Live Through This

Getting Over the Suburban Teenage Wasteland Blues

You’re surrounded by gold. GOLD WE SAY.

Illustration by Cynthia

A hometown can be cozy and warm and all those good feelings, or it’s the place you hate the most. Here, Hazel and I have a deep conversation about appreciating the suburbs, angst, and the beauty of humanity. —Tavi




TAVI: SWEET. First of all, why is it so easy and natural to hate your hometown? What do you think, Whoopi? (I am Joy.)

HAZEL: For many teens, it’s where they’ve been most of their lives.

TAVI: With classmates and family members they’ve known their whole life.

HAZEL: Yeah, they’re stuck with the same people. The place gets boring.
So, in suburbia or in a small hometown that you’ve been in, it’s understandable that most teens would be like “UGH GOTTA GET OUT OF THIS TOWN.” And because teenagers love to exaggerate EVERYTHING, ALL of the time (haha), suburbia and hometowns sort of become, like, THE DEPTHS OF HELL.

TAVI: It’s like what Damian Kulash said when he did Ask a Grown Man—everything is exaggerated when you’re a teenager. And being a teenager means changing all the time, and you start to hate parts of that you used to be before you’re able to find them funny, so that past part of you is ALL AROUND YOU in your hometown. Like I hate going to this one Starbucks because we went there all the time in middle school because we thought we were really adult or something. So it’s like, constant reminders of when you sucked. Or, also, constant reminders of stuff from when you were little—playgrounds and parks and things—and that makes you sad, or it makes me sad, at least.

HAZEL: I have places like that, too. At first I loved my suburban New Jersey hometown, and loved going to Starbucks and hanging out at the mall. Then it was sort of like, “That’s sooo uncool omg” and the hatred and criticism set in. But now, all of those moments and memories are funny. Like you said, you start to hate parts of who you used to be, but eventually they’re just hilarious. That’s where I am now.

TAVI: Yes! And, disclaimer: I am lucky to be from a suburb that is not Stepford. People are pretty ~artsy~ and “politically enlightened,” accepting of people of all kinds, etc. Plus, I actually get to leave this place a lot. My dislike for where I live is the teen exaggeration stuff. It’s important to make the distinction, because some towns do actually suck a lot. For that, we have a great article this month by Sady!

HAZEL: A big part of my former hatred for my hometown was the fact that I really, really wanted to live in a city. I thought I belonged in a city and that if I lived in an artistic and creative urban environment my life would just be the coolest ever and it would make me into this artsier, cooler person. But one of the reasons I love my hometown and suburbia is that I live in a place that’s NOT spilling over with creativity and artsiness. I think that kind of environment inspires people to be even more creative. Being bored with the place you live requires you to seek out the things your town is missing—making suburbia a place that truly fosters creativity! Yay! Not to mention that living in a place that isn’t a fast-paced cultural mecca allows people to create things on their own, less influenced by other people’s work than if they were forced to confront that work every day. Therefore: a town that is lacking in creativity and artistic support will produce the most interesting and talented people!

TAVI: It gives you something to rebel against, if you think everything else is boring! Sometimes I’m worried I won’t be able to function in college because I won’t be able to hate it like I do with high school… Anyway, you have your whole life to live in a city, but experiencing suburbia as a place that can be both really comforting and funny/weird/awful is something you can only do NOW, while you’re growing up there.

HAZEL: To love suburbia you have to appreciate how weird people are.

TAVI: Or how normal people are! Normal people are secretly weird too. You have to look for it.

HAZEL: You have to learn to laugh at everything around you. If you don’t, you will go crazy. It’s easy to get upset and confused and maybe terrified when that girl in your botany class thinks a brown bear is an amphibian. But instead of screaming “I MUST LEAVE THIS TOWN!” I tried to laugh at the fact that that whole episode even existed. I mean, a brown bear? This is comedic gold, this place you’re living in. Soak it all in, take in every moment. Your life will never be this tortured and strange.

TAVI: We had Mole Day in chemistry and this guy meant to write “mole-ster” on his T-shirt (his project was a T-shirt), like “Friendster”? And he wrote MOLESTER without realizing. Like, what?

HAZEL: OMG that reminds me of Tobias Fünke’s analrapist.

