Category Archives: Philosophy

Angel in white

It wasn’t until a few days later, when the whole ordeal was over, that I read the fine print on my ticket:

“Seating is first-come, first-served. In case of insufficient seating capacity, passengers will be placed on succeeding schedules that have available seats.”

Such a nice, polite, legalistic way to explain the hell I went through in the Greyhound bus terminal in Raleigh, North Carolina.

I’d gotten on the bus in New Bern, at a scary convenience store and gas station situated on the edge of town. There’s something odd about where they situate these Greyhound stops — so far out of town that you have to have a car to reach them. But people who have cars don’t need Greyhound.

After an hour of waiting at the gas station, the bus itself was pleasant. It was a new one, clean, with fake leather seats, power outlets for charging electronics, and — Hallelujah! — wi-fi. Fewer than half the seats were occupied, so we each had two seats to ourselves. I thought to myself, I can handle 20 hours of this.

About an hour down the road, a man got on at Goldsboro and sat just across from me. He was a slender black man with very short and graying hair, and he was dressed in a curious outfit of all white — white pants, white button-down shirt, white sneakers. His luggage consisted of only a small white trash bag.

For the next hour, I occupied myself with my computer and phone or watched out the window. Across the aisle, my neighbor pulled a small booklet out of his pocket and read some pages, then put it aside and watched out the window, too.

When the bus arrived in Raleigh, I got off with my carry-on luggage — a heavy backpack and a canvas tote full of snacks and water. I retrieved my giant purple suitcase from under the bus and went inside to wait about 30 minutes for my next bus.

I took my time, went to the bathroom, sat and drank some orange juice. When I heard an announcement about my bus, I made my way to Door A in a leisurely fashion, about 15 minutes before its departure. There were four people who had formed a line ahead of me.

What happened next was such a surprise that I experienced it with a sort of shocked detachment. This couldn’t really be happening to me, could it?

A man came to the door, checked the tickets of the first three people, and let them through. He said something I didn’t hear to the fourth person and then turned around.

The man he had spoken to suddenly went beserk, screaming expletives, grabbing the man’s shoulder, and threatening him. The gist of his outburst was, “You can’t keep me off this $@#%!! bus! I have to muster in at oh-seven-thirty in the morning! I serve my $@#%!! country for twenty-three $@#%!! years and this is what I get? You can’t do this, you $@#%!! $@#%!!!”

A woman came out, a station employee. She tried to make peace between the two men, which is when I realized that the one who was checking the tickets was the driver of my bus. He knew that he had three seats, so he let those people on. He was going to step aboard and check for two more seats before he let us on.

Instead, he shrugged. “I don’t have to take you,” he said, walking away. He got on the bus, started the engine, and then drove out of the bus terminal.

Leaving me, an innocent bystander, standing in silence behind an angry veteran who continued screaming and threatening violence. Everyone in the terminal was staring at us.

The woman looked at me sympathetically. “You’ll have to take the next bus at six am.” I stared at her, uncomprehending. It was eleven pm. Then I looked out the door, as if the bus driver was going to come back and say, “Sorry, I forgot that other lady.” He did not.

The station employee said, consolingly, “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure you get on the next one.” I walked slowly away, back to the seating area, in a daze. I was devastated and desperately wanted to cry, but I would have been embarrassed to do so.

It was 11:15 pm, and I was going to have to sit in this terminal for seven more hours. To make matters worse, while the bus had wi-fi and comfortable seating, the terminal had dreadful wire benches and no internet, except for the 10 minutes when a bus with wi-fi happened to be parked outside! To top it off, the room was ruled by a giant, rude television that blared crime shows at top volume.

Adding to the indignity were the two men who came in, propped open all the doors, and blocked them with large trash cans. Then they started asking people to move from their seats. It became apparent that they were going to shove all the benches — and passengers — into a small area, close off the rest, and clean the floors.

That’s when I ended up sitting next to the man in white. I asked if he had just come from work, and he looked confused and said no. “But I thought — your outfit –” I stammered, afraid that I had embarrassed him and was now embarrassing myself. He said something I didn’t quite catch, and when I asked him to repeat it, he shook his head sadly and pantomimed taking a drink. I guessed he meant he’d just gotten out of rehab, so I didn’t probe further.

Over the course of the long night, our conversation grew organically. We compared notes about where we were heading, and how long our trips would take. He was going to “a town so small, you’ve probably never heard of it.” He went on to explain that the closest town was Gastonia, but he had another long layover in Charlotte and wouldn’t arrive until 6 pm. Given that I had seen him board the bus at about 8 pm, that meant over 22 hours to get from one tiny town in North Carolina to another.

I told him I lived on a boat, and he admitted he’d never set foot on a boat. “I only been fishin’ once.” When he asked where I was going, I told him to Florida, and from there to Brazil. He’d never been out of the country in his life.

There was a long, comfortable silence, during which we watched the floor cleaners and a trio of 20-somethings across from us who were behaving erratically.

I asked him how long he’d be staying where he was going. “Oh, I’m going home,” he said. Another silence, then I asked how long he’d been away.

His answer spoke volumes: “90 days.”

