551 Happy Spots

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

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

3 Small, Lumpy Parcels and 551 Happy Spots

Happy Spot card

Meps’ Happy Spot card

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

Happy Spot

Happy Spot from Dad

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

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

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

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

Vote for your favorite Happy Spot by leaving a comment!

Suffering is optional

It seems that I am not the only one with something important to say about suffering. For another masterful look at the subject, read “What Suffering Does,” by David Brooks in the NYTimes (April 7, 2014). ~1meps

When I look back at 2013, I suffered a lot. I didn’t write much, because I was so busy suffering. And when I wasn’t suffering, I was running around, super-busy, trying to keep ahead of the suffering that nipped at my heels.

I do have a lot of beautiful photos from 2013. In them, I see exuberant, joyful smiles and gorgeous scenery. Those were taken during the running-around, super-busy times. The suffering is just outside the picture frame.

Hank during radiation

Hank during radiation

I spent the first half of the year in landlocked Ohio, far away from Barry and the boat. I was caring for my disabled brother, Hank, who had a rare type of cancer that led to multiple surgeries and the loss of half his nose.

While he was undergoing radiation in the summer, I noticed something funny on my nose, too. In a  freakish solidarity with my brother, I landed in surgery in September, losing a portion of my beautiful, freckled nose to an invasive basal cell.

Losing half a nose is nothing, though, compared to losing a person. In the middle of October, I lost my partner in creative and artistic endeavors, Philip. My phone became heartbreakingly silent, as the source of my daily encouragement and inspiration vanished.

I suffered horribly.

That was my mistake. From the very beginning, I should have learned what Hank had to teach me about  suffering. Actually, what he had to teach me — and all of us — about not suffering.

To Hank, the cancer brought wonderful amounts of love and attention — visitors, phone calls, presents, flowers. Each trip to the hospital was a new adventure, a chance to make new friends. Every medical person who interacted with him came away with a gigantic smile and sense of wonder.

Just as he had when we went on vacation in 2009 (see Smiling so much, you need a new toothbrush), he kept me running. I was constantly busy, scheduling appointments, tracking medications, driving, cooking, being his nurse. But as long as I was with him, I wasn’t suffering. How could I, in the presence of that glorious smile and cheerful attitude? How could I suffer, if he didn’t?

Meps with Hello Kitty bandaids

Barry tried to cheer me up with Hello Kitty bandaids

I forgot that lesson totally when I had my own surgery. I was miserable at the thought of being disfigured, in agony because I refused to take the pain medication prescribed. I cried and whined. I was the worst patient ever.

A month later, when Philip died, I immersed myself in suffering yet again, for months. I’ve cried so much, you’d think the boat would be floating.

Lately, however, I’ve been thinking about this business of suffering. Hank had a major trauma in his life, yet he suffered little. I have seen people suffer more over a broken vacuum cleaner or lost keys.

Based on Hank’s example, I believe suffering is optional. We can choose to separate the events that cause suffering from the suffering itself. I’m going to try that in the coming year.

Suffering takes a lot of time. When I set it aside, I’ll be writing a lot more, taking beautiful photos, making art and music.

I should have done that in 2013.

Hank, Meps, Barry, Philip

On vacation with Hank, Barry, and Philip at the Golden Gate Bridge

Flutterby's bound for to go

You’re going to love this! Mepsnbarry.com now has a short video of Flutterby sailing, with a musical soundtrack featuring my friends Michael Greiner and Doeri Welch. I filmed it during our shakedown cruise with the new junk rig in December, 2012, in the Intracoastal Waterway, near Wabasso, Florida. The “Easter Egg” portion came from a 2009 Christmas celebration on the hard, in North Carolina.

A Tablespoon of Happiness

“It’s the fruitcake of stew,” said the young man in a chef’s hat, stirring a gigantic pot over a propane burner. His companions from the Altamaha Technical College Culinary Arts program laughed, but they all nodded their agreement.

That Saturday morning in November, I’d gone looking for the tiny Brunswick, Georgia farmers’ market, and instead stumbled onto a city-wide event, the Brunswick Rockin’ Stewbilee. The highlight of the event was the stew-tasting, 35 booths offering a sample of the stew that was named for this small city.

