Puget Sound

Shrieking at Strangers

To the man I shrieked at last April, who was waiting to use the bathroom, I apologize. I was unable to explain at the time, but here’s the whole story:

I was sitting on Flutterby, hauled out in the boatyard in Georgia, and I needed to use the bathroom. It was the middle of the day, the sun was out, and the distance was only about 50 yards. Yet I lingered on the boat, shaking and trying to get up my nerve.

Finally, I put my head down and went slowly down the stairs. I trudged across the sandy lot, looking intently at the ground. My hands were clasped tightly around my elbows to dampen the shaking. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw an alligator.

A WHAT?!?

Concrete alligator
A WHAT?!?

I looked again and realized that it was only a small statue, a piece of yard art. But it was too late: Adrenaline was already surging through my system and taking over my brain. The pure chemical reaction made me want to run for my life, screaming.

“It’s only a statue. It’s only a statue. It’s only a statue,” I repeated to myself, as I continued past it to the bathroom. Once inside, I locked the door securely.

But even after ten minutes in the bathroom, I couldn’t stop shaking with fear. I stood with my hand on the doorknob, and some prehistoric portion of my brain was screaming, “Alligator! Alligator! It’s going to eat you! You’re going to die!”

Finally, taking a deep breath, I opened the door v-e-r-y slowly.

Unfortunately, while I was having my crisis in the bathroom, I didn’t realize that a nice gentleman was now waiting to use the facilities. I was so shocked to be face-to-face with a 6-foot human being that I gave a bloodcurdling scream. Then I ran all the way back to the boat and didn’t come out for a couple of days.

At the time, I had no idea what was wrong with me. A few weeks later, I got an answer: Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD.

In a given year, nearly 18% of American adults will be affected by some form of anxiety disorder, including GAD, PTSD, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.  As you can see from the alligator story, GAD is not a simple matter of worrying about the economy or whether the boat will go aground. Sufferers are unable to cope with excessive, irrational fear of things that are not actually very threatening, like a concrete alligator or a trip to the post office.

Puget Sound
A healing view of Puget Sound from West Seattle

My initial reading about the problem helped a lot. Then I returned to Seattle for months of medical treatment. I had ups and downs. Some days, I got dressed to go to the post office, but I never made it past the bedroom door. Other days, I seemed fine, giving public presentations and newspaper interviews and pitching my book, Strangers Have the Best Candy. All summer, I stayed close to home, never knowing when something unexpected would trigger me.

I had made incredible progress by August, when Barry and I set out on a 2,000-mile road trip in the Squid Wagon. I did fine in Eugene, Oregon, visiting with family. We continued south to see friends in California — Alameda, Oakland, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz. By the time we reached Burning Man, I felt like myself again. Out in the middle of the desert, in the most inhospitable circumstances, I was joyful and strong.

I had arrived back to myself just in time. Five days after arriving at Burning Man, I came down with appendicitis and landed in a hospital in Reno!

Obviously, I survived. I even made it back to Burning Man, and I have some great stories to share. But I wanted to write about the alligator incident, because I’ve struggled with anxiety disorder all summer.

Please, have compassion for people who are acting strange; you have no idea what internal struggles they are facing. And if someone comes out of the bathroom, screams, and runs away, don’t take it personally. She thought you were an alligator, but she’s better now.

Gator at the front door
Thank God it’s just an alligator!
Drawing a happy spot in chalk

Party-crasher

Ivy the Dog
Waiting for her “people” to return

A month ago, Barry and I started house-sitting in Seattle. The day our friends left was completely chaotic — luggage scattered about the house, last-minute baking, noisy children, and a slightly hyperactive dog. Then they swept out the door, and it was painfully silent.

A chicken clucked in the backyard. The second hand on the kitchen clock went: Tock. Tock. Tock.

I peered into the fridge, where mysterious leftovers waited in unlabeled, and more alarmingly, undated, containers. “I think I’ll walk down to the grocery store,” I announced, as I set off down busy 65th Street.

I took a different route coming back, down a tree-lined side street: 63rd.

