the sort-of parents

We need a term for figures who rightly or wrongly end up being pseudo-parent figures for us — cultural guideposts — without all the messiness of in-depth personal knowledge and interaction.

The first time I realized these people existed, for adults, was when I wasn’t yet an adult myself: when David Letterman graced the cover of the first post-9/11 Entertainment Weekly, which bore the title “In Dave We Trust.” You don’t realize, as a kid, that adults are just as unsure and looking for guidance as to what is and isn’t okay in society as you are, until moments like that. Until you realize no one older has much more of a clue than you do.

The second time I witnessed the impact of such pseudo-parental figures on a generation not my own was on New Years’ Day, when my father eagerly loaded up 30 years’ of Tonight Show reruns to show us moments he remembered. Some of the comedy figures and actors I recognized, some I did not; but I definitely recognized the regard with which my dad held Johnny Carson. Even having gone through schooling that purported to acknowledge (and somewhat defuse?) the power of such individuals, the effect was not lost on me: all of us seek someone to tell us what is okay and what is not. When you can make a joke, of what color, and when you can’t. When you are allowed to be fragile, and when you aren’t. Not visibly.

It isn’t that our actual parents don’t do this for us. Of course they do. But sooner or later you realize you can’t keep asking your parents for that kind of support.  You have to protect them. You stop telling them if you have to go to the doctor, or if you’re worried about this or that event in your life, because they need protecting now. Everyone experiences this. You can’t always go back to them. And in their absence — in that vacuum of guidance which your need to protect them, as much as possible, from misfortune, opens up in you — you need someone. This is where these people step in, however unwittingly.

Oftentimes, I think, they’d recoil from being told they shouldered such responsibilities. Consider Jon Stewart’s years-long resistance to the idea that he was more than a comedian; that he actually shaped the minds of young people. He balked at that, and I don’t blame him: if you started out doing a thing with one [relatively light-hearted or personal] goal in mind, and ended up with all this heavy meaningful crap attached to it, it might weigh you down.  You might fight it. Probably, if you’re a decent person, you fight it, rather than embracing it with open arms. The latter would imply an uncomfortable desire for control and manipulation.

But like it or not, such people do exist and they do maintain a position of guidance for us. The great swathes of us whose parents can no longer serve as the final decider in terms of personal or moral crises. Who cannot be turned to anymore, for reasons often beyond their control.

What do we call these people? I don’t know that we have a proper word for them. I know enough to hide my regard of them*, and I think many others do, too. You can’t be so open in your need for…someone in whom to place trust. We are just old enough to know that all too well. So we sit in front of screens or pages, so many millions of us, and absorb the words of people we hope are doing better than we are. In the hope of learning something. You think you’re done with learning, when you get whatever degree or certificate you aim for, but you quickly realize you’ll never be done. You always have some compass spinning around without a pole somewhere, and you keep trying person after person, trying to make the needle stand still. Just so you can get your bearings.

That’s what these people help us do. Get our bearings.  There should be a term for them.

* Except for that last David Mitchell signing. I may have been too earnest and fervent. Because the time before that, he bought my husband time to talk with doodles, and himself having grown up with a stutter it was and act of comprehending kindness, not condescending boredom, and…well, I was probably too doe-eyed this time around,  is what I’m saying.



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