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A Tribute to Mom

Carolyn Patterson

June 13, 1934 – August 21, 2018

Mom 03 swing

A gentle smile

“People call and they don’t really know what’s going on.” This is what my mom told me, not long before she died, in describing an old friend of hers whom she’d spoken with by phone. In the background, Mom said she could hear her friend’s husband ranting about something and questioning why her friend was on the phone.

Hidden truths. Mom was talking about her friend, but she was also talking about her own life. So much of Mom’s life was hidden from view. I suspect she and all of us had some shame about our family situation. I know that I grew up ashamed of my family—ashamed of our father because of his alcoholism and ashamed of our mother because she stuck with him even though he mistreated her, and he was difficult for all of us to love. Mom’s death is an opportunity for me to take another look at her life and their life together, and my relationship with her. I want to shine light on those hidden parts of her experience, the parts that few people knew about, and I also want to remember the parts of her that she could not hide—music, laughter, movement, silliness, and jewelry—lots of jewelry.

When Dad died over four years ago (January 19, 2014), he died without friends, so the only people he had were Mom, my brother Gene, his wife Sheila, David (who was very new on the scene at that time), and me. I wrote in this post (here) about his best qualities as he suffered through cancer and also shared the post to Facebook when he died.

But the difficult things that would have had to be said in any true remembrance of him would only have embarrassed Mom. She never talked about having a memorial either. So a memorial—the kind where we remember all the great things about someone, and chuckle about a person’s foibles—did not make sense. It would not have felt right or authentic, and full exposure of the truth would not have been respectful to Mom.

I stopped being ashamed of my family, in my heart of hearts, a long time ago. But the habit of mind from childhood dies hard, and in reflecting on Mom and the life of our family, and what to say in the wake of her death, I also realize that I did not talk about her during her life as much as I might have, partly out of that residue of shame, and partly out of a desire to protect her from scrutiny. So I helped to keep some important truths hidden from view. Now I feel compelled to share her story, which of course is also our story—mine, my brother’s, and our father’s—from my point of view. If not now, then when?

Former Davis family home, Olean, NY

My grandparents raised the three girls in a home that remains very modest to this day with just two bedrooms (the girls in one and the parents in the other) and one bathroom. At about 1,000 square feet, it’s now priced in 2018 on Zillow at $69,000. Stories from Mom and my aunts, Doreen (Hornburg, deceased) and Marion (Swartz), as well as family photos, tell of a lot of love and happy times.


03 Mom 01

Her vulnerability is palpable here.

The Davis sisters

I love this relaxed and happy photo of the sisters Doreen, Mom, and Marion, July 1949

Mom’s life story is one of love, heartbreak, loyalty, and grit. A “eulogy” means “good word” or “praise,” but an authentic account that truly does justice to Mom’s life requires telling both the highs and lows, the joys and sorrows. Only by appreciating the full context and truth of Mom’s life can the many good words in this tribute to her achieve their full depth of meaning. Our mother was an “ordinary” person in the sense that she wasn’t rich, famous, or powerful like Aretha Franklin and John McCain (whom she so admired), whose deaths, the occasions of national remembrance, bookended hers. But when we consider the struggles Mom endured, the spirit she embodied, and the sheer triumph of her daily resilience and survival to age 84, Mom was an extraordinary woman. And I’m sure her story also shares a great deal in common with the stories of many other women of her time.

Carolyn June (Davis) Patterson—I am her namesake—was born June 13, 1934, in the small western New York town of Olean, third daughter of Walter C. Davis and Marion (Montie) Davis.

On graduating from high school or thereabouts, Mom worked for the Exchange National Bank in Olean as a bookkeeper. She earned and saved enough money to buy a Chevy sedan. She also owned a sailboat with my uncle Art (Arthur) Hornburg, her brother-in-law (married to Doreen), which they sailed at nearby Cuba Lake.

06 Mom 05 car and hat Easter 1955

Mom and her Chevy, Easter 1955

Our father, Richard David Patterson (known as “Dick” and by some as “Pat,” born June 12, 1933), was a year ahead of Mom in school, and she had her eye on him then, but they didn’t date until after high school. Dad was drafted into the Army during the Korean War and sent to Korea, writing letters to Mom that showed his offbeat (perhaps awkward?) sense of humor.

