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Nevada: U.S.VETS–Las Vegas – A Sure Bet

Thursday, November 7, 2013: Las Vegas, Nevada

Several life events led me to postpone the trip to my 50th and final U.S. state, Nevada. It has been over a year since my last post (and I’ve turned 50), and it’s great to be back.

Contrary to all expectations a year ago, my dad’s death was not one of those major life events. He is still around, and he picks up the telephone when I call much more often now than when he was in much better health. By that measure, he is very much alive. He has enjoyed several ups and suffered as many downs with prostate cancer. In planning to visit Vegas over Veteran’s Day weekend, I naturally thought of Dad’s military service in the Korean War, and the physical and emotional traumas he suffered that affect him to this day. As a tribute to him, I was grateful to find a volunteer opportunity with the Las Vegas chapter of U.S.VETS-Las Vegas, a non-profit organization that serves homeless and at-risk veterans and their families.

U.S.VETS-Las Vegas hosted its fifth annual “Honoring Those Who Serve” benefit dinner the evening of November 7, 2013 at the Aliante Hotel and Casino in North Las Vegas for about 400 attendees paying $100 a plate. My fellow volunteers were a friendly bunch (as volunteers almost always are), including active duty and veteran military personnel, as well as civilians like me. We put together bundles of raffle tickets for sale, checked in the guests, sold raffle tickets, and several other jobs to make the event run smoothly.

Chelby, Manny, and John - U.S.VETS-Las Vegas volunteers

Chelby, Manny, and John – U.S.VETS-Las Vegas volunteers

This experience was a far cry from my first one in Delaware distributing food at a food bank. Here coat and tie were required dress for volunteers, and we got to eat the sumptuous meal along with all the paying guests. The extravagance by comparison with all other volunteer activities I’d ever done jarred my sensibilities somewhat, even while I knew that it takes money to make money.

That’s what fundraisers are for, of course–to encourage and cajole by any honorable means the better off to empty their pockets for the needy. The stories of homeless vets were much more than a means to this end for me. “Tony,” recently homeless, told his story of drinking and disconnection from family. Now sober for three months, with a place to live, in contact with his son for the first time in years, he seemed proud to be able to take a place on the stage and share his progress. “Kari” had endured sexual assault in the military, an injury, a car accident, and other traumas leading to homelessness and eventually the services of U.S.VETS-Las Vegas.

We were all eating our fancy dinners while they described pain and hardship, offering only a hint of a feel-good ending: a long road to a hoped-for better future lay ahead of these veterans. The clatter of silverware on plates seemed to dishonor them. I felt awkward. But these stories should not be palatable. They should be unsettling. They should make us stop what we’re doing, disrupt our comfort.

Nicole, Nicole, and Michelle - U.S.VETS volunteers

Nicole, Nicole, and Michelle – U.S.VETS volunteers

It occurred to me that I had come full circle in a way, because I had surely helped a veteran or two in Delaware at the food bank. And here I was helping veterans again in a small way that was very much the other side of the same coin. At the food bank, we were helping in the most simple, direct way—giving food. At the Vegas benefit, we were amassing large sums of money—over $75,000—in a matter of hours through the ticket price, raffle, silent auction, and live auction items, to fund activities that would also help. Housing, job assistance, and counseling don’t materialize out of thin air.

I may be against these wars, and our country’s love affair with all things military, but I’m not at all against veterans and their loved ones, who are vulnerable and easily forgotten. Many of them have lost friends, family, parts of their bodies, suffering unimaginable trauma and lifelong emotional scars. We may look at those with the means to afford a $100 meal and wonder: is this the best way to serve and honor homeless vets, or anyone else in need? Is feeding our faces and drinking alcohol in the name of service appropriate? Consider this: two trips to Washington, DC fetched over $10,000 in the live auction. That kind of money doesn’t come from bake sales, which also have their place, but are definitely the slow track. The numbers of homeless veterans have increased rapidly as our country’s wars have stretched on through an economic depression that is hardly over for those who’ve suffered the most. U.S.VETS-Las Vegas is a far better bet for my time and money than casino slots.

