This credo has served me well. I have lived alone for almost 13 years, and throughout that time I have maintained, as closely as possible, the habits of someone who doesn’t.
Imagine that I had shrugged my shoulders, back in the spring of 1999, and said, “Ah, screw it. This apartment is my castle. I can use my pinky if I feel like it, and I can talk to myself like this if I feel like it, too.” What would have been the harm?
Oh, I think we both know. If I had given my pinky free reign over my rice, Chaos would have entered my home and urinated in the shower (another thing I am not allowed to do). I would have grown churlish and slovenly, a man of ill manners and eccentric habits. Years on, I’d find myself out on the town with a buxom and elegant lady. [Reader: “Why buxom?” Writer: “Mind your own business.”] I’d regale her with tales of life on the Continent, pepper our conversation with delicious bon mots, and punctuate each disquisition with an adage of Pascal’s.
Optimism would shine from every horizon. Seals floating on icebergs in oceans far off would clap their fins and bark in my approval. If a Tarot lady were observing the scene, she’d lay out whatever card has to do with two people having enjoyable sex later that night.
And then, suddenly: Disaster, delivered by the tiniest of fingers. Without realizing it, I would idly nudge the last bit of my risotto all’ortica onto my fork.
The maître d' would gasp. A busboy would cry out. My stunning, curvaceous date would suddenly fake a cough and look away. With a stammer she’d say, “G-g-golly, mister! I gotta powder my nose—and no foolin’!” I’d wait for her to return, in vain. If this is the sort of man who uses his pinky as a utensil, she would think as she stole off into the night, then how else is he a total scumbag?
This horrific and dystopian version of my genteel eating habits is occasioned by an article in yesterday’s New York Times, titled, “One is the Quirkiest Number.” The thesis appears six paragraphs deep on D1:
“In a sense, living alone represents the self let loose. In the absence of what [some guy] calls ‘surveilling eyes,’ the solo dweller is free to indulge in his or her odder habits – what is sometimes referred to as Secret Single Behavior. Feel like standing naked in your kitchen at 2 a.m., eating peanut butter from the jar? Who’s to know?”
The article’s Exhibit A is a 28 year old singleton named Amy who, among other freakish traits, is prone to “running in place during TV commercials; speaking conversational French to herself while making breakfast (she listens to a language CD); singing Journey songs in the shower; and removing only the clothes she needs from her dryer, thus turning it into a makeshift dresser.”
Most examples in the article are like this: a mix of slightly anti-social (running in place for no reason) and not at all (singing in the shower). Some of the people mentioned keep extremely odd hours that would drive a spouse up the wall (anti-social). Others wear comfortable clothes that aren’t nice enough to wear outside (who doesn’t?).
Still, I get the point—and I did enjoy the glimpse into the lives of others. The rise of single-living in America is a very popular topic now (e.g., among countless others, David Brooks’s Op-Ed this week). 28% of homes now have only one person living there, which is a new and very modern phenomenon. (In 1950, the number was just below 10%.) Without a doubt, many of us in that 28% have adopted some strange habits. The strangest depicted in the article, to me, concern eating. To wit:
“‘I very rarely have what you would call “meals,” said Steve Zimmer, a computer programmer in his 40s who lives by himself in a Manhattan loft. Instead of adhering to regular meals or meal times, he said, he makes ‘six or seven’ trips an hour to the refrigerator and subsists largely on cereal.”
This is one of several culinary examples, each of them odd, and perhaps why I offer my own eating habits as the glimpse into my one-bedroom life. I don’t mean to knock Mr. Zimmer, the computer programmer in his 40s who lives by himself in that Manhattan loft, but I bet I enjoy my meals more than he his “meals.” While I’m definitely not Ms. Manners, fastidiously folding my napkins and laying place settings before a few matching candles each night, I do serve myself meals that I would serve a guest. They’re informal—paper towels for napkins, oven mitts for trivets—but they’re traditional. My reasoning is this: The basic eating habits of society (however modifiable by sleep habits or varied by culture) have been optimized over time by the wisdom of generations. It would be, I think, presumptuous for me to dismiss it all as a mindless convention or think I could improve upon it by whim and urge.
The goal of any society is to be a civilized one, and the measure of a civilization is how well its members live and get along. A home then is a microcosm of the civilization at large, and it does not matter how small that home is. We don’t chew with our mouths open at a wedding in honor of the people sitting around us, right? Obviously, yes. However, it does not follow that you leave civilization once you leave the wedding and find yourself all alone, with the door closed and the blinds dropped. As my man said:
If it is asserted that civilization is a real advance in the condition of man—and I think that it is, though only the wise improve their advantages—it must be shown that it has produced better dwellings…
Thoreau goes on after the ellipses to say “without making them more costly,” but the statement (from Walden, chapter one, “Economy”) still stands despite my elision and my slightly modified purposes. If chewing with your mouth closed is a real advance in the condition of man—and I think that it is, though only the wise know how to keep a Dorito’s crunch sufficiently muffled—it must be shown that it has value in solitude as well as in community.
When you chew with your mouth closed, when you eat on a plate at a table instead of standing over the sink, when you [pats self on back] use a knife to land those last bits of rice onto your fork even though no one can see you, you are making yourself the companion worthy of respect and dignity. You are making your own, private moment in your own, private home part of and worthy of civilization. And, you probably enjoy your food more.
I can think of no examples to offer the New York Times Home section of how living alone has warped me. (Well, I despise TV. That could turn out to be a bit of a problem if I ever cohabit with an American again… but that’s a long-ass essay for another time and not something that I consider a “quirk.”) In every respect I can think of, I live my life in my one-bedroom as if I had to share it with other people: I do my dishes shortly after I eat. I do not talk to myself. I fold laundry and put it away. I don’t drop clothes or mail just anywhere. Of course, none of that means I’m an ideal roommate. I have quirks, but my guess is they are more based on personality than eccentric habits. Plus, I am a dude, and far from an anal one—so I definitely make messes. But, I tend to clean them up quickly out of respect for the guy who has to wake up tomorrow and live here.
My problem with the article is not how any of my fellow 28-percenters featured in it choose to live. Honestly—anyone can take my advice or leave it. My problem, rather, is that none of the habits mentioned is an example of, as the author put it, letting the self loose. Folding clothes does not make a person a conformist, and taking a deuce with the bathroom door open does not set the spirit free.
It’s worth asking what does. My guess is that, among the solo-dwellers, very few spend their alone-time truly alone. TV, radio, the internet, MP3 players, smart phones, video game consoles—the proliferation of these high-tech lifelines are the biggest reason single-occupancy homes have spiked to 1-out-of-4 in the last 60 years. We’re willing to live by ourselves now because it hardly feels like it.
Some wise man (I forget who) said that all our miseries stem from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone. 28% of Americans now wake up in such a place every day. That’s 87 million of us and a whole lot of misery at the ready.
On the other hand, to be able to sit quietly, alone? Now that is setting the self loose.