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Flying solo
Author Sasha Cagen stumbled upon a personality type that’s not new, really, but has always flown under the radar. Now, ‘quirkyalones’ are finding each other with greater ease — not that they really needed anyone’s assistance.

Sometimes it SEEMS like we’re forever doomed to suffer the brain rot of gender stereotyping. Here’s AOL’s headline on a recent morning: "Calling all moms — stop wasting your free time on chores: sneaky tips to try." If all moms need to concern themselves with hiding the mop, is there hope for anyone else? Anyone, for instance, who isn’t paired off in a society that shoves coupledom down throats from elementary school onward? Or anyone who finds herself happily single and refuses to submit to a half-assed relationship or the desperate hunt for a mate?

Sasha Cagen has given that sort of person a name: quirkyalone. And in the process, she’s helped pull together a segment of society that always seems to get a bum rap.

On Valentine’s Day, those folks might wind up without a smooch, but they sure as hell won’t be whining about it. Instead, maybe they’ll be analyzing Cagen’s new book, Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics (HarperSanFrancisco), at a second annual International Quirkyalone Day celebration. Last year the day was celebrated in New York, San Francisco, Providence, and Glasgow, Scotland. This year, events are also being organized around the world. (Check www.quirkyalone.net for a full list of parties.)

The word "quirkyalone" popped into Cagen’s head a few years ago, after yet another kiss-less New Year’s Eve. At first it was merely a snazzy word without focused meaning; she and her single friends just sensed that it reflected part of themselves. Here they were, attractive and smart, yet single for months or years without having — or trying to find — a steady squeeze. Over time, Cagen, who’s 30, pinned the term down more tangibly in an essay for the first issue of To-Do List, the magazine she publishes. Quirkyalones, she wrote, are "romantics, idealists, eccentrics [who] inhabit singledom as our natural resting state. In a world where proms and marriage define the social order, we are, by force of our personalities and inner strength, rebels ... being alone is understood as a wellspring of feeling and experience. There is a bittersweet fondness for silence. All those nights alone — they bring insight."

Cagen’s new book — with its playful mélange of text, pie charts, lists, and quirkyalone bios — expands on her original essay but trades wistfulness for an attitude of eloquent (and sometimes hilarious) self-determination. In it, Cagen explains how she hit on "quirky" and "alone": "Perhaps truly quirky people are the ones who don’t have the option of camouflaging their individuality: they’re just uncontrollably themselves." As for "alone," it’s a "declaration of independence, a willingness to step out from the crowd to follow one’s own instincts."

Utne Reader picked up Cagen’s original essay in 2000 (and named To-Do List "Reader’s Choice for Best New Magazine"); since then the quirkyalone (QA) concept has created a bit of a commotion, garnering attention everywhere from the New York Times to USA Today to CNN. People have inundated Cagen with e-mails, letters, marriage proposals, et cetera, to let her know they finally feel validated.

In mid January, Cagen helped launch the Web site Quirkyalone.net. A week later — following a stint as Yahoo’s Pick of the Day — the site was getting more than 800 hits a day. Many people expressed relief to discover a whole new planet of comrades. "Since I’ve identified with QA it’s like a light has gone on in my head," one visitor wrote. "I am glad to know you all! It is great to know that I’m not just weird."

But Cagen hasn’t so much sparked a movement as simply given a name — and bearings — to a certain reality: a recent University of Chicago study concluded that typical urban dwellers spend about half their lives single or dating. So it appears that QAs, made to feel like society’s freaks, actually represent an island of self-acceptance in a sea of unhappy unmarrieds. Unhappy, that is, assuming that most people view marriage as the norm and want it for themselves.

The response to the quirkyalone concept has surprised even Cagen. "The whole thing is such a bizarre experience," she says via phone from San Francisco, where she now makes her home after living for a time in Somerville. "Every bit of attention has been unexpected. People started forming their own online communities to talk about quirkyalone, or started to use it for a jumping-off point of discussion in church sermons or in women’s-studies classes. Even the idea of writing a book was unexpected for me because it wasn’t where I was expecting to go. I wasn’t one of those people who was like, ‘By age 30, I have to write a book.’ It was really in response to all of the letters and e-mails and stories that I was getting from people."

