Category Archives: Friends Along the Way

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!

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.

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!

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

 

House on Harbor Island

I Survived St. Patrick’s Day

This past Monday, on St. Patrick’s Day, I forgot all about wearing green. When I got ready for bed, I discovered that I’d been wearing lime-green ankle socks all day. Whew.

I didn’t forget the day completely. I never do. It was 25 years ago, on St. Patrick’s Day, that I took my Dad a t-shirt that said, “I survived St. Patrick’s Day – Savannah, Georgia.”

At the time, he wasn’t aware of the shirt. He wasn’t even aware of me. While the tourists in Savannah were making drunken fools of themselves at the second-largest St. Patrick’s Day celebration in the USA, Dad was having a sextuple heart bypass at a Savannah hospital.

Dave, Dad, Hank, Meps, and Barry
Dad loves being surrounded by his kids at Christmas

I called him this past Monday, to reminisce and tell him I’m glad his heart has kept him going all these years. He’s in his late 80’s, enjoying his retired life in sunny Very Beach, Florida. This past week, he’s been busy, judging a set of newspaper articles for a contest, preparing for a Civil War symposium, and brainstorming with me about my forthcoming book.

In our conversation, Dad told me what he remembered about his heart trouble. He and Mom had just moved into their dream house on the Atlantic Ocean, and he loved walking out his front door onto the beach at sunrise.

House on Harbor Island
Mom and Dad’s house on the beach

“I urped right on the beach,” he told me.

My Mom was disturbed, because he didn’t throw up very often. She packed him off to his doctor, who told him it was a lesser-known symptom of angina — a condition where the heart is not getting enough oxygen, due to blocked blood vessels. The next thing Dad knew, he was on a treadmill, and his heart failed what’s called a “stress test.” Within two weeks, he was in the hospital for open-heart surgery.

In those pre-internet days, I flew to Savannah with a bag full of library books about how hearts work and how to recover from open-heart surgery. I read up on angina, coronary artery disease, and heart attacks.

That’s why, for the past three days, I have been crying so much. I knew all that information, but when I saw it firsthand, I didn’t recognize it.

For the past couple of years, I spent a lot of time with someone who had all the symptoms. But when Philip downplayed his symptoms, I believed him.

“I ate an old chicken salad sandwich,” he told me and Barry, when he suddenly threw up one morning. “How embarrassing.” Another time, after a stressful phone call regarding his mother, he said he just “felt weird.” His brother and I joked that every time he got into the car with us, he fell asleep and started snoring. I realized that was probably because of a lack of oxygen. It also explains why his mind was not sharp, why he was “fuzzy-headed.”

Philip
Walking to the Celestial Seasonings factory with Philip, the day before he died

The most chilling symptom was when he told me, “I must have pulled a muscle in my shoulder.” The back of his left shoulder was hurting, for no reason that he could think of. We’d been hiking and walking almost every day for a couple of weeks, so I didn’t question it.

He died of an apparent heart attack two days later.

If I had put all the pieces together, the pieces I had back in 1989, could I have helped to save Philip from the “silent killer?” The information in the library books that helped to save my Dad is more easily available now. I could have reviewed the symptoms of heart trouble on my computer or even my phone.

Philip was only 60 when his heart stopped working, and it broke my heart. I wish I had known better than to let the silent killer take someone that close to me.

Original meps'n'barry header

Yikes! Did you think we were serious?

mepsnbarry
Yikes! Did you think we were serious? Time to say goodbye to the old header and subtitle.

Barry and I once knew a couple on a sailboat who set off cruising with a table saw chained to their mizzen mast. The boat was not complete, but after many years of building, it was seaworthy. They would finish their projects along the way.

That couple gave us a valuable word for our vocabulary: “Fernow.”  As in, “It’s good enough for now.” Fernows explain why we make do with things that are pinned instead of sewn, cardboard instead of wood, funky instead of nice. They are the temporary installations that we never intended to use for the next decade.

That’s the case for mepsnbarry.com. In 2003, Barry and I created a website for our friend Brian, and I wrote my very first blog post:

There once was a sailor named Brian
Fell in love with a vessel named Cayenne
From his home way up north
He boldly went forth
Now he’s bitchin’ and moanin’ and cryin’!