07 Dad - army







They married three years after his return, on December 15, 1956, and moved to Rochester, New York, where he was able to attend Rochester Institute of Technology on the GI Bill and nearly complete his engineering degree (but for the required speech class that he opted not to take out of painful shyness).

08 Mom 06 wedding 1956

Dad and Mom, wedding day (?), 1956

Mom and Dad had a son, my brother Gene, in early 1958. The Jet Age was dawning that same year on Seattle and the world with the launch of the Boeing 707, the first commercially successful jetliner, and Dad no doubt had heard that engineering jobs were available in the Seattle area. That summer, our parents drove with their baby across the country to Seattle.

09 Drive to Seattle

Driving from New York to Seattle, Mom and baby Gene, 1958

Dad had previously been stationed briefly at Ft. Lawton in Seattle (now Discovery Park in the Magnolia neighborhood) on his way to Korea, and most of his family of origin had moved to Washington state when my grandfather was relocated to work (I think) in the aluminum industry in the Bellingham area. Dad liked this area and had made the decision unilaterally; though Mom said it “broke her heart” to leave the rest of her family behind in New York, she went along to keep her new family intact. That wouldn’t be the last time she stood by him when she might have taken another path.

10 Mom 07 and Dad Gene 1958

Gene, Dad, Mom, Christmas 1958

Those early years of our family story were largely shaped by the history of aviation in the 1960s and early 1970s and the fateful successes and failures of the Boeing Company during that time. Dad was a Boeing engineer, and the first two houses we lived in were close to an expanding Sea-Tac Airport and not far from the Boeing Company offices where Dad worked. I was born in 1963 and as a very young kid I remember going with Dad to watch the enormous, thundering jet airplanes land and take off as we stood behind a chain link fence that separated us from the runway.

11 Mom 08 and Glenn 1963-64

Mom and I, Seattle 1964?


Mom was a full-time homemaker throughout that time, and as the photos reveal, she loved being a mother to us.


Gene, Mom, and I, Grand Coulee Dam, Washington, 1965?

But a difficult combination of events marked a turning point that changed her role and our family life forever. Dad lost his job as an engineer at Boeing in the painful waves of mass layoffs in 1969 and 1970 that devastated the region’s economy (a local billboard at the time: “Will the last person leaving Seattle turn out the lights?”). At about the same time we lost our home, somewhat ironically, as our entire neighborhood was condemned to make way for the expansion of Sea-Tac Airport with the construction of a second runway.

13 Our house before

Our house – before

14 Our house after 1

Our neighborhood and house – after


My parents made the most of it, building a fire pit on the barricaded street next to our home out of chunks of concrete from a demolished home’s foundation nearby.

14 Our house fire pit

Our fire pit on the street: Dad, Gene, Glenn (now Davis), Mom, 1969


That was the last time my parents would own a home.

The love of Mom’s life, Dad was a complicated, difficult, and troubled soul. This portrait of his dark sides is necessary to appreciate both Mom’s struggles and some of her greatest qualities. Dad was cruelly teased for some kind of dyslexia as a young child (given the nickname “Dopey Dick,” and though he later excelled in intellectual pursuits, never gained full confidence in his abilities). Dad’s alcoholic father abused him in multiple ways while growing up. Dad was captured in an attack during the Korean War that left all his Army buddies dead. He was tortured while in captivity. I’m fairly sure that Mom married this handsome, smart, and shy but charming man without knowing much of the darkness that was inside of him. She certainly had no inkling of the difficulties that lay ahead.

By the time Dad lost his Boeing job and we lost our home, he was well on his way to a lifetime of alcoholism himself, including a couple of attempts at suicide. Alcohol allowed him to open up about childhood and war trauma that he had kept bottled up for years. We didn’t have the language then of “PTSD” as a bonified mental health condition, and we didn’t know about treatment for it, but we probably couldn’t have afforded it, and Dad would not have wanted it anyway. He was mostly unemployed through the 1970s, resorting to failed stock investments, betting on the horses at Longacres Racetrack, and even engaging in criminal activity (ask me if you want to know more) to get money, but these pursuits were mostly unsuccessful. He did not get a stable job again until after three months at an inpatient rehab facility in 1979 (all at no cost, the only way it would have been possible for our family living on the edge), after which he stayed sober for a time but eventually succumbed to the drinking culture at his new job. Despite how irresponsible, reckless, and even abusive he was, there were, still, many parts of him to love, including parts of him that I’m certain only she knew.

