What I’ve gained and what I’ve lost by moving to a suburb. . and what we all stand to lose

    I’ve spent years avoiding the suburbs. To me they represented what’s wrong with humanity. urban sprawl, consumerism, tawdry artificiality, conformity. Why then do I find myself at this advanced age living on the outskirts of a major city, struggling to rationalize my choice.

Relax. An advantage of maturity lies in perspective. You come to see the relative unimportance of nearly everything, such as the length of your hair or hemline, the gain or loss of weight, the size of your bank balance. None of these labels for sociological topics, which frequently lead to heated debates and too often to useless legislation, are life and death.

As we mellowed though, we discovered we were tired of mowing lawns, shoveling snow, and cleaning a huge house. So we decided to downsize.

Soon we were forced to face one fact, in addition to the deteriorating condition of our bodies: inner cities lack reasonably priced housing with the full range of architectural options. We wanted a smaller place with no yard and a higher density population. Hence our move to a townhouse. But the styles we favored were unattainable in the city core. We expanded our search to the periphery.

The area we chose isn’t in truth a suburb because it’s located in the city proper. But it feels like a suburb because the housing and businesses all are relatively new, many of the trees are short enough to allow a view of the sky, and most residents must commute elsewhere to their place of work. Used to be suburbs left housewives isolated for all the waking hours, creating their own sub-culture. Our suburb relies heavily on nannies and preschools to handle childcare, creating a different category of people. But that’s a story separate from this one.

I moved willingly, perhaps even eagerly. But not without some qualms. Perhaps I was remembering the song from the 60s, by Malvina Reynolds. “Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes all the same. . .And they’re all made out of ticky tacky, And they all look just the same.” Anathema to me in my counter-culture youth.

So I decided to create a pro and con list of traits for our new residence. We all work through a process similar to this whenever we make a change, weighing what we hope will be good versus the negatives.

• Good: Change stimulates you. You open yourself to different experiences and learn from them.
• Bad: Big-box stores abound. These are large retail establishments, part of a chain. I feel they tend to encourage a robotic approach to employment and thought, as well as lack variety in the goods they carry.
• Good: I no longer need to feel guilty for shopping at Wal-Mart since it’s close to me and the wisest environmental choice.
• Bad: Because housing has restrictions, we’re forbidden from leaving useables and recyclables in the alley, a practice that helped homeless and poor as well as residents in our old place.
• Good: I get to undertake a lifestyle exercised by the majority of Americans. As a writer I find every experience, every detail to be valuable in my craft.
• Bad: Nearly every restaurant and major store is part of a chain, franchises which I dislike on principle, that they are solely profit-driven and rob people of their individuality and humanity (yes, I’m biased).
• Good: our town house has ten times the number of light sockets of our historic residence. Life is easier, as is relaxation, work, cleaning, etc.
• Bad: Homogeny is the rule in types of businesses. Because this is an upper-middle class enclave, this means cheap restaurants don’t exist.
• Good: Our house is smaller and newer, making it easier and faster to clean.
• Bad: We’re too far out to get quickly to big institutions I love, like the art museum and central library. I know we’ll be using them less frequently.
• Good: Surprisingly, the air is cleaner and fresher than our central city location.
• Bad: Diversity in range of residents’ income is negligible, resulting in our isolation from low income and poor people, immigrants, and accurate proportions of ethnicities. It’s far easier to ignore points of view and social concerns if you don’t even see people who differ from you.
• Good: We have a much better view of sunrises and sunsets because buildings and trees are lower and don’t block the view.

The worst thing about our new situation, as well as suburbs in general: their existence is predicated on constant growth. Developers, politicians, economists, and the general public equate economic growth with quality of life. Untrue. In my city, as across the country, people scurry to start new businesses, expand housing, launch economic efforts. My hometown is now a clone of Southern California and the East Coast. Structures stretch from sidewalk to sidewalk, with almost no natural or green areas. Autos clog the streets and pollute the air, despite attempts to encourage mass transit.

How much is too much? Will we fail to be content until every square inch of inhabitable land is covered with works of man? Then what?

We must find another method for evaluating what we mean by “improvement,” “quality of life,” and “excellence.” I have no objection to seeking progress. But, please, don’t define that as constant growth.

We need to realize that social phenomena like my new place in the suburbs with green buildings or utopian farming communities on rooftops and in the middle of urban areas are stop-gap measures. All well and good for the meantime. But they’re comparable to recycling plastic shopping bags. Regardless of the pride we take in carefully toting these items to the market to use again, they’re less than the weight of an eyelash compared to the tons of waste storming down on us daily, the hordes of new humans pushed out of wombs annually, the even-more urgent cries of the poor and war-torn to have some safety and security.


Beating Time At Its Own Game: Life Begins At Sixty

Sometimes the big barriers in life aren’t abject poverty, dreaded disease, or death. Sometimes it’s the subtle ones set upon us by time and place. We don’t know they are there; if we sense them at all, we choose not to turn and face them.