Most people would say three months, or maybe “since October.” A few days later, I confirmed my suspicion about his answer by running a search on the internet. There is a state mental hospital in Goldsboro. People who are involuntarily admitted cannot be kept longer than 90 days.

It got very cold in the station with all the doors open, and people around us were grumbling about the cold. I got out a fleece jacket and draped it over my lap. My companion didn’t complain, but I could tell he was cold and had no jacket. I handed him a fleece quillow — a small blanket that converts to a pillow — and suggested that he could use it to keep warm. He accepted it gratefully.

When we finally introduced ourselves, it was after we’d been talking for a couple of hours. “By the way, I’m Thomas,” he said, holding out his hand and chuckling. “I’m Margaret,” I answered, shaking it like we’d just met. With the purple blanket around his shoulders, he looked like an Indian mystic.

After a while, we talked more than we were silent. He wanted to know about the boat and how it operated. Did it have a kitchen and a bathroom? Did I help steer it? Where had we gone in the boat? I asked questions about his family, what places he’d been to, what places he wanted to see. I even got out my laptop to show him photos of Alaska and Yukon, so he could see the beautiful light at midnight on the summer solstice.

Meanwhile, the mood in the bus terminal had gotten ugly. The veteran whose outburst had caused my bus driver to leave was — obviously — waiting for the same bus as me. He erupted every hour or so, yelling belligerently about how unfair this was, then settling down until something set him off again. The 20-somethings also got into repeated altercations with each other and with the employees. The good part was, it got quiet when they went outside to smoke. The bad part was, whatever they were smoking made them more volatile and more hostile when they came back.

It would have been terrifying, except that Thomas was very calm. His influence kept me calm, too.

Sometime after three am, the floor cleaners began moving the benches back, and we had to move again. Thomas picked up my suitcase, all 55 pounds of it, and we found a new spot that was agreeable to both of us. A while after that, they announced his bus. We said a reluctant farewell and exchanged a little hug, both hoping that our paths might cross again someday.

Across the terminal, I could see him waiting patiently in line, the blanket around his shoulders and the plastic bag in his hand. He was standing directly behind the group of obnoxious 20-somethings when things hit the fan.

For the first time all night, the 20-somethings wound up beside the volatile veteran. Like a match to tinder, they set each other off and then banded together against the employees. Suddenly, they were all shouting. The veteran began threatening to beat up the floor cleaners, shoving benches around, and lunging at them. The female employees were trying to placate them, to calm them down, but several of the male employees had reached their limits and were ready to get into fisticuffs with the passengers.

Thomas melted back against the wall, making himself invisible. That’s when the police arrived. They took the difficult passengers outside, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief at the sudden quiet. Then Thomas and about 20 other people boarded the bus to Charlotte, and the room was half-empty.

I missed my ally. Even with the violent people gone, the terminal was still a scary place, and I had a couple more hours to wait. I moved my luggage to a remote corner where I tucked myself under a table on the floor. I could never sleep in the terminal, but at least I could make a fort out of my luggage and hide behind it.

I read my book and waited. When they finally called my bus, I got up and rolled my suitcase over to join the line. To my surprise, there were already six people in line. There was no sign of the station employee who had promised me a seat. Suddenly, I realized that I might not get on the next bus, either. I found myself trembling with fear that I would spend another day in the bus terminal, waiting for the 11 pm bus.

When we boarded the bus, the driver looked twice at my ticket. “You were supposed to be on the 11 pm bus,” he told me. I just stared at him, afraid he was telling me I wasn’t eligible for this bus, either. Then he waved me on. I climbed up the steps and looked down the aisle at a completely full bus. There was only one seat open, beside a Greyhound employee in the front row. She reluctantly moved her bags from my seat.

I had come so close to missing this bus that as we pulled out of the station, I burst into tears. The woman next to me turned to the window and ignored my quiet sobs. For the first time in over 24 hours, I slept.

I didn’t even miss my blanket. I knew that Thomas, my angel in white, was using it to stay warm.  He’ll probably never know how valuable his calm companionship was during that long, tough night.

Keeping the flame alive

Every year, there comes a time when Burning Man ends and we have to pack our dusty camping gear and clothing. It’s not like packing up just any campsite.

Barry's ready to take down the shade structure. We took this picture so he could remember his knots for next year.

First, we have to take down and fold a shade structure that measures about 500 square feet, coiling dozens of dust-laden ropes that held it up. As we untie the ropes, we have to yank out the pieces of rebar that they were tied to, preferably before we trip over one of them and get hurt. Since the rebar was driven into the ground with a sledgehammer, it takes a lot of work to get it out. We have to mop up any yucky water that didn’t evaporate in the shower pond, sort the recycling and garbage, and find a place to burn the burlap bag full of dessicated compost.

We have to do all this while wearing dust masks and work gloves in the blazing sun. Even so, it’s not the most painful part of leaving — saying goodbye to all our friends is. There’s never enough time in one week to spend with all our dear friends in Black Rock City.

In the past, this onerous period has been followed by a painful multi-step re-entry into the “default” world. There are a number of steps to this re-entry, such as the first time I see pavement after a week. The first flush toilet. The first time I interact with a non-Burner. The first time I use a credit card. The first phone call I make. The first phone call I receive: “Hey, what’s that funny ringing noise?”