Mom became the main breadwinner, barely making ends meet through telemarketing for a portrait photographer and then for an insurance broker (Snapp and Sons), jobs that allowed her to work at home, from a card table set up in my parents’ bedroom, while being a full-time mom. Dad was eventually laid off when his company went bankrupt, the last job he ever had, many years before reaching retirement age when he could finally receive Social Security and Medicare coverage. He had no savings or pension. Mom earned money the rest of her working life to support herself and Dad. She eventually found jobs in retail, working for Goodwill, a grocery store, and finally retiring from many years at Lamont’s clothing store in Federal Way.

Yet despite supporting the entire family for so long, she never saw herself as the breadwinner, and never gained the confidence that she could actually make it without Dad. She limited herself in this way—always thinking she needed our father, for potential earnings, and for companionship. Though Dad would not admit it—quite to the contrary—he needed her. And perhaps that need, above all else, made her stay, not give up on him, when many would have. Gene and I counseled her many times to divorce him, and I think other close confidantes did as well. It wasn’t until after she went to live for a short time with her sister Marion in Tampa and returned to live with Dad again that she finally did divorce him and move into a small one-bedroom apartment. But it didn’t last. When Dad lost his job and couldn’t afford the rent on what had been our family home for nearly 20 years, where he had stayed, Mom let him move into her tiny apartment, just months after she had left him. They never separated again.

Thinking about Mom’s relationship with Dad, I have to acknowledge her loyalty, faith, and courage, tested over and over again by Dad, as she stuck with him to the very end of his life. It’s possible, perhaps likely, that he would have ended up homeless and lived a much shorter life without her, tragedies that have befallen many veterans and many with PTSD. Instead, he lived to age 80—remarkable considering all of his unhealthy habits, and a testament to her devotion and care.

And now—time to pause, and breathe deeply. Here is where this sad tale turns.

Because, despite all the profound disappointments, sadness, and difficulties of Mom’s life with Dad, she had real gusto for living. She worked extremely hard her entire life to earn money to support her family, run the household, raise her two sons (who turned out pretty well, I think), and take care of her husband, who was mostly incapacitated for a large part of their life together. And yet, she had energy to spare.

Mom was a saver, a coupon-clipper, a bargain hunter. It was the only way to survive and provide for the family on her wages. She counted every penny, often on little scraps of paper that seemed to multiply everywhere like the dust bunnies that she battled ferociously in her ultra-clean house. She used to scour Lamont’s where she worked to find clothes for me on sale, on top of which she received her employee discount, and then when I visited home, she would lay her bargains out on her bed for me to choose what I wanted. She once got me a beautiful leather jacket for $3.

Besides being frugal and thrifty, many other words come to mind about what I loved about Mom—she was adventurous, funloving, resilient, tough, devoted, full of gusto—but perhaps more than anything, I would say she was “game.” According to Merriam-Webster, “game” means “having or showing a resolute unyielding spirit” and being “willing or ready to proceed.” Sometimes it seemed she truly was game for anything.

15 Mom 12 Tampa Zoo 1988

Riding an elephant at Busch Gardens in Tampa, c. 1987

Sports and recreation. I already mentioned that she owned and sailed a boat with her brother-in-law, but Mom was also athletic:

She played softball.

She golfed.

She was an excellent swimmer (note her confident pose).

Grandpa, Mom, Grandma, Aunt Marion, early 1950s

She did Royal Canadian Airforce exercises (in the living room at home when I was growing up—as did Dad).

She ran.

She played soccer (breaking her leg, which healed fully).

She did aerobics.

She rafted.

17 Mom 14 and Gloria 1993

Friend Gloria and Mom, whitewater rafting, Wenatchee River, early 1990s


She hiked trails (Mt. Rainier was a favorite place).

18 Mom 18 and Dad 1995-96

Dad and Mom at Mt. Rainier, early(?) 1990s


She lifted weights.

She built her way up from being pushed in a wheelchair around Green Lake to walking the whole way, starting from the Hearthstone rehab facility—3 miles!—in late October last year at age 83, after a serious bout of pneumonia that had nearly killed her. And David was there, literally and figuratively, every step of the way on our journey with Mom at the end of her life.

