Friday, August 17, 2007

The unpartnered

Odd man out
Rich bachelors should be heavily taxed. It is not fair that some men should be happier than others.

—Oscar Wilde

De toutes les aberrations sexuelles, la pire est la chasteté.
(Of all the sexual aberrations, the worst is chastity.)

—Anatole France
My uncle was terribly upset. His son was buying a home. I did not understand. My father explained his brother's distress over my cousin's real-estate purchase:

“It's a disgrace when a single man leaves home and buys a house on his own. Your uncle thinks it means that your cousin will never settle down in a respectable marriage.”

It took some time before I realized that my father wasn't kidding. In our family, the only proper reason for moving out of your parents' home was to set up housekeeping with your new spouse. My cousin had just disgraced us all. Fascinating. By that token, the thirty-year-old cousin who was still living with his parents was worthy of the highest praise. It was food for thought. (Junk food, probably.)

There was, fortunately, a loophole in the rule about humiliating one's family by moving out in a state of bachelorhood. It involved school. As the first family member to “go away” to college, the loophole appeared to have been drilled out especially for me. Spending summers at home was probably a key component in preserving my family's reputation for decency. By the time graduate school rolled around, however, it was clear that I had made my escape from the family nest in pristine bachelorhood. When I finally traded in my apartment for a house (and a mortgage), it was several years later and the erosion of family standards prevented any undue wailing and gnashing of teeth. (My uncle had helped immensely, of course, when he abandoned his wife of thirty-plus years and shacked up with the woman who eventually became wife #2. And his son with the house had settled into a relationship with another man that has now endured over twenty years, outlasting most straight partnerships.)

The purchase of my own home had, however, given me a shock to the psyche. Although my family's Old World ethos was in tatters and various members of my generation had fanned out in all directions (and in all variations of marital status), the real estate paperwork reminded me on page after page that I was “an unmarried man.” This, I was given to understand, was the trendy new replacement for the old legal description of “bachelor,” which somewhere along the line had become a mild pejorative. (That was, at best, but a minor improvement. The big step toward decency and rationality was the use of “unmarried woman” in lieu of the time-honored “spinster.” When I carped about the constant labeling in the deed and mortgage documents, women who had purchased real estate on their own opened my eyes to the egregious old disparity.)

In brief, however, the real-estate documents had rubbed my nose in my single state, and I realized at last that it was no passing phase. I was a bachelor and, even in my thirties, already a sure bet to stay that way. I don't think I had fully grasped that fact until then.

Human sacrifice

Perhaps my grandmother recognized early stages of bachelorhood in me. If so, it was not immediate. I particularly remember showing her my first-grade class portrait, the one containing pictures of all my classmates, and pointing out to her the girls I thought were the cutest. She shook her head and said, quite firmly, that God would provide my ideal mate at the perfect time (what world was she living in?) and it was most unlikely to be someone in my class.

Later, however, she began to prompt me to declare an interest in a priestly vocation. I was not cooperative, but Grandma was persistent and did not give up until I made my escape to college. I think she had taken inventory of her grandsons and sized me up as both (a) expendable (i.e., not needed for ranch work [and not particularly good at it, either]) and (b) smart enough (i.e., able to learn Latin, unlike my lunkhead cousins). There may have also been an element of (c): this boy is bookish and not developing socially. I don't know, but it's possible. While I always thought I was sweet and charming, family members may well have regarded me as standoffish and sullen. It's all a matter of perspective, isn't it?

The priest thing didn't appeal to me, but you couldn't blame Grandma for trying. As you may know, Catholics who sacrifice a male child to seminary life go to the head of the line at the Pearly Gates. (Yes, that's a myth, not really part of Church doctrine, but it didn't stop many Catholic families from suspecting it was really true.) I went through the altar boy training and learned all the responses and routines of assisting at mass, but black cassocks and lace-trimmed surplices didn't do a lot for me. A big chunk of the Latin stuck (I can still recite the Pater Noster), but the religion itself did not.