A couple of blocks before I reached home, I came upon an interesting scene. There was a table in the middle of the sidewalk, surrounded by lawn chairs. On the table were chips, crackers, and hummus. Nearby, in the grassy parking strip was another circle of chairs. There were wine glasses on the grass, some empty, some half-full.

There was no one there. As someone later commented, “It looked like the aftermath of Chernobyl.”

What I knew, that added to the strangeness of the scene, was that the chairs were on the corner where I’d found the Original Happy Spot. As I stood there, puzzled, I heard music and  followed it to some concrete steps leading up to a tall fence. There was laughter and the clink of glasses, but I couldn’t see who was on the other side of the gate. Would they be young? Old? Friendly? Suspicious?

I raised a trembling hand, and I knocked.

A woman leaned over the patio railing and hollered, “Who’s there?” Before I could answer, she said, “Come on in!” In the backyard, about twenty people and a Black Lab stared at me curiously. It may have been because I was a stranger. It also may have been my loud outfit, a combination of an orange t-shirt with a tie-dyed blue-and-purple skirt. I’ve heard dogs are color-blind, but this one knew something was weird.

“Um, hi,” I said, nervously. “I’ve never crashed a party before, but I wanted to tell you something about your corner. It’s featured in a YouTube video about the Happy Spot.

“The what?” they exclaimed, in chorus.

50 Happy Spots
Happy Spots, as interpreted by Julie, Cody, Emanuel, and Gabriel Miller

I went on to explain that their corner was where I’d found the Happy Spot in 2009, how I’d taken it to Burning Man that year, and ever since, I’d been spreading the idea of Happy Spots wherever I went.

“Does anyone know who marked the original Happy Spot in your street?” I asked.

They interrupted each other in their eagerness to talk. No one knew of a happy spot, but they told me the corner was known as “Chalk City,” because so many of the neighborhood kids drew on the pavement there. “I’ll ask my daughter,” said one woman. “There’s a big block party there, you know,” said someone else.

Burning Man Happy Spot
Happy Spot campers, called “Happy Spotters,” at Burning Man 2013

“It was there two years in a row; surely somebody will remember,” I told them. “It’s kind of a big deal to me.”

“Would you like a glass of wine?” somebody asked. I shook my head, politely. “I was on my way home with these groceries. My husband will be wondering where I am.” That led to them insisting, “Go get him!” “OK, I will,” I said.

I walked back to the Chicken house with my groceries. After I put them away, I asked Barry, “Do you have some time to come with me right now? Maybe an hour or so? It’s a surprise.”

I couldn’t wait to crash the party again, with Barry this time.

Happy Spot
Philip’s sunset Happy Spot in San Leandro, California

He got up from his computer, and as he put on a fleece, I surreptitiously picked up a piece of chalk and put it in my pocket, as Philip Wilson had once done for me. Later, he told me, “I was expecting you to take me to the Happy Spot. I just didn’t know there would be anyone there.”

I walked him back to the corner, but he was puzzled as I kept going past the Happy Spot and marched up the concrete steps again. Instead of knocking, I flung open the gate and barged in. “I’m baaaack!” I announced, “and this is Barry.”

They immediately sat us down with a couple of glasses of wine, and we chatted and enjoyed the music. One of the guitarists was our neighbor from two blocks away. It was a beautiful summer evening, and a lively group. I couldn’t keep track of everyone’s names.

Eventually, as we were talking about the Happy Spot, someone said, “Let’s go out there and make one.”

Drawing a happy spot in chalk
Meps, drawing the Happy Spot for the Original Happy Spotters

I held up my piece of chalk. “I’m on it!”

I marched back down the steps, followed by Barry and a few of the party-goers. In the appropriate place, I knelt and drew the familiar box, labeled it “Happy Spot,” with a smiley-face in the O, and then wrote “Stand Here” with an arrow.

I stood up, and Barry and I demonstrated how it worked. Then everybody wanted to try it, and we all took turns standing in the box, hugging each other, and taking pictures. Eventually, the rest of the party came down to see where we’d gone, and we hugged them, too. The party continued, literally in the Original Happy Spot in the middle of the street, for quite some time.

