I am an unapologetic devotee of rituals and of routines. Two of these herald the closing weeks of summer; the first is anticipated long in advance and hugely enjoyable, a long weekend in our friend Carol’s cottage in Southampton while the second, less so, is a brief four day trip to the Czech Republic to attend a conference in Prague.
First, the Hamptons, a small group of towns which lie on the east coast of the United States near the tip of a finger shaped sliver of land known as Long Island. This extremity might be the first view of the USA for a transatlantic visitor approaching Kennedy, looking out of the window they might be amazed at the sudden appearance of identical, regimented, tightly spaced homes close to the city. Am I alone feeling nervous gazing on the neat subdivisions, is it our nature to live like this….so close, in such uniformity, accepting enclosure and repetition as our landscape, are we not feral creatures to some degree (no matter how buried or apparently cultivated)? I’m never surprised when I put on the news and see that something terrible happened, some cruelty occurred, in suburbia. I offer reassurances to myself that the city and the countryside are for me, where wildness, freaks and wonders are never far away….a rural tableaux transformed by an ice storm making its perfection complete, a familiar city street reborn and seen as if for the first time thanks to a snow storm, the wail of sirens and screech of animals, the grey solidity of sidewalks and the radiant, the transient fire ball glow of trees in the fall. But its mainly the luxury of solitude offered by both places, a panorama of unpopulated hills and forests and the crush of strangers the city.
The Hamptons is out of range from the daily grid to and from New York and so this is where the wealthy run to during the summers overbearing heat, in SUV’s, by high end buses, rattling helicopters or precarious sea boats that take off and land in the East River. It remains the most socially desirable parcel of land, and has been so for well over a hundred years, its mannerly progress consistent along predictable upward path of real estate snobbery; first farmers, then artists and writers, then their friends, art collectors and their business friends, finally Wall Street and all the affluence and vulgarity that this suggests. Today its promises are false, you are not escaping anything, the city has crept along too…with restaurants and the shopping, the status symbols (cars, houses, art!) and their facilitators; there are branches of your favorite gallery and real estate agent, fashion stores and car showrooms to fuel the upward mobility. There is a singular lack of subtlety to any of this. In the summer you now may have meetings here rather than in the city and expectations of “getting away” dashed.
I do what New Yorkers have been doing for exactly 15O years, and take the Long Island Railroad. The other passengers carry with them predictably expensive bags, wear flashy casual clothes and large elaborate watches…conventional, new and expensive…also riding along are anxieties which couldn’t entirely be left behind in Manhattan. No matter how beautiful the swelling of the Atlantic Ocean or the calmness of an orderly flat horse farm, we observe nervous impatience in a coffee shops slow moving line, in the hostile silence of a contemptuous rebuke when asking for directions, we all know this is not country behavior. Nor is it a place to leave your door unlocked as here you must install security systems, physically and emotionally, and it’s never clear to me whether it is to keep intruders out or to retain guests within. I notice, by the way, that train is full of older men and younger women, not necessarily together yet.
I was met at the station by our friend Carol with the immediate news that “it will not be all women this time!” and we are even having a couple of lovely gay guys for dinner. She is the kind of person to whom I could ask straight-faced “how are we having them?” in the role of an inquiring chef, and she would immediately appreciate the joke and add her own scholarly interjections, what do you think? Fried or broiled? Like a lot of seriously intelligent people she has a passion for the absurd and puerile, repetition is a component of this banter and it feels we are continuing a conversation left off a year ago. She is a sommelier of coarse humor, possessing a nose for the unhinged, an expertise in pairing the kooky with the screwball, another ritual…..we can guarantee to be asked our favorite part of the movie “Airplane” at some part of the weekend, it never gets tired – these rituals – and laugh until we are hoarse and I have to catch my breath. The alcohol helps a bit.
