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By Jessica T

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About this blog: I'm a late thirties mother of a ten-year-old and infant twins. My family moved to Menlo Park 6 years ago from Virginia - where I grew up, went to college, got married, had my first born, and got an MBA (in that order). I'm a manag...  (More)

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The lure of the country club

Uploaded: Apr 29, 2014
A colleague recently confided in me that he was applying for membership at a local country club. "Why on earth would you do that?" I asked. He was amused by my reaction and explained that it was so his family had a place to play tennis and swim in the summer. I immediately considered the pristine local civic facilities we have to do both of those things...

Where I'm from country clubs are code for exclusivity - an exclusivity that has historically shrouded racism and traditional gender stereotypes. The fathers and sons on the golf course, the mothers by the pool with the kids. In middle school, I remember being an awkward invitee to a lavish cotillion dance staffed by solicitous, hardworking adults catering to spoiled children. There were cloth towels, bathroom attendants, and cocktails in the anteroom for the adults.

In Virginia, these clubs were named after imaginary royal horse societies: Farmington, Keswick, Boars Head. In Silicon Valley, our country clubs are named after trees and circuses - titles that suggest we are slightly more down-to-earth. But all country clubs far and wide have one thing in common. Gentry. They are every bit as democratic and humble as our local beloved content-filled magazine by the same name. For those unfamiliar with Gentry, it doesn't come to a neighborhood near you, unless you live in Atherton.

My colleague egged me on that afternoon by sharing details of rumored membership processes: initiation fees and voluntary asset verification. He told stories of power-drunk housewives withholding membership from chief executive billionaires. He listed who of our co-workers belonged to which clubs. Weeks later he told me it was a done deal. He and his family were in.

In many ways, a country club is the last thing I'd like to spend our hard-earned money on. I'd prefer not to narrow my children's world further with weekend exclusivity. Keeping up with the Joneses has never been my thing. (And to keep up with the Joneses in our community runs the risk of bankruptcy!) Give me a babysitter and a rock concert, and I am renewed.

I don't judge my colleagues for their country-club memberships. My co-worker is a great dad and a wonderful friend who can laugh at his quirks and mine. In fact, over the weekend I found myself explaining to my husband what I coveted about the whole country club experience: the vision of leisurely afternoons and endless summers.

With three kids and a full-time job, the country-club leisure scene is an illusion for me. I have no doubt my colleagues crave the same thing -- a dream of the best relaxation that money can buy. Perhaps they'll find the fulfillment they seek. For me, a summer of leisure is a faraway dream. My eternal summers will be comprised of trips to the community pool, hard work at the office, and week-long vacations with the family. I'm a dreamer, but also a realist.

Comments

Posted by Hmmm, a resident of East Palo Alto,
on Apr 29, 2014 at 11:59 pm

Hmmm is a registered user.

Jessica - here in E. Palo Alto, we sure don't get Gentry Magazine! We do, however, make fun of it as often as possible. But you're mistaken, it goes to more cities than just Atherton :-) Web Link "Gentry Magazine is the preeminent address for notable people, elegant style, and good taste. Published on the finest paper and beautifully designed and printed, Gentry is hand-delivered each month to the finest homes of San Francisco, the Peninsula, and Silicon Valley."

There used to be fun alternatives to country clubs in this area, such as swim clubs located near parks and tennis clubs with maybe a snack bar, plus there are city and county golf courses scattered around. These alternatives evened the playing field much more (pun intended) - they weren't exclusive but still had a familial and communal feel to them. I have friends in the South Bay who currently belong to swim and tennis clubs, which are great when you have kids, plus friends and family visiting in the area.

I recall many, many happy summers spent at a local swim club, feeling safe with lifeguards, rules and clean locker rooms.

I'm glad that we don't have as much baggage with country clubs here in Calif., but I've sure spent enough time as a guest in many in the area to know the difference between them and the swim/tennis clubs of my youth! Thank you for further stating the differences of the ones in Virginia, and their histories.It makes me more curious about the histories of our local country clubs - including the racial aspects.

