Ode to Suburbia

My sister got lucky, married a yuppie, took him for all he was worth…
     –Lyrics from “Yer So Bad” by Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne

“This is suburban music, right Jeff?” Maria, denigrating my friends from Virginia. We stood immersed in a din of drinkers shouting over, or singing along with the album Full Moon Fever. My group house in Washington, DC, so urban, gunfire sounded daily. The city wouldn’t shed its infamous moniker: the murder capital of the world for several more years.

“The music can’t be that suburban, it’s my album.”

Full Moon Fever, I love this album all the way through. Maybe Maria was right. These days, I couldn’t possibly be less urban.

 ~~~

I sit with the depth of summer.

We vacationed early this year, done before July, leaving too little to look forward to. Our brand-new patio, still a squared-off hole four inches deep, accompanies a mound of dirt and a plastic bin loaded with the rocks I dug up. Lots of rocks. The lawn needs attention, and the mower needs maintenance. Something broke off, the oil escaped. Mechanics aren’t my bag, it’s a standoff I can’t win. The lawn grows whether I fix the mower or not.

Our roof is three weeks old, financed on a zero-interest card with ambitions to pay it off in a year. The prior roof, just six years old, installed as we vacationed in Utah, leaked almost immediately. I struggle with the shame of being taken. That roofer disappeared as soon as he completed the job.

A tangle of flowers borders the street—a cottage garden—endearing to some neighbors, annoying to others. “You know, Roberta invested a lot in bushes and shrubs. Your garden would disappoint her.” Bees circle, dive, drink, pause and breathe, come autumn, goldfinches take their place. Cats shelter among the stems, too lazy to make a kill.

Humidity spoils the unusual, temperate weather, encouraging central air despite the lack of heat. Turned too low, I’m sometimes cold at night. Susan sits beneath a blanket as we read. Our porches, front and back, draw me outside, invite lazy conversation, encourage grilled meat and dining al fresco.

As a young man, I found romance in urban living. The gunshots, and car windows broken for ashtray change, circling the block for parking, bicycles in my living room, bicycles in the hallway, a low price for cool. I once hammered nails into my windowsill, a half inch exposed, and sawed off the nail heads. I barbed my window. My neighbor saw someone trying to climb into my house. I felt vital.

Not enough space, too much crime, too much hassle. I’m old(er) now; urban living seems hard. My single-story house on a gardened lot—my suburban home—comforts me. Seven bikes crowd the garage. Four are mine but everyone rides them—no one is much taller or shorter than me. A sparrow family, for three years now, lives in the light fixture above the door. I turn on the light to work on my bike: “No! You’re disturbing the birds!” Suburbia brings its own challenges.

When I first moved to Gettysburg, every day felt like a vacation. Yes, I still had my job in DC, plus a really long commute one or two times a week, but each time I drove home, as the scenery changed from urban, to suburban, to rural, and then suburban again as I neared my house, I felt my stress melt away.

For the reader composing a pissed off comment in their head right now, save your effort. I know urban living isn’t synonymous with crime. I know that people in cities live rich and happy lives, I was one of them. But along the way, something changed. My quiet existence suits me; my home is an oasis. Suburban summers—with ice cold drinks, the sound of distant lawn mowers and playing children, the smell of bonfires and mint—bring back a lifelong love affair with sitting on my porch and wasting time.  

39 thoughts on “Ode to Suburbia

  1. It’s an interesting transition, isn’t it, usually related to age: the excitement of the city gives way to the quest for a quieter suburban environment, and for me, eventually to the most quiet environment, rural space. Each has its pros and cons, and a place in the continuum of our lives.

    I loved this particular gem: “A tangle of flowers borders the street—a cottage garden—endearing to some neighbors, annoying to others. ‘You know, Roberta invested a lot in bushes and shrubs. Your garden would disappoint her.’ Bees circle, dive, drink, pause and breathe, come autumn, goldfinches take their place. Cats shelter among the stems, too lazy to make a kill.” Eloquent proof of the adage, “To each their own.”

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    • I don’t know if I could ever move to a rural location. We must go to the grocery store 10 – 15 times a week. I’m pretty shocked by my love of suburbia, I was always such a city guy. But a nice feature of our house is we don’t have any neighbors behinds us, just wooded park land.

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  2. Is this your house and garden?

    I love the black eyed susan and coneflowers, that would be considered native here.

    One of my several (maybe more than several) gardens is native or cottage or wild. It’s in the back though. It actually reflects the survival of the fittest and evolves from year to year. Which will win this year? The bee balm, false indigo, zebra grass, shasta daisy, heliopsis, peonies, iris, hibiscus, veronica? Or the natives? It’s an everchanging and crowded habitat for squirrels, bunnies, and birds. Well of course the dog tramples things in search of a pet of her own.

    My husband asks, “Why don’t you deadhead?” The finches feed on the old seeds.

    My son loves city life, his bike, the can of mace he carries when he bikes to work. (I think it’s really for the pit bulls he passes.)