Post script: My dad passed away on January 19, 2014, and I dedicate this to his memory.

West Virginia: Take Me Home

Saturday, September 22, 2012: Charleston, West Virginia

I arrived just before 8:00 a.m. at the Habitat for Humanity of Kanawha & Putnam County worksite for that day, tucked away down a dead end street of modest but charming little homes in Charleston, West Virginia. All in all, about 12 of us showed up, and we represented a variety of ages, origins, and abilities. Habitat for Humanity encourages and accommodates people of all experience levels and physical abilities to participate. Building a house involves so many jobs, from highly skilled to unskilled, from strenuous to light work, that there is something for everyone to do.

I haven’t built anything with my hands since I made treehouses as a kid. There are more tools and gadgets than I knew how to use or even what they were for. Construction terminology is highly specialized. Overwhelmed at first, I wasn’t sure what to do. Tiny (Bill Hanshaw), the construction supervisor, did a good job of putting us all to work at something we felt comfortable doing. I raised my hand to say I was comfortable on the roof, which needed shingling, but then thought better of it: being prone to bad sunburns, I didn’t want to spend the whole day exposed.

John Powell, Jan Powell, and Tiny (Bill Hanshaw), construction supervisor

With Krispy Kreme doughnuts for fuel, I ended up working mostly with John Powell, installing all the windows. They were prefabricated, so all we had to do was insert, level, and nail in. My hammering skills were rusty, but despite a few mangled nails here and there, proved adequate for the job. Both John and I hammered until our arms were sloppy tired, but my aim wasn’t too far off most of the time. I didn’t break any windows—my biggest fear!

John and I ended up complementing each other well—he was more handy overall than I was, while I was happy to do the high ladder work. To my mind, going up and down the ladder on soft, uneven ground, bodies contorting to reach difficult places, was actually more dangerous than being on the roof. Often we needed both of us up high at the same time, and in the end John climbed almost as much as I did, with help of Jan Powell, his wife, on the ground to hold the ladders steady. After hanging the windows, we taped the seams around them and on all the outside walls of the house.

Habitat house under construction, Charleston, WV

I had a chance to chat over lunch with the local board president, Robert Groom. Habitat for Humanity of Kanawha & Putnam County is obviously a strong organization in West Virginia. They have a large number of volunteers (though more are always welcome), and this volunteer experience was the easiest to set up of all I had done so far, with a user-friendly automated signup process, plenty of helpful information, and no problem emailing or calling and talking to a live person with questions. I received a prompt survey right after volunteering to find out about my experience and ways they could improve. All in all, a well-oiled machine that had resulted in about 150 houses built in the area, the equivalent of a whole village or a small town.

It felt really good to get dirty and even better to make real progress that we could see with our own eyes. The house was completely open to the elements when we arrived that morning, and after a good day’s work we left it with the windows and outside doorways all sealed up, the roof completely on. Beyond the great feeling of accomplishment, once again I found instant community with a group of warm, friendly, fun people committed to one cause. Maybe best of all for me, with Habitat for Humanity chapters all over the country, I can volunteer not only while traveling but right in my own community, and I intend to do so.

Kim and K.C. Davis, Habitat for Humanity volunteers

West Virginia was my 49th state. Just one more, Nevada, to go (unless and until Puerto Rico becomes the 51st state). I’m saving Nevada for next year. In the meantime, I’m going to explore “random acts of volunteering” going on in other parts of the world, among other topics.

Comments? Suggestions? Please make them here on my blog (and if you make comments on Facebook, please repeat here so that others not on Facebook can see).

