When I got an email from Sally Koslow praising my review of her 2010 novel “The Late, Lamented Molly Marx” (link:http://archives.huntingtonnews.net/columns/100610-kinchen-columnsbookreview.html) and suggesting that I consider reviewing her new nonfiction book about indulgent baby boomers who enable their “adultolescent” children, I told her “send it on!”
I wanted to find out if it would be as fun to read — and as full of insights — as “Molly” and Koslow’s two other novels: “With Friends Like These” and “Little Pink Slips.” I wished to see what this former magazine editor and fellow native Midwesterner was up to exploring what some have called the “boomerang” generation.
A few days later “Slouching Toward Adulthood: Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest” (Viking, published by the Penguin Group, 272 pages, $25.95)) arrived and I began reading this combination memoir and sociological study about kids — and in many cases that’s exactly what they are — who delay independent living, relying on their parents as a handy fallback position when they learn that life isn’t the bed of roses everybody said it would be.
I devoured the book, often laughing out loud at Koslow’s breezy prose and her spot-on dissection of her own baby-boom generation — my nomination for the “most annoying” group of people since time began. I was born in 1938, a product of the pre-boomer generation, which included most of the musicians the boomers claim, including Bob Dylan (born 1941)), the Beatles (born 1940–1943)); The Kingston Trio (1933 and 1934 for the original lineup of Dave Guard, Bob Shane, and Nick Reynolds), etc., etc.. There was noRolling Stone cover or Time magazine accolades forpre-boomers and we pretty much did everything the boomers did, only quieter (most of the time, at least!)
Still married to her college boyfriend Robert, and the mother of Rory and Jed, Sally Koslow knows whereof she speaks, since her two sons were adultolescents in the past.
When Sally Koslow took flight for New York City in the mid 1970s, her dad — himself a migrant from Brooklyn to Fargo, North Dakota in 1936 — drove her to the airport, waved goodbye and said “keep in touch”. By way of contrast, when Jed moved from one part of Brooklyn to another, Sally and Rob rented a U-Haul truck and helped him move. Lifting their son’s furniture and boxes resulted in a trip to the hospital for Rob.
Which brings me back to boomers, although I’m not going to bash them like Joe Queenan (himself a boomer born in 1950)) does in a quote Koslow provides on Page 251: “The upwardly moral children of the bourgeoisie [Queenan was a product of the projects of Philadelphia] are obsequiously, uncompromisingly virtuous. They ride bikes everywhere. They never eat red meat. They refuse to watch television. They eat with wooden chopsticks. They only read books by authors named Jonathan who live in Brooklyn. They themselves are named Jonathan and live in Brooklyn. That is because everyone who is good and whip smart in this society lives in Brooklyn.”
Koslow adds to Queenan’s rant: “like one of my sons.”
Koslow says unflinchingly of her generation, those born from 1946 to 1964: “The boomer generation, with its idiomatic immaturity and fury at the very idea that we have to age, is in no small part to blame for adultolescents feeling as if there will always be time to break up with one more partner or employer, to search for someone or something better, to get another degree or to surf another couch, to wait around to reproduce. Thanks to our own parents listening to Dr. Benjamin Spock and to us sucking up to TV ads that pandered to our kiddie greed, we established the model for unprecedented self-involvement, enhanced by our ceaseless boasting.”
Koslow’s quote reminded me of the “You’re Not Special” incident that occurred a few weeks ago when high school English teacher David McCullough Jr., son of the Pulitzer Prize winning historian David McCullough, delivered a commencement address at a high school in affluent Wellesley MA, a Boston suburb (link: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/012//6//9//david-mccullough-at-wel…).
McCullough’s address went viral when people took the “you’re not special” phrase he used out of context. Read the entire address to get the full meaning. I’m guessing the younger McCullough is a boomer. Here’ s part of what he said, which is relevant to the message of Koslow’s book:
“…. if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another–which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality — we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole. No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it… Now it’s “So what does this get me?” As a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavors, and building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of Guatemalans.”
McCullough’s reference to Guatemala resonated as I saw references to wanderjahrs spent in Third World — oops, that’s not politically correct — “developing” countries in Koslow’s book, based on interviews of more than a hundred “adultolescents” and their parents, sociologists, shrinks and sundry experts.
“Adultolescents” seem to be free of the “I’m outta here” spirit of boomers like Koslow, who relished independence in New York City, fleeing the Midwest (a native of Fargo, North Dakota, she’s a graduate of the University of Wisconsin) for poverty and freedom in an affordable 1970s New York City. (yes, there was such a time, recalled in the cult movie “Joe’s Apartment,” now long gone!). Instead, they fly from job to job — if they can find any jobs — start businesses, give up on the business, fly off to Saigon or Bangkok (this is beginning to sound like “Hangover IV”!)
