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The Life!
How will my kids turn out?


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John Derbyshire

There is a scene in Tom Wolfe’s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities where a young street punk named Lockwood has come to a New York City criminal court, accompanied by two of his friends, to face a hearing on a robbery charge. He stands slouched and sullen while the judge and attorneys argue about his case. Then he is released pending a decision on his plea bargain. He walks down the aisle of the courtroom on his way out.

When he passed the railing and saw his buddies getting up from the last bench, Lockwood began pimp-rolling. [Wolfe’s term for the hip-swinging gait affected by street punks.] Outta here! Back to… the Life! The three of them pimp-rolled out of the courtroom…

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This — the Life! — has been on my mind recently in the context of my own efforts at child-raising. Mine, and those of people I know — friends and relatives. I am telling stories out of school here, so the names, sexes, facts, and relationships are all scrambled to, I hope, a sufficient degree of randomness that no one can identify anyone.

Item. Jeff and Amy have a son, now 17. Jeff is a scientist of some repute, a brilliant man (according to his colleagues). Amy is not a professional, but she is literate and thoughtful. The boy did well in school up to four or five years ago. He did well on the middle-class extramural obstacle course, too: lacrosse, chess club, clarinet lessons. Then he took some kind of wrong turn and his peer relationships started to mean a lot more to him than school work, sports, music, or anything else. He didn’t want to do those things. He wanted to hang out with a bunch of teenage losers. Jeff and Amy, who are intelligent and resourceful people, tried everything; but the more they tried, the worse it got. In a fight over music practice, the boy actually smashed his clarinet to pieces against the fireplace. End of music practice. They took him for a long vacation abroad: halfway through, he insisted on returning home. His teachers say he has great ability, but just won’t work. Visiting with the family, we did not see him, only heard the thudding of rock music from the basement room where he lives. Amy: “We’ve totally given up. Just can’t wait for him to leave home.”

Item. Sam and Maria are both teachers — he college, she high school. Their home is full of books (which they have read). Sam is a good amateur musician — piano, guitar. They have a great collection of CDs, ranging from classical and opera to folk and soft rock. They have a wide circle of friends, mostly intellectual types, and socialize with them a lot. Maria is European, and they spend much of the summer with her family in Europe. That’s the environment in which they raised their only son: intellectual, cosmopolitan, bilingual, open-minded. TV was strictly rationed when the lad was growing up, homework carefully supervised. He couldn’t get the hang of school, though, and dropped out in his teens, after furious family fights. Now 20 years old, he lives in a rented apartment with a girl he’s not married to, in a seedy part of their hometown, and works as a bartender.

Item. Tom and Suzi’s oldest is now in her early teens. Always a cheerful, intelligent, and creative girl, she loves pop music and the latest movies — is in fact mildly stagestruck, and I think is dreaming of a career in showbiz. We had got accustomed to think of her as a model daughter, till recently my wife heard a long tale of woe from Suzi. Apparently she and her daughter are totally estranged. The girl regards Suzi with contempt for having given up any hope of a real career in order to devote all her time to raising the children. The daughter told Suzi bluntly that she doesn’t like her. All that Suzi could think of to say in reply was: “If you don’t like me, there’s nothing I can do about it. But as long as you live here, you’ll show me proper respect.”

Now, I know all the families concerned very well. None of the parents have been delinquent in any way I can see. They are all people like you and me: middle-class, reflective, hard-working, law-abiding, loving, and responsible towards their children. None of their marriages is messed up, so far as an outsider can judge. I can’t imagine that any of them is guilty of coldness, harshness, or cruelty in any way. Nor are any of them the kind that are over-obsessed with their own careers and concerns, making up for a lack of attention to their children by showering them with material goods. One of the families attends church every Sunday. Another belongs to a “model minority” well-known for academic success and filial piety. So… what happened with these kids? Why did they all, in various ways, go wrong?

The reason I am thinking about this a lot is that my own kids will soon be in that danger zone. Nellie is 10½, Ollie almost 8. Another three, four, five years, and we’ll be there. Is this going to happen to our family, too? I can’t think of any reason why it shouldn’t. I can’t think of anything our family has, or has done, that the above three families haven’t. In all the cases, in fact, I have often in the past found myself thinking guiltily that they are better parents than we are. So: Do I have an unmanageable kid in my future, too?

