Talking to strangers may be good for your health

Chicago train: good place to talk to strangers. Douglas Rahden photo, Wikimedia Commons

Do you ever talk to strangers?

My answer would be, “It depends on where I am and on my mood at the time.”

My mother, however, would have said, “Always.” She considered the woman selling hot dogs at the Target store, the neighborhood school crossing guard, and people she passed by working in their gardens her friends. When she and I met in downtown Seattle, I would walk her to her bus stop. But first, we would have to go to the Pike Place Market to buy doughnut holes for her bus driver. After my father died my mom lived alone. She mapped out her daily walks to increase the likelihood that she would run into more than one acquaintance.

Mom was on to something good. From a “New York Times” blog by Jane Brody, (May 13, 2013) “People are fundamentally social beings who require meaningful connections with others to maximize health and well-being.” Loneliness has been linked to high blood pressure, obesity, increased stress and inflammation. Yet we often work hard to ignore other people, whether we’re in a rush, fearful of taking the first step, or lost in the imaginary conversations we’re carrying on in our heads.

A more recent piece (“Hello, Stranger,” New York Times, April 25, 2014) reported on a study in which researchers encouraged people to interact with strangers. The subjects were passengers in Chicago’s commuter rail system.  Five dollar Starbucks’ cards were the reward for some to strike up a conversation with a seatmate and for others to remember their parents’ advice not to talk to strangers. Before becoming involved in the research, train riders who were asked to engage in a conversation predicted their rides would be less enjoyable than if they had ridden in silence. The result? No one experienced a snub and people said their conversations were pleasant.

From another study reported in the same article, people who might have been snarky with their spouses were more friendly with strangers and appreciated these encounters. “…Introverts and extroverts alike felt happier on days when they had more social interactions.” And they were as pleased after talking with strangers, as they were with people they knew well.

The next study should ask how people handle conversations with friends who can’t look away from their cell phones. This can be more challenging than talking to strangers. I’m sure my mother would have had an answer to that.





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Too much information or not nearly enough?

My new Spanish friend

My new Spanish friend

There are people who record and share a few life events and others who register everything they’ve ever done and pour it out by the bucket to the entire world. Although blogging pushes me closer to the bucket brigade, most of the time life events — birthdays and anniversaries for example — come and go without my noticing.

Recently, I read a news article about couples who provided their wedding guests with a hashtag they could use during the ceremony to post on Facebook, upload photos to Instagram, and tweet. The article said that often the guests missed much of the event because they were busy checking for likes on their postings.

My problem is that I might want to share memorable events with a wider audience, but I forget to do it. Take our wedding forty-some years ago. I don’t think people hire a photographer when they’re married by a judge, and we didn’t own a camera in those days. Still, we had several parties and not one picture to even remind us who was there.

Last week, five friends from grade school — we played together, formed secret clubs, and graduated from Brownies to Girls Scouts — came to my house. During lunch each of us shared a CliffsNotes synopsis of our lives over the intervening fifty years between high school and the present. Guess what? I had my phone at the ready and forgot to take a single photo.

Two years ago I was sitting at Starbucks with my Spanish friend, Ana. (She passed away in June). I remember Ana pausing in our conversation to say, “Those girls at the next table are from Spain.” She got their attention and introduced both of us, found out they were au pairs and gave them her phone number. Ana and the young women kept in touch. Last week, one of them tracked me down, saying that her mother was in town and wanted to have a Spanish/English conversation with an American. “It would be a nice connection with Ana,” the girl said, “since she didn’t have the pleasure to meet my mom in person.”

We had that conversation this morning, and it was a nice connection. Ana’s spirit was with us. Best of all, this time I remembered my iPhone.






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“The long and winding road”

Great Wall from top

long and winding road from Great Wall

By now everyone on the planet must have heard the cliché, “It’s the journey that’s most important, not the destination.”

A friend who writes a travel blog (see story here)  and who traveled with her husband to Greece to buy a house only to have the deal they thought was firm fall through, buys into this idea wholeheartedly for this and other reasons. But I hadn’t thought about it much until recently.

I’ve had to slow down this summer, thanks to a spooked pony who caused a fender-bender of sorts involving my lower back and tailbone.  I can’t write when I hurt. It hasn’t been all bad. I’ve enjoyed many lazy afternoons napping on the patio in the company of my always-sleepy cat.  But slowing down wasn’t enough to force me to ask why I’ve put such pressure on myself to get published in a short time.  That came after hearing the stories of writers who had gone before me.

I attended the annual Pacific Northwest Writers’ Conference, primarily to pitch my story to agents and editors. I’d been working on a novel for three years and never once did I ask myself why I kept setting the goal of publication ASAP. Age I guess. It engenders a sense of urgency.

