March 13, 2012 Comments Off on Salamander

As everyone knows, as most salamanders mature they eventually lose the feathery gills on the sides of their heads and become more lizard-shaped. But the axolotl, a Mexican salamander which also happens to be able to regenerate limbs and organs, which is super cool and you should check out the Wikipedia article about it, has evolved in such a way that it never loses its gills even when it has reached sexual maturity. This is called paedomorphism: a species has evolved in such a way that adult individuals show some of the physical characteristics of juveniles. It happens a lot, and is also apparent in drawings and cartoons. As my terrible professor said when he was teaching us about this, “Take Mickey Mouse. He’s got big ears, big eyes, and short limbs; he looks like a juvenile, and yet he’s sexually mature!”


But to get to my point: the reason I am talking about salamanders is because I’ve been thinking a lot about paedomorphism. I’ve already read articles (for example) about how the men who are now becoming young fathers do not seem to have progressed past college: they wear baggy pants, they play videogames, they get wasted on Friday nights. And now I’ve been thinking about myself. I’m 25. When I was young, 25 meant you were an Adult. It meant you had a job and possibly a family and you definitely had at least begun on the path you meant to walk down for the rest of your life. Maybe that was childish fantasy. But I look at myself and other people my age, and we don’t have families or careers; we still dress like college kids and, most of all, we talk like college kids. We talk fast and we use “like” and we tell dirty jokes and say things like “I know, right??” Even the smart, mature ones! When I think about it I don’t like it. I keep waiting to grow up, but neither I nor the people around me seem to be making much progress.

On the other hand, I have also been thinking a lot about how people treat me. Some people treat me in ways I find infuriating for the following reasons:

  1. I assume everyone knows more than me about everything. I don’t talk about stuff I don’t know anything about…and I assume no one else does. This makes me quiet and respectful, but apparently it comes across as starry-eyed “teach me more, O great intellect!”
  2. I make no bones about being enthusiastic about the things I am enthusiastic about. I gesticulate and raise my voice and grin like a spider monkey, and I even have been known to jump up and down.
  3. I am undignified. I jump creeks and climb rocks and roll down hills. Once I left a party with a couple girls I had just met. We passed a parking lot, and the snow that had gradually been piling up all day was mounded into clean high hills, so of course I did what any sane person would do: viz. climb the snowbanks and roll down them several times. The girls jittered at the bottom, gasping and giggling and giving little motherly cries and saying things like, “I can’t believe she’s doing this!” I don’t understand the problem.
  4. I am unreserved. I laugh out loud even in the presence of mournful Lubavitcher rabbis during shiva. I stamp my feet and pound pillows when I’m angry. I cry for five minutes and then immediately go on with my life.
  5. I love things like Legos and K’nex (and, by extension, Minecraft). I like to sit on the floor for hours and put stuff together. I also like lollipops and Halloween candy, digging big holes at the beach, and picking out lunchboxes with matching thermoses.

These are all things I like about myself—and, not coincidentally, they are very childish behaviors. If being grown up means being a know-it-all, dignified and stiff, governing your likes and dislikes not by whether you actually like or dislike the things in question, then Heaven preserve me from that fate. I’d rather be neotenous than stilted.

But still, a lot of the people I admire most do seem “grown up” to me. It has to do, I think, with being dignified and enthusiastic at the same time. It seems impossible to me, to be able to present yourself as a respected professor or doctor for a whole day and then on your way home stop to roll down a snowbank or jump in a puddle. Do I have to pick? My pantheon of idols begs to differ, and I want nothing more than to figure it out, but I can’t quite see how.

This juvenilization of post-college adults is often lamented or deplored, but I think it’s only bad in excess, or when you convince yourself that those leftover 50s values are the only desirable standard. I don’t want a Career and I don’t want a Family—which isn’t to say that I won’t have a very long-term job that I adore and am committed to, or that I won’t someday get married and have children, only that those values as markers of a successful life don’t appeal to me. I’m kind of a hedonist, but is that a bad thing as long as it doesn’t stand in the way of what I think is truly important? So what makes someone a grown-up? And how much do I care?

On one level, certainly, being a grown-up means being old enough and independent enough to dismiss what you should want in favor of what you do want. Maybe the axolotls just finally realized gills were more fun.


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