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Grace: Feeling lonely? You're not the only one around Omaha

Nicole Ebat is not a shy person.

She’ll strike up a conversation with anyone at the bar after work. She’ll approach strangers. She’ll join Facebook groups, try friend-making apps and otherwise put herself out there in Omaha.

But the 32-year-old transplant from Las Vegas has found friendship elusive in a metro area of almost 1 million people. She’s lonely.

And she’s not alone.

Random Omahans have told me of their struggles to connect and build deep friendships. They are among a growing class of Americans who, for lots of reasons beyond the usual circumstances of age, divorce or spouse death, say they are lonely.

Reasons vary, but they boil down to this: We’re working more and have less time; our living and work spaces are less designed for ordinary social contact; and we’re more “connected” to one another on social media but more disconnected from one another.

Here’s what we know about loneliness:

  • Two in 10 Americans reported often or always feeling lonely in a 2018 Kaiser Family Foundation survey, and as many as half of Americans feel lonely “a lot of the time,” according to Scientific American.
  • Adults younger than 50 are more likely to feel lonely than those 50 and older, said Scientific American.
  • Loneliness is linked to shorter life spans and can be a contributor to cancer, diabetes and depression.

Being lonely can be as bad for you as smoking. Being lonely can break your heart, literally. Loneliness is linked to heart disease because we humans are social animals. We may not always run with the herd, but we need the herd. Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared loneliness an epidemic in 2017.

Other health experts are taking note, and a host of friend-making apps and services are springing up. Immanuel Communities sent a recent press release noting that loneliness affects one in three aging adults and can impact cognitive function among older adults. That might not be too surprising, but what about a rise in loneliness among a class of people you might not suspect? The young, the professional, the plugged-in and the outgoing. Even someone married.

Someone like Nicole.

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In some ways, it’s easy to see why she could be lonely.

For starters, Nicole is not from Omaha, which, despite its growth, remains an insular where’d-you-go-to-high-school town. (Or where’d you go to grade school.) This immediately rules out that safety net of family and childhood friends that her husband, Phil Holland, enjoys. Phil, who went to Millard South, has a bevy of old buddies. As much as Nicole likes them, she doesn’t exactly want to sit around and relive someone else’s glory days.

Second, her job as Fox 42 newsroom manager means long, unpredictable hours, which typically can put her exit time anywhere between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. It’s hard to commit to a book club or volunteer gig or young professional meet-up when you can’t always be there.

Add to the social strain the fact she’s in management now, which is different from being one of the rank-and-file, as she was during an earlier stint in Omaha in 2011. Plus, in her field, people tend to move on.

Nicole’s struggle to create deep friendships in Omaha is not for lack of trying. She has joined local Facebook groups, like one for millennials and another for one of her passions, the true-crime genre. The first one is almost too big; the second one is too niche.

“You wind up meeting a lot of people you can talk about one subject with really, really in-depth,” she said, “but it doesn’t necessarily go from there.”

Nicole has tried friend-finding apps, and the fact those exist should tell us something about the state of friendship-making. Maybe because she’s married, the stakes in friend apps feel way higher to Nicole because friendships carry more weight.

Nicole’s contract is up in a year, but she thinks she’d be inclined to stay in Omaha if she could feel more rooted.

Nicole likes going to bars after work because there she can strike up conversations with bartenders or people next to her. She wishes Omaha had more “random things to do,” however, than warming a bar stool. She’s not into church. Her midtown neighborhood association doesn’t look kindly on renters; she is one. And yes, Omaha has a host of entertainment offering, but those cost money, require tickets and planning, and she wouldn’t expect to exit a Broadway show at the Orpheum with a new bestie.

You don’t have to be in Nicole’s shoes to feel lonely. I called one of my most-connected friends, a native Omahan like myself who seems to be one degree removed from just about everyone.