Barry and Brian and I chronicled our adventures aboard Cayenne in New Orleans and our cruise to Baltimore, much of it in limerick form. Fourteen months later, Limericks #48 and #49 tell the end of the story:

We’re tanned and our feet are like leather
We’ve seen lots of glorious weather
After 2000 miles
We’ve run out of smiles
We can sail, but we can’t live together.

So Margaret and Barry are blue
And Brian is looking for crew
When we reach our next port
Its time to abort
And figure out what else to do.

Tacky animated under construction image
Remember when fernow websites were full of these?

Suddenly, our writing was homeless, so we quickly launched Adventures With Meps ‘n’ Barry, using a cute but temporary design. The stylesheet had bugs. The layout was funky. The navigation was kludgy. It was a fernow.

Despite that, Adventures with Meps ‘n’ Barry is thriving. In a world where millions of blogs have been started and abandoned, where people have nothing better to blog about than blogging itself, Barry and I have something very, very special: Content. Eleven years of valuable, original content.

We have over 600 entries, with stories, photographs, videos, and hundreds of limericks. We have useful information about how to build a junk rig and how to write a birthday limerick. We have guest poems. We have so many recipes, we had to spin them off into their own website (FoodieGazette.com) in 2006.

These are not personal diary entries or trip reports. These are thought-provoking stories with meaning, stories about the people we met along the way. Some are touching, many are funny. Some are both. This is the material that inspired my book, Strangers Have the Best Candy.

I am reminded of a story about a woman who always wanted to play the violin, but at 60, she thought she was too old. When she turned 90, she expressed her regret, saying, “I would have played the violin for 30 years by now.”

I am deeply glad that I started writing like this when I did. In eleven years, I have refined my voice and found some wisdom along the way. Figuratively, I have been playing the violin.

Today, Barry and I have finally launched a redesigned mepsnbarry.com. Now it’s easier to find the wonderful wealth of material that is published here. Now it’s easier to comment, to share, to join the conversation. Now it’s easier to read it on your phone, something we never even imagined when we launched the site!

Round tuit
The best thing to replace a fernow

Fortunately, I never let the fernow stop me from writing, from compiling my limericks, stories, photos, and videos on a “blog.” They are all here. Today, you and your friends — heck, the whole world! — can enjoy them, because we finally got something to replace the fernow: A “round tuit.”

(By the way, you may notice something a little different about Barry in the cartoon at the top. He cut his long hair in 2005, the night before we set off on our epic Alaska-Yukon adventure.)

Donating to a better institution

I was feeling a bit of frustration,
And in search of a blood bank location.
But then yesterday saw,
At the town Mardi Gras,
The big bus for my tribute donation.

The Bloodmobile drove past us, behind a marching band and in front of a bunch of pirates with a cannon, in the St. Marys Mardi Gras parade. I didn’t think twice about it until I saw them parked at the end of the parade, between the children’s rides and the car show. Just about then, a hoard of biting gnats descended upon us, and Barry and I decided that it was better to donate the blood to a good cause — especially since it’s that time of year when we like to donate blood in memory of Becky Johns.

“Gnats are not a cause, they are an institution,” says Barry.

Meps with Strangers Have the Best Candy t-shirt and matching orange coband
Showing off the orange coband that matches the infamous Strangers Have the Best Candy t-shirt
Barry and his parents on the staircase in front of Flutterby

Come Monday

Meps and her Dad on Flutterby's new staircase
Meps and her Dad on Flutterby’s new staircase

On a Monday morning, a couple of weeks ago, there was a knock on our hull. “Yo, Flutterby!” called a voice, causing us to pop out the companionway in surprise. Nobody knocks on Flutterby’s hull here in St. Marys. They wait until we emerge to use the bathroom, or else send us an email. Seriously!

It was Rocky and Jeff, the owner and his lieutenant, at the bottom of our ladder. “We just welded up our first staircase, and we want to test it out. We’re bringing it over here.”

They were pleased with themselves for this magnanimous gift, but I looked at Barry in dismay. My Dad would be arriving from Vero Beach any minute, and I had counted on that eight-foot ladder to keep him from peeking inside the boat. It was a mess inside!

To make a long story short, the staircase — and visit — was a huge success. Dad and his sweetheart, Sharon, both climbed up to the deck to enjoy the view (Sharon might say the vertigo), but they didn’t look inside (even though I did frantically clean the interior). Instead, they took us to town for lunch and some much-needed shopping, and we enjoyed each others’ company for a precious afternoon.

