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!

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!

Meps' Book: Strangers Have the Best Candy

I WROTE A BOOK! I WROTE A BOOK! I WROTE A BOOK!
(and it’s on Amazon!)

Strangers Have the Best Candy, a book by Margaret Meps Schulte

Strangers Have the Best Candy by Margaret Meps Schulte

OK, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I will try to calm down. This is like having a baby. I’m hyperventilating.

Ever since I started blogging in 2003, my followers have been asking, “When are you going to publish a book?” I stalled, because I didn’t know what the book should be about. I didn’t want to write a travelogue or a navel-gazing memoir.

Finally, I figured it out! Strangers Have the Best Candy, which is available on Amazon today, is about my chance encounters with strangers — all the laughing, crying, topless, boozing, and completely adorable people I have befriended in my travels. It’s their book. I just wrote it.

Meps

Meps in Summit, South Dakota

Since these encounters are completely spontaneous, there aren’t a lot of photographs. I had to sit down and illustrate it myself, with 125 pen-and-ink drawings that I completed in the St. Marys, Georgia public library. I didn’t even know I could do that until I tried.

The stories are amazing and hilarious, and the illustrations will make you grin. But it has its thoughtful moments, and there’s a pretty big message between the covers: Strangers have wonderful gifts for us, if we take the time to talk to them.

Maybe the Strangers Have the Best Candy message will go viral, and then you can say you knew about it and followed the blog before it was famous! Thank you for staying with me for all these years, and for encouraging me to say what’s important to my heart.

I would love it if you would reshare this post with your friends in email and Facebook, and go out to the Amazon page and give me a review. I will reward you with hugs the next time I see you, because I think hugs are the best candy of all.

Green duffel bag with fake nose

Tim’s duffel bag

(you did see the link above, to my Amazon page, right? If not, here it is again!)

Amazon's Powers That Be

At Amazon, some geek must say,
“We’ll publish her book on this day,”
But til then, I wait,
In a trembling state,
To unveil before first of May.

Strangers Have the Best Candy by Margaret Meps Schulte

Here, Amazon…don’t you want this candy?

I was ready to publish Strangers Have the Best Candy this morning, so I hit the big, scary “APPROVE” button on CreateSpace. Much to my surprise, the book doesn’t get populated to Amazon’s servers immediately! Argh!

The waiting is agony, but it should only be a couple of days at most.

Learning Curves

“OK, I admit it,” said Barry, one morning. “I’m loving the hell out of this.”

Barry with the dodger under construction

Barry peeks out around the dodger in a moment of whimsy.

I was so shocked by his statement, I would have fallen out of bed had that been possible. Fortunately, it’s not possible to fall out of the v-berth aboard Flutterby.

We were discussing his progress on our winter project, building a hard dodger and arch on which to mount our solar panels. Unlike most boat projects, it was not taking twice as long as he expected. It was taking Barry ten times as long as he expected, and when he made the statement in the v-berth, in early March, I saw no end in sight.

I was not enjoying the hell out of it. Five months of freezing my butt off, in a boat on land, with no car, six miles from the dying town of St. Marys, Georgia, had a completely different effect on me. I had slowly sunk into the depths of despair.

I asked Barry to explain to me what it was that he was loving so much, when all I saw was head-scratching, frustration, and outright failure. “Learning curves,” he said.

I laughed at his unintentional double entendre. The reason the dodger has taken ten times longer than expected is because instead of building a simple, squared-off shape out of marine plywood, we decided we wanted it curved, to match the shape of Flutterby. Most builders would have used fiberglass, which is what the boat is made of. Barry prefers working with wood, though. He opted to build it out of what he calls “tortured plywood.”

The bending jig for the dodger roof

The bending jig for the dodger roof

Becoming increasingly more animated, he explained how the process of learning how to bend and laminate plywood into complex three-dimensional shapes, how to fit them onto the deck of a boat, how to get maximum strength with the lightest materials, was forcing him to use his brain to learn amazing new things.

