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.
01.19.07 All Grown Up (and Unmarried)
It’s just a data point, but as stats go, this one’s a doozy: “51% of women are now living without a spouse.” So sayeth the headline of a piece in Monday’s New York Times now prompting much hand-wringing over the changing makeup of the American family.
This increase in unmarrieds may be just an uptick – the number was 49% six years ago – but it’s being greeted as a terrifying sign of social collapse among the conservative-minded – indeed, it signals a terrifying tipping point in the ever-descending path of the American family. It’s a Phyllis Schlafly nightmare: faithful wives outnumbered by swinging single gals, cohabitating girlfriends and merry widows.
So, you may well ask, what’s all this got to do with cupcakes and kickball and other childish leisure pursuits? Here’s what: beyond the demographic shifts at work in this story (increasing co-habitation, longer lifespans, declining rates of remarriage after divorce or death), it seems to me there’s a more primary force driving the change: the reinvention of the American grown-up. As I discuss in chapter 5 of Rejuvenile, marriage was, as recently as the mid-1960s, the single defining right of passage into adulthood. Getting married meant moving out on your own, having sex, starting a family, the lot. Today, of course, we’re free to sample all those freedoms outside marriage. Weddings are still important, of course, but today they’re less announcements of maturity than party-down pageants (exhibit A: Disney’s Fairy Tale Weddings).
Times columnist David Brooks chimed in yesterday, arguing that the real problem is that marriage is too important – in essence, that women are afraid to get married because it signals an end rather than a beginning. His solution? To persuade people that marriage is “less a state of sacred bliss, and more a social machine.” One can only imagine a young Mr. Brooks approaching his beloved, bending down one knee, and uttering the sage advice from his own column: “Accompanied with the right instruction manual, (marriage) can be useful for achieving practical ends.” Oh, swoon!
My own sense is we’re not, as Brooks suggests, witnessing the disintegration of the American family. Rather we’re seeing the continuing evolution of what it means to be an adult. What was once rigidly understood in terms of familial relationships is now tailor-made, up-for-grabs, loosey-goosey. The increasing number of unmarried women are not, by and large, stunted. They’re not suffering from arrested development – many in fact are working mothers who go to great lengths to care for their kids, partners and themselves. They are, in short, grown ups – just not the sort observers like Brooks want them so very much to be.
07.07.06 Someone Needs a Nap
I suppose it was inevitable that Rejuvenile would stir up some righteous indignation in the crankier corners of our wide and fractious land.
Well the pot’s been stirred, friends.
Meet Ingrid Schlueter, back-to-basics Christian and capital-A angry adult.
A blog entry I posted last summer on the glories of adult kickball elicited the following response from Ms. Schlueter, producer and co-host of a radio program out of Milwaukee, WI called “Crosstalk”:
Ms. Schlueter went on to comment further on her blog, taking a break from her usual survey of how the modern world is infecting the modern church (among her concerns: church-based Starbucks, “laughing” ministries and yoga) to take further aim at Rejuvenile, saying I am “promoting the newly defined adulthood that means you really never ever have to grow up.”
Well golly. I suspected the book might elicit some anger from traditional family advocates, but back-to-basics Christians? How is it that I keep getting mixed up with this crowd? (See this story for a primer on my last adventure among aggrieved Christians)… It’s just so bizarre. How so? Let me count the ways.
1) Ms. Schlueter wants to vomit? Like actually upchuck? As icky as this sounds, the same sort of reflexive physical revulsion is common among many social critics featured in the book – from Robert Bly on the left to Marcel Dansei on the right. It’s a largely emotional, reactionary response – something about adults wearing fuzzy pajamas or eating red velvet cupcakes simply offends them to the core. And while I’m as creeped out as the next guy by grown men in superhero Underoos, I do think it’s worth asking: why exactly do we find this stuff so objectionable? Some of this stuff is dumb, beneath our capacities, infantilizing, all that. But some of it is just silly. Could it be that they get us riled up not because of their inherent vileness but because they’re simply out of step with mostly arbitrary cultural age norms we’ve never really taken a hard look at? As ridiculous as this stuff may often appear, might there be some value in hanging on to some things that has always given us pleasure?
2) Do our children really need to go hungry and sell pencils on the street for Ms. Schlueter to be happy? As loony as this sounds, her call for economic collapse as a mass exercise in maturity reveals a crucial difference between traditional adults and rejuveniles. In the traditional view, adulthood is a deadly serious, pull-up-your-bootstraps trial endured by the strong and avoided by the feeble. Rejuveniles act out an opposite view, behaving as if adulthood is not only about meeting obligations and doing your duty but also about learning new things and having more fun. To them, suffering is vastly overrated.
3) No, there’s not a lot of pacifier-sucking going on in Iraq these days. (There is, however, a kickball team - go figure.) There’s also a whole lot of childishness, from the magical thinking of our swashbuckling leaders to the pathological rigidity of our enemies. It’s a horror show on all counts, and one that I have no illusions will be solved by anything to do with SpongeBob.
I suppose I should be glad that Ms. Schlueter saw fit to call Rejuvenile “horrifyingly accurate” and “a book that defines the modern church.” And while I’m clearly sympathetic to many of the people I write about, it deserves repeating that Rejuvenile isn’t meant to be entirely celebratory. We’re talking about a broad range of people. Some are lost souls burying themselves in childish stuff to escape complicated adult realities. But many more are adults who juggle adult responsibilities, ponder tough questions and still maintain a core essence of childlike play.
I wouldn’t dare enter a Biblical debate with the likes of Ms. Schlueter, but I seem to recall something from my parochial school days about “unless we become as a little child we could not see nor enter the kingdom of God”? On this point, Jesus and rejuveniles agree wholeheartedly.