Or was it? One of the first people I spoke with was a woman who told me, “We do this every year, because Brunswick stew was named after Brunswick.” She laughed. “But it might have been named after Brunswick County, Virginia. They make a lot of stew up there, too.”

I asked the young man in the chef’s hat, “What’s in Brunswick stew?”

“Chicken, pork, beef, lima beans, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, spices…it’s a fridge-cleaning stew.”

At that point, I decided to talk to the chefs and find out whose fridge they were cleaning out. I walked up to a couple of guys and asked them, “I heard this is fridge-cleaning stew. If so, whose fridge are you cleaning out?”

“That would be mine, I guess,” said Tom, a retiree from the pulp mill who was on the stew crew of the hospital auxiliary. When he worked for the pulp mill, they used his recipe, but since they’d switched to someone else’s, the hospital was now using Tom’s recipe in the competition.

It was a lively competition. When you purchased a ticket, you were given two votes to cast for the People’s Choice award. There was also a Judge’s award, selected by local celebrities, and a Presentation Award. The teams represented not only restaurants, but local businesses, clubs, and a few dedicated families. From what I could tell, the entire town was there, plus tour buses full of tourists.

Brunswick, Georgia Rockin' Stewbilee

Brunswick, Georgia Rockin’ Stewbilee

One local business was giving away schwag with their samples. “Are you trying to bribe the voters?” I asked. “Oh, no, ma’am, I would not stoop that low!” said the volunteer. He turned to hand a stew sample and a frisbee to a woman, saying, “Here, go taste that and then come back and give me your vote.”

I made my way around the booths, looking for the trophies indicating previous award-winners. One group, from the Ole Times Country Buffet, had several 2nd- and 3rd-place trophies. They were attracting a lot of attention by making the most noise in the place, ringing ear-splitting cowbells every time someone tasted or voted for their stew.

“We tried that last year,” said a woman from the hospital auxiliary. “It backfired on us, and we didn’t get as many votes as the year before.” When I cast my vote for Tom’s recipe, she picked up a cowbell and rang it rather gingerly. “There’s a sleeping baby behind you,” she said, by way of explanation.

I wandered from one booth to the next, tasting and asking questions, trying to figure out what makes an award-winning Brunswick stew. More than one person told me, “It’s about balancing the flavors.” Among the samples I tried, the chicken, pork, and tomatoes were consistent, but the flavors ranged from sweet to salty to spicy to bland. The top award-winner, from a group called Renessenz, was the sweetest one I tasted, and I suspected their secret ingredient was sugar.

That was before I looked Renessenz up on the internet. According to their website, “Renessenz produces a wide range of integral ingredients for fragrance, flavor, coolant and industrial intermediate applications.” Their site lists 47 products, unpronouncable chemicals ranging from “dihydromyrcene” to “tetrahydromuguol.” Perhaps their competition is using ingredients like sugar, salt, and pepper, but is the key to Renessenz’s award winning stew was something a little more intriguing?

The truth is, the secret ingredient in Brunswick stew isn’t really a secret. Everyone was proud to tell me their “secret”: “Tender-loving care,” “You know how Grandmother used to cook? That’s my secret.” The county commissioners admitted that they didn’t cook the stew, their staff did. “Our secret is teamwork.”

The simplest, best secret ingredient was that of Gateway Behavioral Health Services, a group that had won many awards over the years, including the People’s Choice, the Judge’s Award, and the Presentation Award. These folks had given their stew a name: Happy Stew.

“Love is the secret ingredient in our stew,” said a volunteer named Jeff. When I pressed him for details, asking how they measured how much love to put in, he replied, “We measure it by the width of unicorn hairs, and the intensity of the dreams of pregnant mermaids.”

Another volunteer, Barbara, chimed in, “It’s a tablespoon of happiness…”

“No,” said Jeff, “it’s half a tablespoon. We were a little too happy last year, we had to cut it back. People started a drum circle, started playing Age of Aquarius, and we decided that was just a little too much for around here.”