19 Mom 34 and David Davis walking 2017 Sept

Getting ready for a 2.5-mile walk at Green Lake, recovering after pneumonia, September 28, 2017


She danced. I remember dancing with her and Gene to Caribbean music in a crowded disco in Belize City, Belize, when they visited me there in about 1987.

20 Mom 13 and Gene Glenn Belize 1988

Gene, Davis and Mom in Corozal, Belize, drinking cashew wine, c. 1987

31 Mom 16 and Davis dancing 1993

Mom and I dancing at a wedding, 1993


And she danced with David and me just two years ago, when she was 82 years old, at the wedding of my first cousin once removed, Sara Shipherd. She had had several falls that year and generally declining health, but we could not keep her down!

21 Mom 28 wedding dancing 2016

Dancing at age 82, Tampa, FL, 2016


Gusto for music, food, cats…. Mom loved many kinds of music, from old standards to the Doobie Brothers, Van Morrison, and Gloria Estefan, to “smooth jazz,” and of course, Christmas music. She sang in the First United Methodist Church choir when she lived in Federal Way (attending for the fellowship and enjoyment even though she had not considered herself a Christian).

Mom also loved to eat. Just about every Sunday as I was growing up, she made four 13” pizzas for dinner (one for each of us) completely from scratch—the dough and sauce—from a recipe that she and Dad had adapted. She liked Chinese, Italian, Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese pho, and she was ready to try many foods that were foreign and unfamiliar, including Indian food for Christmas dinner one year. Most of all, she loved desserts.

22 Mom 29 Hiroki 2016

With David and me at Hiroki, our favorite bakery, Seattle, WA, August 2016

23 Mom 19 Mexican restaurant 1999

65th birthday: Mexican food with dear friend Gloria, 1999

Mom enjoyed her diet 7-Up but also beer and rosé (white Zinfandel), not to mention a mixed drink or two. She generally denied herself alcohol around Dad (whether he was drinking or not), and relished the opportunity to have wine on the patio with her sister Marion on visits to Tampa.

24 Mom 21 and Petie 2006-07

Mom and sister Marion, 2006-2007

25 Mom 27 Petie wedding 2016

Mom and Marion, 2016

During her last days, after over a year of being on a feeding tube and not eating or drinking anything by mouth, we encouraged her to try anything she might enjoy, because we knew the end was coming. She wanted a beer, and she called me later, leaving a message to make sure we didn’t forget: “Dave, are you going to bring me that beer?” Gene brought a beer to the nursing home, but sadly it was too bitter for her taste buds that had become overly sensitive by then.

Mom loved cats—as our whole family did—taking in strays, giving away kittens in front of the supermarket, and filling her home with cat calendars and knick-knacks when she no longer had cats of her own.

26 Mom 11 Halloween

In a cat costume, probably for work at Goodwill, late 1980s?

Mom also drove a car until she was 82, and she did not want to give it up. She enjoyed driving. She was no “little old lady” about it either. Once just a couple of years ago while I was driving behind her (and she knew I was trying to follow her), she sped off leaving me behind at a stoplight (and I’m no slow-poke like many Seattle drivers!).

Mom stood by me my whole life. When I told her I was gay, though she was in shock (unlike nearly everyone else) and trying to comprehend all the implications, she immediately said to me, “I love you,” without hesitation, without question. She went to New York City for the first time to see me and my friends perform with the Seattle Men’s Chorus at Carnegie Hall, and she marched in the pride parade commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

27 Mom 17 Carnegie Hall 1994

Mom and I at Carnegie Hall, New York City, June 1994

Mom was ready to incorporate my partner into the family, not once but three times, and love each one like a son. After growing very attached first to one partner, then another, and grieving the end of each relationship, she didn’t hesitate to welcome David into the family and was extremely pleased to safeguard and hand me his ring during our wedding ceremony.





Davis and David get married

Gene supports Mom giving me David’s ring, September 10, 2016

Davis and David get married

With our mothers: Mom, Davis, David, and Ann, September 10, 2016

Mom enjoyed travel, with yearly trips to Tampa to see her sister Marion and family, and Pullman to visit Gene and Sheila, and discovering new places, such as New York City, Washington, DC, and foreign countries, visiting me in Belize and Costa Rica, and Mexico with Gene and me, not to mention Canada.

