One short weekend, so much to do — an invitation to go swimming at night by moonlight, the Iran protest march downtown with our mouths taped shut, a dance at the Eagles Club with a hot horn band playing ’70s funk that propels people onto the dance floor as if shot from guns — but here I am stuck with house guests who are unable to sit in a room without me for more than 15 minutes. They follow me around like faithful collies. We ran out of conversation on Friday and they’re here until Wednesday. I have had un-Christian thoughts about them. I may have to run away from home.
The problem, dear hearts, is a common one here in the American heartland: an inability to express personal preference in simple declarative sentences, no modifiers.
E.g. “I vish to be alone.”
Is this a terrible thing to vish for? I think not. One loves company and then one loves uncompany, just as one enjoys sunshine/darkness, summer/winter, funk/folk, b&w/color, all sorts of dichotomies. Solitude is recognized by most world religions. Hairy-legged hermits sit in prayerful contemplation in their mountain caves and nobody thinks less of them for it. So why can’t you or I spend a couple of hours alone in an undisclosed location?
There is nothing odd about wanting to be alone. It doesn’t mean that I am spray-painting Nazi slogans on the walls and fantasizing about getting even with them what done me wrong. It doesn’t indicate male menopause. It only means that I am experiencing Personal Male Secrecy Syndrome (PMSS), the urge common to all men to climb a tree and sit on a high limb for a few hours. This is a powerful motive in most literary careers. Yes, John Updike had a great gift, but also John Updike preferred not to spend his life at a conference table but rather in a quiet corner with a yellow legal pad and a rollerball pen and write what he wished, nobody looking over his shoulder and saying, “Could we change that ‘me’ to ‘you’?”
America could cut fuel consumption by 14 percent if we made it possible for people to be alone without having to get in their car and drive around town aimlessly on the pretext of running errands. (OK, maybe not exactly 14 percent, but A LOT.)
When my daughter was small, we discovered that she loved to be alone in her room with her hundreds of stuffed creatures around her. We could hear her in there, nattering at them, networking with Piglet and Raggedy Ann, creating family groups, constructing elaborate narratives — which is what I may be doing someday in the Good Shepherd Home — and she was happy as a clam.
Having grown up No. 3 in a brood of six, I envied her. As a boy I had to climb on a raft and go floating down the Mississippi for a little down time, and then there was the Falls of St. Anthony to worry about, and the water intake at the power plant, and enormous barges heading upstream. Solitude was treacherous. You could fall asleep and wind up in St. Louis and have to hitchhike home.
New York is a fine place in which to be alone. To walk into a little cafe with an armload of newspapers and sit at the counter and read them over a bowl of chili and a grilled cheese and a white mug of coffee, and a waitress who says, “What else could you like, love?” — this is heaven. In the papers are dozens of people in serious trouble and you are not one of them. You can soak it all up while you eavesdrop on your neighbors, one of whom is being hounded by her daughter who calls her three times a day to yik-yak, and how do you tell your daughter that enough is enough, already? “I can’t turn my cell phone off because then I’d have to worry if my mother is trying to get hold of me. I tell Jessica, I say, ‘I’ve got to go now, honey, and she doesn’t hear me.’”
It is crucial in any loving relationship that the partners know when to leave each other alone without having to fill out a privacy application (Reasons for Needing Solitude, Goals of Solo Period, Estimated Time of Reunion). Don’t ask, don’t tell. Just go in the room and close the door. So long, see you later.