TAVI: AHHHHHH! I guess people are weird in the Big Apple too or whatever, but I don’t know, something about suburbia is funnier to me. I think people go to New York TO BE weird, so there are no secrets, you don’t have to look for it.

HAZEL: Every person out here is strange in their own way. Especially in high school, public high school in suburbia. I think in public school you get a broader mix of people, so I’m interacting on a daily basis with all different personalities. I feel different from everyone, but they’re funny! It’s basically like the freak-show section of an olde-timey circus. It’s like, why wouldn’t you want to see the bearded lady? But my bearded lady is that nervous teenager playing DDR for the school talent show.

TAVI: Oh my god. That happened?

HAZEL: HAHA yes, in middle school though. I actually respect him a lot, now that I think about it. He was pretty good. I can’t believe they let him do it.

TAVI: I love this person, whoever he is. I used to have such resentment for people like that, but I honestly credit Ghost World for showing me how amazing it actually is. COMEDIC GOLD, as you say. Like, if you read that book or watch the movie, Enid and Rebecca are constantly like, “THAT SATANIST COUPLE IS SO AMAZING.” Also, April from Parks and Recreation. I love Daria, but I think she takes it a little too far. A cartoon character can get away with being that cynical, but in real life, insulting everyone around you (e.g., me in middle school) is just a dick thing to do. The difference is that Enid secretly LOVES the stupidity of people around her, or at least has a sense of humor about it, whereas Daria takes it seriously and never gets over it. Daniel Clowes, who wrote Ghost World, put it really well in this interview on McSweeneys: “Perhaps [critics] found Enid too judgmental. Also, she’s a part of a leisure class, and her problems are hardly matters of life and death, yet she still complains about every little detail. To me, Enid tries to create an interesting life out of a potentially dull existence by uncovering—or actually manufacturing—the strangeness beneath this seemingly sterile world. I find that heroic.”

HAZEL: Enid and Rebecca taught me as well to be able to appreciate the weirdness. It’s important to pursue the interesting and weird people you see. Every suburban no-name town has them, it’s not like that only happens in movies!

TAVI: High schoolers ESPECIALLY, because it’s before people grow up and learn how to be people, kind of.

HAZEL: I just pictured a training camp for people who are learning to be people, which sounds really entertaining. Then I realized, “Oh right, that’s high school,” and high school IS entertaining.

TAVI: It is. Not to be constantly self-referencing, but I have to have every piece on Rookie basically memorized so whatever—Alia Shawkat’s high school advice for us was to write down everything weird that happens at school, and I totally agree. PEOPLE ARE SO WEIRD AND FUNNY AND AMAZING. Again, self-referencing, but from Aubrey Plaza’s interview with us about April: “She doesn’t really hate everyone, she just has kind of an attitude problem—but secretly she really loves everyone.”

HAZEL: That’s one of the reasons I am actually really glad that I went to a public high school (omg it’s almost over for me aaagh). I love that I got to experience my school years with everyone, not just art kids. The dorks, the jocks, the goth kids, every kind of high school kid—not to generalize, but you know what I mean. Shawkat’s advice is golden, because all of that weird stuff will only get funnier and more amazing as the years go by. I wonder if we’ll miss high school when we’re older. I’m already missing it and I’m not even done with my senior year.

TAVI: It’s helpful to have that perspective that like, everything in high school will eventually be really funny. I learned that from reading a zine that came out a couple years ago that compiled people’s first-kiss stories. I submitted mine and the writing is so embarrassed and apologetic, and all the adults’ stories were so amused at themselves. That was kind of a learning moment.

HAZEL: Would you say that school is a second home for you? I was thinking about that today. I spend most of my time there, probably more time than I spend at home. It’s a giant dysfunctional family.

TAVI: Hmmmm. No, I mean, I spend a lot of time there, but it doesn’t feel like home. My second home would be…dang, I dunno. On a ~spiritual level~ California? But I, uh, spend most of my time at home. Oops. HOME IS WHEREVER I’M WITH YOU, HAZEL.

HAZEL: The internet is home. Haha omg noooo that would be the worst home ever.

TAVI: Oh god. L’OREAL IS HOME! (Buy our ad space.)


