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Navigating the wilds of suburbia

October 10, 2005|Karin Klein

IT IS A LITTLE-RECOGNIZED truth that suburbanites often appear at their worst when trying their best.

The bouncing bag of dog droppings, for instance, ranks as an unintended consequence of conscientious suburban life. Mom or dad, multi-tasking even at play, goes for a run, holding onto the handle of a jogging stroller with one hand, a leash with the other. Slung on a forearm is a plastic bag that bounces with each jog, and you know what's inside isn't a snack for later.

The alternative, leaving the mess lying on the sidewalk, is socially abhorrent, but even so -- we all were decently hip people at one point, and now we walk with bouncing plastic bags of dog doo. Have our lives really come to this?

There are many moments for wondering how we ended up practicing the exotic rites of suburbia. Now that school has started and it's time to drop off the kids comes the ritual "greeting of the cars." It's what we do to be sociable instead of actually walking up to others and talking to them. Southern California is, after all, a place where people walk out the door only to head for the garage. Yet we want to be friendly, so we have learned to recognize each other's vehicles before we recognize each other.

As I wend my way up the hill to school, I wave at familiar cars that are heading down. A wave for the cranberry Accord (Millie), the white Toyota van (Amy) and the silver VW van (Katie or Shirlyn, but a wave in either case is socially acceptable). If I'm uncertain, I can rest my hand on top of the steering wheel and give a noncommittal wag that might just mean I'm stretching my wrist, but protects me from seeming rude in case that was my son's former soccer coach.

The ritual doesn't always run smoothly. There was one awful year when half the mothering world seemed to be driving white Volvo station wagons, including one of my best friends. I'd wave with frantic friendliness at what I thought was Leonie's car, only to see that a total stranger was gaping back, wondering who I was and whether she had committed a gaffe by failing to recognize my van.

But the worst was the six months I spent as a social nonentity. No one knew me. I was cast out from all familiar greeting. You see, I had switched to a white Camry sedan.

Karin Klein

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