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!

On a roll with The Bike Lady

A couple of years ago, when Barry and I joined Facebook, we found out what happened to some of the folks we’d gone to high school with. We were especially interested in the ones who’d left Columbus, Ohio, that place known as “Cowtown” that inspires long-distance travel.

Now I have to admit that one of the most interesting is still living in Central Ohio. Back when she went to high school with Barry, in a class of about 100 kids, she was known as “Kathy.” Now she’s “Kate.” For a couple of years, I’ve listened with growing irritation to Barry’s constant chatter about her, always prefaced with, “On Facebook, Kathy said…” She has the kind of big, successful life that makes me green with envy: A writer and video producer, single parent to two adorable adopted kids, funny, charming, good-looking.

OK, I can look past all that. Kate Koch Gatch is a real, live hero.

For the past five years, she’s collected brand-new bikes, helmets, and locks to donate to foster children in Central Ohio. This year’s goal of 750 bikes brings the total to almost 2000 bicycles.

Kate is known as “the Bike Lady.”

It’s a passion, not a job. She volunteers her time and covers all the administrative costs, so that every dollar donated goes towards putting kids on bikes. Kate points out that the public funds that cover the foster care system cannot be used for holiday gifts, so these are kids who wouldn’t have bikes otherwise.

Kate, herself, is not into cycling. She just recognizes what a bicycle represents to a kid — a big-ticket item that demonstrates love, respect, freedom, and hours of fun.

Margaret on her first bike.

Me and my first bike. What was your first bike?

It certainly brings back memories for me — what was my first bike? It was red, a hand-me-down. When it was time to take the training wheels off, my Dad was at work, and I had the impatience of a small child. So Mom grabbed a wrench and wrestled them off. Then there was my first new bike, a blue-green one-speed with coaster brakes, high handlebars, and a banana seat. You could carry one friend on the handlebars and another one on the back of the long seat, if you could balance your bike with three people on it!

This morning, I woke up thinking about all the people in my life who I want to share Kate’s story with:

  • Barry’s rambunctious nephews, who are growing up with their own bikes in Columbus.
  • A dear friend in San Diego who years ago experienced the foster care system in Central Ohio.
  • A friend in Central Ohio who used his bike to commute to work in all weather when he couldn’t afford a car.
  • A friend in the Bay Area who is an advocate for adoption, who lets her kids bring their bikes into the living room.
  • My sisters and their families in Eugene, Oregon, where bicycling is a way of life, despite the rain.
  • Our friends in Virginia who lost their daughter in a cycling accident, but still want kids to know that bicycling can be safe and fun.
  • And all my Sou Digna friends, who know that grassroots projects can make a huge impact in any community to remind people that they are worthy.

Thinking about all of them, there was only one thing for me to do this morning, to kick off the holiday season: Go to the Bike Lady’s website and “put a kid on a bike.” It’s just one of the 750 that Kate will give away. Reading about this project makes me feel really, really good about the world. So if you are feeling down or blue, looking for some inspiration, or wondering if you can do anything to make the world a better place, check out the page on her site called “Start Your Own.”

It feels great to know a person who is doing something to bring happiness to so many kids in difficult situations. As Kate says, “So many kids will be over the moon and riding down a hill in 3 weeks thanks to people like you who get it, understand it and take action.” That’s what we all have to do, with the emphasis on taking action.

A little inspiration and a lot of action can go a long way. To use her own words, Way. To. Roll. Kate.