32 Mom 25 DC 2015 May

Mom does DC: at the White House with David and me, May 2015

Mom was a joiner and an extravert at heart. She made lasting friends through church, at work, where she lived, and elsewhere. After Dad died, she got more involved in her apartment building as the treasurer for the tenants’ association, a member of the activities committee, and a volunteer at the food bank operated on the ground floor.

She diligently kept track of her friends’ and family members’ addresses and phone numbers in a confusing (to me) array of address books and myriad scraps of paper, which showed how important they all were to her. When she was in the nursing home and in declining health, her friends showed their love and support with cards, calls, and visits. David and I are forever grateful to her friends—Gloria, Pat, Carolyn, and others—and to our friends—Scott, Eric, and Isaac, and Holly and John, who also visited her while we were on vacation—and so many other friends who supported us just by listening or pointing us to resources. Mom also made an impact on the staff of Queen Anne Healthcare, whose care of her she and we greatly appreciated.

33 Mom 26 and Gloria 2015-11-07

Mom and Gloria, Federal Way United Methodist Church Holiday Fair, November 2015

Mom trusted me and others to show her a good time, and to take care of her. She was consistently vulnerable that way. And where I led, or Gene led, or David led, or her sister Marion led, or Gloria or another friend led her, she was usually only too happy to follow, particularly as she became older and in poorer health. She spent the last 15 months of her life fighting back against bouts of aspiration pneumonia. Though she retained most of her mental capabilities, she had mysteriously lost the ability to swallow properly. This meant many walks at Green Lake last fall and again early this year to build her strength, and when walking was no longer possible, to wheel her around so she could enjoy the views.

It’s only during this time, after seeing Mom work so hard to live, and live as well as she could, to be active, to enjoy what she could, that I’ve come to appreciate fully what she has to teach me. When I was younger, I hardly ever thought of her as a strong person. I thought she was weak for staying with Dad rather than striking out on her own. But nothing is so simple. And now I’ve seen just how gritty and resilient she was. And I’m truly, deeply inspired by her, perhaps for the first time.

34 Mom 35 ice pack 2018-08-20

The day before she died, Mom jokes on seeing the ice pack on her head that looks like a fancy hat: “Meghan Markle,” August 20, 2018

Others saw her grit and resilience, but I didn’t, not completely, and not without lots of qualification. Gloria—aerobics instructor, church companion, birthday buddy, and close friend—called Mom her “ox.” Julie, the hospice nurse, told us she was “blown away” by Mom’s resilience the day before she died, because she had gone 5 days without taking any substantial comfort measures, and she had enjoyed herself so much with almost no fluid or nutrition.

As she was approaching death, I had several conversations with her about the end of her life, including the morning of the day she died. I asked her if she had any unfinished business, and she said, “I don’t have anything to apologize for.” She had had a good weekend visiting with Gene and Sheila and talking on the phone with her sister Marion and Marion’s family as well as friends, including the one with the angry husband. No Mom, you had nothing to apologize for, and in the end, I think little to regret. And now that people really know what was going on all those years, it’s time to recognize and appreciate just how strong, vulnerable, courageous, tender, devoted, and loving a mother you were. You made us a family against the odds.


35 Mom 22 and Gene Davis 2007

Gene, Mom, and I on a boat, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, 2007

36 Mom 23 Sheila Gene and Davis 2007-09

Sheila, Gene, Mom, Davis, Oregon, mid-2000s

37 Mom 24 and Davis 2009-10

Mom and I, c. 2009-10

38 Mom 09 and Gene Glenn

Being a mother, with Glenn (Davis) and Gene, 1965

Determination! One of three 3-mile walks Mom did with David and me in October 2017.


Willed Body Program

Mom donated her body for research and education to the Willed Body Program at the University of Washington, as did our dad.


Donations in Mom’s honor may be made to these organizations (all highly rated, listed in alpha order):

Crisis Connections (formerly Crisis Clinic) one of the oldest crisis lines in the nation, is home to five programs focused on serving the emotional and physical needs of individuals across Washington State, including crisis intervention and chemical dependency services:

Girls on the Run inspires girls to be joyful, healthy and confident using a fun, experience-based curriculum which creatively integrates running:

Habitat for Humanity helps families to build and improve places to call home:

Seattle Area Feline Rescue (SAFER) saves the lives of homeless, neglected and at-risk cats and kittens by spaying and neutering, by providing safe refuge and rehabilitation, and by finding felines permanent, stable homes:

The Washington State Parks Foundation protects and improves all of Washington’s State Parks through advocacy, educational programs, project funding, and building a network of park supporters:

The Wounded Warrior Project offers a variety of services and advocacy for veteran transitions to civilian life and challenges, both visible and invisible:

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.

