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Grilling Man at the End of History

March 19th, 2024 | 22 min read

By Stephen G. Adubato

Back in the late 1970s, my mother scandalized her parents when she insisted on speaking to them in English, rather than in her native Greek, and refused to continue her Greek reading and writing classes at the local church. Things only got worse when she came downstairs one night wearing a tight dress and red lipstick, telling them she was planning on going with her boyfriend and friends to a disco. “Where did we go wrong!” they cried out, as they (quite literally) banged their heads against the wall (modern Greeks have never fully lost the knack for drama that the ancients were known for). 

As much as my grandparents held onto certain old world values, they held the “American Dream” in high esteem, at times being willing to trade in their traditional communitarian Southern European ideals for bourgeois capitalist ones. Although my grandmother spent most of her adult life as a homemaker, she encouraged my mother to get a college degree and a job (though she chose to put her career on hold to stay home with me, her only child, during my earlier childhood).

As she grew up, she caused further “trouble” by marrying a non-Greek and worse, a Catholic. She went a bit further afield than that, too:, while she appreciated the beauty of the liturgy of Greek Orthodoxy, she claimed for a long time to believe in slightly less than orthodox understandings of ethereal realities like “nature,” and “the universe.” At times, star charts and moon signs were involved. My father still attended Mass every once in a while and prayed, but was largely distrustful of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy and teaching authority.

The greatest scandal, however, was my parents’ divorce after seven years together. “Our people don’t do divorce,” said my paternal grandfather to my dad.

The spark that my parents had had when they first met had died out, and, lacking another conscious foundation, that opened the door to difficult tensions and hurtful patterns. They decided it would be best for me to grow up in two homes rather than in one filled with conflict. They tried their hardest to make my experience a good one, agreeing to put their personal differences to the side for my sake (limiting their arguments to ones having to do with me), and to live no more than ten minutes from each other.

One of the first things they did to offset the damage of the divorce was to send me to a child psychologist, or as they called her, my “feelings doctor.” She was the first of a slew of psychologists I would see during my childhood, often switching them out because, as I described it, “they didn’t get what I was trying to say.”

I remember years later walking down the block from school to a convenience store with a small group of fellow tenth graders. It was not exactly the riskiest behavior that can be exhibited by a 15 year old. Yet for my parents, who at that point had been divorced for twelve years, it was enough of a reason to call a family meeting. My mother came over to my father's house, gave her regards to my step-mother, and forced herself down on the couch next to my father, who proceeded to express his concern that walking around unaccompanied by an adult was reckless.

Up until that point, I never hung out with my friends without one of our parents around. I barely hung out with friends period. As an only child (at least from my parents’ marriage) of divorce, I was very adult-oriented, learning early to keep myself entertained. I preferred spending the weekends playing games by myself in my room or with my older family members. The few occasions that I spent time with peers outside of school felt like a chore. It wasn’t until high school that it dawned on me that “hanging out with friends” was actually fun.

Though my friend group consisted of mostly studious classmates and our sense of fun was fairly tame, my parents didn’t know how to handle my newfound “rebelliousness.” Who knows what could happen to us as we walked down to the convenience store? We could get hit by a car, shot, kidnapped. In our sheltered, upper-middle class suburb.


Many of us privileged snowflakes growing up in suburbia struggle when faced with risks, unpredictability, and challenges that remove us from our comfort zone. We were afforded minimal independence. The general attitude of parents and educators led us to be averse to risk-taking and learning from mistakes. Our forms of socialization prioritized planning over spontaneity, in an attempt to avoid unnecessary friction with family and neighbors. The bureaucratic mentality that taught us to outsource problem-solving to specialized “middle management” figures replaced our creative agency and sense of responsibility. Is it any surprise that suburbia has given rise to infantilized adults in their thirties who, often are afraid to fly from the nest (whether physically or emotionally), are hopped up on anti-depressants, and opt for “partners” instead of committing to a spouse, and end up raising dogs rather than human children?

The anti-bullying rhetoric that is pervasive in suburban schools is emblematic of this bureaucratic form of problem-solving and atomized relational structures. When dealing with bullies in middle school, I felt myself at an utter loss for the tools—both practical and psychological—to confront the problem. Though my parents and other immediate family members certainly loved me, I lacked a sense of belonging to a broader community that could back me up. Nor did I have an existential horizon to imbue myself with a sense of dignity and to make sense of conflict and suffering. Without the strength of personality or muscle to face bullies head on, I turned to the middle management. Horridly scandalized by the injustice that the administration permitted to shatter my cozy and conflict-free existence in the school, I wrote a letter to the vice principal and guidance counselor demanding that they solve the problem for me.