Unregenerate singularity

It was probably in high school that I realized the the degree to which I was alienated from my ostensible peer group. It mattered not a whit to me what everyone else my age was doing. “Peer pressure” was a meaningless phrase. (The best way to escape peer pressure is to acknowledge no peers.) If I wanted to carry a briefcase to school, I carried a briefcase. If everyone else was agog over some “big game” with some traditional rival, I would be unlikely to know which sport was involved or the identity of the bastion of evil against which we were competing. When my classmates flocked to enroll in the driver education course whose successful completion entitled you to a driver's license at the age of fifteen and a half, I waited till my senior year, when turning 18 made it merely credit toward graduation and not an advance ticket to the joys of the open road. (Heck, I did enough driving of vehicles on the family dairy farm. Who needed more of that? Not me!) Was the spring prom the ne plus ultra of a student's existence? I missed all of them and scarcely noticed.

Clearly I had become an antisocial grind, someone for whom the word nerd would soon be popularized. Even the other guy (the only other guy) who carried a briefcase on campus seemed to be better integrated into the teenage society than I was. I was a cohort of one.

This did not distress me unduly, since I regarded most of my classmates as shallow-minded fools. There were several in my college-prep classes with whom I was on friendly terms (including the other briefcase guy), but our mutual interests consisted mostly of our presumption of continued education. We were all going to college. They were otherwise just as involved in sports, clubs, and proms as anyone else. They were obsessed about pairing off and who was going out with whom. Since their mating rituals appeared faintly comical (Jane Goodall could have studied them instead of chimpanzees), it seemed a distinct advantage that I was content to be unpartnered. Much more dignified.

It wasn't simply a lack of alternatives. In those transition years, the menu of social options was expanding. If a boy didn't want a girlfriend, it was increasingly possible to hook up with a boyfriend without being driven out of town. Even a button-down institution like Caltech had a gay student group. It didn't matter. I didn't want a boyfriend either. I was perversely and adamantly single. The odd man out.

It was a great sin against society's constant pressure to pair off.

At some point, the Socratic impulse to examine one's life prompts a string of questions for oneself: Why am I like this? Is no one else like this? Am I the only one? Is it a passing phase?

I'm sure I'm not alone. (I suppose that could be taken as a lame joke.) It doesn't matter what you may think, there are always other people out there who have shared parts of your experience. (As Hofmannsthal once said, even the loneliest people have thousands of companions they do not suspect.) I wonder, quite naturally, if we stubborn singles tend to have traits in common other than our solitary nature. Do we tend to be fundamentally gay or straight, even if we act or operate as if orientation is moot? Despite the changes in recent decades, being gay can still inhibit one's development of social connections. Or are most people in this situation really sexually neutral? Certainly that's a small group, but who can deny any shade in the spectrum? Whatever we are, the evidence suggests we're pretty rare. How special.

Whenever you're out of the mainstream, you develop compensating mechanisms. I suspect I was a right prick during high school, looking down my nose at the classroom canaille. (It helped that I was tall. The other briefcase guy caught a lot more grief because he was short and easier to pick on.) I had to control my tendency to be an intellectual bully. In retrospect I think I was mostly successful, but I'm probably not the best judge of that.

Self-examination does put one on dangerous ground. No one else has access to your thought processes the way you do. If you're not forgiving of your foibles, you can end up thinking you're the worst person in the world. Funny, too, that there are hardly any good support groups for people who like to hang solo. How do you assemble a group of people who prefer to be alone? I spent the bulk of my free time holed up in the basement at home, a fortress of solitude in which I read hundreds (thousands?) of books and cranked out reams of homework. One summer I completed an entire semester's worth of physics homework in precautionary anticipation of confusing lectures from a notoriously ill-prepared instructor. Since I didn't know what problems would be assigned, I simply did all of the exercises in the book. (It was a lifesaver, too.)

I sure was the epitome of the fun-loving teenager.

Everyone has personal demons to deal with. They may vary in nature and intensity, but everyone has them. As my narrative has indicated, one of my cousins spent years wondering if he should come out of the closet. Another cousin was wondering if he was the only person in the 4-H club who loved his four-legged project just a little more than was generally considered proper for a farm boy (probably not). The hyperactive cousin was in a competition to destroy as much farm equipment as possible before it destroyed him (it's a wonder that guy survived to adulthood). Yet another was hiding a drug habit. Yet another was struggling to conceal (only partially successfully) the sociopathic streak that would be his ruin; to his surprise, the booze didn't actually help. We ran the gamut as a thoroughly representative all-American family.

Holiday gatherings were rather interesting.

Adult education

With age comes agency. You can set your own course. Social expectations and family pressure still conspire to inflict guilt on you for not conforming to your peers or producing lovable grandchildren to amuse your parents, but society is seldom actively interventionist and loners with siblings (like me) can often count on them to take up the slack (which they abundantly did).

