Monday, March 23, 2009

Lost in Suburbia

More vaguely seditious thoughts on modern American life.

By sheer definition, alone I have to admit I lived most of my childhood in a suburb. However, the lower middle-class suburb that I lived in until my parent’s marriage self-destructed, and again after I went to stay with my grandparents had far more in common with what people associated with an old fashion neighborhood. Back then, I remember things being more locally driven allowing a sense of community to take shape. Houses were thought of more as homes and not some sort of financial investment to be used to buy an even bigger house a few years down the road. You didn’t have to drive everywhere for the smallest chore and you viewed those around you as neighbors and less as possible trespassers on your sovereign territory. For some the differences between what I call a suburb and neighborhood might seem inconsequential or an annoyance at best. For me though, it continues to prove the point that I am simply a stranger in a very strange land.

While growing up the local elementary school was very often inside the neighborhood. This allowed something akin to the spectacle of the Israelites leaving ancient Egypt every morning as scores of children walked or rode bicycles on their own to school. Following many of these children were faithful pet dogs who just never understood why they couldn’t following their child indoors to the strange place. It wasn’t unusual to see a small cluster of these patient pets found nearby waiting all day for the kids to be released so they could follow them back home.

I can’t speak for other sections of the country but in my little backwater and from my observations of other locations, getting children to school has become something of a commuting nightmare. None of the nearby schools are located in any neighborhood. Usually they sit at some sort of nexus surrounded by clusters of subdivisions with early morning traffic jams resulting as everyone attempts to drop off their 2.5 children at the same time. After dropping off their offspring, parents then speed off far faster then what is posted. Any poor child walking, or dog following a child, would be a minor bump in the road as the suburban professional begins eating their fast food breakfast, apply makeup, or checking their blackberry for emails on their way to work.

God help you if you have to actually park and walk inside the school with your child. Because having your car blocked by some soccer mom in one of the larger SUV’s trying to back into a tight parking space with one hand while the other holds a cell phone is common. Just for shits and giggles I watched one mom spend fifteen minutes parking her Excursion never taking her cell phone away from her ear. For some reason I cannot fathom she was desperate to back her four-wheeled Titanic into an empty parking space between two other parked cars. Understand that just a few spaces further down were at least ten empty parking spaces that could have allowed her to park whichever way she wanted. After she finally had the behemoth parked two other people waiting in their cars, beside me finally had the chance to drive away.

Even years after I had grown up I remember seeing small gaggles of children migrating like ancient tribes of hunter-gatherers going from house to house playing. The games, at least in my memories, were the usual sort. Hide and seek, tag, much altered forms of kickball, and the now very politically incorrect cowboys and Indians along with war were our unstructured and unsupervised activities. When things got boring at one house by instinct, we would all up and move to another house pretty much playing the same stuff.

When lunchtime approached, debates would begin on which of the tribe member’s parents would make the best lunch for all. It was just taken as neighborly courtesy that when the young wild ones showed up at the door in which one of the tribe members lived clamoring for food that all would be fed. During tough times, peanut butter sandwiches and water would at least be passed out to all the children and during better times, chicken noodle soup and Kool-Aid would be on the menu. In really good times in which the tribe had spending money it would make its way to the neighborhood mom and pop store, nothing like the modern convenience store, and buy sodas, candy bars, and chewing gum.

The small tribes I remember migrating around a neighborhood appear to have largely disappeared. The advent of video games, fear over what monster might be lurking around looking for some unguarded child, and the predisposition of some parents for the need to structure every aspect of their child’s life have ended such nomadic behaviors. However, what has often replaced it: indoor kid’s gyms with structured classes, and scheduled play dates are a far cry from what I would wish for a childhood.

Still though with all these structured and planned activities I am often chagrined now at how often I hear various parents complain that some child was brought over to their house for a scheduled “play date” in which they ended up having to feed him or her because they hadn’t had lunch yet.

My biggest separation from those around me appears to involve the matters of lawn care. As much as the religious right likes to suggest we are Christian nation with the worshiping flocks marching off to church every Sunday looking for forgiveness our true places of worship have moved off to newer locations. The first is the modern walk-in shopping mega-mall. It is there that every social and economic level of American society can be found worshipping the great god of consumerism. The second for those inhabiting suburbia is the lawn.

Like many just last Saturday, the warm sunny weather forced me to shake off the winter-induced apathy and pull out the lawn mower, weed-eater, edger, and the damn leaf blower. My son, Darth Spoilboy, was soon cutting the early spring weeds while I used the weed-eater to trim the various over growths on the sidewalk and the curb. In the old days that would be the end of it. My grandfather would help me cleanup the mower after I was finished, then we would drive off for grape soda for me and an ice cold beer for him.

