Flying Solo

June weddings are traditional, but July weddings will do just fine, and Barney Frank just got married:

It was by choice that Rep. Barney Frank came out of the closet 25 years ago – not the first gay congressman, but the first to announce voluntarily that he was gay. On Saturday, he took another deliberate first step: By exchanging vows in Massachusetts with his longtime boyfriend Jim Ready six months before his planned retirement. Frank will spend the rest of his time in office as the nation’s first congressman in a same-sex marriage. “I think it’s important,” he told New York magazine in April, “that my colleagues interact with a married gay man.”

About 300 friends and relatives gathered at the Boston Marriott hotel in Newton, Mass., to see the veteran Democratic lawmaker, 72 – who has represented that district since 1981 – wed Ready, 42, the owner of a carpentry/welding/custom awnings shop and an avid outdoorsman.

Fine, they should be happy, and it’s nobody else’s business what they do, even if all the social conservatives on the right will pretend to be aghast and tell us America is going to hell, given the details:

The grooms were hoisted in chairs during the Horah, we’ve heard, and Nancy Pelosi cut a rug on the dance floor to some swing tunes. Other guests included Sen. John Kerry…

See – those Democrats are out to ruin the institution of marriage – they’re laughing at us. But of course Barney and Jim knew how the right would react and added this to their vows:

For richer or for poorer, under the Democrats or the Republicans… Whether the book reviews are good or bad, for better or for worse, on MSNBC or on Fox, for as long as you both shall live…

Let people say what they will. They’re committed to each other. Get over it. Get a life – or more precisely, worry about your own damned life.

But Barney Frank is right – his colleagues will now have to interact with a married gay man, who knows more about the issues, and about legislative procedure, than all of them put together. He’ll still be a forceful and dynamic voice on the left side of things, and a deadly nemesis to those on the other side – while demonstrating that who he chooses to marry has no bearing whatsoever on anything that needs to be done to get the country back on track. Let’s talk about tax policy, or talk about somewhat tighter regulation of the banks and financial services industry so we don’t have another crash, or if we must, let’s talk about healthcare policy, again. If they want to talk about his husband Jim, they’ll look like fools. There’s work to be done.

And it is being done:

House lawyers under the direction of Speaker John Boehner have asked the Supreme Court to take up an appeal in a case challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the 1996 law which defines marriage as a heterosexual union.

Lawyer Paul Clement, who argued before the court on the healthcare issue, appealed the First Circuit Court of Appeals’ May 31 ruling in the cases of Gill v. Office of Personnel Management and Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Department of Health & Human Service…

Yes, the economy is a mess, and thirteen million are unemployed, with most unemployment benefits about to run out, and the banking scandals continue and get worse, and Iran may get nukes and Syria may go to war with Turkey, drawing everyone else in – and John Boehner is leading the Republicans, all of them, in an effort to make sure that no matter what any state does, the federal government will not recognize gay marriage in the tax code. This is virtually the only thing on their agenda – aside from ending the food stamp program and a serious of wholly symbolic votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, now the law of the land, according to the Supreme Court. Barney Frank is giggling. The Republicans will use lots of taxpayer money on this appeal, as they hired the quite expensive Paul Clement to make their argument – the man who so eloquently argued that Arizona’s new immigration law was right and necessary and quite constitutional, and lost – the same man who expertly argued that the entire Affordable Care Act was clearly and definitively unconstitutional, and lost. Maybe this time he’ll win, or not – you stick with your best hitter even if he’s in a slump. Sometimes you don’t have a choice. There’s no one else on the bench.

This is all quite odd. Marriage seems to be a big issue, even if the country is in a dire situation, economically and geopolitically. Gay folks ask for the right to be married, and while most Americans shrug, an outraged third of the country is appalled at the very notion of such a thing. For each side marriage is an issue that really matters.

