I know a man who has spent this year getting himself in shape. He has taken up self-improvement the way other people take up jogging. In fact, he has taken up jogging the way other people take up dieting, and taken up dieting the way other people take up rest, and taken up rest . . . well, you get the idea.
In an era when every man is an island, this one is striving to be Bermuda. He has improved the value of his personal property with the zeal of a gardener, covering himself with expensive sod from the local men's shop, feeding himself with proper nutrients from the health store, having the hedges around his ears trimmed bi-weekly by an expert in topiary.
He has even tried to renovate his interior design with a library of self-help books.
Nowadays he talks about the land-scaping of his personal space - the number of miles jogged, the inches lost, the psychic paths explored - the way people in Washington talk about Georgetown real estate. Obsessively.
Because of this, his appalled friends have dismissed him as a "New Narcissist" and a Champion of the Me Decathlon.
But I wonder.
It seems to me that there is something too glib about the way we increasingly apply the label of egocentricity to the 1970s and something too chic about judging people like this Island-man as self centered.
Last week I read the Newsweek cover story on Calvin Klein, a man in the business of body decoration who has his wrinkles smoothed with silicone injections; who is building a gym in his office; who had tried Transcendental Meditation and est. I thought that his explaination of all this was a revealing one: "I have this thing about health and the body. After all, in the end, that's all you have."
Perhaps inadvertently he had spoken the motto of the island people - "in the end, that's all you have." Perhaps what we've called a psychological disease, narcissism, is really a social disease, isolation. Maybe this isn't a Me First Decade but a Who Else Decade. Maybe people aren't hedonistically pursuing their own individual whims; maybe they've been reduced to them.
I know very few people who are so in love with their own images that they eventually drown in them. But in a time when caring seems so transient and connections so fragile, commitment so temporary, I know many more who have come to fearfully believe that the only person you take with you throughout your life is yourself - "that all you have" - and so, they have withdrawn to the most inner circle.
The Island-man, like Calvin Klein, is divorced once if you only count the legal bonds, and thrice if you count the times he's moved his record collection on and off of shared stereos. By now, like many others, he thinks of marriage as a divorce opportunity, and loss as the finale to any love story.
If there was one thing that struck a terrible core of truth for him and for others in "An Unmarried Woman," it was the stunning fragility of that "solid" marriage. The movie was believable only because we have seen, all around us, those who invest their years in another person and find themselves suddenly bankrupt.
Today, the emotional-commitment market looks like the 1929 stock market. The Self is the 1978 Real Estate.
So, people spend much time glorifying aloneness and denying loneliness, trying to make a fulfilling activity out of solitude and choice out of a condition. But a wonder if what looks like selfishness even self-indulgence, from the outside feels like compensation from the inside.
Maybe it isn't egocentrism that's the national ill, but this loneliness and the pervasive sense of impermanence. We haven't chosen this fear. We've caught it like a virus in a splintered society.
It is possible that this man, too, is an island by default - another member of our Outward Bound who has become, in defense, a fearful caretaker of his only acre, grooming and landscaping. And isolated.