LET ME TELL you about a real nightmare. Let me tell you about a clammy neck at 4 a.m., about real self-doubt. You wake up on the eve of your 30th birthday, the only one in your circle of friends who lives in a suburb. Your cronies live on streets like Kalorama, or E. 67th. You live on Lakeside Oak Court -- in Northern Virginia. They lead state-of-the-art urban lives. You have two small children, drink domestic beer in cans and never once have eaten in a marvelous little Thai restaurant. You have a house full of coloring books, but not a single Dolby anything. You're choosy about your peanut butter, but you haven't been to a movie in months. And the last movie you did see, not counting "101 Dalmatians," wasn't playing at some chichi downtown revival house. It was at the Mall.
God help you. You are a baby boomer, but you somehow have failed to participate in the boom. That is terror, most particularly because it is no dream. Landon Y. Jones, author of Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation, says people like me "watched 'Ozzie and Harriet' and rejected the idea of being Ozzie and Harriet." Do you know what it is to contemplate that observation knowing full well that, in your basement closet, right next to the laundry room and workshop, hangs a cardigan sweater?
Let me tell you about humiliation. You are at a cocktail reception, sipping young chardonnay and nibbling at a p.at,e that closely resembles an abnormal tissue section. In a minor conversation with another guest, you are finally faced with the question: "What does your wife do?" You can't just blurt out the answer, which happens to include "lots of laundry and dishes." This is a sensitive area and you have to couch your response. You say, "she stays home with the kids." She is a housewife -- or, more to the point, only a housewife -- and the shame begins to clutch at you. You are humiliated not because your new acquaintance is judging your wife -- quit to be a full-time mother -- you are humiliated because this guy also is judging you. The awkward little silence that follows your answer is the silence of scorn. It says: "What kind of dinosaur keeps his wife at home? What kind of '80s professional is he? What do these people talk about -- the children?"
Then he gives you a furtive once-over, a head-to- toe check for an outward sign he figures he missed. You have the same cuffed wool trousers, the same hand-sewn moccasins, the same striped nylon watch band. There's no way for him to know by looking at you that 20 miles away, in your Harvest Gold refrigerator, in your aluminum-sided town house, in your earth-toned planned community, there sits a six-pack of Old Milwaukee and a big can of Juicy Juice. You wonder what he'd think if he knew the rest: When your wife went through her second labor she accepted anesthesia, and when she married you, she took your last name. Never mind; this man has heard enough.
Disgust gives way to a stabbing fearfulness -- the terror of having been blessed with choices in life, and having perhaps chosen incorrectly.
Let me tell you about ambivalence. When you get to questioning your own values, it makes no difference that you're generally quite content. Your breathing gets fast and shallow, and it occurs that some smug, condescending yuppie could be right, and you could be desperately wrong.
THERE'S a viewpoint that says Lakeside Oak Court, Burke Centre, Va., and I were made for each other, that a long commute was my destiny. After all, I grew up in the suburbs, Bala-Cynwyd, Pa., a world of station wagons and swing sets bordering the exotic, urban Gomorrah called Philadelphia. The city was a place of sour odors, blinking neon signs and locked station wagon doors at all times. The big, bad metropolis held its lure, all right, but its very attraction was its forbidding- ness. When I was 12 or so, friends and I would make daring excursions downtown via commuter train, excursions preceded by the ritualistic stuffing of the money into the sock, as if we were slipping
Even when I was an older teen-ager and would-be counterculturist, my suburban environment mocked my hippyness. Yes, I had long hair, tie- dyed undershirts and frayed bellbottoms -- and I knew every bar of "In-a-gadda-da- vida." But I also lived on Hollybrook Road and had my own room full of matching walnut furniture.
Hence the predestination theory: I would never gain urban redemption. From the day I entered this world, there was a mortgage with my name on it. I was born to eradicate Japanese beetles one bag at a time. It all sounds so plausible -- except that I had a lot of classmates in Bala-Cynwyd, and how many of them now must answer to a community architectural review board?
My circumstances weren't materially different from those of Ava Seave, single, who has an MBA and lives in New York. N of Ronny Sharpe, single, who is a lawyer and lives in New York. Nor of David Becker, childless, who has a lawyer wife, an MBA, one hot tub, and lives in Boulder, Colo. Let's face it: the evidence is I've plain screwed it up, and everybody seems to be telling me so.
