Montgomery County mom takes a poke at her peeps

By J. Freedom duLac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 8:06 PM

Deep in the heart of suburban Maryland, where soccer coaches ban helicopter parents from practice because "the boys need to learn to self-advocate" and parents fret on neighborhood e-mail bulletin boards that their gifted and talented children might not be quite gifted and talented enough, you will find Lydia Sullivan snickering at her own people.

"Where we live is funny," says Sullivan, who has made it her hobby and business to tweak the hyper-competitive overclass, of which she is a self-mocking member.

Last year, out of her house in the Montgomery County town of Kensington, Sullivan launched a blog and clothing line called Snoburbia to comment on the absurdities of the place she calls home. Though really, it could be Anyplace, USA - so long as Anyplace has elite lacrosse teams and e-mail discussion groups loaded with bragging parents. "Everywhere there are proud overachievers," Sullivan says, "there is Snoburbia."

Snoburbia is what the 48-year-old stay-at-home mom calls her world - the high-performing public schools, the 10-year-old son who just signed up for kung fu, the man at the party dying to share that he attended Exeter.

It's pronounced "SNOB-urbia," and Sullivan is something like its Jeff Foxworthy: You know you're in Snoburbia when . . .

"People in Snoburbia want to have a dog that's different from everybody else's dog," Sullivan says. "I heard a guy say yesterday: 'Oh, you know this is a curly-haired retriever? Nobody knows that.' He sounded mildly disappointed."

Snoburbia is where graphing calculators are status symbols, families go on to swap designer baby strollers for TV sets for the au pair's room and teenagers bug their parents for extra gas money ("the Mercedes needs premium, Mom").

It's more of a state of mind than a place, says Sullivan, an amateur social anthropologist who studied English and journalism at "decidedly non-snoburban" West Virginia University. Pockets of Snoburbia are everywhere, and snoburbanites don't need to live in the actual suburbs: Look at Northwest Washington and you'll find them, she says. It's an international phenomenon, too: Sullivan first saw the word "snoburb" online, in reference to the burbs of Melbourne, Australia.

If you really wanted to place Snoburbia, though, Sullivan says you could do worse than the more affluent and advantaged parts of Montgomery: Chevy Chase, Garrett Park, Potomac, Kensington, Bethesda.

Several years ago, she noticed that "OBX" stickers had become de rigueur for snoburban family vehicles in the area. "I kept seeing those stickers everywhere, usually on a Mercedes SUV or a giant black SUV," Sullivan says one day in her home office, where she works on a Mac (official computing brand of Snoburbia, she notes), surrounded by boxes filled with T-shirts that both spoof and celebrate advanced placement classes, the Ivy League, field hockey, lacrosse and elite neighborhoods. "I thought: 'Yeah, your car is obnoxious. Wow, that's really somebody who's self-aware.' "

When she realized that OBX simply meant Outer Banks, a popular vacation spot for the mid-Atlantic's self-styled elite, Sullivan launched Snoburbia and began selling a T-shirt featuring the ubiquitous OBX crest, with one modification: It now includes the word "obnoxious."

The shirt is among Snoburbia's bestsellers, such as they are: Sullivan has sold maybe 500 shirts total since starting Snoburbia 18 months ago. "My business is a mere hobby; I haven't recouped my initial investment yet," says Sullivan, who served as publisher of Washington Monthly before moving to Kensington in 1992 to raise her family. When she's not blogging, Sullivan does freelance copy-editing and SAT tutoring - "a very snoburban thing."

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