After my son and I were done last Saturday, I had to crank up the loud and vibrating abomination of a leaf blower doing my best to blow all the cutting into my yard. I do my best to both ignore the actions of those that live around me since I would generally like them to do the same for me but it has not escaped my notice how hard they attempt to keep the curb along the street sparkling clean.

For several years I have observed how that when the least little bit of biological trash falls from the trees or is blown in from the wind one of those fancy riding lawn mowers/vacuum mulcher comes flying out to either grind or vacuum up the offending material. Whatever falls on the curb is assaulted with newer and louder leaf blowers that guarantee hurricane strength winds to blow away the most stubborn of dead leaves clinging to the asphalt of the street.

While I have nothing against those that put so much time and effort into keeping their yard a deep green with a carpet-like clean appearance for me such behavior borders on the anal. I may pull out the weed-eater and leaf blower two more times during the spring and summer months. While I am sure it can be debated, particularly by my wife, but I feel I have far better things to do with my time than be enslaved to a lawn. Several times it has crossed my mind that compulsive lawn care behavior is not much different from old-fashioned selfdom. Standing in for the Lord of the manor would be some bank holding the mortgage on the overly large McMansion that the poor serf works frantically to make the payments on and keep up to prevent the home owners association from threatening some action.

It should be ridiculously clear that the last place I need to live is any suburb, but that is where I find myself. Some might ask why don’t I up and move my family if I find such an environment so not to my liking? There are two main reasons.

The first reason is that for my wife the lack of real privacy and the need to drive several miles to shop for the smallest of items or drop the kids off to school is old hat to her. Apparently, this type of suburb emerged years ago in the more built-up areas of Virginia she grew up in. The second is that for my kids, and most of their friends, this restrained atmosphere along with structured activities and supervised play dates are normal to them. At times I believe that if they were in a neighborhood like I grew up in, able to roam around freely, none of them would know what to do.

As I grow older and the kids move on there is only one action open for me. The only place that I will be able to live with some comfort is someplace well away from the planned and structures existence that all of America seems so happy to sell their souls for. Expatriation is the most likely avenue to obtain this goal with the more desolate areas of Australia, New Zealand, Chile, or Argentina my possible destinations. Really any place generally devoid of large numbers of people, planned suburbs, rabid American consumerism, and tank driving soccer moms. Some place away from city lights so that I can see the stars at night and never, ever have to hear another damn leaf blower as long as I live.


Ghost Dansing said...

no kangaroos in suburbia that's fer sher....

Beach Bum said...

Ghost Dansing: Great song, anyone down under know if they have any openings for a BioMed/Sterilizer technician?

Joan said...

It is one of the saddest things that kids don't have the chance to run run free. A little boredom and unstructured time led to the most creative and elaborate games.

When my kids were little I never knew how many children would be sleeping over on the weekend. Sometimes half the neighborhood and sometimes none.

There is a new movement afoot called "free range kids".

Utah Savage said...

For good and ill you and I had similar childhoods. I lived in the house I now live behind. My dog Tippy walked me to school and waited patiently for me. I have lived and traveled all over, but due to the death of my mother am now living in my childhood home. There is a woman living across the street who remembers me when I was a little girl.

Pammy said...

Ahhh, son...the times, they are a changin. You very eloquently voiced my own thoughts about "modern" living, sad as it is.
Had we not found our little spot here on the river, I'm pretty sure we'd have been looking for a deserted island somewhere.

MadMike said...

Beach although I don't have kids that need to be transported to school, and although I no longer live in suburbia, thankfully, I can relate.

I have vivid memories over those peaceful days of riding school buses (I hated school and hated the Big Yellow Monsters), walking without fear throughout the neighborhood, celebrating Halloween without a police escort...yes I remember those wonderful days (except for the Big Yellow Monsters). For the most part they are gone, forever I am afraid. That makes me very sad. Great piece my friend.

goatman said...

For someone who apparently uses the leaf blower, you have little room to complain! ---just kidding, one does have to keep up with the neighbors' and their lawn-care products I guess---
I grew up in St. Louis county in a neighborhood similar to the one that you describe. We played softball in the street front of the house and there was the occasional broken window but no major problem. We's sleep in the back yard in summer and visit the local pool at 3 in the morning spacing the swim to avoid the cops' rounds. Riding 15 miles to the Missouri river to swim, past acres of farmland, would today be a traffic-weary trip through housing developments all the way to the bluffs. Then barbed wire and keep-out signs.

Fortunately, we now are on the terminal moraine of the latest glacier to pass through, near the Missouri river once again but mid-state, in the country. Here its chain saws but nearest neighbor is 1/2 mile away and I know he is still alive if I hear the saw come evening in the winter.
So now its mostly too quiet and few fellow souls to talk with.
Extremes can be a bitch!!
Thanks for the visit.......

Randal Graves said...

Oh man, where to start on this wonderful, I can't even call it a rant because you seem to have less anger and more sadness over the decline of our society, and what it is, is the accumulation of the little things like these.