U.S. News & World Report says, "When it comes to family life, the baby-boom generation is more likely to follow the script of 'Kramer vs Kramer' than 'Ozzie and Harriet.' "Much of the energy and optimism of the '60s seems to have been turned inward on lives, careers, apartments and dinners." And Daniel Yankelovich, the consumer researcher, says we boomers are 21 ways different from our parents. Their generation, he says, shared a Depression- bred "psychology of scarcity and sacrifice." Ours is preoccupied with self-expression, "celebrating those aspects of life deemed to be good in and of themselves rather than good for some practical, economic, utilitarian reason." Our parents lived on one income. We live on two. They lived in tract housing. We in tiny condos. We have advanced degrees, late-developing families, compulsive ambition, hunger for excitement and diversity and the relentless longing for self- gratification. Stability? Family life? Two cars? A mortgage? A Weber kettle in the back yard? Those, according to the news weeklies, are values and artifacts long since passed. A house in the suburbs? That's "Ozzie and Harriet" material. In 1985, a house is supposed to be in the city, in a regentrified neighborhood, reconstructed from a brick-and-mortar shell. Life is supposed to be like those Michelob Light commercials, the ones that say, "You can have it all," with beautiful young professionals agonizing over a computer printout in one shot and frolicking in the surf in the next -- a world of great jobs, great bodies (great teeth!) and great fun.
WE on Lakeside Oak Court, however, aren't part of that world. We find something missing from the beer commercial, though it's hard to say precisely what. And we are puzzled. Hey, we were there for the horror of the Cuban missile crisis; the optimism of the space shots; the trauma of the assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate and Iran; the extremist pragmatism of the Reagan administration. We were there, just like the yuppies. Yet, we don't own a computer or a food processor, much less a pasta maker. To the best of my knowledge, we have never seen an akita. And this is the most humiliating: We don't even have a VCR.
What we do have is clothing yellowed from baby spitup. We have lots of Smurf drinking glasses and a certain empathy for Mr.Snuffleupagus.
Complicating my anxiety -- actually, the very essence of my anxiety -- is that apart from seeming very different, my urban friends and I are very much the same. We idolized John Glenn together, choked on Pixie Stix together and watched "The Patty Duke Show" together. We read alike, we joke alike, at times we even vote alike -- yet when our workdays end we might as well be living on different planets. It's as though for many years we trudged in Robert Frost's wood and encountered the same fork in the road.
Bruce Carroll, a quintessentially upscale acquaintance of mine, took another path, the one marked DOWNTOWN. He and his wife live on Capitol Hill in Washington, and before that lived in New York's Greenwich Village and similarly gentrified sections of London and Toronto.
But now their daughter is 51/2, and Bruce says they are being drawn to the suburbs "by the inexorability of the school magnet." Their fear is of losing the stimulating environment of the living city -- a fear Bruce knows to be very real. He is executive vice president of Claritas Partners, whose PRIZM system categorizes consumer demographics and purchasing behavior by type of neighborhood. He knows that the suburbs will change them, make them more like the people around them, gradually deadening that urban verve. It's not that their minds will be numbed by some sinister suburban anesthetic. It's just that our lives are driven -- to a degree that is perhaps intellectually disturbing -- by where we can conveniently drive our cars. For instance, I am a bearded, left-leaning, newspaper- columnist Jew and my nextdoor neighbor Peter is a clean- shaven, right-leaning Catholic Navy officer. But we have very similar porch furniture, similar annual tabs at McDonald's and refrigerators the contents of which precisely match. It just happens: a suburban address yields a suburban life style -- but what makes you take that suburban address? Ah ha! Children.
That's what's missing from that beer commercial! I defy those beautiful, ambitious junior executives with the printouts and designer swimwear to claim they have it How would they know? Have they ever, say, written a magazine essay while a 4-year-old in the room rides with hellish fury on Clip-Clop the Wonderhorse?
Carla and I knew from the outset we wanted children. We have always been in love with the idea of children, yet we are constantly astonished at how the actual merchandise exceeds our boldest pre- parenthood expectations of joy and delight. Never mind the jelly stain on the crewel wing chair, we spend half our time together smiling at one another.