Both she and her car stand out a little at the station. Around us pretty blond housewives, wave to husbands exiting the train, they may or may not have the number of the Pilates instructor who sat next to them, children, over excited shriek as grandparents appear with toys and money, the station is momentarily Indian in its chaos and disorder. Amongst the bulbous, inflated shiny SUV’s and polished sports cars, I notice her small Toyota has one more war wound, a long deep scratch on the passenger door. She told me with typical delight, as we wove our way slightly erratically through Southampton Village, that she also had her front fender hanging off but the mechanic put it back into place hilariously with the powerful kick of a football player. I was already distracted, looking out at the real estate in the Village, secretly appalled and envious at the same time, which sums up my experience here. On one side when I take in the stifled perfection of the Village houses, I can imagine myself waking up, strolling out for coffee and a croissant each morning, saying hello to neighbors and enjoying the thin calls of the birds and the swish of the morning wind through tree limbs; I am easily seduced. On the other side a faux indignant socialist hero appears, what is the tragedy behind that particular distressed house? (I imagine trusty locals thrown out….possessions and children on the street…but at the same time wonder if it for sale). Then my attention goes back to the perfect, pampered houses, how are they maintained to such an immaculate standard? Part of the answer is provided by the small group of Mexican and Central American workers standing outside the 7 eleven store. There should be a sign “Beware, Republicans also live here” as they are the most capable of living with this moral ambiguity, hiring the immigrants to do their work while at the same time wishing they would all leave, a Fitzgeraldian moment of living with two opposing ideas and still functioning.
There is a single obligatory response to telling someone you are going to the Hamptons; it is one of ironic envy. The intensity of this is cynicism depends on whether you are of an age where you can remember when it was still an empty, unfinished place, where a cottage on the bay could be bought for forty thousand dollars, where artists could live year round making their work and where farm land dominated the horizon. If you, like me, only started coming here in the early two thousands it was already a little ruined and in the next fifteen years or so has taken glaringly downhill slides. Perhaps that is why the trip here is full of conflicting emotions, predominantly despondency; a landscape once ravishing now tamed and thronged. But I don’t hate it thanks to Carol and her circle, who share memories of the intellectual and free thinking community of thirty or forty years ago. I love hearing these stories, of drunken star lite boat journeys in the black of night on the stillness of the sound, and I inherited a ghostly nostalgia for a moment I never knew. I also love it for its abundant wildlife that thrives despite our efforts; I can sit on Carol’s deck and count the species of birds without moving, hummingbirds and kingfishers, photograph them with ease, observe for hours silently the plastic surface of the water, broken only occasionally by the silver flash of a leaping fish or diving hawks and gulls, but seeking what? Boredom, stillness, the willful deceleration of time, the organization and categorization of my thoughts before I travel again.
And then to Prague on a Saturday night, a delayed plane and Sunday spent largely asleep. But I did walk around in this raw, unpolished section of the City to take in its flavors and scents, guess at its character and try to get a sense of place and history. I already know well the central tourist areas’ where mobs vie for selfies and sunsets to further decorate their social media account; smart phones making idiots of us all. I had a feeling of 1970’s London in those streets, not entirely unwelcome, like back then this city did not seem to be on fire, blazing forward, evicting residents and building empty skyscrapers, locals still lived there. I also heard English spoken by passerby’s, French and other none Czech voices, yet it was an empty Sunday afternoon and everything was closed, a little mournful, as grey and cloudy as its central European sky and the sound of my own footsteps echoed in the narrow lanes as mist-like rain hung in the air
That night I slept early then woke at 3.00 am with Jet lag. On a trip this short, sleeplessness became a pattern and I yearned for it at the normal time, dreaded the fogginess of my days at the conference. Peering out of the hotel window during those endless night hours, neon signs of the usual global corporations burnt into the inky night, surprising numbers of cars silently slunk by. These signs and logos, some even revolving silently on motorized pedestals, are our contemporary symbols of authority, literally overshadowing the ancient ones, the spires and domes now fading into the background. As they revolved slowly I supposed it was to suggest dynamism but I couldn’t help feel a restless impermanence to this perpetual movement, to be in constant flux while the city slept. I looked from the window back to the unusually narrow beds and these possessed a wistful longing, something medieval in their modest appearance, I turned around and some strange instinct made me take a photograph of the empty bed, its crumpled restless sheets, and the brown resin glow of the lamp. I blew up the photograph on my phone with my fingers and looked closely at the bedside table, choked with its poignancy, if I were to die tonight is this all that will be left? I would be finally free of the passport precisely guarded, the wallet and its credit cards, those somnolent work days.
The conference itself took on the same formula as the previous ones, a mix of presentations and workshops for about two hundred attendee’s. In one evening there was be a team building event which I never attend (I don’t feel part of this particular community….. do not want to feel like an imposter) but that’s fine and understood I think, I lie about an inconvenient conference call if asked.
