Two pieces crossed my desk this week, each of them tangentially connected to the other. Both of them discuss what I’d call the more unfortunate side-effects of adult fannishness. In the case of the one, the article-writer is essentially complaining that adults who were born in the 1970s and 1980s have so thoroughly coopted kid culture, that today’s kids are kinda getting squeezed out of the picture. Everything that used to be made explicitly for kids, has been all-growed-up and is now pitched to an explicitly adult market: video games, comic books, TV cartoons, etc. It’s a billion-dollar consumer party, and kids — anyone below the age of 16 — aren’t necessarily invited. The other article-writer engages in no small amount of self-praise because of the fact that he’s skipped paying bills and even skipped buying food, so that he has enough money to attend his favorite science fiction convention(s) — because you’re not a real fan until you’ve suffered and sacrificed for your street cred. It takes the maniacal dedication of an aesthete to make a fan (mundane) into a Fan (caps-f).
Now, I am the last guy in the world to jump up on the “You’re doing it wrong!” soap box. I generally say, hey, whatever floats your boat, it’s your life — you go ahead and live it.
But not paying bills? Not buying food?
I think 1 Corinthians, Chapter 13 has something to say about all of this:
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
I’ve had enthusiasms all my life. Just about everybody does. Such as rooting for a favorite sports team. Or loving a favorite movie. I’ve also let some of those enthusiasms go, simply because I haven’t had the time — all-growed-up! — to keep pursuing them. Like scale model airplanes. From age 9 through age 16, my bedroom was festooned with replica fighters and bombers. In my late teens and early twenties, I switched over to scratchbuilding starships from the Star Trek universe. But even that hobby took a back seat, as the demands of being a responsible adult increased. Taking on two careers (civilian and military) followed by, eventually, three careers (batcave job: author) meant making choices about where to devote my time. And this was on top of having a marriage and a family to look after, including church responsibilities.
But at no time did I ever fool myself into thinking that a mere enthusiasm should take priority over real world commitments and necessities.
Look, everybody scripts her own existence. No one person’s life is ever going to be lived exactly like any other person’s life. This is the beauty of free agency. But being a free agent doesn’t mean having a free pass from adulthood. Paying the bills and putting meat’n’taters on the table are so basic, so completely fundamental, they shouldn’t even be part of the discussion. This is rudimentary maintenance stuff, like brushing and flossing. If you actually have to decide whether or not you’re going to buy groceries and pay your power bill, versus spending that money on a convention . . . I’m going to gently suggest that not only is this not noble, nor does it elevate you above others, you in fact may have a serious prioritization problem that goes way beyond the silly hubris of declaring yourself more-fannish-than-thou.
Meanwhile, I do think my generation (we’re crossing into middle-agedness now, oh noes!) and the generation after mine, have a legit problem with extended adolescence. All over social media lately, I see people joking, “I had to go out and adult today!” or “I can’t adult today, I just don’t have it in me,” Where adult is a verb meaning, “Doing the unpleasant chores of the real world, which all grown-ups have been forced to do since the beginning of time.” Which is really kind of sad, considering the fact that most first-worlders live lives of astounding convenience and luxury, compared to their great-grandparents. We live much longer, we generally don’t have to worry about diseases like polio, and many of us sit in comfortable chairs behind comfortable desks, only having to log eight hours a day, a mere five days a week. Yet we talk as if this is a nigh-unbearable burden — a psychically crushing and existentially soul-destroying purgatory. Because reality won’t let us follow our bliss every waking minute of every day, all week, every month, each year.
I suspect our generational clinging to the loves of our childhood — comics, video games, cartoons — is a coping mechanism. And coping mechanisms can be good, so long as “coping” does not become synonymous with avoidance in actual practice. Real life doesn’t go away. In fact, the more a man avoids real life — escaping into his enthusiasms — the larger the problems of real life loom. In past eras, men who couldn’t deal, typically descended into pointless violence, or crawled to the bottom of a bottle, or simply ran away; abandoning wives and children. In our era? Adults who can’t deal may find themselves utterly lost in an enthusiasm, such that real life is just an annoying distraction. The enthusiasm itself becomes a replacement for reality — a secondary, preferable world. Could be a MMORPG. Could be the convention circuit. It doesn’t matter what the thing is. When the thing becomes more important than fundamentals — paying bills, taking care of yourself, and also taking care of family — you might have a problem. Dare I even say, a serious problem?
Now, lest I be accused of being a fun-hater, I want to emphasize that I am not saying we should all dump our enthusiasms and live a completely hairshirt existence. But I believe there’s got to be balance. And I do think there are times when we — all-growed-up, in body if not in spirit — have to put away childish things. At least until we’ve successfully reckoned with real life to the extent that we can plop down in that mythic beanbag chair, pull out the video game controller, and enjoy some well-earned R-and-R; knowing that the bases have all been covered.
I also think we can afford to let some things remain kid-friendly. We don’t have to drag every single damned thing we loved when we were kids, forward into our disillusioned middle age, where the sunshine of youth gets clouded over by the grimdark of maturity. One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed Cartoon Network productions such as Regular Show, Adventure Time and Chowder so much, is because they work for my daughter as well as they do for myself and my spouse. The jokes, the situations, the references, all of it operates at two levels. Which, if you think about it, is also true for much of the classic animation of yore. Example: the Looney Tunes shorts were originally written and produced for adult theater-going audiences. Not Saturday morning cereal viewers.
Regardless of whatever sort of balance each of us strives to achieve, it’s important to remember that the total universe of enthusiasms is an egalitarian universe. You like football. I like basketball. Somebody else likes baseball. You like Skyrim. Your friend prefers World of Warcraft. I prefer my throwback video game from twenty years ago. You attend a lot of conventions. I attend a few conventions. Our mutual acquaintance attends none. And it’s all good. As long as people are taking care of the fundamentals — doing what needs to be done for house and home — I think it’s no-harm, no foul.
The problem is when things get out of balance. When an enthusiasm becomes an obsession. When we get so caught up in our formerly childhood passions, we take over the landscape and crowd out the real kids. When we begin to depend on others to take care of our fundamentals for us, so that we can remain distracted by the alternate world of our formerly healthy diversions. And — last, but not least — when we mistake our out-of-balance obsession for proof that we’re better than the merely “normal” people who’ve managed to successfully keep one foot planted in the real world, while also being actively engaged in the fun of their choice.
And yes, I know, you can’t say stuff like this without making somebody angry — that’s expected. This is the internet. You can’t talk like this, and not make somebody on the internet flamingly mad at you.
My answer to the angry folk?
Let’s go back to the question I first posed: what does the Bible have in common with William Shatner?
Both of them tell us to get a life.