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Ducking the Shadows of Suburban Life

by Stacey Warde
When the jets come, they start out like the shrill distant whine of a child, or with the deep rumbling sound of thunder in the mountains.

Each jet crescendos into an elephantine wail that fills the sky and all the spaces below it: kitchens, patios, bathrooms, bedrooms—there’s no escape. The wail turns to a sudden roar above the house, rattling the Victorian redwood timbers of mom’s home.

Finally, as the planes pass, their roar fades into a distant rumble….

“Ch-eeze, mom, how can you stand it?” I shout, my ears still ringing from the blast.

“You get used to it after a while.” She smiles.

Mom lives under the flight path for commercial jets making their final descent into Orange County’s John Wayne Airport in California. Normal conversation stops each time an airline, or even smaller private aircraft, passes overhead.

It simply becomes ludicrous to try having a conversation.

We stop mid-sentence and watch the pterodactyl-like shadow of the thunderous wingspan glide ominously across trees, lawns, rooftops and asphalt city streets. The temptation is to duck.

We wait until the noisy interruption passes, and the lumbering jet—which seconds ago hung heavy in the sky and screeched above our heads—drops to its landing strip a few miles away, not far from the Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve.

Welcome to Orange County. Today’s weather is sunny, mild and….

For the unaccustomed, like me, the jets are a not-too-infrequent disturbance that rattles the nerves as well as timbers.

The pauses in our conversation occur not from lapse of words, or from natural silences, which I’m used to, but from the turbo scream of jet fuel blasting into the atmosphere overhead.

Indoors, we keep the TV remote handy so we can turn up the volume when necessary. “What’d he say?” I ask perturbed, my thumb fumbling to press the volume button as another jet passes.

“I didn’t hear.” Mom doesn’t seem to mind; she’s adjusted. She’s lived in this house almost 40 years.

Between planes, you can hear the hum of the surrounding freeways—impacted with more traffic than they can carry. They buzz in the distance as millions of worker bees drone along in their motor vehicles.

Where do they all go?

“There’s no way this is going to last,” I said to mom recently as we turned onto the crowded interstate. “There simply isn’t enough fuel to run all these vehicles.”

“I know it,” she responded. She surprised me because I expected some disagreement. There are plenty of people who live here, my uncle included, who think the U.S. has plenty of oil reserves to fuel our massively wasteful economy.

All we need to do is drill.

No matter how many times I’ve been here, no matter how familiar I am with this place, no matter that I grew up here, I still can’t get used to the noise, or the crowds or the nagging urge to always be rushing from one place to the next. I don’t want to get used to it. The sound barrier alone tests my tolerance level for insane, unhealthy living.

And somehow that’s what we’ve come to expect as “normal” in the U.S. We simply accept it, and adjust to it. It doesn’t matter how many of our friends and relatives have died from cancer. What can you do? This is how we live.

Yet, even though I grew up here, I can’t adjust to suburban life. Even the idea of suburbia doesn’t make sense to me.

I have difficulty with the lifestyle that assumes unlimited water, unlimited energy and unlimited wealth, a solidly conservative Orange County perspective that has helped make this place what it is.

Orange County, like much of suburban U.S.A., is a region of excess, a hyperactive hive of humanity built on the false hope that oil and other non-renewable energies like coal will last forever.

It’s a noisy power hub of business and industry where people drive themselves as hard as they drive their vehicles and their bargains.

Most Orange County residents seem blissfully ignorant of the enormous waste they leave in their paths. The impracticality of it is only now becoming evident for some who live here. Occasionally, you hear discussion of creating local economies and auto-less zones where people can walk in safety.

Beyond that, however, it’s mostly business as usual. The car, economic growth and consumerism dominate.

I left Orange County nearly 25 years ago to get away from the noise and traffic, to look for greener pastures, a more sensible lifestyle, and found them in one of California’s few remaining remote coastal beach towns, a haven from the shellshock of suburban living.

I’ve gotten used to riding my bicycle, shopping locally and avoiding the roar of jets and freeway traffic. I’ve learned to live small, and I like it.

I returned to Orange County recently to spend time with mom, who successfully had a cancer removed from her breast. I’ll stay until she’s finished with radiation treatments. The adjustment has been a huge shock. It’s a lifestyle that has become foreign to me, and one I don’t miss.

Yet, as mom says, this is the “real world,” where people work themselves to death, scrambling to make ends meet, pay their mortgages, and cover endless bills for cars, repairs and doctor’s visits.

Nearly everyone in my family has had a bout with cancer. I can’t say for sure that it has had anything to do with our suburban lifestyle, or the air and water quality, or the food we eat which, under the circumstances, are considered healthy.

But I can say it’s odd that nearly two out of every three people I know have had cancer of one form or another. It does suggest that our suburban-industrial lifestyle has failed us.

Mom and I recently toasted my late stepfather on what would have been their 42nd wedding anniversary, mom’s first without him. He died last August from kidney cancer. It’s been good to remember, grieve and celebrate.

My past flashes back to me, of course, as the days with mom turn into weeks, and I re-visit youthful haunts.

I long to return to my quiet sanctuary on the Central Coast, but I’ve also enjoyed reviewing those moments when this place was still my home, when Orange County still had row upon row of orange trees, and endless fields of harvest.

Mom says, “This will always be your home.”

“I know, mom. I know.”

Mom means well, but if it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t be here.

The thunderous rumble of another jetliner sounds in the distance; I brace for another pause in our conversation, and adjust to the rhythms of suburban life.
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