An interesting question is why it should matter. And one obvious answer is that marriage is woven into our culture, as the one thing that really does matter. To be unmarried is to be outside the real world of real people – take it from a twice-divorced confirmed bachelor living alone here in Hollywood. You do feel odd – the Hermit of the Sunset Strip. But these things happen. The second marriage ended in 1990 and lots of dating followed, which in Los Angeles is exhausting. But you play the game. For a time it was the little black Benz convertible with the hip French techno-thump blasting away, and the fancy restaurants and Oscar parties and drives up the coast – and the close relationships that finally went nowhere. The other party always has their fixed views and values, as do you – unlike teenagers, adults are like that – and in the end you become no more than a dildo with a wallet. There seemed little point to it all, and eventually the career took off and one ends up happy to be flying solo. You have your friends, some of the same women, and you can do what you want. That’s delicious. Try Paris in December – two weeks each year kicking around on your own. You learn things. The few trips there with the significant other of the moment were disasters – there was never a way to sit back and watch and then blend in – there was always explaining and arguing minor details. It was like you never left home. And so the idea of marriage faded. Samuel Johnson once said that for a man to marry a second time represents the triumph of hope over experience. He said nothing of a man marrying a third time. Maybe that’s where hope turns into delusion.

But everyone else is married, with kids, and now with grandkids – they’re all there on Facebook, posting their pride and happiness. That was what you were supposed to do. That’s normal. That’s what both the gays and the Republicans are talking about – the essence of the human condition, even if they disagree on the details. People are meant to pair up. Anything else is perverse.

That may be so, but if so, something odd is going on, reported by Eric Klinenberg, a professor of Sociology, Public Policy, and Media, Culture, and Communications at NYU, in this year’s Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone:

Time Magazine featured it as the “Number One Idea that is Changing Your Life” in the March 12, 2012 cover story. Vanity Fair called it “trailblazing.” Psychology Today called it “so important that it is likely to become both a popular read and a social science classic.” The New Yorker argued that the book “suggests that our usual perceptions about life alone get things backward.” And the Washington Post explained that “Going Solo is really about living better together – for all of us, single or not.”

Yeah, you probably missed that. You were taking the kid to the soccer game. But the thesis is simple:

Klinenberg explores the dramatic rise of solo living, and examines the seismic impact it’s having on our culture, business, and politics. Though conventional wisdom tells us that living by oneself leads to loneliness and isolation, Klinenberg shows that most solo dwellers are deeply engaged in social and civic life. In fact, compared with their married counterparts, they are more likely to eat out and exercise, go to art and music classes, attend public events and lectures, and volunteer. There’s even evidence that people who live alone enjoy better mental health than unmarried people who live with others and have more environmentally sustainable lifestyles than families, since they favor urban apartments over large suburban homes. Drawing on over three hundred in-depth interviews with men and women of all ages and every class, Klinenberg reaches a startling conclusion: in a world of ubiquitous media and hyperconnectivity, this way of life can help us discover ourselves and appreciate the pleasure of good company.

From Kathryn Hughes in the Guardian:

It is symptomatic of Klinenberg’s rigor that he refuses to deploy lazy arguments about galloping narcissism or diminished public life. Instead he looks at the flinty data and concludes that an upsurge of settled singles is a symptom of a society’s growing wealth, like owning cars or eating meat. Essentially, if we can afford to live alone, then we do, seeing it as “a mark of distinction, not a social failure”. Anecdotally, too, the current recession seems to have sharpened the longing for a room – or, better still, a nice one-bedroom flat with low service charges – of one’s own. Sharing with housemates, even bunking up with your boyfriend, is increasingly what losers do.

Something is up:

Gathering up these threads – of those who aspire to live alone, those who happily already do, and those who accept that it is probably the best they can do – Klinenberg argues that we need to stop worrying about what it all means and concentrate instead on making it work. The first, and most profound, thing to do is acknowledge that solo living is actually a fantasy underwritten by the very real presence of the family, communities and the state. …

What we need to do, Klinenberg concludes, is craft new ways of living alone together, ones that acknowledge and nurture the links between the solitary and the communal.

No one is really alone, but marriage may be dead, or dying, and Jessica Loudis notes this:

Klinenberg poses a major question: what is the best way to keep our brave new society of singletons functional and happy? One answer is to be found – of course – in Scandinavia. Though nearly the entire book is set in America, Klinenberg ends in Stockholm with a profile of a collective house that dates back to the 1930s. With shared facilities and independent apartments, residents get the best of both worlds: the social benefits of living communally, and the individual satisfaction of having their own space. The model’s success has been such that the Swedish government took it to heart in the 1960s, when they broke ground on a mass public housing project for people who wanted to live alone. With examples such as this one, Klinenberg implies that Sweden has already realized what the United States has yet to comprehend: that a coherent approach to mass singledom is not only a social question, but also a political one. With more people living alone every year, the moment may not be far off.

