Chat Benches with a Positive Spin

I’m 54 years old, and for 52 of those years, I was desperately lonely more often than not. So I’d like to think I can speak with good authority on this subject. There’s a certain stigma attached to loneliness. Being in that state makes you feel as if you’re a failure at life, because everyone who sees you as lonely tends to pity you or assume that you are, indeed, a failure at life. (And in case you’re wondering, the odds are quite high that you are NOT a failure. Please know that.)

Seclusion is a catch 22 situation. Often, to break out of it, you must first admit that you’re there, and admitting that you’re there could brand you as some substandard, clingy, desperate outlier, and that causes people to avoid you. Confessing to loneliness also makes you vulnerable, and opens you up to rejection.

So I was really intrigued when a friend shared an article with me about Chat Benches. I started looking into them, and I must say that I was delighted by the intent behind them, but not quite as thrilled by the media spin.

Chat benches seem to have originated in England, and the idea is quite simple. Put a sign on a bench that says, “The ‘Happy to Chat’ Bench: Sit here if you don’t mind someone stopping to say hello.” Brilliant.

I think of the many thousands of times that I’ve shared a bench with strangers and was too afraid to pass the time of day with them, for fear of making them uncomfortable. A bench with this type of sign would remove that hurdle, and make the moment pass by more pleasantly. And who knows? I might have made a new friend.

As we become more isolated, as we all bury our noses in our smart phones, we might need a little extra push to take that step into the land of social interaction. These benches provide just that sort of push. I applaud them.

I’ve read several articles on the subject now, and it seems that they launched this movement to coincide with United Nations World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. All well and good. The elderly quite often disproportionately suffer from loneliness and depression. The articles go on to describe how loneliness in that generation makes one susceptible to abuse and suicide. Also a legitimate concern.

Here’s where it gets sticky, though. As a friend says, “I think it’s a mistake, and unhelpful, to frame this as a ‘help lonely people by speaking to them’ story. Asking people to self-identify in public as ‘lonely’ is to ask them to publicly admit to social stigma, and asking the supposedly not lonely to provide public and demeaning charity by deigning to talk to the self-identified ‘lonely’ is to further that stigma. We could all benefit from talking more with each other in safe, casual public situations, stigma- and charity-free.”

I couldn’t agree more. I think these benches are a great idea. But I also think the media spin, and the public conversation, needs to shift. We’re all lonely at one time or another. We could all use new friends. We should all talk more, and listen more. I think everything that gets the community to interact with each other is worthwhile, and if part of that community just happens to be elderly, then so much the better.

What I hate is the idea that whoever sits on that bench first is projecting this “I’m lonely, please help me” image, and whoever sits there second is doing them a great favor. Based on the wording of the sign, that was not the intent of the creators of this movement. Good on them! But the articles I’ve read on the subject would have you believe otherwise, and that’s a great shame.

Hey, I just had a great idea! Perhaps every chat bench could be placed next to a Little Free Library. That way, the person who sits on this bench alone would have something to do until the next person comes along. The sign would make it obvious that person one isn’t so absorbed in the book that he or she isn’t willing to talk. And talking about books is a great ice breaker. Hmmm.

I envision a day when there’s a Chat Bench website, where you can register your bench and have it put on a map to indicate where the nearest bench can be found, just like littlefreelibrary.org does with its libraries. Incidentally, if you go to that website, you can see a bench design that includes little free library books in its base. (A bit pricey, but probably not that hard to imitate.) These two organizations could so easily go hand in hand. An idea whose time has come.

Meanwhile, if you do decide to put up a chat bench (and I hope you will), please make sure it’s in a high traffic area, so that the first person sitting there can avoid that wallflower feeling.

Bench Chat

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Reclaiming the Day

Have you ever had one of those days? A day of traffic snarls, annoying errands, clerical stupidity, unwanted expenditures, stupid people and disappointing friends. I was tired, hungry, I had to pee, and I was annoyed at the world. That’s never a good feeling. Even while it’s happening, I realize that that is not a headspace for making major life decisions.