Surely there are students growing up in suburbia who are miles less wimpy than I was. My neurotic appeals to authority figures to clean up my messes for me might be particular to my own instability. Yet the ideal of offloading one’s agency onto a trained functionary for the sake of maintaining one’s sense of bourgeois comfort and well-being tends to be the norm for most growing up in suburbia.

Italian psychoanalyst and philosopher Umberto Galimberti observed a shift in the nature of his patients’ struggles as time has gone on. “Young people today,” he claims, “are not well, but they don’t even understand why…In 1979 when I began working as a psychoanalyst, the problems were grounded in emotions, feelings, and sexuality. Now they concern the void of meaning…provoked by nihilism.” He continues, “they lack purpose. For them, the future has changed from promising to threatening.”[1] 

The sense of interior bewilderment is largely the result of the disintegration of the social fabric. As philosopher Mary Townsend has written, “suburbia is a breeding ground for nihilism.”[2] A bureaucratic, atomized “suburban” ethos has become pervasive, regardless of one’s locale. A mentality that offloads responsibility onto distant officials and attempts desperately to sweep the danger, conflict, risk, unpredictability of existence, and ultimately death itself under the rug fosters the illusion that we live in a universe where all risks can be managed, all engagements with reality should be mediated. Everything can be OK. But once you realize that there are wounds which can’t be fully healed, this same mentality begets the opposite idea: That in the end nothing will be OK.

The “assimilated” ideal of suburbia may celebrate diversity on the surface, but is quick to absorb any real ethnic and cultural particularities. Rootlessness, atomization, and temporariness, claims Michael Novak, are the “enlightened” ideals that non-Anglo Americans are encouraged to aspire to upon moving to the suburbs (which they should also aspire to), thus foregoing their traditions, customs, beliefs, temperaments, and general ethnic “flavor.”

Those of us whose parents came from less sheltered neighborhoods, especially those who grew up in ethnic barrios or the inner city, aspired to spare their children from the rough conditions they had to grow up in and from having to develop the street smarts they had to learn in order to survive. Such an aspiration is surely understandable and, in a certain regard, commendable. Yet the proliferation of young adults who grew up in suburbia and struggle to function in the real world unsurprisingly causes many of our parents to look back and question their flight into the suburbs. The pressure especially on non-Anglo families to assimilate and forget their cultural roots is exacerbated by the social and physical landscape of suburbia, whose man-made, artificial foundations make it quite difficult to plant and grow trees with deep roots. The generic American monoculture tends to swoop in to fill in the vacuum left by the erosion of cultural traditions from the motherland, ancestral faith, and family ties. The assimilationist cultural landscape of suburbia might shed some light on why so many of us second and third generation kids develop gender identity crises, psychological complexes, and personality disorders.

Under this atomized suburban ideal, education and work risk losing their capacity to serve as tools that open us up to discovering what it means to be human, and our broader role in the cosmos. They are rather taken to be necessary evils one must endure in order to survive. For those who don’t find themselves convinced by the narrative that a college education and white collar work are the keys to a happy life, alternatives seem scarce. Work in the skilled trades, which could be a way out, is an alien concept. Repelled by the prospect of plunging into a life devoted to an office job and the “achievement” of middle management, middle class suburban-raised young adults often turn to gig work as a means of survival. Deprived of stable worthwhile work and the dignity that developing a skill set and passion for one’s craft can impart, young people increasingly slip through the cracks, falling into opioid addiction and violence–which studies show tend to be more prevalent among suburban youth than rural and urban ones. One might call to mind characters from films like Beautiful Boy and Garden State, or from shows like Breaking Bad.

Of course, those living outside of sheltered suburbs (rural kids working on a farm, kids living in the inner city where one is responsible for one’s survival and social friction is inevitable) are less likely to be offered the easy path to the demoralizing yet lucrative job. But still, the promptings of mass media and the education system makes it an ideal for them to aspire to and often leads to feelings of disappointment and disillusion at not being able to reach such an ideal.

