The mythology of suburbia is thick, with mountains of publications spreading the idea that the burbs are an endless landscape of plazas and McMansions where free spirits are forced to conform and where people living not 25 feet from their neighbors live in lonely isolation. Books have been published about it. Sermons given. Songs written.
I love the vintage Anne Taintor magnets that satirize the suburbs, usually through the eyes of a 1950s housewife. My favorite is of a woman washing dishes who declares, “If by ‘happy’ you mean trapped with no means of escape…? then yes, I’m happy.”
The Rush song, Subdivisions, describes the suburbs as a place where creativity is a road to isolation:
Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone…
…Any escape might help to smooth
The unattractive truth
But the suburbs have no charms to soothe
The restless dreams of youth
These lyrics didn’t mean much to me when it came out in 1982, but as an adult I’ve become more enchanted by this idea of the “suburban dream,” a phrase usually uttered with a degree of irony. I’ve heard people respond to the question, “How are things going?” with “Oh, you know. Living the dream in suburbia.”
As with most myths, there’s a morsel of truth behind the sentiment that’s been exaggerated for effect.
As a teenager, I remember saying to friends, “If I ever considering mowing the lawn and doing the laundry achievements, shoot me.” And yet, I’ve been doing just that for the last 16 years. I’ve managed to get a few interesting things done as well, but there’s no doubt that a good day is a day when I get a bunch of chores done. And as a parent who has sometimes fallen into the trap of scheduling my children’s lives with activities from sunup to sundown, I really do think there is a danger that we are fast producing children who are being put into “little boxes” and who will “come out all the same.” (thanks Malvina Reynolds for your satirical look at the burbs).
But I look around me at the ridiculous talents of the children in my community, be it in art or math, science or drama, music or social action endeavors, politics and athletics, and I conclude that the suburban myth of a sprawling landscape of individuality suppression is just that – a myth, applicable to some but not to others, just like any other mythology (consider the Wild West or of New York’s Broadway).
Sadly, there are lost souls in the suburbs, people who are misunderstood, misguided, underloved and uninspired. But then there are many remarkable people already living out their futures. Just yesterday I read about Dane Christianson, a 20 year-old student at Illinois IT, who recently invented a new take on the Rubik’s Cube and who looks to become a successful entrepreneur in 2014.
I won’t bother to tell you what I was doing when I was twenty, but it surely had nothing to do with thinking.
Sure, I wish my neighborhood was a little more friendly. We have a long way to go in the hospitality department. I wish more would open their doors to the people who live next door or down the block from them. I wish people walking their dogs would say hello when passing by. I wish people wouldn’t drive their cars into their garages, not to be seen again until they leave their garages the next morning. Things surely aren’t perfect. And I’m saddened by the young souls who truly don’t fit in, often with tragic consequences.
But I’m no longer buying into the myth. My kids are doing more interesting things with their teenage years than I did with mine. A little too scheduled? Probably. But also not busily TPing houses on a regular basis the way I did (sure, it was a hell of a lot of fun, but was it constructive?).
If my life adds another reason to buy into the suburban myth, so be it. It isn't too shabby.