Paige Dempsey lives on a west Omaha street with three friends from high school and has a bajillion more friends and acquaintances scattered throughout Omaha. She’s in the same city as her family. We can’t go anywhere without Paige bumping into someone she knows.

And yet, Paige, a self-employed consultant, works from home where it gets to be, well, lonely.

“I either suffer through,” she said, “or I go to a coffee shop. Something to get out.”

Paige even started a Facebook group about working alone, together.

Co-working already is a thing. Commerce Village south of downtown averages about 30 to 40 people a day.

Manager Alex Liekhus said in her two years there, she’s met “tons” of remote workers and freelancers “who come to our space looking for social connections to battle loneliness.”

She said many of the business’s members are new to Omaha “and want to feel connected” to people here.

“When I started my job, I thought I was selling office space,” she said, “but really I’m selling our community. In my past jobs, I took for granted the fact that coworkers can become family.”

Donald Hlava is a 28-year-old from the western Nebraska town of Gordon living in northwest Omaha. He is trying to launch a health care and education startup. But the self-described outgoing Donald has been surprised at how hard it can be to develop a network in a new city. Even one he is living in with a best friend from Gordon. Hlava said young people feel disconnected everywhere he has lived, including Denver and Phoenix.

But he’s doing something about it — he and this friend, Garrett Shaal, 29, have started an organization aimed at giving other millennials like them a way to meet people. It’s called The Champions Club and features weekly events aimed at four subjects: fun, education, philanthropy and professional networking. Social events, like one coming up Dec. 12 at Annie’s Irish Pub in the Capitol District, are free. For more information, check out thechampsclub.com.

“I hope this organization gives people an opportunity to meet others, to create genuine relationships in a way that’s natural and fun for everyone,” he said. “It’s a means to an end. We want people to create relationships so they’re not 40 years old and have zero social network.”

Loneliness is not a new phenomenon but modern loneliness has roots in some of the technological and societal upheaval of recent decades.

Carey Ryan, a psychology professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, traced today’s loneliness to a variety of factors:

  • The distortion factor of social media, which makes other people’s lives look so much better when, in fact, Facebook and Instagram posts are mere moments.
  • Suburban life that placed home entrances inside garages and removed the old front porch face-time.
  • Urban life that is so busy that even when you have a front porch you never get a chance to sit on it.

“Relationships take time to form and maintain,” she said. “We work too much. People are way too scheduled.”

How to solve it?

“I’d probably be rich,” she said, “if I could solve this problem.”

So where does that leave Nicole?

Perhaps warming a bar stool at Rathskeller after work.

Go say hi. Nicole won’t bite.

In fact, you just might find a new friend.

Photos: Thanksgiving in the Omaha area through the years

Bacon, Fortenberry push bill to protect Open Skies treaty and Offutt planes

The House of Representatives is pushing back this week against the Trump administration’s under-the-radar efforts to pull the United States out of the Open Skies Treaty.

The withdrawal would permanently ground two Offutt-based jets associated with the pact.

Republican Reps. Don Bacon and Jeff Fortenberry, whose districts include the greater Omaha area and Offutt Air Force Base, are co-sponsoring a bill proposed by a California Democrat that would require the White House to give Congress 180 days’ notice before suspending, terminating or withdrawing from the treaty.

And on Tuesday, a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee held public hearings on the treaty. That hearing included defenses of the treaty from both sides of the aisle, but also concern over the condition of the two OC-135Bs that are flown over Russia and other countries by 55th Wing crews based at Offutt. The two planes are nearly 60 years old and have some of the worst maintenance records in the Air Force.

“It’s a little frightening when you consider we’re flying some hoopties in 2019, in the United States of America,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, D-Mo. “Maybe we need to bury these two planes.”

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The Open Skies Treaty allows the member nations — including Canada and most European countries — the right to conduct supervised aerial photography flights over one another’s territory, using expensive cameras, known as sensors, whose capabilities are strictly regulated by the treaty.