This spirit - let’s call it the Spirit of the Suburbs - is pervasive in developed Western societies. Characteristically, those who are touched by it are presented with a vision of success as a bureaucratic functionary which is at once thought to be the only “normal” way to live and deeply unappealing. I’d contend that there are certain features of the typical lifestyle in those settings that inherently resist the suburban spirit. In rural areas, there is more incentive for inhabitants to be in touch with the land, confront the unpredictability of the elements, and rely on family ties and direct labor than on a distant “system” to get the job done. And in urban ones, one is faced daily with social friction and the messiness of the human condition…as well as the messiness of urban pollution. Young people raised in both of these environments are in a position where they are nudged toward learning to fend for themselves, while simultaneously being more free to develop meaningful relational bonds and operate within a social imaginary with more ethnic, cultural, and existential depth.

Commenting on the predominance of atomized nuclear families in the suburbs, Camille Paglia claims that

two parents alone cannot transmit all the wisdom of life to a child. Clan elders – grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins–performed this function once. Today, poor inner-city or rural children are more likely to benefit from the old extended family or from the surrogate family of long-trusted neighbors, since working-class people are less likely to make repeated moves for job promotions. The urban child sees the harshness of the street; the rural child witnesses the frightening operations of nature. Both have contact with an eternal reality denied the suburban middle-class child, who is cushioned from risk and fear and who is expected to conform to a code of genteel good manners and repressed body language that has changed startlingly little since the Victorian era.[3]

Even when the suburban logic creeps its way into rural and urban areas, it’s harder to mask its adverse effects on peoples’ lives than it is in suburbia—take the surge in death rates due to opioid overdoses in rural regions and the spread of mental illness and crime in cities. One may think of Federico Garcia Lorca’s lament of atomized, disenchanted life in New York City in his Poet in New York Collection. As he stared out the window overlooking Canal Street and Lafayette Street in Chinatown, he complained that in the gloom of the city, “no morn or hope is possible.”[4] I’m sure plenty of people living in suburbia can relate to Lorca’s feeling. But at least Lorca could write about it and read his work in the jazz and poetry clubs of Harlem. As a native Harlemite once said, “where the people can sing, the poet can live.” How many suburbanites can recall seeing someone spontaneously break out into song on their block? Someone who is depressed in suburbia can at best put on a happy face like the others and follow the script. And there are always antidepressants.


Frank Lloyd Wright, the Prairie Style modernist architect whose works include the Guggenheim Museum and Fallingwater grew up in Riverside, Illinois, on the outskirts of Chicago–one of the earliest examples of a suburban town. When Frederick Law Olmsted (also the designer of Central Park) and Calvert Vaux designed towns like Riverside, they envisioned a new style of “detached houses” that rested “in the middle of a manicured lawn or picturesque garden.” Kenneth Jackson writes in Crabgrass Frontier, his sociological and historical study of American suburbs, that this “ideal house” was inspired by rural New England villages, while having access to the work opportunities and cultural resources of the cities…minus the inconveniences of actually living in the cities.[5]

Kurt Andersen, a scholar of what he calls America’s “fantasyland” complex, asserts that Wright’s first venture into building such a model town was rooted in a utopian fantasy, the updated version of Olmstead and Vaux’ vision. By 1932, Wright had had enough of cities, which have “served their term,” even referring to them as a “monster aggregation,” as “Moloch,” as a “tumor grow malignant,” and a “menace to the future of humanity.” And so he turned his hand to the design of Broadacre City, which would later be replicated around the country and around the globe. His utopian ideal was rooted in a taste for the artificial, a man-made “best of both worlds” solution that was detached from the harsh realities of urban decay and of the demands of actual rural life. A “promoter of the American pastoral fantasy,” Wright envisioned a future of “working in modern cities—where stature, celebrity, and big money are available—but living the pseudorustic dream of countrified isolation and independence.”[6]

Part of Wright’s contempt for cities derived from his taste for the bucolic and picturesque, making him a prophet of the soon to come post-war ideal of bourgeois respectability and “politeness.” Cities, to Wright, were certainly not picturesque, not only due to pollution, noise, and morally questionable activities, but also for the kinds of people “infesting” them. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an increasing number of inhabitants of a poor and “obnoxious” breed—Afro-Americans, Jews, Catholics, and Southern Europeans—were making their way into America’s cities. What to do for respectable, middle and upper class “regular Americans” who just wanted a quiet, pleasant life for their families?

