The Dawn of Friends-With-Better-Lives Anxiety

Better Lives Anxiety

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When I was growing up, my parents insisted I didn’t ogle at what others had or gawk at what they didn’t. For most of my early childhood, we lived in a nice apartment in Bayside, Queens (hometown to civic beacons Ron Jeremy and Jordan Belfort), among a solidly lower-to-upper-middle-class community (when there were such distinctions). I had friends whose dads eked out blue-collar livings so they could all afford modest dwelling in a crowded residential building. I knew other kids who, like me, were lucky enough to have a tiny bedroom all their own in a relatively private three-family house.

When we moved to Long Island the summer I turned nine, that landscape shifted both literally and sociologically. In Bayside, having driveway space to dock my mom’s late ‘70s Pontiac was affluence. In Syosset, pulling up in her vintage Grand Prix was akin to Daniel LaRusso jumpstarting his mom’s hooptie. Kids there played catch on their lawns, not stickball in parking lots.

For my folks, the onus was obvious. Gone was the Grand Prix, and in was the Toyota Camry. Out were the previous owners’ dated interior decorations and in came aerodynamic furniture and warm papering. And so on, until our new neighbors could barely sniff out our idiosyncrasies.

In retrospect, what seemed like rapid, resourceful assimilation took root when my aunt made the direct, startling leap from her and my mother’s native Brooklyn to L.I. roughly two decades prior. When the first flock member leaves, it sets years of comparison living in motion. My mother bade her time, then made her own move.

My wife and I realized our private preference was something others took quite personally, as if we’d just laid down a lifestyle gauntlet.

Now, one wedding and a child of my own later, I understand. But after graduating college, I moved−much to my family’s puzzlement−to the very Brooklyn they’d spent a lifetime putting at bridge’s length. It was the early 2000s, and many of us descended there like one big extended family seeking asylum from their suburban legacy. Then one of two things happened: People fully denounced their privilege in pursuit of the creative; or did their best at fitting in amid this suspended-adulthood artist’s enclave until marrying someone who was cool with residing in a culturally quaint suburb 40 minutes away. Fate led me down the latter road.

What I didn’t anticipate was our move being tantamount to a privately held company going public. Until then, whatever anyone our age earned or saved did little to chip away at the obscene expense of daily life in NYC. The great draw of being young, hopeful and on your own in New York (or any buzzing urban hub, I’d imagine) was the thrill of feeling insecure.

Declaring upwardly mobile intentions was, unexpectedly, isolating and scary. Friends were surprisingly direct in their skepticism, concerned that we’d be settling down too soon. My wife and I realized our private preference was something others took quite personally, as if we’d just laid down a lifestyle gauntlet. The collective naïve energy that fueled my friends and me had evolved into something more neurotic and self-absorbed.

We became each other’s best gauge for how our happy-living formulas were working out. It reflected on all our choices to that point.

Truth was, those friends weren’t wrong. I’d return to the boroughs and visit people, stay at their apartments and miss my new house. I’d drive home the following mornings and practically hold my breath until seeing the mountains and Hudson River, then finally exhale. We’d get visitors who were grateful for our hospitality but seemed bemused by our quaint relocation. We were all still peers, but proximity had redefined us, making us proud and defensive.

Somewhat stubbornly, I’d concluded that I made my choice, and accepted it. I went to other houses occupied by other couples and kids who barbecued and played on lawns. I tried to re-adapt but only felt more alien. Spending weekends with old post-collegiate friends who’d gone through the same process, I noticed that we shared less obvious parallels than before.

The real crisis wasn’t one of class but that’d we suddenly lacked a buffer between the present and its counterpart. We became each other’s best gauge for how our happy-living formulas were working out. It reflected on all our choices to that point and was almost unbearable in its vulnerability.

But it’s OK, or getting closer. These early adulthood bonds are necessarily unburdened by our individual backgrounds. It’s like a college campus with more freedom to self-explore. Any grading or assessments come later. And apart from tragic acts of God and other uncontrollable circumstances, I can only speak for myself and anyone I came of age with when I say we’re all embarrassingly fortunate−except for those who don’t have driveways.

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