    I’m a “county” girl. I love my suburban yard. I get lost in the many shades of green. Something is in bloom in my gardens every month except November and December. I listen to the birds. Cover my tomatoes, peppers, and lettuce with deer netting. Those darn deer sail over my fence as if it isn’t there and get in a standoff with my 26 pound dog who thinks she’s much bigger. Suburban life.

    The house wrens attack (and win) when the earlier arriving chickadees commandeer the wren house that has been occupied by the wrens for years. I haven’t seen a chickadee since the wrens ran them off.

    I love my suburban life and the meditative time my little yard provides at sunrise or sunset. I have not been fond of the the mid to upper 90 humid weather that has been prevalent this summer so avoid midday.

    Great reflection, Jeff. It got my on a roll.

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    • “Got me on a roll” is the best flattery you could offer. Our garden has a Darwinism vibe as well. Those coneflowers win every year. They pop up in new gardens every summer. Until we had kids (age 40) the city was really the only option we would consider. It’s odd how quickly we became unenamored. I could never hear what sophie was saying from her stroller because of car noise.

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  3. I like the transition in the paragraph that starts “as a young man,” that’s really smooth. I love when the writing sprawls out like this (not like urban sprawl ha) in a flowy natural way and you hit it here Jeff. Nice! And we are vacationing in Utah now ourselves as of a few hours ago, outside of Moab. Crazy landscape innit?! Think we are heading for the pool soon. Best to you and yours, and enjoy the nooks and crannies of that summer of yours, hope it’s the best.

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    • I absolutely love Moab and Arches NP. Have you been there before? Thanks for the compliments on the writing. I was particularly fond of the young man transition too. It really surprised me when it popped out.

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      • Like when that stuff pops out, that’s the best! Yes have been to Moab a couple times before but both times super brief. Actually first time I was only 15 or so and we just camped a few nights and never saw the town. Don’t think there was much of a town then anyhow, in 85. Ambling our way over to Bryce and then to take Lily to her next school, in Cedar City.

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  4. Is it age though? Or just an appreciation for nature as it was intended to be? I could never live in the city anymore, though I like to think of myself as pretty youthful (or is that just something old people say?!). It’s the impatient side of me I think; cities are too full of people and things that test my patience. And where are they all rushing to anyway?

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    • Honestly, I think it was having kids. I no longer had anywhere to rush off to (bars, out to dinner, etc) so the city lost all of it’s luster. I can’t imagine how our life would be if we stayed in DC, but I suspect way less rewarding.

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  5. I spent my elementary school years in a run down part of town that’s now Hipster Central, then culture shock, to a Planned Community. No telephone poles, no one parked on the street, manicured lawns with tasteful shrubs, and an HOA that cited us for hanging a towel over the back fence to dry after going to the pool😲🙄🤦🏼‍♀️

    I’ve never lived in a downtown city area, although everything is within walking distance from my house now, even the grocery store, so maybe it’s urban-ish🤷🏼‍♀️

    After leaving my mother’s house, I lived a bunch of different places, including my 1970 Datsun 510. For convenience, I like the “mixed use” neighborhood I live in now. There’s a lot of traffic on the 5 lane Avenue in front, and the parking lot next to us gets crazy sometimes… especially when homeless folks set up camp.

    I don’t think I could ever go completely rural. I lived in a community 7 miles up a mountain that had one little store that closed at like 9pm. I didn’t like having to drive down the mountain to 7-11🤷🏼‍♀️

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    • Ah, my first car was a mustard colored Datsun 510. I loved that car. I drove it to death in three years though, but really it’s the favorite car I ever had. We’ve got a pretty good set up. We’re classified as rural, but we only live a couple of blocks from the Gettysburg line. We go to the grocery store (1 mile away) pretty much every day. And I can walk to work. See my comment to CJ. I think our area is hard to classify.

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  6. Nice piece Jeff.
    Somehow, I am here, slightly aged and living in suburbia.
    I call our area The City of Weeds – because we are all too ‘busy’ (and ironically lazy) to bother with the kind of garden that might live up to Roberta’s standard. Nevermind.
    The peak of my enjoyment during my younger inner urban living days was when I worked for an authority that provided me with a parking permit with limitless parking in lots of places. But I especially liked the spot in front of a half way house only metres from the city’s hot spots. Great days.
    But would I survive them were I to relive them?
    Kind regards
    DD

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    • A parking pass for the city. Oh how I would’ve loved that. I doubt I could calculate how much time I spent circling blocks looking for parking. But that would have given me more time to drink, and I already did WAY too much of that. Thank you for the compliment. That’s all I’m really looking for… 😉

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    • Sadly, there are a fraction of the bees anymore than from when I was a kid (well except those bastard yellow jackets that live in ground hives. Do you have those? They’re really dangerous. A few years ago, while gardening, Susan upset a hive and got stung over 20 times. I got stung 8 times but didn’t get an ounce of pity or concern because Susan got it so much worse.

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      • Not sure about those bees Jeff. Haven’t seen any around here. Are they hornets? I am anxiously watching the bottle brush tree I have planted. Bees seem to love them.

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  7. Your garden!! I love it so much! Your suburban/ rural spot (I’m calling it that because your backyard faces the woods) sounds dreamy.

