ReelThoughts: October 06, 2009

"Isolation"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


And now for something completely different…

It's the afternoon of Sunday, September 1, 1985, and I'm feeling strange. Outside, there's the bustle of a Sunday afternoon in a city. The temperature is mild but not unbearable, recalling the heights of summer but headed for a reminder of autumn's approach when the sun declines. In years to come, the first Sunday of September would remind me that the Toronto Film Festival is just around the corner. In 1985, however, TIFF was a mere ten years old and not that well-known around the world (its rise to prominence would occur mainly in the '90s), and I was not that interested in movies, anyway.

Two days earlier, I had played my last-ever game of pencil-and-paper Dungeons & Dragons. That staple of my high school years, which I had started playing in 1978, before it was in vogue, was now a piece of my past, although the love of fantasy it had inspired in me would never die. Looking back, I can't determine whether it was Tolkien that introduced me to D&D or the other way around. Ditto for Robert E. Howard and Stephen R. Donaldson.

Now, here I was, alone for the first time in my new world, freed from the safety net of home and parental supervision. I was 17 - young in the United States for starting college - but that was the result of the strange configuration of my birthday and something called a school cut-off date. At 17, I was intellectually mature but emotionally and socially embryonic. I'm sure I realized that at the time, but it's crystal clear in retrospect. The freedom afforded by living away from home was awe-inspiring, like getting behind the wheel for the first time: equal parts empowerment and fear.

I had opted for a single dorm room because I valued my privacy above all else. My parents never questioned this. As a child, I had never shared a room with anyone. As the first-born and lone male, I was afforded a solo domain; when the house had only three bedrooms, my sisters invaded each other's space. My room, although smaller than theirs, was mine alone. When I committed an offense and was sent there, it didn't feel like a punishment. No one ever thought to take away my books - that would have been painful.

Having a single room produced a form of self-imposed isolation. Those students with doubles were more easily absorbed into the university life culture. They had no choice. Having a roommate - something unavoidable during my sophomore and junior years - came with its own demands and benefits. A couple years later, my girlfriend Tracie commented that I should have opted for a double during my freshman tenure. Her logic: "You would have gotten laid sooner." That presupposed the right kind of roommate, but I got her drift. After all, I had met her during the twilight of my first semester as a sophomore as a direct result of a pushy roommate who had intimidated me into attending a party.

That first afternoon alone at college is imprinted upon my memories with a starkness that nothing except the encroachment of senility will be able to erase. It's one of a handful of recollections that can be summoned into existence in full by a particular smell (fresh paint always does it), a sight (one of the many books I brought with me), or a taste (something in my bag of snack foods). We all have memories like that; they form the building blocks of nostalgia, which is often more about the way we wish things were than about their actuality. That's why so many period piece movies blur the details to create an idealized version of the era in which they transpire.

As I sat alone on my bed on that Sunday afternoon, listening to a late-season Phillies game in another lost season, I became determined to forge a few friendships, although I wasn't sure how to go about doing that. Making friends comes easily to some people, but I am not one of them. My high school friendships (about eight in total, all male) had been formed largely as a result of coincidence or inevitability, not because I actively sought them. And we were all as like each other as we were unlike others - odd peas in a malformed pod, comfortable with our compatriots but viewed with skepticism by those around us. I sometimes consider (although not for long or with any great seriousness) attending a high school reunion because I realize I would be as much an object of curiosity in 2010 as I was 25 years ago. By September 1, 1985, my friends had scattered all across the country. The closest was in Delaware. The farthest was in California. (And my future wife, for those keeping track, was a five-year old kid in Manila.)

Today, teenagers embark upon their dorm experience with boxes full of electronics. Their cell phones, used as much for texting and Internet browsing as for making voice calls, keep them in touch with friends and family across the globe. It wasn't like that in 1985. No one in my dorm had a computer, and there was certainly no e-mail. (I got my first e-mail account, jberardi@seas.upenn.edu, in September 1986, and I had to go to the computer center any time I wanted to check my e-mail. Having the equipment to do it from my dorm room? Unheard of at the time. Unthinkable not to have it today.) I did not have a phone in my room; I used a pay phone outside the Lower Quad entrance for my once-a-week calls to my parents and grandparents. I had no TV to start with, although I brought a small black-and-white portable with me when I came back to school after Christmas break. So, for that entire first semester, it was me alone in my room with my radio and my books.