Giving Thanks: Gifts from My Dad

Giving Thanks: Gifts from My Dad

Friday, November 2, 2012

Today I bought a sandwich and some chips and took them to the Writer at the Lake (see my September 9, 2012 post) as suggested by one of my readers and friends. This time I approached him more confidently, walking straight up and asking, “Do you want a sandwich?” holding it out for him to take. He sort of grunted but didn’t look up to meet my eyes and made no move to take the paper bag. So I simply set it on top of one of his bags next to him on the bench and said, “Here it is, if you want it.” He made no sound or movement, so I walked away. I turned a couple of times to see if he might look at me but he didn’t appear to do so. I’m not even sure if he ever actually saw who I was. I don’t know if he’ll open the bag to find the food, but I was glad to give it to him anyway.

This is very much something my dad would do.

Last week we learned that my dad’s prostate cancer is particularly aggressive and that he likely has less than nine months to live. When I was younger, I spent a long time blaming my father for my unhappiness and for those parts of myself and my life that I didn’t like. I’ve long since forgiven him and come to realize how many of the things I value, and qualities that have made me successful and happy in life, are gifts he gave me. Rather than waiting to eulogize him when he is gone, I’m writing about him now, while he is alive, to tell him and the world about a man who helped me become the person I am today.

Generosity. Even while my parents, particularly my mom, struggled to make ends meet, my father gave food and cash away to strangers. He also gave me money secretly from time to time (typically a $20 bill), such as when I was home from college, threatening to get angry when I resisted taking it. Given my family’s precarious financial circumstances, my parents didn’t have the means to help me and my brother pay for college. Yet somehow, my family always had enough to get along, and certainly the beneficiaries of my dad’s generosity needed it more than we did.

I think his giving to others helped him feel better about his own difficulties in life. I also believe that his generosity came from the purist place inside him of genuine kindness and concern for others, whether family members or total strangers. He is the one who taught me to think about people that are easy to ignore, and to do something “crazy” and random by deviating from the familiar, habitual tendency to take care of only ourselves and our loved ones. He was the one who would find a stray cat on the verge of death by starvation and nurse it overnight to keep it alive and bring it back to health.  I believe my dad taught me how to look outside of myself and my little life, and occasionally, to show generosity and loving kindness to others, whether a friend or a stranger halfway around the world. Or a homeless guy at the lake where I run or bike most days.

Music. Dad insisted that my brother and I take a full load of academic subjects in high school, especially math and English. He also made sure that we learned to play a musical instrument, something he never had the opportunity to do, though he can carry a good tune. We couldn’t afford the viola I wanted in 4th grade, but learning to play my brother’s hand-me-down trumpet in 5th and 6th grade helped create a musical foundation that has brought me pleasure my whole life in singing and listening to music of all kinds.

Thoughtfulness. Dad was creative in gift giving. In my childhood Christmases, he always made a point to find something simple that wasn’t on our list but that we would use and enjoy, such as our very own bedroom mirrors. He wrote these poignant words on my 19th birthday:

Teenager – Last year.

Looking back – Hold dear.

A healthy body. Besides passing on generally good genes, Dad taught us the importance of healthy eating and exercise, which laid the foundation for the good health I enjoy today. I remember hating the Royal Canadian Air Force exercises he made us do for a time (where did he find those?), but he was also a runner, and as a teenager I began to follow his example. Today I run about 20 miles a week, not to mention biking to work, training with weights, and stretching. Sometimes running feels like a chore, but mostly it feels like freedom, especially when I make myself face a cold, wet day and once I’m out there, realize there was really nothing to fear from the elements. Running clears my mind, and on an especially good day, a bounce of joy animates my stride.

Self-determination. Even though he insisted on a rigorous academic education and encouraged a life of the mind at home all the way through high school, he made it clear to me and my brother that he had no expectations for us after high school. He only wanted us to go to college if we wanted to, and he intentionally refrained from expressing any career preferences for us—it was completely up to us to decide who we wanted to be. He gave us the gifts of mental and physical preparation along with the freedom to choose any path we wanted. These are necessary for self-determination.