While I thought he was sitting at his computer, reading LOLCats and surfing Facebook, he was actually using his time to do high-level research and calculations.

“I was spending way too long doing trigonometry and numerical solutions to figure out bending curves and camber and calculating how much the plywood’s going to spring back after you torture it,” he explained. He went on to tell me what he really meant when he said “learning curves.”

“There’s this initial part of a learning curve where you really suck at it. It’s not very fun,” he told me. “It’s slow as hell, because I’m still learning this shit and I’m cracking plywood when I try to bend it…”

Sides of the dodger

What’s wrong with this picture? (hint: when you cut it in half, you don’t get two symmetrical pieces)

I remember the saddest day, in December. He’d spent weeks designing the sides and figuring out how to build them, and together, we spent a day laminating them together. When the epoxy kicked and he took his jig apart, he was almost in tears. We’d made two port sides and zero starboard sides. When he realized that neither of the port sides fit, I think he really was in tears.

Weeks later, we tried again. That time, the plywood cracked and the two sides ended up asymmetrical. He decided to use them anyway.
It was after he attached the asymmetrical sides to the front that he went bananas with trigonometry, trying to figure out how to build a curved top that looked symmetrical. Perfection was impossible, and he studied it for weeks, trying to figure out a compromise solution. He turned to websites about how to bend wood for ukeleles and guitars for answers.

“I have new respect for people who build musical instruments. If I played them, I could digress and waste years on this.” He admitted that his screen time had not all been productive; he’d spend some of it reading and dreaming about the wonderful woodworking tools he would like to have. He shook his head, saying, “I don’t need to have all those toys now. I just need to get this dodger done.”

“I’ve spent more time on this learning curve than I’ve spent fretting on the fact that the dodger is not quite perfect. I don’t know any way I could have gone about this without learning this stuff … but when I started it, I didn’t realize how much I had to learn.”

Measuring steam-bent plywood

Meps helps bend plywood using boiling water (boots and gloves left over from our 2005 trip to Alaska protected us from the boiling water)

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.)

Sun boots

“Do I have to?” I whine and I cry,
As I stand under blue, cloudless sky,
But we’ve boiled every pot,
And the water’s so hot,
That my rain boots must keep my feet dry.

Barry buttonholed me today and asked me to to help him pour many gallons of boiling water over plywood (to bend it). This limerick is a fib — you can see from the photo that I love my rain boots. They’re cute and blue, like something Paddington Bear would wear.

The other photo is for my Washington and Colorado friends. It proves we have potheads here in Georgia, too.

Meps in her blue boots and gloves

Paddington Bear helps bend plywood

Meps with a cooking pot on her head

Meps, a two-quart pothead

Still Life With Fruit

There are critical foods that I lack,
So I pedal with trailer and pack,
To buy berries and greens,
And some snappy fresh beans,
And it’s only 12 miles, out and back.

I admit, I ate a few of the strawberries while I was making the drawing below. I bet Cezanne and Caraveggio were sometimes tempted to eat the stuff they were painting, too. You can find thousands of beautiful fruit still-lifes on Google Images.

Drawing of fruits and vegetables

Fresh local food

You need more directions?

After my last post, Come Monday, Jayne asked “So where is St. Marys?? :-)” She was writing from Seattle. Then Steve, writing from Paradise Village, outside Puerto Vallarta, said, “We need more directions about St. Marys. Just wondering where you are.”

So I decided, instead of trying to answer in words, I’d draw a couple of maps. The first one shows where St. Marys, Georgia is. The second one shows what you will find if you make it all the way here.

These are not to scale. But of course, you knew that.

Map of the US and southern states showing St. Marys, Georgia

Map of the US and southern states showing St. Marys, Georgia

Diagram of boatyard

St. Marys Boat Services “Features”

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