When I applied for a job as a writer at Hearst Corporation in New York in 1961, I was required to take a typing test. “No typing test, no interview.” I took the test and was offered a job in the ranks of those who could type 70 a minute. All the while, I had to insist upon the interview I had been promised.

In college, I took sound advice and studied education. I began to pay for my schooling by working as a staff writer at the Salt Lake Tribune – at 75 cents an hour. That I was making a living writing didn’t occur to me.

Something similar was at work when I married. My husband’s career took precedence; that was how it was done. Then there were two children, carefully planned, because that was how it was done. I happily accepted a new direction to accommodate my husband’s career and the life the winds of the times presented to me. I left my writing with hardly a backward look.

Writing as a career was not a consideration. It didn’t fit any of the requirements of the time. So when I gave it up, it didn’t feel like I was giving up much. But I was. My dream of sitting in an office, a newsroom with a pencil in my hand was a victim of the status quo. It never occurred to me to just strike out in my own direction – my husband and children needed me. My husband and I built a business. We raised a lawyer and a mathematician, grew in joy with a grandson, lived through floods and moves, enjoyed  travel. I didn’t write for forty years.

In midlife I became aware that there was an empty hole where my children had been. The hole was more vast than the space vacated by offspring. I knew I not only would be able to write, but also I would need to write. After all, I dreamed writing, lived writing, loved writing.

One day, I read that those who live until they are fifty may very likely see their hundredth year. That meant that I might have another entire lifetime before me – plenty of time to do whatever I wanted. In fact, it’s my belief that women in their 50s might have more time for their second life because they don’t have to spend the first twenty years preparing for adulthood.

So I sat down and began to write the “Great Utah Novel.” I thought it would be a lot easier than it was. After all, I had majored in English Lit. Writing a novel should be pretty much second nature. It wasn’t long before I realized that it wasn’t as easy as writing the news stories I had written as a young woman. There were certain skills I didn’t have; there was plenty I didn’t know about writing.

After writing about 400 pages (easily a year’s work), I knew something major was wrong. I took writing classes at UCLA. I attended writers’ conferences. I read up on marketing. I updated computer skills. All the while I wrote and revised and listened and revised again.

This Is The Place (http://bit.ly/ThisIsthePlace) finally emerged, about a young woman, Skylar Eccles, a half-breed in Utah where she was born and raised. Half Mormon and half another religion. Skylar considers marrying a Mormon man in spite of her internal longing for a career. By confronting her own history (several generations of women who entered into “mixed marriages”) and by experiencing a series of devastating events, she comes to see she must make her own way in the world, follow her own true north.

Much of what I wrote about is my own story. I’m glad that I waited until I was sixty. I believe that forty years brought insight and a unique vision to the story in terms of the obstacles that women faced in those days. I really like being proof that a new life can start late – or that it is never too late to revive a dream.

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Carolyn Howard-Johnson, a novelist and poet, brings her experience as a publicist, journalist, marketer, and retailer to the advice she gives in her “How To Do It Frugally” series of books for writers and the many classes she taught as instructor for UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program. The books in her “How To Do It Frugally” series of books for writers have won multiple awards. She is also the recipient of a number of community awards. The author loves to travel and has visited eighty-nine countries. She has studied writing abroad. She admits to carrying a pen and journal wherever she goes. Her web site is www.howtodoitfrugally.com.

How much is that doggie bag in the window, and does using it label me as cheap or old?

Is using zip-locked bags at restaurants a sign of growing old? i asked myself this the other day in a luncheon meeting attended in the main by seniors or mature adults as they’re now called by some. At the end of the meal, several opened their purses and pulled out their own plastic sacks for leftovers, and i recalled times I’d seen my older relatives do the same. Indeed, my father at about age 70 raided the centerpiece on the buffet line at a steakhouse, claiming, “Oh, they want you to take the whole fruits and vegetables.”

As a self-proclaimed environmentalist of many years standing, I’m torn by this action. What if they favor bringing their own containers? That’s more acceptable. Obviously tossing some Tupperware Is a greater emotional challenge than ridding yourself of a flimsy sack. Or is my problem the association of baggies with aging? i have sufficient signs of my status, what with my gray hair and creaking knees, shortened temper, and equally shortened height. I don’t need anyone, or myself, using my salvage of leftovers as an additional indicator of my status.

In most of this country, it’s acceptable to pack and remove remaining food from your restaurant meal. Not always the case over the globe. Appears that Europe is exempt from this habit in the main, while Asians cheerfully carry nibblies out. However there are exemptions even here. The idea of toting goodies after a private dinner is widely disputed in advice columns, and I don’t think it’s ever been resolved. Should you, as the hostess, offer leftovers to guests, particularly if they potlucked the original dish in? Or do you, as hostess, deserve all the leftovers because you took the time and trouble to organize the party?

From experience I can tell you salvaging food after an event is not necessarily a happy situation, regardless of the money you think you’re saving on your food budget. Ask my husband who suffered through approximately ten dinners of leftover turkey, starting with sandwiches through tetrazzini and on to several days of turkey soup disguised as stew, then stroop, finally thin soup.

