AUSTIN -- Why in the name of sanity, you may ask, should an aging, overweight spinster like myself agree to go bungee jumping with her nephew? My fellow aunts will understand immediately, however, when I explain that the nephew in question is 15, wears his baseball hat backward and has attitude.

As a veteran aunt (helped raise one set of two, am working on the next set of three), I have been enjoying my recent stint as non-parent in residence. Being an aunt is a great gig. You get to hand the kids back at the end of a week or a month, so discipline is not your problem. Veteran aunts never insist on vegetables or museums. Aunts without children of their own have an extra edge, since we're not really, exactly grown-ups. As permanent non-parents, we can still side with kids. We can Mame it up all we want. (All this may hold true for uncles as well. I'm just not well-informed on that angle.)

Problems that loom mountainous on a permanent basis are just molehills if you know they are temporary. Music, for example, is simple: The kid gets to choose the music; the aunt gets to choose the volume. Compromise is easier when both sides know it doesn't have to last long. You make an offer and say, "Deal?"

He says, "Deal." (Although I have to admit that watching an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie in exchange for "Henry V" didn't work out that well. It's true that a lot of people die in both movies, but they are different.)

Aunts learn a great deal from their siblings' offspring. On my own, I never would have tried riding a water motorcycle, racing around Lake Travis in Central Texas like some berserk Hell's Angel. It was lots of fun.

I can once again aspire to hip: We're so-so on Pearl Jam, no to White Zombie and like Big Head Todd and the Monsters (which I believe is actually jazz fusion). I now know what ska and moshing are and understand the critical importance of truly baggy shorts.

In the larger picture, it's my belief that aunts and uncles are cultural bridges. Three films about aimless yoot' seem to me to define some of what's going on: "American Graffiti," "Dazed and Confused" and "Kids." Anyone who has seen all three -- a fascinating video festival for a summer day -- will notice a distinct downward trend toward drugs and nihilism. The films are set respectively in the early '60s, early '70s and '90s. The main difference between "Graffiti" and "Confused" is that the screenwriters who wrote "Graffiti" had a much larger vocabulary.

In fact, if "Graffiti" is to be believed, at one time American youngsters communicated with one another in more or less complete sentences. What was bugging them -- hypocrisy, conformity, selling out or settling for a life without adventure or dreams -- may not have changed much, but they used to be able to name the problem. By the time we get to "Confused," dope has replaced alcohol as the drug of choice, and the central moral dilemma, as it were, of the film is whether the star football player will hypocritically sign a no-drugs pledge. He doesn't, and we're left with no choice but to cheer for his honesty. Perhaps the best thing about "Confused" is that it will remind the parents of the kids in "Kids" where they came from.

"Kids" is far more bleak and amoral than "Confused" -- straight, mainlined nihilism, worthy of pre-revolutionary Russia. But in answer to the eternal plaint, "What's wrong with kids today?" the answer is still "Nothing." The questions raised by "Kids" are: "What's wrong with adults today? Where are they? Where is their care and concern? Why don't they ever talk with these kids? Why don't they listen to them?" (Even a vocabulary of 10 words, with a heavy emphasis on "effing," does not totally preclude expression.)

If kids are bright enough (and they are) to realize that the world is seriously screwed up ("sucks," as the kids say), then it seems to me that the next question is: "What can be done about it?" One reason to avoid that question is that it involves responsibility -- if there's something you can do about it, you should do it, and who wants responsibility? But I don't think that's the problem here. I don't think it's ever occurred to these kids that they can do anything about the world; they are, as they say, clueless.

And it's not their fault.

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