When I’m in that state of mind, I have awful thoughts. People suck. Why on earth did I move out here? I don’t belong in Seattle. I don’t understand people out here. Nobody likes me. They don’t give a sh** about me. I hated Florida with its horrible politics and its oppressive heat, but at least there things made sense, and people could be counted on. There are too many people here. I feel like I’m suffocating. I want to go home.

I felt like crying.

Instead, I text-vented to a good friend in Florida, who had the sense to just listen and not try to talk me out of it. He knew I already knew I needed to pee, eat, and be around the one person I can count on out here: dear husband.

And sure enough, Hubby was on his way. And he had some idea what he was driving into. Storm clouds on my horizon.

There’s a reason I chose Always Look on the Bright Side of Life as his ring tone. That man could put a positive slant on the four horses of the apocalypse. And he does it in such a charming and sincere way that you can’t even get annoyed. He also does that “I’m a guy, so I’m supposed to solve stuff” thing. Which must be upsetting from his perspective, because not everything can be solved.

But in this case, he handled my mood with aplomb. He drove up, wearing a bright, sunny, yellow shirt, and had my favorite Jason Mraz album playing on the radio. “Hey there, Sunshine!” He said. “Let’s find you a bathroom.”

After accomplishing that mission, he took me out for seafood. He made me feel special. He made me feel heard.

I could see what an effort he was making to be positive, and that naturally made me want to be positive, too. So I started saying things like, “What lovely weather we’re having,” and “Look at those beautiful flowers.” All while grumbling inside. But I was trying.

Your attitude impacts your outlook. If I had continued in “people suck” mode, the evening would have gone completely down the drain. Instead, I decided to follow his positive lead, rather than make his day as awful as mine had been up to his arrival.

After that, we went to see Wings Over Washington, which was so much fun it got a blog post of its own. And then we went home, watched Handmaid’s Tale, hugged the dogs, and went to sleep smiling.

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, we resurrected the day. And that made me realize that looking at days as a solid unit can be a mistake. A day doesn’t have to be all bad, from beginning to end. It’s possible to live in the moment. It’s possible to turn things around.

I hope I remember that. If I don’t, I have someone walking beside me who will remind me by example. And that’s pretty darned amazing.

Moon Phoenix

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A Failure to Completely Alter My Life

Due to various health issues (I’ll spare you the details), someone recommended a book to me that she purported would change my life entirely.

Boy, she wasn’t kidding. In order to be cured of all my ills, I must do the following, immediately, and all at once:

Do some form of sweat producing exercise for an hour a day, and completely avoid the following foods for the rest of my life:

  • Sugar.

  • All processed foods, including anything in a box, bag, or can.

  • Breads.

  • Cheeses.

  • Condiments.

  • Processed and smoked meats, including bacon, ham, salami, hot dogs, corned beef, and sausage.

  • Mushrooms.

  • Pasta.

  • Melons.

  • Potatoes.

  • Dried fruits.

  • Dairy products, including milk, cheese, and yogurt.

  • Gluten.

  • Fruit juices.

  • White rice.

  • Cashews and Pistachios.

  • Breakfast Cereals.

  • Soda.

  • Alcohol.

Upon reading this, I got tears in my eyes and immediately ate a pint of ice cream and fell into a deep, dark depression, as is my wont in moments of despair. Because I know me. There is no way I can pull this off. You may as well ask me to chop off my head and replace it with that of someone else. It’s too radical a change, it’s too overwhelming.

It’s a set up for failure.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure it’s all good advice. I’m sure it would be life altering. But it’s too extreme. It’s too all-at-once. And my medical condition isn’t life threatening. It’s just annoying. So the incentive isn’t the kind I’d need to completely do away with every single thing I normally eat, with the exception of salad (without dressing) and other veggies from my garden, and then be expected to get my starving butt off the couch to jog for an hour a day.

I know I’m sounding like a whiney little kid, but am I alone in this? Could you do this? Right this minute?

Apparently this must be done all at once or it won’t work. So… it’s not going to work.

Baby steps I can do. I already don’t drink alcohol or soda. I already hate corned beef. And I eat much healthier than I did 10 years ago. But this… it’s insane.