But this year was different. It has been almost a month since we left, and I am still floating on Cloud Nine, feeling bubbly and happy. Why?

It’s because I didn’t have to say goodbye to my friends right away. Yay!

Anneliese and Sparkle sharing a hug in front of the RV

We camped this year next to a great couple named Shade and Swirly Sue. The two of them had a small RV and an enormous, welcoming shade structure. They were fun and generous, offering cool foot baths to anyone who wanted one. Because of this, they made lots of new friends. By the end of the week, there were six people camping next to us instead of two.

All six left Black Rock City together, riding in Shade and Sue’s RV and towing their gear and bikes in a large open trailer.

We didn’t say goodbye to them when they left. We also didn’t say goodbye to our campmate, Sparkle. Or our friends in Silicon Village, Philip and Claire.

A couple of hours after we drove out of Black Rock City, we walked into a furniture-free rental house in Sparks, Nevada. “Guess who had a flat tire?” I called out to the assembled group, which included all nine of the fine Burners mentioned in the above paragraph. They were sprawled on the carpet in the living and dining rooms, eating cold, fresh food like lettuce salad and ice cream. All were enjoying life without dust for the first time in a week. As the evening wore on, each dusty person would disappear for a while and then return from the shower, unrecognizable.

The impromptu house party was hosted by Sparkle, who’d just attended her first Burn and had taken to it like a fish to water. Looking around the room, I remembered her asking me about the principle of Gifting. “What should I bring to give away?” she asked me, referring to items she could buy in advance. I suggested she not bring anything for her first year, just enjoy the experience and know what to bring the next time.

Now, after one week in the desert, she was demonstrating that she understood the principle of Gifting perfectly. In fact, she also was helping us experience Radical Inclusion, Participation, Immediacy, and Communal Effort, more of the Ten Principles of Burning Man.

After showers and a meal, two of our friends had to leave that first night, driving through the night to the Bay Area. They got a lot of hugs to help them on their way. Four others took off the following day. But five of us stayed through the week, forming a sort of family group in the Sparkle House.

Our little family at the balloon races
Yours Truly with a couple of thought balloons

One evening, we descended on a laundromat together and took over 13 washing machines. Then we ate pizza, played games, and drew crayon pictures for each other at the Blind Onion. Another day, we drove to Lake Tahoe, where all five of us had to share one camera. We lived even more of those Burning Man principles, namely Radical Self-Expression (we sat around making jewelry from glass and wire), Decommodification (no TV!), and Radical Self-Reliance (cleaning all the dust off our gear). The grand finale was the Great Reno Balloon Race, which we all attended at the end of the week. Words do not do it justice — more photos are coming.

It was a magical time, a chance to experience intentional community outside of Burning Man. We’d only met Nick and Anneliese a few days earlier, but they were so easy to be with, it was as though we’d known each other all our lives. My connection to Sparkle was even more amazing. We’d known each other at school 30 years earlier, but had been out of touch ever since. When she arrived at Burning Man, it was the first time I’d seen her since we received our high school diplomas. Now she’s like a sister.

Eventually, we did have to leave and say goodbye to Sparkle and the kids. That was a tough goodbye, but we did not have to say goodbye to Nick and Anneliese. They went along with us to our next adventure.

To this day, people are still asking us, “How was Burning Man?”

“It was great! The best ever!” Barry and I say, in unison.

And, I might add, it’s not over yet. As long as there are Burning friends in my life, it might just go on forever.

Flying High on Cloud Nine

Like a zombie, I shuffled across the Philadelphia airport. It was 5:30 am, and I hadn’t gotten much sleep on my red-eye from Seattle. This cross-country trip required three flights, instead of two, and each plane change was stressful.

A cafe caught my eye, and I joined the line to buy some juice, setting my luggage down and shuffling it forward each time the line moved.

I hardly noticed the older woman in line behind me, until her husband joined her. “I don’t know what you were thinking, you $@#%! You should have $@#^@!” she said to him, her tone loud and acerbic. He responded defensively, then started making nasty accusations at her. I thought about giving up my place in line to get away.

It devolved into one of those toxic “You always!” and “You never!” arguments that’s impossible to resolve. Fortunately for me, they disagreed vehemently about the cafe and went somewhere else.

I felt icky, contaminated by their toxic emotions, but also relieved. It gave me a chance to appreciate that my life is not like that.

By most measures, my morning went downhill further from there. Bad weather delayed my second flight, and when I arrived in Charlotte, my flight home had been cancelled.

Luckily, I didn’t have the same attitude as the angry couple I’d overheard earlier. I took a deep breath and walked to the customer service counter, where a smiling customer is an anomaly. I decided to be the anomaly.

The customer service agent worked out a couple of options and printed new boarding passes. As she handed them to me, the agent still looked concerned. “I need your luggage tags,” she said. I was befuddled by the request, then I realized why she was frowning.

“I only have carry-on luggage,” I said. Her face lit up with a huge smile. “Wow! You’re good to go, then!”

I had plenty of time to catch my new flight to Orlando. With a sigh of relief, I headed for the nearest bathroom.

It was sparkling clean, and just inside the entrance was a display with free candy, hand lotion, hair products, and feminine supplies. The clue to this largesse was the accompanying tip jar. I had just entered the domain of one of the Charlotte airport’s restroom attendants.

