Keeping up with the Joneses in Suburbia

Hell, yes, we are still trying to keep up with the Joneses.

Hell, yes, we are still trying to keep up with the Joneses.

That damn Jones family!  Why do they have to have everything?  Be so rich and desirable?  Why is their prosperity simultaneously my misery?  Here in suburbia, the Joneses remain the ever elusive ideal and we continue to chase them.  Their beautiful new car, their well manicured lawn, their Harvard-bound children and their fabulous dinner parties.  And you know what?  You will never ever be the Joneses.  It’s time to get off that bus.

“Keeping up with the Joneses” was in fact a comic strip created by “Pop” Momand circa 1920’s America.  It was a parody of American life which depicted the petty jealousies of neighbors to the Jones family, who are mentioned but never actually seen in the strip.  This is fascinating because the idea of the Joneses really is an illusion to all of us.  This was made clear over the past couple months in which a number of our friends picked up and moved, mostly to bigger and better places.  Isn’t that how it always happens, after all?  My husband and I, after viewing these spectacular new houses, sat down in our kitchen and thought, hmm…  Maybe we should move.

Right there.  That’s where it starts.  They have a hot tub.  Don’t we need a hot tub?  They have a gazillion square feet.  Don’t we need a gazillion square feet?  Never mind that we are completely fine in our 1950’s fixer upper and that before this we hadn’t had a moment of dissatisfaction (well maybe a couple but nothing move-worthy).  Plus, our house is paid off, why would we do that?  One simple reason.  Those fucking Joneses.

Dave Goetz’s noteworthy book “Death by Suburb” addresses this topic in a novel way.  He calls various ideals of suburban culture “toxins” and offers “practices” to guide sane living in the ‘burbs.   Goetz talks about leading a “thicker” life, letting go of expectations and relying on faith.  While I did not read the book for it’s faith and church principles, it does have meaning for suburbanites in and out of faith communities.  In Brene Brown’s amazing book “Daring Greatly,” she also talks about how there is a culture of what she calls scarcity, meaning we feel like we can never have enough.  We always want more, and are left feeling culturally and personally inadequate if we don’t.

Now, not everyone feels this way. There are folks like my friend Barbara who don’t seem ride the Jones bus.  But most of us do. In any event, Goetz gives us some suggestions for relief from the rat race.  Instead of seeing yourself as your job or even your stereotype, try to see goodness in the world.  Instead of wanting your neighbor’s life,  he suggests budgeting time to “hang with the poor and broken.”  Instead of thinking that life should be as easy as it is for the Joneses, he suggests we just quit fighting a war that is not winnable.  Both Brown and Goetz suggest silence and gratitude as daily practices to stop “jonesing” for the next purchase. The next high.

When you do begin accumulating all this stuff, what are you supposed to do with it all, anyway?  I recently have been going on a donation blitz, collecting stuff in large bags and toting it to the appropriate drop off site.  This feels good.  And moving, after all, is one giant purge.  There is also something so attractive about the simple life, the pared down existence.  Getting rid of excess.  Being free of material goods.  Letting go of consumerism.  But then, living the thicker life also means not feeling green with envy when that Jones kid gets the lead part in the school play.  And when Mrs. Jones always seems calm and together.  And how they always seem to make time to have a beautiful yard and a devoted relationship.

Oh, and there we go again.  Your brain just went to that place.  Actually, there really is a place in your brain that processes jealousy, and it’s the same place ironically that processes pain.  This may explain why it felt like a dagger when your high school boyfriend cheated on you.  It’s called the ventral striatum and it sits in your prefrontal lobe.  So, as many discoveries in behavioral neuroscience, you can take comfort that it’s your brain causing you to behave this way.  Because the Joneses aren’t going anywhere.  Even if you move.

An so ultimately,  we decided not to move.  We are happy where we are.  No, it’s not the biggest or newest house on the block.  The floors creak and it’s on a steep hill.  At the risk of following the above advice, we are lucky to have this old house, even with it’s quirks and it’s imperfections.  It has been here to come home to through the births of two children, through new jobs and new pets.  Through acquisitions and donations alike.  And plus, moving is a lot of work.

What about you?

So there.

So there.

Keeping up with the Joneses strip from Pop Momand, 1921.

Above image from


Happy Birthday to Suburbo-types! And me!

We’re all in this together.

