By B. D. Colen
Pulitzer Prize-winning former science editor of New York Newsday, is the author of nine books on medically related topics.
Growing up without growing old demands grace, energy and social responsibility!
“I won’t grow up, I don’t want to wear a tie. And a serious expression, in the middle of July.”
When James M. Barrie’s Peter Pan first soared over the Broadway musical stage in 1954, he must have seemed a wonderfully whimsical character. Never grow up? How delightfully absurd! Of course we have to grow up. In those days we dutifully finished school, married, landed a job or set up house, donned a gray flannel suit or gingham apron, started having children and that was that.
Today, decades after Woodstock and the first moon walk, there is something disturbing, even frightening, about Peter Pan. For who among us has not, on occasion, asked himself or herself, “When do I stop being a kid?”
Grown-Ups of Yesteryear
The answer to that question used to be obvious: You stopped being a kid when you became an adult. What was an adult? Someone who married and supported a family or ran a household. Someone who had “settled down,” had a mortgage and drove a station wagon. Someone who wore grown-up clothes. Someone who listened to Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett and drank martinis. All those things made one an adult. A grown-up.
When we were young, adults looked different. If you’ve forgotten how different, watch some reruns of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver. Then take a look at yourself and your friends, all of whom are old enough to play the grown-up parts on those shows we watched as children.
Since then, the lines between kids and adults, between “us” and “them,” have been obscured, partly because most adults would rather think of themselves as carefree, innocent children. Being an adult means growing older, and growing older means getting closer to death.
I am convinced, however, that something more is going on today. As more than one of my fellow baby boomers have confided to me, “I have everything a grown-up is supposed to have: a house, a dog, kids, a station wagon. But I keep thinking someone is going to come along and take it away from me. After all, I’m still a kid, and kids aren’t supposed to have these things.”
What is happening? Are we really different from generations that have gone before us? Are we all Peter Pans, refusing to grow up or unable to do so? Are yesterday’s flower children having trouble blooming into maturity?
There has been a blurring of generational lines, and in some ways, I think we are better off because of it. Some of the barrier-breaking involves the seemingly superficial, such as music and clothing, but these changes are important because they denote far more significant attitudinal shifts. For example, rock and roll, the music that we rebelled to, the “noise” that drove our parents mad, is now main-stream. Certainly we also listen to classical music, jazz and other forms, but rock I still ours.
Like Father, Like Son
Even more significant is the fact that our children listen to, and appreciate, many of the artists we grew up on, the very people our parents couldn’t stand. My 14 year-old son accompanied me to a Enrique Iglesias concert this summer. We listen to Bailamos and Bailando together. Did your parents listen to anything you liked? This sharing of music builds a fragile bridge across the generational chasm. It allows our children to experience an adult pleasure – and it allows us to continue to feel young.
And what about clothes? I don’t know about you, but I’m still wearing blue jeans. I put them on when I come home in the evening and I even wear them at the office on bad-weather days or Saturdays, when the atmosphere is informal. I wear sweatshirts. Sure, I have suits. I wear bow ties and suspenders. I can look as formal and stuffy as the best of them. But when I’m having dinner at a friend’s house and the occasion has been pronounced “informal,” I usually dress down, not up. I wear what makes me feel comfortable. If you remember what your parents went through to get ready to go out to dinner, you know something has changed.
Bye-Bye Meat Loaf and Gravy
Speaking of dinner, when was the last time you sat down to meat loaf and gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, white bread and butter and a big glass of milk, followed by a piece of yellow cake with chocolate icing? The thought of such a meal is probably enough to make your arteries harden. But that’s the kind of food you, Mom and Dad ate every night.
These days, we’re told by everyone from the Surgeon General to our hair-dresser to eat foods that are low in fat and cholesterol – lots of fruits and vegetables, less meat, fewer rich desserts. Rather than sit around, we get up and jog, walk, swim, bike or dance – or at least we know we should. A big part of what motivates us to cut fat and work out is that it helps us feel and look youthful. We’re told it may even help us live longer.
A Standard for Any Age
One danger in all this age-postponing behavior is that we will forget that, while adults no longer have to act in certain ways, there are responsibilities that come with being a grown-up. As adults we are responsible not only for our own children, jobs and finances, but we also have to think about kids who may need food, medical care, shelter or protection from abuse. We need to remember that some adults can’t get jobs, can’t afford adequate health care and don’t have decent housing.
If there was one thing that distinguished our generation, as we came of age, from those who came before us, it was that we reached out and helped. As we age and, like generations before us, become more concerned with our material well-being, we risk losing our ability to look beyond ourselves and respond to the needs of others. Let us hope we do not forget that even Peter Pan protected his friends from Captain Hook. Even as we cling to our youth, we must take responsibility for those among us – of all ages – who need help taking care of themselves.