This woman, though, was no mere attendant. She was earning her tips as a Bathroom Ambassador.

She bustled around the large bathroom with a cleaning towel, wiping the counters as she greeted women with a cheery hello and a smile. “Hi, how are you today?” She also served as a traffic cop, keeping track of which stalls were in use. “Come on over here, I’ve got a great room for you, lady!” “Here, take this big one — you’ve got a lot of luggage.”

She made the bathroom so pleasant, I wished they had more comfortable, less-specialized seats in there. I would have stayed for a while. She came over and said hi as I was washing my hands. “If you’re going someplace sunny, take me with you!” she quipped.

“I don’t know,” I said, rummaging around for something to put in the tip jar. “You’re making it pretty sunny in here!”

I had over an hour to kill, so I stopped at a Starbucks for a cup of tea. I didn’t even have to use money for this treat — I paid for it with a gift card my brother Hank had given me.

Every time I use this gift card, it makes me feel good. It’s as if he’s giving me a Christmas present over and over.

After my Philadelphia cafe experience, I found myself looking curiously behind me, to see who was next in line. It was a woman about my age, black, with a southern accent. She was alone and had no luggage, perhaps an employee from one of the other shops. She placed an order very similar to mine, and as she fumbled in her purse for the money, I had a brainstorm.

I handed the gift card back to the cashier. “Here, charge it to my card,” I said. The cashier didn’t miss a beat, just swiped the card and handed me a new receipt. She probably assumed we knew each other.

The woman in line behind me went through a series of reactions. There was initially confusion as the cashier refused her payment, and then astonishment that a stranger would pay for her order. Apprehension — was I going to ask something of her? And finally, she got it, and was simply grateful. She’d never experienced anything like this before.

“This is one of those pay it forward things, isn’t it? Now I have to do something nice for someone else?” she said. I just smiled and said, gently, “Only if you want to.” I slipped away to put some milk in my tea, and she followed me across the restaurant. “Thank you! You really made my day! What’s your name?” If I hadn’t been carrying a very full cup of tea and two pieces of heavy luggage, I suspect she might have hugged me.

Despite my lack of sleep and change of plans, I was on Cloud Nine for the rest of the day. If I hadn’t jotted a note about the angry couple in Philadelphia, I would have forgotten about them completely.

For many people, the experience of traveling by plane is miserable. The security process takes away all privacy and dignity. When you reassemble your belongings and put your shoes back on, you no longer have your autonomy or your freedom. Your fate is in someone else’s hands.

Your fate, perhaps, but not your experience. Each of us can choose whether to be miserable or not. The couple in the cafe line? They chose to be angry. Me, I choose to smile, and to do things to help other people smile.

Sometimes, like when my flight gets cancelled, I don’t feel like smiling, but I paste on a smile anyway. Eventually, someone sees my smile and smiles back at me. Then the game is up — I can’t help it, I’m smiling for real now! The next thing I know, I’m smiling at everybody, basking in the cheerful smiles I get in return.

Meps, smiling at you: (=

In memory of Cory

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Having driven over 15,000 miles across the USA this year, we’ve seen hundreds of them. Crosses beside the road. Each one saying, “a life was lost here.”

Cory’s cross

It’s a sobering reminder of the risk we take every time we get behind the wheel.

In some states, instead of homemade crosses, there are signs posted by the Department of Transportation. Wyoming takes down homemade memorials and replaces them with a sign showing a dove on a broken heart. Driving by at 55 mph, the Squid Wagon’s top speed, they look a lot like the logos on portable defibrillators.

The signs in South Dakota are easier to understand. They feature a red “X” to mark the spot, and the thought-provoking words, “Why die?” In some places, there are two, three, or four of these signs together. Four lives lost here.

Doing research for this essay, I found that there’s actually a name for them: Descansos. It’s the Spanish word for a place of rest, a memorial erected at the place where someone died.

Seeing one makes me think, “Am I driving carefully enough?” But in all my life, I’ve never come face-to-face with a traffic fatality.

Until last week.

We’d just driven 750 miles from North Carolina to Florida, and after arriving at Dad’s house, we needed to take a walk and stretch our legs. We decided to look up an old friend we hadn’t seen in over 10 years.

“Are you sure you don’t want to take my car?” Dad asked. No, we assured him, we wanted to walk.

It was an OK walk, except for the lack of sidewalks. I was especially nervous about bad Florida drivers, so I waded through the mud and high grass and trash by the side of the road, to give them plenty of room.

On our way home, Barry and I were walking along holding hands. Nervously, I kept pulling him further away from US 1, over into the puddles.

And then my day was shattered by a terrible sound behind us.

I turned, and as I took in the scene, I started running back towards the intersection. All I cared about was the large man who lay in the center lane. I was pulling out our cell phone as I ran, saying to Barry “He’s not moving – he’s not moving – please, let him be OK!”

I was running, but everything was in slow motion. I took in the motorcycle pieces scattered across the road and the large white van pulling over to the shoulder, but I couldn’t figure out how it happened.