Okay it’s not my birthday until mid-November, but this week marks a year since suburbo-types was up and running.   (Suburbo-types is only 1, but as my daughter pointed out, I am going to be 44, not 43 as my brain had originally thought.  Nice.)  It’s a natural time to think about this project, what I’ve learned and where it’s heading.  Originally, suburbo-types was meant as a platform for my understanding of the truth of our relationships in suburbia, how and why we stereotype each other and to gain a fuller understanding of my fellow suburbanites.  Alas, a year later, I have no solid answers, but the questions are evolving.  And the truth as to why I began is starting to make more sense to my often hard-headed skull.

It’s a biologically human and rational inclination to desire contact and connection with others.  In the months before I began the blog, my best friend Tracy moved away and I found myself wanting to get to know people more.  Tracy was my lifeline as we raised our babies together (our kids are the same ages). We talked on the phone sometimes 3 times a day.  My baby projectile barfed! Her baby sprout a tooth!  I’m worried, I’m scared, I feel incompetent, I’m lonely!  I was able to say whatever I wanted and I knew she understood.   It is an intense time for all new moms, but it was made easier by Tracy who juggled making me laugh, listening to my incessant chatter and hearing every word I uttered without judgment.   She is still there for me, but she lives 2 hours away, works and has a life of her own.  So do I.  But when she left, I wondered how I would ever feel as connected again.  Not to mention the pain of living so far away from my family, especially my new niece.

Shameless promotion of adorable new niece.

In the wake of going back to work part-time, raising young children and navigating the suburban landscape, I found myself being incredibly judgmental and critical of my suburb-dwelling peers.  I was constantly sizing people up, and in the end, I was really only judging myself.  I realize I was making other people seem scarier than they were to protect myself from, what, getting attached and having THEM move away too?  Maybe it was easier to keep everyone at arm’s distance.  But as I came out of my shell,  and as I met new friends and let myself (and them) off the hook a little more,  I came to see that all of us hide a little and we certainly protect ourselves.  Maybe we criticize others for how they parent, how they dress or what they say.  I am guilty of doing these things too, but I am willing to let go of it bit by bit to make the suburbs feel less strip-mall and more Main street.  In Dave Goetz’s book Death by Suburb:Keeping the Suburbs from Killing your Soul, he states that cultivating deep friendships (note: not the get your mail for you, wave from your car-kind), those that bring deep joy and satisfaction, is the antidote for social climbing,  people pleasing, ass-kissing and perpetuating your mask.  I know, deep, right?!

In the compelling book Incognito by neuroscientist David Engleman,  he lays out a complex interplay between two parts of your brain.  The first, the prefrontal cortex,  does it’s best work by stretegizing and analyzing.  It plans and thinks.  It tells you that you have exactly 24 waking hours on the weekend in which to do laundry, finish that report by Monday, help with homework, make meals, prepare for the coming week etc.  Then, the more primitive limbic system, or emotional control center, begins to feel the freak coming on at about 4 o’clock on Sunday when all that shit has no chance of getting done.  It works the same way when you are building relationships .  The prefrontal cortex examines what you will say or wear, then the limbic system causes you to worry about that joke you told or the red shirt that you wore that may have been just a little too low-cut.  All of us have these two characters battling it out in our heads.  For me,  genuinely connecting to others and putting myself out there makes my inner soldiers a little less likely to get into full-blown war.

The suburbs have always felt a little lonely to me.  They with their picket fences and closed doors.  Unknown neighbors.  Long driveways.  Pruned bushes.  What’s really going on in there?  (okay, not everything: private is private) This writing, although making me incredibly vulnerable and fearful at times, has freed me to explore uncharted waters.  Who is beneath the facade.  Where the truth lies.  All the topics for suburbo-types come from conversations I have had or overhead somehere in the ‘burbs.   And the interviews are attempts to understand there is a lot to know about each of us.  Really, it’s just so we all know that those we surround ourselves with are more than who we see.  Of course, you don’t want to be too vulnerable.  You don’t want to tell someone that you are living a shame-based existence the first time you meet them.  The fact that you slept with the entire football team your sophomore year of high school?  Probably TMI.  You have to have a strong base to hold up the weight of the relationship.  Thanks to you,  I hope is what the community of suburbo-types is starting to do.

So, for the coming year, the blog will be focusing on more interviews, more subjects that maybe we all think about a little bit but don’t talk about very much and just being here for a safe 5 minute read during your busy lives.  Please let me know what you’d like to see, any polite criticism (I am human, after all) and insights into your suburban life.  I value your feedback and don’t publish it if requested.

Mt. Hood Mama Photos is responsible for the lovely image at the top of this post.  My sister is responsible for the cute baby photo.  And the cute baby.