For all that I sympathize with the parents concerned, and for all the apprehensions I feel about Nellie and Ollie, I can see what the kids have in mind. They are, of course, ungrateful wretches who understand nothing about human affairs. How could they understand anything? They’re kids. They have it all to learn. The main point I think I understand, though, is what Tom Wolfe meant by “the Life!” I mean, I know what Wolfe is referring to. Don’t you? Don’t we all? The Life! is pop music and cool movies. The Life! is current slang and clothing fashions. The Life! is staying up late, going to parties, interacting with the opposite sex, doing things your parents have told you not to do, doing things that are slightly illegal, improper, or dangerous. The Life! is your buddies, the in-jokes you have among yourselves, the places where you hang out. The Life! is smoking and drinking, sometimes doing the milder kind of drugs.

The following things are not part of the Life!: books with no pictures, music more than ten years old, art other than comic strips, playing organized sports, parents, siblings, religion, school, politics, creative work with the hands, creative work with the mind, work in general, any academic pursuit, “early to bed, early to rise,” any uniformed service (police, military), chastity, self-restraint, discipline.

For a certain kind of person, the Life! exerts an irresistible gravitational pull. It probably exerts some pull on any healthy teenager. I remember being strongly attracted to it myself. I remember knowing the words of every song in the Top Twenty when I ought to have been memorizing Latin irregular verbs. I remember the excitement of my first cigarettes. I remember hanging out with my gang at the local park. I remember the thrill of committing small acts of vandalism. I remember when getting five minutes alone with a certain girl was far, far more important than preparing for a physics exam. I remember being baffled, frustrated, and amazed at how hopelessly, cluelessly, irredeemably wrong my parents were about absolutely everything. (Mark Twain is supposed to have said the following thing: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in just seven years.” Yep, I remember that, too.)

You may say that the appeal of the Life!, or the fact that so many kids can yield to that appeal, is a result of affluence — of the fact that teenagers nowadays are insulated from the need to work, study, and behave responsibly by a thick warm layer of money. I think that is at most only a part of the story. I grew up among people who didn’t have two nickels to rub together, but the Life! was there, and one or two of my peers succumbed to it. There are uniquely modern factors, of coursevlike the idealization of the “career woman” (see Item 3 above).

The big thing that I think is different today, though, and that works to pull more kids into the Life! than formerly, is the bohemianization of our culture, as documented by David Brooks and others. There have always been bohemians, but the odds against a bohemian enjoying any kind of success in life, much less social acceptance, were long until about 30 years ago. Now you can record songs whose “tune” consists of an amelodic thumping sound and whose “lyrics” include words that only carny barkers and merchant seamen used in 1960, and you will make millions of dollars, and get yourself a nice spread in Florida, and enjoy a three-month marriage with a screen goddess. When my parents asked me: “How do you think you will end up if you go on behaving like that?” I could never think of an answer. I suspect that if I try that line on my own kids, they will come back with: “Like Mick Jagger?”

It’s a fantasy, of course. Only a minuscule proportion of wayward adolescents will end up as rich as Mick Jagger. (Who, in any case, seems to have been quite a diligent teen — diligent enough, at any rate, to get into London’s best business school.) Most will end up in dead-end jobs like bartending. Some will find happiness that way — a bartender, if his personality is of a certain type, can be just as happy as a stockbroker. Many more, though, will regret their lost opportunities, and spend their twenties and thirties trying to make up for what they squandered in those irreplaceable teens. The suburban, conformist, lawn-tending, church-going lifestyle that seemed so intolerably stuffy and cramped when you were 14, can look strangely desirable at 34. Which is not actually very odd, since it is one of the best lifestyles — the most satisfying to the largest number of people — that the human race has yet come up with.

It doesn’t suit every adult, of course, and from the social-anthropological point of view, there is a case to be made for the Life! A world that consisted of nothing but bourgeois lawn-tenders would be very dull, and probably not very creative. (What, for example, would there be for Tom Wolfe to write about?) That’s an adult perception though, of the sort that should be kept carefully hidden from the young ones. What we have to do is push them and push them, nag them and encourage them, towards the bourgeois virtues, and hope to God we succeed. If we fail, to judge from what I’m seeing and hearing around me, we shall at least have plenty of friends and relatives to commiserate with.

[And novels to read. There is a modest genre of novels about middle-class parents with hopeless kids. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, Chang-rae Lee’s A Gesture Life, one of Updike’s whose title escapes me, and surely others I have forgotten or do not know.]



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