Love of nature. Long summer camping trips gave me an appreciation for nature. On one camping trip in particular, I remember being upset (about what I don’t remember), and sitting down to eat at a makeshift slab table Dad had constructed between two tree trunks. On the table was a piece of cut wood about two inches wide. In a fit of anger I picked it up and threw it into the river when no one was looking. Minutes later Dad called over to me, “There’s a piece of wood on the table for you.” I immediately felt a hot pool of regret well up inside me. When he found out it was gone (whether I told him the truth about how it disappeared, I don’t remember), he simply said, “I’ll make another one for you.” It’s the simplest chunk of wood, and one of the few artifacts from my childhood that I still have. It reminds me of the value of redemption, and being able to take “do-overs.” And nature is often a place where I can find the redemption I seek.

For much of my life, I’ve had a difficult relationship with my dad. It has taken me many years to appreciate fully the gifts he gave me and be grateful.

What are the redeeming qualities of the “difficult” persons in your life, and what gifts have you received from them?

Comments? Please make them here on my blog (and if you make comments on Facebook, please repeat here so that others not on Facebook can see. Am still working on how to link automatically between the two).

Coming up: State #49—Habitat for Humanity in Charleston, West Virginia

New Mexico: Hummingbirds, Flowers, Balloons, and Salsa!

Sunday, August 26, 2012: Albuquerque, New Mexico

On my run this morning along the Bosque Trail that follows the Rio Grande through downtown Albuquerque, I saw hummingbirds, wildflowers, and six hot air balloons. I sometimes look for omens, and these suggested a good day ahead. When I finished my run, the last song to play happened to be salsa–“Suavemente,” by Elvis Crespo—another omen, because it also was the first song to play in the first class where I volunteered as a monitor today at the Albuquerque Latin Dance Festival.

Albuquerque Latin Dance Festival

I’ve dabbled in Latin dancing ever since college and living in Belize and Costa Rica. You could say I’m self-taught, which is mostly true, and that means that while I don’t suffer from Stiff White Guy Syndrome (I can move my hips with the best of them), I don’t exactly have the steps down, which means I make up my own footwork and am still pretty clutzy dancing with a partner (watch your toes!). Volunteering at the festival, I was not going to improve my partner dancing, since class monitors are not to participate in the classes—we had a job to do. No matter—I love Latin rhythms, and I tapped them out with my hands and feet while I sat monitoring each class through the day.

“One…three…five…seven….!” In the Spins & Turn Technique class, instructor Emily Dunkin emphasized control, balance, and a basic thing that I sometimes forget by taking it for granted: “The most important thing is to breathe.” To say that dance is a metaphor for life may be a cliché, but an image I love to bring to mind. In dance as in life, breathing with consciousness—deeply, joyously, calmly—brings me fully into my present experience, where I want to be. And in my second class, Salsa Rhythm and Timing, rhythm master Abdul Kamara says, “Stay with the music.” If you’ve lost the music—find it again and get back with it.

Abdul Kamara: “Stay with the music.”

What exactly does a class monitor do? It’s essentially a boundary patroller and enforcer role. This is not a role I’m comfortable in. I felt most awkward when I stopped a man entering without showing me a bracelet or ticket, only to find out that he was the internationally renowned salsa instructor who was about to teach the class I was monitoring—oops.

Yet boundary patrol is critical. Guanabana Productions, Inc., is the non-profit organization that makes the Latin Dance Festival happen, yet the program guide didn’t clearly mention that the festival is wholly run by volunteers, including people such as James Foley, Executive Director, and Julie Brovko, Registration and Volunteer Coordinator. The festival is a 4-night, 3-day immersion in workshops, films, lectures, and public and private dance parties at the National Hispanic Cultural Center—a large, impressive complex with multiple studios and ample meeting and performance space—not to mention a dance in the plaza of Old Town Albuquerque. When I learned of the immense dedication and effort given freely to this festival, I became even more committed to making sure that only participants who had paid tuition, helping to cover event costs, were in the classes. Free riders be damned!

