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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Back in the Devil’s Punchbowl

In 2016, I wrote a post entitled “A Romantic Vacation for One” in which I discussed the bittersweet experience of traveling alone along the romantic Oregon Coast. I visited the Devil’s Punchbowl and “imagined my man standing behind me with his arms around me.” But at the time there wasn’t even a glimmer of hope of that on the horizon.

I gave the post a positive spin, though, and concluded that I still had an amazing time in that beautiful place. But who was I kidding? I was desperately, painfully lonely. I felt as though I were mere inches away from a chest-heaving cry most of the time. It was always a very near thing. A great deal of my energy was devoted to not completely losing it in public.

While I refuse to go so far as to say that everyone needs a significant other to complete them, I have to admit that my most recent trip to the area with my husband was an entirely different event. It’s so much more fun to share experiences with someone else. Companionship adds a whole new dimension to travel.

I made it a point to stop by Devil’s Punchbowl again, to fulfill my dream of having my man’s arms around me. It felt as though I had come full circle. It was good.

I only wish I could have gone back to visit the 2016 me to whisper in her ear, “Hang on. Things are going to look up.” I know she’d have drawn a great deal of strength from that.

So, if you’re feeling lonely, dear reader, please hang on. You never know what the future holds. I’m pulling for you.

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What a Difference a Person Can Make

Last year, I went with a friend to the Great Figgy Pudding Caroling Competition here in Seattle, and I blogged about it. I had a wonderful time. But beneath the surface, I was feeling this great, yawning, howling, aching chasm of loneliness.

While I spent most of the holidays bravely stuffing that down and trying not to let it overwhelm me, it was a very near thing. Sometimes I could feel it surging upward, and I knew that if I let it take over, I’d probably lose my battle with depression and start howling or something.

Even so, Figgy Pudding is a wonderful event, and I decided to make it part of my Christmas tradition. I went again this year with my husband. As we stood there, listening to the carolers beneath the glow of the huge Christmas tree, what I felt was joy. No physically painful ache in the pit of my stomach. No feeling of being on the verge of hysteria. Just contentment. What a gift this man is in my life. He’s all I need for Christmas.

And then I looked around at the crowd, and I realized that no one who looked at me this year or last would have known my state of mind. I’m sure there was a lot of joy in the crowd, but also a lot of longing for companionship. A lot of pervasive emotional pain. The fact that it often looks one and the same is a bit troubling.

I’m not saying that everyone in the whole world must walk about two by two in order to be happy. Some people are perfectly satisfied being alone. I know I felt that way for quite some time. Some people who are in relationships are even more lonely than their single friends, and that’s got to be even more emotionally excruciating.

I just find it kind of enlightening to realize that there’s really no way to know what’s going on beneath the surface unless you talk to someone. We need to communicate more. We need to put down our devices and actually connect.

And to those of you who are swirling in that deep dark pit of loneliness that I used to know all too well, I just want to say that it may feel like that’s your forever, but keep reaching out. You never know when someone will take your outstretched hand, and that changes everything. I’m living proof of that.

Carolers

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Nothing Corelates with Loneliness

I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Leo Kottke in concert the other day at a lovely little venue in Seattle called Demetriou’s Jazz Alley. I’ve written about Kottke before. He’s a supreme talent. I highly recommend that you see him if given the opportunity.

He intersperses his amazing music with stories that are often every bit as good. On this night, though, he said something that kind of made me sad. I’m paraphrasing here, but he mentioned that he tours alone and he lives alone, so talking to us is really his only social life.

He was half joking. But the man is 73 years old. The thought of that level of loneliness is kind of heartbreaking.

That got me thinking. There’s really nothing that corelates with loneliness. You certainly can’t tell by looking at a person. Kottke is talented, active, still touring. He’s led a successful life. None of that staves off loneliness.

You can be rich or poor, young or old, famous or unknown, smart or stupid, kind or cruel… and yet none of that prevents or encourages loneliness. It’s like there’s no real way to thwart it. There’s no loneliness vaccine.

You can do your best to spend time with other people, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll befriend you. You can be active in your community, but that doesn’t mean anyone will want to spend time with you. You can dedicate your life to caring for others, but still, there’s no guarantee that anyone will care for you.

A lot of people are lonely in a crowd. So loneliness doesn’t even corelate with isolation. Loneliness stands alone. That’s scary as hell, if you ask me.

