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Hard Not to Succumb to the Stressesof Summer


Ah, the lazy days of summer. Those precious few months when we loosen up, tune out and give in to the hammock. A time when we relax the standards and expectations we've so zealously applied to our job, family, home and social standing. Swell, isn't it?

Get real! Summer doesn't just heat the sidewalk, it also fires up our instincts to compete and acquire. Summer provides an unfettered opportunity to observe our neighbors, compare notes and join the no-win game of Keeping Up With the Joneses.

Where did that great lawn furniture come from, and how much did it cost? Since when did Charlie trade up from a Smokey Joe to the gas-fired Weber Summit with 66,000 BTU output? Why are Helen's hybrid tea roses always so darned perfect?

Everything's up for scrutiny in this suburban showdown: gardening equipment, timeshares, country-club memberships, golf paraphernalia, water skis, beach books, swimming pools, backyard cocktails, summer camps for the kids. Everyone wants to be the first to wear Nike Air Prestos, own the Montauk Point Chaises from Restoration Hardware, wave around front-row tickets to Dave Matthews Band. That air kiss at the garden party may not be a sign of affection but a chance to closely inspect the quality of your beach blond highlights. Consciously or not, we're all waging a campaign to show those Joneses what's what.

Since when did summer become so complicated?

It seems that only yesterday we were perfectly content to climb into the station wagon and go to the drive-in, where we ate popcorn and hot dogs. Now, we're growing exotic basil, perfecting our mango salsa, jockeying for a better beach rental and sorting through our pile of invitations to summer parties and fund-raisers. Why?

Because everyone else is.

"Sure, there's keeping up with the Joneses. It happens in every neighborhood," said Gary Emerito, a real estate agent in Connecticut's Farmington Valley--the ultimate suburban breeding ground for this trend. "Someone sets the standard for the neighborhood, and then everyone else has to achieve it. The cast-iron patio furniture, the wallpaper in the bathroom, this or that particular type of paint. You see it in every neighborhood."

Emerito said casual neighborhood chat often drives decisions about everything from home decorating to vacation destinations in the summer. "I was talking to a family who wasn't sure what to do for summer vacation," said Emerito. "Now they have to go to the Cape. Someone must have said, 'You must go to Chatham.' So all of a sudden I'm getting questions about Chatham."

Catherine Blinder, who lives in Hartford's West End, said that keeping up, while real, can often have a positive side effect. "Part of it is having pride in where you live, and part of it is the basic instinct of wanting to have the best wolf den," said Blinder, a consultant. "The more benevolent motive is to improve where you live."

To that end, she has beautified her home and, tangentially, her neighborhood. But only after her neighbor shamed her into it.

"As soon as the man across the street painted his house with a beautiful Jamaican blue trim and put flowers out, I had to plant a perennial border and have the best perennial border on the street."

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