Grown-ups say the darndest things

Posted: Jun 26, 2006 12:01 AM

Privacy ain't what it used to be. Civil libertarians rail about how the government intrudes on the privacy of the individual, but the government is not the only intruder. We have met the enemy, and he is us. I sat in my doctor's waiting room the other day, listening to the ringing cell phones and the conversations that followed. One man argued with his boss over why he wasn't selling as many shoes as the boss thought he should be. A teenager accused her boyfriend of flirting with another girl. A troubled woman was telling someone about the terrible things Alzheimer's disease was making her mother do.

I didn't want to know about any of this. A voyeur is someone who gets kicks from watching others, but there's no kick in listening to someone's conversation when that someone doesn't care whether you're listening or not. Since nearly everyone talks louder on a cell phone, eavesdropping is not a choice.

In their award-winning documentary, "The Intimacy of Strangers," filmmakers Eva Weber and Samantha Zarzosa capture cell phone callers revealing the most intimate details of their lives -- not only do the men and women in the documentary not care who's listening, they've given written permission for the public distribution of their conversations. Everyone wants to be a celebrity.

If privacy ain't what it used to be, what we once quaintly called manners have vanished, too. New York magazine, always quick to spot the trendiest needs of its readers, creates "The Manual of Contemporary Urban Etiquette," which includes, only half in jest, such topics as "the polite way to steal a cab" and "the proper behavior after a one-night stand." Forget flowers or a phone call or even an appreciative note after stealing away in the wee hours of the night: "If you made no false promises to close the deal, then you simply need to be polite." Sex has been reduced from minimal morals to no manners at all.

Conservatives want to amend the Constitution to define marriage as limited to a man and a woman, but sophisticated urbanites, having moved on to another dimension, are troubled over how a straight guy should react to a pass made by a gay guy. A man with the problem (and apparently there are lots of them in certain precincts) is told to laugh and say "my girlfriend wouldn't like that." He should definitely avoid being patronizing by saying something like, "How sweet, I wish I were gay."

Manners once ripened from morals -- you could read Jane Austen -- and were the values parents instilled in their children so they wouldn't embarrass their parents in public and might even grow up to be upright citizens. But that was when there was a clear differentiation between childhood and adulthood. Now we have adults who want to be children.

In his new book, "Rejuvenile: Kickball, Cartoons, Cupcakes, and the Reinvention of the American Grown-up," Christopher Noxon identifies the psychological trend expressed in phrases such as "kidult," "adultescent" and "Peter-Pandemonium." Examples include the "Disnoids," childless couples who groove on Disney theme parks, grown men and women who play their children's games without the children. (And you thought senior citizens were worried about the price of prescription drugs.)

The most infamous example of the rejuvenile is Michael Jackson, but Christopher Noxon applauds "rejuvenilia" as a worthy rebellion to overworked, structured lives, and repetitive use of the future tense. More men than women make up this cohort, although a mother who takes up skateboarding is a source of great mortification for her son who acts his age.

Dressing down with the kids, however, can have its drawbacks. One recent purse-snatcher might not qualify as a rejuvenile, but his adult crime was thwarted when his trendy baggy pants, so popular with the kids, fell to his ankles as he was running away. Retro fashion has its drawbacks. Twiggy knees were meant to be exposed at 17, not 70. These are difficult days for Boomers who sing ruefully along with Paul McCartney, "Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm 64."

It's difficult for the youthful to envision life in old age (or any age that they're not), and it's occasionally comforting to try to go back in time, but time is a mean and merciless master. Not so long ago, certain women who lamented their young sexual adventures and yearned for the innocence of chastity began calling themselves "revirginized." It was understandable, perhaps, though they were not fooling anyone, even themselves. "Rejuvenilizing" is foolish, too. Thomas Wolfe knew what he was talking about. "You can't go home again."