This article appears in VICE Magazine's Algorithms issue.
In the fall of 2015, Carole Radziwill, author, former reality television star, and owner of a famous couch, sat down to a televised lunch with her then-friend and coworker Bethenny Frankel. The two were filming a scene that would air during Episode 2 of Season 8 of the Real Housewives of New York a year later, and the issue du jour was Radziwill's relationship with her boyfriend, Adam Kenworthy, who is almost a quarter of a century younger than her.
"How is it going with Adam?" Frankel asked Radziwill, who was in her early 50s at the time, before probing further: "Could you be with him for ten years? Could that happen?"
"It's a great relationship. It's just, I'm really happy," was Radiziwill's response. And then, Frankel, known above all else for not beating around the bush, presented the key question:
"What would stop it, if nothing stopped it in the first year?"
"He wants kids. He wants different things in life, and he should have them, and I hope he gets everything he wants," Radziwill replied. "We do love each other. I told him, I only have like five good summers left. He has like 20."
I only have like five good summers left. The words spewed out of television sets across the world, astounding Bravo-watchers everywhere. If Radziwill, a successful, beautiful woman-about-town only had a few good summers left—so few she could specify and count them on one hand—where did that leave the rest of us?
"The five summers plan does not mean I will be dead in five years," Radziwill explained in an interview producers cut to immediately after her shocking statement. "It simply means that I am very aware of the fact that in five years I might be in a very different place in my life. So I am very careful about my use of time, much more careful than I was even in my 40s."
Though she's been off the show for a few years now, the “five good summers left” concept has not left the ether; take, for instance, the dozens of t-shirts available for purchase emblazoned with variations on the phrase, including one from the Real Housewives podcast Bitch Sesh that reads "Carole's Last Great Summer," the words spelled out in a 70s-esque font above a leaping dolphin.
I'd put it out of mind myself, but this year, it came back around, taking on new meaning, when fans of the franchise began to realize that the summer of 2020, in all its inescapable misery, was, according to her original timeline, Carole's actual last good summer. "Just made the realization that this is Caroles last good summer. Wow. Really goin out with a bang," Samantha Bush, who runs the Instagram account @BravoHistorian, wrote in May.
The words struck me too—what a strange, idiotic coincidence, the kind of anniversary you either actively look for while trying to make sense of your life, or stumble across with glee. A summer that for the majority of people on Earth was in many ways like no summer they had ever had before, and not one they would want to repeat again, would be Carole's last good one.
If Radziwill truly was so systematic in her approach to assessing and using her time, she was doing something we have all been forced to think about a lot lately. For the young and the privileged, the idea of Just five good summers is unfathomable, a concept to regard with shock and awe, sympathy and fear. But there is nothing horrifying about trying to create a set of rules, of guidelines for yourself, the way Radziwill was doing. It’s a way to understand and frame your choices, your life, your future—and it’s something we all do with regularity in all aspects of our lives, and with new, constantly shifting urgency right now, given how messy and unsystematized the world has become.
We spend a fair amount of time trying to outsource these rules to other people, and, increasingly, to things, to make our lives easier, but mostly, to make our own choices simpler. If you have only five good summers left, then you know what you have to do—either find more time, or make that time count. Using systems and data to do the latter has become the norm.
This issue of VICE magazine, the third of our year and a collaboration with Motherboard, our tech desk, concerns just that kind of systematic approach: algorithms. An algorithm is, at its core, a set of rules, created by a human, or many humans, to provide stasis and ease. To put a difficult decision or complex function into the mechanisms of a system, one that is all-knowing, logical, and fixable, seems strategic and smart.
But humans make those systems, and they funnel the data into those algorithms, and so nothing is truly untouched by our presence. Along with the logic we’re craving might come groupthink, or homogenization, bias—and unfortunate mishaps, intended or otherwise. In tandem with that mapped-out five-year plan might come a global pandemic, uprisings, resistance to the status quo. That's some of what we tried to explore in this issue—our never-ending presence in our own creations, our inability to get out of our own way, as much as we might attempt to.
I reached out to Radziwill to see if she wanted to talk about the dark irony and accidental prescience of her catchphrase a couple of months ago; she did not get back to me, though her website's auto response very kindly said, "Thank you! Love, CR." She appears, if social media, that carefully controlled beast, is anything to be counted on, to have laid relatively low over the past few months, occasionally speaking out about the necessity of mask-wearing and the pressing need for our country to address its deep-seated civil rights issues. Her on-again, off-again relationship with Kenworthy seems still on, in some capacity, five summers later—they were recently spotted hanging out at former cast member Dorinda Medley’s Berkshires home. "Venturing out of NYC for the first time since quarantine never felt so good. Sunshine, country air, and these two fresh water pearls……" Radziwill captioned a photo of her in the pool in July with Medley and Medley's daughter, apparently taken by Kenworthy. She’s enjoying her “last good summer,” it seems, but surely not in the way she had planned. Rules may not be intended to be broken, but sometimes they end up that way anyway.
Follow Kate Dries on Twitter.