People have lots of good qualities

Next Time

A number of years ago, my friend Jacqui gave me and Barry a couple of purple rubber bracelets she’d gotten at the Center for Spiritual Living. They were imprinted with the words “Complaint-Free World.”

The premise was simple. To break the habits of complaining, criticizing, or gossiping, you just had to switch the bracelet to the other wrist any time you did one of those three things. If you could keep it on the same wrist for 21 days, then you had broken the cycle and overcome the habit.

Barry and I used them for a lot longer than 21 days. We found ourselves wearing them off and on for years. And I’m still not perfect! But I’m a lot more aware of myself when I do complain, criticize, or gossip. “The purple bracelet,” as we called it, was a good tool for learning new communication patterns.

The problem is, the rest of the world hasn’t taken up purple bracelets. And I have a terrible time receiving criticism. Some people simply wither. Not me. I cry.

When I hear the first few words of criticism, my brain starts screaming “Flee! Flee! Flee! Die! Die! Die!” I begin apologizing non-stop for my flaws, my failures, my looks, my weight, my ancestry, and anything else I can think of. I back out of the room, trying not to bawl until I’m out of sight.

It’s hard for me to learn anything new that way.

To me, “constructive criticism” sounds like an oxymoron. How can it possibly be constructive when it’s hurting my feelings so much?

Lately, however, I’ve found that there is another way for me to learn from my mistakes. There is such a thing as constructive criticism. It requires two simple things: Kindness, and these two words: “Next time.”

The first time I really got “next time” was in August, with Barry’s Dad, Dave. He’d been working out in the yard and had stopped into the kitchen for a drink of water. I’d been filling water jugs for Burning Man and carrying them out to the van; I was about to start packing food from the kitchen.

“Uh, Margaret…” said Dave, politely, “Next time you use the hose, let me put it away.”

I stopped and stared at him, like a deer in the headlights. Was I being chastised? Had I been a bad person? Should I apologize profusely? Or should I just pay attention to the words in his request?

He went on to explain that I’d coiled up the hose without draining it. When I hung it up in the garage, the leftover water in the hose ended up all over the floor. He said it so matter-of-factly, the only thing I could say was “Oops.”

The next thing I knew, we were both chuckling at my mistake. That was a first.

The long hose was so heavy, I had really struggled with it. Dave was kindly acknowledging that under the circumstances, I had done the best I could. He had a better solution, and in the spirit of constructive suggestion, he was offering it to me, free of charge. Of course, I couldn’t change the past, but “next time” I could do better.

I came away from the interaction with a new appreciation for Dave’s communication skills. I’ve always known him to be a super-quiet guy, one of those engineer-types. Coming from my own loud, boisterous family, I assumed quiet people were poor communicators. Now I saw how wrong I was. He used his words so carefully, so sparingly, that I could take him at face value. He only said what he meant.

He still liked me and could still laugh with me, even though I’d flooded his garage.

A few weeks later, I was staying with a friend in San Jose. “Next time you use that sharp knife, please wash it and put it away in the knife block.” Again, there was no chastisement for what I had done, only a constructive suggestion for how to do it better in the future. Again, the sentence started with, “Next time.” Again, it was delivered with a kind smile.

I was learning how to transform criticism — of me! — into useful learning.

Usually, when someone does something wrong, we put our criticism and complaints in the past tense: “You left the toilet seat up!” or “You left the toilet seat up again!” or the worst one: “You always leave the toilet seat up!”

Unable to fix or remedy what we did in the past, people become defensive. “It’s not my fault! The cat was drinking out of it!” Then kindness goes out the window, and an argument begins.

With two simple words, “next time,” we can give each other a graceful way out. We can acknowledge that the other person did they best he or she could and still take advantage of the teaching moment. We can be kind and unambiguous with our words, instead of delivering stinging criticism.

I recommend you try it. Next time.

My window on the world

Faired Hard Dodger
Flutterby’s hard dodger, after filling and fairing, with very rough oversized holes where the windows will be soon.

I’ve been building Flutterby’s hard dodger. I’ve done a lot of thinking about it, which is important….but  the pictures don’t look impressive. Filling and fairing  is at least visible, but still not impressive looking: Apply maybe a pound of stuff where you think there are low spots, cracks, or pinholes. Wait for it to cure. Start sanding, and make about a pound of dust. The result is smoother, with an err…interesting? blotchy? mix of colors. The real results will show up after painting..

When the job is done, much of the world around Flutterby will be seen through these windows, from the cockpit looking forward, or just sticking my head out the companionway like a prairie dog. Cutting the hole is a big step. They are hard to relocate if miss-placed. Putting a rounded inside corner where it is supposed to be is complicated too. Today I made a jig to align the center point for a hole saw exactly where it should be next to two edges, knowing that none of the corners are 90 degrees, and none are the same either….and allowing just enough extra to clean it up with a sanding drum that is 1/8″ bigger than the hole left by the hole saw. I’ve already made little tools to trace a line the right distance up off the deck, following all the curves. Today, after all the thinking and planning, I was ready and cut a window out and sanded the hole smooth!

One down. Four more to go. The “figuring it out” part was bigger than the cutting part, and that is already done for all five windows. My window on the world is opening up and getting a lot more refined!

The front port window cut out from the outside
The front port window cut out from the outside
The front port window cut out, from the outside
The front port window cut out, from the outside
Not my favorite dance step

Anti-Social Dance

I told David that dance was my thing,
So he showed me some waltz and some swing,
Then a man with big shoes,
Gave me a touch of the blues,
Now the limp gives my salsa more zing.

Not my favorite dance step
Not my favorite dance step

In a rumba lesson, the man with big shoes stepped forward when he should have stepped back. I have a blue toe and a new appreciation for careful dance partners like my  friend, David Seghers, and my husband, Barry.

 

Let’s do lunch!

It’s been eleven years since I quit,
And I miss all my friends, I admit,
But when you read my book,
You will see, I forsook
Corporate life for a much better fit.

Steve and Meps at Sweet Mickey's
Steve, of Expeditors International, and Meps at Sweet Mickey’s, September 2014

This is especially for my former coworkers, who have kindly encouraged me to be an author and artist, instead of a business analyst, knowledge manager, or systems integrator. I’m probably ruined for the corporate world now, because I can’t remember how to install (is that the correct verb?) pantyhose. I hope I don’t have to wear pantyhose when I make it to the Today Show.

If you’re a former coworker of Meps’, please say hello in the comments!

 

 

Sweet Strangers in Ballard

I hope to see your smiling faces in Ballard tonight, sometime between 6 and 8 pm. If the rain stops, we can make Happy Spots on the sidewalk in front of the store! If it doesn’t, we can make paper Happy Spots inside!

When I walked in right off of the street,
The two strangers I happened to meet,
In their colorful store,
Full of candy galore,
Booked an author appearance there — Sweet!

Sweet Mickey'sIf you’re in the Seattle area, come see Meps on Tuesday, Sept. 23 from 6 to 8 pm at Sweet Mickey’s Candy Shoppe in Ballard (next to QFC on 57th). An autographed copy of Strangers Have the Best Candy won’t rot your teeth. And the fabulous candy and fudge Sweet Mickey’s carries is worth a trip to the dentist!

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.