Saturday, June 24, 2006

Variations on a Theme of Solitude

I read an article in today's Milwaukee paper about some recent study which shows that we are, as a society, becoming, well, less and less social. We tend to have fewer people than even 20 years ago to whom we can unburden ourselves about sensitive or personal issues. The study said, I believe, that whereas in 1985 we averaged three close friends per person, that number has now fallen, on average, to two. And 25% of us now identify ourselves as having no one to whom we can talk about big things. A full quarter of the population. Then, as I drove down to KY, I heard a story about this same study on NPR, and the guest said that these average numbers were arrived at by some rather appalling extremes. The populations of the South-central United States, for example, identified themselves as being friendless--as being alone in the world in the most personally-impactful way--to the tune of nearly 50%.

As always, this story tended not to spark in me some meaningful contribution to the subject per se, but rather to raise a bunch of tangential questions in my mind, questions which I then spent the next couple hours mulling over.

I have lived in Appleton now for something like seven years. And while I have become quite close to Susan's parents, and I have made casual acquaintances with my neighbors and various merchants and service people with whom I have regular contact--post office employees and my dry cleaners and so on--I still don't know anyone that I would hang out with when, say, Susan is out of town. When she is occupied, I chat on the phone and spend time around the house by myself. This is a bit odd, even to me. I've never been a casual acquaintance kind of person, tending rather to have a small number of very close friends. And I have four or five quite close friends whom I've known for years and with whom I remain in contact. Our relationships tend to ebb and flow depending on life's circumstances, but there is this small group of people I feel confident will always be there for me should I need them--and vice-versa, of course. And, obviously, my wife is great monkey wrench in this particular equation: my job keeps me away from home a lot (and I count my roommates in KY among my closer friends now), and so I tend to spend every available minute, when I'm at home, with my wife (lest I make it sound like I have no reason to be in Appleton whatsoever).

But for whatever reason, be it my personality or my job or some indefinable thing about Appleton, I'm aware that I have a rather odd social life. My dad has a "coffee club" that he attends most days in the small town in central Minnesota where they live. There are a couple little greasy-spoon cafes in town, and this regular group of guys tends to collect there each late morning like dust bunnies aggregating under a piece of furniture on a hardwood floor. These are all guys he has ridden snowmobiles with over the years, or guys with whom he belonged to the local Lion's club--things of this sort. And his is one of several similar groups that are meeting off and on during the day.

There's a little scene in My Fair Lady where the sun comes up on the bustling market the morning after Eliza Doolittle has her first encounter with 'enry 'iggins: and there among the flower sellers and produce vendors and assorted & sundry peddlers, a community takes shape as people begin crowding into the square to begin their workday. And a group of women are seen gathered around an immense pile of green beans, I think, gabbing and chatting while they clean the veggies for sale. This is fiction, of course, but it mirrors something real in our social make-up. It's like a much-stylized version of simian social grooming. This sitting on front porches or gabbing after church or even gathering around the workplace water cooler serves a vital purpose in exchanging social information. It is an exchange of some currency vital to our functioning as social animals in deep-seated social structures.

I think I have tended for years now to discount this side of myself, and of human nature generally, and this report makes me think about this. I fancy that my own interaction with my very small group of friends is of an altogether more substantive nature than what I'm quick to dismiss as an idle exchange of innuendo and hearsay and useless bullshit. And, for a couple reasons, this tendency of mine has been only exacerbated by my decade and a half in aviation. First, while I genuinely love what I do (and, if I am honest, I place far more stock in being a pilot than I tend to admit, at least to other pilots), I find that most gatherings of pilots involves endless talk about airplanes and swapping of "there I was..." stories. Now, I can join these conversations with the best of them, but I always avoid this. It honestly becomes too much of a good thing to spend all one's work time dealing with airplanes only to then spend one's time not working ALSO talking about airplanes. There are way, way more things in heaven and earth than shiny flying metal tubes, however cool they are. As it is, I give airplanes plenty of time. But also, there is this business of accuracy: I don't know much about much, but I know a thing or two about the field in which I work. And I have found with great consistency over the years that 90% or more of pilot talk turns out to be utterly without foundation. 90+%! So we not only spend all our off-time blabbing about airplane / company / contract stuff, but the huge bulk of this can be counted upon to be untrue!

But maybe I'm missing the forest for the trees. Maybe the value of these gatherings is not to do with the admittedly worthless exchange of factual information: the value is really about forming a community, about making human connections. And while I don't think any revelation that might come to me in this regard will push me over the edge and make me want to snuggle up to this particular group of angry conservative white guys, it does make me think I ought not to turn down my next invitation to a friendly neighborhood card game.


Esbee said...

You can also meet people doing volunteer work. You seemed to really enjoy your exchange student experiences. Perhaps call that organization and see if they need a hand?

The Retropolitan said...

Don't discount the internet, either. Communities form everywhere, even in cyberspace.

Except Tennessee. No one there has friends. Pretty weird, huh?

wunelle said...

I've thought about volunteering, at the Humane Society or Wisconsin Public Radio, for example. But I've thought about this more as an activity to do with some free time than as a means of meeting people.

I guess that was one of my unwritten points: that while I find my social situation strange, I'm not at all distressed by it; and I'm not motivated to do anything about it, really. This post is more a meta-observation than a cry of distress (tho maybe that's in there too). I feel as though I ought to be concerned by my isolation, more than I actually am concerned. Maybe somewhere there's the thought that my circle is unlikely to grow as I get older, and I don't want to spend my final decade or two completely alone. But I've heard this as a rationale for having kids and that just seems wrong somehow.

I don't mean to discount internet communities, but they seem to raise more questions than they answer for me. I feel close--in an internet sort of way--to several people I've met (or "met") blogging, but I still have to think that these are provisional friendships, tested in these provisional waters. I don't feel free to call one of my blogging friends (much less show up on their doorstep) when I'm feeling low. That would require taking the relationship to another level--something that might well happen if the opportunity presented itself, but which would require an escalation of the friendship.

But that doesn't discount the value of people who comment on my posts or support me when, say, I had to put my dog to sleep. People reached out in genuine friendship, and I don't mean to pass that off; I'm grateful for it. But this is still something different from what I have with my few very close friends.

Anyway, just some other thoughts. Thanks for the comments!

Esbee said...


Kidding. =)

(Damn, I almost scared myself there!)

wunelle said...

I read that on my phone and thought I'd pissed you right off!

Jeffy said...

I am not surprised to hear that people's circles of friends are shrinking. I think that the way people structure their lives these days tends to leave them with fewer opportunities to maintain close friendships.

Usually a close friendship requires a fair amount of time together and things in common. Nowadays we move away from the people we grew up with and move into neighborhoods where we have little in common with our neighbors. In the past you might have school buddies and siblings living close-by, along with a bunch of neighbors who grew up in the same environment. Now that is not often the case.

I find myself in much the same situation, both in terms of the number of close friends that I have, and the fact that I get by pretty that way. (with a spouse and two kids, how much time is left for friends?)

Anonymous said...

"Maybe somewhere there's the thought that my circle is unlikely to grow as I get older, and I don't want to spend my final decade or two completely alone."

Nah, you still have me! I'm a friend at least four times a year! My brother said that it's better to have girls than boys because girls will hang around and take care of you in your old age. An excellent reason to have children, no?

My circle of friends hasn't shrunk because I don't have enough to make a circle. There's nowhere for me to go but up!

-Alex Random