Twenty-one years ago, Bret Easton Ellis hit a collective chord (at least for my generation) with his novel, Less Than Zero. It begins: “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” A follow-up check-in on the state of intimacy amongst twenty-somethings twenty years hence might be that people are now simply terrified to merge.
A book about alienation and emptiness in the context of glitzy LA, Less Than Zero was the west coast bookend to Bright Lights Big City—Jay McInerney’s look at the coke-infused emptiness of the New York scene in the 80’s. I lived in New York, and partied at the same clubs as the scene set in Bright Lights, and when it came out in ’84 all my friends read it, and we all wished we had written it because all we’d have had to do was take notes on our lives.
I moved to LA in ’88 and Less than Zero came out in ’89, but the scene in LA was so bizarre and elusive, almost unreal, that I never felt the insider, although I recall underground clubs and dancing to Art of Noise and Jesus and Mary Chain and never really knowing where I was, or how all these cool kids got to be so cool—it took a while longer to realize just how miserable most of them actually were.
All these years later, I’ve gone from a guy chatting with Mickey Rourke at Area—a guy “on the list,” or at least with a guy on the list, a guy married to a super-model always on the list—to a guy sitting at the island in his Studio City kitchen on a Saturday night writing a parenting blog (and, BTW, feeling much more gratified).
But now that I’ve gone from would-be hipster to Mr. Rogers (or maybe toward Carl Rogers, a psychology hero of kindness and realness), I have my worries about the “kids these days.”
I know that I didn’t grow up inside a Norman Rockwell painting, but when I talk to young people about their first images of sexuality, typically it’s seeing really nasty porn on the computer. I think that sort of thing would have completely freaked me out when I was a kid, and I think it would have taken away the rich inner life, including erotic life, that one develops when the imagination must be employed.
It’s sort of why I think that Jane Eyre is an erotically charged book, because of her non-overt-hotness and her inner passion, because of all the long-unrequited build-up with Rochester. I know that women typically respond more to that sort of thing, but I have found in my clinical work that men are often secretly desperate to be desired and they too yearn for something not just obvious or conventional, but for a love that they can trust and feel safely anchored within. It’s just that in our porned and commercialized world much of the erotic has waned along with the rampant waxing. Ask most porn consumers what they truly seek in their long hours of misguided searching for the anima in all the wrong places and they will tell you that they look for the girl who does not look like a porn actress, but like a “real person.” Of course the fact that the actual girl next door, unless she’s got “issues,” is not going to pursue a career in porn, further confuses young men about what women actually want (as opposed to what they pretend to like and want in porn) and it confuses women about who they have to be in order to attract male attention.
I have my sources, and what I learn from them is that “kids” eighteen to twenty-five are truly terrified to merge. They often are doing so much drinking and assorted drugs, just to be able to “hook up,” that they scarcely remember what happened much of the time. And they all tend to believe the hype of their too-cool-for-school peers, and thus each suffers in the private hell of feeling like they’re not really sexy enough, fun enough, desirable enough.
This is especially true of privileged kids, many of whose parents were the partiers of those 80’s alienated days. Our faded debauchery and rampant phoniness makes it hard to cultivate authenticity, and thus the capacity for true intimacy, in turn setting little or no example about how to keep it real and connect.
The kids I get to know, and through them the kids I hear about, are really good kids—it’s just that they are so pressure-cooked toward achievement, excellence and carefully cultivated ennui that they feel even more like impostors than we did (and before us good old Holden Caulfield with his disdain for “phonies”).
Like every debauched party scene, from Gatsby to Paris Hilton, we tend to romanticize the scene even as the chroniclers give us car accidents, over-doses and trips to rehab. A party scene is like a hot club behind the velvet rope—if you turn the lights up and take the drugs away it’s just a stinky stained carpet and a sticky bar, a cash casino where the house always wins.
Further to my musings on mushrooms, I’ve been wondering about how much our parenting generation (from the thirty-somethings through the fifty-somethings) has relied on distraction, whether drinking and drugs, to spending or simply frenetic running from place to place to get us through—and if that hasn’t modeled a sort of global distractibility and anxiety that leaves our kids struggling to know what to do with themselves if the screens go dark.
It amazes me that a young person will say that they were “talking with someone,” when what they meant was that they were texting. My point is not to lament the sorry state of connection in today’s youth, but rather to encourage us parents to take a hard look at our own capacity for merger, and perhaps divest of some of the misguided behavioral and attitudinal acquisitions we gathered along the way.
In my view we are all already connected, it’s the denial of this that throws up defenses of endless self-improvement (ever trying to become good enough to be loved, or to hedge against our fears of being dropped as we age out of fabulous youthfulness). Whatever small steps we can take to extend the free and easy authenticity that we seem to be able to cultivate in this blogosphere and carry it over into our relationships with face-to-face humans, especially our family and friends, just might be a kindness for our kids as well.
As I’ve mentioned before, if we want kids to do things like work hard, be authentic and connect with us and with others, not only do we have to lead by example, but like Tom Sawyer painting that fence, we have to make it look fun.