Open, heart-to-heart discussions. Dad was opinionated, and yet he wanted to learn our thoughts and opinions about topics that could be controversial or deeply personal. I remember several discussions growing up that he initiated talking about our spiritual beliefs. He wanted to know what each one of us–Mom, my brother Gene, and I–believed. Is there a supernatural being, “God”? He did not provide the answers and was open to the possibilities. When I told him I was gay, he want to know all about it (almost too much!). Because he had seen many horrible things in his life, and done a number of things that he regretted, nothing fazed him. Because he was curious, and wise about life in his own way, I knew I could tell him about intimate parts of myself and trust that he would be supportive and accepting.

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?

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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….

“How do you find all these places?”

Wednesday, June 20, 2012: Kansas City, Missouri

There was Gary in his emergency room bed, still recovering from unexplained excruciating pain, and the first thing he said to me when I arrived was, “How do you find all these places?” I hadn’t seen Gary in over a year, but he had been reading my blog, and—ever thoughtful and curious—wanted to know how I set up my service opportunities. Gary is the father of a very dear friend, Shannon, and the grandfather of Shannon and Cole’s daughters, who are my goddaughters (got that?). He is someone I’ve developed a special fondness for in the short time I’ve known him. He has been supportive in my quest to be of greater service, and knowing that he has enjoyed reading this blog is like having the approval of my own father. For Gary to want to talk about my blog with me right then and there was a gift of immeasurable value to me, a huge lesson in looking outward, being present, and attending to others, rather than focusing on his own suffering.

When Shannon told me that Gary’s cancer had taken a turn for the worse and that it could be helpful to have me there, the timing was serendipitous. I had already taken the days off work to spend with relatives in Tampa before attending a conference in Orlando. It was easier than I expected to change my flights and go to Kansas City, while planning to visit Tampa later this year instead. As a side note, I had also been having a hard time finding a volunteer opportunity in either Tampa or Orlando during my available dates. I had tried unsuccessfully to find a way to support a voter registration drive, given the restrictive new laws in Florida that are disenfranchising poor and minority voters. And so on this occasion, I realized that often we don’t find the opportunities to be of service; they find us.

But to answer Gary’s question, how do I go about finding opportunities in the states that remain on my list to visit in this, my 50th year? First, you should know that I’ve been making travel arrangements based on my availability and cheaper flights. This is what introduces the “random” into my “random acts of volunteering.” I set up the volunteer opportunities only after I’ve already booked my itineraries. Here’s my process so far:

(1) I go to Idealist ( This is an amazing organization whose mission is to create “a world where all people can lead free and dignified lives, every person who wants to help another has the ability to do so, and no opportunities for action or collaboration are missed or wasted.” They act as a connector, a clearinghouse, a network of service organizations and opportunities. On their website, you can search by key word, location, and more, to find jobs, organizations, volunteer opportunities, events, resources, and programs of interest. That’s how I found St. Stephen’s Pantry in Delaware and learned that they had an opportunity I could plug into on the morning I’d be in Wilmington.

(2) Good old-fashioned web searching. I use Google or Bing to find out what’s going on at my destination the dates I’m there. I’ve tried a variety of search terms, such as “volunteer” + “[city, state]” + “[month, day]” + “2012”. When I searched various permutations of “volunteer” + “Bismarck, ND” + “May 19” + “2012”, I didn’t find any obvious candidates, so I broadened my search to “North Dakota” (not just “Bismarck, ND”) and that’s when I found the state’s extremely comprehensive tourism site ( with a complete calendar of virtually every event happening anywhere in North Dakota for every day of the year. That’s how I found the Prairie Places Festival (about 90 miles outside of Bismarck).

(3) Haven’t had to resort to this yet, but if those methods fail, I may try networking through Facebook, or I’ll just show up and see where I can be of service.

Coming up:

July 7: Voter registration drive at the 4th of July Back2School Celebration and Health Fair, Hollywood Community Center, Memphis, Tennessee (another state that has passed new voting restrictions)

August 25/26: Latin Dance Festival, Albuquerque, New Mexico

September 22: To be determined, Charleston, West Virginia (open to any and all suggestions!)

