When I say I have no social skills, I mean I lack the flexibility to take part in the Kadesh Operations – the ad hoc alliances, the raids and counter-raids — involved in carving out and holding a place among a large number of fellow humans. In company, I isolate myself until I decide, abruptly and unilaterally, to assert myself. To extend the analogy, I operate like a rogue state under a delusional tyrant, Amin’s Uganda denationalizing Indians.
Pope Francis has never come right out and said so, but I would bet he sees this kind of autarkic willfulness as a disease of the age. For a remedy, he’d prescribe reversion to the kind of pre-industrial family where grandmother grinds up poultices in calabashes to soothe uncle’s syphilis gummata while the householding couple and their kids man looms and cure hams in the next room. Without contesting the general drift of this thinking, I will say that growing up in a very modern family helped me to master the dying arts of tact and respect for personal space.
For 11 long years, my mother and I shared a one-bedroom apartment in the East Eighties. If its floor space exceeded the average clochan’s or yurt’s, the difference wasn’t huge. Had either of us been a gadabout, we could have split it in the manner of a time-share condo. No such luck – both of us being indoor cats, we had no choice but to divide the place into spheres of influence. Mine comprised the bedroom; hers included the living room and kitchenette. The bathroom, located off a narrow hallway joining the two, was no-man’s land.
Despite our efforts, the intimacy was absolute and suffocating. I can remember hearing, through closed doors, the sound of her turning the pages of Finnegan’s Wake and The Feminine Mystique. Heaven knows the poor woman must have heard a lot more from the Voltron gang and the Cartwright Brothers than she ever wanted to. From her sighs, I felt her frustrations with her manuscripts. From my belches, she could guess at my eating habits.
To some readers, our incursions into one another’s headspace will sound like nothing more or less than the stuff of normal family life. Figure in the fact that my mother was often obliged to use her living space as a work space, and the arrangement starts to resemble a throwback to Ye Olde Village. Indeed, the sound of her IBM Selectric III typewriter can’t have chattered any louder in my ears than mameh’s or mam’s butter churn thudded in my ancestors’.
But my mother and I were introverts, a distinctly modern type, with distinctly modern expectations regarding privacy. With no very effective boundaries between public and private spheres occurring naturally, we had to no choice but to create them. This feat taxed our imaginations and forced us to develop our sense of give and take.
We began by imposing rules as intricate as an ancient kingdom’s unwritten constitution. My mother’s modesty would not suffer the sight of me wrapped in a towel, so when shower time came, I entered and exited the bathroom fully clothed. Because she was a light sleeper, and because the refrigerator stood about six feet from the edge of her bed, I was barred from eating after ten in the evening. For my part, I could not bear for her to set eyes on my living quarters. Considering my mother kept her clothes in my closet, this was an extravagant demand, but she managed to meet it by entering my room – after knocking and receiving permission – with her eyes covered.
Beyond this, the two of us perfected a kind of selective inattention – an unspoken, only half-conscious refusal to notice the things that would tend to embarrass the other. I can remember turning up the A-Team very loudly when she fought, at length, with her boyfriend over the telephone. In my teen years, I filled at least a ream of yellow legal pads with Henry Miller-ish scenes that, I trust, my mother has never seen, though they lay in plain sight next to the TV. Reading of their existence now will probably shock her out of her chair.
The rest of the world doesn’t work with anything like the same delicacy or sense of reciprocity. The will to power prevails, as I learned during my first semester at ASU, when my roommate moved his townie girlfriend into our dorm room. I made no protest, assuming they’d reward my generosity by confining their trysts to reasonable hours. Instead, the two rutted like stoats late into the nights before my first two sociology exams, causing me to sleep through them. When I complained, they pointed out that I was a slob, beaming with the certainty that they’d seized the moral high ground.
Again, hearing the pope praise the family as a cure for loneliness reinforces my sense that the family I had is not the family I am supposed to have had. There should have been more of us, and we should have been engaged in cooperative enterprises – beating out laundry on rocks, delousing one another by hand, bringing in the sheaves. Against this ideal, my mother’s and my jealousy over boundaries looks neurotic and the consideration we showed it, bourgeois.
But I also wonder how many of today’s problems our fastidiousness might be able to solve. Would people ask so many microaggressive questions if they understood ethnic background to constitute a form of personal space that doesn’t bear reckless intrusion. How many guys could have escaped the label of creep by learning to view their own company the way Samuel Beckett viewed every word: as an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.
If families cure loneliness, they also teach us to cherish every minute of solitude. Imagine what would happen to social media if that meme took off.