While at the conference I talked to a writing instructor whose first book was published in 2013. I’m paraphrasing what he said: “I wrote for two years before an agent told me I needed to start over. I listened and began researching my story from a different angle. It took me twelve years, but I did it.”

Twelve years?  I’m comforted by having a ninety-three-year-old friend who’s working hard to get her memoir in shape for publication.  If she can hang on so can I.

One morning I sat next to a woman who handed out bookmarks with testimonials about her latest novel. She asked what stage of the process I was in.

“I’m on my third draft.”

“I wrote fourteen,” she said.

Fourteen? I should have started sooner, maybe in kindergarten.

Nearly all the speakers, including many of the agents and editors, repeated the same mantra.  Having a first book published isn’t magical. It doesn’t change your life, except that now you have to spend time marketing it as you work on a second.

Darn. I was expecting magic.

Do it because you love it, the experts said. Write because you are passionate about writing. Good writing always sells.

The moral of the story is that I haven’t given up wanting to be published, but I have let go of the pressure I’ve been putting on myself to work fast.  A huge weight has lifted.  I am now focused on the writing itself. I guess it’s the journey after all.







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Confused? There must be an app for that

My lady bug timer

My lady bug timer

In the past week I read about three free apps that help people who want to stay focused on one project for an hour or two, and avoid checking email or Facebook or Twitter or their bank account or “breaking news” every few minutes.

I’ve been thinking about apps in general and the desire of many people to carry out more actions faster and better. Of the zillion apps out there how many address this need? In checking out the App Store, under the subject of “productivity” I found a few that could save seconds in a day and others that require extensive record-keeping. No thanks. Under “health and fitness,” I found one in which you could log daily walking time, pace and distance. The app converts your data into a bar graph and identifies your top walks. Useful? You be the judge. I count the minutes I exercise weekly. Once I’ve hit 150 I’m happy. No bar graph needed. Under “lifestyle” I found horoscopes, recipes and a way to keep track of goals in eight different categories. I have one goal: finish the third draft of my novel. By not purchasing that app, I save $19.99.

I limit my social media apps to email and Facebook. I subscribe to half a dozen blogs, but even those can distract.

A few years back, I had to close my Twitter account, partly because I couldn’t think of anything to say, but also because what other people were saying wasn’t that compelling. I reached my limit after someone talked me into installing Tweet Deck on my desktop computer. This app made a bird sound every time someone I was following posted a tweet. Since I followed large organizations with full-time tweeters, such as “The Huntington Post,” if I didn’t turn off the volume on my computer my study sounded like an aviary.

As I age I have to face that there is a limit to my time on earth and there are things I have yet to accomplish, and balance this with the wish to slow down, take my time and enjoy my surroundings, my friends, my life. I don’t think any app is going to help me here. It’s something I’ll have to figure out on my own.



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Wanted: Electric Cart “Drivers’ Ed.”

shopping carts courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

shopping carts courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This is the story of how an injury pushed me into a new adventure and a study of human nature.

Ever since mid-June, when a horse — okay, a large pony — dumped me without ceremony onto hard soil, walking hurts. The pain is lessening now, but when it was at its worst, I couldn’t cover any distance without my hip screaming.

The day before the Independence Day holiday, my husband and I needed to make a run to Costco. He offered to go alone, but, despite the pain, I insisted on going with him. How else could I keep a dozen watermelons, fourteen chickens, and a crate of bananas from jockeying for space in my refrigerator?

Accompanying him seemed like a good idea, until I walked into the cavernous box and realized I could never cover the distance on foot.

“May I use one of those carts?” I asked the woman who checked ID at the entrance.

She nodded. I settled down into the seat of one and tested the knob in front of me. Twist it one way and I moved forward, twist it another and I moved backward, forget which was which and I crashed into the wall behind me.

“You’ve got to unplug it from the wall,” said the ID checker as I tried to move forward.

How was I supposed to know that?

Despite my barely having a learners’ permit, I zipped around everyone with aplomb. And ‘everyone’ the day before a holiday meant more than a few.

No one looked down at me with terror in their eyes. In fact, no one noticed me at all.  They weren’t just oblivious to me, but to all the other shoppers they passed. I witnessed a herd of zombies pushing their carts in single file down each aisle, staring unseeing at the people and merchandise around them.

In large stores, shopping malls, casino, factors such as size of the space, lighting, and crowds come together to overwhelm the senses and turn most everyone into a robot.

