Among the Strivers

As we clop across the Northeastern United States – Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, I feel as if I have stepped out of a time machine into a future I neither understand nor like very much. People’s motives here don’t make sense to me. The stress, the pressure they are willing to live under. Their anti-depressants. Their attack reflexes. Why? Why would people choose to live like this? Why would they do this their children?

The land itself is physically beautiful beyond measure, at least in May. Green and pleasant with little Grandfather Frog ponds sprinkled through the leafy woods and woodchucks scurrying across the road. And the Strivers get to live here. Is that why they make such sacrifice?

Reminds me of that Bob Marley song:”Think you’re in heaven, but you living in hell.”

Thursday we said goodbye to our home on Rhode Island’s south coast – how delightful it looked as we drove away – the wisteria and rhododendrons were in bloom by our cottage’s front porch. We traveled just a few miles before we stopped to admire the Pawcatuck River flowing sleepily toward the Atlantic a few miles away. Just the place to bring your best girl or your bride for a picnic. Or for a young man to gaze moodily into the flow and dash his cigarette dramatically into the passing waters.

But something about the South Coast doesn’t feel like home for a Pondering Pig. It’s a flat land, mainly about its beautiful beaches and the vacation industry they generate, plus some little sixties subdivisions without charm hidden away off Matunuck Schoolhouse Road. The schoolhouse, though, was gone these many years. Lots of water everywhere – sparkling little ponds and nameless streams dapple the landscape – and ducks and geese and blue herons and fisher cats and foxes make their homes hidden from men.

As we crossed into Connecticut we kept to a line north of the big coastal cities of New London, New Haven and Bridgeport, and south of the big central city of Hartford. These are the engines of prosperity that make the rest of the state so green and polished and civilized. The interstates run right through these cities and we have only seen them from the windows of racing auto machines. I’m sorry we missed them though. I love cities, but now we are heading on.

We traveled through miles of leafy green spring woods – so much wild space for a swath of land between great cities. The road just winding quietly along, then a little village, once we happened upon a pizza-grinder joint and its sudden glimpse of another hidden world of guys in trucks driving to carpentry and roofing jobs. But mostly the woods, a crossroads, then the road continuing its windy way west.

We crossed the Connecticut River by ferry. Towards New Haven the woods began to be replaced by trim, clean lined suburban homes from the Seventies and Eighties – each on a big lot with a big lawn and flowers and no one inside but the dog. The winding lanes became surburban “drives” swirling in and out of each other. I had to take out my GPS unit and take a bead on our destination in New Jersey to keep us from wandering forever in circles like travelers lost in the woods.

And all those beautiful modern homes for miles and miles and miles cost between half a million and a million dollars each. I just don’t understand the economic model. How do the children and young marrieds and one wage earner families make a start here? Yet my bright memory of those districts is the sight of a woman standing in the tawny dusk holding a hose and watering her garden, lost in a dream of contentment.

We passed through Wallingford, north of New Haven, which looked exactly like my idea of heaven. Everything I know about heaven, or about the way the world is supposed to be – comes the books I read as a child – and here it was. Wallingford, CT. Just clopping though it in our gypsy cart, not knowing a soul here or anything about their lives of delight or desparation – the town looked like a big relief. Finally – home again. Solid. Victorian. Trim. A dependable town of bricks and quaint shops. On the main street three teenage girls came out of the dressmaker’s shop, squeeking excitedly. It made me happy to see them.

We turned onto the road leading west out of town and passed the great Victorians where the doctor and the mayor and the Magnificent Ambersons had lived and they were all perfectly restored by people who, like Patrushka and me, love old houses and love to live in them. I think maybe those teenage girls were wearing long white dresses and carrying parasols.

I’m writing this on the deck of my daughter’s house in Hunterdon County, New Jersey. I’m not really sure how the people of Connecticut live, but here in Hunterdon County, the emerald paradisical land is filled with strivers. I hear the roar of their SUVs driven too fast for these little country roads beginning at 5:30 AM as their drivers race into the dawn, to what corporate headquarters to fight what marketing wars?

Here you can find great 50,000 square foot country palaces, suburban castles built last year on cornfields and great estates cobbled together from eighteenth century farmsteads and greystone outbuildings. And again it is beautiful beyond belief here in May.

Last night at dinner Jenny’s husband Dave told about a run-in at the supermarket. He had spied an empty shopping card in an aisle and put his hands upon it. He was immediately attacked by a woman brimming with anger and outrage and high blood pressure. “I would like to continue to push my cart please!” So tense, so ready to attack at the slightest provocation – what a price to pay to live in these beautiuful surroundings.

