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Wednesday
Aug242016

Society and Living Alone

My living room, dining room, and kitchen. All to myself. Houston, Texas. August 2016.

I’ve lived alone for years now. Technically, I’ve dwelled solo since 2008, after my once-ever live-together relationship ended. Yet as my subsequent boyfriend stayed here much of the time, let’s say I’ve lived alone since 2010.

So six years solid, and eight years mostly.

Unquestionably, only the fortunate can live alone. Living alone means I can personally afford to fully fund my household expenses. Would it help—and give me more fun money—to have contributions to living costs? Sure. Yet I don’t need them.

As with most things that only a few can afford, living alone means luxury. I don’t have to share my space with anyone. And not just my physical space—I don’t even have to share my home-related headspace.

I don’t have to compromise on how to decorate or where to store or leave things. I don’t have to worry about whether the things I do at home bother someone, bore anyone, or make me look stupid. I don’t have to consider whether I should wear clothing while doing any of these possibly annoying, boring, and stupid things and, if so, what sort of outfit would look good. I don’t feel embarrassed when I eat cookies for dinner or bad that I didn’t share them with anyone else or that, in eating them, I spoiled shared dinnertime and conversation. I don’t need to answer questions when I go back to bed after my morning run.

Further, I don’t have to put up with anyone else’s bad or annoying behavior. Or deal with someone wanting interaction when I just want to hermit in a corner with a book. And so on.

Yet could solo living prove harmful?

I don’t mean just for me. Sure—if I hurt myself or fail to come home one night, no one may know for days. And without additional income to support household expenses, I don’t have as much cushion if things in my life go south for a bit.

Yet, though I confirm my high importance (or, at least, self-importance), let’s look beyond me. How will widespread solo living affect the world?

After all, for years, even single people like me shared space with family, friends, associates, and even colleagues. Today, an increasing number of people live in single-person homes. Per the New York Times, a single person living alone occupies one in four U.S. households. Over the fifteen years between 1996 and 2011, the number of people living alone skyrocketed 80 percent around the globe, according to a research report by Euromonitor International referenced in The Guardian.

Does the increase in single-person households mean lost community? Lost goodwill for our fellow human due to decreased immediate coexistence? Increased isolation that could lead to despair and disaffection?

Trends aside, humans make for social animals. We tend to gather together in protection, support, joy, and sadness.

Technology may make it so that each human has other people to hand at any moment, yet could electronic interaction possibly prove as good as time spent in person? (Personally, I can’t say that interacting with people on-line makes me feel better about the world and the humans who live here.) Could increased reliance on digital communication methods heighten our personal and societal dissatisfaction?

Or—more positively—will the increase in solo-person households make humans increasingly proactive in finding new people, having experiences, and getting out into the world?

If so, increasing numbers of people living alone in urban areas could even revitalize cities.

Of course, it could all prove situational.

Maybe the relative healthfulness of solo living depends entirely on each individual’s personality type and geographic area and its societal effects will depend upon the varying concentrations of personality types living in each area.

For example, my introversion means living alone likely increases my happiness—and my forgiveness for human foibles—as I have a reliable place to go to recharge from human interaction.

And I don’t mind leaving home to find people and things to do, which living in an urban area makes easy. Further, I have a fabulous neighborhood community, which helps immensely. It makes me feel part of something larger, rather than isolated—which living alone could do.

If my personality tended toward extraversion and I didn’t want to put in the work needed to get friends out and about with me, or if I lived in a less densely populated area, living alone would likely prove less healthful.

What do you think?

Wednesday
Aug102016

Simple Things I Suck at Doing

I even consider myself--perhaps unjustifiably--a good draw-er, in my own fashion. FrogDog Headquarters, Houston, Texas. June 30, 2016.

I have decent self esteem. Though I recognize that the vast majority of things escape my expertise, I feel I have decent proficiency in many and expertise in a few.

My existence doesn't feel like a waste of space, anyway.

I do try.

Yet I have a handful of very basic life skills that I simply cannot master. In the spirit of confession and transparency, here goes:

  • Automatic dispensers. Oh hello. In the way, yes, sorry. Just here in the lavatory wandering between the soap, water, and paper towel machines, flailing my hands around and failing to get help from any device. As one does. Carry on.
  • Names. Upon introduction, my brain—unbidden, mind you—makes up a name for the person no matter what the introducer tells me. And then I can’t get the made-up name out of my head. Besides, names feel arbitrary. So many people called Charles, all of whom have nothing in common. I’ve known one guy for a couple years now who should have the name Gary who I know doesn’t actually have the name Gary.
  • Pushups. This has to be a mental block or some failure of muscle memory—or lack of muscle memory, more like it—because I have decent strength in general. Yet, despite any amount of goading, I can’t do a single quality pushup from the ground up. (Though I can slowly lower myself down—never to rise again.)
  • Coordination. Ask my trainer about my attempt at jump lunges. He still laughs, years later. Given his request that I do them again so he can film it for YouTube, no one will ever witness my attempt at jump lunges.
  • Cookies. Can any of you eat one cookie when you have twelve cookies in front of you? Exactly. Wait—you can? Oh. Well. Now you see why I need a trainer.