Smiling neighbors in the Happy Spot
Smiling neighbors in the Happy Spot

It was only a few feet from the Spot to the abandoned table and chairs I’d first noticed. For the next hour or so, we sat there, periodically getting up and introducing other neighbors to the concept of the Happy Spot by giving them unexpected hugs.

It was exactly like the Happy Spot at Burning Man, where we routinely welcome and hug complete strangers. Could it be that the Happy Spot is magical, whether it’s at Burning Man or not?

Group in the happy spot
Friends, family, and strangers were hugging each other in the Happy Spot

You try it and tell me. All you need is a piece of chalk or pencil-and-paper; a big, friendly smile; and lots of hugs.

Look out, world! No party is safe from Meps, the Happy Spot Party-Crasher now!

Chickening Out

We’re chicken-sitting in Seattle again! Here’s a little limerick, inspired by our feathered charges:

There once was a hen known as Nancy,
Who lived in a coop — nothing fancy,
She wanted to travel,
But fear made her cavil,
‘Cause flying, for chickens, is chancy.

A chicken
A Chicken, as illustrated by Meps

 

Barry's entire zipping family

What’s scarier than ziplining?

Please join Meps on Wednesday, July 16 at 7 pm for a scary (to her) presentation on “How to Talk to Strangers” at Ravenna Third Place Books in Seattle.

Barry's entire zipping family
The entire family poses for a photo along the zipline course

The young blonde girl ahead of me screamed in terror the whole way across. But when I stepped off the wooden platform yesterday, I wasn’t frightened at all. Ziplining is easy if you don’t have acrophobia, or fear of heights.

I was with Barry’s family on Camano Island for my first ziplining adventure. There were eight of us, all shapes and sizes, ranging from 11 to 73 years old.

The scariest part was just reading and signing two pages of liability release forms. Then we were outfitted with harnesses and helmets, and we climbed into an old Army truck to ride up the steep hill. Even though we were less than a mile from Barry’s parents’ Washington home, it felt like a rainforest tour I once took in Brazil.

Barry and his nephews wait for his sister to zip across
On the platform, Barry and his nephews wait for his sister to zip across

For two hours, we rode six different ziplines that were up to 60 feet above the forest floor. When we reached the final platform, we were still about 40 feet up in a tree. One by one, we rappelled down to the ground, our descent controlled by two very capable guides.

I was quieter than usual, because I was enjoying the lush green beauty of the forest. Mistaking my reticence for fear, one of the guides patted me on the back and congratulated me on my courage. “This isn’t scary,” I told him, wryly. “I wish it was the scariest thing I’ll be doing this week.”

Barry and Meps on the zipline platform
Look, Mom! No hands!
Cody and Julie on the zipline platform
Look, Grandma! No hands!

This Wednesday evening, July 16, I’ll be giving my first public book presentation at Ravenna Third Place Books, in Seattle. It’s completely open to anyone, it’s free, and I’ve promoted it widely, sending calendar listings and press releases all around Seattle.

I’m not afraid of spiders, snakes, or the dark. I’m a little nervous around alligators, but not much. Last week, I literally gate-crashed a large party, proving that I am not afraid of strangers. However, I suffer from glossophobia: Fear of public speaking.

Why, if it’s so frightening, do I want to do it?

I want to do it, because I believe in the power of my little orange book, Strangers Have the Best Candy. Over and over, people tell me they had a change of heart while reading it, that they go out and smile at strangers now, that they strike up conversations. This is not an entertaining little memoir. This is a book that advocates a new philosophy, a new way of interacting with other humans.

Gabriel rappels down a tree
Gabriel rappels down a tree
But like the screaming girl on the zipline, I have to remember that talking to strangers may be frightening to my audience. How better to understand their fear, than to suffer my own?

Having no innate fear of spiders, snakes, or strangers, there’s only one sure way. Glossophobia: Simply to be afraid of the power of my own voice.

Candy for the Stranger

Bribing My Way to the Top

This piece was originally titled, “Bribing the Fourth Estate.” After I posted it, I discovered, to my distress, that few people know the fourth estate refers to the press.

Here’s a tidbit that most people don’t know: A newspaper’s masthead is not their name on the front page. That’s the nameplate. The masthead is inside, often on page 3, and identifies the publisher, editors, and contact information for a newspaper.