Thus were born the redlining codes that aimed to keep blacks and recent immigrants out of the suburbs and stuck in the inner cities. As much as city planners claimed their zoning policies were based on class and socioeconomic qualifications, the ulterior motives of racism were not too difficult to sniff out. The prospect of learning to appreciate and build community with those with a more complex and deeply rooted sense of identity and of the world around them was, needless to say, daunting for those in the process of developing a flatter cultural, social, and cosmological worldview.

This Regular Suburban American non-ethnic vision was constructed: it was not the inevitable outgrowth of anything in Anglo culture, but a deliberately flattened midcentury ideal of tamed humanity: Grilling Man.

The moral concerns of segregation (as well as the apathetic attitude toward the excessive use of natural resources in the suburbs) aside, Wright’s reality-denying ethos should also raise concerns about the impact his vision has on the psychological, aesthetic, and metaphysical experience of life in suburbia. How sustainable is an environment that blocks out the reality of our deepest human needs in favor of artificial fantasies?

As proponents of anti-suburbanism like Adrian Crook, Rollie Williams, James Howard Kunstler, and the anonymous YouTuber known as Not Just Bikes point out, commuting a long distance daily from one’s home to work place—aside from being tiring—normalizes the feeling of uprootedness from a particular locale. It contributes to the notion that one’s dwelling ought to be a private space separated from where one works, plays, goes to school, and goes shopping. The burden of having to get into a car to get a loaf of bread, go to soccer practice, or get a coffee with friends is a compromise one makes for relief from the burden of noise and traffic. The vast majority of suburbs, insists Not Just Bikes, are designed to be car dependent.[7] Car dependent towns make spontaneous interactions among kids nearly impossible: you’re always going to need to depend on someone’s mom driving you somewhere. In addition to fostering dependency and isolation from others, the increased amount of cars on the road and space for roadways makes walking more dangerous for kids, as sidewalks begin to disappear.

The impulse to remove commerce from residential areas and create more space for cars inspires ugly and wasteful strip malls on the sides of highways. The lack of people hanging out casually outside of the home - what Jane Jacobs called “eyes on the street” - fosters greater anonymity and isolation, where a child can get injured or even kidnapped without anyone intervening to help them. Better to make them totally dependent on adult supervision than rely on the spontaneous and generous concern of one’s neighbors. The atomizing effects of suburban life and fixation with maintaining a risk-free, predictable lifestyle runs concurrent with what Charles Taylor calls the “great disembedding” of the individual person from a wider, meaning-filled or enchanted cosmos[8], or from what Alisdair MacIntyre refers to as greater metanarratives that account for forces beyond our rational, autonomous wills.[9] Not only does this environment discourage spontaneity, adaptability, and learning to deal with conflict, it futilely tries to block out all unpredictability.

The fantasy of the perfectibility of the human into the post-historical Grilling Man is determined to ignore the evidence that indicates that man is constantly in conflict with violent and destructive forces—whether they be from God or the gods, the natural world, or our own unruly wills or those of others. Like the powerful flows of the tide raging against a dam wall, the Dionysian force will always make the Apollonian impulse to impose order recognize its own limits.

Grilling Man is one version, a disembedded and generically American version, of the polite and respectable Northern European person. This esteem for “politeness” and respectability thrives on a distaste for the “enthusiasm,” superstitions, and magical thinking characteristic of non-Northern European cultures, and of non-mainline Protestant religious worldviews. Spontaneous outbursts of Dionysiac, ecstatic energy manifested in religious processions, celebrations, street festivals, and in more passionate temperaments disturb the peace of the suburban ideal. The suburban monoculture that eschews the healthy balance of self-reliance and communal dependence in favor of outsourcing solutions to distant bureaucratic entities will eventually suffocate the most human of impulses. The “horizontal” ideal of well-being is incapable of fully flattening out the yearning to reach for ideals that would have us gazing vertically toward the infinity of the cosmos, and of restraining our inner Augustinian restlessness. To be Grilling Man at the end of history is not fully satisfying for anyone: and for most, it is simply impossible.