The treaty is based on an idea first proposed by President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, rejected by the Soviets, and resurrected by President George H.W. Bush after the Iron Curtain fell. Terms were approved in 1992, and flights began in 2002. Since then, more than 1,500 overflights have occurred.

The Trump administration has not publicly stated its plan to pull out of the treaty. But sources with knowledge of the internal deliberations last month told several news outlets — including The World-Herald — that President Trump had signed a memo directing the U.S. to give notice of its intent to withdraw from the treaty Oct. 26.

The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., wrote a sharply worded letter in response to National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien. The administration apparently has not given the notice.

Thursday, the military publication Defense News reported that the administration warned NATO allies last week that it was prepared to abandon the treaty unless its concerns are addressed.

The news outlet cited a senior administration official, who said the U.S. delegation had presented classified intelligence to NATO at a meeting last week in Brussels indicating that Russia is misusing the treaty to target critical U.S. infrastructure.

Defense News said the official called the treaty "a danger to our national security," and added, "From our perspective, the analysis is done."

Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., introduced the “Open Skies Treaty Stability Act” Monday with support from Bacon and Fortenberry and two other members of Congress. The bill would require the secretaries of defense and state to certify that Russia is in “material breach of its obligations” under the treaty; that leaving would be in the United States’ best interest; that the 33 other nations in the treaty were consulted; and that a “comprehensive strategy” be developed to offset the bad effects of treaty withdrawal.

“I think we needed to let the White House know, ‘Hey, we’re going to stand up and defend this,’ ” Bacon said in an interview Wednesday.


Legislation was introduced and public hearings held this week in the U.S. House of Representatives to counter an apparent move by the Trump administration to pull out of the 1992 Open Skies Treaty. The aircraft and flight crews that fly the missions are based at Offutt Air Force Base. One of the two 55th Wing OC-135B Open Skies aircraft taxis on the Offutt runway, near the former Martin Bomber Plant. 

Opponents — including Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and former National Security Adviser John Bolton — have argued that Russians are violating the treaty because of restrictions they have placed on flights over the enclave of Kaliningrad, and in Russian-occupied parts of the Republic of Georgia. They have said they believe Russia benefits more from the overflights because of the United States’ superior spy satellites.

Some of these arguments were explored in Tuesday’s hearing before the House Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy and the Environment.

“In order for (treaties) to work, we all need to play by the same rules, and Russia is not,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill, ranking Republican on the subcommittee.

Open Skies advocates say the treaty, which is administered by Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), has mechanisms for resolving disputes like the ones over Kaliningrad and the breakaway regions of Georgia. They say the treaty is of great benefit to U.S. allies who don’t have access to sensitive imagery from spy satellites.

Cleaver said withdrawal from the treaty would be “a tragic mistake, a serious mistake, a terrible mistake.”

“The Open Skies Treaty is a cornerstone of European security and stability. Crucially, it allows even small countries to get information on military activities around them,” Cleaver said. “The violations should be dealt with by diplomatic means, not used as a case for hasty withdrawal.”

Jon Wolfstahl, director of the Nuclear Crisis Group, testified that treaty flights have provided critical information about Russian military activities in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and after Russia seized Ukrainian navy ships last year. He said these abilities could become more important if tensions between the U.S. and Russia get worse.

If Russian ground troops start massing, Wolfstahl said, “You could very quickly, in a matter of hours, get an Open Skies flight over it.”

“Even if the margin of benefit on Open Skies is smaller than it was 10 years ago,” he added, “having that tool in our kit is extremely valuable in the event of something going south.”


Smoky contrails mark the departure of an Offutt-based OC-135B from Yokota Air Force Base, Japan, en route to Russia for an aerial photography mission under the 1992 Open Skies Treaty last February.

Russia has recently replaced its Open Skies jets with newer aircraft and replaced its old wet-film cameras with new digital ones. The United States has lagged in both areas, and there was agreement on the committee that the U.S. needs to invest more.

