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."
However, that's not the first adjective that springs to mind when meeting most of his subjects. One 25-year-old New Yorker who enjoys Chuck E. Cheese outings, pigtails, coloring books, and stuffed animals says these all point towards a basic philosophy: "No matter what the world throws at me and how many times people disappoint me, I continue to believe that people are good and reliable until they prove otherwise," she explains, inadvertently revealing that she may have watched too many Miss America pageants as an actual child.
The author gamely tries to show both sides of the maturity debate, and claims that the rejuvenile label is intended to be "value neutral." But he tips his hand early on when he sneers at those from the "Harrumphing Codger School of Adulthood," i.e., people who look askance at adults behaving like children. (Among those he fingers as a Codger is Joseph Epstein, whose essay on "The Perpetual Adolescent" appeared in these pages.) Whereas some people might interpret joining an inner-child playgroup as a cry for help, he seems eager to see all but the most obvious slackers through Briar Rose-colored glasses.
Happily, his sympathies don't prevent him from occasionally telling The Rest of The Story. In 1999, one San Francisco woman quit her job in publishing to become a "professional skipper," a movement that, at its height, had "group skips" in 65 cities, he writes. At 35, though, she had mounting debts and no stable job, so she had to go get one. Skipping on sidewalks is one thing, skipping the car payment is another.
Noxon knows his lingo and freely shares it, which makes for a fun read. Kidult, Peterpandemonium, and adultescent are all names for this limbo-like state between adolescence and adulthood that many find (or put) themselves in. "Grays on trays" are snowboarding seniors, and urban hipsters play Parkour, which, for all you frozen-in-amber Codgers, is a daredevil sport that apparently blends the shenanigans of Spiderman and turn-of-the-century street urchins.
One quote from an anthropology professor is telling, and worth more exploration than Noxon gives it. "In most cultural contexts, play prepares children to move into adult roles," says Bryan Page of the University of Miami. "Now the whole thing has been reversed--play is now the primary thing and adult roles and working have become repulsive."
This is evident in the way several of these adultescents view their own parents, who outrageously modeled self-sacrifice rather than self-actualization. One woman who has "built her life around . . . board games, swing sets [and] amusement parks" remembers with disgust her truck-driving father's mantra: You do what you have to do. "His whole life was about providing and fitting a mold and marching on until it's over. It was really a death march. I never understood that," she told the author, presumably with a straight face.
"They seem unimpressed with the virtues of hardship," Noxon notes. "To them, suffering is vastly overrated"--and, he doesn't add, perhaps underexperienced. "Play, to the modern rejuvenile, is indeed the whole point of life."
If so, might we be forgiven for thinking that if some of these people were any shallower, they'd be the Sahara? I like Play-Doh as much as the next parent, and some of the stories made me smile at recognizing a kindred spirit (for me, it was the roller-coaster aficionado). More often, though, they made my skin crawl: The 33-year-old screenwriter who says her primary relationship is with a stuffed animal that dates from her college years; the 37-year-old Tinkerbell collector who says he spends 90 percent of his free time doing something Disney-related.
Creepiness sometimes spills over into other areas. One Hollywood toy collector, who claims Fred Flintstone and Herman Munster as role models, named his son Damien Hellion. He actively shuns the "adult" label, explaining, "I'm not responsible and I'm not going to be on time and I'm going to come home with chocolate cake on my shirt. I'm gonna miss my gas payments to buy a dirt bike."
"Any thinking rejuvenile," the author concludes, "can't help but wonder whether his or her dedication to play and love of kid stuff will at some point--if it hasn't already--morph from fun and free-spirited to just plain pathetic." That's a question more than a few of his subjects would do well to ponder.
Susie Currie is a writer in Maryland.