Turning 35 signals the beginning of adulthood the way turning 13 used to. Not, of course, in the sense that I’m just starting to contemplate the notion of adult responsibility. I’ve been paying my own way for about a decade now, own a car, and am with wife and child. I mean more in the sense that I can no longer ride on the float of “potential.” I’m no longer an Internet startup, getting bid to the sky on the possibility of future earnings years down the line. I’ve got to show real earnings, damn it. Conceiving of oneself as an adult is a tricky notion these days. No one seems to have it right. People 10 years older than I am are almost exclusively less mature, trapped in a yellowing boomer fantasy of rolling revolution, defining rebellion down until it is the behavioral equivalent of a facial tick. People my age are not much better: It is one of the distressing outgrowths of fatherhood to see other parents put their personalities in escrow, adopting with far less irony than I might have expected traditional, Cleaverish behavior patterns they would have mocked only years earlier. Poker games are now filled with earnest discussions of golf courses off the coast of Georgia, nannies, and the stock market. Until recently I did not think it was possible to even say the name “Fred Couples” with a straight face.
Perhaps the problem is less generational than geographical. I recently finished reading an advance copy of my former boss Kurt Andersen’s The Turn of the Century, a partially autobiographical novel about husband-and-wife media machers caught in the vortex of the great media convergence of the late 20th-early 21st century. George (TV guy) and Lizzie (software executive) spend their days like robo-Barthes, picking apart everything from architecture to language with wittily incisive flights of social criticism (articulated in a wildly allusive pastiche of high- and low-culture referentiality) all the while conceiving of brilliantly cynical ideas for Web sites and TV shows. Since I’ve spent much of the last two months thinking up ideas for cheesy Web sites and new TV shows, not to mention the weekly idea for a screenplay loosely based on my life, while bantering with my friends in a wildly allusive pastiche of high- and low-culture referentiality, I identified closely with the book. Turn of the Century will, I think, be a raging success (and quite deservedly so) on both coasts, but it’ll be interesting to see whether people elsewhere will find the characters, and the media-expense-account beau monde they inhabit, freakishly self-conscious, over-over-civilized, meta to the point of paralysis.
Not that people elsewhere use words like meta. The Geography Gap was summed up nicely for me this past weekend at a gathering of friends at a country house on an island in Chesapeake Bay. Late at night, after a game of Boggle, one of my wife’s friends, a very successful business guy from Pittsburgh (and a smart, charming fellow as well) told a joke: A giraffe goes into a bar, orders a drink. Bartender charges him $100, says, “We don’t see many of your kind in here.” Pissed off giraffe says, “At these prices, you won’t seen many more.” It was probably my New York snobbiness, but I immediately waved in his face a copy of last week’s New Yorker, in which precisely the same joke is used as a kind of coat hanger for a dryly sophisticated (and wildly allusive, pastichey) humor piece (sort of) about ownership of intellectual property rights. Point proven, if I only knew what the point was.
Anyway, I still prefer this joke: Horse walks into a bar. Bartender says: “Hey, why the long face?”