QAs can be men, although women — who traditionally get more flak for being unattached — might identify more readily with the concept. "For a woman to remain unmarried is much more threatening to mainstream ideals about what it means to be a woman," Cagen writes in Quirkyalone. QAs can be any age — in the Quirkyalone.net chat room, visitors’ ages range from late teens to late 50s. And QAs can be in a long-term committed relationship, or even married. It’s "a mind-set and a way of life," Cagen explains in her book. QAs who become part of a couple are "quirkytogethers," in relationships based on ideals that are more attainable than fanciful. "It’s not the soul-mate idea of finding the other half to complete you, but about finding a lively and dynamic partnership that still allows you to be fully yourself," she writes.

Cagen’s original To-Do List essay is imbued with an unwavering combination of self-definition and resignation. Yet optimism runs through its heart, especially in these sentences: "Better to be untethered and open to possibility: living for the exhilaration of meeting someone new, of not knowing what the night will bring. We quirkyalones seek momentous meetings."

If QAs are intent on holding out for that "momentous meeting," is that just another way of saying they have unrealistic standards? Consider the perennially single pudgy schmuck who wants to be with a supermodel and can’t figure out why he’s still alone. Or the girl who had a mad love affair at 18 and won’t get involved again because she won’t settle for anything less than that impossible madness. Cagen acknowledges the potential woes of the QA. "It can be dangerous for a quirkyalone to hang out for a long time outside of a relationship and develop this huge romanticized idea of what it’s going to be like," she admits. And QAs can be especially susceptible to craving the lightning-bolt effect: "The quirkyalone has to engage with the idea of meeting someone and not feeling everything in the beginning."

Cagen stresses that QAs aren’t misanthropic or living like hermits. "Most people who have responded to the concept have fit this category of having a mixture of a very social outlook on life and a need for introspection," she says. "They’re the kind of people who need a certain amount of time to process and to feel centered, but they’re also people who are out there and tend to have a lot of friends." So International Quirkyalone Day makes sense. At the San Francisco party last year, Cagen remembers, "we had a really multigenerational crowd ... belying the misconception that quirkyalones are private, reclusive people. They were the most chatty, social lot imaginable."

Wrote one visitor to the Quirkyalone.net chat room: "It seems a lot of non-QA people have real misunderstandings about the way of living or preference. They seem to think that ‘alone’ means ‘disconnected’ or ‘not interacting with people.’... If anything, I would say that I’m probably MORE connected ... than a lot of people in relationships." A QA, many argue, has more time to devote to community activism and social activities.

Friends help breathe continual hope into the lives of QAs. "Having quirkyalone friends that you love, and seeing some of them be single and some of them meet people and start relationships" is key to the QA ethos of inherent optimism, says Cagen. "And knowing people that you actually identify with who don’t sacrifice their entire social lives when they get into a relationship, or their sense of themselves, and seeing that it is actually possible."

International Quirkyalone Day is not necessarily an anti–Valentine’s Day, adds Cagen. "It’s a celebration of all kinds of love — romantic, friendship, family, self, whatever. It’s a do-it-yourself celebration that stands apart from the consumer mania that leads up to Valentine’s Day. People just have so much expectation built up for this holiday based on the advertising and the expectations that are driven by consumer media. So it’s nice to step outside of that. And if you want to give someone flowers, give someone flowers on March 14."

Finally, Cagen insists, QAs are not cynics. "What really defines the quirkyalone personality is that you’re not someone who becomes completely bitter about the possibility of romantic love. There are people who just shut off possibility and decide, ‘I’m not into relationships, it doesn’t work for me, and I’m happier being single.’ What’s funny about the quirkyalone is you have that part of ‘maybe I’m happier being single,’ but you also have that part of you that remains open to the possibility that you’ll meet someone and still feel as comfortable as you do on your own or with your friends, and that person will become part of your life."

That philosophical dichotomy — happy in solitude yet receptive to connection — could be seen as more of a human trait than a QA idiosyncrasy. Still, quirkyalones are probably particularly familiar with that ambivalence: they more keenly feel — and require — the restorative effects of being apart and then rejoining the world. A few hundred years ago, John Milton, of all people, in Paradise Lost, of all places, put it this way: "For solitude sometimes is best society,/And short retirement urges sweet return."

Amy Finch can be reached at AmyLFinch@aol.com

Issue Date: February 13 - 19, 2004
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