A small group converged in the middle of the road. A woman got on the ground with the prone man. “He’s breathing,” she said, her face on the pavement beside his helmeted head. Cars were passing only a few feet from the two of them, and I began waving them out to the right-most lane. A few minutes later, a police car arrived, and Barry and I left. We hadn’t actually witnessed the accident, and we didn’t want to be in the way.

I was shaking as I walked. The man hadn’t spoken or moved a limb, but his midsection was twitching in a frightening way. Was he going to be OK?

That night, I couldn’t sleep. I kept reviewing the scene, trying to figure out how he’d been hit, and how he could survive his injuries. There had been no blood, only the ominous dark stains of oil and coolant and fuel under the pieces of his motorcycle.

The next morning, my Dad pointed out a small newspaper article. A 26-year-old man was airlifted to a hospital, where he died. I turned away, tears in my eyes.

His name was Cory. He was engaged to be married in a few months, and he left behind a 7-year-old son. He was a chef at the Moorings Yacht Club.

Cory was killed by a large van that made a left turn out of a parking lot onto the busy highway. The driver must have been in a hurry, or on the phone, because Cory was hard to miss. It was broad daylight, and he had a bright orange motorcycle. He was not a small man. He wore a full-face helmet that matched his bike, despite the fact that helmets are not required in Florida.

A day later, a cross appeared at the intersection. It said “RIP Cory,” and it was decorated with red foil heart-shaped balloons. Every time I passed it, my eyes were drawn to it. Once, as I sat at the stoplight, I watched a jogger pause and look at the photos of the deceased. I felt a lurch in my chest, thinking that Cory was still alive when I saw him.

My happy vacation was subdued, impacted by the senseless death of a stranger. It was a first for me, walking by the scene of a fatal accident, and I won’t ever see motorcycles the same way.

Please, drivers, slow down and be more careful. Whether it’s a motorcycle, a bicycle, a jogger, or another car, it’s a person. None of us wants to be obliterated, replaced by a cross by the side of the road. I don’t ever want to hear that terrible sound again, and I still cry for Cory, even though I never knew him.

Rohatsu, an antidote to holiday madness

A few years back, at a small party at our house, my friend Margaret was telling us about her annual Buddhist silent meditation retreat. None of her listeners were familiar with such a thing, and we thought it was hilarious. We laughed and poked fun at weird people who would sit on the floor for a week without talking.

Oops. Be careful what you poke fun at!

Away from my cynical friends, I asked Margaret to tell me more about this silent meditation stuff. I met Jordan, who answered more questions and induced me to try some meditation at home.

Eventually, I went to my first retreat, a weekend event at Breitenbush with teacher Robert Beatty. Now I was one of those weird people I had poked fun at.

The retreat is not a silent occasion — there’s a teacher, and he or she talks, guiding the meditations and offering Buddhist teachings. There are bells, and the wind in the trees, and birds, and the sound of spoons and forks, and people walking. There’s the sound of running water — have you ever noticed how loud a flushing toilet is? Sometimes, there’s music.

We’re not trying to block out the world, and the world does not, and cannot, become silent. It is simply that the participants do not talk. I love it.

This probably comes as a shock to my family members, who told me growing up that I talked too much.

Today, December 8th, is considered to be the day when Buddha achieved enlightenment. To the list of December holidays, Christmas and Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and the Winter Solstice, we can add Rohatsu.

You won’t find Rohatsu cards, Rohatsu presents, or Rohatsu parties, though.

In Western culture, celebration implies consumption. We buy things, or we get together with friends and family and gorge ourselves on intoxicants and rich food. Rohatsu, on the other hand, caps a week of intensive meditation. In Buddhist centers around the world, people gather for a day or an evening of meditation together. Instead of “celebrating,” they “commemorate” the day of Buddha’s enlightenment by practicing mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the antidote to the crazy holiday season. Instead of laughing at people who meditate, take a few minutes today and try it. Your shopping or party can wait 15 minutes.

Sit down in a quiet place. Relax. When you breathe in, notice that you are breathing in. When you breathe out, notice that you are breathing out. Whenever some thought pops into your head, like “I forgot to take the trash out,” or “What am I going to get my sister for Christmas?” or my favorite, “This is boring,” gently send it away and notice that you are breathing. In. And out. You are alive!

That’s it. Just stop for a few minutes and be present in the moment.

I promise, nobody will laugh at you. Least of all, me.

What would Mozart think?

Rosa Parks rides the bus with me these days. Ever since she passed away, on October 25th last year, our local bus systems have immortalized her by dedicating seats (in the front) to her, even silkscreening her image on the window so it looks like she’s sitting there.

The bus systems are doing their best to respect her memory, keep it dignified. Still, it’s a quirky way to be remembered.

I read a book telling the story of Rosa’s heroic act, and it was no accident. She didn’t merely stay seated, a tired black seamstress. She was an activist, and the event that got her arrested and provoked the famous Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott was an opportunity, carefully planned for by the leaders of the civil rights movement.

One of those leaders, of course, was Martin Luther King, whose birthday was celebrated a few weeks ago. News organizations reported some difficulties with the 20-year-old holiday and the memory of Dr. King. One blog was entitled, “Did Anyone Notice Martin Luther King Day?” A New York Times article mentioned a lawsuit between the family and CBS News, saying “the family has long been criticized by scholars for its aggressive profit-making approach to Dr. King’s legacy.” One new book alleges that King had extramarital affairs.