By then, I’d already cast my two votes, one for the hospital auxiliary and one for the students at the culinary college. But my real vote goes to the folks with the Happy Stew. It doesn’t really matter what ingredients you put in there, as long as you cook your Brunswick stew with love.


Wanna clean out your fridge? Try the Quick and Easy Brunswick Stew recipe on my food blog, the Foodie Gazette. It’s nothing like the ones in Brunswick, Georgia, but I can remedy that the next time I make it. I’ll add a full tablespoon of happiness.

Grabbing a tiger by the tail

Meps unveiling the art

Meps unveils the artwork for the first time at Burning Man

Eleven months ago, I grabbed a tiger by the tail, and when it took off, I didn’t let go. As is often the case with tigers that one is holding by their rear-most appurtenance, I didn’t recognize it at the time.

It started so innocently. Barry and I were sitting in Philip and Linda’s backyard, in Santa Clara, California. “Take a look at these,” said Philip, whose Burning Man playa name is “MacGyver.” He held up a couple of mysterious little metal boxes. Then he wired them to a power supply (using duct tape, chewing gum, and his Swiss Army knife) and turned them on. The backyard was flooded with intensely bright, colored light.

“They’re LEDs,” said Philip. “I’d like to do something with them at Burning Man,” he said. He went on to say that he envisioned people dancing in front of the lights, casting long shadows across the desert.

I took the bait and jumped out of my chair to dance around the backyard in front of the lights, making shadow-puppets. I could see what he meant. Wouldn’t it be fun to play with these bright lights at Burning Man?

Barry and Philip starting talking about how to feed a sound signal through the lights, so they would change color and intensity in time to music. Linda suggested that the music should be something more varied than Burning Man’s ubiquitous dubstep. I said people should be able to select the music, but the selection process should be engaging and mysterious.

The brainstorming continued across the country for the next couple of months, and in January, Philip and I submitted an art grant. We didn’t get an honorarium, but by then, we had put so much work into it, we were committed. We scaled the costs back as much as possible and decided to go for it.

Colored pencil illustration of Mating Shadows installation

Mating Shadows concept sketch

In my concept drawing, four speakers face into the center of a cirle, with the bright lights mounted on scaffolding in the middle. To one side is a free-standing art gallery displaying 16 pieces of backlit art, each with a single unlabeled button. Pressing a button would play the music and activate the lights, but the only indication of what kind of music to expect would be the artwork itself.

It looks so simple. Behind the scenes, though, is a massive year-long effort.

Mating Shadows, as it came to be known, started with 4 friends in the backyard and grew to involve about 15 people, including engineers, fabricators, and artists from as far as Australia. Barry and I stored our boat on the east coast, flew to San Francisco, and worked on it off and on all summer. Philip retired from his job and dedicated his time to it. By then, Linda had shifted her work schedule to part-time, so she had mornings off.

The Mating Shadows team created and integrated custom electronics and software, an amplifier, backlighting, safety lighting, underground cables, signage, and batteries. Some efforts were multiplied by 16, such as installing 16 switches with 16 circuit boards. We recorded 16 sound files for daytime operation and selected 16 playlists for nighttime operation. Eight artists created the 16 pieces of art, taking inspiration from their choice of 30 songs.

To call it an eclectic team would be an understatement. Some were old friends or relatives, like Linda’s cousin, Claire. Others, intrigued by my posts on Burning Man discussion boards, contacted me by email. Scary volunteered to transport our baby to the playa, carefully packed in the back of his mutant vehicle, the Cuddle Shuttle. Managing the efforts of such creative, energetic, brilliant people was a lot like having a tiger by the tail.

If you think this is aggrandizement, let me introduce you to some of our quirky construction crew:

Four members of the setup team

Claire, Roger and Linda help Philip wire the speakers in a dust storm

Primary Conceptualizer & Lord of Small, Fussy Parts: MacGyver (aka Philip Wilson)
When I met MacGyver 3 years ago at Burning Man, I simply noted that that he gave great hugs. I later learned that this giant guy with huge hands and size 16 feet has incredible focus and dexterity. He can painstakingly, lovingly solder miniscule, elaborate electronics in the middle of a full-blown dust storm.

