Eclectic Autodidact: The study of New England in the summer


My lady wife is off doing science this summer because she’s just that cool. I’ve learned a little from our last summer when she was studying Oxford. The first thing is that when Flo goes away, it’s like the power has gone out. I mean that in the romantic, "the light has gone out in my life" kind of way, but also in the sense that the first day she’s gone I need to eat all the perishable foods in the refrigerator.

Her program is about three-and-a-half hours from the Berkshires. Four, given that it is impossible to travel more than 30 miles in New England in the summer without running into construction. It makes one start to wonder if perhaps we could build the roads better in the first place. I suppose this is the sort of problem one should expect given that road technology’s only major change since the Roman Empire is the addition of the rumble strip.

The drive takes us through long stretches of coastal road with Winslow Homer inspired landscapes on the east side of the road and sickeningly expensive houses on the west. I find these houses, even the most artistically designed ones, painful to look at. I simply don’t understand why anyone needs a vacation home larger than their actual home. I think part of that must come from a misunderstanding on the dimensions of summer homes by architects who first saw a beach house in a production of "Long Day’s Journey into Night." With no other frame of reference, they were forced to assume that the drawing room should be the size of an entire theater.

(I also don’t understand how a person can in good conscience call a house a cottage when it could be considered a mansion by any reasonable standard or what state of mind he or she would have to be in to advertise that on a signpost out front.)

Despite my distaste for the vacuously vacant vacation homes, I do enjoy the little towns they cluster around. Every town in the world is set up in roughly the same way: The buildings face each other in the middle of town and turn their back on the wilderness. But in little towns by the sea, every building faces the ocean. I like the sense of community it gives. When you stay there you’re staring into the abyss, but so is everyone else and that somehow feels like there’s more commonality even than looking at one another.

Tourist towns have always fascinated me (possibly because I grew up in Williamstown, which is one by many definitions). There’s an element of theatricality to them. If you visit off-season, you can see the sets and props hanging backstage. It’s like a traveling show in reverse where the audience moves on with the season, but the circus stays where it is. I always want to try to find the real town hiding behind the cardboard cutouts put up for the tourists and see how the community lives when there isn’t a steady influx of traffic from the cities coming in. Frequently though, I’m disappointed to find out that the town goes into hibernation when the tourists leave, shutting down all but the most vital organs to keep itself alive until the rains come once more and it can burrow out of the muck to live again. A lungfish basically, is what I’m saying here.

The towns along the coast are warming up for their summer season with the ice cream parlors unshuttering their windows and hotel prices surreptitiously sliding up $10 every week. Back home it’s more or less the same story: Opulent summer homes getting the windows opened for the first time this year, restaurants extending hours and theater companies sending out multiple email newsletters an hour. The principle difference is of course that most people leave the beach at the beginning of September while the Berkshire tourist season lasts from mid-June to early March. I believe it was Ephraim Williams who figured out that summer theater season could coast right in to fall foliage season without losing any time and then it’s right into ski season (with just a few weeks off for that awkward time in November when it feels like winter but is technically still fall).

Fortunately for me, summer only lasts until August.


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