Thursday, August 23, 2007

August: Why Spend Less?

August used to mean that I packed up my computer and spent a month at what just might be the best address on Long Island --- the last house on West End Road in East Hampton, where Georgica Pond meets the Atlantic Ocean. My then-wife had a butler and a cook and a fortune, so there were al fresco lunches and candlelit dinners and a full dance card of movie screenings and charity events. In that privileged, insulated world, I was the exception --- I hammered out journalism and screenplays, feverishly trying, between social engagements, to nudge my income over $30,000.

That marriage and that life are long gone. Now my final wife, daughter and I go to a place that is as far East as you can stand and still be in America. It's been developed --- what hasn't? --- but you're never more than a chip shot from nature. And you can still afford to rent a place with a view. (Okay, a smallish place.) It amuses the hell out of me that when I step onto my lawn I'm looking out at the same ocean as the folks on West End Road.

Do you remember The Rocking Horse Winner? In that D.H. Lawrence story, the walls whisper, “There must be more money.” And so, to help his struggling parents, a boy goes into a trance as he rides his hobbyhorse and calls out the names of horses that will win races. The gardener and his uncle make bets on his predictions --- and make fortunes. And yet the walls still whisper...

Any writer without a trust fund will tell you he knows what that feels like. More and more, though, the rich don't. I'd guess that few walls are whispering in the Hamptons; behind the privet, those people are nicely equipped. If you have less than $700 million, you have no hedge against inflation, a titan told me in 1984, in Southampton --- funny, isn't it, that the billionaire who said that now finds himself and his $700 million closer to the bottom of the Forbes 400 list than the top.

My favorite story of the summer of 2007: Loaves and Fishes, the gourmet shack in Sagaponack, is selling lobster salad for $100 a pound. (“Sometimes we feature things that are a little outrageous," says the owner, Sybille Van Kempen. "It's our obligation. People who come here want to treat themselves to something special.”) A friend, amused by this tale of luxury gone wrong, joked that he wanted to open a gourmet shop across the road from Loaves and Fishes. His slogan: “Lobster salad, $125 per pound --- why pay less?”

I'd find that joke funny if I could only disconnect from the world. But even on this working vacation, I can't look away from the train wreck that is our government and the debacle that is this war. Really, I've never seen a month like this --- such a jumble of criminality, stupidity and deliberate, sadistic cruelty that it's hard to remember all the outrages. When I was a kid, a much smaller laundry list of injustices would make me think the rich and powerful really ought to worry, that a reckoning was coming, that waves of the poor and screwed-over would come in the night and take their revenge. Now I know better. It's as Jimmy Breslin says: “The poor can never be made to suffer enough.” Please God they don't rebel --- they'll be cut down before they get to 96th Street.

In a bright season, these are dark thoughts. (They're not uniquely mine --- most of my friends are also dazzled by what's going on and puzzled by what we can do about it.) Luckily, I just read Happier, by Tal Ben-Sharar, the Harvard professor who teaches that college's most popular course. And he reminded me that I don't need to identify with the victims or the victors --- I can enjoy my life, make it even better, and, in the process, help the world. He writes:

The implicit, and false assumption [that we should feel guilty about our good fortune because others are less fortunate] is that happiness is a zero-sum game --- that one person's happiness (our own) necessarily deprives others of theirs. Marianne Williamson says, “As we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” It is when we liberate ourselves from our fear of happiness that we can best help others.

What is happiness compared to a Maybach, an apartment at 15 Central Park West, an invitation to brunch with Sting? Well, says Ben-Sharar, happiness is worth a bit more than material wealth --- it's “the ultimate currency.” And how do we get it? By finding our purpose in life, by choosing activities that give our lives meaning. In other words, attainment's a bore, process is everything.

Yes, the innocent are being cut down on all sides, and we let children die who could be easily saved, and we have seen men who call themselves patriots erode our freedom in the name of a security they have not provided. True. Too true. But my first --- my most immediate --- obligation is to widen the circle of happiness around me.

The paradox: I'd pay a lot to do that, but I suspect that I can't spend a cent.

--- Jesse Kornbluth, editor of

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