The Loss of Innocence


Bratz—JadeI live in an area of the country that suffers from “chronophobia,” the fear of keeping up with the times. LA is about eight years ahead of us, and even our major Midwestern neighbor to the northwest, Chicago, is about five. I can’t point to the chapter and verse, but it’s a foregone conclusion the Rapture for righteous Greater Cincinnatians will occur at least three years after the fact.

When you live in a “backward” area, things that are “forward” startle you. I was jolted this last week by a seven-year-old boy in Kroger yelling to a woman who was clogging up an aisle, “Get out of my way, you fat f***.”

Besides being glad that my son was not with me to hear that, my unconscious response was to run the mental wayback machine to California, 1996. My wife and I were new arrivals, but we understood the vibe well enough to know we were “not in Kansas anymore.” The tape ran and ran, but I don’t remember kids in the Valley launching a tirade like the one I’d just now heard.

Still, it had to come from the coasts. Doesn’t that kind of filth crawl Godzilla-like out of the Atlantic and the Pacific, aiming to meet in the heartland, like some hell-tinged rendition of the driving of the golden spike?

I was in the new Wal-Mart about a half hour from us (tore down the regular “Center” and replaced it with a “Supercenter”) and was fascinated by the 40″+ flat panel displays strategically placed throughout the store playing “The Wal-Mart Channel.” A video by some new teenage singing sensations was looping, young people re-enacting everything they’d seen in Mountain Dew commercials throughout their young lives.

I could not stop watching that loop. This time my son was with me, pulling my arm with both hands, near-screaming, “Daddy, let’s go!”

There, in the eyes of those kids.

If you’ve ever seen the open eyes of someone freshly deceased, then you’ve seen that look. There’s nothing there in those eyes. Emptiness defines them. Even a child knows that something is missing when he or she sees the eyes of a corpse.

Those two dozen teens in that music video loop channeled that same deadness. Behind the eye liner and mascara was a vast nothingness.

After my son was practically biting my thigh trying to get me to stop watching corpses dance to the music, I could not stop staring at the under-20 crowd that filed past me everywhere we went the rest of that day. How had I—for so long—missed the ungrateful dead?

It’s miserable spotting a worn fifteen-year-old suburban girl you know could teach a fin de siècle Parisian hooker a thing or two. Madonna may have been a tramp in my era, but this girl is something altogether different. She may not even be human, at least as we define it. I’ve seen mannequins with more expressive faces. If there was a soul in that kid once, it vacated a while ago.

But more than anything else, I want to apologize to that zombie of a girl for my generation. We let her generation down. Our harebrained youth ministry experiments, our obsession with our careers, our self-centeredness—we allowed the Enemy to gut them while we slept on our watch.

Or maybe I’m missing the point. Maybe we did care, but we got stuck fighting so many endless battles against wickedness that we had to compromise somewhere. The low-rider jeans were too trivial to fight. It could be something worse; she could be doing crystal meth.

I just can’t get over the vacant stares.

What’s the entry point for death in our children? One day our sons are playing in the sandbox with their Tonka trucks and our daughters are having tea time with their stuffed animals, then the next they’re passing around rubber wristbands that signify what sex acts they’ve successfully completed, or strangling each other to the point of passing out—for the “fun” of it.

Sunrise, sunset, swiftly fly the years.

Sure, we’ll get some PhD pedagogue regaling us with tales of the Dark Ages and the need for kids to grow up fast back then, but childhood today seems to be measured in seconds anymore. When girls in the first grade consider Barbie a toy for preschoolers, and boys have abandoned G.I. Joe as young as six, maybe picoseconds would be a better measure of the length of childhood.

It gives me the willies to think of my own son encountering one of these kids who’s a fifty-year-old in a ten-year-old’s body. I used to think they only minted those out on the coasts, but when I hear a seven-year-old neighborhood boy calling an adult woman a “fat f***,” I’ve got to wonder if someone’s firing up a local franchise.

The soap hasn’t wound up in anyone’s mouth around here, yet. I’m not looking forward to that day. My son got out some Blue’s Clues tapes the other day and watched them almost nostalgically, eyes wide and still sparkling. I watched with him for a few minutes. Though I knew he wouldn’t want to stop watching, I let him go, even if knew he’d ultimately sit there for two hours. Why? Because the precious gift that God has bestowed on him is indeed that.

And once you’ve lost it…