TAVI: Aesthetically speaking I think suburbia is kind of great too, for feeling like you’re in a movie or whatever. And I don’t even live, like I said, in a Stepford, where everything looks creepy perfect, or where everything looks old. But there are still parts of my town that are picket-fence-y. Or houses that haven’t been changed since the ’60s or ’70s. Along with people-watching, I love HOUSE watching. Every now and then there’s like someone with a lot of furniture in their backyard. And that’s my idea of fun, looking for those weird parts. And it’s great for taking photos, too! If you can seek out a weird church or alley or something. Getting into photography will make it way easier to see the place you live in as your little experiment, kind of. Autumn de Wilde’s post for us about finding a spot and isolating it was great, too.

HAZEL: I get so Rear Window on everyone who lives near me. Someone on Tumblr posted a photo of their suburban neighborhood out in Las Vegas. All of the houses looked the same and there wasn’t any grass, just desert, and the sky was really clear and I commented on it like “Wow this is so beautiful!” and they were like, “No it’s not, IT’S HORRIBLE!” I’m sort of jealous of people who live in the desert, because it’s such a different and exotic landscape to me. Everybody wants what they don’t have.

TAVI: THE GRASS IS ALWAYS GREENER ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE (white picket SUBURBIAN HOMETOWN) FENCE! But as much as suburbia is so-bad-it’s-good, I think parts of it can just be good-good, too. Like in the Wonder Years pilot, which, OK, was never about to win a Pulitzer Prize for its writing, it ends with the narrator saying, “Whenever some blowhard [TOBIAS YOU BLOWHARD] starts talking about the anonymity of the suburbs or the mindlessness of the TV generation…we know that inside each one of those identical boxes with its Dodge parked out front and its white bread on the table and its TV set glowing blue in the falling dusk, there were people with stories. There were families bound together with the pain and the struggle of love. There were moments that made us cry with laughter, and there were moments…of sorrow and wonder.” OK, that’s way more cheesy than I remembered, plus I am pretty sure none of us live in TV Suburb From the 1960s, but the sentiment is nice, I suppose.

HAZEL: It is a little cheesy, but it’s sweet. It’s easy to dismiss something or someone as boring, but if you look deeper you’re bound to find something interesting. The people might not be “bound by the pain and the struggle of love” (hehe), but there’s more to them than just “Oh, a family in the suburbs snoooooze.”

TAVI: Yeah! Some of those people could be HOARDERS! Or just genuinely nice people! But that nostalgia is kind of nice, and the simplicity. It’s not as much fun when you’re living in it though. And again, I know some people live in like, terrible closed-minded towns. So in those cases these are just ways to make it…suck less, I guess.

HAZEL: It’s really easy to be like “I hate it here!” and just give up on it. But that’s so stubborn! Not everything is going to be this American Beauty moment (like, seriously dude, that’s a trash bag) BUT dismissing your town as hell is labeling every single person and place in the town as being not worth your time. And maybe they are worth your time! Maybe you’ll love them! But you won’t know until you’re open-minded enough to explore it. I totally get the “fuck this town” attitude (I definitely had it for a long time), but I’ve learned that even though my town isn’t perfect, it can be pretty hilarious and interesting at times. I don’t think I would have realized it if I had just ignored everyone forever.

TAVI: I still think everyone has the right to the angst of hating living in a small town or suburb, and I know sometimes I don’t WANT to be optimistic about it, but hopefully this CONVO helps for when you do wanna be optimistic. And if that’s not enough for you, well, read Sady’s piece. And if that’s not enough for you, well, I’m sorry we have failed you.

HAZEL: We ruined your life. Rookie ruined your life. HA HA LOL OMG NAWT ♦


  • Fortune_Goddess December 22nd, 2011 3:27 PM

    I live in the ‘burbs, and I find it totally amazing! Well, I live in Cleveland, so it’s kinda artsy-fartsy already lol.

    • Mememeo December 23rd, 2011 10:13 AM

      I’ve met people – more specifically teenagers – from all over and most seem to have this “Fuck this place” attitude about their hometown – some want to move to cities, some want to move out of the city, some want to move to other countries… for me, it’s always just seemed like a natural teenage instinct to kind of hate you’ve spent most your life.