This is not exactly the new age of Happy Hermits, but Greta Garbo was onto something. “I want to be alone” – and she spent the last years of her life in her fancy apartment at the far end of East Fifty-Second Street, the last building on the right, alone, as she wished – in the middle of bustling Manhattan, where everyone delivers what you order within the hour. Dorothy Parker lived in the building next door. Robert Benchley lived right across the street, in River House. But Greta Garbo was alone, and presumably happy. This can work – just don’t tell the Republicans.

On the other hand, late last year, in the Atlantic, Kate Bolick offered a take on the difficulties modern women face in this matter:

In 2001, when I was 28, I broke up with my boyfriend. Allan and I had been together for three years, and there was no good reason to end things. He was (and remains) an exceptional person, intelligent, good-looking, loyal, kind. My friends, many of whom were married or in marriage-track relationships, were bewildered. I was bewildered. To account for my behavior, all I had were two intangible yet undeniable convictions: something was missing; I wasn’t ready to settle down.

The period that followed was awful. I barely ate for sobbing all the time. … I missed Allan desperately – his calm, sure voice; the sweetly fastidious way he folded his shirts. On good days, I felt secure that I’d done the right thing. Learning to be alone would make me a better person, and eventually a better partner. On bad days, I feared I would be alone forever. Had I made the biggest mistake of my life?

Ten years later, I occasionally ask myself the same question. Today I am 39, with too many ex-boyfriends to count and, I am told, two grim-seeming options to face down: either stay single or settle for a “good enough” mate. At this point, certainly, falling in love and getting married may be less a matter of choice than a stroke of wild great luck.

What follows is long, and anecdotal, and highly personal, as she tries to work out just what’s lucky here, and whether it’s okay to be single. But the context she provides is telling:

The decision to end a stable relationship for abstract rather than concrete reasons (“something was missing”), I see now, is in keeping with a post-Boomer ideology that values emotional fulfillment above all else. And the elevation of independence over coupling (“I wasn’t ready to settle down”) is a second-wave feminist idea I’d acquired from my mother, who had embraced it, in part, I suspect, to correct for her own choices. …

What my mother could envision was a future in which I made my own choices. I don’t think either of us could have predicted what happens when you multiply that sense of agency by an entire generation. But what transpired next lay well beyond the powers of everybody’s imagination: as women have climbed ever higher, men have been falling behind. We’ve arrived at the top of the staircase, finally ready to start our lives, only to discover a cavernous room at the tail end of a party, most of the men gone already, some having never shown up – and those who remain are leering by the cheese table, or are, you know, the ones you don’t want to go out with.

But Bolick considers the work of Stephanie Coontz, a social historian at Evergreen State College in Washington:

For thousands of years, marriage had been a primarily economic and political contract between two people, negotiated and policed by their families, church, and community. It took more than one person to make a farm or business thrive, and so a potential mate’s skills, resources, thrift, and industriousness were valued as highly as personality and attractiveness. This held true for all classes. In the American colonies, wealthy merchants entrusted business matters to their landlocked wives while off at sea, just as sailors, vulnerable to the unpredictability of seasonal employment, relied on their wives’ steady income as domestics in elite households. Two-income families were the norm.

Not until the 18th century did labor begin to be divided along a sharp line: wage-earning for the men and unpaid maintenance of household and children for the women. Coontz notes that as recently as the late 17th century, women’s contributions to the family economy were openly recognized, and advice books urged husbands and wives to share domestic tasks. But as labor became separated, so did our spheres of experience – the marketplace versus the home – one founded on reason and action, the other on compassion and comfort. Not until the post-war gains of the 1950s, however, were a majority of American families able to actually afford living off a single breadwinner.

So the Ozzie and Harriett ideal marriage that the Republicans posit as the norm is an anomaly. The Founding Fathers they admire so much never even imagined such a thing:

Coontz still didn’t think that marriage was falling apart, but she came to see that it was undergoing a transformation far more radical than anyone could have predicted, and that our current attitudes and arrangements are without precedent. “Today we are experiencing a historical revolution every bit as wrenching, far-reaching, and irreversible as the Industrial Revolution,” she wrote.