“You basically fly a (1960s-vintage) 707 for these flights, and there’s only so many decades of use you can get out of them,” said Damian Leader, a New York University professor who formerly was the U.S. chief arms control delegate to OSCE.

“The aircraft we fly are routinely in the shop, and they are older than I am,” Wolfstahl said. “We spend a lot of money on our defense and intelligence capabilities, but this generally gets underappreciated and underinvested.”

Bacon, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, said Congress appropriated $54 million last year for one new Open Skies plane. Funding for a second is part of the 2020 Defense appropriations bill, a final version of which still hasn’t cleared both houses.

During his Air Force career, Bacon commanded the 55th Wing, including the Open Skies jets. He said the crews gained valuable intelligence by visiting Russian air bases and working with Russian air crews.

“If you want to pull out of the treaty, I want to hear the rationale,” Bacon said. “If I was a decision-maker, I think we need it. They have not made the case (for withdrawing) at all.”

Photos: Offutt Air Force Base through the years

Trump sought 'quid pro quo,' key witness says
Sondland describes a Ukraine pressure campaign; Republicans call his account 'the trifecta of unreliability'

WASHINGTON (AP) — Ambassador Gordon Sondland declared to impeachment investigators Wednesday that President Donald Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani explicitly sought a "quid pro quo" with Ukraine, leveraging an Oval Office visit for political investigations of Democrats. But he also came to believe the trade involved much more.

Besides the U.S. offer of a coveted meeting at the White House, Sondland testified it was his understanding the president was holding up nearly $400 million in military aid, which Ukraine badly need with an aggressive Russia on its border, in exchange for the country's announcement of the investigations.

Sondland conceded that Trump never told him directly the security assistance was blocked for the probes, a gap in his account that Republicans and the White House seized on as evidence the president did nothing wrong. But the ambassador said his dealings with Giuliani, as well as administration officials, left him with the clear understanding of what was at stake.

"Was there a 'quid pro quo'?" Sondland asked. "With regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes."

The rest, he said, was obvious: "Two plus two equals four."

Later Wednesday, another witness undercut a main Republican argument — that there could be no quid pro quo because Ukraine didn't realize the money was being held up. The Defense Department's Laura Cooper testified that Ukrainian officials started asking about it on July 25, which was the day of Trump's phone call with the country's new president when Trump first asked for "a favor."

Her staff received an email, Cooper said, from a Ukrainian Embassy contact asking "what was going on with Ukraine's security assistance." She said that she could not say for sure that Ukraine was aware the aid was being withheld but that "it's the recollection of my staff that they likely knew."

Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union and a major donor to Trump's inauguration, was the most highly anticipated witness in the House's impeachment inquiry into the 45th president of the United States.

In often-stunning testimony, he painted a picture of a Ukraine pressure campaign that was prompted by Trump himself, orchestrated by Giuliani and wellknown to other senior officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Sondland said he raised his concerns about a quid pro quo for military aid with Vice President Mike Pence — a conversation a Pence adviser vigorously denied.

Pompeo also dismissed Sondland's account.

However, Sondland said, "Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret."

The ambassador said that he and Trump spoke directly about desired investigations, including a colorful cellphone call this summer overheard by others at a restaurant in Kyiv.

Trump himself insists daily that he did nothing wrong and the Democrats are just trying to drum him out of office.

As the hearing proceeded, he spoke to reporters outside the White House. Reading from notes written with a black marker, Trump quoted Sondland quoting Trump to say the president wanted nothing from the Ukrainians and did not seek a quid pro quo.

"I want nothing, I want nothing," insisted the president, who often exhorts Americans to "read the transcript" of the July phone call in which he appealed to Ukraine's leader for "a favor" - the investigations.

He also distanced himself from his hand-picked ambassador, saying he didn't know him "very well." A month ago, he called Sondland "a really good man and a great American."