By the way, a fun thing we've done many a time is watch the polo practice at Menlo Circus Club.


Posted by Jessica T, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Apr 30, 2014 at 9:39 am

Jessica T is a registered user.

Hi Hmmm,

Like you I have very positive associations with swim clubs my family belonged to. It's great to hear that country clubs in CA resemble these examples a little more.


Posted by D Sterling, a resident of another community,
on Apr 30, 2014 at 9:49 am

I still remember Senator Diane Feinstein tried to join a local country club and was denied because she was a woman.


Posted by RW, a resident of another community,
on Apr 30, 2014 at 12:15 pm

We were members of a swim club/country club (University Club) in Palo Alto for many years when I was growing up. I almost always felt out of place at the tennis classes and swim classes, surrounded by kids who I didn't really connect with. I can only imagine how out of place I'd feel as an adult.


Posted by RW, a resident of another community,
on Apr 30, 2014 at 12:25 pm

Gak! I just looked at the University Club website. Here is a membership requirement, "Applicants must have completed at least two years of college or equivalent education or may be deemed eligible by their achievements or standing in the community." This rubs me the wrong way and smacks of a certain type of unsavory exclusivity. Yeah, I graduated from a top university, but what's the saying...I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.


Posted by Local, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on May 1, 2014 at 2:32 pm

Thanks for sharing your experiences, Jessica.

But be assured not all private clubs fit those Virginia or Atherton molds you cited. Sure there are "exclusive" and expensive places, and some that attract snobs. But many others around the US are simply managed facilities that charge a buy-in fee and dues as part of their business model, with no other membership requirement. Some might even put condominiums in that spectrum.

One large firm, ClubCorp, manages diverse country and city clubs around the US, including some in the Bay Area. I joined one that charged only modestly, had no "membership criteria," and gave convenient reciprocal access to others around the US, both ClubCorp's and a wider network of clubs that share privileges. It was convenient when traveling, opening further options for dining, recreation, and business facilities, at competitive prices.

Bay Area restaurateur "Trader Vic" Bergeron once sought membership in a neighboring country club with a fine pool, so his kids could learn how to swim -- but was blackballed. He wrote that this was fine, it meant he probably wouldn't get along with other members. Who, he added, consisted of "social climbers, drunks, and gossips ... unbelievable."


Posted by Nonclub protester, a resident of Rex Manor,
on May 1, 2014 at 3:00 pm

we are getting pushed to a country club air of exclusivity as the fact is that golf courses are getting scarcer and that just pushes up the demand. Palo Alto Muni is getting renovated, and Santa Clara is rumored to be on the list for elimination for other development.
if you want to play golf the alternative is a long car trip or figure out a way to play mid-week when most of us are working.

HELP?????


Posted by palo alto resident, a resident of Palo Alto High School,
on May 2, 2014 at 4:07 pm

@RW - we belonged to the University Club for many years and found it to be a non-pretentious place that was simply fun for our kids to swim and play tennis. It certainly didn't feel exclusive, just a family oriented place. It's not a country club, its a swim and tennis club.


Posted by Jake, a resident of Menlo Park: other,
on May 2, 2014 at 9:39 pm

One of the amusing things about clubs is gauging someone's upbringing by how they act about their membership. A neighbor dangled the possibility of being invited to their "Club" as a great big deal, a treat only offered to a few friends, etc. They spoke frequently about being at The Club over the weekend, who they saw there, etc. Non-stop emphasis on the high social standing and exclusivity they demonstrated by being members of their Club - and what a kindness it would be if they let us join them for an afternoon.

After a lot of this snobbery, we were given that supposedly coveted invitation to The Club, to celebrate the end of a year of scouts. Oh golly, what a disappointment, to find that the University Club was their great big deal. No slight intended, but to me it's a casual friendly place, not a Big Deal place. We knew more people there that day than they did. The biggest differences between us and them? We've lived here for decades, while they're relative newcomers; and they're strivers who need to show off that they've "made" it. (We could be called "gliders", who made it a long time ago and are comfortable with ourselves).

