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Caseythoughts I often find it interesting and challenging to speculate on a phrase which many in the field (and personal process) of recovery from addiction: 'There's no such thing as coincidence.' Some would say that it could be translated as 'There's a reason for everything that happens', but that's taking a bit far in my humble opinion. I'll just stick with the idea that we kind of misuse the word 'coincidence' (a mathematical term, by the way, in reference to identical angles) in the course of our daily lives. It's the connections we make between events that might be important. Connectional happenstance follows.

Miranda Green writing in the Financial Times recently spoke of a British supermarket (we're talking as big or bigger than Wegman's, corporate-size-wise) that has begun experimenting with what they call 'Talking Tables' in their cafe section. No, not a table that speaks to you, but tables that have a sign placed on them (a few in between the other unmarked tables) which reads: 'Reserved for customers in the mood for a chat'. This sounds awfully British, but think of it in terms of our much discussed social isolation, despite Twitter and FaceBook. The spontaneous interaction between strangers is the goal. If I sit at this table, I am assuming and allowing another stranger to smile, sit down and have what could be a small, maybe interesting conversation about 'whatever' and allow a 'random' connection to take place. Being the first to sit at the empty table, or seeing someone sitting there whom I would fain to interact with takes courage, n'est pas?

Ms.Green goes on to cite a recent poll (the non-profit Charity Age Concern paid for it) which stated that 200,000 people surveyed had not spoken to a friend or relative for more than a month. Family doctors, according to one more survey, suspect that 'some of their patients are making appointments because they are lonely, not necessarily ill, with the receptionists accepting that the front desk is a magnet for the isolated to come and experience a bit of human contact.' Think of it: 200,000 folks (call them 'older' if that helps to visualize it, though this is not age specific) who haven't spoken to a friend or relative for thirty days or longer. The human contact might be relegated to the sterile answer to 'Paper or plastic?' I remember when Grand Union grocery store in the Ithaca Shopping Plaza was closing, and people living in Titus Towers were asking 'Where will we go now?', not necessarily to shop but to socialize, right?

The 'Talking Tables' idea is still a'borning in that British mega-store chain, and they say it's not exactly a hit. Yet? Staffers say you can't change people's behaviors overnight and they will continue with the experiment and the signs which meekly submit that if you sit at this particular table, you are opening yourself up a wee bit to the randomness (coincidence?) of conversation with another human, albeit an unknown human who may also be experiencing Sting's musings in his song "Message In A Bottle". Google it, for fun and quiet speculation on the human 'condition'.

But this led me down a short second route, unanticipated, and then a more extended and darker third route. I ran across a business card this week and what happened jolted me a bit with the above story in mind. I'm sure you have occasionally 'misread' something with a chuckle when realizing your mistake. This 'mis-read' of mine was a business card that said 'Refer a friend' with the person's name and business logo. But I, for a split second, read it as 'Rent-a-Friend' with a resulting head shaking chuckle and bemused realization of the so-called 'coincidence' with the British Talking Table' story. Rent-a-Friend, indeed. I imagine that with a stretch of the imagination we're able to see the concept actually beginning. I understand there is actually an app where you can conjure up a cotillion of 'friends' to 'like' your post on Instagram, FaceBook, etc. All imaginary 'friends', of course, but your 'social cred', not to mention that lonely ego can be satisfied without actually sitting at a table marked for social interaction on the fly with a real human. How difficult this all seems.

But, now, this week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have thrown some really icy water on our humanness. I'm sure you have now heard that the life expectancy of Americans has declined. Again. It is now 78.6 years, down a little more than a month from 2016, pushed down we are told largely by the sharpest annual increase in suicides in nearly a decade in addition to the ongoing scourge of opioid overdoses. This is, as the experts tell us, an indicator of not only health, but 'well being' as well, a real indicator of how 'well' and 'advanced' a country is, and its standing among other countries' 'health'. The CDC said '"addiction and despair" are the drivers of this almost unprecedented drop in America's life expectancy, akin to the Russian drop in male life expectancy due to alcohol abuse, suicide and accidental deaths starting in the mid eighties during the breakup of the Soviet empire.

The U.S. has lost three tenths of a year in life expectancy since 2014, and puts us well behind several advanced countries such as Japan and Switzerland. I know we can put too much emphasis on countries which maybe have other positive factors going in their favor but it's still something to ponder, especially when you look at what is driving the worrisome drop in life expectancy. Black men in America far and away top the list of shortened life span, measured by deaths per 100, 000. The black male death rate is 1083 per 100,000. White men, to compare, are 885 per 100,000, both of those categories continue to rise. To compare, black women checked in with 728 per 100,000, white women 643 to 100,000. Do these numbers and their disparity mean something beyond the cold statistics?

Another fascinating and worrisome trend was that the numbers stand out in stark contrast between urban and rural. You might think that urban numbers due to homicide, overdoses, and poverty would lead, but, counter intuitively, it is the rural numbers which are frighteningly high, and spiking. The ODs and suicides in rural America are jumping in the past few years. Men 25-44 years of age, in the drug overdose category and the over-65's in the suicide numbers. Suicides rose 3.7 percent in 2017, noticeably higher in rural areas. What we have called the Rust Belt seems to be possibly turning into the Despair Belt, where job prospects and a plethora of fears, real and imagined, play out in people's homes, neighborhoods, work places and local/national politics. The trauma and economic difficulties (think of the Ohio town where Chevy will be shutting down its assembly plant), in addition to natural disasters, access to lethal means such as firearms and pain killers, not to mention diminishing access to health care (mental and physical) are adding to the numbers, or should we call it adding to the misery. I'm not trying to wail doom and disaster, here, I'm just trying to see things as they are, and how they might be changed if we first recognize the issues, get at some of the meaning behind cold 'numbers' and the reality of our fellow humans, next door, next neighborhood, next state.

We may be getting some ideas of the science of despair and depression, and armchair economists may be able to discuss systemic unemployment, but I see these numbers and I see vast stretches of a country that appears desperate to develop a Talking Table idea, or Rent a Friend business cards. But while the epidemic of loneliness continues (and maybe we're even getting tired of being regularly hammered with the sad concept by columnists and commentators) we continue to struggle with a confused medicated and lonely world, where the 'Talking Table' isn't catching on, family members fail to look up from their phones at the rapidly disappearing dinner table, and 'Blue Christmas' celebrations become a normal part of many Christmas traditions.

One of my few heroes has been John Prine since the early seventies, and he said it best when he opined :"...if you see a set of hollow, ancient eyes/ don't just pass 'em by/ say 'Hello in there...". It all starts with me, I guess, and I'll do my best to start today. Maybe you'll work a little bit at it, too, this season. After all, it is a season or giving, right?

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