The New York Times is starting to give me a complex.
Late last month, it published a long article defining a new problem: More baby boomers and Gen Xers are living alone than forebears of their age did, and that apparently poses physical, psychological and financial challenges. Born in 1964, I’m the fumes of the boom. I live alone. And reading the article, I suddenly felt like some cautionary tale.
Last week came another article: “Who Will Care for ‘Kinless’ Seniors?” It noted, with alarm, that “an estimated 6.6 percent of American adults aged 55 and older have no living spouse or biological children.” I’m 58. I have no spouse, no children. That makes me kinless by the article’s definition. Luckless, too, by the sound of it.
I’m being tough on The Times, and I’m half-kidding. Both articles were important. They rightly expressed concern for older Americans who don’t have the resources or the kind of extended family that I do. They’re at risk. We should attend to that.
But the articles nonetheless reminded me that in an era that exhorts everyone to respect the full range of human identity and expression, there can still be a whiff of stigma to living uncoupled in a household of one. There’s puzzlement over it, pity for it. Surely, you didn’t choose this. Possibly, you brought it on yourself.
If you’re alone in your 30s, it announces an inability to commit unless it signals a failure to attract anyone decent. Take your pick: sexual vagabond or romantic sad sack. The six seasons of “Sex and the City” alternately explored, exploded and capitulated to that thinking — one signature episode was titled “They Shoot Single People, Don’t They?” — and “Bridget Jones’s Diary” had page upon page devoted to how awkwardly conspicuous its protagonist felt all by herself. Not by accident am I using pop-culture examples of women flying (or flailing) solo. They get the brunt of the scrutiny.
That remains true with loners in their late 50s, 60s, 70s. “Spinster” applies to an older woman; for an older man, there’s no term with the same cruelness and currency.
But I’m less interested in issuing a cultural indictment than in correcting impressions and complicating the picture. For many people, yes, living alone is a present or incipient danger. For many others, it’s bliss.
It’s loud music when you crave that energy and silence when you need to concentrate — no negotiations, no complaints. It’s mess when you can’t rally to impose order and order when you can no longer stomach mess.
It’s the bedtime of your choice, meaning 4 a.m. if you happened to start watching “Mare of Easttown” or reading “Bad Blood” at 9 p.m. and couldn’t stop. It’s a morning routine contoured perfectly to your biorhythms and quirks.
It’s plenty of space in the refrigerator and ample room in the closets and the possibility of seeing and understanding yourself in a particular light, one that’s not shadowed or filtered by the doting, demands and dissatisfactions of others.
And if that sounds selfish and shallow, well, answer this honestly: Don’t people who live in larger households have their own indulgences? Are they ipso facto more generous in spirit? Their domestic arrangements are as driven by personal desires as mine is. It’s just that they have different wants.
As for generosity, many of us who live alone tend to our friends with extra care because we don’t have constant company at home. Those friendships can be richer as a result. We’re hardly hermits, though we can play that part for whole weekends if we’re feeling unusually tired or especially reflective. What a sweet and singular freedom that is.
Maybe it makes us a bit more stubborn, a bit less elastic. There are character flaws much worse than those.
And there are mitigating factors. Mine is named Regan, and if she doesn’t get a few miles on our neighborhood’s forest trails in the morning, she prods me with her snout and curses me with her eyes. But once she’s contented and ready to curl up at someone’s feet, mine are the only game in town.
It’s not a bad way to live.
Words Worth Sidelining (‘It Is What It Is’)
The strangest thing about the most annoying sayings is how often they tumble from your own lips.
That still happens to me with “no worries,” which started to supplant “you’re welcome” and “no problem” about 15 years ago, at least in my circle of acquaintances, and won’t go away, though it sounds so faux British in an American context. (It’s the Madonna of locutions.) I’m certain I said “no worries” quite recently, and I cringed, though with only a small fraction of the self-loathing that I feel when I do the following face plant: “It is what it is.”
That may be the most degrading sequence of five words in the English language. It serves no essential purpose. It says nothing at all. It’s syllables for the sake of syllables, a waste of cognition and breath, the kind of tautology that an absurdist playwright might put in a character’s mouth as a commentary on the pretentiousness and pointlessness of some human communication.
I bet I heard it three times yesterday. And will hear it twice tomorrow. And, God forgive me, will say it once the day after that.
Why? Because that’s how such expressions work: They go from quirky to commonplace to overexposed to ambient. Soon you’re repeating them without intention or awareness. And that’s fine — even a blessing — with a reflexive courtesy like “please excuse me” or “my pleasure.”
But not with “it is what it is,” which marks an intellectual and moral surrender. “It’s an excuse not to better define whatever you’re trying hard not to further discuss,” Nathan Mitchell of Milwaukee wrote to me, joining a chorus of other readers, including Nancy Betz of Columbus, Ohio, and Gabe Yankowitz of Manlius, N.Y., who urged its banishment.
It relieves you of coming to a conclusion, forming an opinion, developing an action plan — and even worse, tries to be cute about it. As William Safire observed in an essay about “it is what it is” more than a decade and a half ago, “The trick to assertive deflection is in the ducking of a question in a way that sounds forthright.”
“Will the vogue use of ‘it is what it is’ become fixed in the farrago of unresponsive responses?” Safire asked. We now have the exasperating answer.
