I'm 28. How do I grow up?

Certain choices seem safe but boring. Others seem cool but dumb. What to do?

Published March 16, 2006 11:10AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I don't have any of the dramatic family, substance or psychological issues it seems you normally help people with. For the most part, I have a pretty nice life that on paper might be enviable. I have a job that is both lucrative and fulfilling, loyal friends, no long-standing family rifts. The issue at hand is that I don't think I know how to grow up. I'm 28 and have mastered the basic life skills for adulthood. I have my own apartment and pay my bills on time. I have a reliable and insured car, a retirement plan, health insurance, and a fairly predictable career path.

The problem is that I do not have a boyfriend and it has been a long time since I have had a real relationship. Since breaking up with my college boyfriend of four years, four years ago, I have proceeded to have a string of emotionally fulfilling but completely impractical relationships. There was the six months I spent with a Ukrainian who told me upfront that he would only marry someone who understood his culture and spoke his native language. Then there was the six months spent with a married father of three. I adored being around him but I didn't want him to leave his family (he wouldn't have even if I had wanted him to). Finally there was the eight months spent with a fantastic and caring man five years my junior who is still too busy playing grown-up with his first job, first car, first real couch, etc., to think about settling down anytime soon. I don't think it takes a psychologist to see a pattern.

On paper I want the whole family thing: husband, house, kids and a dog. I also realize that while 28 is not exactly old, it is probably a good time to start approaching relationships and life choices more seriously. I did the proper thing in this day and age. I took some cute pictures, wrote a witty profile, and started online dating. I like to think I am engaging, eclectic and informed. In a busy 21st century American life, there is limited time to consume the books, movies and music that drive our popular culture and water cooler discussions. Because I don't have that many hours in a week to keep up on the latest and greatest, I make an effort to read quality books by new writers and seek out movies that don't star future governors or computer-generated aliens. I find that most men I meet via computerized matching don't have much in common with me.

Then I met one who did. He got my music snob jokes, he got my engineer nerd jokes, he got me. I am slowly becoming convinced that he might be a catch. On paper he is perfect; in person, I feel nothing. Well, nothing romantic. I can't dismiss this one for any of my normal snobbish knee-jerk excuses: likes televised sports too much, thinks Dan Brown is literature, or Kung-Pao chicken is exotic.

I identify closely with the meticulously cultivated hipster life I have worked at achieving over the last 10 years. It is full of poet and musician friends, seeing new bands and obscure movies, and going to gallery openings. When I am faced with a decent man with a decent job I imagine his khaki pants might get off the floor at night and bind my wrists, forcing me to march lock step into a subdivision full of minivans where I will never buy a new CD again. At the same time I look at my friends' attractive, witty and well-read boyfriends and wonder why a woman in her late 20s would cohabit with a man whose career entails working in a coffee shop 20 hours a week and riding a skateboard to get there. I mean, what are they thinking? And then I remember that I am not exactly in a position to dole out advice. I do not know how to accept the idea that a healthy relationship with the right person can include financial stability and hipster diversions or that growing up does not mean giving up my more bohemian friends.

How do I know the difference between not being attracted to an individual and not being open to a real relationship? Conversely, when I get crushes on those cute pierced young men who work in the record shop, how do I know the difference between a genuine emotional connection and the thrill that comes from receiving attention and not feeling so lonely for a bit?

Walking the Line in Chicago

Dear Walking the Line,

Let me suggest a couple of general approaches. You are at the stage in life where you have to make choices that will determine where you live and with whom, whether you raise children and with whom. You are deciding how to live your life. So it will help to put your questions in terms of action rather than knowledge. It will help to ask not "How do I know?" but "How do I choose?" and ultimately "What do I do?"

In fact, as the subject line of your original e-mail was "How to Grow Up," I might go so far as to say that the ability to act without knowing everything is one of the key attributes of an adult. You're going to have to make the best choices you can make at this particular time.

That means that you have to ask questions that are answerable. You ask, Which is it? Is it this? Or is it that? But it's not this or that. What you have is more a fractal complexity, a probability problem; you have a great deal of information about the world and people around you and also about yourself, how you feel, who you are, and where you are headed. What you can recognize in all this is patterns and probabilities. You are going to have to make some guesses and test them. Based on that, you can take action.

So let's see how that works in practice. Let's rephrase your first question and ask: If I'm not attracted to an individual but I think I may become attracted to him in the future, what should I do?

You should test it out. Spend some time with him. What happens? If you spend some time with him and are not attracted, then you are not attracted to him.

Or say you are not attracted to his pants but you are attracted to his car. What do you do then? What is more important to you, the pants or the car? Can you get the car without the pants?

Speaking of pants and cars, let me say this: Beware of reading too many symbols. One is schooled these days in reading symbols; in the postmodern universe where there is no presumed center, no deep identity, no final truth, one falls back, overmuch I think, on reading symbols. The Dockers, for instance, symbolize ignorance and futility. Working in a record store symbolizes fidelity to aesthetic ideals; working in an insurance company symbolizes capitulation.

But in the complicated, fractal, material world, sometimes a job is just a job and sometimes pants are just pants. If you have a core self, if you have an identity, then you are the same person no matter what pants you wear or what job you work.

Without a belief in a core self, however, in the sense that Fredric Jamieson talks about the "depth model," it is difficult to see action as action rather than gesture. What I would say to you about adulthood, to liberate you, is that certain actions are just actions, not gestures. That is adulthood. When you get a flat tire and have to fix it, that is not symbolic. That is a flat tire. When the roof leaks and you get a new roof put on, that is not symbolic of middle-class existence. That is keeping the rain out. So I speculate that for your generation, schooled in postmodernism, part of moving out of the postmodern maze, which contains in its complexities many cruel intellectual traps, is learning to see action simply as action, not as gesture. You are not your iPod. You are not your pants.

This does entail leaving behind certain portions of a system of meaning. But there are many systems of meaning. There is the biological system of meaning, for instance, which offers stark choices against which gestures of style are futile. You may be a vegan traveling across the country in a mobile tattoo van and you may be starving and see a McDonald's, and you may stop and eat a Big Mac because you are hungry. Good for you: The biological trumps the symbolic. You recognize that. You save yourself, so you can save the planet ... later. If your mobile tattoo van that runs on bio-diesel breaks down and if in the process of repairing the complicated fuel heating mechanism that allows it to run on bio-diesel your jeans are destroyed and you can only afford a pair of Dockers that are marked down because by this time even in Oklahoma they are boring, you buy and wear the Dockers. Such an act does not define you; they are just pants.

So that may seem a little off-topic but I continue to believe that understanding the death of modernism and the power of postmodernism to shape how we perceive the world is key to making decisions about adulthood. You have to learn to see how you are seeing in order to recognize how you are constructing what you are seeing.

Anyway, now, as I am writing this, our local public radio station, KQED, is conducting a discussion with Tamara Draut, author of "Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead." I am reminded that aside from questions of style and personal maturity, there are, of course, important economic hurdles.

So in general I suggest you learn and study and try to wriggle free of the soup of gesture in which you have been marinated. Oh, boy. What a phrase. Help me! I'm neither modern nor postmodern!

And good luck! Adulthood is not all that much fun. But the alternative, of course, is to be pitiful, or dead.

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