Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sunday Reading

Table for One — Nathan Heller looks at the growing number of people (myself included) who live by themselves.

Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University, has spent the past several years studying aloneness, and in his new book, “Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone” (Penguin), he approaches his subject as someone baffled by these recent trends. Klinenberg’s initial encounter with the growing ranks of singletons, he explains, came while researching his first book, about the Chicago heat wave of 1995. During that crisis, hundreds of people living alone died, not just because of the heat but because their solitary lives left them without a support network. “Silently, and invisibly, they had developed what one city investigator who worked with them regularly called ‘a secret society of people who live and die alone,’ ” Klinenberg writes.

“Going Solo” is his attempt to see how this secret society fares outside the crucible of natural disaster. For seven years, Klinenberg and his research team interviewed more than three hundred people living alone, plus many of the caretakers, planners, and designers who help make that solitary life possible. Their sample included single people in everything from halfway hotels to elder-care facilities, and drew on fieldwork conducted primarily in seven cities: Austin, Texas; Chicago; Los Angeles; New York; San Francisco; Washington, D.C.; and Stockholm.

The results were surprising. Klinenberg’s data suggested that single living was not a social aberration but an inevitable outgrowth of mainstream liberal values. Women’s liberation, widespread urbanization, communications technology, and increased longevity—these four trends lend our era its cultural contours, and each gives rise to solo living. Women facing less pressure to stick to child care and housework can pursue careers, marry and conceive when they please, and divorce if they’re unhappy. The “communications revolution” that began with the telephone and continues with Facebook helps dissolve the boundary between social life and isolation. Urban culture caters heavily to autonomous singles, both in its social diversity and in its amenities: gyms, coffee shops, food deliveries, laundromats, and the like ease solo subsistence. Age, thanks to the uneven advances of modern medicine, makes loners of people who have not previously lived by themselves. By 2000, sixty-two per cent of the widowed elderly were living by themselves, a figure that’s unlikely to fall anytime soon.

What turns this shift from demographic accounting to a social question is the pursuit-of-happiness factor: as a rule, do people live alone because they want to or because they have to? At one point, Klinenberg suggests that living alone provides “restorative solitude”; it may be “exactly what we need to reconnect.” But most of the people he introduces seem neither especially restored nor vigorously connected. They are insecure, proud of their freedoms but hungry for contact, anxious, frisky, smug, occasionally scared—in short, they experience a mixture of emotions that many people, even those who do not live alone, are apt to recognize.

The Little Ship — Leonard Pitts, Jr. on the moral of the story of the Titanic.

There is a single shot, just seconds long, in James Cameron’s newly re-released movie, Titanic, that says it all with poignant eloquence.

Up to this point in the narrative, the director has emphasized the great ship’s size and grandeur. She sweeps over the waves like a building that has somehow learned to fly and you cannot help but gape at the mammoth scale of her, the largest moving object on Earth at over 100 feet tall and four city blocks long.

Then comes her collision with that iceberg she saw too late. Her bow is slipping beneath the water and she is shooting off distress flares. Cameron pulls back, way back, placing the stricken ship amid a vastness of black water and an infinity of inky sky, the futile flare breaking pitifully above her. She is a tiny outpost of human anguish stranded in the ocean and you marvel that you ever thought her big.

It is 100 years ago today that the great ship went down. And the moral of her story, the great lesson of her death, has lost none of its pertinence or urgency in the 10 decades since 1,500 people died in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic.

It has been a predictable aspect of human nature since at least the Industrial Age that each generation regards itself as progress’s ultimate goal, history’s finished product, modernity’s final word. If you grew up in the 1960s or ’70s, perhaps you remember embracing that belief like a birthright. Hair was long, music was loud, television was in color, and there were men on the moon. It was a new era of hipness and enlightenment, and the ’50s were just something your parents talked about, something long ago and covered with dust.

What makes the memory amusing, of course, is that the ’60s and ’70s are now themselves long ago and covered with dust. Time, you see, does not stop its relentless march to watch your generation preen in self-satisfaction. This is a truth each generation learns in turn. The child who comes of age now will find it hard to imagine a someday world in which iPads, cloud computing and Lady Gaga are just some memory with which she bores her kids.

But it will happen, because progress knows no ultimate goal, history has no finished product, modernity speaks no final word.

Usually, this is wisdom one learns gently, with the passage of years. But sometimes, the lesson is abrupt. The night of April 14-15, 1912 was one of those times.

Those Were the Days — Susan Heath recalls when no one cared if she had an abortion.

Two weeks ago, a bomb went off outside a Wisconsin abortion center. In recent years, several states have passed or tried to pass laws requiring women seeking legal, constitutionally protected procedures to first undergo medical examinations. A young woman has been called a slut after testifying in favor of insurance coverage for contraceptive care. These are but a few of the stories about attacks on a woman’s right to choose.

It wasn’t always like this.

This is a story of how it used to be:

It’s 1978, five years after Roe v. Wade. I’m 38, I have four sons — the oldest is 17, the youngest is turning 12. I’m at school, getting a B.A., and I’m loving it.

I’m about two and a half months pregnant.

I don’t want this child.

I have a family, a large family. I love my children with a passion, but I don’t want any more. I know this with absolute certainty. I’ve got other things to do, and I don’t have it in me to be a good enough mother to a fifth child. I delight in newborn babies with their delicate weightlessness, the curl of their small fingers around my thumb, but the best thing about them now is that they belong to other people. I don’t want to bear them, feed them, bring them up, be responsible for them.

I don’t want this child.

So I’m on my way to Planned Parenthood to have a legal abortion. My husband drives me there — this is a serious matter for both of us, but we absolutely agree it’s my decision to make. We have been conscientiously using contraception and it’s failed us this time.

I’m pregnant but I’m not trapped.

All I had to do was call the clinic and make an appointment. I don’t have to be ashamed or terrified, because brave women before me fought to make abortion legal, have gone public with their stories of shame and terror and made sure that no woman ever again has to die from a back-alley abortion or bear an unwanted child.

We park and walk up to the entrance. No running the gantlet between pickets shouting at me that I’m a murderer, no fear that someone will throw a bomb. The receptionist takes my name and says, “You just have to talk with a counselor first.” I don’t mind, I figure it’s part of the procedure. I tell the counselor I already have four children and I don’t want any more. I’m on a different track now. She nods understandingly and says they’ll be ready for me soon. No judgment, no showing me pictures of fetuses, no trying to make me feel guilty. She just wants to be sure I’m sure.

And of course, I am.

Doonesbury — Still there?