It will only be so long until we hit the wall that forces us to confront those forces beyond our rational wills, and that we lack the tools to make sense of and adequately deal with. There are urges in us that we are told to sedate with a naively optimistic daily routine or with prescription (or non-prescription) drugs. The destructive impulse—from self-harm, suicide, and mass violence, to more benign forms like cyberbullying— cannot be fully ousted from the suburbs. These outbursts, whose roots are set deeply in our nature, are impervious to flat, sociological and psychological interventions from trained professionals. There’s a reason why anti-bullying and #MentalHealthAwarenessMonth campaigns do little to counter the destructive impulse of disillusioned suburban teens.

“Marooned in the suburbs” says Paglia, suburban families are “frantically over scheduled and geographically transient…[W]ith few ties to neighbors and little sustained contact with relatives” and “where the parents are white-collar professionals who do brainwork,” suburbanites are “seething with frustrations and tensions.”[10] Elsewhere she writes that while middle-class culture may be affluent, it’s “spiritually empty. The attractive houses of the Columbine killers are mere shells, seething with the poisons of the isolated nuclear family and its Byzantine denials…Bourgeois ‘niceness’” she concludes “is its own imperialism.”[11] 

Take examples from pop culture like the 2004 film Mean Girls, a campy comedy that is also an anthropological study of suburban teen girls. We meet the main character Cady Heron as she is moving with her anthropologist parents from Africa, where they were studying tribal life, to a generic American suburban town. Heron’s omniscient voiceover narration proceeds like an anthropologist, studying the social and mating habits of suburban teenagers. She recalls that when observing animals in the Sahara, they resolved conflicts directly…usually in a manner that involved physical violence. “But this was girlworld,” she recalls, as she discerns how to confront a classmate who has done her wrong.

Direct confrontation is anathema. Passive aggressiveness and covert sabotage are the modes of conflict resolution. The end of the film eventually erupts into a violent battle between all of the girls in Cady’s high school, as their repressed anger and internal insecurities come to a head. Lohan’s other roles (Freaky Friday, Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen) similarly feature suburban teen girls who find themselves in conflict with confining and unimaginative social norms that either lead to rebellion or neurotic and destructive breakdowns. Is it any wonder that Lohan, along with several of her fellow Nickelodeon and Disney teen stars, suffered mental breakdowns?


It would be wretchedly naive and idealistic of me to suggest we all shun the grill, that we all flee en masse from the suburbs into cities or rural areas. Nor do I contend that the rebellion against the suburbia and the worldview it’s spawned are particular to millennials or Gen Z. The counter cultural movements of the 1960s are examples of an attempt to break from the stifling bourgeois sensibility that was standard at the time. Grilling Man had an earlier incarnation as what was called the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.

But the reality is that those who outgrew the youthful rebelliousness of the Rock and Roll and Free Love eras and went on to have children of their own largely settled for a modified version of bourgeois suburban life. Besides, as Galimberti cited, the nature of angst among the young today is markedly more existential than that of their parents, as they flock to extremes that toy with more grandiose ontological implications: reactionary or radical-left politics, gender fluidity, anarchism, occultism, traditionalist Catholicism… To flock to such existential fringes can feel as though one is opening the door to refreshing and meaningful questions that lead to a hopeful future, but what is behind those doors can also be hellish. To discern the way out of suburban suffocation without falling into any of the dark pits from which, at the cost of our humanity, it protects us, is difficult.

But we are tired of easy things.


[1] U. Galimberti, “A 18 anni via da casa: ci vuole un servizio civile di 12 mesi”, interview by S. Lorenzetto, Corriere della Sera, September 15, 2019.

[2] Mary Townsend, “The Walking Wounded,” Hedgehog Review, Spring 2017.

[3] Camille Paglia, Vamps and Tramps, Vintage, 1994.

[4] Federico Garcia Lorca, “La Aurora,” Poeta en Nueva York, 1940.

[5] Kenneth Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, Oxford University Press, 1985.

[6] Kurt Andersen, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, Random House, 2017.

[7] Not Just Bikes, “Suburbs that don’t suck–streetcar suburbs,” YouTube, 17 May 2021 <>.

[8] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, Harvard University Press, 2004.

[9] Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, University of Notre Dame Press, 1981.

[10] Paglia, Vamps and Tramps.

[11] Paglia, “American Poison,” Salon, 28 April 1998, <>.

Stephen G. Adubato

Stephen G. Adubato is a journalism fellow at COMPACT Magazine and a professor of philosophy in NYC. He is also the curator of the Cracks in Postmodernity blog, podcast, and magazine.