The vow to make friends evaporated after I pondered a simple question: Why? Sure, friends were nice to have, but they were not necessities, and the stress related to having difficulty cultivating them was counterproductive. I have always been something of an attachment-phobe. During the five years I was at the University of Pennsylvania, I established a number of friendships, but none were close, and I haven't had contact with any of those people in 15 years. The same can be said of most of my high school friends. So, after several miserable days of worrying about my inability to connect with any other student in a way that would lead to a lifelong bond, I gave up. And, in giving up, the pressure was lifted. I basked in the release and was able to embrace my isolation - an island in a community of thousands.

I wasn't as unpleasant or anti-social as this might make me seem, although I was timid, especially around women. But I obeyed the unwritten rules of dorm etiquette, which stated that doors should be propped open whenever an occupant was "at home" and able/willing to be disturbed. One generally did not close the door unless one was studying (more often done in the library than in the room), having a romantic encounter (something that happened quite frequently on my floor but never in my room), sleeping, or engaged in some activity not appropriate for public sharing. I added "reading" to that list because I did a lot of reading and I preferred not to be disturbed while so engaged. I remember doing very little homework during my freshman year; the courses were all easy. I compiled a 3.97 GPA, with the lone blotch being an A- in a religious studies course. (After the final, which was an oral exam, the professor said he thought I deserved an A- but that if it would hurt my GPA, he was willing to give me an A. I took the A-.) With so little time devoted to class work, I had five hours minimum per day to read. I could get through three to five books per week, and I was undiscriminating in my choices - classics and good trash alike. From September till December 1985, I probably read 60 books. But my door was open two or three hours a day, often while I was listening to the radio, and people - especially the football player next door - dropped by to chat. There were even visits by girls (gasp!), but mostly to ask for help in math or physics. I became my floor's go-to guy for anyone with questions about (in particular) calculus and astronomy.

The calm bubble of isolation I luxuriated in during 1985 is not like the isolation of today, where a growing number of people reject interpersonal relationships in favor of alternative forms of communication: phone, e-mail, texting, social networks, etc. This is contributing to two societal problems: people who don't understand how to act in public situations, and people who abandon civility when communicating "anonymously." (The anonymity of electronic communications is an illusion, but a potent one.)

Electronic courage is like liquid courage; it's not real. Some of the boldest, most arrogant on-line trolls are reduced to quivering shells of meekness when encountered in the flesh. When you send an e-mail or respond to a forum post, it's too easy to forget there's a real human being at the other end. Self-absorption is becoming a way of life. People don't just care about expressing their opinions; they want to win. And "winning" means destroying contrarian ideas. I'm as guilty as anyone from time-to-time, although I do my best to maintain a calm, rational demeanor. I would rather terminate an exchange than engage in a salted-fields, scorched-earth approach.

The difference between my brand of isolation in 1985 and the growing self-absorption of today is that I recognized the existence and rights of others and respected them, even if I chose not to participate, while too many people in 2009 are focused on their own wants and needs to the exclusion of all else. Consider the following incident. Recently, I was in a movie theater. Before the movie began, the guy next to me was texting. This behavior continued through the previews and past the start of the movie. I gave him about five minutes before leaning over and politely asking him to stop because the light from the phone was distracting. His response? It was either: (a) "I'm sorry. I didn't realize. Let me just finish this last message and then I'll put my phone away," or (b)" Fuck you, man. I paid $10 for this ticket and I'm going to do whatever the fuck I want to. If you don't like it, you can leave." Anyone who guessed (a) is still living in the late '90s. So I moved.

Incidents like this, once isolated, are becoming more common. Like the guy said, he paid his $10. He didn't seem to consider that I had also paid my $10. That wasn't something that interested him. Today's culture is one in which compromise is becoming a lost art, and where people are no longer interested in understanding an opposing position. When I disagree with someone about a movie, I want to know in excruciating detail why they think the way they think. Few things are more boring than hearing someone echo my thoughts, yet too many people seek only the comfort of like opinions and are frightened and intimidated by those who think otherwise.

The lesson I learned in 1985, when I was first tasting the freedom of adulthood and emerging from the safety of home and hearth, is that it's possible to achieve a state of personal isolation while remaining a member of society. I believe that lesson is as valid today as it was then; it's just that fewer people seem to be learning it.


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