On being an organism composed of specialized cells that are in and of themselves universes

Dear Andrew Dickson,

I am 29, a big “last year” like 39. The last year of a self-respecting ladies’ guilt free philandering, with ideologies as well as men. I have spurious dilemmas in all three major categories of Life:

Career: Applying for doctorate programs after only two years of serious study in the molecular sciences, though very seriously pursuing lab life. Before that I was an oil painter. It has been difficult to transition from the easy-going lifestyle of my friends and “buckle down” to such a degree. I am unsure if it is worth pursuing academia when it involves sacrificing so much energy and time, with so little payback. What does it mean to be happy in a career?

Romance/Family: String of relationships, the long ones with real “assholes.” Read-ier to be serious but now unable to bring that up compulsively at the too soon point. Happy to be single, but worried my last few males have left me traumatized by weird notes left in the bottom of blueberry cartons, and pissing contests over who is more smarter.

Spirituality etc: Concerns regarding the greater implications of being a female, especially as that relates to compromise in relationships (see pissing contests, yadda et. al). Concerns regarding the greater implications of being an organism composed of specialized cells that are in and of themselves universes. Concerns regarding conflicts between ‘heart’ and ‘mind.’

Any thoughts?

Concerned with Input/Output Ratio

Dear Concerned,

First off, ah to be 29 again. I spent the last few days of my twenties in Ashland where my parents graciously took my now wife and I to celebrate my 30th birthday. We stayed at a nice motel, ate great meals and saw several awe-inspiring plays. We had a fabulous time, but I could never quite forget that rent was due 3 days after the trip was slated to end and I had less than a $100 to my name.

I had never hesitated asking to borrow money from my parents before; I worked in the erratic freelance film community and I had a good track record of paying them back after the inevitable big job. But somehow turning 30 felt like it was time to stand on my own two feet. I held my tongue, and silently hoped my birthday card would contain a check. It didn’t, it was a pricey trip after all.

When we got back to Portland I turned to my go-to get rich quick scheme. There used to be a used bookstore on 30th and Killingsworth (where the restaurant DOC now stands) that bought whatever books Powell’s couldn’t sell for pennies on the dollar. It was packed to the rafters with their castoffs. I had a deal worked out with the owner where I could fill an entire box for $5. I filled six boxes. And I spent the next few days driving between the different Powell’s stores selling them back the very books they didn’t want anymore. I wore out my welcome with the Hawthorne store book buyers in particular, but I made rent.

All that’s to say it’s right to feel like you’re at a major threshold. I’m not very knowledgeable about astrology or anything else even vaguely in the new age universe, but I understand those that are believe there’s more to turning 30 or 40 then just changing the number at the front of your age.

But I might disagree that just because you’re on the verge of changing decades means an end to “guilt free philandering with ideologies as well as men.” If you want that sort of thinking and behavior to end, turning 30 is a great excuse, but don’t change just because you think you’re turning an arbitrary age, new age astrology aside.

I choose to stop borrowing money from my parents when I turned 30, but I didn’t really get my shit together to get more than a month or two ahead of my rent for another 3 or 4 years. And I did some of the work I’m proudest of in those short years. I would hate to think of where I’d be now if I hadn’t spent those few, extra crucial years making art before I took a real job.

You’ve got a lot on your mind right now. Whether or not to go into graduate school, and how to have better relationships are big questions in their own right. But your third query is the one maybe sums them all up. By “concerns regarding the greater implications of being an organism composed of specialized cells that are in and of themselves universes” I think you’re asking what does it all add up to. What’s the point, the meaning of it all? What does it mean not just to be happy in career, and relationships but in life?

Big fucking questions.

I’m not going to answer all your these questions one-by-one. I’m not even going to necessarily answer them head on, although let me address the doctoral program here and now.

Don’t go to graduate school, at least not this coming fall. You don’t sound particularly excited about it, especially the workload. I don’t think people who are ready to buckle down put it in quotes, as if they’re trying it on for size and don’t like the way it fits. Maybe you’ll be ready this winter, maybe next fall, but not immediately. You’ve got something else you need to do first.