So, in essence, I bought a book that makes me feel worse about myself than I did before, and I still have the health issue. This does not make for a successful health plan. There has to be a better way.

I’m not asking for things to be made completely easy. I’m willing to make certain sacrifices. I don’t think all life solutions should be to take a pill and continue with your bad habits.

But baby steps, you know? I can’t run a marathon when I’ve barely learned to walk. You can’t expect me to quit my job, move to the country, and eat pine trees, while building my own log cabin. Tomorrow. Or even next week. And anyone who expects that much of me is part of the problem.

The first step in designing a healthy lifestyle system is that it should be at least remotely achievable. Otherwise you’re just selling low self-esteem. Thanks, but we’re already full up on that, here.

sisyphus

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Several Days of Bureaucratic BS

Pedestrian safety on drawbridges is a huge issue. Without naming names, I was asked by a certain organization to write some drawbridge do’s and don’ts that would help people increase their chances of actually surviving around a million pounds of moving concrete and steel, and I did so. They took these suggestions, sanitized them a bit, and made them into an oversized postcard with a gorgeous, souvenir-worthy picture of one of our drawbridges on the front side. They made several thousand copies. I was very proud of this work and knew it would make a difference…

Until someone further up the chain of command of that organization decided that they shouldn’t be distributed to the public. And now they’re gathering dust in some closet somewhere. No comment.

In other news, after I got married, I had my middle name legally changed to my husband’s last name. This caused a whole host of interesting bureaucratic encounters.

I had to pay a fortune to show up in court and swear that I wasn’t making this change against my will. (You can change your last name when you get married without the court hassle, but not your middle name.)

I went to the Social security office to have my information updated with them. I brought my court ordered name change with me. I had to wait an hour to see someone. While working on the change, he gave me a print out and asked if everything on it was correct. I said no, my mother’s maiden name was spelled incorrectly.

I was told that they wouldn’t be able to fix it in that office, and I was only given a vague indication of how it could be done, elsewhere, with more paperwork. Screw it. I’ve gotten this far in life with them having that incorrect information. And I did try.

I had to apply for a brand new passport, even though my old one was only a few years old, because now my middle name on my passport did not match my middle name on my ID. We went in with what we thought was all the necessary information, and met with a brick wall in the form of a bureaucrat who was in a foul mood. Rather than tell us how to jump through all the necessary hoops, he decided to tell us why we couldn’t accomplish our goal. We left there frustrated.

We came back the next day with everything we needed, and got the same guy. But this time he was in a good mood and everything went smoothly. See, now? Was that so hard?

But before that, we had to get a new passport photo at Costco. We went in, waited about 15 minutes for the lady in the photo department to get to us and take the picture. She said it would be about 20 minutes to process. So we went shopping, and bought a bunch of Costco stuff that we really didn’t need, as one does. Then we returned to the photo department. No photo.

There was a different woman working the counter, and she told me that the photo would have to be taken again, because with passport photos, you cannot be showing any teeth, you must have a neutral expression, and most of your ears must be showing. So we took the photo again, and had to wait another 20 minutes for it to be processed.

While processing the photo, we decided to bring our groceries outside to the car. The person who was checking the items against the receipt at the exit discovered that the cashier had forgotten to ring up one of our items. So we had to go back to customer service and have that straightened out. Good save on her part. We believe in paying for what we buy. But after days of dealing with stupidity, it kind of rankled.

Again, a certain organization is desperate for bridgetenders, and I know the perfect person, who would happily start tomorrow if given the opportunity. So we submitted the resume, and middle management would love to hire him. But upper management is being… well… You can imagine. Several of our positions have been vacant for more than a year.

I went to the county courthouse the other day with my husband, and we had to place our items on the conveyor belt and pass through the metal detector. I got yelled at for picking up my husband’s items in an effort to hand them to him and speed things up. Like I was some kind of criminal. Like I was stealing my husband’s wallet right before it detonated, or something.

So I made a point of walking on the grass on my way out.

Power to the people.