Many questions remain unanswered, of course. That can't be helped, since each individual is a congeries of diverse traits and influences. The components of nature and nurture are less like a collection of jigsaw puzzle pieces—those fit together too nicely—than like a tangle of lots of bits of string. The bits of string vary in length, color, and texture, but good luck in trying to identify them or tease them apart. It's one big snarl.

When I pick at my bits of string, I consider that my predilection for solitary pursuits like reading is a key thread in my makeup. I may also be missing pieces whose absence causes me to be disconnected from other people. It may take quite a while for a smart guy to acknowledge areas of abject cluelessness, but experience has amply demonstrated that I have them. I suspect I cannot manage even a twitch on the empathy meter. Or maybe it's just when people are on certain wavelengths that I cannot tune them in.

Whether it's labeled a fear of intimacy or selfish protection of one's space (I prefer calling it a streak of independence myself), my personal makeup has rendered me blind to flirting behavior. The record convincingly shows that I don't recognize this interaction between others until they're practically rolling on the floor and I certainly don't spot it when subtle signals are sent in my direction. Friends tell me I'm like a deaf person at a rock concert (although that strikes me less as a metaphor than as an inapposite example of cause and effect). The incidents are so egregious as to be beyond embarrassing (or so I tell myself).

In grad school, it was the building custodian who informed me that one of my classmates had a big crush on me. When I mockingly relayed this nugget of information to my office partner, he matter of factly stated that everyone in the whole department was aware of her feelings. I was the only ignorant one. It was like junior college some years before, when an acquaintance finally told me flat out near the end of the semester that my partner in our archery P.E. class had been waiting weeks for me to ask her out. Poor thing. Is that why cats scream and bite each other?

I was fresh out of graduate school when a young man chatted me up at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. It was just before a performance of Die Walküre that featured Birgit Nilsson. I was in the basement cafeteria, noshing on a sandwich and paging through the program book when he asked if I minded sharing my table. Without looking up, I told him to have a seat. He was eager to make small talk. I said how great it would be to hear Nilsson, especially since this would be her last visit to San Francisco. He enthusiastically agreed, but then it turned out that he did not know about her earlier visits to SF to perform the roles of Isolde and the Dyer's Wife. Curious. When I said I was a big Wagner fan, he claimed to be a fellow Wagnerite, but he knew nothing about the operas. He did, however, tell me about the state-of-the-art stereo system in his apartment, which was the nth degree of audio delight and well worth experiencing. I finally noticed that there were empty tables all around us and at last it penetrated my thick skull that he was not actually looking to talk about opera. (The poor guy had chosen an expensive venue for his cruising ground if he was so mild an opera aficionado.)

Yes, it really took over a quarter hour before I figured that one out. We went our separate ways when the warning bell rang for Act I. He said he'd look for me in the basement bar during the intermission, but I didn't tell him I'd be on the mezzanine.

Authority figure

We college professors deal with students who are adults, which no doubt reduces our legal liabilities. It's inevitable that some of our students, if only a very few, will develop feelings for their teachers. You can do the math. If you teach, say, three or four classes each term, with 30 to 40 students in each class, you'll have between 90 and 160 students. Even if you are so ill-favored as to be attractive to only one percent of your student population, on the average you can expect to have one or even two students dreamily fantasizing about you each term. (If you hadn't thought of that before, I apologize for bringing it to your attention. Don't worry: each year diminishes our appeal!)

Because of my empathetic disability, I'm able to remain serene and unruffled in dealing with my students. I can't, after all, tell in all but the most extreme cases whether they fancy me. The phone number (“Call me!”) on the exam, though, can be a clue. The student who directly asks you out to dinner is another. (When I told her I don't date my students, her comment was, “That's awfully ethical of you.” I think that may have been a grade quest.) The boy who came to class half-naked was putting himself out there for someone's benefit, but as usual I couldn't tell if it was for me or for someone else in the room. At least he wasn't the guy with heavy mascara who used to flutter his eyes at the instructor; that was in a colleague's class. Even I would have probably noticed that. And my stalker has been banned from approaching me or loitering in the vicinity of my office, so that's settled (I hope).

We naturally enjoy sharing these stories over lunch with colleagues, especially in the presence of the faculty member who is married to a former student. It always puts him on the spot, fidgeting slightly. I suspect I could contribute more tales if I weren't so deaf, dumb, and blind.

