Alone in Parallel

An often-forgotten aspect of “being alone” or “me time” is the backdrop in which it takes place. On one end of the spectrum, we have isolation—Walden-esque retreats or withdrawing to our apartments after a full day; on the other end, there’s the intriguing dynamic of being alone amongst company.

The notion of simultaneously individual, yet shared experiences has many embeddings (don’t worry, we won’t be covering silent discos). Cities are incredible at fostering this. A favorite New York Saturday tradition of mine is floating from coffee shop to coffee shop. Time to be alone in parallel with the city.

I want to explore a few personal attempts at being alone, together and how they’ve been a litmus test for how close I am with someone.

Synchronized Workouts

Last spring, Ryan and I tried outdoor runs with synchronized audio by playing the same mix through each of our headphones. This relieved the pressure to sustain out-of-breath conversation, allowed us to keep pace, and provided for an ambient, parallel experience. There’s something about music’s ability to coordinate the biorhythms of those listening. I highly recommend trying it, even in non-fitness contexts—which segues to nicely to another instance of individual/shared experiences: remote coworking.

Remote Coworking

A cherished habit amongst my friends is to make otherwise lonely evenings less so by remotely coworking together. We’ll hop on Skype, Hangouts, or FaceTime and tackle whatever we need to get done, occasionally distracting one another with memes or pointless digressions.

Given a large enough subgroup, it’s been possible to keep a room running for entire weekends at a time (which might point towards our level of sheltered nerdiness). Remote coworking feels like an approximation of a digital “third place”—a designated retreat from the office and our homes.

Pseudo-Book Club

My favorite example of being alone with others is what I unofficially refer to as the “Pseudo-Book Club.” The name stems from my gripe with traditional book clubs: that every member has to read the same thing. I’m a firm believer that literature should be digested when we’re best able to receive it (e.g. with age, certain experiences, or desired knowledge). Forcing everyone in the group to forego their personal trajectories never made sense to me. So, Kate, Jason, Joe and I landed on a different approach. Each Tuesday morning from 9–10am, we meet at coffee shop with our Instapaper1 queues or a book and read on our own, together. It’s an hour I look forward to week over week.


Between synchronized workouts, remote coworking, and the book club, I used to worry about the potential for uncomfortable silences. But, the opposite ended up happening; the silence was heartening. A commonly cited indicator of a strong friendship is the ability to talk for hours. After this exploration, I’m beginning to think that’s not entirely accurate. Our closest friends might be the ones we can comfortably be alone, in parallel, with.


Special thanks to Shiva for editing early drafts of this essay.

Footnotes

  1. The coffee shop must serve tea and Joe uses Pocket, because he likes to make things complicated <3