02.28.07 Friends and Foes
Who are you anyway? A hopeful iconoclast forging a more playful model of maturity, or a pathetic lost soul clinging desperately to fast-fading freedoms?
And here you thought you just had a thing for cupcakes.
We rejuveniles are a polarizing bunch. Defenders proclaim the benefits of cultivating childlike tastes into adulthood, casting their critics as hopelessly stodgy sticks-in-the-mud. Traditionalists counter that adulthood is about coming to grips with sacrifice, hard work and seriousness.
Such debate makes up a big part of Rejuvenile, but I’ve been surprised at how vitriolic the discussion has become in the eight months since publication. Maybe it’s the war overseas, or Bush, or the chilly weather – in any case, a slew of red-hot, pull-up-your-bootstraps adults has appeared to circle the wagons and declare with phlegmatic ferocity that rejuveniles pose a real and present danger against all that is good and proper.
Hands down the most hard-core Harrumphing Codger to join the debate is Ingrid Schlueter, host of the syndicated radio program “Crosstalk.” She’s been on a tear about rejuveniles since the book appeared, writing last summer that my account of adults wearing footie pajamas and playing video games has convinced her that “what this country needs is a really major economic crash, the kind where people are on the sidewalk selling pencils and their children have nothing to eat.”
Ms. Schlueter devoted a recent hour-long program to the phenomenon (audio archive here), proclaiming her horror at today’s “cult of youth” and noting its terrifying signifiers: middle-aged women who wear lowrider jeans (“revolting!”), religious leaders who declare a love for surfing, parents who share the same taste in music as their kids and, perhaps most distressingly, men who’ve forgotten the stoic heroism of traditional masculinity (Exhibit A: a reality show contestant who wept upon being booted from a dance program. “And he was wearing a leotard!” she said. “I would hope a real man wouldn’t go to a dance audition. It’s time to grow up.”)
Canadian journalist Kevin Libin is similarly hung up on “manliness,” though he’s infinitely more reasonable and eloquent, noting that “the centuries-old archetype of the master of the house… which has been the Western cultural tradition from Herod to Heathcliff Huxtable, is eagerly being cast off to make way for ‘alternadads.’” A column in yesterday’s National Post (sub required) includes a nice mini profile of a 36-year-old emergency room doctor who loves video games and comics and sees no reason why these enthusiasms make him a bad father. Mr. Libin trots out Codger mouthpiece Frank Furedi to give him the bad news: he’s just not a real man. “As manly authority declines, it’s not replaced by an alternative male authority,” Furedi says. “It’s replaced by ambiguity, where you try to basically resolve the problem by, instead of being a role model to your son or daughter, you try to be their best friend.”
I spoke to Mr. Libin last week and had a chance to weigh in on the charge that rejuevenile dads are sissy men too weak to be the sort of heroic figures that nature intended. And while my response didn’t make it into print (I’m quoted bashing my beatnik parents instead—sorry mom!), it’s worth repeating that I for one am only too glad that the Herod/Heathcliff Huxtable model of fatherhood is giving way to one that allows for more fun, flexibility and connection. As likeminded author and goofy dad Neal Pollack points out, it’s not as if playful dads don’t know what their primary job is – we all understand that we’re here to shelter, protect and provide. But why does that mean we’re prohibited from enjoying the same stuff our kids do? Why is it so hard for Mr. Libin or Ms. Shlueter to comprehend that one can be parent and pal, sometimes toggling uncomfortably between the two roles but often being both, in the same moment?
Fathers and their kids also get their due in a three-page review of Rejuvenile that appeared two weeks ago in the Weekly Standard (not online). It’s not the screed I was expecting from a neocon journal that is about as Harrumphing as they come; reviewer Susie Currie did a nice job recapping and even offers that book is “a fun read.” But she can’t contain her superiority over the rejuveniles described in the book, asking forgiveness for “thinking that if some of these people were any shallower, they’d be the Sahara.” She takes particular offense at remarks in book by Rebecca Flaugh, the 28-year-old childless travel agent who told me she never understood her father’s “death march” of responsible adulthood. By modeling her own life in terms of self-actualization over self-sacrifice, Flaugh “made my skin crawl,” Currie writes.
No doubt some rejuveniles need to grow up and get a grip on the particular demands of their adult lives. But the vast majority of people I met while working on the book were like the emergency room doctor with the video game habit – that is, productive and responsible adults who choose to spend their off-hours doing stuff their parents might find ridiculous. To them, adulthood isn’t just about fighting for one’s share in a cruel and unforgiving world. It’s about picking responsibilities carefully, taking care of family and self and having some fun along the way. As I say in the book, they are unimpressed with the virtues of hardship – to them, suffering is vastly overrated.
Happily, rejuvenile coverage of late hasn’t all been of the grumpy variety. Writer Whit Honea (keeper of this very funny blog) contributed a nice review to the busy site Dadcentric, calling the book “a comprehensive study of what makes this a movement and not just a load of shit.” Northeastern University student Jeff Miranda just published a thorough and sympathetic story on the phenomenon in his college paper. And similarly thoughtful stories have appeared in last few weeks in the Omaha World Herald and the Toledo Blade… proving that rejuveniles might get a bad rap in the Weekly Standard, but they love us in Toledo.