Let Down and Building Nothing Out of Something

Is dating in your twenties just one big let down?

Days from my thirtieth birthday, I was listening to “Interstate 8,” by Modest Mouse—music of my high school years and from the Pacific Northwest, my home state. “Interstate 8” and “Broke” are songs for the shoe gazer, the existentialist, the emotional atheist. I’m going nowhere but I’m guaranteed to be late. Chaotic sounds weaving in and out like a wet wind bumping pine branches against a window.

In the weeks before my birthday, I had read a commentary by Charles M. Blow, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times. His piece advocated that parents focus less on suppressing or naming their child’s sexuality before a child can know it for him or herself (“Bossy Pants?” March 12, 2014). Blow called this obsession with purity “a societal disease” and wrote that our society sacrifices “genuine youth and seasoned maturity” to a cut-out of human sexuality. When I read it, I wished that I had encountered the moving sentiments in his column years ago. You know that God has no sides.

The four postgraduate years in which I lived in Portland, Oregon, contained a series of disappointing failures to date men. The incongruity of fantasy, expectations, and life experiences contributed to a very real loneliness. Even after I was no longer single and (I think) the best wing woman ever, interactions with males continued to frustrate me; it seemed to me that none would even have a friendly drink with me after sex was taken off the table. Now that I live a pseudo-professional life in New York where men, single and not single, continue to speak to me after I reveal that I’m in a relationship, I wonder whether it was the culture of Portland, or something else that made it impossible for me to make friends with men. How have you been, how have you been, how have you?

Men in Portland are far from the domineering type, generally speaking, but they are also a carefree lot, particularly those in their twenties. Living too fast to live too long, as one sometimes-Portland-based musician, Langhorne Slim, wrote in a song that urges the listener to get back to the wild.

Mr. Slim & I
Mr. Slim & I

Once, one of my female friends hilariously lamented to me the abundance of Portland men who are musicians “on the side.” So many side projects, so little time to find a full-time job. Not until I moved to New York did I give some credence to Mr. Slim’s sentiments and the desire to somehow free oneself. Now, with the recently launched HeForShe campaign and with Charles M. Blow’s lovely memoir that honestly confronts his own sexuality, I do have more sympathy with the gender trap that all of us are stuck in.

When I first arrived in Portland in 2009, literally off the train from up-tight Washington, DC, I moved in with boys in their late twenties, who were musicians “on the side.” One morning on my way to the print shop I worked at, I walked into the kitchen to find my DJ roommate sipping a PBR while gearing down from a night of adventures. “Mixing beats and chasing girls” (his words) was his mission in life at that particular stage. The unemployed roommate wanted to date me, but said it would be too weird to date a roommate and dated someone else. Then, when he was ready to date me, I was unavailable and he reprimanded me for not being more straightforward with him. He bemoaned the fact that this sort of ambiguous-dating thing kept happening to him.

In my twenties, my own pining for a guy seemed coupled with pining for a rule book for single women to carry with them. If I could just anticipate a guy’s behavior, I muttered to my female friends while we lapped up Portland’s excellent craft beer. While nothing could prevent my young heart from being regularly vivisected by love, I wished I had obtained at least a philosophical approach to dating that would show me the way to a happy romance. It seems as though every 20-something I meet is in the midst of some complicated situation that can only be predicted by the fortune-telling of pop songs. Compassion is not guaranteed to soften the ache of love, but I think that it might be a start.

I wish that we had all been kinder to each other. The twenties don’t exist in a vacuum; no matter how much you try, you can’t let go. When you experience love (platonic or otherwise) with someone, you grow to a better understanding of yourself. The wise 30-year-old Mary now sees that even romantic let-downs don’t erase beauty. As with music, the feedback from a partner changes your reality; your life is played at a different tempo with everyone you meet. The distortion rises in proportion to your anxiety—the drum raps in three quick beats, five times in succession. This is a song you can play again.

2 thoughts on “Let Down and Building Nothing Out of Something

  1. Sermin: Excellent piece. I wonder if it’s a 20-something thing or a 20-something-nowadays thing? How much of it is maturation, and are we postponing that maturation beyond what once was the point of it? The perpetual bro-hood?

    Tom: These lame 20-something Portlanders lack the agility of this 30-something. Those who do not appreciate Mary lack eyes as much as common sense.


    1. I had been thinking more about the maturation issues when I wrote this back in March, but in reviewing it again for this post, I thought more about gender and forgave the 20-somethings their lack of responsible adulthood. Now I look at that spectrum of terrible dating behavior with more pity because it short-changes us all, unfortunately. Is there any way for a young, single person to be more big-hearted? Someday!


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