Illuminator & Magical Maker of Things: Big Barry Stellrecht
If you’ve read this blog before, you know that my husband can create or fix just about anything on a boat. The great thing about his involvement with Mating Shadows was that it did not have to float, so he worked twice as fast, with half as much stress. The only stressful thing was the lack of good tools; he was forced to do unspeakable things with a circular saw. Philip just shook his head, saying, “Barry is amazing.” To which I replied, “This is nothing. You should see what he can do with a table saw.” When Philip later found out he’d had access to a table saw all along at his Mom’s house, Barry almost cried.

Reticent Enabler & Secret One-in-Charge: Lucky Linda Knepper
The miracles Linda accomplished with her mornings never ceased to amaze me. Parts and materials appeared right when we needed them, wood surfaces got primed and painted, and a critical piece of wood that the amazing Barry miscut was replaced by a correctly-sized one.

Philip and Jason conduct a software meeting on the couch

Philip and Jason conduct a software meeting on the couch

Superhugger & Mastermind of Bits & Bytes: Jason Hollister
Jason, an old friend of Philip and Linda’s, showed up one day to write the software. I provided him with a carefully-written description of the user interface, but he made it clear that he needed more of something before he could begin. I finally realized it was chips and salsa, not documentation, that his programming required.

Virtuoso Craftsman Extraordinaire: Archimedes (aka Blaine Gilruth)
We met Blaine and his wife, Suzy, at the boatyard in North Carolina. They started outfitting a boat at the same time we did, but they finished, took it out cruising, sold it, and moved back to the west coast before we even made it out of the boatyard. When Blaine volunteered to help with construction, I was super-excited. Now I would see first-hand how he gets 12 hours worth of quality work done in 37 minutes.

These two members of the setup crew are extra-special, because they are also two of the artists:

The setup crew on the playa

The setup crew watches Suzy work. L to R: Big Barry, Lucky Linda, Rumi-Nator (Roger), Archimedes (Blaine), Halcyon (Suzy), MacGyver (Philip).

Renaissance Woman: Halcyon (aka Suzy Gilruth)
We had a serendipitous moment at Burning Man last year, after placing my brother Stevie’s ashes in the temple. I walked out of the building and right into Suzy and Blaine, probably the only people at Burning Man who had met my brother. Suzy showed me the beautiful piece of artwork she had made on the temple wall, which is how I knew I wanted her art in our gallery. She was probably the most multi-talented member of our team, creating four completely different art pieces and performing four audio recordings to go with them. On-playa, she provided the t-post driver (“It’s mine, not Blaine’s,” she told me), drove fenceposts and rebar, dug and covered trenches, ran wires, and did it all while looking cool as a cucumber in a ruffled green mini-skirt and a pink Choose ART top with spaghetti straps.

The Man Who Can Do Anything, But Doesn’t Know It: Roger Cunningham (aka Rumi-Nator)
We chanced upon Roger one Christmas Eve in Vero Beach, Florida, where we rafted up with his boat in the mooring field. I’m sure he had the only dreadlocks in town. He was taking his boat to Key West, and although we haven’t rafted since, we’ve ridden buses together in Miami and shared margaritas at a Hooters in Jacksonville. Roger provided two photographs and audio recordings for the installation — somehow managing to include the phrase, “a quivering, slobbering mess of capitulation.” He showed up on our doorstep in Santa Clara in August, told us he was lousy at soldering, the proceded to make a liar out of himself by soldering together the entire backlighting system. At Burning Man, he cheerfully volunteered for both setup and takedown, looking just as good as Suzy, but not as modest.

Artsy-Fartsy Conceptualizer & Design Dominatrix: Me
Reading back over what I’ve written about my friends, it is aggrandizement! Since I’m too humble to say such things about myself, I’ll just admit that I worked with power tools, did not cut off any appendages, packed the artwork, arranged transport, did setup and takedown at Burning Man, and performed a tiny bit of behind-the-scenes project management. The next time I write, I’ll tell you more about the artists, my first experience having “placed art” at Burning Man, and why the Mating Shadows sign said “CHOOSE ART.”

