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Arrested Development

Some of us look grown-up but aren't.

Holiday cards have been arriving from old friends — college roommates, childhood pals. Most of us haven't seen each other in years, even decades. Inside a card that arrived yesterday, a lush flocked confection featuring the Three Kings, the sender wrote a note suggesting that we meet for coffee the next time she's in town. Why did this make me freeze? No bad blood seethes between me and the sender. We were friends. We shared clothes, stayed up late watching The Twilight Zone, and made cookies together. But that was then and this is now, and were we to meet again, she'd see that she is all grown up and I am not.

Some of us look grown up but aren't. We walk around with suits and briefcases and car keys and annuities. But inside, we are five. Ten. Twelve. Sixteen. We sit in boardrooms, travel the world, even write books. But we are kids, still playing dress-up, playing house. Our bodies matured but our minds did not. Now — playing catch-up, playing spy — we feel left out of the adult world, certain that our would-be peers are whispering behind our backs, or speaking in a code we do not know.

See? What a childish fear, right there: They're all talking in code!

We are the ones at whom others have hissed Grow up! so many times that we now tune it out. They call us flighty, scatterbrained, irresponsible, illogical, impatient. Here's another word for it: We're immature. We are stuck in the past, not usually by choice but because, like dud popcorn kernels or bonsai trees, we failed to grow. The ones who were supposed to show us how to grow did not. They did not know or were not there. Or traumas held us in their grip. Portals inscribed with mystical initiation signs glimmered, awaiting us, but no: We wandered back the other way or balked. We're stuck.

Can childishness be fixed? Perhaps. Should it? Well, is it hurting anyone? The childish are not well-suited to parenthood or high-stress jobs. The downsides loom. The fears. Imagine wanting to hide under beds. Imagine wanting to flee down the street in sneakers, to the swing set, to the sand, while juggling house payments and wearing bifocals. It's hard.

Then again, some aspects of childhood are worth retaining. Wonder, joy, dreams — you know the drill. In the 2002 film Mr. Deeds, a remake of the 1939 classic, a simple country bumpkin (played by Adam Sandler, who has built a successful career on portraying childish adults who become heroes without selling out and without quite growing up) inherits a fortune. Addressing a crowd of New Yorkers faced with a brutal business decision, Longfellow Deeds argues that adults have lost touch with their childhood dreams. A man in the crowd confesses that, at age 11, he dreamed of becoming a veterinarian but that he now owns a chain of slaughterhouses. "We've all compromised," Deeds intones. Another man in the crowd, who at 11 dreamed of becoming a magician, now operates a porn site.

"Our eleven-year-old selves," Deeds says, "would wanna kick us in the ass all over the place."

I'm still not ready to meet that friend for coffee.