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Opinion Column
For the week of October 11 through 17, 2000

‘Hello. Anyone out there?’

The challenges of living alone



I have noticed that I feel a sense of positive anticipation when my answer phone is signaling red blips for phone messages or when my e-mail lets me know I have messages coming in.

Many years ago, before the advent of phone machines or e-mail, I watched a performance by Paul Sills, one of the great American comedians, along with Mike Nichols and Elaine May of Second City, the renowned Chicago-based improvisational group. Sills was touching upon the loneliness human beings experience from time to time, this occurrence in the context of single life in the Big Apple.

Sills opened the door stage left and entered what looked like a "cool" bachelor pad. When he shut the door, a disembodied voice materialized from somewhere across the room, saying "Hi. How are you?" Sills replied, "Fine. How was your day?"—to which the voice said, "Fine." Pause. "How was work?"

The rest of the vignette revealed that the lonely young man had set up a tape recorder to give him these prompts every time he came home, leaving gaps for his responses. I especially remember how haunting the sketch was in reminding the audience of the need for human contact and what measures we will employ to keep a sense of it.

I have noticed that I feel a sense of positive anticipation when my answer phone is signaling red blips for phone messages or when my e-mail lets me know I have messages coming in. Most of the time they aren't earthshaking or exciting, but I guess they make me feel that, even if it’s only Coldwater Creek merchandisers, I am sought after, at least for the length of the message.

Sometimes when I am home alone I turn on the radio or TV just for the way the voices fill the void. Perhaps I am afraid to listen to the sounds of my own silence, and I know I have trouble being still long enough to pay attention to my inner voice, but I also am aware that living alone tests one's requirements for human contact. It’s kind of like moving away from the sounds of the ocean and realizing that it is difficult to sleep without the crash of waves in the background.

I was reminded of all of this recently when I heard a speech on NPR given by an expert in sociology who asserted that our society is experiencing a frightening amount of social disengagement. Risk factors for this isolation, he said, are not easy to pin down., but some are, certainly, the increasing amount of time spent in front of TVs and computers and the automobile's ability to take us in our sealed little worlds to places farther and farther away from work, thus increasing commuting minutes and taking away time spent with family and friends.

The speaker cited statistics that reinforced a startling conclusion: 10 minutes more per day of commuter time cuts all social interaction by 10 percent. Thus I wonder if the increasing time it takes for Hailey and Bellevue residents to get to work in Ketchum or Sun Valley will begin to be felt in more time spent indoors once the commuter gets home or in less attendance at community functions.

Another finding, according to the expert, is that one's chances of dying in the next year are cut in half by joining one group, such as a church or civic organization. At the same time, these institutions are experiencing a great drop in attendance.

I have bewailed before in these columns my yearning for the kind of neighborhoods I experienced as a child, where we sat and played outside, often on front porches where we could see many of the neighbors doing the same. And yet, today, while I say I miss that sense of community, I find myself shutting off from society once I get home and close my doors. It may be that I no longer have a family in my home to minister to, and while sometimes that provides me with blessed independence, I find it a two-edged sword. While I enjoy my freedom, I miss the warmth of dialogue and family dinners and times of mutual support.

On an "Ally McBeal" last season, one of the characters was selling a CD featuring "husband sounds," often recreations of gross belches and the like. Offered as a tongue-in-cheek source of comfort for women living alone, the implication was that if one bought the tape, one wouldn't need a husband.

Coincidentally, about the same time I saw that humorous sales pitch, I heard a serious radio show which explored a similar plan. A group I must spell phonetically (as I heard it sans pencil) called "Klausterfelter," is promoting a CD recording normal household sounds called "Alone No More." These vary from the nightly hums of sleepers and refrigerators to more intrusive noises such as the busy interaction of a family preparing dinner.

Designed to assuage the loneliness and isolation people feel who live alone in small apartments, these were not being marketed as a gimmick. I heard no deadpan humor but serious concern, sad as that might seem.

I don't have any sense of where we are going with the studies and the products. I hesitate to predict dire consequences about anything. The world is changing in ways that are amazingly rapid but not necessarily bad.

Maybe next time the phone rings I won't think "Oh, another telemarketer" but instead remind myself that it may be a wonderful contact with someone worth the communication.


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