If you read the comments on last Monday’s post, you will find a message from my neighbor [redacted], who is evidently moving out. First of all, welcome [redacted]; you have expanded my readership by 16%. Second of all, after reading said message, I realize that I am a weird hermit who is completely unreasonable in my expectations for quiet. No, wait—I still think I am a normal person. It is an agile interpretation that decides my “imperious pounding” on the floor is the problem when the stereo unavoidably comes on at 3am. The floor, by the way, is [redacted]’s ceiling. Again we encounter the problem of others.
Probably, in our disagreement over which of us is the normal one, [redacted] and I are both wrong. As near as I can tell, I am a fantastic guy, but I also occupy the worst possible vantage from which to make that assessment. In determining whether I am actually a weird hermit or some other variety of perspective-warped crank, I have recourse to three kinds of data:
1) My own visceral sense of self.
2) What other people say about me.
3) Concrete information.
Obviously, (1) is not a reliable indicator. The whole point of being a bizarre asshole is that you don’t realize you are bizarre and think it is a coincidence that you keep meeting assholes. My visceral sense of self vacillates between Ozymandias and loathsome despair, and so I have learned to ignore it. I assume other people feel that way, too, but I don’t know. That’s exactly the kind of incorrect baseline assumption that marks the eccentric, the unreasonable neighbor, the crank.
Part of the reason you don’t meet a lot of canny, well-adjusted hermits is that their isolation deprives them of information from category (2). What other people say about you is an extremely reliable source of data about the self, except when it isn’t. Several years ago, one of my friends arrived at my Brooklyn apartment distraught because some kids on the J train said she had “dyke hair.” It was a new cut, and she was unsure about it. I spent the next several minutes and, in less concentrated form, weeks convincing her that her new haircut looked great, when in fact it was totally too short and symmetrical in a way that appeared to make a statement re: contemporary sexual/gender politics.
She had dyke hair, god love her. Even accepting that as a premise, however, there is something unsatisfying about saying that she should have listened to those kids on the train. For a number of compelling reasons, you should not give too much credit to information from category (2), except in the most basic areas of hygiene and speech patterns. If you notice that people tend to listen with pursed lips as you speak uninterrupted for minutes at a time or smell themselves when you’re around, take heed. Otherwise—and this is one of the earliest lessons we impart to children—don’t worry about what they think.
In self-assessment, it is better to fall back on information from category (3). Here, at least, some elements of my life are certain. Despite my admittedly limited social skills and probable anxiety disorder, I have friends whom I like very much and who seem, themselves, not to be weird hermits. According to a bunch of poorly maintained but still factual spreadsheets, what I am doing up here all day is maybe being crazy, but also definitely working full-time as a freelance writer. It is way, way more fun than having a real job, although it is not as fun as being a student.
I know because I used to be a student. I first lived in Missoula during grad school, when I routinely stayed up all night drinking and yell-talking. For this reason, I feel like a real asshole when I pound on the floor in the middle of the night to make [redacted] turn down his stereo. Pretty much every time I did it, I went back to bed feeling terrible. But I really wanted to sleep, because otherwise I would miss deadlines the next day, not get to be a full-time writer anymore, have to get a regular job and cut my face off.
So maybe it sucks to live downstairs from me. Maybe the slightest noise sends me into absurd dicketry in the night, and I think I am normal because that’s what crazy people always think. Or—and here I make my appeal to category (3)—maybe [redacted] and I are not a good fit as neighbors. Maybe my sleep depth is such that, although none of my other downstairs neighbors of the past three years woke me up, [redacted] perfectly normal behavior disturbs me. Maybe, even though I do not know of an instance when I have woken him up, I do it all the time, and I am the asshole for complaining. It’s a terrifying problem, when you think about it, because how could I know?