"Well," said my cousin Mark, "what I'm doing is what you programmed me to do." In a voice half-resigned, half-loving, he addressed his parents, when he'd reached age 24. On Mark's list was his bachelor's degree from a well-known college, his job in a Wall Street firm, his rent-stabilized apartment signed on to (through a connection) in the East Village. In a couple of years he could have expanded the list to include his marriage to a nice Jewish girl. "Nice," yes. And "a girl." He did as programmed.
That term "programmed" blew into town after the time it might have been pinned on me, but the idea existed without the name. What my father designed for me was to follow him in the insurance business in Texas ("you'd have a lot of ready-made clients"); I fled from both the state and the profession. Also in capital letters on his wish-list, like Mark's parents for him, was that I marry a nice, preferably Jewish, girl.
Not so acquiescent a son as was Mark to his parents, I turned him down on both fronts.
My father's urge for me to marry seemed to be going along nicely so long as I dated girls, until my mid-20s. Then I admitted, after some hesitation, that I was moving on the wrong road, and turned to men. I didn't send him a press release; it happened without that. And I gradually came to know that marriage with either gender wouldn't be my future. Romances, with men, predominantly sexual, started and stopped after a few weeks or months, was my road. I moved on in a single lifestyle.
That I am hardly alone would have amazed my father or his generation. Statistics point to single people filling more of the population today than ever, so many that I wrote a book about a dozen of them. They are adults who I wrote were "living life creatively," living, that is, a productive, healthy, reasonably happy life without husband, wife, partner. Some of them had been married or partnered, and for some time, only to find later that they're happier single. They ended up building lives without a mister or miss right knocking at the door.
I don't mean to make this sound an easy ride for me. It hasn't been. The imprint of my father's wish to see me married was heavy and ongoing almost until he died in his mid-80s. For him, no other success of mine filled the gap so long as I was single. For me to live with that requires faith in what I'm doing, not think of it as failing. It's a challenge.
There are times when I miss having a companion and feel envious of those who seem happy in a committed relationship. But the programming that succeeded for my cousin eluded me. Since I was a teenager, I've needed time by myself, and it's a need that seems to have grown with time, especially as the sexual urge diminished. With enough hours alone to clear my head, I'm geared up to meet the outside world. If this has a down side, it's that deep into my habits -- that happens as we get older -- I fear that I'm satisfied with my own company too much.
Anyway, there's the loner-in-chief, Henry David Thoreau, to turn to if I need support. Said Thoreau (in "Walden"), "I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was as companionable as solitude."
My father would have found that hard to imagine -- I never tried to persuade him of it. But it's believable to me.
Stanley Ely writes about the single lifestyle in two books, "Living Alone Creatively: How Twelve People Do It" and in his new book, "Life Up Close," in paperback and ebook.