Words Worth Preserving postscript: I’m worried about “about.” It seems to be losing ground to alternatives that often look or sound sloppy to me. I was reminded of this by a recent headline in The Times: “Soledad O’Brien’s Painted Hardwood Floors Spark Debate on a New Trend.” Maybe the headline writers faced space constraints and “on” was just crucially shorter than “about.” And there’s nothing really wrong with it, but isn’t “about” more accurate? More elegant? Just better?
I’ve seen “on” grabbing territory from “about” elsewhere. I’ve seen “around” doing the same thing, as in: “Let’s have a discussion around this issue.” And I’ve thought: Huh, if you’re talking “around” it, aren’t you circling and in fact avoiding it? And is that what’s being recommended? Probably not. So here’s a shout for “about.”
For the Love of Sentences
Many weeks, there’s one sentence or passage that wins your affection like no other; often, it was written by Bret Stephens, Maureen Dowd or one of The Times’s excellent book critics.
This past week, there were two. The first came from David Von Drehle, a columnist for The Washington Post, who wrote: “One cannot be surprised to find the Republican Party adrift. This is what happens to ships boarded by pirates, plundered and set aflame on the high seas.” (Thanks to Douglas Hamill of Tharae, Thailand, and Barbara Stockton of Tucson, Ariz., among many others, for nominating this.)
The second was a characterization of Herschel Walker by Michelle Cottle in The Times: “The guy has more baggage than a Kardashian on a round-the-world cruise.” (Mike Silk, Laguna Woods, Calif., and Glenn Cassidy, Albany, N.Y., among many others)
This observation about Congress by Benjamin Wallace-Wells in The New Yorker was also popular: “The Senate styles itself as a club, but the House is more like an airport lounge, everyone impatiently watching the clock and the departures board and eying the same skimpy tray of desserts.” (Bonny Cawley, Schenectady, N.Y., and Linda Sharpe, Belmont, Mass., among others)
There were many wise and beautifully turned tributes to the singer and songwriter Christine McVie after her recent death but none better than Barbara Ellen’s in The Guardian, which began: “Most of us have our favorite musical artists, the ones we deliberately seek out, but what about the other kind, the ones who wriggle in through the trapdoor of your mind?” (Tony Souter, Alton, Hampshire, England)
And among the tributes to the singer, songwriter and actress Irene Cara, who also died recently, I especially enjoyed LZ Granderson’s in The Los Angeles Times, where he recalled the boost of energy and confidence he got from Cara’s song “Flashdance … What a Feeling.” “Believe it or not,” he wrote, “I played ‘Flashdance’ the day I interviewed for The Los Angeles Times, because even at my age, fear can chase dreams into hiding.” (Michael Massei, Pasadena, Calif.)
In The Minneapolis Star Tribune, James Lileks defended liquid eggs, the kind that comes in cartons: “I use it because there are mornings I cannot be bothered to go through the tiresome rigmarole of dealing with real eggs. You have to break them, and considering what eggs cost these days, you wince — the price of one dozen is like Humpty Dumpty’s bill for the emergency room.” (Jacque Smith, Minneapolis)
In The Atlantic, Tom Nichols described the Oath Keepers: “They arrogated to themselves the duty to interpret the Constitution in any way that would dissolve their sense of emptiness, douse their own insecurities and make their lives more interesting.” (Martha Graham, Brooklyn, N.Y.)
To return to, and end with, The Times, here’s Elisabeth Vincentelli on a seasonal disorder: “Welcome back to the wonderful, self-contained world of holiday movies, where we do not smirk at the improbably high number of handsome widowed fathers; we accept the fact that every other person is a best-selling writer, a pop star, a princess or a baker; we applaud the frequent blizzards that force two hotties to spend time together; and we root for the big-city dweller discovering the joys of country life.” (Ann Pelo, Montesano, Wash.)
To nominate favorite bits of recent writing from The Times or other publications to be mentioned in “For the Love of Sentences,” please email me here, put “Sentences” in the subject line and include your name and place of residence.
On a Personal (By Which I Mean Regan) Note
When houseguests arrive, Regan greets them expansively, euphorically, as if ravenous for company beyond mine. I understand. A little of me goes a long way.
But what happens next is the intriguing part. She painstakingly monitors the guests — swiveling her ears to track their movements, frequently following them from room to room, always positioning herself outside their bedroom door in the morning so that she knows precisely when they rise. I think I’ve figured out why.
Over time, she has noticed how often the appearance of guests presages the disappearance of those guests and me, as we head out to the event that they’re in town for or a restaurant that I want to introduce them to. She’s hoping that if she doesn’t relax her watch, we won’t give her the slip.
I’m ceaselessly impressed by how quickly dogs recognize patterns and how keenly they adapt to them. It verges on mind reading. From clues that are a mystery to me, Regan can detect when I’m taking a shower as the prelude to zipping off without her and when I’m merely getting clean. In the former case, she plants herself feet away, forcing me to confront my imminent and unforgivable betrayal of her. In the latter, she continues to nap wherever she was napping.
If you’re wearing a coat or pullover with deep front pockets and you move a hand even slightly toward one of them, she will instantly materialize at your feet, head tilted up, eyes pleading with you. She’s primed for a treat. Your gesture suggested the possibility of one.
And every time I close my laptop, no matter when, no matter where, no matter how softly, she snaps to attention. For her, that subtle but apparently singular sound flags transition, movement: I’m headed to a different room. I’m pivoting from work to play. I’m about to give her dinner or a walk or a belly rub. I’m crossing some border, and she — ever loyal, ever loving — intends to accompany me to the far side of it.