The disease had struck. And I had been so sure I was immune.
The symptoms appear gradually and often go unnoticed: A psychological distance disproportionate to physical distance. A growing distrust of people who appear "different." A belief (at least among children victims) that if a building is old, it is ugly. A propensity for puttering around the house; there is always something more to be done.
An overwhelming pre-occupation with finishing the basement and conquering crabgrass.
The disease? Suburbanitis.
That I had contracted the malaise was brought home to me one recent Sunday when I agreed, after weeks of cajoling, to take my 6-year-old daughter and a friend to a puppet show at the Capitol Children's Museum in Washington. There hadn't been many outings lately, due to demands of a teaching job, a 6-month-old baby, a husband who works shifts, the first grader, and the house. I decided Amy was right; it was time we got out, and certainly time we got back to the city.
And then the organizing questions began.
The baby was due to eat at 1; should I feed him early or wait until we got to the museum? Would he make it? What if the museum wouldn't accommodate a stoller? What did I need to take with me? Where would I park?
My husband was working, so it would be just the children and me. Was it safe? What if someone attacked us? Should I carry a purse?
And when would I get the laundry done?
Suddenly I realized how ridiculous it all was. I was acting as if a simple afternoon outing into my favorite city was a full-scale assault on Mount Everest. What on earth was wrong with me?
It was then I knew Suburbanitis had almost claimed still another victim.
When we first came to Washington 10 years ago, my husband and I chose not to live in the District because he, as a policeman, would be unofficially on duty 24 hours a day. We rented an apartment in Arlington, a 5-minute trip from the Mall, and were tourists every weekend. We felt at home in Washington from the beginning and took great pride in playing tourguide to friends and relatives.
We learned the best times to visit the museums and how to beat the parking problem. I attended congressional hearings, did volunteer political work, worked in Foggy Bottom, and delighted in roaming the streets.
We considered ourselves Washingtonians and were proud of it.
Even after our first child was born, and I began commuting the opposite way to work part time in Fairfax County, we continued to make frequent trips to D.C. There were so many wonderful (and often free) things to do with a child that my out-of-town friends got tired of hearing what a wonderful place Washington was to bring up children.
I still laughed at people who were afraid to go into D.C. and looked down my nose at suburbanites of Fairfax County who spent their weekends at Hechinger's shopping for the latest fix-it projects. I found that many of the students I taught rarely, if ever, went into the city (except to drink), and that those whose parents were part of the white flight of the '60s saw it as enemy territory.
Then it was time, finally, to buy a house. We opted for a new section in Fairfax County. With both of us working and the prospect of another child, we did not want to invest extra time in redoing an old house, and we couldn't afford anything close in that did not need major work.
So out to Burke (where?) we went, trading our proximity to D.C. for a new home and community.
My husband was now spending 1 1/2 hours every weekday commuting and, understandably, did not want to make the drive again on weekends. Amy found plenty of friends in the neighborhood and no longer needed to be entertained on weekends, nor wanted to visit the museums that had fascinated her at 2.
More and more often an idea in town that interested us (if we noticed it at all), was rejected on grounds of inconvenience. It was easier to stay home, and there was the lawn to do and the wallpaper to hang. Without realizing it, we had abdicated our identities as Washingtonians; we had become Suburbanites.
And so the recent proposed trip to the children's museum seemed like a journey to another country -- which in a way it way. Yes, it would have been easier to stay home. But not much.
With the highway nearly empty, the trip took less than half an hour. The baby never noticed his meal was late and ate contentedly while we watched the show. There was no trouble parking and certainly no threat to our safety.
I was reminded that being among people of different races and languages and backgrounds is not threatening; it is what is best about the city for me, and what I want my children to understand.
I came home to my suburb feeling reawakened and grateful to have been reminded of the riches of Washington that lie so close for the taking. Inconvenient? Inaccessible? Unfriendly? No.
I'm a Washingtonian again -- I'm glad to be home. And Suburanitis is not going to get us again.