Zootopia Bureaucracy

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The Ice Cream Paradox

Coffee ice cream is my kryptonite. If it’s in my house, I will eat it. In fact, that’s probably all I will eat. Even if it’s breakfast time.

Because of that, I try not to have it in the house very often. Dear husband knows not to bring any home unless I ask for it. Because the post-coffee-ice-cream guilt and depression is no fun at all.

Once upon a time, though, I was in a very unhealthy relationship, and he started bringing home pints of ice cream for me every single day. I never asked for them. It wasn’t a household habit. In fact, I begged him to stop. And yet the ice cream kept coming. It made no sense.

I did eat a lot of ice cream for a time there, and then one day I figured out what was going on. I don’t know if this was a conscious thought process on his part, or just his default passive-aggressive coping mechanism at play, but the fact was, we were in a bad place, and one twisted way to keep me in the relationship was to destroy my self-esteem by getting me to become fatter and fatter and fatter. If I was depressed and miserable, I wouldn’t have the energy to change my life, and I certainly wouldn’t find someone else.

At some point, I gave up trying to convince him to stop bringing home the ice cream. The crux of our problem was that he never listened to anything I said. So I was forced to take matters into my own hands. I’d just wait until he left the house, and then I’d take the lid off the ice cream and turn it over in the sink and let it melt down the drain.

Eventually, there were just too many examples of how he did not support my dreams and goals, and did not have my best interests at heart. He did not want good things for me. He just wanted me to stay right where I was and never change, so he could have the unambitious, never-changing life that he craved, and in fact still lives.

When I look back at that period of my life, I get really angry at myself for having stayed as long as I did. Now I know that one of the most important things to do in life is to surround yourself with people who want to lift you up, not hold you down. Those people who encourage you to educate yourself and push past your boundaries and experience the world are the keepers. I should have been taught this in childhood. But no.

I’m really happy to say that I’m in that beautiful place now, a place where I’m encouraged to fly. I’ll make a point to never find myself elsewhere, ever again.

Coffee ice cream

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The Satisfaction

A former coworker once told me that she wasn’t going to tell anyone her retirement date until the last minute because she “wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.”

My first thought was, “therein lies your problem.”

She knew she wasn’t liked. She knew people would be thrilled to see her go. (Heaven knows, I’d be first in line to do a happy dance.) But what she failed to realize is that it was her very instinct to withhold satisfaction from people that caused much of the animosity.

She never acknowledged a job well done. In fact, she would be the first to criticize. She never did a thing to boost morale. In fact, she was the most soul-sucking individual I’ve had the misfortune to know. She never encouraged independent thought or unique ideas. She was the poster child for micromanagement. Not only did she not give satisfaction, but she made our lives a living hell every chance she got.

I’ve never in my life been so happy to see the back of someone.

Of course, every situation is different. Sometimes resentment is justified. But I suggest that if you’re really bitter, and don’t want to give someone the satisfaction, you might want to make sure that you aren’t the apex predator in this little manhunt of yours. If people are horrible and you have no control over that, that’s one thing. But if people are horrible because you yourself are petty and impossible to deal with, that’s another thing entirely.

Decency and respect is a two way street. You have total control over how you drive on that street. Are you making people want to swerve to avoid you? It’s important to drive defensively, but it’s even more important to stay in your lane.

Satisfaction

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Go Away, Secret Admirer

It happened again. Almost exactly 13 months from the last time. And it rattled me. It still rattles me.

Late at night, someone left a flower on my car here at work. This time a pink rose. No explanation. No identification.

With the motive unexplained, the only conclusion I can reliably draw is that someone was here. Right here, where I was standing now, alone in the dark. Someone being secretive.

And because all other information has been withheld from my emotional database, it becomes, intended or not, a very eerie form of passive aggression. As I said when I wrote about the first incident, the secret admirer thing becomes creepy after about the second grade. Please read that blog post for more details on my thought process regarding this behavior.

In the meantime, here’s a handy rule of thumb: If you think you need to remain anonymous in order to take action, then DON’T TAKE ACTION. Either man up, step up, and own what you do, or leave people alone.

Please.

Pink Rose

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