Still, there are no sales on MLK day. Most people know that you’re not supposed to spend money on gifts or cards, and the t-shirts for sale are mostly inspirational images.

“It’s supposed to be a day of service,” said my friend Tina, who works for the University of Washington and had the day off. The UW, which has over 23,000 employees, had gotten the message out, organizing volunteer opportunities and work parties for charities.

Like Rosa Parks’ moment of protest, the “day of service” message about January 16th is also no accident. King’s estate works actively with chambers of commerce and business groups, convincing them not to put on MLK day sales. The Corporation for National Service has a website,, listing service projects and urging Americans to participate.

I think King would be satisfied with the way his holiday is celebrated. His name has not been defamed or belittled, and if the holiday isn’t as big as it should be, that’s because his work is still not done.

At the other extreme, we have January 27th. Today is the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birthday, and Austria is going crazy. It’s a tourism event.

Unlike MLK, Mozart doesn’t have anyone to protect his name. According to one branding expert, “If (his name) was protected and did have an owner, there’s no way that you’d just let someone slap the name on a salami.”

Someone has slapped his name on a salami, and some chocolate, and a milkshake. In the absence of such protection, the commercial side of things has gone crazy. There are the usual Mozart t-shirts and mugs and bags and calendars. There are Mozart golf balls, despite the fact that he was Austrian and golf is a Scottish invention. And my favorite, a bra that plays “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” when you unfasten it.

Based on the confused but party-loving fellow portrayed in the movie “Amadeus,” back in the mid-1980s, I don’t think Mozart would mind terribly. In our day and age, classical music is serious stuff, not to be taken lightly. But there was as much humor in past ages as there is now, and I find a lot of it in Mozart’s music. Like Shakespeare, it’s not all tragedy.

Mozart died penniliess, but his music accounts for 25% of classical music sales. Austria’s national tourist board estimates that the Mozart brand is worth $8.8 billion. If he had a sense of humor, as I think he did, he’d probably find the irony funny.

I wonder if Rosa Parks would mind if I move up to her seat?

Preserving Funky Old Florida

About 15 years ago, when my mother was alive, Barry and I were helping move some furniture in a new condo my parents bought in Sebastian, Florida. My mother sat on the bed and looked out the window at the Indian River view.

“We need to move the bed over this way,” she said, frowning. “Then I won’t see those dreadful shacks when I wake up in the morning.”

Puzzled, Dad walked over to the window and peered out at the small houses next door. “What’s wrong with those?” he asked. “That’s Old Florida!”

In my family, Old Florida is a catch-all term for everything about Florida that is charming, funky, and more than 10 years old. It is the antithesis of condos, mega-houses, shopping malls, and new construction. A moldy pink house with jalousie windows — that’s Old Florida. A restaurant where the waitress calls you “Hon” — that’s Old Florida. Funny little towns like Pahokee, on Lake Okeechobee — that’s Old Florida.

My Dad is an expert on Old Florida. He was telling me about a restaurant the other day, a place where they serve frog legs and swamp palm soup. “It’s Old Florida,” he said. It was enough of a description for me.

Actually, my Dad, himself, is Old Florida. Despite his distinguished career and the journalism textbooks he’s published, he wears shoes with holes in them and sweatstained floppy hats. Sometimes, he calls waitresses “Sweetie.” He tells stories about growing up in Miami without any shoes or shirt, shinnying up trees to get coconuts, and climbing neighbor’s fences to steal avocadoes. He used to swim off the Million Dollar pier, wearing a homemade snorkel and a mask made from an inner tube and a piece of round window glass.

Dad had a list of errands to run the other day, normally something I’d try to avoid. But my ears pricked up when I heard he was going out to Peterson’s Groves to “buy some citrus.” I wasn’t the only one. When Dad headed out to run his errands, Barry and Joy and I all piled into the car.

Peterson’s is Old Florida.

Drive out to the edge of rapidly-growing Vero Beach, past the shopping mall and the stark new developments hidden behind long concrete fences. On 66th Avenue, look for the hand-painted sign in the old wagon. When you turn down the sandy drive, you’ll be transported to another place and time.

In the center of the property is a cluster of ramshackle barns and chicken houses, a packing house, and a ton of kitsch. Before he’d even parked, Dad fell in love with a lifelike plastic goose perched on a piece of rusty farm equipment. I hopped out of the car and immediately went to say hello to the goats and pigs. “Look who made it through Thanksgiving,” said Dad, pointing at a huge turkey. We wandered through the chicken house and took pictures of the peacocks. “Guinea fowl!” called Barry, upon hearing the rusty pump squeak of one of his favorite critters.

We walked along the edge of the orange grove, next to a little fenced pond full of waterfowl. An obnoxious goose scolded us at the top of his lungs, but the ducks who shared the pen ignored him. On our right hand were the orange trees, not too tall, their branches laden with green citrus fruit.

On the store’s long covered porch, we found our goal: Wooden bins of oranges and grapefruits and bushel bags to pack them in. Prices were marked on blackboards or cardboard signs. A nearby galvanized bucket offered sunflowers for sale. Two cats lounged at our feet, got into a brief catfight, and streaked off in different directions.