Unlike those on foot, I had to stay alert to avoid maiming any of my fellow shoppers. I did have one accident. As I wheeled around a corner, I rammed an empty cart, which somehow knocked a bunch of clothing items off a table. From my low vantage point I couldn’t tell what I’d sent flying, only that I couldn’t imagine one little jolt causing so many objects to slide off a table.

A witness to the accident, laughed and shouted, “Now you’ve done it.” For a moment, I felt pride knowing I’d brought life into one of the robots around me. This helped compensate for my face turning red at getting caught.



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Almost like “Waiting for Godot”

pillbottlesI’ve been to the hospital Emergency Room (ER) twice lately, which is why I was drawn to a blog on the NPR web page called, “Heart of the Matter: Treating the Disease Instead of the Person,” by Dr. Leana Wen. Wen describes a situation in which a wife drives her husband to the ER for chest pains.  He finds himself naked from the waist up in a hospital hallway, surrounded by strangers and sounds of beeping and ringing pagers. He signs paperwork, gets moved into an elevator, and later awakens hooked up to machines.

Two days later the couple learns that the man has had a heart attack and they file a complaint against the hospital. The hospital’s story is very different. Within three minutes after the man’s arrival he is given an electrocardiogram and twenty-two minutes later doctors have cleared the blockage. Within two weeks he’s able to return to work.  A success story if ever there was one. So why was anyone complaining?

The blog received tons of comments, usually representing one of two points of view: Who cares if doctors talk to you as long as they do their jobs well? Why didn’t they tell the couple what was happening?

Dr. Wen concluded that better communication might have the hospital experience. What if the doctors had introduced themselves, told the patient and his wife what they were doing? What if the patient had asked questions?

My own visits to the ER after being thrown from a horse were less eventful.  I received x-rays to determine if I’d broken any bones, and pain medication. Doctors and nurses and technicians seemed competent. So how was their communication?

In both cases I spent three to four hours at the hospital but never knew why so much time.  The hours moved slowly and so did the staff.  If only someone had come in and said, “Things are hopping tonight. We’ll be with you as soon as we can.” But in fact, things never seemed hopping. I just wanted to someone to tell me about how long I’d have to wait…for the x-rays to be taken… for the doctor to interpret the x-rays.. for the doctor to talk to me after he or she interpreted the x-rays…for medicine…for my discharge. Staff meted out one bit of information at a time when I wanted to hear the big picture.

This takes me to the experience of a friend undergoing chemo therapy and radiation. She, too, has become accustomed to long waits. Very long waits.

My ER experience was fine. I received good care even if it was wrapped in mystery. Perhaps my small complaint stems from my impatience. If only someone had warned me to bring a copy of “Gone With the Wind” or “War and Peace,” everything would have been fine.





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As easy as falling off a horse

Before my riding lesson

Before my riding lesson

Doing research is one of the most exciting parts of writing a novel, though this week some people– including me — might say my research went too far.

I needed to give my protagonist a scar. What better way than have her ride a horse that spooks and sends her flying onto a sharp rock? Two horse-owning friends reviewed my first and second drafts and made suggestions. After reading my scene, my writing coach suggested I go a step further and take a ride myself.

I started by touring one friend’s stable and meeting its denizens. I had such a good time that she invited me to take a ride on one of her ponies. After we set the date for my ride, she asked for my goal. I wrote: My goal is to learn to steer and walk and go a little faster than a walk and not end up on my butt in the mud.

“We’ll start out in the arena,” she said.  “I’ll hold the reins and walk you around in a circle.  If you’re comfortable, after that we’ll take a ride on the trails.”

Up to this point, I’d researched situations I was never going to experience personally via interviews. How thrilling to move beyond collecting secondhand information and explore the sounds of the saddle creaking, the horse whinnying, my body rocking from side to side, the texture of the horse’s mane and dozens of other sensory details.  I anticipated a great scene developing out of this adventure, and came ready with my iPhone for photos, a pen and notebook to record everything.

The first lesson was to sit up straight and look over the horse’s ears.  I passed that test easily. From there we moved to pulling on the reins to stop, loosening them to move forward, and using legs and reins to change direction.  Large block letters were nailed to the fenced enclosure and my task was to move the pony from B to E, D to A and so on. So far so good.

after my riding lesson

As we headed toward B something unexpected happened. My horse jumped. I screamed. I hung on by one stirrup, then flew off. My lower back whumped onto the gravel and dirt surface below me and I said, “I really, really hurt” several times.  Forty-five minutes later, I was wheeled into an examining room, x-rayed, given pain killers and sent home.

The good news is that I suffered no broken bones, just bruises to my lower back. The happy pills the doctor gave me were enough to make me forget the pain and laugh when my friend returned my horseback riding goals to me with the message: “Well, mission accomplished– no mud!”


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