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Molly Priesmeyer

Why Minnesotans should spend more time alone

Everything I learned about happiness I learned by being alone. I've felt it while stitting alone and eavesdropping on the stark contrast of two different first dates, one between 20-somethings and another between 50-somethings, at a cafe up North. I discovered it while eating alone at a tapas bar in Spain where everyone was obsessed with Ricky Rubio. At a mismatched coffee shop in Minneapolis. At a soup restaurant in Guatemala. At the base of a volcano while taking heavy steps on what I imagined was Mars. These moments — moments of pure aloneness and awareness — are outlined for me in deep, bold lines, preserving themselves forever in fluorescent, glow-in-the-dark ink. 

If you're afraid of going out alone, you're not alone. There's still an unfortunate stigma attached to going out into the big world of human movers by oneself, despite the fact that there's been a huge demographic shift to a more solo society. In fact, 27 percent of U.S. households consist of only one person, according to the latest U.S. Census figures. In Minnesota, "householders living alone" constitute 28 percent of total households, a leap of nearly 30 percent since 1990. 

And before you start to think that going out into the spinning world is different than being alone behind four walls and likely a glowing blue computer or phone screen, researchers say it's actually healthy to be alone out in that tree-filled sphere. And it brings us more happiness. 

Rebecca Ratner and Rebecca Hamilton, professors from the University of Maryland and Georgetown business schools who co-authored the soon-to-be released study in the Journal of Consumer Research, "Inhibited from Bowling Alone," discovered that people actually underestimate how much they will enjoy time alone. What's more, this cognitive dissonance poses a problem, Ratner tells the Washington Post, since people are working more, marrying later, not marrying at all (more than 50 percent of Americans are now "single," the largest percentage yet), and making less free time to enjoy the things that people need to feel alive. Why rush home to eat that Chipotle burrito alone, for example, when we can drip that sour cream on our shirt in front of strangers instead?  

That once-common practice of eating at home alone has started to shift over the last five years, even if people are still uncomfortable in their solo-dining skin — or sour-cream-stained shirts. According to a report earlier this month from the consumer trend agency the NPD group, "solo dining" is just one of the top trends facing the food and dining industries. Over 50 percent of "eating and beverage occasions" happen when diners are alone, according the NPD. 

The Twin Cities offer plenty of ways to take in the world alone, from the lakes to the rivers and waterfalls to the parks to the museums to the skyline-shadowed strolls. But dining is a whole other story. Search for easy and fun places to dine alone in Minneapolis, and the results are fairly mixed and not all that unique. The one thing the places do have in common (Burch, 112 Eatery, Eli's, Sonora Grill, Common Roots): a bar, or an option to sit and stare at your computer and not look/feel alone.

Despite the number of single and solo folks here, the Twin Cities are behind other trend-setting cities, where communal and solo dining is welcomed. In Amsterdam, for example, a restaurant called Eenmaal was created solely for the concept of dining alone. Of course, reasturants like this are also some of the best places where you can connect with strangers and stories from all over the world. The places where you can outline solo experiecnes in thick, vivid permanent ink.

Solo-living in public isn't for everyone. But research suggests we're a lot happier when we get out from behind our screens and four walls and soak in the world around us. It's not easy for Minnesotans, but we can be trendsetters. We can remove ourselves from ourselves, take ourselves a little less seriously, and experience the world outside ourselves without anything getting in the way of your view. Best of all, we can say we did it all by ourselves. 

(Above: Picnic table for one, please) 

The perils and promise of joint custody ... of a dog

The first time I saw him I knew I loved him. He was bounding in the street, tongue out, giant smile across his giant face, as happy as I had ever seen any four-legged creature. "Stop the car! Stop the car!" I yelled to my then-boyfriend, who didn't see the dog doing freedom love leaps about five feet from the car's hood. I opened the car door, and a then-55-pound pit bull "puppy" leapt right in, licking our faces like he had been waiting for us on that street corner forever. 

Over the next few weeks, I'd see him chained up to a tree in the neighbor's yard. Someone had also put a thick, heavy chain around his neck and covered it in layers of duct tape, making him carry a bulky, grit-colored collar behind his already heavy head. I'd remark that "the nicest dog I had ever met" was lonely and sad, and I'd find excuses to walk over and soothe-talk him and wave my fingers through the chain-link fence in an imagined solidarity sign. 

When the owner told me he was taking him to the Humane Society because he couldn't handle him, I knew I had to get him. Five years ago, a dog like him wouldn't make it. The guy wanted money for him, too much money, and a bunch of nice souls on the internet donated to his rescue funds. 

Today, that giant dog is 85 pounds, and he is at my ex-boyfriend's house. But thanks to our arrangement, I will see Scoobi (his "given" name) this weekend, because for the past four years, we have shared joint custody of a dog. Scoobi gets constant devotion, and we each get to share the responsibilities that come with owning an 85-pound food-obsessed leash-staring walk-begging prone-to-sunburn dog who tries to sit in the lap of everyone he meets. 

Dog ownership has changed over the years, which highlights one of the many reasons it's so hard to totally give him up. Since the 1960s, dog and cat ownership has quadrupled, reaching 150 million total cats and dogs in homes. Thirty-six percent of households have a dog. This year, we're likely to spend $60 billion on them in the U.S. alone. Yet it wasn't till the last two decades or so that dogs have become a big part of the family, leaping from the back yard hay pile to their owner's comfy bed. 

David Grimm, author of Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs, attributes the change in pet-owner relationships to the shifting ways we live now. "Now you have a lot of people living just as couples without kids, you have empty nesters, you have huge divorce rates, people living by themselves. There's a real emptiness in our homes that cats and dogs have filled. This isn't fringe behavior to treat a pet like a member of the family. It's not the crazy cat lady or the crazy dog person. It's society."

Sharing a dog, "co-parenting," or having "joint custody," is increasingly common, though it's not recognized by law. Dogs, for the most part, are still considered "personal property," the sharing of which is considered by law like trading an old gym sock back and forth. But even the concept of dogs as purely property is slightly shifting.

Last year, in France, a new bill changed the definition of animals from "movable goods" to "living and feeling beings," ending what one lawyer described as a "legal gray area" for dogs and cats stuck in the middle of a custody battle. Of course, in the U.S., we're a little less open about legally categorizing pets as "feeling beings," yet there is a push to upgrade the legal status of dogs to "personhood," the same benefit corporations receive. 

In a New York Times opinion piece in 2013, Gregory Berns, a professor of neuroecomonics at Emory University, argued that dogs are people, too, a discovery based on training and studying dogs with an MRI scanner that revealed they experience deep emotions. We must "reconsider treating them as property," he wrote. 

So far, legal proceedings have been mixed. In some cases, judges have gone so far as to award visitation rights to owners for their dogs. But until laws about dogs change, it's up to the adult humans to determine what is in "the dog's best interest." Which, for Scoobi, means not one but two houses where food magically rains from above.