On my year of living alone

For one year, which was the maximum amount of time my (then-more-limited) budget could handle it, I lived alone. I lived in a one-bedroom apartment with my cat, and I adored it.

The New York Times reported on the "freedom, and perils, of living alone" a few months ago, and spoke to many of the great and terrible aspects of this less-rare decadence of the modern age.

IF there is any doubt that we’re living in the age of the individual, a look at the housing data confirms it. For millenniums, people have huddled together, in caves, in mud huts, in split-levels and Cape Cods. But these days, 1 in every 4 American households is occupied by someone living alone; in Manhattan, mythic land of the singleton, the number is nearly 1 in 2.

I don't live in Manhattan, and I actually do not know very many people who have spent time living alone, with not one other human soul. There are appealing delights in the entire set-up, that I appreciate even more so now that I no longer have them. If I happen to have a messy week, it bothers no one except myself; so only when I am annoyed by the dished left on the counter do I have to do anything about them. (Being messy: most decadent of behavior.) You grow quickly fond of walking around completely naked as you do things in the mornings or evenings. (Truly.) There is quiet when you want it, and loud also when you want it. There is always a dance floor in your living room, with an audience of one (the cat, who is not in the least judgmental of your moves) and no one will barge in on your party-of-one. Push the couch out of the way if it's getting really serious. Solitude when you need it, a space to recharge, foster creativity, watch any damn thing you want to. No one's opinion matters here except your own. We all need tiny spaces  where this is what dictates the way of things; even if, obviously for many, that space is not your own, magnificent single-occupancy apartment.

Because that is also where the peril lies. "The single-occupant home can be a breeding ground for eccentricities," the NYT reports, to no one's surprise or shock. Think of, "Kramer on 'Seinfeld,' washing vegetables in the shower or deciding, on a whim, to ditch his furniture in favor of 'levels.'" Because it offends no one else!

One woman, Amy Kennedy, featured in the article readily admits that she can see, over the six years she has lived alone in North Carolina, that she has gotten "quirkier and quirkier." I can absolutely see how this would happen. Amy:

“The entire apartment is your room,” Ms. Kennedy said, by way of explanation. “If I leave a bra on the kitchen table, I don’t think much about it.”

Living alone breeds very strange wardrobe decisions, as others in article point out, and to which I can readily attest. Weird, embarrassing stretchy pants and third-day greasy hair? No one's there to see. Other usual suspect habits? Leaving the bathroom door open. Talking to yourself. And eating strange versions of "recipes"--what I call "single-people food"--inventions that arise out of the need to eat without the urge to prepare anything too time-consuming or elaborate for a party of one. Cereal. A can of black beans mixed in with some other can of soup. Expensive cheese, by itself. Cereal. Something that is usually a side-dish but I choose to make the whole meal. And so on.

What emerges from this much time spent alone?

What emerges over time, for those who live alone, is an at-home self that is markedly different — in ways big and small — from the self they present to the world. We all have private selves, of course, but people who live alone spend a good deal more time exploring them.

This can have good and bad consequences, depending on how well you handle the quirks that arise. One of the perils the article mentions is the work of resocialization when you do eventually cohabitate. As a lifelong introvert, I'm quite skilled in manuvering myself within a social world without neglecting the need for quiet, solitary space.  I lived naturally alone, just as I live quite naturally and happily with others. But it was such a lovely year, one I cherish.What emerges over time, for those who live alone, is an at-home self that is markedly different — in ways big and small — from the self they present to the world. We all have private selves, of course, but people who live alone spend a good deal more time exploring them.

For me it was such a pleasure (albeit, too expensive). It wasn't that all my time was spent alone. But I am a person who cherishes, relishes, in time I have to myself, and I continue to relish evenings or mornings or afternoons of solitude, time to devote to a skill, a project, a paper, a book, an exercise machine (less often), a cup of coffee, a bookstore outing, a quiet meal, a movie alone, a design idea, a blog post, research, a recipe, a cat snugglefest, a dance party for one. Sometimes, I even clean.


"We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint"

A few days ago, the front page of the New York Times directly addressed a subject I love--that is, love to hate on. It's bold headline--the lead story--read "We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint." Finally, someone agrees with me; the article quotes members of the government and military leaders, who take particular issue with the "mind-numbing" effects a 30-or-so-slide PowerPoint can have on an audience. (I guess when they say it, it's front-page news.) Anyone who's been to a conference of any type, or taken a general education class in college knows exactly the effect they're talking about.

I don't mean to dismiss the program entirely, as I think it can make a wonderful visual aid to a lecture; photographs and professional looking animation with quick, easy to glance-at text can seamlessly connect with the speaker. Yesterday I sat through about half a dozen ten-minute class presentations in Central Asian history, and one guy exemplified everything that is good about the program: he used very little text, and what text there was did not repeat anything he said, but rather, represented larger themes. His particular lecture was on the autobiography of a herdsman in Mongolia, and he was able to infuse his talk with humor, pictures, and well-done animation of the text. It did not present itself as cheesy, canned, or the very worst, the verbatim presentation. Everyone else paled in comparison.

Most people pale in comparison. In student presentations, which I sit through a lot, the PowerPoint seems to have replaced the old habit of notecards or outline notes; everything goes into the slides, and so instead of appearing well-informed as a public speaker, you instead look like you're reading something perhaps copied from the internet or prepared by someone else. It breaks up the audience's concentration when they must choose between investing their energy reading the slides or listening to the speaker.

And when teachers use them for lectures, students inevitably take fewer notes--if any--and simply rely on the PowerPoint (posted online) as a study aid. Several years ago I had a clear picture of the results of this method, in a Global Political Economy class I took; rarely did any of my classmates take notes, and when the mid-term grades came back, I was disappointed to see that after all my studying, I'd only made an 86. However, everyone else made Ds and low Cs, and a few of them asked me about it directly. Could I help them study next time around? Well, you know how I study? I take out my handwritten notes and type them on the computer, solidifying my grasp on it all, relating each lecture to the others, and fixing the organization in case the class jumped around. Reading things off the PowerPoint rarely invites students to take note of the concept in a way that makes sense to them, and eliminates any possibility of jotting down ideas or questions that may arise throughout a class or lecture. It is the worst way to study, and, for me at least, the worst way to learn. True understanding in a classroom usually comes from active participation--if not through discussion, then at least through reinterpreting the concepts by putting them into words on paper.

My own bias certainly bleeds through here, but I just hate using the clunky program, and find it unfortunate that I'm expected to WOW my listeners with flashy images and lots of text. When I must use it, they're simple and short, containing mostly photos. I find the program limiting, compared to other programs I've used for much nobler endeavors, like creating a newspaper (or, back in the day, a yearbook) via Adobe InDesign. I find the graphics, functions and options in PowerPoint just completely uninspiring.

Of course, it does prove beneficial when your goal is to bore, as reported in the NYT article:

Senior officers say the program does come in handy when the goal is not imparting information, as in briefings for reporters.

The news media sessions often last 25 minutes, with 5 minutes left at the end for questions from anyone still awake. Those types of PowerPoint presentations, Dr. Hammes said, are known as “hypnotizing chickens.”

See my point? We just shouldn't limit ourselves to reducing things to bullets; it's as disconcerting as the concept of good writing in the form of a text message.