And that does change things for Bolick:

I woke up. In six more years, I’d be 42. All this time, I’d been regarding my single life as a temporary interlude, one I had to make the most of—or swiftly terminate, depending on my mood. Without intending to, by actively rejecting our pop-culture depictions of the single woman – you know the ones – I’d been terrorizing myself with their specters. But now that 35 had come and gone, and with yet another relationship up in flames, all bets were off. It might never happen. Or maybe not until 42. Or 70, for that matter. Was that so bad? If I stopped seeing my present life as provisional, perhaps I’d be a little … happier. Perhaps I could actually get down to the business of what it means to be a real single woman.

The same could apply to men:

The Census Bureau has reported that in 2010, the proportion of married households in America dropped to a record low of 48 percent. Fifty percent of the adult population is single (compared with 33 percent in 1950) – and that portion is very likely to keep growing, given the variety of factors that contribute to it. The median age for getting married has been rising, and for those who are affluent and educated, that number climbs even higher.

She’s feeling okay about being a single woman, and she explains how she got there. But as for men who struggle with the concept of a man flying solo – the odd old hermit thing – there’s Thomas Rogers’ interview with Michael Cobb – all about what seems to be what social conservatives won’t acknowledge, the new golden age of the single person. Cobb’s new book is Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled – all about people living alone, by choice. Cobb argues this hurts our relationships and our culture. And maybe it does, as Cobb notes:

I don’t think we even know what being single is. We live in such a couples-obsessed society that there really are no “singles” out there – everyone is pre- or post-coupled. They’re either in the wings waiting or they’re past their prime and are no longer allowed to be part of this central way people not only organize their intimate lives but attain social legitimacy. People use relationships to bind themselves to social, political and cultural realities.

I’ve been in lots of relationships and those relationships have their own interesting moments. They are fulfilling in all sorts of ways and distressing in all sorts of ways. But the loneliest I have ever felt is with this other person I am with. And that’s not supposed to be the case.

Intimacies are always kind of like that. You think, “This is supposed to alleviate me from all this sadness and loneliness, and yet it’s just intensifying these feelings – but the single must have it much worse.” I feel like a lot of that bad effect is just projected onto single people, and that condition is rendered pathetic and sad and depressing. This is why it doesn’t have a language of its own – because the language of singleness is really the language of couples pitying single people.

And the narratives are intense:

When my grandmother was dying, on her deathbed, I was talking to her and she put her hand onto mine and she said, “Michael I don’t want you to die alone.” It was part of an ongoing conversation we’d had about how important it was to have a partner. People talk about one of the reasons you do get involved with people is you want someone to take care of you because you don’t want to die alone. It scares you into being into a couple.

But everyone dies alone. There is nothing more completely personal. And that may be the problem. We hate the wholly personal, and maybe ourselves:

If marriage and couples are supposed to be this magic bullet and your relationship is the thing that is supposed to define and make the world for you, that’s putting an enormous amount of pressure on that relationship. This book is not against couples – it’s really against the primacy of the couple, the anxious over-importance of the couple that actually makes couples fail because you can’t by definition make a whole world out of one other person. If you try, you’re shrinking your world and your existence in the hope it’s going to cure everything. It creates a lot of distress and at the same time it’s invalidating your other experiences you had when you were by yourself, when you were dreaming up other kinds of associations you might have.

Ah, so you say to your soul mate, you complete me. Why didn’t you do the job yourself? That’s at the center of all this. But if Barney and Jim want to get married that’s fine – that’s their business. And if half the nation wants to pretend they’re Ozzie and Harriett, that’s fine too – to each his own. But it’s a fine night alone here in Hollywood too. It’ll do just fine. And don’t knock it. There are more of us than you think.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Choosing to be Single, Gay Marriage, Marriage in America, Social Norms and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Flying Solo

  1. Russell Sadler says:

    You have rarely been more eloquent Alan.
    I’ve lived alone on a 30 ft. boat in Friday Harbor, Washington for twelve years. Very satisfying.
    Stick to your guns, lad.

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