They don’t make suburbia like they used to. Not that I know anything. I grew up in the middle of a city where cul-de-sacs were something we looped around only when we visited cousins in smaller towns. We didn’t ride bikes past friends’ houses, and train tracks were for subway cars, not arms-out tightrope walking. I don’t know if they ever really made suburbia like the one I’ve long held in my head — the closer-to-country kind that ’80s and early ‘90s coming-of-age movies glorified, like Now and Then, The Outsiders, The Goonies, The Sandlot, Little Giants, Stand By Me. The towns were dustier. The pace was slower. The kids were scrappier.
At 28, I’ve adopted the mentality of a cantankerous old man who believes that nothing is as good as it was, even if it was kind of dark. Hard to shake, but for the sake of learning to live in the present because everyone calls that the path to sanity, I have tried. Kind of. Recently, my mind almost went completely unchanged by an op-ed in The New York Times called “Making Modern Toughness” where the author, David Brooks, asked us to not be too nostalgic about the chin-up grit of generations past.
“[I]f you hang around the middle aged,” he wrote, “you hear a common story line to explain the rise of the orchid generation. Once upon a time, the story line goes, kids were raised in a tough environment. They had to do hard manual chores around the house and they got in fights on the playground.”
He spoke of the toughness they accrued while working in factories and serving in the military — things that grandparents classify as “character building.” Perhaps a bit too briefly, he touched on alcohol as a common tough-kid-grown-up’s numbing mechanism.
His article’s overall point was greater than own my hindsight lament: don’t be so quick to dismiss the softer, more sensitive kids these days. Don’t romanticize defensive shells for their shiny armor alone. Admire toughness in the name of a cause, the noble reasoning behind why someone has her dukes up. Fight the good fight. Stand tall in the name of purpose. Ok, I agreed. I like that.
It was published shortly after my completion of the retro-sci-fi Netflix series Stranger Things: a show about a group of nerdy kids who risk their lives to save their friends. I thought about how there was no way I’d be brave enough to fight a monster let alone endure what the characters must go through emotionally. (And as someone who complains about millennials who can’t seem to buck up, what did that say about me?) It made me consider those scrappy suburban kids I so admired during my coming of age: the respective cinematic crews of Samantha Albertson, Ponyboy Curtis, Scottie Smalls, Becky O’Shea, Mikey Walsh and Gordie Lachance. They had their reasons for stiff upper lips. They had that and great names.
In sleepy towns they biked through day dreams of mysteries that only they could solve. They navigated lost lives and broken homes and won games for the sake of their distant parents’ approval. They all seemed to live within a three-block radius. While I distracted myself from the discomfort of growing pains-meets-your standard confusing adolescence, they distracted themselves from their disjointed realities with fist fights, first loves and porch kisses. It touched every emotion I ever had including the ones I thought no one else did. It prepped me for the ones to come well after increasing ages came and went.
I liked that these kids were brave. I liked knowing that meant I could be. I liked that they were outcasts who formed their own friend-based families. I liked that their lives were far from perfect, sugarcoated or animated. And I guess I liked all of that because when you watch kids figure it out (whatever it is) when you yourself are still a kid, it confirms that life is as you suspected: at once thrilling, strange and scary. That luck is tough, just like your heroes. That at the closing credits, as you’re wrapping up your narration over some excellent soundtrack, it’s a little sad despite the victory.
There’s a common catch once you finally grow up: sometimes you can’t tell if suburbia changed, people changed, the city changed or you did. But you do know that you’re tougher for it. That chin up or down, it ends up being okay, kid.
Feature photograph by New Line Cinema via Getty Images; carousel photograph by Nancy Moran/Sygma via Getty Images.