  • Molly Blues December 22nd, 2011 4:05 PM

    i think i’ll bring forward my moving to Canada after reading this, seriously u_u”

    i mean, if only i could live in some american/canadian suburb! i’m tired of our suburbs in Madrid, all full of boring and ugly blocks of flats

  • Freja December 22nd, 2011 4:11 PM

    Not to get all ‘everything is because of the internet!!!’, but I do think that it’s given us this magical Playschool-esque window that we can look through and see all this cool and exciting stuff going on. It seems like it’s happening all in one place, in the Not Here, as if everything is going on some place else. It’s easy to feel like you’re in the wrong place or the wrong time (hellooooo the vintage obsession!) so you end up resenting wherever you are and hoping to get out to find those cool places. Now that’s not to say that hometown hate didn’t happen before the internet, duh. But people had magazines and music and radio and books and TV and it all accumulated to give the same effect. Small town kids in the 70s listening to punk must have thought all the cool stuff was going on in London. Berlin’s swingjugen thought American jazz clubs were where it was at. Hell, anyone who read Kim by Rudyard Kipling at the turn of the century would have got some major wanderlust. I suppose that what I’m saying is that when you’re exposed to something that’s presented in a way that excites you and you don’t see it happening around you, you start to think that where you are sucks and any place or time that isn’t ‘here’ is better. The internet simply gives us a readily accessible medium for exploring the Not Here. I think Midnight In Paris does a really good way of explaining it in relation to longing for another period of time.

  • rhymeswithorange December 22nd, 2011 4:34 PM

    I think if there is one think I’ve learned from reading David Sedaris, it’s that anything can be laughed about, synthesized, made significant – written about. Thus, the suburbs is gold!
    Also, if anyone is able to produce something as sterling as Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, then they are definitely worth it.

  • sedgwick December 22nd, 2011 4:38 PM

    I live in the capital of Australia, which is Canberra (not Sydney, like ya foreigners think) but it is totally suburban. Sometimes I hate it, because it’s always trying to be cool, and there are all these indie people (canberra equivalent of an american hipster) and also Gangas (girls with ‘scene’ hair but it’s different, they just have a rep for being sluttish)
    It’s actually a pretty hilarious town. The city was deliberately built to be the Capital City, architecturally planned and stuff, before that it didn’t really exist. So it’s kind of like living in an OCD person’s brain. Everything is so neat, not at all sprawling and every building is lined up with something else somewhere. But then there are always parts where they couldn’t keep it neat, and stuff spills over, like all the emos and goths who hang out in the city and Fyshwick, which is the suburb where all the brothels and sex shops are. There are all these weird contradictions, and it’s all ‘local’ knowledge. hilarious.

    • Brit December 22nd, 2011 9:42 PM

      OHMYGOD. I went to Canberra last summer with some friends, and everything was so neat. It was insane.

      But I know what you mean with the whole indie thing. Everyone’s like “ooh I’m seww indie, look at my op-shopped jumper and high-waisted shorts. LOOK AT THEM. THRIVE IN MY INDIE-NESS. SEE HOW UNIQUE I AM” etc… it’s exactly the same in Perth. It’s like everyone is trying to be unique by not being mainstream but their idea of unique is mainstream? I don’t even know, mindfuck.

  • Heidy12 December 22nd, 2011 4:42 PM

    I really like this. It was very true !

  • fairy_grrrl December 22nd, 2011 5:23 PM

    This is so cool :D I live in Los Angeles so it’s hard for me to relate to this like the majority of teenagers but I think it’s good to be positive about where you live because even when things seem the most bleak, there are cool things to do everywhere even if it doesn’t seem like it.

    • Nomi December 22nd, 2011 6:26 PM

      agreed! ive always wanted to go to LA. I always like going to other big cities because no two cities are exactly the same. I also feel that theres gonna be like Brangelina’s brood hanging around on every street but I think people think that about NYC too and it’s not really true.

      • fairy_grrrl December 22nd, 2011 7:15 PM

        Hahaha yeah people seem to think that I should be seeing celebrities everywhere, when in reality I only see them occasionally. Although some of their kids have gone to the schools I attended/ have attended which sort of supports the stereotype.

