This bachelor uncle lives by himself in a cozy New York City apartment. Gregarious and sharing outside the apartment, inside he is spoiled and selfish, doing exactly what he wants when he wants, like planning his own meals, listening to music he chooses, and reading when the mood suits him. He has learned what Julian Barnes tells us Flaubert teaches: "the virtue of being able to remain by yourself in your own room."
This past holiday upended my comfortable routine. I traveled to Boston to share a house with 10 other family members, plus a dog and a cat. Three of our number are my great-nephews, ages 6 and 4, and a two-month-old infant. The repose of a solitary life is exchanged for the complexities of communal living.
Instead of lying in my own bed, I am relegated to floor space on an air mattress. The mattress has a leak. I sink with the passing of each night.
The two older boys rise around 5:30 a.m. and play outside my door. (The parents wisely have moved their own bedroom upstairs.) Jack, the four-year-old, bursts into the room while I lie on the floor in the cold darkness. No alarm clock is as effective as Jack.
As the day unfolds, the dog spots the cat creeping down the stairs. Growls, barks, and then a lunge. The cat retreats. The uproar sets the infant off on a crying spree. In the ensuing commotion, my reflections for the day vanish like the dew.
I pride myself on being a gifted conversationalist, a person who has mastered the art of civil discourse. Literature, music, travel, politics: These are among my conversational domains.
But here, the three boys are the center of attention. I want to discuss Schopenhauer. Not easy to do when the other adults spend their time sighing over dimples, infant gurgles, and assorted yip-yaps.
To cross the generational divide, I reach out to Jack, watching a cartoon. I inquire about the protagonist. "Is that a squirrel who looks like a dog, or a dog who looks like a squirrel?" He suggests I go elsewhere. Jack does not suffer fools gladly.
I am left to bond with the dog. We go out for walks through the neighborhood and along the banks of the Charles River. I enjoy the bracing New England air. She accompanies me when I shoot baskets at a nearby outdoor basketball court.
Humans are contrary beings; at least this one is. After our parting for my return trip by train, I find I miss the whole gang.
We had lots of fun together. Festive repasts, singing Christmas carols, walking around Beacon Hill.
Back in my comfortable bed, in the cold darkness of dawn I listen for the footsteps of an early-morning visitor.
But no one is there.