Tethers & Tonic: On Life, and Solitude, in the Social

I'm out and about the other evening— Sunday, 5ish — and I realize, at the moment, I had no immediate social tethers. No one knew where I was and, moreover, no one wondered where I was. No one cared where I was or what I was doing; no one expected any form of communication or presence from me. My phone was silent — no texts, emails, calls. No one expected me back home; no one was meeting me for a drink. I had no work in the morning as I work for myself. I could do anything, be anywhere — until Monday at 6, when I needed to pick up my boy from school.

As a reclusive, I've felt this before, known this sensation before. But my understanding suddenly became so acute. I suddenly saw life — and particularly the social — as a vast array of tethers that run through us, that link us together, that push and pull like some kind of collective, mutual marionetting, defining our physical and existential movement.

Some of these things are vast — historical, cultural, institutional. What tugs at me in the social, in building my identity and my behavior, is very different than what tugs and pulls and pushes on young black men, Muslims in America, a homeless junky. But even as a white, middle class man, I feel the tethers of multiple forces, from social protocols to the law.  I can't, for instance, run naked in the streets, lie down for a nap in a hotel lobby, dance on the bar at the local watering hole (some of which sound fantastic). There are social protocols, yes, but there are also very real and violent limit terms, i.e., the police.

(Then there's just the plain old oddity of being out alone in the social. If I'm with a woman or my kid, I already and immediately fit a mold. When I was first single after being married, when I had my kid, I had no problem talking to women. Why? Because I was already a known quantity. But alone? Who, they have to wonder, is this bald shnoz of a man alone at the bar? I have to find my words, my rhythm, to enter the double dutch of the social. Often, I mis-step and speak too loudly, too often, too aggressively, too emphatically, too obtusely. But I'm 46 so who gives a shit? My only concern is getting the right drink, the right food, the right moment.)

Some of these tethers are close and strong, things like a job, a spouse, kids, parents. But me, I don't have a wife; I don't have a group of friends. I have a son, yes, but he only lives with me part time. I don't have a boss or co-workers. My family, those still alive, live half way around the world. We talk, sure, and they affect me but they don't know or care where I am or what I'm doing at the moment.

Which made me think of my friends and the people I know and the organization of their day, physically, emotionally, existentially. Their time is accounted for. They know what's expected of them; where to be and by when; the kinds of things they can say and do. Sure, they may look forward to their "alone" time — a few hours here and there, maybe even a few days once in a while. But, otherwise, they are tethered by various strings linking them to others who push and pull, defining the movement, sensations, and organization of their very being — a kid's pick up, grocery shopping, a job, dinner with the family.

I lead what is no doubt a peculiar life to many: solitude in the city (rather than the country, hermit life — of which I dream). This means I have very few immediate tethers to define and organize my day and myself while still being surrounded by the sounds and suggestions of such tugs. It can be scary; I sometimes feel adrift. I think I've kept girlfriends longer than I should just to have someone who texts me, who (nominally) cares what I'm doing at that moment, where and how and with whom I'm spending my time. It's comforting, reassuring — like a tonic note in a musical scale. A home. A point of orientation. A respite amidst the fray and teem of it all — even when it's unpleasant.

I've been helping a friend write a press release for his new record, an ambient affair. This album is pure texture, affect without identity, melancholy without a melody. There are no choruses or verses; there is no obvious structure. It is an album of drift. There are no tonic notes, just endlessly modulating sensations. Such, in many ways, is my day to to day life: no verses, no chorus, no clear structure. Drift.

A student of mine from ages ago, the great artist Daniel Tierney, once said to me: drift is heroic. I'll never forget that.

What do we want from the social? Yes, there is no escape from it, no outside the text. But what does it offer?

It offers intimacy, physical and emotional. This is beautiful and important. There is no outside the social, no cutting tethers once and for all. And intimacy is incredible. It's not belonging per se; it's a sensation unto itself, an intermingling of energies. It's what we get from certain art and music but made palpable. It is fuel.

I love cuddling with my kid. One of the great delights of being a parent is I get to hug, kiss, pick up, throw around, noogie, wrestle another delightful human being.

Then there's psycho-sexual intimacy, touching and kissing and sucking and fucking and cuddling and goofing with another person.

Then there's existential intimacy, what I get from my brother and a few friends — a kinship across time and space, a collective goof off. There is intense laughter and deep resonance here: harmonic convergence, a bridge undulating in the wind. It is at once physical and existential and, frankly, feels cosmic, the orbits of planets and such.

But when I have too many immediate tethers — appointments and requests — I get insane. I feel put upon, tugged here and there without being able to tug back. Life, my life at least, is negotiating and navigating these tethers, modulating their power, their leverage, their pull.

And then there is social media. Does it mediate the social? Or define it? Many, so many, seek grounding in it, a sense of belonging, a willing abandon to the network tethers. There are so many stamps and signs and traces of connectivity — OkCupid telling when last someone was online, who "likes" you and, by extension, who doesn't; Facebook and all its posts; tweets and retweets; for some, LinkedIn and those who viewed become a social and psycho-sexual set of tethers; and on and on. It's relentless.

But what is it? What happens when I turn off my phone and head into the night, no one expecting me, no one knowing or caring of my actions? What happens then? What am I to do? Who do I become?


Alexis said...

I like the idea of drift...
It makes me think of an empty boat drifting on the water, inspired by one of my favorite parts in The Way of Chuang Tzu:

The Empty Boat

He who rules men lives in confusion;
He who is ruled by men lives in sorrow.
Yao therefore desired
Neither to influence others
Nor to be influenced by them.
The way to get clear of confusion
And free of sorrow
Is to live with Tao
In the land of the great Void.

If a man is crossing a river
And an empty boat collides with his own skiff,
Even though he be a bad-tempered man
He will not become very angry.
But if he sees a man in the boat,
He will shout at him to steer clear.
If the shout is not heard, he will shout again,
And yet again, and begin cursing.
And all because there is somebody in the boat.
Yet if the boat were empty,
He would not be shouting, and not angry.

If you can empty your own boat
Crossing the river of the world,
No one will oppose you,
No one will seek to harm you.

The straight tree is the first to be cut down,
The spring of clear water is the first to be drained dry.
If you wish to improve your wisdom
And shame the ignorant,
To cultivate your character
And outshine others;
A light will shine around you
As if you had swallowed the sun and the moon:
You will not avoid calamity.

A wise man has said:
"He who is content with himself
Has done a worthless work.
Achievement is the beginning of failure.
Fame is the beginning of disgrace."

Who can free himself from achievement
And from fame, descend and be lost
Amid the masses of men?
He will flow like Tao, unseen,
He will go about like Life itself
With no name and no home.
Simple is he, without distinction.
To all appearances he is a fool.
His steps leave no trace. He has no power.
He achieves nothing, has no reputation.
Since he judges no one
No one judges him.
Such is the perfect man:
His boat is empty.


I spend most of my time alone as well (by choice), without the structure of a job or kids or any traditional daily organization, and I have no social media, so I relate. My husband is my main tether, and because he is much more in the world on a daily basis he always laughs at my "what day is this?" Lebowski moments.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Love that Chuang Tzu and agree completely: it is what I imagine drift to be, that middle position, neither leaning forward nor back, equal to one's accidents (as Nietzsche writes).

And you and I, I believe, share constant Lebowski moments. I never even know who's president — which makes some people angry; others think I'm kidding; others that I'm a moron (they're the ones who are right).

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