I grieve for both the boomers and their “adultolescent” offspring. Both generations have been wounded by the meltdown of the economy, the housing bust, the lack of jobs for college graduates, the unprecedented burden of student loans. Both Koslow and I ended up with no college debt, in part because we worked our way through college and in large part because college didn’t cost a fortune in the 1950s and early 1960s for me and in the 1970s for Koslow. My service in the peacetime Army Reserves covered my tuition and fees at Northern Illinois University and I saved money by living at home and making the 35 mile roundtrip from my home in Rochelle, IL to DeKalb for the first three years. And yes, I did around-the-house chores and shopping for my mother, who didn’t drive.
The idea that law school is somehow a magic bullet runs throughout the book. Koslow doesn’t understand why people who aren’t going to be practicing attorneys — at a time when venerable “white-shoe” law firms are going belly up — believe that law school is a good idea — and neither do I. Taking the law school route only leads to more frustration — and loans you’ll be paying off out of your Social Security benefits!
In a book that I didn’t want to end because it was just so damn funny and enlightening, Koslow uses humor, insight, and honest self-reflection to give voice to the issues of prolonged dependency. From the adultescent’s relationship to work (or no work), money (that convenient parental ATM), or social life, “Slouching Toward Adulthood” will resonate with all the parents who sent their kids to college only to have them ricochet home with a diploma in one hand and the DVR remote in the other.
Koslow explores the dilemma of smart women who can’t find men who can commit to a relationship — or anything. She says commentators blame women for being “picky, picky, picky” — the kind of women a Christian blogger says wouldn’t consider Jesus to be a suitable partner — at the same time lamenting cities like New York for being an “overcrowded women’s prison” (Page 202)) where women outnumber men almost two to one.
This aspect of modern life has been explored in a new HBO series called “Girls” created by Lena Dunham. I’ve only watched a few episodes of this series, which aired beginning in April and which stars Dunham and baby boomer David Mamet’s daughter Zoysia Mamet.
According to the Internet, “Girls” follows a close group of twenty-somethings as they chart their lives in — drum roll — Brooklyn! The premise of the series and major aspects of the main character — played by 26-year-old Dunham — were inspired by her life experiences. Aspiring writer Hannah (Dunham) gets a shock when her parents visit from Michigan and tell her she’s on her own — that they will no longer support her as they’ve done since her graduation from college two years before.
Here’s what Koslow says about her delightful book — my assessment — on her website: “Millions of American parents have sent their kids to college only to have them ricochet home with diplomas in one hand and DVR remotes in the other. Mom and Dad now sit down to dinner every night, wondering why their fully grown kids are joining them or, more likely, grunting good-bye as they head out for another night of who knows what.
“I’ve lived through this stage and decided to explore what lies behind the current generation’s unwillingness—or inability — to take flight. For more than a year, I spoke with both frustrated parents and equally frustrated ‘adultescents’.
“With me as your sherpa, I invite you to consider my observations on how adultescents, overwhelmed by choice, seek and find adventure, here and abroad; move back home because they have no way to make rent; crave attention and often cash from parents, whom they frequently ask to help them move from place to place; create a mess; rack up debt; imbibe in Mad Men cocktails and the occasional prescription Rx; get jobs only to quit them to start businesses and do good—and more.”
Well said, Sally, and I couldn’t agree more!
Perhaps the most shocking quotation in the book comes from 31-year-old Bonnie Johnson, who’s given up on the idea of marriage, considering it to be “obsolete.” Bonnie quotes from Philip Larkin’s 1971 poem “This Be The Verse”: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” Bonnie begins, ending with Larkin’s line “don’t have any kids yourself.” Koslow deals forthrightly with the issues of biological clocks and fertility and all the other aspects of family life that “adultolescents” will confront.
I’m not saying I agree wholeheartedly with the noted English poet Larkin (1922-1985) but that was the route my wife and I took beginning with our marriage 47 years ago — and we haven’t looked back in remorse. Being childless — or childfree as I call it — is not for everyone, but it’s a valid lifestyle choice, as Koslow herself points out.
About the author
Sally Koslow, born and raised in Fargo, North Dakota, is the former editor in chief of McCall’s magazine. Married to her college boyfriend, attorney Robert Koslow, she lives in Manhattan and often runs in Central Park. “Little Pink Slips” was her first novel, inspired by her experiences at McCall’s magazine. Her other novels are “The Late, Lamented Molly Marx” and “With Friends Like These.” She’s a graduate of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She has taught at The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College and is on the faculty of the New York Writer’s Workshop. Sally and Rob are the parents of Jed Koslow, an attorney, and Rory Koslow, who works in the film industry. This year two beautiful daughters-in-law, Anne and Kimberly, joined their family. Sally can often be found running in Central Park, which is near her Manhattan apartment, or puttering at her riverside cabin in Stephentown, New York. Her website:www.sallykoslow.com