I suppose it's hard for the childless to understand the intensity of warmth attached to seeing your own child laugh and squeal. It's hard to describe the hilarity when, out of nowhere, your daughter volunteers, "I know, Daddy. When you die, you'll say, 'Here we go! I'm gonna die!' failing to play Bartok or Brubeck or Springsteen for months at a stretch? No, we like the Winnie the Pooh album -- roughly seven times a day. Do we yearn for theethereal automotive pleasures of a BMW 635CSI? No, not only is it easy to pack the family into our minivan, but we don't sweat the Cheerios and linty Rainbow Brite stickers all over the back seat. Yes, the suburbs make a big difference, but kids make a bigger one.
Being forced into the babysitter market, for example, removes any vestige of spontaneity from your social life; a trip to the 7-Eleven has to be planned weeks in advance. When you leave the house on a weekend night, you don't stray far and dare not stay out late. Vacations, when you can swing them, become a means of transporting the household, via cramped automobile, to a place where the children can do their picky eating in overpriced restaurants and where, by virtue of the alien environment, Mom and Dad must remain hyperalert. The relaxing trip is as relaxing as air traffic control.
But there are more subtle changes, too -- changes that not only differentiate us from the Micheb Light crowd, but thrust us into the very '50s life-style the demographers say we're so passionately trying to reject.
Bruce Carroll proves it with his PRIZM computers. Looking at the group of college-educated households with at least $35,000 in annual income and heads-of- household aged 25 to 40, he comes up with all sorts of purchasing-behavior differences between childless couples and those with children. The childless ones read Metropolitan Home, GQ and Food and Wine. The with-children households subscribe to Golf Digest, Country Living and Popular Mechanics. Without kids means jazz records, cognac, cruises and ski vacations. With kids means Christmas-club accounts, Tupperware parties, movie cameras and theme park visits.
This is all quantified with esoteric indices of measure against the general U.S. population, but no need to bathe in statistics. You get the idea.
Maybe having kids isn't the only reason we don't grind our own coffee beans every morning, but it's a big reason. And it has everything to do with our choice of housing, 22 miles from the nearest decent art gallery.
By any current standard of sophistication, our neighborhood is grossly undistinguished. Burke Centre is a totally planned community with a quasigovernmental structure based on rigid deed covenants. It lacks charm and character, unless you regard neofascism as charming and full of character. And surrounding us: house after earth-toned house, full of people who are no fun at parties.
Still, no neighbors could be more friendly and caring, and when something goes awry in one household, everybody else is tripping all over one another to help. There will be no armed robbery anywhere near Lakeside Oak Court this year. There will be no assaults or abductions. Except on the dreariest days, the children play loudly outside, en masse. They play on grass, not macadam, under casual supervision, not the fearful vigilance required in a city playground. Nobody is denying that there's an inner-city, two-income way to have kids. It's just from our perspective, it looks awkward, expensive and trying. Moreover, out here, there is one shopping center for every three inhabitants of the county.
And there are lots of us who see things this way. It turns out that I'm not the one who took the road less traveled after all. More than a few people think children are better off without the eclectic, electric charge of the city.
Claritas came up with 6.3 million households in our age-education-income category. Of them, only 1.4 million, or 22 percent, live in cities. Only 2.8 million, or 43.7 percent, are childless. Statistically speaking there is no reason for the entire class of the young, educated and affluent to be tarred by the "Y" word.
ALL THAT having been said, you'd think I'd be unequivocally satisfied with my cardigan persona. No such luck. Not so long ago I listened with some interest as a friend at work had a loud and animated phone conversation, the substance of which she subsequently shared with us: Her cleaning lady was threatening to quit in some dispute over the bathroom floor. At my desk, I sat full of silent disdain. At that precise moment, my infant daughter was being examined for a pre-malignant lesion of the scalp. It really was a routine medical matter, but nonetheless scary, and a perverse self-satisfaction bubbled within me. "Losing the maid?" I thought to myself. "Life really can be hell, can't it?" As if that were the only concern in my friend's life.
I complain about smug urbanites, but what's more smug and less attractive than a reaction like mine? You don't have to be Dr. Joyce Brothers to figure out that my own resentment and jealousy probably had something to do with my reaction.
