The play's the thing

Erika Schickel is the author of the forthcoming "You're Not the Boss of Me."

I am a rejuvenile. A dodge-ball-playing, Hula-Hooping, SpongeBob-watching, Lucky Charms-eating adult. So is Christopher Noxon. In fact, he's textbook: male, Caucasian, affluent (or at least, in possession of some discretionary scratch). He'd be easy to spot on the playground, chasing his kids in his high-top sneakers, dripping ice cream on his concert T-shirt.

Noxon's first book, "Rejuvenile: Kickball, Cartoons, Cupcakes, and the Reinvention of the American Grown-up," is an attempt to get inside this growing demographic. "The label 'rejuvenile,' " he suggests, "isn't meant to be entirely celebratory, or for that matter pejorative. It's value-neutral." Rejuveniles are "a new breed of adult, identified by a determination to remain playful, energetic, and flexible in the face of adult responsibilities."

Rejuvenilia is a recent phenomenon. Once upon a time, people were in a hurry to grow up. For much of human history, children were regarded as wretched little vipers or "filthy bundles of original sin." In the Middle Ages, Noxon reports, infanticide was a common, even (at times) legal practice, and infant mortality rates were high. Toys were few -- not that children had much time to play. "Children as young as six were hustled off to work in eighteenth-century England," he writes. "A sixteen-year-old ... boy who today would be lucky to find work as a fry cook had, as recently as 1750, all the rights and responsibilities of a full-grown man.... American common law of Colonial times held that girls were fit for marriage at the age of seven."

The Industrial Revolution changed all that. People moved to cities, and the labor movement helped regulate working hours, which set the stage for the concept of free time. Early rejuvies like J.M. Barrie, Hans Christian Andersen and Edward Lear broke childhood wide open, creating worlds where absurdity, play and imagination were prized and suddenly in fashion among adults. Toy manufacturing (and advertising) began in earnest. Childhood as a concept was born.

Even as late as the 1970s, coming of age meant giving up childish things in favor of responsibilities: family, mortgage, steady job. But as marriages collapsed and the economy became less predictable, a new generation decided that grown-up life was just a grind. Now, "Rejuvenile" tells us, a "growing mass of adults are surveying the prospects of maturity, pivoting on their heels, and announcing, simply, 'Not me. No way, no how.' "

For Noxon, the current surge in rejuvenilia represents a kind of "no-duh" response to a perfect storm of cultural and historical influences. The economy makes first-time home buying difficult, if not impossible. The job market rewards those with the most flexibility and imagination, setting up work spaces that encourage play. Contraception allows people to delay parenthood until they're ready. Increased mobility discourages settling down. Then there's all that post-Sept. 11/bird flu/global warming/crashing stock market anxiety from which play offers an escape. It's a wonder anyone grows up at all.

Of course, there are the super-duper party poopers, naysayers who call rejuvenilia "a crisis in maturity." Robert Bly claims in "The Sibling Society" that we have become a culture of "half-adults built on technology and affluence." If, such critics worry, everyone is goofing off, watching Teletubbies and collecting lip gloss, then "who will be left to get things done, ponder complicated questions, and clean up the mess?"

Noxon, however, has his own term for Bly and his ilk: Harrumphing Codgers. "We figure, with characteristic simplicity," he writes, "that the world is big enough to contain all sorts of adults, some sober-minded and civilized, some not so much." Simplistic maybe, but Noxon's game isn't hardball. He's lobbing out a pink spaldeen of logic, hitting the curb squarely so we won't have to search the messy gutter, where we might find a more complicated truth -- a society so addicted to instant gratification and magical thinking that it's going bankrupt paying for today's fun and games.

To be fair, Noxon dutifully concedes that today's adults might be engaging in fantasy at the expense of logic. "[T]rue rationality," he acknowledges, "is rarer than ever, cultivated by an elite of engineers and academics while the rest of us splash around in an ever-widening pool of mumbo-jumbo." Could it be that by indulging ourselves in endless play we are effectively handing the parenting roles over to Harrumphing Codgers like Dick Cheney or Hillary Rodham Clinton, who set the house rules while we romp? Certainly, our society seems stuck in an ongoing loop of acquisition, in which we are encouraged to keep buying toys rather than focus on the many grown-up problems in the world.

Yet rather than dwell on this, Noxon, in true rejuvie form, declares that "the rejuvenile impulse" is in the end "an adaptive strategy. It might well be that in the twenty-first century the wisest and most efficient people are the most rejuvenile."

The real goody prize in the Cracker Jack box of play, Noxon suggests, is the access it gives us to "the superconcentrated mental state" known as flow. "People in flow -- musicians, surgeons, chess players, and especially, children at play -- lose all sense of space and time," he notes, "by focusing their attention on a succession of difficult but doable challenges."

Play, in other words, becomes a strategy for slowing down, leaving us little choice but "to pay attention and react only to what's in front of us, just as we did as kids." In the process, "we discover another, closely related quality of childhood that we covet as adults: their experience of time."

Ultimately, this is the whole idea -- that rejuvenilia may be the only way for grown-ups to wrangle with the greased pig of time. "We want," Noxon writes, "to find some relief from the anxiety of the future tense. It's as if our lives are birthday cakes, with each year represented by one slice. When we're kids, the pieces are huge. But as we grow up and keep slicing, the pieces get smaller and smaller. We know there's no going back, that we're incapable of returning to the child's-eye perception of time.... We can't help it, though. We want the big piece." And why not? "Americans can now expect to live a full thirty years longer than they could in 1900, and in an era when reaching the one-hundred-year mark is not unreasonable, why settle down at eighteen or twenty-one?"

So next time you see us out there flying a kite or roller skating or blowing bubbles, don't judge us, you Harrumphing Codgers. We're not simply being silly and self-indulgent. No, as Noxon illustrates, rejuvenilia is "something else: a ridiculous skipping frontside ollie cat leap toward an essential mystery of life that adults have for too long been discouraged from exploring."

So there. *

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