When I was a surly teenager, one of my certainties was that wherever I lived as an adult, it wasn’t going to be a suburb. The city or the country, but not a suburb. I think that’s a common affectation among middle-class kids with an intellectual or artistic bent, for a variety of reasons. It’s reinforced by a lot of loathing for suburban life in various novels, films and so on (Steven Spielberg notwithstanding).
So now I live in a suburb, and you know, I really like it quite a lot. You get up on a Saturday morning and you hear in the distance chainsaws being used to prune trees, lawnmowers, weedwhackers. Five doors up, somebody’s painting the house. Our neighbors have been doing a ton of work on their yard, and it looks great. I feel like a slacker: our yard is a bit overgrown, the backyard is kind of a mess, since the previous owner really didn’t do much with it. I have plans but they take money and time, both of which can be in short supply. First a rock garden around the shady side, maybe a little pond, then a patio over in the overgrown, messy corner, get somebody professional to make the lawn in the other half of the backyard happen. (I tried seeding two seasons in a row, and it’s a kind of mangy looking lawn that’s appeared.) In the meantime, I pick our blueberries and sour cherries and June is graced with pies and tarts. I make bookshelves and birdhouses in the garage. (Those reading this blog last summer will be glad to know that I still have all my fingers and thumbs, and though my first bookshelf will remain safely hidden from the sight of humanity, my second turned out just great and is now gracing my home office.) I’m looking at treehouse designs. The fireflies dance over the lawn at night.
I’m trying to remember why I thought the suburbs kind of sucked. The suburb I live in now is different than the ones I lived in as a teenager, more like the ones I lived in when I was really young and my dad was just getting started in his profession. The houses are closer together, it’s more neighborly and less manorial. When I was a kid, our houses were a long ways away from where my dad worked, in relative terms, whereas in this case I’m five minutes by car from the college. I think the commute was one of the things I didn’t like about my childhood suburbs, the toll it took on my dad.
Oh, I see some of what was an issue for me as a teenager, sure. Our block is reasonably diverse, but there are all sorts of hidden boundaries and limits. There’s a slight whiff of the bad side of small-town panoptica in the air: as one of our neighbors commented when we moved in, “Don’t have an affair, because everyone will know it.” (From what we’ve pieced together, this may have been a literal comment about the experience of the previous inhabitants of our house.) I went to a parents’ orientation meeting for our daughter’s kindergarden this coming fall and I couldn’t help but thinking, “I’m going to spend the next 13 years at meetings like this with these folks”, and eavesdropping on a few of the conversations around me that was not an entirely pleasant sensation. I can see where my daughter as a teenager is going to feel a bit trapped before she can drive, though there’s a commuter rail into Philadelphia that’s a close walk or bike ride from our house, which is something I didn’t have access to growing up.
I think a bit of what I was feeling as a teenager was, “I’m better than all of you”. Given how often I was beaten up for being an egghead in elementary and junior high, I don’t repent of that sensation: it was an important compensatory way to cope and keep my desire for knowledge intact. These days, I’m feeling pretty mellow about those kinds of drives: better than who? Than the hardworking, pleasant folks living in my neighborhood (who include, I should note, a few of my colleagues)? Naw. Hey, I’ll still give you an argument when I think you’re wrong about things, and my frequency of thinking that I’m right and other people are wrong is still up in the stratosphere, but I feel no urge to communicate in my every action some sense of cultural distance or superior bearing. I’m just a guy: I teach, I write, whatever. My bookshelf and my birdhouses feel just as satisfying to me at this point as working on scholarship, the sense of ownership over our home and yard is a warming comfort, the relative sense of safety and room for raising a child is a load off my mind, and in that, I think I’ve become a Suburban Dad just like any other.