Tango Tarts: Argentinian tango dresses and shoes for sale

Latin dance is truly a world unto itself, actually many worlds and many cultures, with highly specialized lingo. Other classes I monitored included Salsa Fusion (by Eric & Marcela), which is about combining different styles—Miami style, L.A. style, New York style. The Salsa Footwork class (by Adrian Tenorio) added variations beyond the basic footwork—where I heard dance terms that were new to me: “chuck,” “Suzy,” and “Suzy plus.” I ended the day with Pachanga (by Adrian & Kimberly), a dance step I hadn’t heard of but has apparently been around a long time. (In Costa Rica, “pachanga” is slang that means, rather appropriately, something like “partying hard,” but that is not where the dance originated.)

The day lived up to the promise of the morning’s good omens. Satisfied and saturated with the spiritually uplifting sensory experiences that are Latin dance, I drifted away from the festival like the hot air balloons that soar effortlessly over the colorful Sandia mountains of central New Mexico.

Comments? Please make them here on my blog (and if you make comments on Facebook, please repeat here so that others not on Facebook can see. Am working on how to link automatically between the two).

The Writer at the Lake

Thursday, August 2, 2012: Seattle, WA

I was talking to Rosie, the fabulous stylist who cuts my hair, about the people I see regularly when I’m running, walking, or biking to work around Green Lake near my home in Seattle. She mentioned a homeless guy who sits on a bench on the west side of the lake in one of the less populated areas of this extremely popular urban park. I immediately knew who she meant. He appears to be a big man, made even bigger by his dark, bulky clothing, apparently stuffed with more clothes and other possessions, and he keeps bundled up like that even on some warm summer days. He has a couple of bags piled next to him on the bench, and besides sitting there for hours, the only thing I’ve ever seen him do is write in a little notebook. For that reason, I’ll call him the writer. I’ve seen him quite often for at least a year, never eating or drinking or talking to anyone, just sitting and looking ahead, or sitting and writing.

In fact, of all the regulars I know who frequent the lake—other runners and walkers, friends and acquaintances who live nearby, the writer is the one person I see most frequently. I’ve often thought how strange it is that I’ve done hundreds of laps around the lake and passed him countless times and never said hello, waved, or even nodded to acknowledge him. Whenever I’ve looked in his direction, if he’s not writing, he appears to stare straight ahead and doesn’t make eye contact, which makes ignoring him—the path of least resistance—easy. He’s not like the homeless people I walk by occasionally at the NE 45th St exit from I-5, who look straight at you sometimes saying things such as “smile!” and “have a nice day” while holding signs asking for help. If one chooses to ignore them, and I often do, it actually takes an active effort to look away and pretend they’re not there.

Yet as easy as ignoring the writer might seem to be, in reality I’ve had many thoughts about him over the weeks and months. What’s his story? What does he write about? Where does he get food and drink (and when does he eat)? Where does he go when he’s not sitting on that bench? What are his needs? I’ve wondered what it would be like to approach him, even telling myself that one of these days I should carry some money with me on my run and give it to him, figuring he could probably use some. But of course, I never remembered, or conveniently forgot, to bring any money with me. I shared some of these thoughts with Rosie, and as soon as I did, I knew what I would do. I was planning to run around the lake after my haircut, so I told her that this time I would take some cash and say hi. Telling her would help me hold myself accountable.

Having a co-conspirator, even just a confidante, is powerful. Once I’d spoken the words, I knew I would follow through. So I tucked a $10 bill in the pocket of my running shorts along with my key, wondering when I would see the writer again.

He was right there on the shady bench as I was completing my first lap. At first I registered him mentally as always and ran a few more steps before I remembered—hey, wait a minute, I told Rosie I was going to stop and say hi. I stopped and immediately felt a little nervous and reluctant. Approaching strangers has never been my forte, and in this case I was particularly aware that I had never seen him speak to anyone. So I paused for a moment to prepare myself to approach him.

