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On being alone.

Over the last two weeks, my social calendar has thinned out a lot. Everyone is trying to stop the rapid spread of Covid-19, and social distancing is super important for that. In my area, there’s a curfew. Restaurants are not permitted to open their dining rooms- delivery and takeaway are the order of the day there. Grocery stores are limiting their hours. Companies and schools are transitioning largely to work-from-home where possible. For those scenarios that can’t be done remotely, lots of layoffs are happening so that their employees can try to find something else or sign up for unemployment. And so it goes.

While I understand and agree with the reasons behind all of this, I’m very frustrated with the end result. I’ve lost nearly a dozen concerts from my schedule, as venues close in an abundance of caution. I’ve canceled airfare and hotels for two different out of state trips, and there’s another two that may be on the chopping block over the next week. My weekly trivia and monthly karaoke are canceled for the time being. The only thing left on my calendar for the next ten weeks aside from work stuff is MegaCon and one doctor’s appointment. I suspect both of those could wind up canceled before much longer. (Edit: Two hours after this was posted, MegaCon was rescheduled for June.)

For most of my friends, our new weird quarantined reality is a big adjustment. For me, it’s not really all that different than my previous life. I work completely remotely, live alone, and eat most of my meals alone. I actively enjoy not leaving my apartment- I can stay here for days without ever feeling bored or stir-crazy. There’s always something for me to do here. There’s a pitfall, of course- the longer I stay in, the harder it is to break the inertia and get out.

My extrovert friends are losing their minds right now, but for me this isn’t bad at all. Doing stuff alone has always been easy for me. Movies, concerts, trips to other countries: I’m perfectly happy going by myself. Having companionship for these jaunts is enjoyable, but never necessary. I’ve learned over time that while I usually have anxiety about leaving the house, I almost always have fun once I get to where I’m going.

These are the two warring sides of my personality: the loner and the social animal. Am I an introverted extrovert or an extroverted introvert? One of my friends told me a while back that he thinks I’m very social even though it’s sometimes really difficult to get me out of the house- he’s not wrong. Crowds drain me. Too much of that kind of noise makes me glaze over. Too much ambient noise (other than music) depletes me.

There was a brief time a while back where I thought that my loner tendencies might be some sort of personal or psychological failing on my part, so I read a bunch of books about being alone. In “Party Of One: The Loner’s Manifesto” by Anneli Rufus, there is a paragraph about how children played with the original GI Joe doll, the 12-inch version that my brothers had. (This is not to be confused with the four-inch toys that came out in 1982 with all the vehicles and accessories to compete with the similarly sized Star Wars toys at the time. The first GI Joe, the 12 inch one, was only one Joe. They didn’t introduce the snow guy and the ninja guy and the metal-faced guy until later on with the four-inch GI Joe friends.).

Anneli Rufus writes:

“Creating scenarios with only a single doll validates the power and wonder of the individual. Even if this is only a molded-plastic individual with painted-on hair and a mass-produced costume, it is a vessel through which the child projects his own visions of himself as an independent thinker, doer, adventurer, and winner. With only a single doll, the child celebrates self-reliance, learns to strategize, and learns the most potent lesson of all: The doll- or the real person the doll represents- requires nothing in order to do things and have experiences. Its adventures are sparked and carried out through ingenuity, imagination, creativity. In playing with a single doll, the child discovers how to entertain himself. A lone doll gives the message that one is enough.”

— “Party of One: The Loner’s Manifesto” by Anneli Rufus

The book goes on to talk about how the four-inch toys came with their personalities already set, predetermined. Reading this, I thought back to my own childhood. Whenever I was playing with my armada of the tiny Star Wars toys, I didn’t follow the preinstalled personalities or their already-written adventures.

Instead, I would put a blanket on the floor in a blobby unfolded state so that it would make caves. Then I’d select one particular character, never a Luke or a Han- generally some smaller, less important character, and I’d make that character go live by themself in one of the caves. I only chose one, and I stuck with that one. On the far side of Blanket Mountain. Far away from the rest of the action figures. When I was playing Star Wars with other neighborhood kids, this usually led to some frustrating times, because they wanted to interact, and I wanted to be a hermit.

I think a therapist would have a field day with that one.

How are you handling quarantine and social distancing?