What’s the special sauce that prevents loneliness? I haven’t a clue. I’d love to hear your thoughts. The only thing I know is that we need to reach out to one another. We really do.

Loneliness

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Big Fat Facts

Someone who loves me very much once gave me a step counter and a scale. She told me she was worried about my weight. She was afraid I was killing myself.

I burst into tears. I told her that I use my fat as a shield to hide behind, because I didn’t want anyone to get close. I told her I eat when I’m angry, and at the time I had quite a bit to be angry about. I told her I was profoundly depressed. I was also lonely, and food was the only comfort I had.

And then she left me with the scale and the step counter. Apparently I was supposed to snap out of it, and that ought to be easy.

The first thing I did was throw away the f***ing scale. Because numbers don’t mean a thing. They’re a measurement of success or failure that’s tipped toward failure. I won’t do it. I won’t beat myself up like that. I measure my weight gain or loss by the fit of my clothing.

But I did improve my diet and I did use the step counter, obsessively, for about 6 months. I was up to 10,000 steps a day. I was walking so much that I actually hurt myself. And I didn’t lose an ounce. Not one ounce.

Which made me feel even worse about myself. All that work, and nothing. What is wrong with me?

Since then, I’ve pretty much stayed the same size. I’ve been nagged by doctors and humiliated by teenagers and shunned on dating sites. I’ve been horrified by my own photographs and I’ve avoided looking in mirrors.

This has become my status quo.

And then I read an article entitled Everything You Know About Obesity Is Wrong. Now I see this issue in an entirely different light. Now I’m pissed off.

Here are some of the points the article made:

  • Doctors and researchers have known for 60 years that all diets don’t work. Diets. Don’t. Work.

  • They have also known that “losing just 3 percent of your body weight results in a 17 percent slowdown of your metabolism—a body-wide starvation response that blasts you with hunger hormones and drops your internal temperature until you rise back to your highest weight. Keeping weight off means fighting your body’s energy-regulation system and battling hunger all day, every day, for the rest of your life.”

  • According to the American Journal of Public Health, the chances of a woman classified as obese achieving a “normal” weight is 0.008%.

  • Weight and health are not synonymous. You can be overweight and metabolically healthy, in that you can show no sign of high blood pressure, insulin resistance, or cholesterol issues.

This article goes on to say that doctors are trained to basically try to humiliate people into weight loss, even though it’s been proven time and time again that that doesn’t work. It talks about the many ways society discriminates as well. It discusses how weight issues are not simply about poor lifestyle choices. In other words, telling people to step away from the ho-hos is not productive. Not even a little bit.

I’ve been set up for failure my entire life. And it’s not my fault. It has done nothing but make me feel bad about myself. I’m sick and tired of it. From now on I plan to stop looking at fat and start looking at health.

What I took away from the article is, yes, I need to avoid sugar. I need to exercise. I need to make healthier choices. I need to take care of me. And at the same time, I need to stop obsessing about my body.

The next time a doctor tries to shame me into weight loss, I’m going to suggest that a good start would be for them do their part to figure out ways to get me off prescription meds that have a weight gain side effect, m’kay? Until they do that, they need to shut up.

And the next time someone who has never had a weight issue in her entire life hands me a scale, I’ll tell her that even though she means well, and culturally it seems like this tough love thing is acceptable, she needs to mind her own business. Unless she wants to help me take on the underlying esteem issues, she’s of no use to me on the weight front.

From now on, I’m going to focus on taking good care of me, by eating good, healthy food and staying active, and let my body decide how that will ultimately look, because God knows it’s going to do that anyway. I’m going to work really hard at not listening to the opinions of other people. I’m going to stop measuring myself by other people’s yard sticks. I’ll take my health seriously, but I’ll never voluntarily step on a scale again.

And guess what? I’m never going to be a size three. You know it. I know it. If you’ve got a problem with that, then step away from the fat person. As someone in that article said, “I’m here. I’m a sphere. Get used to it.”

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No picture. Not this time. Stop focusing on how things look.

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For All the Unsung Bridgetenders

For the first time in many, many years, I will not be ringing in the new year all alone at work. This is not because after 16 years as a bridgetender I’ve earned a certain level of seniority. No. It’s simply because this time around, the holiday just happened to fall on my regular day off.

I’m reminded of that postal motto: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Yeah. Except they get holidays off. Bridgetender’s don’t. And they are some of the most truly dedicated people in the world. Despite that, most of you don’t even realize we exist.

