Foreword | June 27, 2011

When he was a professor at the University of Missouri, psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett began to wonder whether there wasn’t something identifiably different about people in their twenties-if it wasn’t in some ways a unique stage of life.  The milestones in becoming an adult in modern society traditionally include completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child.  The percentage of men and women who had passed all those milestones by age thirty decreased by almost half between 1960 and 2000. Arnett began his study in the college town of Columbia, Missouri, but then broadened it to include a widening sample of socioeconomic groups in New Orleans, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In her excellent article “What Is it About 20-somethings” (NYT, August 18, 2010), Robin Marantz Henig notes that Arnett started a vigorous debate about recognizing this new stage of life, which he called “emerging adulthood.”

The last time a phase of life was identified was about a century ago, with the recognition of adolescence as a distinct period in which people had their own very specific requirements for health, education and social services.  In the 1970s, psychologist Erik Erikson divided adulthood into three stages-young adulthood (ages twenty to forty-five), middle (ages forty-five to sixty-five) and late. Erikson describes the struggle for intimacy as one of the traits of young people, but Arnett had a hunch that this challenge remains substantially more dominant in people in their twenties than in their forties.  His surveys showed that younger adults are also notable for focusing intently upon themselves, exploring identities, feeling in-between yet often having a strong “sense of possibilities.”  Although Arnett was doing his research during the Gen-X period of slackers, this positive sense of possibility seemed to be one of the distinct characteristics of emerging adulthood.  It was counterbalanced, however, by the opposing tendency for young people to frequently suffer a sense of frustration, of uncertainty or of not quite belonging or understanding the rules.  To Arnett, all these elements-the turbulence, the ambiguity, the tendency to float between strong emotions-seemed to be different enough to merit identifying another clearly defined life phase.

While there is disagreement about Arnett’s new category of emerging adulthood, recent MRI brain research supports his ideas with evidence that the limbic system and prefrontal cortex continue to develop even past the mid-twenties, affecting emotional and attention control, as well as cognition.

Many of the stories and essays in this issue are about either teenagers or young adults who are hacking their ways through the perils of moodiness, confusion and the paradoxical optimism of these phases.  Patricia Bjorklund’s essay “U.S. and Them, 1971” is a humorous recounting of growing up in a blue-collar family and pledging allegiance to the family’s reactionary values at the time. Patricia’s parents were leaders in the John Birch society, and she became involved in the group, going to meetings and disseminating literature against “un-American” entities such as the United Nations.  The essay is a droll personal tale of how the young can be pliant, participating in foolishness without being defined by it for life. John Hales’s “Helpline,” this year’s Jeffrey E. Smith Prize winner in nonfiction, is a serious, contemplative view of the time when Hales was one of a group of young people who worked on a Salt Lake City crisis hotline.  Often caught up in their conversations with suffering callers, disturbed by their proximity to potential tragedy and by doubts about the effectiveness of police and emergency personnel, this group of mostly college students coped through drugs, hanging out together and sex.  Hales’s memoir is a lyrical portrait of the powerful bonding of young people under common duress.  In his author’s note on the essay, Hales confesses that he had intended to write a nature essay and ended up producing, instead, a memoir about “early-twenties angst.”  Molly Schultz’s essay “On Loneliness” is also about a young person in her twenties, trying to fit in and find love and connection as she transitions into adulthood.  During a Peace-Corps assignment to Uzbekistan,  Molly befriended two young men her age, but with the indiscretion of youth, she formed a secret relationship with one of them that damaged and endangered the more meaningful bond she had with the other.

Anna Solomon’s Smith Prize-winning story “The Long Net” is a retrospective look by a young, privileged narrator, June, about the summer when she was ten and hung out with Tammy, a local girl whose working-class parents ran a campground .   The two girls spend time at the campground, eventually making the acquaintance of a man who lures them into posing for child pornography.  As this first encounter with the dark side of adulthood plays out, the story shows-through what happens with June’s mother-how what appears at the time to be the most dramatic thing in a young person’s life may in fact turn out to be nearly irrelevant, next to events that at the time seem less significant.

Erin Flanagan’s story “The Wrong Man” is narrated retrospectively by a woman who in her early twenties worked in a halfway house for recovering addicts, at the time of the O.J. Simpson trial.  When the halfway house closes due to a lack of funding, she moves in with her boyfriend and suffers a breakdown and depression crisis, doing little besides watching the O.J. trial.  Years later, after undergoing further big changes in her life, she realizes that the O.J. case-the details of which she remembers better than her boyfriend and first husband-was really a way to deny or avoid the decisions she needed to make as a young adult, including coming to some understanding of the nature of love.

The teller of Sarah Cornwell’s story “The Floating Life” is a teacher, Nolan, who is on an educational cruise with high school students.  Nolan’s star student, Lisa, on whom he has a crush, is the first of the students to realize that some undefined global disaster has apparently happened and cut the ship off from communication with the outside world.  In the absence of any reasonable map of what to do, the teachers tentatively go ahead with business as usual.  Nolan proceeds with a scheduled dive to see the amazing spawning of the elkhorn coral, which happens in a narrow window of time.  Nolan and Lisa are able to see the miracle of the spawning, but they can have no idea what will follow their coming to the surface.  It is an intense and fascinating concept story with sci-fi overtones.

The poetry features in this issue are less about the perils of youth than about those of ageing, at least as viewed and wondered about by the next generation.  The Smith Prize-winning poetry feature by George Looney features two elegies in which dementia and trauma are refigured as acrobats.  In “The Consolation of a Company of Acrobats” the speaker describes living with his father as he suffers from dementia-induced hallucinations.  The father sees children in the house whom no one else can see, and he is at times afraid of them, at other times entertained by them.  The second elegy is “A Temporary Delaying of the Inevitable,” written in memory of poet Deborah Digges.  It picks up on the carnival theme, depicting “a middle-aged woman who looks/as if she knows ghosts,” who meets a trapeze artist at a costume party for the living and the dead.   The young woman in this ars poetica-perhaps Digges-is not herself an acrobat, but she is the one who can most accurately fulfill his yearning for someone to “listen to his sore body” and let him finally “forgive the air.”  Looney’s two other poems are prayerful meditations about the qualities of light, both about its fever of color and its indescribable grace.

Like Looney, poet Nadine Meyer both uses surreal interior dreamscapes and writes about coming to terms with mortality.  In “Atrium” she grieves both the loss of her mother and her former youthful self in language that is densely lyrical.  Both this poem and “Invocation: A fragment” also invoke grief and despair with Plathian intensity as she plies her heart “with cyanide” and doesn’t just describe but becomes “bird-call, train-whistle, a two-note warble.”  In the more narrative poem “And then,” Meyer describes a mother and daughter working in a garden, meditating on the relationship between garden and graveyard and on roots and ancestry.

Poet Josh Booton also writes about coming to terms with mortality, partly through the death of his father and painful memories.   He shows that while memory may make us reinhabit trauma, it also shifts it into something bearable.  He retools blue-collar anecdotes with gravitas and the resonance of myth:  Pittsburgh becomes “some city/tough enough to make [the dead] feel alive again,” and his father heart is a mine of “coal dark corridors” that surgeons “scraped clean . . . until his heart walls glowed like Chinese lanterns/drifting down some river with an impossible name.”


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