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Age of Majority

By Frank Gruber

January 3, 2011 -- Longtime readers of this column may recall that in years past I would use the experiences of my son, Henry, as grist for my mill, as he grew up and, in particular, made his way through the Santa Monica public schools. It was shameless exploitation of the boy. I haven’t written much about him lately, and thought I’d like to be able to attribute that to my attaining a higher level of parental consciousness, the fact is that because he’s been away at college he’s not been around to give me material.

But as if providentially sent this way to give me something to write about in the slow season for local politics, Henry was home the past three weeks on vacation, and last week there was a momentous event, or at least one that got me thinking.

You see, last Friday, Dec. 31, New Year’s Eve, Henry turned 21. We threw a big party for him and his friends. Not really a New Year’s Eve party, because the kids all had more age-appropriate parties to go to later to celebrate 2011, but we at least fed them an early dinner. A tradition that started when Henry was in Santa Monica High School was that for his birthday I would roast a pig and his mother would make large quantities of macaroni and cheese. I don’t know if these are comfort foods, but we found that kids don’t mind parents hanging around if they supply vast amounts of victuals.

But it’s not food that I want to write about. There’s something else. Do the math and you’ll figure out that if Henry turned 21 last Friday, he was born on the last day of 1989. That’s right, 1989, that annus mirabilis when the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended. When Henry was born, I believed that was a great omen for him. He would grow up without the fear that the world would blow itself up.

Which lack of fear I suppose is still, thankfully, the case, especially given the recent efforts of the U.S. and Russia to get control over stocks of weapons-grade atomic fuels, and despite what’s gone on in North Korea and Pakistan and Iran, but who would have predicted in 1989 that in 2011 you wouldn’t be allowed to board an airplane with a regular-sized tube of toothpaste in your carry-on?

Since 9/11, the world seems scarier than ever, or at least people seem more afraid than ever. The two things aren’t the same, of course. I’m not saying that this is an original insight on my part -- Stephen Colbert has made a living recently pointing out how fear has become the defining emotion of our time. But it bears repeating. If President Obama tried to pull an FDR and tell Americans that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself, in a minute the Right Wing would attack him for naiveté and tell him to start torturing anyone the CIA could get its hands on.

I can report from Henry’s birthday party, however, that at least among one cross-section of the under-22 demographic, fear does not seem to be a factor. It’s not like the kids I know are making specific plans for the future, but they all seem to be looking forward to it.

True, upcoming decades could be scary. Henry’s grandfather was at the party; he’s about to turn 90, and one thing I thought about was that when Henry turns 90 (knock, knock), it will be 2079. That’s a kind of frightening thought to me, but he and his friends don’t seem upset about the prospect of living through most of the 21st century.

They’re being told they won’t find jobs, or be able to buy a place to live and raise a family, and that Social Security and Medicare will go bust in their lifetimes, and then there is global warming and terrorism to worry about, too. I have no data to point to, just observations (not only at home but also around the country), but to me this generation seems intrepid more than anything else. And cheerful. There’s a lot of fear and whining around the country, but it’s not coming from young people.

I’m not discounting genuine reasons for fear. FDR was surely being rhetorical to say that in the depth of the Depression, there weren’t reasons to at least worry a little bit. He wasn’t even thinking about Hitler, who had taken power in Germany about two months before Roosevelt’s first inaugural, when he made his declaration about what there was to fear.

But it was the kids who grew up in the Depression and who fought Hitler, who came home and raised families during the Cold War, when people were telling them to build fallout shelters in their backyards. The Cold War begat a culture of fear, but fear was not then or is now for young people -- thank goodness for that. They get on with living.

Nineteen eighty-nine -- that was a year of hope, not fear. One hope I have is that Henry and his generation keep that in mind. Their destiny is a better world than the one they were born into.

Frank J. Gruber is the author of Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, available at Hennessey + Ingalls and Angel City books in Santa Monica, at City Image Press, and on


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