There was plenty of room on the bench for me to sit down with his bags in between us providing a buffer zone, so I walked up to the bench and said “hi” as I sat down. He glanced my way, his pale blue eyes briefly peeking at me through the layers of clothes, dirt, and deep solitude. I could smell from several feet away that he had not bathed in some time. I had pierced his bubble for the briefest of moments. I realized then that he had been whispering to himself and he continued to do so as if I wasn’t there. Mental illness seemed likely. I sat there awkwardly for a minute or two, turning occasionally to look at him and see if he would look at me, at which point I thought I might say something, though I didn’t know what. I also became aware of caring about the opinions of others as I imagined that passersby might wonder what I was doing sitting with a homeless person, since the writer and I were an obvious mismatch. He never looked at me, and I still had to find a way to give him the $10 bill. I played out various scenarios in my head. Would he take the money if I offered it to him? Might he be offended? Would he continue to ignore me? Would he react in an unpleasant way, as mentally ill persons sometimes do? I decided not to disturb him further that day, stealthily tucking the bill just underneath the bag that was closest to me in a way that it would be visible when he got up, yet secure from being blown away by a breeze. The bill was still there on my second lap around the lake. I have no idea whether or not he actually found it or used it. This left me wondering: Did I really accomplish my mission, or did I go to the trouble of walking out of my comfort zone only to achieve a meager, halfway result?

Tennessee and Mississippi: Celebrate the Planet Festival

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Dedicated to Gary Dennis Cate, 1945-2012, and my own father, who is dealing with complications from prostate cancer

I showed up at Painted Planet Artspace at 10:30 a.m. today and met Donna Padgett Bowers, the driving force behind the Celebrate the Planet Festival and the cancer ministry. After helping to move speakers, assemble tents, fill drink coolers, and so on, all that remained were technical tasks, such as setting up the sound system, where I had no expertise to offer. Because I had done what I could and festival attendees had yet to arrive, I spent the rest of the afternoon visiting the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. It presents the most thorough and detailed account of African American history and struggle for equality that I’ve seen anywhere in one place. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information, not to mention the images of slavery, segregation, and cruelty. I was glad I had given myself time to experience it without rushing, to allow the horror to sink in and also to be inspired by the shrewd and increasingly sophisticated tactics that civil rights movement leaders employed to achieve their successes.

Afterward, a 40-mile drive into the open spaces of northern Mississippi to the Blue and White Restaurant (Tunica, MS)—for a tasty dinner of catfish Creole, fried okra, hush puppies, and a freshly made donut for dessert—gave me a chance to decompress.

Afterward I went back to the festival, where the temperature had started to simmer down and The Bluegrass Band was in the middle of a set. I hung out for a little while taking in the scene—people eating, talking, listening to music, and trying to stay cool. I had wanted to help out at the end of the night to disassemble and pack things away, but at about 8:00 p.m. felt sleepy and pretty much wiped out by the day’s heat and humidity: I knew I wouldn’t make it until the end of the evening. Feeling a bit wimpy, I found Donna to say goodbye and returned to my hotel room for a shower and to bed for an early night.

The Bluegrass Band at the Celebrate the Planet Festival – Memphis, TN

I do research and program evaluation in my other life, spending much of my time trying to measure the impact of interventions and activities. Even more than in past volunteer gigs, I found myself doubting that my presence had had any measurable impact here.

. . .

Days later, when I contacted Donna to check a few facts, we ended up talking on the phone for nearly an hour and a half. Though she hardly knew me (or perhaps because she hardly knew me), she wanted to process the events of festival with me (covered in more detail on the community news site here) and confided that they hadn’t raised as much money as hoped. Donna is now working just to keep Painted Planet’s doors open so that she can continue to offer free services to women with cancer (more details on how to help here).

What I learned: Even if I can’t see my impact on others, it’s real. In fact, it’s inescapable.

After my long talk with Donna, I realized I’d had more impact than I first thought. That brought me back to thinking about my friend’s father, Gary. I think Gary knew I felt a special connection to him, yet I imagine he never fully appreciated the impact he had on me, and the inspiration I will continue to draw from his life as an example of kindness, free thinking, and courage in so many ways. Sometimes it’s not the most obvious relationships that have a big impact. Gary’s terminal cancer diagnosis a couple of years ago forced me to consider the meaning of my connection to him in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise. I realized that he was a person I wanted to learn more from and spend more time with before he died, even if just for a few days or a few moments.