Roger, soldering

Roger revisits a lifelong belief that he can’t solder

Me, with the router and the Choose ART sign

Me, with the router and the Choose ART sign

Barry with the danged circular saw

Barry with the danged circular saw

Blaine at work

Blaine started digging trenches at 7:30 in the morning and didn’t stop for many photo ops.

Philip soldering

Philip soldering in the backyard. The paper bags hold small, fussy parts.

Closeup of Philip soldering

Philip solders parts on one of the small boards

Roger's legs

Roger’s legs are not just behind the console…

Roger, working under adverse conditions

…he’s inside it! I think he’s used to working in tight spaces, given the size of his boat.

Suzy runs cable

Suzy runs cable to the speaker poles

A special trip with my Special brother – video link

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then what is a 12-minute video worth?

This one is priceless. It documents the road trip I took with my special needs brother, Hank, and his thoughts on the experience. His happiness and joy are infectious — you are guaranteed to laugh!

A special trip with my Special brother from Margaret Meps Schulte on Vimeo.

Put the costumes away and no one will get hurt

I came back from Burning Man a changed woman. Not in any large, obvious way. Just a few little things. The world seems like a funnier place now.

I dyed my bangs pink. Then I put on the sweater vest I borrowed from my sister, Daisy. It’s neon orange and very rectangular, knit with half-inch fuzzy strands. I looked like a neon-orange fuzzy varigated box with arms. As I went out the door, intent on my project, I didn’t pay any attention to the fact that I was also wearing black sneakers, blue socks, and a pair of bright red patterned pants.

Meps with orange sweater, red pants, and pink bangs
For a couple of hours, I was working on the van, parked on the side of the street. I didn’t want to get run over.

“I think you’re more likely to cause an accident,” said Barry.

When I came back in, a couple of hours later, I told him I’d finally gotten to meet the neighbor next door. “In THAT?” he squawked.

“Oops,” I said, a little chagrined. I’d forgotten about the pink bangs.

The next day, I stopped by the thrift store to see what kind of fall additions I could find for my wardrobe. I found lots of things I could have worn at Burning Man, but had to keep reminding myself that those things are not suitable for Seattle. I’d been looking through the lingerie rack, forgetting that most people wear such items only to go to bed.

My crowning moment came yesterday, when I looked out the kitchen window and noticed two young fellows in black pants and white shirts walking down my street.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Mormon missionaries. I find their doctrine pretty interesting. But I wasn’t in the mood right then to have a conversation with two serious, earnest young men.

If I stayed in the kitchen, they were sure to see me through the blinds and come to my door. So I did the logical thing. I went into the bathroom, where Barry was taking a shower. “Hide me!” I said in a loud stage whisper. “They’re out there! On the street!”

“What? I can’t hear you,” he shouted. Of course, he couldn’t hear me over the sound of the water, but I was whispering because the window was partially open, and I was sure the fellows were right underneath it. I turned down Barry’s chivalrous invitation to join him and cowered on the dry side of the shower curtain.

After a few minutes, I thought they were gone. I went back into the kitchen and closed the blinds. If they did come back, I wouldn’t have to answer the door.

Then I noticed the Burning Man costume box. Just as I was wishing they would come back, there was a knock on the door.
Meps, answering the door in a large and slightly disturbing rabbit head
So I was wearing a very large, fierce rabbit head when I opened the door for two young Mormon missionaries.

They jumped back about a foot. “Oh! You scared us!” they said.

Afraid of a cross-eyed rabbit?

“Sorry about that,” I said politely, as if I was not wearing the rabbit’s head. They were at a loss for words, looking at each other for reassurance. Was this really happening to them? Were they really talking with a giant rabbit?

I wasn’t sure what to say, either. I guess that was when I should have asked if they believed in the Easter bunny. Instead, I gave them a gentle warning, not wanting to waste their time.

“I have to tell you, I’m not able to hold a serious conversation right now.”