Having been in the area since the Hewlett and Packard families set an unassuming tone, all the brash and flash of our area's more recently arrived residents is amusing or irritating, and advertises their recent changes in social position more than any inherent value or "breeding." A tip to the newbies: those people you look down on might have a great deal more social power than you. It takes a while to learn the lay of the land. Don't be so quick to flaunt your new money - in the social circles you aspire to, that kind of display signals your rawness, not your importance.


Posted by Hmmm, a resident of East Palo Alto,
on May 3, 2014 at 1:28 am

Hmmm is a registered user.

"all the brash and flash of our area's more recently arrived residents is amusing or irritating, and advertises their recent changes in social position more than any inherent value or "breeding." A tip to the newbies: those people you look down on might have a great deal more social power than you. It takes a while to learn the lay of the land. Don't be so quick to flaunt your new money - in the social circles you aspire to, that kind of display signals your rawness, not your importance."

Great points, Jake. How did your friends respond when they saw how many people you knew there? I find it pretty funny to see how surprised snooty newbies are when they realize that I know as many, if not more, of the "important people" than they do. The snooty newbies seem to have a prolonged sense of relief and giddiness at having made it that is almost palpable. That unrelaxed status-seeking behavior that must be really stressful!

(As I'm typing this, my spouse just gave me an affectionate message from a local Nobel prize winner. I found it an apt symbol for what you described. Wise people enjoy others from all walks of life.)

During my life I've been a guest at a lot of the local clubs and never really thought it was a big deal. Sometimes I can even figure out what the ice sculpture is supposed to be. But what I've always envied - those clubby men only rooms where no one bugs them while they read and relax. Okay, I've only see those on TV, but they look like a great place to not have to be social!


Posted by i grew up here, a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley,
on May 3, 2014 at 9:28 am

gutsy blog post wearing it on your sleeve like that - welcome to the neighborhood jessica.


Posted by still waiting, a resident of Midtown,
on May 3, 2014 at 3:38 pm

Darn I haven't recently received an affectionate message recently from even a Jehovah's Witness, let alone a Nobel prize winner, (though I did get a telemarketing call this week) so I guess I'm neither a snewbie nor a snoldie!


Posted by Aquamarine, a resident of Stanford,
on May 3, 2014 at 8:02 pm

Still Waiting, here on campus it's pretty easy to bump into Nobel Laureates and other well knowns. What's nice is that they don't generally show up unannounced at your house, unlike the JWs. Now I'm wondering why we don't get JWs at Stanford. But maybe you'll be lucky enough to meet that Jason Buzze guy who'll try to buy your house.

Hmmm, does Jason Buzze make the rounds in your neighborhood, or do you get JWs?


Posted by Hmmm, a resident of East Palo Alto,
on May 5, 2014 at 11:05 am

Hmmm is a registered user.

No Buzze buzzing around here! Just JWs annoying residents.


Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde,
on May 5, 2014 at 2:49 pm

I was saddened recently to see the sale of a classmate's childhood home -- to J. Buzi.

Back on topic -- sounds like there are parallels between country-clubbiness and that holy grail, an ivy league university acceptance.


Posted by harvardmom, a resident of Monta Loma,
on May 6, 2014 at 3:32 pm

I've lived in the area for 30+ years and not once did it ever cross my mind to join a country club. I volunteered for an event once at one and was unimpressed because I thought it would be at least as big and beautiful as a gorgeous hotel resort. It wasn't. I suppose the exclusivity means you'd see the same people again and again, thus make new friends, but I do that at the gym, work, and my neighborhood's many activities. I don't begrudge those with money in our area who want to and can afford to join a club. Good for you. Enjoy the fruits of your wealth and may you live long, happy lives.


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