It’s a cliché, but in my moments of self-doubt it helps me to think about the tiny pebble that breaks the surface of a pond, sending out ever larger ripples in all directions.

Have you ever encountered someone who ended up having an unexpected, positive impact on you? What made that connection special? In what ways do you minimize your contributions, the difference you make? Who might you be having an outsize impact on, perhaps without even being fully aware of it?


Coming up:

August 26: Latin Dance Festival, Albuquerque, New Mexico

September 22: Habitat for Humanity, Charleston, West Virginia

Tennessee and Arkansas: Random Acts of Desperation, Redemption, and Roadside Bar-B-Que

Friday, July 6, 2012

Dedicated to Gary Dennis Cate, 1945-2012

I traveled to Memphis today with an added sense of mission, knowing that I was missing the memorial service for Gary (see previous post), a very special person, who had died just days before. His daughter, my friend, Shannon had reassured me that Gary would much rather have me help register voters in Tennessee than be at his memorial. So I dedicated my journey to Gary in honor of his own spirit of service to others.

Unfortunately, I also learned just a couple of days ago that the voter registration event was not going to happen after all. When I found out, I had thoughts of failure and realized that I had invested a great deal of mental energy in the idea of voter registration—I was quite attached to it. And part of me was just annoyed that I had to find something else to do. So I had to remind myself that many things are outside my control and start over. Embracing “random” means letting go of control. Bear with me while I chronicle my search for a replacement activity.

I contacted the Memphis Urban League Young Professionals Network, another group that was scheduled to registers voters on Saturday, but found out that they weren’t doing it either. Knowing that Gary had devoted much of his life to books in bookselling and publishing, and having worked in a library myself in college, I decided to try the Memphis Public Library.

I checked into my hotel and checked email and voicemail–no responses to my queries. No one from the library had got back to me, and it was 4:00 pm (Friday, mind you). I admit I was feeling some desperation despite telling myself not to worry, that I would make something happen, however small or random it might be. I went into search overdrive. I called a local independent bookseller, who knew of no book events I could support. Volunteering at a hospice also seemed a great way to honor both Gary’s experience with cancer and the hospice care he received, but of course that would involve paperwork and hoops that I couldn’t possibly jump through on such short notice. I looked for Facebook pages for Memphis organizations and ended up posting on Occupy Memphis in hopes someone would be able to connect me to a local event of any kind (no replies). I called the National Civil Rights Museum, the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau (after hearing why I came, the helpful man there referred me to the pastors of three black churches, but I was unable to reach a person at any of them at that late hour), the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center—no one had any leads.

After about an hour of searching, I found an event called the “Celebrate the Planet Festival.” I called and struck gold when I spoke to Donna Padgett Bowers, artist, proprietor of Painted Planet Artspace (798 S. Cooper, Memphis, TN), and organizer of the festival. They could use my help setting up, perhaps staffing a booth (I told her that I probably wasn’t the person she’d want on the grill). And perfectly fitting the special purpose of honoring Gary, it turns out that Painted Planet Artspace offers a free cancer ministry for women, called Healing Planet. Free of charge, the Spa Night (second Mondays of the month) provides a healthy dinner and a menu of services including massage, yoga, facials, prayer, and fellowship (details here). Painted Planet is also a host site for “Look Good…Feel Better” (, providing free makeup and healthy beauty products to women who are undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. This festival was a fundraising benefit for Healing Planet. I knew Gary would approve.

With a new plan, I crossed the Mississippi River driving about 10 miles into Arkansas for an excellent dinner at Roadside Bar-B-Que, Proctor, Arkansas. This was another way of paying my respects to Gary, who grew up in Arkansas, while adding my 46th state in a quest to reach the last of the 50 states on my list in this, my 50th year. I then came back to my hotel to rest up for the 100 degree day outdoors that awaits me tomorrow. TO BE CONTINUED….

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