That part was absolute truth. The giant mask was hiding a huge grin that threatened to turn into all-consuming giggles.

They looked at each other. Evidently, whatever they wanted to talk with me about was serious.

“Um, do you know of any of your neighbors who might be interested in our message today?” the freckled one asked.

“No, I don’t know my neighbors very well. They think I’m weird.” the rabbit answered. The two fellows grinned, then quickly stifled their smiles and looked at each other again. Evidently, they thought I was weird, too.

“Well, we just wanted to invite you to come to our Sunday service.” They told me where the church was located, and seemed very surprised when I said I knew where it was. Maybe there was hope for this rabbit, after all.

As they turned to go, the taller one said, “You’re welcome to come to church, with or without the rabbit mask.”

I nodded my giant furry head and foot-tall ears. “Thanks! But if I come without it, you won’t recognize me.” He quickly glanced back at me. Maybe I was a member of their church already! But only the rabbit’s inscrutable and slightly disturbing face looked back at him.

They wished me a good day and made their way off the porch. I closed the door and only then could I collapse on the floor, tears of laughter running down my face.

Barry came hopping out of the bathroom. He couldn’t see the laughter, only hear the strange burbling sound and see the shaking shoulders of a large rabbit sprawled on the kitchen floor.

I told the story to friends at a dinner party last night, and the eight of us laughed ourselves silly. Somewhere, across town, I hope my earnest Mormon visitors were telling friends at a dinner table, too, and laughing themselves silly about the giant rabbit on Mercer Island.

Pass the carrots, will ya?

How to write a birthday limerick

Birthday cake with too many candles

She’s gonna blow!

Writing a birthday limerick is simple and doesn’t take a lot of time. In this age of conspicuous consumption, a simple birthday limerick is a great way to celebrate someone special without bringing more styrofoam, wrapping paper, and unwanted aftershave into the world.

I have chanced on a great birthday present,
Not expensive champagne, duck, or pheasant,
But a lim’rick — some humor
To dispel the old rumor,
That a birthday is not something pleasant.

In order to make the limerick special, it needs to be about the person, not a generic 30th- or 40th-birthday limerick. For me, that requires a little brainstorming session. I do this best when insomnia strikes in the middle of the night. If the person’s birthday is imminent and you don’t have insomnia, a couple of beers can lubricate the rhyming process.

The brainstorming simply involves thinking about the person and anything related to him or her that’s easy to rhyme. Is the person’s name easy to rhyme? I have both a sister and a sister-in-law named Julie, and I haven’t been able to do much with “Bernoulli” or “patchoulli.” So I’ll have to use other techniques, as you’ll see below. However, some names are easy, such as “Kate” or “Barry.”

There once was a lady named Kate,
Whose birthday was on this fine date,
She wanted a cake,
But her friends could not bake,
So her candles just sat on a plate.

Now, there once was a pirate named Barry,
Who is frozen and quite stationary,
He’s unable to fight,
What is looming in sight,
Turning forty for him is reeeeeeal scary.

If the person’s name is not easy to rhyme, think about his or her relationship to you — what rhymes with “sister,” or “son?” When I needed to write a birthday limerick for my father, I found no good rhymes for “Henry,” but dozens for “Dad”:

There’s a guy who I proudly call Dad,
And a mighty fine birthday he had.
To make such a great man, it
Takes years on this planet.
But I won’t tell his age (he’d get mad).

Another good theme to get the rhyming started is the person’s age. Ages ending is “seven” are bad to rhyme, because you’re limited to “heaven” and “eleven.” But you can talk about the fact that he or she is no longer thirty-six, which rhymes with plenty of words — flicks, picks, tricks, mix.

Here’s one I wrote for a reader with two young children who wanted help with the invitation to their combined birthday party. The nice thing about this one is that it’s flexible, and you can change it to suit different children. You could replace the names, change the month, even replace “cookout” with “party,” and it would still work:

Our Seth is about to turn two,
And Rachel’s soon four, it is true,
We’ve written this rhyme,
‘Cause October’s the time,
For a big birthday cookout with you!

You can be even more creative, branching out and thinking about the subject’s home town, home state, occupation, or hobbies.