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4 thoughts on “Among the Strivers

  1. Maybe I’m missing the point your making, but I have trouble with this blog entry. I can’t figure out how to say it politely, so I’ll just say it- the entry seems hypocritical to me.You claim: “People’s motives here don’t make sense to me. The stress, the pressure they are willing to live under. Their anti-depressants. Their attack reflexes. Why? Why would people choose to live like this? Why would they do this their children?” and “what a price to pay to live in these beautiuful surroundings.” Yet you were also willing to pay that price and live that life for many years. So I think you know the answer to these questions you ask in confusion. For my part, I am appreciative that you chose to live there, although I’m sorry it was such a high price on your mental health at the time, because it was a wonderful and beautiful place to grow up in.I believe the answer to your questions, at least for our family, although you feign confusion in this blog entry, is being able to afford things like putting a very nice roof over your family’s head, to afford music lessons for the kids, to live near good schools, etc. It’s not a life you or I choose now, but our family certainly lived it and there were many benefits to it.And I think yet, although now a wandering pondering pig, that in your heart you still have striver in you. I think it’s part of being American and having the American Dream. The life you live now, and the house you are searching for, are the fruits from when you were an active striver- I really can’t see you as being happy living in a rundown neighborhood or in a cinderblock multiplex apartment building. Yet that would be a roof over your head, all you really need to survive. You’ve made it very clear you don’t want to live in a subdivision, or a steel mill town, or numerous other types of places. There has to be a college or university, quaint shops, a vibrant intellectual community, etc. What most of the places you don’t want to live in have in common is that they are blue-collar working class types of places. The things you are looking for in a place to live come when there big money strivers around. The woman who supports a family by housekeeping at a motel or the man who’s primary income comes from being the gas station attendant has neither the time nor money to frequent tea rooms.Likewise, regarding “the “strivers'” $500k-1m houses. Sure we didn’t live in one of those that you’re referring to, nor were housing costs as high in the 80’s, but your architectural tastes are those of a striver just the same- those who built our lovely Colonial home were most definitely strivers, just of a different century- it was certainly one of the mansions of the street. You didn’t choose to have us live in one of the little row houses across the street. Likewise all of the Victorians you love so much are the homes of strivers both in the past when they were built and in the present- you said it yourself in this blog- “…and passed the great Victorians where the doctor and the mayor and the Magnificent Ambersons had lived and they were all perfectly restored by people who, like Patrushka and me, love old houses and love to live in them.” The doctor? the mayor? the Magnificent Andersons? Strivers all. Put this next to the Spokane entry with the comment “and indeed you can get a lot of house for $150K – much less than on either coast.” which, maybe I’m wrong, but to me sounds like you are looking for somewhere where you can still get a striver type house, but just on your $150k budget. There is nothing wrong with this per se, just admit that by being so choosy as to where you will live, wanting “a whole lot of house”, preferably old and a Victorian, in the type of neighborhood where you think you would feel comfortable as a ponderering pig, you still have the tastes and wants from when your paycheck and corporate-crazy job put you well into the ranks of the strivers you write about with confusion.Gotta keep ya honest ya know.With love.


  2. Ah Leonard,I appreciate your comment, and think you are probably correct about many of your observations. However, I stand by my blog comment. The comments you make are based on the Pondering Pig you are familiar with today, not the Corporate Executive of the past who had little time for pondering. Stress, sadness and depression were very much in control in our house. Dad’s comment “The stress, the pressure they are willing to live under. Their anti-depressants. Their attack reflexes. Why? Why would people choose to live like this? Why would they do this their children?” and “what a price to pay to live in these beautiuful surroundings” is a very accurate description of those CE years, maybe minus the “attack reflexes” part. I meant it when I said he also “paid that price”. Hence, the hypocrisy of saying “People’s motives here don’t make sense to me.” It wasn’t until I was already in my twenties, that dad’s viewpoint on life changed. But make no mistake, our family was a striver family.


  3. Hi Chronicler. I must admit that I’ve been mulling your comment and am not sure what to make of it. I didn’t do well in music theory, and as you’ve probably noticed I’m a straightforward type of gal, so I lost you in the analogy in the second and third paragraphs. However, I think you might be onto something about some of it being an introspective. If the second sentence of the blog were changed to read “I feel as if I have stepped out of a time machine into the past, to a time in my life I neither understood nor liked very much” then the entire mood of the blog would be changed, and the second paragraph could be read as the answer to the question in the first. And the third paragraph about the Marley song could be a commentary about his life at the time. Hmmmm. Hee hee, dad, I feel like I’m writing an english paper. Care to help me analyze the text at hand?


  4. Leonard. I hit a nerve I see. Sorry about that. I thought I was careful to point out that I was writing about the past, and that he is not now the man he was then, and that I appreciate that I was able to live where I did and do the things I was able to do because of the money he earned. What I didn’t like was the way it sounded that he was being critical of people who are currently doing what he had done, and making the sacrifices he made, without letting the reader know that he had been there and was making the comments based on his own experience of having been there, and is still enjoying fruits, as well as scars, of having been there. I hope things between you and your son work out well soon.


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