Chainsaw Music

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.

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10 Responses to Chainsaw Music

  1. Endie says:

    Interesting. The picture you paint of suburban living in the US is very like that which we tend to see in the movies, over here: I can’t help but picture early morning sunshine, sprinklers on lawns, paperboys on bicycles, wide streets and trees…

    When I first drove through the US, from Chicago down to New Orleans and back up to Chicago, each leg on opposite sides of the Mississippi, some of the bits I liked best, and which seemed most foreign, were the suburban communities in Illinois in particular. Foreign because they were so like the realisation of some Platonic ideal of a US suburb, as seen in films.

    Of course, we have dificulty over here with American suburbs. A housefront and garden that initially signals to the US viewer that a person is poor looks, to many Europeans, like something rather middle-classed: a crappy but detached house with lawns front and back is usually rather pricy in our over-populated countries. God isn’t making any more Europe (though the Dutch are less easily put off, there).

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Suburbs are really costly in all sorts of ways that I don’t want to underrate. They produce horrible sprawl and unregulated developmentalism. I think another reason I hated suburbs in southern California growing up was that they were self-evidently unsustainable in many ways. When I go back there to visit now, I see tract houses way the hell out in the high desert, sentencing the people who buy them (because they’re the only affordable option) to 2-4 hour or more daily commutes. This is insane by any standard. Sometimes you’ve GOT to build up.

    Or in other cases, it leads to people chewing up rural land and then bitching because some people around them live rural lives–like the suburbanites who build in areas near pig farms and then complain about the odor of pig shit.

    The kind of suburban development that’s more manorial, about McMansions chewing up farmland, seems pretty undesirable to me, but you can’t just regulate it out of existence easily: it’s driven by some of the same desires that exist in my more modest, established little neighborhood.

  3. Rob MacD says:

    Your reasons for disliking the suburbs as a teenager (environmentally unsustainable, commute takes a toll on your Dad) were much more elevated than mine: “Man, there’s nothing to do here.” There’s a high school near my (semi-suburban) house and the kids there seem happy enough, but every time I see them hanging out I’m reminded how much of suburban adolescence is spent waiting for something to happen.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    I was a pretty sedate kid: Dungeons and Dragons was more my speed than parties where all the kids were getting drunk. But yeah, the boringness of the suburbs is also an issue, not just for teenagers, but for a lot of adults. I’m just remembering that when my wife and I lived in Chicago, there was cool shit happening every night but a lot of times we’d just stay home and read and cook and such. I’m fairly happy being a homebody, and the suburbs are more favorable to that than a little apartment in a happening downtown somewhere in urban America.

  5. eb says:

    I’ve been staying in my parents house for the last few months in a suburban part of a partially urban, partially rural county in the vicinity of LA. I consider myself more of a homebody too, and I suppose if I were married and this was our home I’d like the area, but I can tell you it’s a real hassle to have to drive over 1 hour each way to get to the best academic library in the area, and at least a half hour without traffic to get to the nearest. There’s a good community college, but no four-year institutions in this city.

    On the other hand, if I weren’t still trying to carry out the functions of being a grad student (at an even more distant institution) until I move away from here I suppose I’d head for the beaches or mountains with my free time. I have a hard time imagining what it would have been like to grow up here; I’m glad I’m only here temporarily, if for longer than I’d planned.

    My parents love the house, have put a lot of work into the yard, love the weather, and are retired and have been traveling a lot anyway, so they don’t have commute worries. They have been frustrated by the lack of Chinese and Japanese groceries; whenever our relatives from Long Beach visit they bring loads of food in special freezer bags. Some suburbs have that kind of diversity, of course, but not this one, although like many California counties this one’s still pretty diverse overall. I’m not sure what the percentages were in the most recent elections for political office, but if I remember correctly last year’s vote on the propositions was not as lopsided here as it was where I used to live.

  6. texter says:

    I think it helps, Tim, that you live near the college. It facilitates a feeling of “community” and access to different kinds of relationships and information that certain suburbs lack. I posted about my desire to teach at a small liberal arts college and be the eccentric woman on the bike – that kind of milieu is different from how I remember (and imagine) the suburb where I grew up. Mostly I disliked my suburbs b/c of a certain kind of attitude among its residents, a deep-pit consumerism and unsustainability. A bunch of circumstances recently had me researching current efforts at community gardening and what is called ‘anarcho-primitivism’ – the effort to go back to small-scale communities (which, yes, can be extreme). There was no comm. gardening or efforts in that direction where I grew up. I wonder how it would be different had you been a suburban dad pre-internet?

  7. akotsko says:

    One important aspect of being a homebody, however, is having easy access to used bookstores, an area in which urban areas are clearly superior.

    Since I’ve lived in Chicago, I haven’t taken full advantage of the cool shit going on (largely because I have no money), but I’ve found it energizing just to know that there is stuff going on — whereas in Kankakee, the biggest event in a given summer would be the festival at the local Catholic parish. There’s a sense of possibility. It’s nice to feel that you’re actually choosing to stay home and read, a sensation that’s difficult to achieve when the only other option is to drive down to TGI Friday’s and wait a half hour to get a table because TGI Friday’s is the only thing to do.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, now that is the truth. Being a suburban homebody in Chicago or Portland would be fantastic. For that matter, Philly’s not bad–the great bookstore House of Our Own has a lot of old back-order titles.

    Restaurants are also a thing, yeah. There are suburbs blessed and suburbs cursed as far as that goes.

    Suburbs, in this sense, are not all created equal. There are neighborhoods around here that I know I would hate, hate, hate.

    Texter’s also right that the Internet makes a huge difference–I might feel very different if it had never come into being.

  9. Doug says:

    “but every time I see them hanging out I’m reminded how much of suburban adolescence is spent waiting for something to happen.”

    It’s possible that “suburban” is superfluous in the clause above…

  10. texter says:

    Or, without the internet, you may have been much further along in your carpentry and book-shelf building.

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