So today I want to wish the bridgetenders of the world a Happy New Year. For those who endure poorly heated and/or air conditioned rooms, Happy New Year. For those who shovel and de-ice sidewalks, Happy New Year. For those who get covered in grease and motor oil, hose down pigeon poop and shovel pigeon corpses, Happy New Year. For those who have to stay late when their relief doesn’t show up, for those who have prevented suicides, for those who have pulled people out of wrecked or burning cars, for those who call 911, and for those whose own cars get vandalized, Happy New Year.

For those who keep you safe, even when you don’t realize you are in danger, Happy New Year. For those who have to think on their feet and sometimes get in trouble for it, Happy New Year. For those who are outrageously underpaid and mistreated by their employers (I’m thinking of Florida, in particular, here), Happy New Year. For those who keep the city’s traffic, in all its many forms, flowing efficiently, Happy New Year.

For those who stand in plain sight and yet seem to be invisible (and still keep the intimate conversations they overhear to themselves), Happy New Year. For those who occasionally find the loneliness hard to take, Happy New Year. For every bridgetender who sits in a tower looking at a bullet hole in the window (which is most of us), and wonders when it will happen again, Happy New Year. For those of us who have been pelted with eggs and tomatoes and pumpkins and beer bottles, Happy New Year. For those who have nightmares about some of the horrible things we’ve seen, Happy New Year.

But I especially want to thank those who show up day in and day out, and take pride in their jobs, often without acknowledgement. To me, you all are heroes. Please know that someone really does see you.

Somewhere, there really ought to be a monument.

Here’s the most amazing thing about being a bridgetender: In spite of all of the above, many of us truly love our jobs. I can’t imagine doing anything else. This is who I am.

Happy New Year to all of the forgotten ones out there. And many, many more.

drawbridge

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On Being Catfished

I’ve been binge watching MTV’s “Catfish: The TV Show” for a few weeks now. (Yeah. I have no life.) It’s a reality show about online relationships.

To “Catfish” someone is to lure him or her into a relationship by means of a fictional online persona.

What fascinates me about this program is the level of suspension of disbelief that people are willing to engage in when looking for love. They can be bobbing in a virtual sea of red flags, but prefer that state of denial to being all alone in the world. I kind of get that, actually, but it still makes me sad.

This show allows these couples to meet for the first time, and the results are usually heartbreaking. Almost always, at least one of the people is not who they claim to be. People often steal photos of younger or more attractive people off the internet, and use them to create fake profiles. The real person will often be older or fatter or even a different gender. And of course, a lot of married people use cyber relationships as a way to cheat without “really” cheating.

Also, people tend to make themselves appear much more successful in life than they actually turn out to be. It’s amazing how many people actually believe that professional models have to resort to cyberspace to find a mate. I mean, come on, now. Seriously?

Of all the episodes I’ve seen so far, though, the one that made the hair on the back of my neck stand straight up was Season 2, Episode 9: Artis & Jess. (Spoiler alert!) “Jess”, who appears to be a sexy young lady, turns out to be a really scary, mentally ill, and very angry man with no moral compass whatsoever. I thought that episode was going to end in violence, to be honest. I mean, this is a very, very bad dude. And he played with this guy’s emotions for 5 months.

That’s the tragic thing about catfishing. The sociopaths who engage in this practice do not seem to grasp that there are real people with real feelings involved. Usually these people are very lonely and very much in need of companionship and compassion. They are the most vulnerable among us, and the most susceptible to victimization. The most outrageous catfishers are the ones who reel people in and then extract money from them. That’s just wrong on so many levels.

So, imagine my horror when I was casually looking at the search terms that people have recently used to come across my blog, and one of the ones I found was, “image of a nice girl for Facebook”. That made my blood run cold, because I have, indeed, posted a few images of myself on this blog. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to use a photo of an overweight 52 year old woman to create a fake persona, even if I am quite a catch, but there you have it. Someone out there is looking to deceive. I just hope they didn’t settle on my image to do so. I’d hate to think that somewhere in this world there’s a lonely person gazing at my picture while having their heart broken.

Rule number one if you really want to make sure people are who they say they are: Video chat. Or, barring that, at least have them send you a photo of themselves holding a sign with your name on it, along with the front page of today’s newspaper. There are just too many sharks swimming amongst the good fish of this world.

Guard your heart. It’s a precious thing. And once it’s broken, it’s never the same.

catfish

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