Here’s one about my brother-in-law, Ed, an ultra-marathon runner. Every year, on his birthday, he runs the same number of miles as his age:

The number of miles he would run
Last year was a mere fifty-one.
But now, fifty-two?
That much harder to do —
Old age does not make it more fun.

Current events or something funny that happened to the person can also inspire a good limerick. I once had a friend who moved from the bug-free Pacific Northwest to New Orleans. That year, he gave me plenty of subject matter:

While taking a drink in the shade,
Dear Brian enjoys Gatorade.
But taking a swig,
Found a live roach THIS BIG,
Now he’s mixing his cocktails with Raid.

Once I come up with an inspiring word or phrase for the person, I usually start going through the alphabet, looking for words that rhyme with it. There are also lots of good rhyming dictionaries on the internet, where you can type in a word, and all the rhymes come back. I use Rhymezone, which organizes the choices by syllables. If I’m having trouble coming up with good rhymes, I can also check Rhymezone for synonyms. That often breaks through the rhymer’s block.

There are a couple of tricks you can do to come up with even more rhymes for a given word. One is to contract the word:

On a trip south through old Oklahom’

And another is to add an extra syllable at the end of a word:

Two gals who were feeling quite plucky,
Drove north in their little red truckie

For your limerick, you’ll need at least two sets of rhymes — one with three words and one with two words. If you have more than that, you may be inspired to write several stanzas.

Now you’re ready to construct the birthday limerick. If you’ve written limericks before, or if you feel comfortable mimicking the ones you’ve read, go for it — but when you’re done, there is one crucial step you should not skip.

Write or print your limerick and hand it to someone else to read out loud. That will immediately identify any problems with the rhyme and meter. This is an important step for a birthday limerick, because birthday limericks are always read out loud, either at large parties or just repeated many, many times.

If you’re new to this limerick business, or you want to hone your skills further, keep reading for some tips on structure and meter.

The structure of a limerick is five lines, A-A-B-B-A. That means that the first two lines rhyme with each other and with the fifth line. The third and fourth lines rhyme with each other:

A – Now my big sister Daisy’s a dear,
A – And I wrote of her birthday last year.
B – But another year’s passed,
B – And it happened so fast,
A – That she’s now one year older, I fear.

One of the biggest challenges to limerick-writers, new and experienced, is getting the meter right. A proper limerick has anapest meter, which means lines one, two, and five are stressed like this:

da-da-DUM da-da-DUM da-da-DUM

And lines three and four are shorter, but still have the same kind of meter:

da-da-DUM da-da-DUM

You can modify this a little, starting a line with da-DUM and ending it with da-da-DUM-da. But don’t make changes other than that, or it won’t flow properly, as this example attests:

No, it’s really not that hard to rhyme,
And it just takes a whole lot of time.
But the meter’s the thing
To make every piece sing,
And limerick-writers like me consider lousy meter a terrible crime.

The trick to making a good limerick great is to make it funny. Humor is the hallmark of a great birthday limerick, and you have a chance to gently poke fun at the birthday person. It’s always nice to throw in a little surprise in the last line, as I did in this 40th birthday limerick:

So by 40, your hair’s turning gray,
And gravity holds you in sway.
You must stand on your head
When you get out of bed,
Just to keep nasty wrinkles at bay.

But the truth is, you’re not really old!
You are vibrant and youthful and bold.
You can still climb a tree,
You’re vivacious and free —
Now just eat these stewed prunes, as you’re told.

Read other birthday limericks by Margaret “Meps” Schulte

Margret “Meps” Schulte has always had a soft spot for silly rhymes, her favorite poetry book being the Norton Anthology of Light Verse. In 2002, she was inspired to publish her first limerick on the Web when she noticed that her friend Brian’s name sort-of-rhymed with the name of his new boat, Cayenne. Since then, she has written well over 200 limericks about her travels, current events, friends, and anything else that strikes her fancy. Meps has also submitted about two dozen limericks to the Omnificent English Dictionary In Limerick Form, or OEDILF, giving her the dubious title of “Contributing Editor.”