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Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels.com
Header photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels.com
https://www.pexels.com/photo/crowd-reflection-color-toy-1679618/

That German Thing

Two years ago, in February of 2018, I went to a family wedding in Naples, Florida. My family is large and friendly, and any time a lot of us are in one place, we talk up a storm.    At one point during the festivities,  I was having a conversation with… well, I don’t remember who.  I think it was my aunt, and she put a fairly innocuous question to me.  Two years later, I don’t even remember what the question was.  What I remember is that my answer started with some version of, “I lived in Germany for three years, and…”  Ten seconds later, I was just cringing.

Even now, two years later, I am still wincing at what a pompous, self-important blowhard I can be.  That sentence, “I lived in Germany,” comes out of my mouth way too often.

OK, yes, I did live in Germany for three years.  I’ve been back in the US now for six years, though- twice as long as I was away.  The urge to bring up my time abroad in almost every conversation is a giant lurking, looming thing.  It’s like a pressure valve that I can’t properly close, and it threatens to spew garbage all over nearly every interaction I have with another human being.  It’s infuriating to me.  I replay conversations in my head afterward, over and over, beating myself up about things that I said when I would have been better served saying nothing at all.

My good and dear friend Charlotte wrote a post back in January of 2018 pondering whether being an expatriate was still part of her identity even after being back in her home country for more than three years.  One particular section from her post got me thinking:  “Now I’ve settled down in my life back here. I still feel years behind people my own age, and feel like this is the “this is what you could have won” section of a gameshow.

When Charlotte wrote her post, I had also been back home for about three years, and I was already feeling many of the same feelings and doubts.  Repatriation can be kind of weird and stressful.  I’ve said many times before that living abroad can be like pressing a giant pause button on your life, and it’s easy to feel like the rest of the world went on without you while you were away.  I commented on Charlotte’s blog that I had a similar post in mind and that I would write it soon.  That post is this one-  I’ve been writing it in fits and starts again and again over the last two years, without ever finishing it to my own satisfaction.*  I’ve kept a browser tab open to Charlotte’s post ever since, and I’ve re-read it many, many times, noting different parts of it on each subsequent re-reading.

The plain truth is that my time as an expatriate changed me.  How could it not have?  Packing everything I owned into eleven large boxes and moving five thousand miles to another country where I didn’t speak the language and didn’t have an apartment waiting was a huge adventure.  My brief German life is a major part of the fabric of my current identity, and it’s never far from my mind.   My time there allowed me to grow and become a better person in ways that I didn’t understand fully until I was back home.  I am absolutely not the same person I was before I left, and in some ways, I think that expressing that is a big part of why I keep harking back to my time in Germany.    That doesn’t make it sound any less pretentious when I hear myself saying those four words- I lived in Germany–  for the millionth time, though.

I saw one of those artsy motivational images recently with text that said, “You can’t start the next chapter of your life if you keep re-reading the last one.”  It hit home because this particular worry and frustration has been living rent-free in my head since I came back to the US in late 2014.

I worry that my constant need to tie my current life back to my experiences in Germany is a personal failing.  I spiral through feelings of doubt: Have I become boring?  Am I living in the past?  Is there some deeper psychological failing that keeps me talking about that time? Why do I talk about the past so much- is my present life that uninteresting?  I suspect that I won’t know the answer to any of these questions in the very near future, so I turn my attention toward managing the symptoms instead of fixing the root cause.

In recent months, I’ve been trying to find ways to make the same points during conversations without tying it back to my time in Germany.   While talking about living in a place that is colder in winter than Florida, for example, I’ll just say that “I’ve lived in a place with real seasons,” or “I’ve lived further north than this.”  Sometimes the conversation rolls around to beer and the various types thereof.  I like to say that I became an accidental beer snob because of my time over there, but now I mostly try to just talk about the suds themselves without bringing my personal experiences into it.  This is absolutely impossible if I’m with friends in a German restaurant, though.  When I have a nice order of Sauerbraten and a cold Dunkel in front of me, my stein- and my urge to talk about Deutschland-  runneth over.

It would be better if I had no need to interject my experience into the conversation at all, though.  That’s the dream.  Keeping my stupid mouth shut and letting other people do the talking is what I aspire to do.  Now if only I could remember the question from two years ago that started this whole thing…

Do you have any topics that you can’t leave alone in casual conversation?

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* – This post is still not completed entirely to my satisfaction, but finally publishing SOMETHING about this after two years will be a great relief to my Checklist Brain.   And, as a bonus, I can finally close the tab that’s been open to Charlotte’s post for the past two years.