I'm watching my youth pass before me and I can't help but shudder. The '60s are back and I've got the children to prove it. Love beads, incense, bell bottoms, polyester, platform shoes, glittery eye-shadow, metallic lip gloss - the whole horrible panoply at roughly 10 times the cost. The only thing missing is Spiro Agnew.
Whenever my 13-year-old emerges from her bedroom I have to stifle the impulse to laugh: '60s retro with a hint of Charles Addams. I thought those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.
My 11-year-old son is captive of other market forces, primarily the NBA and MTV. Like many of his friends, he owns a half dozen shamefully expensive basketball jerseys - all gifts of over-indulgent grandparents - and matching calf-length shorts.
If the temperature is even fractionally above zero he wears these, on and off the court. When his parents insist he dress more warmly, he dons a pair of baggy, drop-crotch jeans meant for someone six-feet-four and weighing roughly 220 pounds. (My son weighs less than a retriever pup and is not much bigger.) The rear pockets of these low-riding bell bottoms hang just behind the knees. This, he assures me, is exactly how they're meant to be worn, never mind that a foot of denim is being trampled underfoot, that any sudden move could render him dangerously exposed. The relentless tug of gravity is very much a part of the fashion experience these days; underwear is no longer something to hide.
For all our '60s exhibitionism, we had our privacies. My wife remembers futilely trying to conceal bra straps beneath halter tops. These days, the four-strap look is intentional. So are exposed boxers, meant to be seen either below the legs of shorts or above the waist of jeans. On the basketball court, the boys are forever yanking at their shorts, making sure the requisite few inches of underwear appears at the waist. And whatever else they wear, their feet must be shod in player-endorsed sneakers more expensive than ski boots, and just as attractive.
Neither my children nor their friends are able to resist these trends or the abiding impulse to find ever-more creative ways to horrify their parents. Thirty years ago we resorted to long hair, tattered cloths, and rock; they're discovering body piercing, tattoos, and rap.
My generation seems to think that since we're still wearing jeans nothing can faze us. But I, for one, have a visceral response to facial steel and have warned my children against self-mutilation.
"You come home with metal attached to anything but your teeth," I've threatened, "and you pay your own way through college." Fortunately, they're fairly squeamish when it comes to pain, and smart enough to do math.
We thought, too, that since our children occasionally listen to the Beatles and the Beach Boys that they enjoyed our music, even considered us hip. But they're laughing behind our backs when they mouth the words to "Michele" or "Help Me, Rhonda."
I have to admit, next to the obscenity-laced diatribes of gangsta-rap, our songs are pretty tame. The rap songs of the '90s, driven by a beat as caressing as a sledgehammer are obsessed with hatred, sex, and violence. Anything seems tame beside such free-fire zones of language, such verbal body piercing.
When, occasionally, I despair of my children ever finding their way through this jungle of hate and insensitivity to decency and delicacy, I have only to remember our own much-publicized thicket of "sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll" to realize how little has changed. We may not have suffered drive-by shootings, crack epidemics, or AIDS, but race riots, Vietnam, and political assassinations took their toll on our innocence and we still survived. God-willing, our children will eventually hear the still small voice of reason when the great emotional cacophony of adolescence quiets. In the meantime we'll just have to grin and bear it. I only wish we hadn't discarded all those fringed jackets and tie-dyed shirts. We might, at least, have saved a few bucks.
*Steven Schnur teaches creative writing and literature at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. His most recent book is 'Spring: An Alphabet Acrostic' (Clarion).