We went inside, where juicy samples sat on the counter next to coconut candies, pralines, and candied orange peel. A broad-shouldered older man behind the counter was eating fruitcake out of a cardboard box, and he offered us a piece. Despite my love of fruitcake, I declined. I had just picked up a sample piece of grapefruit, and I was busy getting grapefruit juice all over his merchandise. A long-time customer, Dad addressed the man as “Mr. Peterson.”

I drifted towards the back of the store, past shelves of marmalade and jam and orange air freshener. The further back I went, the dustier the merchandise became. There were alligator heads and glass frogs and cheap plastic magnets that said Vero Beach, Florida. Seashell windchimes dangled from the ceiling. My favorite items were the starfish wearing tiny sunglasses, painted with polka-dotted bikinis.

Whenever I go into Peterson’s, I think I should buy a lot of stuff, because that will help preserve this bastion of Old Florida. Then I look more closely at the tawdry merchandise and decide the best thing to buy is oranges and grapefruits, and maybe a jar or two of jam. Luckily, Mr. Peterson has been expanding into some vegetables, and on this trip, we picked up some cherry tomatoes and a lovely kohlrabi. When we commended him for his lovely eggplant, he said, gruffly, “I have to diversify.”

I’m sure Mr. Peterson has been invited to sell his property to developers for lots of money. I’m glad he’s holding out, and I tell myself it’s practical: Somebody in the United States has to grow oranges and tomatoes and kohlrabi; we can’t import all our food from Chile and New Zealand. But baby goats and peacocks and ramshackle buildings are not practical. They’re the last vestiges of Old Florida, and thank goodness someone, not just Dad, is preserving it.

Make mine a trailer park

Last Saturday, we drove to the beach to visit our friend Joy and swim in her pool. On the way, we stopped at my Dad’s former beachfront house to see how it looked. The mansion next door was for sale, so I jumped out to pick up a flyer.

The pricetag, $7.9 million dollars, was enough to make me gasp. But I was more disgusted by the thought of a 5-bedroom house with over 8300 square feet of space. “Give me a break,” commented Barry, “They call it a single-family dwelling!”

We were still grumbling about it when we reached Ocean Resorts, where Joy lives. As we turned into the park, for it’s considered a “mobile home park,” I found myself wondering who was happier: The residents of Ocean Resorts, who live in homes ranging from 240-square-foot trailers to modest 1100-square-foot houses, or the owner of that mansion?

Ocean Resorts wins that contest, hands down.

Started as a campground in the 1920’s, Ocean Resorts has a friendly family feeling to it. It’s not just for seniors, and people who live there know each other and look out for each other. Last year, 150 of the 400 homes were destroyed in Hurricanes Jeanne and Frances, but most of the residents are rebuilding and returning.

Joy is one of them, replacing the manufactured home that was destroyed in Frances with a charming 2-bedroom house made of concrete block and stucco, or CBS. Joy also introduced us to Marilyn, who had left for Hurricane Jeanne and then heard that her house was on fire from a fallen transformer.

“We called the fire department, but there was nothing they could do. The island had been evacuated. Why didn’t they turn the power off?” Five homes were totally lost in the fire.

Before the fire, Marilyn’s home had been full of her frog collection, with frog art everywhere. “She even had frogs on her towels,” commented Joy. Marilyn and her husband, who spend half the year in New Hampshire, bought a new manufactured home for their Ocean Resorts lot. “Every friend who comes through the door brings me a new frog!” she laughed.

We spent hours at the pool that day, and Joy seemed to know everyone there, jumping up to hug many of her friends.

I snoozed in a chaise lounge after my swim, listening to the surf and feeling the warm sun. I was almost asleep, not really listening to Joy and Dad’s quiet conversation, when I heard something of interest.

“Hmm,” I thought. “I heard her say treasure ship…but was it in Central America, or the Central America?” Just in case, I had to interrupt and ask.

Joy pointed out an older lady in a purple bathing suit. “Her son was the one who got all that gold from the ship, the Central America. That’s Phyllis Thompson.”

Now I was wide awake. “Ooh! Can you introduce me?”

It was only a month ago that I had galloped my way through the excellent book, Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea. It is the behind-the-scenes story of Tommy Thompson and the crew who raised the gold from the famous steamship, the Central America. One of the members of the crew, Alan Scott, belongs to our Seattle sailing club, and his presentation last year got me interested in the book. When I read it, I discovered that much of the preparation for the project was done in Columbus, Ohio, about a block from where I lived at the time. Now, in another amazing coincidence, Tommy Thompson’s mother was here at the pool.

We walked over to chat with Phyllis, who told us that her son had a place in nearby Vero Beach, “But he’s not there very much. He’s on his 29th lawsuit.” Sadly, the raising of the gold from the Central America also brought up a number of sharks — most of the money made from the gold was lost to lawsuits against insurance companies who claimed they had rights to it.

When I mentioned that we knew Alan Scott, she was delighted. “I haven’t seen him in years! When you see him, give him a hug and a kiss from me!”

Joy told us that Phyllis has her own share of gold — she won a number of medals while they were on the senior swim team.