The impeachment inquiry focuses significantly on allegations that Trump sought investigations of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son — and the discredited idea that Ukraine rather than Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election — in return for the badly needed military aid for Ukraine and the White House visit.

In Moscow on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was pleased that the "political battles" in Washington had overtaken the Russia allegations, which are supported by the U.S. intelligence agencies.

"Thank God," Putin said, "no one is accusing us of interfering in the U.S. elections anymore. Now they're accusing Ukraine."

Sondland said that conditions on any potential Ukraine meeting at the White House started as "generic," but more items were "added to the menu, including — Burisma and 2016 election meddling." Burisma is the Ukrainian gas company where Biden's son Hunter served on the board. And, he added, "the server," the hacked Democratic computer system.

During questioning in the daylong session, Sondland said he didn't know at the time that Burisma was linked to the Bidens but today knows "exactly what it means." He and other diplomats didn't want to work with Giuliani. But he and the others understood that Giuliani "was expressing the desires of the president of the United States, and we knew that these investigations were important to the president."

He also came to understand that the military aid hinged on the investigations, though Trump never told him so directly.

Sondland, a wealthy hotelier, has emerged as a central figure in an intense week in the probe that is featuring nine witnesses testifying over three days.

The envoy appeared prepared to fend off scrutiny over the way his testimony has shifted in closed-door settings, saying "my memory has not been perfect." He said the State Department left him without access to emails, call records and other documents he needed in the inquiry. Republicans called his account "the trifecta of unreliability."

Still, he did produce new emails and text messages to bolster his assertion that others in the administration were aware of the investigations he was pursuing for Trump from Ukraine.

Sondland insisted, twice, that he was "adamantly opposed to any suspension of aid" for Ukraine.

'Science on a Sphere' at Metro Community College shows the world in new way

The world changed over and over on the third floor of a quiet building in northeast Omaha.

It transformed with climate trends over time, continent formation over eons, ice concentrations and sea level changes.

It changed into Mars. Then into the galaxy. Then into the moon. Then into planets outside the solar system. Then it depicted global air travel over a 24-hour period and Facebook utilization throughout the world.

Daphne Cook

Daphne Cook, Metropolitan Community College’s North Express manager, said the technology — called “Science on a Sphere” — simplifies complex topics and makes them intriguing to adults and children.

There in the Highlander Accelerator building, 2112 N. 30th St., the orb appeared to spin slowly. The beams from four projectors worked as one system to display the images on the “planet” made of light, sturdy carbon fiber.

Ryan Murphy, a Metropolitan Community College program planner, controlled the subject matter and images with his laptop computer. Close to 1,000 images, or “data sets,” are available.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration invented the circular technology, which is 6 feet in diameter. The sphere is a central element of Metro’s North Express programs at the Highlander Accelerator building.


Mars, as seen through "Science on a Sphere." The image of the planet is projected onto the carbon fiber sphere by four projectors.

The teaching tool cost Metro $105,000 and was installed last month. Science on a Sphere has been available for more than 10 years, but this is the first permanent installation of its kind in Nebraska and Iowa, according to an NOAA website.

It uses satellite and telescopic images to produce detailed, colorful global and galactic views. Cook said the program already has partnerships with King Science Middle School and Howard Kennedy Elementary School, both of which are in northeast Omaha.

Many noncredit Metro courses will use the sphere as a centerpiece. Among those are classes on climate change, extreme weather, the solar system, the Bermuda Triangle, space propulsion, space travel, bird migration and unidentified flying objects.

Gary Girard

Gary Girard, executive director of continuing education at Metro, said he can envision astronomy and weather camps utilizing the sphere, too.

Besides those at King Science and Howard Kennedy schools, teachers who are interested in having their classes see the sphere may call Cook at 531-622-2808.

Photos: Our best shots of 2019 (so far)