    We’ve got a handful of years left in our city spot but I’m definitely feeling the pull of the quiet, space to breathe. We stayed in the country on holiday a couple years ago, I think about it often.

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    • Ha, Susan gave me a hard time about calling our house suburban. She thinks it makes it sound like its in a big neighborhood with endless streets. She threatened to set up an account and rebutting me. I told her that if she did that for every post, it would probably boost my number of readers. We actually didn’t stay in our purchased city house very long (five years). Once the kids came, we wanted to bail. And then we made a killing when we sold our house so everything worked out well.

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  8. I feel your vacation blues. Bob likes to get away right after school lets out. I hate it because we have a WHOLE summer ahead with nothing really to look forward to. The rental houses are cheaper at the start of summer than in the thick of summer, so I oblige his request. The flowers in your garden are pretty. I would like those in my garden. Our house is landscaped all the way around, but mostly with bushes. They take up so much of my time and all the weeding (!) that I do not put too much other efforts into it.

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    • We got in the habit of going early because the kids got out of school on memorial day and everything was so uncrowded (and you’re right, cheap). Now we’re doing it so the kids don’t have a big interruption in the middle of their summer jobs. Last year, we took an August overnight to the beach for a quick recharge, but this year, the funds aren’t there. Once you get a garden like ours established, it really takes no effort at all except clearing away the dead flowers in the winter after the birds have eaten all of the seed. I remember a lot of effort to get it there though.

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    • Where I live, a line of squared off azaleas and lots of grass is the preferred landscaping. Our haphazard garden is almost as scandalous as our Black Lives Matter sign adorning our front porch. That would be the downside of our rural setting.

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  9. I love your garden, Jeff. It’s great that you get lots of wildlife visiting, as do I. The flowers are gorgeous, and it must be wonderful to look back onto a green and wooded area. (I forgot to mention the wildlife when I wrote my last post about my garden. I’ve been putting water and cat biscuits out for the hedgehogs at night, although I rarely see one. I know they’re out there because I sometimes hear them at night). Moving from the city to a more urban area must have been a big change. It certainly seems to have benefited you, which is lovely. In my case, I moved out of London to go to my hometown which was very typical of suburbia all that time ago. Ten years ago, it became a city and is growing by the day with all the new houses and apartments that they’re throwing up everywhere. I much preferred it as a smallish town, but, on the other hand, couldn’t face the upheaval of moving. I’m so glad you are happy and settled where you are now. P.S. Sorry I’m so late reading your post. It’s 41C here today and I’m just too exhausted to do anything much. Even reading is a chore at the moment. We’re not used to this heat over here.

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    • Gosh, I hope you have air conditioning. When I was in France a few years ago, it was about 95 and we were miserable. Our rental didn’t have AC and it was hard to cool down (we went to the movies on the worst day). Here, we typically have a week or so in the upper 90s (abutting low 100s). It gets hard to do anything except sit inside in the AC. I usually try to go for a run and only make it around the block before I decide things are too hot. Hedgehogs are so cute, I wish we had them (also, I’ve read that they eat ticks by the pound). At my house our most exciting mammals are deer (which we see a few times a week) and squirrels which are so ubiquitous you almost don’t see them. Did your son ever move in?

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      • No – no air-conditioning, unfortunately. Very few people have that over here. It’s stifling indoors, and we’ve been advised not to go out if possible. They’re saying to keep all the windows and curtains shut to keep out the heat and sun. It’s somewhat claustrophobic, and I long for a cool breeze. It’s meant to rain tonight, although only a brief shower, but at least the temperature tomorrow will be about 29C – still far too hot, but compared to yesterday and today, an absolute joy. How lovely to have deer so close. We occasionally get a Muntjac deer in the garden, although goodness knows where they come from in the middle of a city. We get lots of grey squirrels here (the red ones hardly exist in the UK anymore.) You’d be surprised how much noise hedgehogs make and how fast they move!

        There has been a slight change of plan with my son and grandchildren. They’re still coming, but it won’t be full-time now, only a few days a month which is a bit of a relief. He’s now planning to move up North to be with his new girlfriend. However, the children mostly live with their mum and granny not far from me, so they will spend some of their time up there and some of it with me. The room is finally nearly ready. I’ll write a post updating the situation when the room is finished – a week or so, perhaps.

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      • It’s important to cool your body down, sustained heat kills. Are there any stores that have AC that you can spend more than an hour in? Last year I started a book called Ministry for the Future (by Kim Stanley Robinson) that detailed a near future event where a region of India has a sustained heat snap that causes millions to die. The book got boring and I wasn’t crazy about the format, but that first chapter or so is one of the most powerful and scary things I’ve ever read. Certainly more to follow… Might be time to order an AC unit from Amazon.

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      • The book sounds like an eye-opener! We have a Tesco about 15 mins away from me in Alfie, but they’re advising people not to go out if possible. I think I’d be overcome by the intense heat when I got into town. It’s a catch-22 situation, really. Air con is sadly out of the question as I just can’t afford it, nor to run it. I’m actually more concerned about Peanut than I am about myself. I’ve just ordered her a cooling mat from Amazon, which was reasonable. Perhaps, I should have ordered one for myself!

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