Certainly guests should ask, or, better yet, wait for the hostess to offer before knocking others out of the way to secret the remaining prime desserts in your tote made of any kind of material. Do you want to save a few pennies and, at the same time, lose a friendship?

Then there are business functions. The best advice is never to save remnants from these functions. Makes you appear desperate and cheap, two conditions to avoid if you’re hoping to impress bosses or clients.

I’ve strayed far afield from my original hypothesis—that carrying zip-locked plastic bags marks you as aging. Maybe my sensitivity to the potential of personality characteristics to adversely set me apart from the general population is too great. I need to decide if my over-riding concern is money, environmentalism, or stereotypes. I’ll ponder that question while I snack on some cheese tidbits I rescued from yesterday’s meal out with neighbors.

There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. You Don’t Know Why She Swallowed a Fly? I Do.

Collage by Lisa Congdon

Collage by Lisa Congdon

I know why she swallowed a fly. She was a woman, past her physical prime, aches and pains increasing, counting the days as she aged. And she was pissed.

At first she didn’t realize she was pissed. She thought the people around her were getting more annoying and stupid, whatever common sense and humor they once possessed draining away by the second.

For example, if she saw young women, who obviously spent hours on their hair and makeup, gossiping, giggling and strutting their stuff in shopping malls, she wrote them off as dim-witted, self-centered idiots. As for the men, they were worse. They spent all their time staring at women.

Riding on the bike trail, she went by a queue of children headed the opposite way, chattering and careless of her passage, nearly knocking her over. She wondered why they weren’t in school where they belonged. Better yet, isolated in boarding school or juvenile hall until they were able to function like adults.

As for television, films, print, Internet, the people featured seemed to be in a never-ending competition to show the most skin and selfishness. First extolled, then rewarded with heaps of money and attention, they repaid their perqs by modeling behavior for those around them to ever-increasing extreme behavior.

When she thought about the respect given to older people in other times, other societies, she had sworn previously that she would function as if she expected and received the same today. She wouldn’t fall into the error of the marginalized seniors she’d seen since childhood. People ignored, treated as simpletons, overlooked in stores and restaurants, talked over and around when in a group. However, she was learning the impossibility of fighting an entire culture on her own.

So when a fly flew by, she snapped and caught it.

Swallowing a fly was nothing compared to the bile she had to hold down. She was becoming a grouchy old lady, replete with negative attitudes. But since she still possessed her wits, if not her young looks, questions kept arising. Why was she angry constantly? What had happened to the good will she used to extend to all humanity? Was she going crazy or was the world around her doing so?

In the slow process by which she always seemed to learn about life and its truths, she began to probe her emotional responses. Questions, always her guide to self-discovery, arose. Why the negative reactions? She uncovered jealousy, regrets, fear, anger, a heaping load of damage. Now the real work had to begin—to use these as the stuff for constructive growth. Or to be an old lady in truth as well as appearance.


I’d Tip My Wig to You, But I Haven’t Got a Wig

eliseMore and more people seem to be wearing hairpieces or wigs. Or maybe more and more people are wearing poorly made wigs. Walking out of a building today, I spotted a man with an obvious hairpiece. The piece was longish, all the same length (like a Dutch boy bob), and dark; but I spotted gray hair underneath where the hairpiece tilted a bit. I know other people with wigs obvious to the passerby. These folks must feel the accessory improves their looks.

But I wonder why someone would go to the trouble of buying a hairpiece that’s ill-shaped, poorly fitted, and whose color is at odds with the hard-earned traceries of time on the their faces.

Must be the wide-spread belief that gray or white hair makes you look older. Are wig-wearers so fearful of growing old—or looking old—that they’ll do anything to avoid it? Then why not dye it? Eleven percent of men and 55% of women color their hair, and you can be sure they’re not choosing gray.

Another option for changing styles are hair extensions, favored by public figures like Britney Spears, and not infrequently bedraggled or limp, and their close cousins, hair weaves. These usually are selected for the “beauty” they supposedly convey on the wearer.

Of course, there are lots of reasons to wear wigs that seem more legitimate than mere appearance: religious, health, diseases. But still the wearers are wearing wigs because they can’t or won’t tolerate nature’s dictates.

I have sufficient reason to participate. A young friend of mine guessed my age to be greater than my older sister’s, partly because my hair’s gray. But excuse me from the group. If I were really intent on fighting time, I’d do something about my hair; but I’m too lazy and too cheap and too devoted to simple comfort.

Not that there’s anything wrong with wearing artificial locks or coloring hair. Humanity has been doing it for millennia. If you have an inclination in that direction, go for it. However, I come down on the side of Chris Rock, whose documentary film “Good Hair” is a close look at black culture and the influence of society on young African-American girls. Natural hair is popularly believed to be unattractive, but Chris feels, and I agree, that natural hair tends to be a healthier, easier, more self-confident choice.

Plus, unlike wigs, natural hair won’t slip down over your forehead.