Let me tell you about resentment. You are in your office listening quietly as your friends compare notes about their personal finances. They talk cash management accounts. Then, eventually, comes the killer question directed at you: "What do you concentrate on? Growth or yield?" And you think about your tidy little mortgage in the suburbs, where all your money goes, and answer, "Gee, I don't really know. I, for one, am highly leveraged in real estate." Everybody laughs. Ha ha. How dare they have discretionary income?
Sometimes the young, professional good life seems so close, yet so far. My job frequently takes me to New York where, after work, I join friends for an evening of play: good bars, good restaurants, good conversation about everything but the relative absorbency of Huggies and improved Pampers. Believe me, there is something basically liberating about a foray into the night life with no babysitter meter ticking.
Carla sometimes asks me, "Do you wish you were footloose so you could do that fun stuff all the time?"
I say, "Don't be silly. It's just a nice change of pace, that's all."
But the truth is there are times when, just for a moment or two, I wonder: What if I hadn't married at 22 and become a father at 26? Would I be more like my friend John, who has a rather handsome BMW and who last winter picked up and went to Club Med? Have I forfeited an important part of my development? Have I just plain missed out?
Then there is guilt. At night Carla and I finally set to talk. Sometimes it's about a New Yorker article. Usually, in fact, it is about the children. When the conversation swings around to our respective days, it becomes starkly clear who is building a career and who is doing the dusting.
Periodically, Carla will think out loud about her decision to stop working on her MBA, quit her job and have babies. And I'll say, "Whatever guilt and self-reproach you feel for not pursuing your career is nothing next to what you'd feel if your kids were spending the day with someone else." I'll say that because it is exactly true and Carla will nod. I'll tell her she's a wonderful mother because that also is true, and she'll protest on some technicality, then concede she probably is. By and large she shrugs off the fact that she's regarded as a non is served, though it amuses her when people discover she's a housewife "and look at me like I just fell out of the sky," she says.
"The people who make me angry," she tells me, "are the ones who call you at home and, when I answer the phone, they think, 'How could she possibly get the message right?' They won't even bother trying to explain anything to me. I feel like saying, "Get off your high horse, you jerk. I'm just as smart as you are."
In the midst of these late-night conversations, Carla sometimes will drift off in thought and so will I. I'll think about the pact we made when we left college: Whichever career took off first, that's the one we'd concentrate on. The other spouse would move, adjust, change jobs or careers as necessary. It was a pact I made in total good faith, perfectly prepared to be the ideal contemporary husband.
Well, society being what it is, the opportunities landed in my lap, mine was the career we pursued. In those pensive moments at bedtime, my mind always seizes on the big what-if: What if she'd gotten the better first job, the better breaks? Would I have had the resolve to make good my bargain? And even if I did, would I have felt as if I were making some sort of special sacrifice? These are not encouraging ruminations. They lead to still darker questions. Am I kidding myself? Could I be satisfied except as the single wage-earner? Are we Ozzie and Harriet because I wanted it that way, skewed it that way, manipulated it that way? Are the cocktail-party people right? The terror stabs. The breathing, so very shallow, quickens.
Funny thing about late at night. Everything is so amplified. If you're writing a love letter, it probably will look appallingly ardent and foolish come breakfast. If you have a throbbing toe, it will keep you tossing and turning, and maybe wondering if there's such a thing as toe cancer. If you lie awake, concerned that your pedestrian life style makes you an embarrassment to your generation, you're very likely to panic.
In the final analysis, while there may be some nagging dissatisfactions and comical ironies in a life such as mine, there doesn't seem to be any cause for shame.
Sure, I've succumbed to an '80s version of "the psychology of scarcity and sacrifice," but if it is regressive it certainly isn't evil. And, okay, I am missing out on compact disc players and shiitake mushrooms, but there's notht the fast lane.
I think of my friend John, who, when I twitted him about his yuppie BMW, cast a glance at my daughter Katie, then patted the roof of his car, saying, "This is my responsibility." Maybe I was hearing what I wanted to hear, but I thought I detected a note of longing in his voice.
As for whatever Machiavellian machinations I did or did not engineer, the fact is we are happy. As I negotiate our front walk coming home from work each night, taking care not to trip over a tricycle or smudge colored-chalk art on the concrete, I fully understand the notion of the end justifying the means. Casting my ambivalence aside, I go into the house, to enjoy what every 30-year- old professional should experience at least once: a rousing game of Candyland.