  • Arwen December 22nd, 2011 5:23 PM

    Life in the suburbs……………

  • yourenotfunny December 22nd, 2011 6:06 PM

    I live in a little farm-y town and it sort of sucks how everything is so dull and trashy, but also sort of cool. And I also really identified with all the weirrd little characters and observations in Ghost World. STORY OF MY LIFE. Small towns sort of have their own mythos to them. There’s the old guy who dresses like a cowboy and steals kid’s bicycles to sell on his front porch, the people with all the crazy junk in their yards, all sorts of cool/creepy stuff.

  • Nomi December 22nd, 2011 6:23 PM

    Ive lived in NYC all my life, and I absolutely love it. Even as a native, theres sometimes (mostly at night) when you look around and it just takes your breath away. But I always sort of longed for a suburban lifestyle. I mean, you guys have a BACKYARD. My god. Think how lucky you are that you got to play outside BY YOURSELF at such an early age. I wasn’t allowed out of the house (well, building) by myself until I was maybe eleven. Also, there’s the fact that you get to drive everywhere, and the whole atmosphere is just so great. But really, every place to live has its magic points. Just…remember to appreciate your backyard. And the fact that you don’t have to worry that the elevator will be broken and youll have to walk up five flights of stairs to get home.

    • I.ila December 23rd, 2011 7:57 PM

      I know what ya mean. I feel sorta awkward when all the rookie people talk about artsy cool little towns. The weird thing is that I feel like NYC kids don’t know what goes on anywhere else. We are sort of in a bubble. But, you like driving everywhere? I love that I can get on a bus and go wherever I want! And about stairs; I live on the top floor of a house, so to get to my room I have to walk up five flights of stairs EVERYDAY. Also, about SHSATS: AGREED!!! (I failed the first set of tests for HCCS :-)

  • Leerjet December 22nd, 2011 6:24 PM

    Rookie did not ruin my life, it has made it 1000x better.

  • Zayin December 22nd, 2011 7:12 PM

    And let’s not forget:

    A) People who don’t live in the suburbs–yes, some of your readers live in rural areas (like me!) (and grow to love them).

    B) People from other countries! This is the internets! We’re not all American! (I’m from Australia).

    C) If one’s OWN family happen to be the neighbourhood freaks (HOARDER family, over here!). Believe me, even that gets funny eventually! Hilarious. Grow up and you will be grateful for your hoarder family for giving you the best/most shocking stories to talk about at parties. Even though you secretly hoped to die as a teenager if any one found about the hoards of junk and excrement in your house.

  • annagracie December 22nd, 2011 7:38 PM

    Though I live in a city, I still feel like what you guys are talking about sometimes. Like, there are still places that I don’t like to go to because I don’t think they’re “cool” anymore, and I’m also surrounded by people who’ve known me my whole life, and I still feel like sometimes there’s nowhere to go and I’m in a sort-of box. So maybe it’s just a teenager thing.

    and also,
    YES ABOUT GETTING INTO HIGH SCHOOL! Here (in nyc) we have to apply and take tests and do interviews and write essays and make portfolios and it’s this whole thing. Not very fun.

  • Brit December 22nd, 2011 9:34 PM

    This reminds me of that song “The Suburbs” by Arcade Fire. I think mainly because of the title and the fact that I haven’t gotten around to figuring out what the song is about yet.
    Anyway, this is awesome. I agree with the photography thing. Photography makes you see things in a whole new light, just if you are taking photos of peoples houses/backyards, get out before the dog sees you.

    • WitchesRave December 23rd, 2011 3:18 PM

      You should watch the Spike Jones short film that was made to go with the film, it is I-N-C-R-E-D-I-B-L-E.

      • WitchesRave December 23rd, 2011 3:18 PM

        *go with the song

  • lilylaughs December 22nd, 2011 11:33 PM

    I can completely relate to the idea of wanting to live in the city. I live in the suburbs and I hate it, just because I’m not old enough to drive so I can’t go anywhere without begging for a ride or walking. Although I do like the idea that living in the suburbs (far away from urban art and stuff) inspires creativity…

  • rayano-banano December 23rd, 2011 6:41 AM

    I think what’s also important to remember is not focus too much on the surroundings and naively imagining a better future in another place (especially if it’s just based on pictures or movies).