Dave, with his camera
Dave, with his camera

That wasn’t our first Monday visit from a family member. On a rainy Monday in November, my brother Dave had driven from Daytona, stopping in Jacksonville to pick up a load of marine plywood. We also had lunch and some much-needed shopping, but the best part was two days of visiting and a photography expedition to historic Fort Clinch.

What a treat, that my Florida family members would drive all this way to see me and Barry and Flutterby!

Our latest Monday visitors, however, were the most remarkable of all, and definitely appreciated the new staircase. Barry’s parents, Sharon and Dave, have been a part of our Flutterby adventure for over six years now. They had never even seen the boat.

They started out on Camano Island, Washington, and went down through California and across the southern states, with a stop in Big Bend, Texas. The apogee of their circuitous journey was in the Florida Keys, where they looked up Sharon’s cousin, Vic Gaspeny. He’s a well-known fishing guide who has caught a record 200 swordfish in his career.

Barry's Dad with Barry and Meps under Flutterby
We were super-excited about Barry’s parents’ visit

By the time they stood under the bow of Flutterby, grinning up at us, they had traveled 6000 miles. Barry and I practically fell down the staircase to deliver some long-awaited hugs.

We had wonderful dinners in town with them and did more much-needed shopping (is there a theme here?). This time, it wasn’t groceries and plywood, but a salvage yard in St. Augustine, about 50 miles away. While we were taking measurements for Flutterby’s new main yard, which is a repurposed mast from a much-smaller sailboat, they were bird-watching in the parking lot! “Is that woodpecker a ladderback?” asked Sharon, juggling a bird book and a pair of binoculars.

We don’t have any more visitors scheduled, so if you happen to be in the neighborhood, please stop by and visit us here in St. Marys. It doesn’t have to be on a Monday. We always need to go shopping.

Barry and his parents on the staircase in front of Flutterby
Barry and his parents on the infamous staircase
Brick staircase inside Fort Clinch
Inside historic Fort Clinch
The beach at Fort Clinch State Park
The beach at Fort Clinch State Park

Good things come to those who wait

About ten vendors were set up at the St. Marys Community Market last Saturday, in 40-degree temperatures. Most of them were selling honey and handicrafts. The name “community market” should have tipped me off — there was only one produce vendor. There’s a huge advantage to such a limited selection; I was able to get all my shopping done in five minutes!

It seemed silly to ride my bicycle all that distance without spending a little more time in town, so I took myself to a nearby cafe for breakfast.

The only problem was, all the tables at the cafe were full. To kill some time while I waited, I walked into the adjacent art gallery. That was where I met Cindy, who was sitting at the sales desk, painting miniature houses.

We started chatting, and I mentioned that I was from Seattle. Hearing that, she lit up like a Christmas tree — Cindy grew up in Seattle, 50 years ago. She was overjoyed to have someone to talk with about the Pacific Northwest.

She arrived in St. Marys many years ago, in a move that was intended to be temporary. Her husband’s job was associated with the nearby submarine base when “peace broke out,” she says with a wry laugh. Because of the job, the family had to stay in St. Marys for years, instead of returning to Seattle. When they finally divorced, Cindy still couldn’t leave — by then, her children had met and married local people. Meanwhile, out in Seattle, her mother, father, and brother passed away.

Cindy told me how she longed to see the pink sunsets on Mount Rainier again and ride a Puget Sound ferry. She described the Pike Place Market in the 1950’s, exploring the labyrinthine lower levels as a child. She and her family had spent time on Camano Island, camping near Utsalady Point and nearly buying a house there.

As she reminisced, Cindy told me that she’d even written to Starbucks, begging them to open a store in St. Marys. “Whenever I sit in a Starbucks, I imagine Mount Rainier through the window,” she told me. “It takes me back there.”

I lost track of my reason for stepping into the gallery, which was to wait until a table opened in the cafe. I lingered, talking with Cindy for over an hour. When I finally tore myself away and sat down for breakfast, every table was empty. I had the place to myself to think about Cindy’s story and her fierce homesickness for the Pacific Northwest.

The definition of an expatriate is a person who lives outside their native country. Is it possible to be an expat without even leaving the country?

Cindy’s story is proof that it is. The culture of St. Marys is completely different from that of Seattle, and she can never go home again. But with three children and many grandchildren in this part of the country, all she needs is a Starbucks to be reasonably happy.