Sauerkraut Triangle, North Dakota: Prairie Places Festival (Day 2)

Sunday, May 20, 2012: Napoleon, Wishek, Ashley, and Lehr, ND

By my second day in North Dakota, I had a realization, obvious to probably everyone but me, that this is an important time for historic preservation in North Dakota. The oil boom is bringing a kind of prosperity to small towns in western North Dakota, like Williston, and at the same time, “new roads, pipelines, and drill sites are slicing the prairie” (see “Growing Pains: Scenes from the North Dakota Drilling Boom” in onearth magazine, May 21, 2012. [Also see “Bad News for the Badlands,” a New York Times article that came out the day after I published this post]). Beyond the strain of a population boom, new wealth, and environmental pressures, it occurred to me that cultural and historical treasures are threatened in the stampede. This makes the work of Preservation North Dakota even more critical, and worthy of support (donate here).

Day 2 Highlights

Dinosaurs on the Prairie. I woke up early enough to be able to visit Dinosaurs on the Prairie, a collection of old threshing machines arrayed in a parade up a hillside about 4 miles or so out of Napoleon. Birds galore sang in the fields all around as I stood there contemplating the miles and miles of prairie those machines and their drivers had traversed over the many years of their working lives. It was peaceful and awe-inspiring in that very solitary, almost desolate, way.

Dinosaurs on the Prairie – outside Napoleon, ND

Arriving back in Wishek for the morning’s events, Janet Wolff of Wishek Public Schools taught us to sing local German hymns, fueled by a breakfast of tasty doughnuts. Afterward, the end of the silent auction meant helping with packing up and then…

Modern prairie caravan

…More caravanning!  To Lake Hoskins with a monument to early settlers, to the Ashley Jewish Cemetery with graves of 21 settlers mostly from the Ukraine, and to George Station German Baptist Cemetery, tucked away off the highway, off a gravel road, down a dirt/grass road, and behind a couple fences and cattle guards. Our trusty tour guide was Tom Isern, Professor of History and University Distinguished Professor at North Dakota State University, a big, tall, fatherly sort of man and a fount of knowledge about local history, geography, and customs.

Tom Isern at the George Station German Baptist Cemetery

Suzzanne Kelley shares her warm smile with me

By the time we arrived, it was already time for me to leave. But I had to get to the Lehr Tabernacle to say goodbye to Suzzanne, who had gone ahead to meet the caterer for lunch.

After stepping in some fresh cowpies (not once, but twice) as I opened and closed gates of the two different enclosures on my way out, and losing valuable time cleaning it off, I sped on to Lehr. I had no idea where the Tabernacle was, but a friendly local who must have had better things to do escorted me in his truck some distance to the outskirts of town where I found Suzzanne and the others. I was obliged to stay just long enough to wolf down a lunch of roasted chicken, baked beans, potato salad, and (yes!) jello dessert (made with sour cream and blueberries—I’ll admit I had been skeptical but it was quite tasty!). In a rush, I hugged Suzzanne goodbye, and then Debbie Marquart approached me to go out to her car and give me a copy of her book, which she autographed for me. I waved goodbye to everyone and took off as fast as I respectfully could on the church and Bible camp grounds. As I got to the highway, the caravan I had left at the cemetery was approaching, and I waved goodbye to each car as it turned into the drive. What a perfect ending to a moving and memorable two days!

What I Learned Today

The power of service to create connection. I really became aware of how my tendency to sit back and relax, except when I have an assigned role or am called upon to do something, at times prevents me from connecting with others as deeply as I am capable of.

The value of giving and getting. Of course, the conference organizers had already planned everything as much as it needed to be beforehand. It wasn’t as if they were just waiting for me, a totally unknown quantity, to show up and somehow save the day. I was able to make myself useful, yet in the end, I know I got much more out of the experience than anyone else, despite being thanked profusely (and even being told at one point I was a “lifesaver”). I received so many praises, kind gestures, stories, and even the gift of Debbie’s book—not to mention all that I received as a conference participant. Why did I start out thinking that I had to prove my value by providing some “essential” service? Indeed, why was I thinking that I had to prove myself in the first place?

Does receiving benefits through giving diminish the act of giving in any way? Is it ever possible to give without receiving, or is the question just a mind trap? Is it better to give AND receive?

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