The man is keeping his options open. He has been doing it for some time now and it is, I suppose, what he does best.

Through the decade I have known him, he has let good women and great chances slip through his hands like water. But he has held onto his options like a lifeline.

In fact, you might say that at 30 his most longlasting, deeply held commitment is to noncommitment. But perhaps that is too pat.

The option tender is, after all, a man of some charm. He wears the appropriate suit and air of interest. He carries the right briefcase and credentials. He has a good sense of taste and humor. And he travels light.

There is nothing wrong with him, nothing at all. Just something different. How can I explain it?

The option tender is a man who works carefully at his job, but always has a resume out. The option tender is a man who enjoys seeing a woman, but always has an eye out.

He doesn't get involved. He responds to affection with alarm and to praise with wariness. What one person calls connections, he calls bonds. And if one person values commitment -- well, he values options.

The man is not unaware of himself. He once described life to me as a kind of one-plate-buffet table: if you fill up your plate at the beginning, you won't have any more room at the end of the table. What, he asked earnestly, if the shrimp cocktail is in the last dish?

He prefers, you see, to leave some space for what might come next. So he serves himself only the stingiest spoonfuls. The option tender says that this way he is keeping his life open-ended.

He is not the only one. I am told that he belongs to a kind of subculture, a whole generation living in a permanent state of potential.

I am told, moreover, by people like Gail Sheehy that they have a label. They are called the Postponing Generation, as if there were an Andromeda strain of delayed adolescence running through their age group. But I wonder if postponing can become incurably habit-forming.

The option tender had a father once. I knew the man. He had married at 22, fathered at 23, gone to war at 24. By 30 he had three children, one mortgage and a job that turned into a vice presidency after 15 years of hard labor. By 54 he was dead.

"Locked in," the son had told me at his father's funeral. "He spent his whole life locked in." His father's plate was overloaded, and he had fallen under its weight.

So, the son mixed guilt with terror. He built his father's life story into his own life plan. Where his father was locked in, he would be open. Where his father had burdens, he would have space.

We all do that. Whatever else we tell ourselves, we won't make the same mistakes as our parents. We are much more conscious of what was missing in their lives than what was present. Much more conscious of what was bad than what was good.

We don't make their mistakes. We make our own.

The Workaholic Heart Attack Victim has become almost a cliche, negative role model, if you must, for a whole generation of sons. He is, to young men, what the displaced homemaker is to young women: The Ghost of Christmas Future.

The man's sister, who watched her mother become a widow at 51, also knows what she doesn't want to be when she grows up. An unemployed widow, an unemployable divorcee. Her protection against the ghosts is work. His protection is . . . keeping his options open.

The 30-year-old man doesn't describe it this way. He says that where his father had obligations, he has freedom; where his father had responsibilities, he has opportunities; where his father had a wife, three children, a mortgage and a vice presidency, he has . . . his options.

But what I wonder is simply this: Where is the line between being locked in and frozen out? When do options become emptiness? When do you realize that the only way to keep a full table of choices is to keep an empty plate?

When does the option tender who has everything in potential realize that he holds nothing in the palm of his hand?