Other people have got to have similar challenges. Right?

What simple things do you suck at doing?

Wednesday
Jul272016

Just Show Up

Empty chairs awaiting actors for a reading of my friend Abby Koenig's new play. Houston, Texas. January 25, 2016.

You don’t know what to say. You don’t know what to do.

So you don’t say anything. Worse—you don’t do anything.

Even worse? You say and do nothing and then you either disappear entirely from the person’s life or you let an unconscionable period of time go by and then, upon seeing them again, intentionally fail to acknowledge what happened and your subsequent silence and absence.

I get it. I’ve done it.

And I was wrong.

In fact, the entire premise for my paralysis was misguided. You don’t have to say anything. You can erase the question mark around what to do.

The next time something happens to someone, however big or small the troubles, show up.

Even just to bear witness. Even just to show them that someone cares. Even just to sit, talk about it, not talk about it, talk about something else, stay quiet. As my Indiana family would say, “Visit.”

While an acquaintance sat at the bedside during her mother’s final days, one of her mother’s longstanding friends showed up and stayed for an hour, perched on the edge of the mattress, rubbing lotion into her mother’s arms and hands and talking softly. Over a decade later, the daughter still speaks of the kindness. And you know what? I’d bet the mother, even unresponsive, felt gratitude, too.

Shortly after I got the news about Ramona and grief racked me, a friend came by, met my pup for the first time, and sat with us on the couch over tea. She stayed only a couple hours. We talked about a lot of nothing in particular.

I still feel the love.

I’ve heard people grumble about going to funerals because a dead person doesn’t know you went. Even still: Show up. Let the people left behind know that the man, woman, or child who died mattered. Share a story. If you didn’t know the deceased person, let your grieving friends or family know you care about them and their grief. Pay respect for a life lived. Provide comfort.

When people go through rough moments or patches, they need community. Community means other people—even people who don’t know what to say or do.

And if you feel like showing up doesn’t mean enough (even though it does), just pick a doing, any doing:

  • Bring food to share in the moment with the person or people in need or food that can easily get reheated in a short time without much trouble.
  • Clean their home or a portion of their home or hire someone else to clean it.
  • Take their kids for an afternoon.
  • Get your friend out of the house and his or her head—plan an activity you know your friend enjoys and go do it with him or her, even if you don’t typically like that type of thing.

Most importantly, do not ask people in distress what they want or need. They likely don’t know and, if they do know, they probably don’t want to bear the guilt or shame of feeling needy and making requests. Telling them to think about what they need and pressing them to ask for something from you adds burden when they need relief. Get it?

And don’t forget: All you really need to do is show up.

When has someone just shown up for you?

Wednesday
Jul132016

The Monthly Postmortem

Setting up in my home office-nook for my monthly postmortem. June 2016.

In January 2014, I began a process of sitting down to postmortem the month just passed.

In writing “postmortem,” I use the same business jargon you may have heard in the office after a project for which the team wants to review what went well, what went badly, and how to apply the lessons from the effort in the future.

My personal monthly postmortem extends beyond business, although I do include my professional efforts in the mix. After all, work takes a lot of space in my life, but work doesn’t consume my entire life—or it shouldn’t.

All this preface to say: You should try it.

The Basics

I schedule my monthly postmortem shortly after the month ends. With so much underway at any moment, I can easily forget what happened only a few weeks before.

Call me old fashioned, but I do my postmortem in writing, with pen and paper. I have my reasons:

  • The process feels more reflective and meditative. I can type much more quickly than I can write anything by hand.
  • I rarely write by hand. Infrequency makes taking the time to sit down and scribe out my thoughts in pen on paper, as they arrive, special. Further, typing and writing by hand have a different tactile sensation and use different motor skills, which rarity makes feel more intense.
  • It seems as though I internalize what I’ve written better when I’ve scrawled it out longhand. Science may back up this impression: Subjects in a Princeton−UCLA study about, yes, studying found that people who wrote notes by hand had a better conceptual grasp of the material.