Last week, I carefully tore the address of the Stranger from their masthead. I put it in my book bag and tossed the rest into the recycle bin. My father-in-law doesn’t normally read the recycling, but he needed some newsprint to protect a surface on which he was painting.

He wasn’t completely scandalized. Just curious, and surprised at what I was reading in my husband’s absence.

The advertising in the Stranger is scandalous: Recreational cannabis delivery, escort services, and an underwear ad where the woman’s hands are inside her panties. (She was right above an ad with the heading, “Sex Offender Registration Got You Down?”)

Yet, like Playboy, the Stranger has a reputation for excellent journalism. In addition to winning a Pulitzer, it’s where Dan Savage got his start, as the editor-in-chief and as the writer of a blunt and often-shocking sex advice column, “Savage Love.”

What I love about the Stranger is that they take the news seriously, but they do not take themselves too seriously.

On Friday afternoon, I braved Seattle traffic, and drove to the address on the masthead. If you’re from Seattle, you probably know the block, the one we call the-Value-Village-where-REI-used-to-be (they moved in 1996). It’s super-hip, brick and trendy, around the corner from the Century Ballroom.

There was no sign, only a newspaper box full of Strangers beside a tall, unmarked door. The door was incongruous, a piece of modern metal art on an old brick warehouse. A couple of men occupied the sidewalk, blatantly ignoring the law against sidewalk-sitting that’s intended to keep homelessness at bay. The entryway with the newspaper box reeked of urine. Inside, my spidey-senses were tingling, because there was no one in the foyer, just a dimly-lit dead-end corridor with an elevator.

My heart thumping, I peeked into the elevator and saw a scrap of paper that said “The Stranger” beside the third floor button. At least I was in the right place.

Alone and unmolested, I rode the elevator to the third floor, where I found the receptionist. He was a young man behind a bulletproof glass window, eating what looked like pie. I breathed a tiny sigh of relief. He had a sweet-tooth.

He held his hand over his mouth, embarrassed, and mumbled “Can I help you?” around an extra-large bite. I took a deep breath and remembered what I had rehearsed in my head.

“I’m on a mission,” I said, cozying up to the counter and the little opening in the bulletproof glass. “I need to know which of your staff members is most susceptible to bribery.”

His eyes widened as he swallowed his pie and asked, “What kind?”

At this point, I opened my leather briefcase and took out a baggie of candy. It happened to contain Hershey’s kisses, Reese’s peanut butter cups, and three Strangers Have the Best Candy cards. My hand was trembling with fear as I pushed it through the little slot.

“Candy,” I said, and watched him break into a grin at the cards. I reached into my bag a second time, and pulled out a copy of the book. “You see, I have this…” I pushed it through the little opening.

He looked at the title, made the connection, and started laughing. “I can give it to our book guy,” he said. “He’ll probably want this, too,” I said, pushing a third item through the little slot, a copy of my press release.

He carefully assembled it all into a package, putting the press release inside the pages of the book and the name of the book guy on a post-it note on the outside. I watched as he clipped the candy bag to the cover.

“Do you think it’s enough?” I asked. “Oh, yeah,” he said, patting the parcel. “Are you going to give it all to him?” I continued. He nodded earnestly. “Of course,” he said, as if I’d challenged his integrity.

That’s when I pulled out a second bag of candy, and pushed it through the opening in the glass. “Then this one’s for you!” I said. “Have a great day!”

I was still shaking like a leaf as I got into the elevator and fled back to my car. I’ve never tried bribing the Fourth Estate before. But I had to try. I simply had to give Candy to the Best Stranger.

Update on my bribery attempt, June 16, 2014:
At the Georgetown Carnival this past weekend, I gave a “Strangers Have the Best Candy” card to a young man in the crowd. He laughed so hard, I went on to say, “I even tried to bribe The Stranger with candy!” His eyes grew wide, and he looked at me seriously. “How did you know I worked there?”

“I didn’t,” I responded. Serendipity.

