, which grows out of a common dedication to that old affliction: the blood, which is of course quite thicker than water. If it weren’t for the blood ties, who among us could stand all the people we’re related to? Craig Anderson, Episcopal bishop and the 11th rector of St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, has said that “Human beings are meant to live in relationship, in community, in extended families – and, in those relationships, we discover what it is to be fully human,” and he’s right.

In a drive across the country a few years ago, my old friend and I stopped in Butte, Montana, for a night. It was his turn to pay, and when the girl behind the counter read his license, her only comment was “Brooklyn? Man, I’d trade with you.” Although I won’t presume to know anything of this girl’s life, it was plain that the trade was not Butte for another place, but for another particular place: Brooklyn, in the eternal shadow of New York, our old magnet to those, as Tom Wolfe says, “who insist on being where things are happening.” Again, knowing nothing of her, I would deny her neither her dreams nor her aspirations.

But one knows that New York, large, magnificent, and uncaring… one knows that the city beats people. It consumes and then discards those who are lured by the glamor that Americans are instructed to crave but who, in their secret hearts, just wanted to love and to live quietly. Fitzgerald’s stories are populated by these people. So are Cheever’s. This is one of the ways in which television and the mass media have shredded American life: they have taught us that unless we live in Beverly Hills or the OC and drive a Range Rover, we are not special, that where we are from does not measure up.

Many would snicker at what is wrongly perceived as our people’s pernicious behaviour: clustering on the Maine coast, enjoying the same rituals – sun, sailing, and the cold Atlantic – with the same people, year in and year out, for a lifetime. However, we know (especially if we have read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, which points out that we become better at whatever we approach by practicing) that if we keep for a lifetime friends and the dwelling places of those friendships, then a lifetime sort of dedication we build. It is not Maine chiefly that sets our people apart, but our willingness to invest time and energy in the maintenance of sites set apart for gatherings of family, for relaxation, and for the sharing of good company. If Middle America spent on beach cottages (on whatever beach or lake) what it spends on cruises4, Middle America might find itself much more widely contented.

There was a time when this happened. Locally, in the Rockaways (in far southern Queens), one finds the remnants of a summer neighborhood of humble but well-built beach bungalows that were inhabited, every summer for much of the 20th-century, by communities of working class families, not the most likely group (in those days) to populate a summer colony. But so it was, in a pattern duplicated on beaches, lakes, and mountains across the continent. Indeed, as sites of the intentional, physical manifestation of community, these vacation spots bore much in common not only with each other but also with small towns across the United States, all of which were created out of the earth by proud and dedicated boosters and citizens. It is a commonplace that the loss of small-town life grieves this country greatly. Wikipedia notes that the Rockaways were effectively killed as a resort by air-conditioning, the interstate highway system, and inexpensive travel. America, as noted above, buys cruises, and at the same time mourns the loss of its intimately-known places. One can’t have it all.

In the end, while our people may no longer comprise most of the ruling class, we remain an upper class, and continue to do exactly what an upper class must: to demonstrate what it looks like to live a good life in this time and in this American place. We do not consider that money is the chief difference between everyone else and our people, although it helps. The difference is that we have tried, through the many changes of this world, to live by the same precepts that we always have, eschewing fads and foolish developments in manners, mores, and values. One doesn’t need money, or old family to do this, which means that what seems at first glance to be enviable and exclusive is really neither, and is in fact available to everyone. If Americans should embrace the values implicit in what they seek, and if that should happen every day, this will be a much improved American land.

Simon & Schuster: Isabel Gillies discusses her memoir

1. Isabel Gillies, Happens Every Day: An All-Too-True Story (New York: Scribner, 2009), 250.
2. For a more detailed explanation of this point, see William Leach’s book Country of Exiles: The Destruction of Place in American Life (New York: Vintage, 2000).
3. An excerpt from Winthrop’s sermon is included (pp. 63-65) in Speeches That Changed the World, compiled by Owen Collins. (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999).
4. Last year, an estimated 13.2 million persons took cruises on North American cruise lines, up from 12.56 million in 2007 (during which year those travelers spent $38 billion) and 8 million in 2000 (for statistics, see cruisesaintlawrence.com). By comparison, in 2000, only 3.6 million, or 3.1%, of all housing units in the United States were for seasonal, recreational, or occasional use (Historical Census of Housing Tables (Vacation Homes), Bureau of the Census).

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