People of course behave oddly when part of an organization, and when it comes to being a member of a large scale project like this they behave stranger still. They are curious lot, these team members, who live temporary lives, work hard hoping for recognition and not to be left behind when the project is over. It’s amazing what they are prepared to give without certainty of a future, I want to tell them that their trust in the people that make up this organization is naïve and unfounded. But I don’t, because dissent is not appreciated, once started there would be no return, it would flood our conversations and thoughts, we would drown very quickly once that levee broke apart. So there is a shared, but real, vulnerability found within the conference room and at the bar afterwards and comingled with the laughter at the team building event, with so much unsaid, and that is why perhaps they are so adamant to blind outsiders like me with their cleverness and special knowledge, with secret codes and cliché’s, acronyms and brands and I forgive them.
We are here to review what should be a mundane topic, the status of our project to implement a new computer system. However, nobody will speak the truth; the company is in a rebound relationship after coming off a spectacular failure to do this several years ago. It had been a topic of hope for many years and once started the project began a long journey, it was talked about incessantly and an unreasonable amount of faith was placed in its success. We endured every senior executive expound on its virtues, preach its transformative powers and strategize organizationally and technologically. We would be the first, the best, the freshest, most successful……then suddenly it was all gone. After the announcement that the plans and systems were shelved because it didn’t work, the company went quickly into reverse. It was a depressing, anchorless period. The same senior executives who had lead the project on were now whispering that all the time they didn’t really believe in it, they knew it wouldn’t work. A few at the very top lost their jobs as they should; a few others sulked away to earlier retirement (only to reappear a few years later as consultants) but many more remained unscathed
I don’t think anyone was thrilled when months later it was announced that another “new” system was going to introduced, this one bought off the shelf; it was one already proven, used by some of our competitors for many years, therefore an admission that we would not be winning any advantage in the market, it told us in effect that we were a conservative company after all. Worse the system had all the appearance of being designed by accountants, a harbinger of a slow and bureaucratic death to any company. We also reversed course with the organization putting things back as they were. So it was not always easy to sit through these three days and to listen to the excitement of these global team members, being lead by an accountant, being heavy with that historical knowledge, but neither was it completely unpleasant and because I could be wrong, what do I know? And the interchanges between these employee’s from all over the world were enlightening at times, the unnaturally hearty, nervous laughter at a lame joke told in a foreign language exposed tender self conciousness and a pleas for allegiance, the boorish interjections and over talking from a loud South African, the quiet intelligence from handsome olive skinned, second generation British Asians, wearing fashionably tight suits two sizes too small, English regional accents and a footballers shaved haircut. I overheard one conversation, “I heard you are in Auckland next week?” and “I’ll be in Sydney, come up for the weekend, Yeah?”.
There was one further ordeal in the form of a dinner with some old colleagues who occupy strangely prestigious positions, being part of a global team they have acquired an authority to make big decisions on systems. They are known for a shared culture of arrogant self-belief and so everyone finds it difficult to be in their company. The frustration arises from a single truth; they are very clever and knowledgeable in their own world, a very small one, but have a collective lack of empathy towards those outside this bubble. I am an outsider here now so I have a poor reputation within this circle, and I’m astonished at how they speak down to me, I smile outwardly being the butt of jokes with social grace, but find it hard to completely surface over my annoyance. Like every organizations there is the formal one, based around job grades and titles and the informal one based around knowledge and networking. I could make a fuss over the disrespect but at the same time I know the company needs these narrow minded, focused, individuals. I think again of men and our primal instincts, to hunt and kill, I can see how easy it is when you spend your day impotently in front of a screen to go on the offensive and call out everyone else as fools. I fume because this authority is based upon such fragile foundations, a passion for charge codes, document headers, the length of an accounting field and an undeniably superb dexterity around a computer keyboard.
At the dinner table, in an indifferent mainly empty restaurant in the tourist center of Prague, I try to engage the timid, prematurely bald pale technocrat at my right side to draw him from work conversations, to see if he was capable of talking about anything other than new computer systems, he laughs gently at my prompt, takes a deep breath and announces an extension on his home in Bracknell, adding that it has taken every minute of his spare time for the last two years. A whispered aside; “everyone knows” how Bracknell has improved over the last few years, while the neighboring Wokingham has gone downhill (both are drab, unremarkable towns in England), but already I am alert and weary of his small mindedness and my fake enthusiasms and almost said “I know! Everyone in New York is talking about it!” so even he might recognize the gulf between us. I think again about the Long Island suburbia that I would be flying over the next day, the compartmentation of lives, of neat similar homes. An extension on the side of the house, “It’s ideal” he told me “we can have the house exactly as we want it”.