We had a wonderful day, walking and swimming and meeting Joy’s friends. Even people she didn’t know (and there were few) smiled and waved. What kind of people live in such tiny homes, just a few feet away from each other? People who realize that happiness isn’t 8300 feet to yourself and a big gate to keep the rest of the world out. For the folks at Ocean Resorts, and many of the rest of us, happiness is about community.

Why would you work if you didn’t have to?

Before I opened my eyes this morning, I heard a hard rain beating on the roof. When I used to have a full-time job, days like today would make me think, “This is a good day to go to work!” I would dress in my raincoat and hat, take the bus to the office, and once inside, with a warm, dry, usually windowless office, I could forget all about the rain.

It has been almost two and a half years since I have had to go to work, but I’ve certainly done a fair amount of it since then. Barry and I have worked hard on a number of projects: Getting rid of our furniture and extraneous belongings, fixing up a 44-foot sailboat with a friend, launching and maintaining our website, fixing up and selling our Seattle house.

Between all that unpaid work, we traveled. It’s not something people usually think of as work, but it is. Before you leave, there are reservations and plans to make. Once you begin your trip, life becomes a constant scavenger hunt, searching for things like road signs, campsites, fuel docks, bus stations, grocery stores, and restaurants. It’s an effort to find people to connect with and things to do, and it’s rewarding, but exhausting.

We’ve done work for others, too. Last spring, I worked for weeks to put together a fundraiser for the Puget Sound Cruising Club. Barry and I revised the website for Bahia Street. We helped friends paint their beach house. We helped “cater” a couple of parties at my sister’s house in Eugene.

I know a lot of retired folks, some of whom work, and some who don’t. My father retired almost 20 years ago, but he’s written a book and taught college journalism classes since then. His current gig is a job critiquing newspapers — he sits around the house, reading newspapers and getting paid for it, then presents the findings to newspapers all over the state of South Carolina. Barry’s parents work hard to maintain their house, yard, and woods. Every day with good weather finds them outside, weeding, planting, mowing, building. Their beautiful yard is magazine-quality, at least it was until we put a 30-foot travel trailer in it.

When I worked outside Washington D.C., there was a fellow in the office named George. He was in his 80’s, but he came in a couple of days a week to lend his expertise on military strategy projects. At the time, I was in my 20’s and I didn’t like most of the men in the office where I worked. I couldn’t imagine why George would work there when he didn’t have to, and when I heard that he died during a two-week vacation, I thought it was terrible. Looking back now, I realize that he enjoyed the work, it engaged and stimulated him, and the fact that he worked his entire life was one of the things that made him happy.

I’ve known folks who were retired or unemployed who didn’t do work, either paid or unpaid. Their worlds become smaller and smaller as they sit and watch TV, and nothing engages them. They don’t seem happy, but there is little I can do for them, except worry.

If working is actually good for us, then why did Barry and I retire? It’s a good question.

After 20 years of working, I was tired of short vacations and long commutes. Working long days for someone else was great in terms of money and benefits, but it sapped my creativity and left me no energy for writing, art, music, or that all-consuming category, “projects.”

On the other hand, I had fun and challenging jobs, with cool titles like “Production Editor,” “Graphic Designer,” “Knowledge Manager,” “Information Architect,” and “Business Analyst.” I was rewarded for being a good communicator, a creative person, someone who is technically savvy.

When Barry and I returned from Alaska in August, we thought we were ready to go to work together on our next big project: Building a boat. We bought a 30-foot travel trailer to live in and put it in his parents’ backyard. We started planning the boatshed in which to build the boat. We started making changes to the trailer, to make it a comfortable home.

But an element of doubt appeared. We had always planned to build a Jay Benford Badger, but we were unsure whether to stick with the 34-foot version or build a larger one. Full of enthusiasm, we did further research on the boat. The results were discouraging. From a former owner, I heard “Terribly slow, no good in light air.” The Pardeys, who sailed against Badger in an informal race, told us “So slow, you’ll arrive after all the parties are over.” I initially brushed off comments about “no resale value,” but how can we justify $60,000 of materials on a boat that’s worth less than $20,000 when finished?

On top of that, I find that fixing things up (Cayenne, the house, the trailer) is not my strong suit, it’s Barry’s. I’m the communicator, good with people, not the engineer, good with “stuff.” What will happen to me if I spend two years in isolation doing tasks I don’t really enjoy? Will I revert to being the person who fixes sandwiches and holds tools for my husband?

This huge project, which was to be our work for the next couple of years, is in doubt. Do we build it anyway? Build a different boat? Buy a boat? Give up the dream of cruising?

When your life’s plans are in limbo, the easiest thing to do is go to work. So we work on the trailer every day, installing carpeting, rebuilding the bed, repainting it in whimsical colors. One day a week, I take the bus to Seattle, a 2-1/2 hour commute each way, and I work in the Bahia Street office as their new “Public Affairs Manager.”

We are talking about finding short-term or part-time jobs, something we’ll each find engaging that will give us a bit of breathing room to make decisions. It’s a weird thought, that we have come full circle from our retirement, and now it’s time to work again. But sitting on the sofa eating bon-bons just isn’t the life for me. Looking at what we’ve done since we retired from our jobs in 2003, we are always working, and always, perversely, enjoying it.