The Magazine

Aging Peter Pans

You'd be surprised by the number of Americans who 'won't grow up.'

Feb 5, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 20 • By SUSIE POWELL CURRIE
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Kickball, Cartoons, Cupcakes,

and the Reinvention of the American Grownup

by Christopher Noxon

Crown, 288 pp., $23.95

The week I began reading Rejuvenile, a local skateboarder was killed by a car. He was 42. After a moment of silence, it might occur to you to wonder: Just what was he doing cavorting around on four wheels when he could have been behind one? Christopher Noxon may have the answer.

The Los Angeles father of three coined the term "rejuvenile" to describe someone who cultivates the tastes and mindsets of a much younger person. After coming to terms with his own rejuvenile tendencies, which run to cartoons and kickball, he set out to find like-minded souls. He did, in droves: People with graduate degrees playing marbles, video games, and Duck Duck Goose. Those who collect Legos, Barbies, and trading cards as well as a paycheck. Adults with drivers' licenses who love skateboards, skipping, and stickball.

"I came to think of the border between adulthood and childhood as a Cold War checkpoint," he writes, "once spotlit and armed, now unguarded and porous"--an apt analogy, as kids now run toward the door marked Adults Only as fast as their elders are doubling back. (That ground, well-trodden by other writers, is not covered here.)

Noxon asserts that this seismic sociological shift looks as if it's here to stay, and he offers some jaw-dropping statistics as proof. The most watched cable station among 18-to-34 year olds isn't CNN--it's CN, as in Cartoon Network. Americans spend more than $600 billion a year on recreation. Although we're only around 4.5 percent of the world's population, we buy 45 percent of the world's toys. And half of adult visitors to Disneyworld come without kids.

Elsewhere, Noxon names the original triumvirate of rejuveniles: J.M. Barrie, Hans Christian Andersen, and Lewis Carroll, born Charles Dodgson, none of whose lives had a storybook ending. But their hold on the public never approached the viselike grip that Walt Disney continues to have. The Magic Kingdom looms so large in the rejuvenile pantheon that it gets its own chapter.

Long thought of as a kids' paradise, Disney's worlds attract grownups by the thousands, and not just for Space Mountain. Fairy Tale Weddings enables actual brides in Cinderella-blue gowns to arrive at the castle in a glass coach pulled by miniature white ponies. (The author leaves us guessing at what the grooms know about all this and when they knew it.) And hey look, there's Groomsman Mickey in the wedding album!

The world of Disnoids--those who visit the park several times a week, or even daily--is a compelling place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there. Consider the childless (oops, child free) Ohio couple in their forties who have annual season passes not only to the two stateside Disney wonderlands, but also Tokyo Disney and Euro Disney near Paris, and they spend at least a weekend a month at one of the parks. The wife is president of the 130-member Arielholics Anonymous, named for Disney's Little Mermaid, and her home is a shrine to the fictional redhead. For some, it seems, golden pins have replaced the golden calf: "I am now complete," asserted the husband, after dropping $100 on a rare Ariel pin.

But Disney addicts, it turns out, are just one of the species in the genus Rejuvenile. Others we meet are the Playalong Parent, for whom playing is an integral part of parenting; the Boom erangs, who share a roof with the 'rents while attending pajama parties with friends from junior high; and a curious category of those who forgo having children so they can spend more time acting like them. Take (please) the married Nevada man who quit his job at IBM to spend more time with his video games and action figures. Now, he's in front of a computer up to 16 hours a day playing various complex games and publishing strategy guides for them.

"If I had kids, I'd have to compete with them for all my toys," he explains.

So is this a bad thing? "It's worth noting what we've lost in the process (fedoras were spiffy; civility is always nice)," Noxon admits, "but there's no denying how much freedom adults have gained." St. Augustine defined freedom as the ability to choose the good; now it's the ability to spend your entire paycheck on paintball supplies. But, asserts the author, people playing with toys their peers outgrew, oh, sometime during the Reagan administration is "certainly not a harbinger of the downfall of Western civilization. In its freest forms, it can even approach the profound."