Funny about the school dropping off escapades. We're lucky in that our kids are within decent walking distance, but we'll give them rides if the weather is crap. Parents drive like Rick Mears on steroids, take forever to drop their kids off - why are you having a detailed conversation with them now? And go on, go, they'll be safe in the 10 feet between car and school.

And lawn care. Yikes. I get the tending of flower beds and the like, but look, when it's going to be 85 and sunny for three weeks, please, assume the yard will go brown and deal with it.

Beach Bum said...

Joan: It really does bother me some when I hear people discussing how many things they have scheduled for their children. A couple of times I've even heard one of the parents exclaim how tired they get from driving little jack or Jill to all their activities.

Utah: One of the things I didn't mention was how if some dog was seen waiting on school grounds the staff would probably freak, lock down the school, and call the dog catcher. I remember very well one of my dogs waiting for me as I walked home during the first and second grade. During the third grade is when my parents began their freak out period and my dog had an unfortunate accident.

Pammy: Yeah, as soon as my son is in college and my daughter is in high school I'm bailing. A twenty-foot camper trailer close to the coast sound like heaven to me.

Beach Bum said...

Had to take a quick beer break. Both to get rid of and get more. I know more info than anyone wanted.

MadMike: One of the things I did mention but didn't dwell on was how there is actually a business called "My Gym" in which parents pay money for some teenager to play with a group of kids doing simple activities. In short doing stuff parents use to do on a regular basis with their for free.

The longer version of this story involves how Dragonwife enrolled Miss Wiggles in one of these classes. When I attended the first one watching her class seeing what was done I about freaked. It was the biggest waste of money I ever saw.

Goatman: Yeah, I "own" a leaf blower. It is something I hate but we have several trees close to the curd and when the fall comes sweeping the leaves just will not cut it. For smaller amounts I do have a long handle push broom that works just fine.
I could use a good while on the other extreme, I find society right now spoiled and distasteful.

Randal: This was a sad piece. At times I have been accused of hating America for all my criticism of today's society. The problem is that I for the most part don't believe America exists anymore. The country has mutated into a surly, spoiled, and ignorant shadow of itself. Areas of compassion still exist but it is spoiled by millions that sit on the sidelines jealously guarding their possessions figuring that they have theirs and the less fortunate are just losers who can go to hell for all they care. hey figure God and Fox News is on their side and nothing else matters.

Utah Savage said...

The conversation between you and Mike and Randal is wonderful and sad. I know it's over too. I joke about my bunker. That's pretty much what it is. All that's missing is a shotgun or Glock. I know crime is going to become a problem as people grow more desperate. We had three auto break in a couple of weeks ago. My house and the neighbors on either side. I think my house was the target, but we are now lit up like a prison. All that's missing is the razor wire on the top of the eight foot chain link. Three big dogs and warning signs all over the place. And ours is one of the most peaceful neighborhood in Salt Lake. Tough times don't bring out the best in everybody.

JollyRoger said...

I can't do 'burbs. I am from a completely rural background (and I still find it hard to wear shoes,) and I dig the sticks, and I can tolerate the city-but you can keep the in-between. I cannot conform myself to the Joneses' standards.

lime said...

i remember the days too. and while we lived in town my kids had a flock of others they ran yard to yard with. i made a cultivated effort to keep their young lives relatively schedule free, no organized sports until age 10 and lots of spontaneous play. it was hard when their peers were doing otherwise but there were a few neighbors at least.

now we are in leaf blower land. i hate leaf blowers. what's wrong with the contemplative swish of a rake?

Keshi said...

Times hv changed so much ha! I sometimes wonder if Im living the very nightmare that I wanna avoid.

Im bak BB :)


Colonel Colonel said...

I remember that childhood you describe, and here in our little town it's actually still a lot like that, with kids roaming in groups from yard to yard after school, playing ball or hanging out or doing whatever they do these days. I guess we're an anachronism.

Beach Bum said...

Utah: Yeah, you are right. Walking through the Emergency Room at my work its real hard not to overhear bits of conversation from the patients. Especially since the 30 some-odd examination room are ALWAYS full with patients overflowing into the hallways. Stories of economic induced disaster to simple cruelty abound. Has me believing even more than Homo sapiens are not an intelligent species.

Jollyroger: Welcome and please come back again. I completely agree, the in-between the city and the rural areas is a sicken place festering with hypocracy. It is a merry-go-round that I will jump off as soon as I can.

Lime: The one piece of machinery I wish I could ban would be leaf blowers. I have no desire to own one but keeping the curb clean in my subdivision apparently is a must. A rake works most of the time for little stuff.

Keshi: You still might hear of me becoming the Brisbane or Perth Parrothead one day. Someplace quiet and out of the way down under has a huge appeal.

Colonel: I need to come up your way for a visit. It would be nice to see that again.

Anonymous said...

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