    I know that’s how I felt after going to a much more liberal town for college and all my trips to NYC. It’s all widely entertaining and new, but the real changes, progress and fulfillment happens on your own with yourself, no matter where you are.

  • Motherfunker December 23rd, 2011 7:09 AM

    this piece totally brought to mind a film that I watched the other day called, fittingly enough, ‘The ‘Burbs’. It’s got Tom Hanks and he goes all creeper-y trying to discover his new neighbour’s secrets in the midst of suburbia. ooh.

  • Flower December 23rd, 2011 2:35 PM

    I live in a sprawling town by the sea in England. For most of my life I was used to moving every year or so, and then suddenly my family ended up living in one place for six years.
    For a long time I hated it. Most of the people are wayyyy to straight and boring, but then suddenly you find these gems of people.
    For the last year or so though, I’ve spent most of the time moving between home, London and a cottage in the absolute defenition of middle of nowhere, and suddenly I have gone from wanting to move every week to being like “GOD CAN WE NOT JUST STAY IN ONE PLACE FPR MORE THAN THREE SECONDS”.
    I guess its all about perspective.

  • Suzette December 23rd, 2011 3:04 PM

    Oh my god. So much comic sans on that Mole Day website.

  • WitchesRave December 23rd, 2011 3:17 PM

    I live in a pretty Stepford suburb in Dublin, Ireland (you heard me, it’s not all green fields and sheep here) and I despise it.

    What’s worse is that it’s the capital, the biggest city in the whole country, yet 90% of it is suburbia so if you have any desire to live in a big city and be engrossed by bustling city life, you’re gonna have to emmigrate.

  • Zsofi December 23rd, 2011 5:40 PM

    I know it’s like the least important part of this truly great article, but I actually find the analrapist joke hilarious!

  • Pashupati December 23rd, 2011 7:11 PM

    I’m not american and don’t hate my hometown so I’m not the intended reader, but I find that thing about LOL OMG TEENAGE EXAGGERATION alienating.
    Your emotions may be exaggerated, maybe volontarily maybe not, but please don’t extend that to every teenager everywhere and define my emotions for me/assume where these came from. That thing is so very cultural.
    Plus, like the article said, people living in a town since a long time without the right (or possibility if we talk about adults/teenagers with parents willing to go somewhere else or allow them to go somewhere else for some reason, though I’d guess it’s less of a bore not having the possibility if you know you have the right) to change places, it makes sense they’d be bored and nowadays adults under 25 would surely be too if you extended the majority to 25.
    In fact it gave me the feeling of being slapped in the face, so I didn’t read the rest, but I just read it in diagonal and, well, you don’t have to learn to be people, you are already, it’s not because people change that they weren’t people before, and you’re a person before entering/finishing high school.
    I find that article really weird somehow…

  • talia December 24th, 2011 6:10 PM

    reply to Pashupati:

    I do think that in a way, high school trains you to be a person, though. Yes, you are physically a person beforehand, but high school really teaches you the norms and social expectations of your society. It teaches you the way you’re supposed to understand things, what you’re supposed to be value, etc. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We need that sort of cultural education in order to be able to survive where we live, otherwise we’d be perpetual outsiders, which is no fun. So in the sense of learning to be a person within your own community, yes, high school does teach you that.

  • gogobionicgirl December 25th, 2011 8:22 PM

    or something great can come out like this

  • Narita December 30th, 2011 11:42 AM

    Due unfortunate circumstances, I’d live on an island. My parents moved to these depths of hell (Depths of hell in the North Sea, thank you) when I was 1, so I couldn’t rebel against it or whatever I would do if they came up with the idea now. And as a kid, I loved it. The sea, the beach, everything just a few miles away. I could walk to it if I wanted to. Nowadays (especcialy, my parents divorced and I went with my mom to the mainland and experienced that – I’m back since I’m 11, which is 3.5 years now) I hate it and I speak that loud. I was at a school on the island and the kids always treated me horrible, calling me names and locking me on the toilet for ‘looking like a guy’ (the fun part is, I don’t.) and that made me hate it even more. I’ll be gone here when I turn 16/18/graduate, and I can’t wait.