He wasn’t in the newsroom, though. “I don’t have any influence there. I’m in the tech department.” He went on to tell me, “Paul Constant is the book guy. He has stacks and stacks and stacks of books on his desk.” He held his hand at shoulder level to indicate how high the piles were.

My face fell. I was discouraged. Then I thought about what I’d done, and I cheered up. “GREAT! By paper-clipping a lumpy bag of candy to the cover, I have made it impossible for Paul to simply stack another book on it.”

In other words, I’ve bribed my way to the top, where I hope to stay until Paul Constant reviews Strangers Have the Best Candy!
~

Margaret Meps Schulte
Margaret Meps Schulte

Margaret Meps Schulte is the author and illustrator of Strangers Have the Best Candy.

The Official Happy Spot Video

I had so much fun writing about Happy Spots last week, I decided to make a video slideshow. I used a format I recently learned about called “Pecha Kucha”: 20 slides, each displayed for 20 seconds. It keeps the presentation moving along in a snappy fashion!

Feel free to share this with your friends — it’s on YouTube. You can download free Happy Spots over at 1meps.com.

50 Happy Spots

551 Happy Spots

Numbered lists are ubiquitous. From the best-selling book, Fifty Shades of  Grey, to Martha Stewart’s “11 Whoopie Pies,” everything published these days is counted, quantified, and numbered. As always, I have waited to jump on the bandwagon, afraid of being trampled by the herd mentality and lost in the crowd. (“Three Metaphors Bloggers Should Never Mix”)

I can’t wait any longer. It’s time for me to jump into the fray and start numbering my writing.

3 Small, Lumpy Parcels and 551 Happy Spots

Happy Spot card
Meps’ Happy Spot card

I give Happy Spots to everyone I meet, strangers and friends alike. Last year, I had 250 printed, and I ran out. This year, I doubled my order. Just after my 50th birthday, I received a small, lumpy parcel from VistaPrint. In addition to orange Strangers Have the Best Candy business cards, it contained 500 Happy Spots. Each one is guaranteed to bring dozens of smiles.

Happy Spot
Happy Spot from Dad

Around the same time, I got another small, lumpy parcel, full of birthday gifts from my Dad. One of the items inside was a 1963 Doris Day movie about Happy Soap, “The Thrill of It All.” He’d wrapped the DVD in pastel paper and decorated it with a Happy Spot. It made me smile to think I now had 501 Happy Spots!

A week later, one more small, lumpy birthday parcel arrived. This one had traveled across the USA, was returned to sender, then traveled across the USA again (“See the Amazing Gift That Traveled 7,214 Miles”). I recognized the handiwork of that super-artistic quartet of geniuses, the Miller family of Columbus, Ohio. You may remember them as the creators of the one-of-a-kind board game, Meps’n’Barry-opoly.

Inside, I found three small bags, each containing 50 pieces of candy. I suspect that as soon as I eat one, I will instantly become one year younger. I think I should wait until Barry comes back, so he can watch.

This third parcel also contained 50 of the goofiest, most original Happy Spots I’ve ever seen. This brings my Happy Spot total for May to 551, as you can see by the photos below. The number of smiles is exponentially larger, far exceeding the number of Whoopie Pie recipes on Martha Stewart’s website.

Vote for your favorite Happy Spot by leaving a comment!

Some things bug me

I had hoped to escape from the pain,
For their bites drove me nearly insane,
But I got no relief,
From the gnats with big teef,
Those no-see-ums were chasing my plane!

Drawing of no see ums (biting midges), expanded view
No see ums (biting midges), expanded view (drawing by Meps)
No see ums (biting midges), closeup view
No see ums (biting midges), closeup view (drawing by Meps)
No see ums (biting midges), microscopic view
No see ums (biting midges), microscopic view (drawing by Meps)

A balanced meal

There once was a lady named Doeri,
Who wanted to eat cacciatore,
She broke her routine,
By eating poutine,
And posted the pic and the story.

This was inspired by a friend’s photograph on Facebook. Barry and I ate poutine with Kris a number of times, because it was the cheapest food item in the Lunenburg pub. “It has carbohydrate, protein, and fat,” I said. “A balanced meal!”

Poutine
Classic Poutine