So here’s my piece of curveball advice.

Get out of your comfort zone and do something that shakes up your world profoundly. Immerse yourself into something completely even dangerously new. Not physically dangerous, but something that might endanger how you’re thinking and living right now.

I’m not talking about a modern day Vision Quest you drive around the country alone or a motorcycle or live in the woods for a month trying to figure it out. Think too hard and you’ll just give yourself a headache. You’re leaning further towards your head versus your heart then I think you want to right now.

So throw yourself into experience that will keep you so busy and spin your head around so completely that you won’t have to think.

Go work on an organic goat farm. Jump in the van and be a roadie for a punk band. Reach out to your friend who moved to Romania and take them up on their offer to live in the squat and work under the table at the coffee shop. Follow whatever crazy dream you had 8 years ago that’s almost but not completely gone, be it going to New York to try out for Saturday Night Live, attending clown school or living in Las Cruces, New Mexico for a few months to paint landscapes of a sky never seems to end.

Have an adventure. It doesn’t have to be for two years. Go for few months. But be sure to get out of Portland.

If you’ve been doing crazy stuff like this for the last few years, well, never mind. But I suspect you haven’t. So if this sounds even slightly intriguing, do it. If this sounds completely terrifying, then you have to do it.

My theory is that going and doing something 180 degrees different from what you’re currently planning on doing is going to help you figure some of these big questions out. Not because you’re thinking about them all the time, but because you’ll be actively experiencing and experimenting with other kinds of living, meeting new kinds of people and having the same conversations and asking the same questions you are now but in completely new contexts.

Don’t worry so much about your output right now. I think you need more input. Fill your metaphorical well. You’ll have time and inspiration to put things out into the world once you’re out in it or when you get back.

So, decide what you’re going to do, set a deadline for going and have fun!

The buckle-less Portland lifestyle, doctorate programs, lab life, and the big questions will be waiting for you to get back. Men too.

Speaking of men, if you meet one during your adventure, as you inevitable will, give him the once over. If he’s an asshole, move on. Go through your mental rolodex of bottom of the blueberry box notes if you need extra inspiration. You deserve and want better. If he passes that test, ask him if he’s a feminist. That’s a sure way to get a good conversation about gender roles and compromise in relationships going. Assuming you’re reasonably sure he’s a good guy who doesn’t feel the need to wear the pants don’t analyze it to death. So what if he wants to move to Orlando after clown school and work at Disneyland and you want to move back to Portland. Enjoy each others company and see what happens. You never know what nice guy will do for a girl he falls in love with. Oh, and if you do find one of these actually not terribly uncommon men, try not make him feel dumber than you, even if he is.

Hope that helps!

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One Response to On being an organism composed of specialized cells that are in and of themselves universes

  1. Input/output says:

    Oddly enough, I had already taken your advice before reading it. The ‘big adventure’is a move up to Seattle and a flirtation with industry before I settle deeply into the armchair of academia. Not the circus of imagining, but definitely a challenge to my comfort zone. I think you are right, about the man and the pants, something I never really considered an issue, but comes up time & again, and has led to some relatively bad situations. I strongly rejected my mother’s anti-male feminism, but replaced it with a vaccuum of indecision. Being realistic about the times we live in and living up to it in turn (postfeminist, post-postmodern, pre-first contact, world-wide-webbed) is a responsibility I have flirted with at best, shirked at most. Being a Woman of the New Age (think NASA, not Joseph Campbell) implies expecting Men to rise to the occasion as well. Who is going up in that rocket with me? Yipes, that IS a decision I should make carefully. This is the new note card I will add to the deck of my ipad’s rolodex, summed up in a phrase I read on a protest sign; “I didn’t come from your rib, I came from a vagina,” but with the following caveat: We all did! I think men as well as women are trying to figure out how to order and organize society in a meaningful way after all these big social changes. I think a good metaphor to move on with is the rocketship into space, lord knows I don’t want to get blasted up there with JUST ANYBODY!!!

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