My colleagues, by the way, generally know that I'm single and live comfortably alone, sharing no space and jealously protecting my independence. It never fails, though, when weddings or anniversary parties come along, my invitation always includes “and guest.” Just in case, I suppose.

Not going to happen.


Interrobang said...

I feel a vague inkling of your pain. I'm almost that antisocial, but not quite. (I actually have a boyfriend. He lives five time zones away.)

I suspect you're the wrong sex to have had what I've heard called the "Pregnancy Police" come after you. I think misanthropic women get that one the most, since apparently our bodies are public property and it's considered ok to comment on our reproductive status to our faces.

You probably also don't get the same thing I've encountered where friends of mine (and I haven't killed them yet) tell me that they're glad I now live with a roommate (for financial reasons), because then there's "someone around in case something happens."

When I was teaching, I don't think I would have noticed if any of my students had been hitting on me. In fact, in retrospect, I think one of them was and I never noticed... Now I'm back to documenting software, and it doesn't hit on me or talk back. :)

Zeno said...

It's more like puzzlement than pain, Interrobang, though I thank you for sharing your comments. I'm very grateful that I don't have to put up with a roommate for financial reasons. Company? Arrggh! (The two years that I did that just after college put me right off the idea.)

Five time zones does seem a nice bit of elbow room for partners. I can see that working.

And I, too, have resolved to avoid killing certain friends.

King Aardvark said...

Hmm, your family is very different to mine. In mine, it would be, "You're 30 freakin years old, get the hell out of my house, ya deadbeat!"

Zeno said...

Well, King Aardvark, the stay-at-home bachelor worked on the family ranch, so he was absolved of the accusation of being a deadbeat. He finally married a teenager when he was in his thirties and moved out -- to a house a couple of miles down the road. His job remained working on the ranch, though.

But, yes, I do think my family is different from most. In both good and bad ways.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever considered that you may have Asperger's Syndrome? It's not that you don't have empathy - it's that you don't speak the language that NTs do when it comes to social interactions. But I bet there are other ways in which you are more empathetic than many NTs, since people with Asperger's tend to have an greater ability to empathize with animals and people who are suffering or face a disadvantage (which would explain your liberal politics, I think ;-)).

Anonymous said...

if you did a search for "schizoid," the schizoid personality disorder is the somewhat extreme end of what you're describing. No real desire for companionship, no desire for sex, not much emotional variation at all.

It's different from aspergers because there's no ritualistic activity.

There's a girl who describes what life is like as a schizoid, she's completely asexual and has a rich fantasy life on her own.

llewelly said...

It was like junior college some years before, when an acquaintance finally told me flat out near the end of the semester that my partner in our archery P.E. class had been waiting weeks for me to ask her out.
I have lost count of the number of times I have been told 'X is waiting to for you to ask her out' (always by a woman) only to find, upon speaking to X, that X was in fact not interested.

I certainly can't claim to be cluefull about romantic matters, but over the years, I have come to realize that nearly all (I'm being generous here) of the people expended so much time and effort trying to push me into this relationship, that relationship, or, well, any relationship, were extremely unreliable judges of such matters.

(Eventually I realized that trying to co-operate with other people's seemingly endless efforts to get me involved with someone was a primary source of stress, and I started shunning people who were too pushy about it. That seems to have solved the problem. )

miller said...

I'm very hesitant to write this, because I don't like to identify others, but I feel obligated to say something. You can find similar experiences by googling "asexual". It's a sexual orientation, separate from gay, straight, or bi, though the orientations often blend together in unexpected ways. Asexuals are a distinct group from permanent singles, and from socially solitary people, but it's hardly surprising that the groups overlap.

As a side note, the Asperger's community generally resents being stereotyped as asexual, and the asexual community generally resents being stereotyped as autistic.

chgo_liz said...

Nice post. Came here via Pharyngula.

My first two real estate contracts had "spinster" on them.

I think my way of being happily single is different than yours, but it's always nice to learn about a fellow hiker on this road less traveled.

Anonymous said...

I definitely agree with previous poster that schizoid personality disorder is the most likely explanation.

It's well covered in two books: "Bachelors: The Psychology of Men Who Haven't Married" by Charles A. Waehler and "The New Personality Self-Portrait: Why You Think, Work, Love and Act the Way You Do" by John M. Oldham and Lois B. Morris

Zeno said...

I'm not too crazy about the "disorder" part of that explanation.