Setting Up

To get started for each postmortem, I pull up my goals list for the year as a refresher on my key areas of focus and my calendar in Outlook, which gives me a quick reminder of the month and its major moments. (Even shortly after the month ends, I seem to easily forget what happened during the course of it.)

I have a dedicated notebook for my postmortem musings, so that I can go back and review previous months and see patterns.

The Postmortem Process

To get the bad stuff out of the way first, I start by outlining what I call my “losses,” which can refer to actual losses and setbacks and also can include steps I didn’t take, mistakes I made, and opportunities I missed.

Rather than develop a simple laundry list of woes, I assess each one in turn with the following questions:

  • Why did this happen?
  • What can I list as key takeaways? What can I say I learned?
  • How will I apply my learnings to address or avoid a similar situation in the future? Or how can I ensure important steps in my forward progress don’t fall off my radar going forward?

Starting with the bad gives me the chance to end on a high note—with my “wins.” What did I handle really well? What did I get done that keeps me on course?

As with the losses, I review each win with an eye to preserving the positive:

  • What did I learn?
  • How can I ensure I keep up the good work or behavior?

Results

More than I expected I would, I’ve found that I internalize the lessons from my postmortems each month.

When I flip back to past months to review historical wins and losses, I see that my reactions to given situations have improved—sometimes without my even fully realizing the positive change. Problematic behaviors have eased and good behaviors feel so entrenched that I almost don’t remember reacting in any other way.

Why?

Mostly, I credit taking dedicated, focused time to think through needed changes and externalize my thoughts in writing. I feel the surveillance factor has a role as well. After all, who wants to have to write down the same failures each month? Or, when reviewing past postmortems, see the same missteps over and over again?

Do you do any sort of postmortem?

Wednesday
Jun292016

Identity and Changing Your Mind

Changing minds may take as long as it took for nature to etch this structure out of rock. Sedona, Arizona. April 23, 2016.

Let’s start here: I’ve long realized the futility of religious debates between people of completely different faiths.

Discussing the nuances of interpretation when you agree on general principles works, but when two people have no foundation of religious agreement upon which to rest their elbows during a fine-points arm wrestle, you end up in full-on judo-wrangling mode.

Religion isn’t rational. That’s the point. It’s about faith. You actively choose to believe even without concrete, scientific evidence. The leap of faith is the trust and the test. Without the leap, belief holds no challenge. Without the leap, you’ll never reach the rewards.

Let’s continue here: I’d assumed otherwise general human rationality about political and social stances—the ones at least predominantly disconnected from religion. I’d assumed that, based on new information and perspectives, rational people would change their minds.

Oh so wrong.

Over the couple months I spent getting to know someone late last year—an intelligent person, by the way—I witnessed a forced, willful ignorance.

He would lash out at people who exposed him to facts, perspectives, and ideas that threatened to challenge his long-held beliefs—even when clear, objective facts disproved his thinking. If he changed his mind, he seemed to feel he would admit to having fostered a world view—and, therefore, identity—founded on ignorance or faulty information. And then he’d need an entirely new identity.

Further, his friends and family mostly seemed to share his thinking. He’d gotten it somewhere, after all. Changing his mind might require him to find all new people. Not easy—or particularly fun.

Ignorance kept his cocoon safe.

This interpersonal experience made a hopeful, optimistic, Pollyanna-ish person—me—feel horrified. And then bereft.

Without people openly willing to reconsider social and political perspectives upon exposure to new facts and experiences, change will require a monumental effort involving all age groups, all cultures, and all socioeconomic categories—and all these efforts may not pay off for generations, if ever, and only after numerous large and small setbacks along the way.

Further, when people tie their identities to certain beliefs and stances, they will always waste energy on hate, as hate bonds them with their people and solidifies their tribe.

I should know this.

After all, as I’ve noted, intolerance may have deep roots in human nature. And my study of intellectual history has taught me that people change their thinking either through a slow evolutionary process or due to a major cataclysmic event that, in most cases, affects an entire society or group.

An example of the former: At the end of “Straight Outta Compton,” a movie mostly set thirty years ago, I thought, “How far we have not come.” An example of the latter: U.S. citizens only fully realized that the world didn’t universally love them after the September 11 attacks; the mind change came nearly immediately, but only after a brutal wake-up call.

Let’s end here: I shouldn’t have felt as surprised and forlorn with disappointment as I did when I witnessed determined, willful ignorance first-hand. Yet your brain knowing something means little when your heart encounters it.

Tell me about when you last tried to change a mind.