Easy to be happy

25 March, 2014    Easy to be happy

Sometimes it’s easy to be happy. Other times you can’t imagine you’ll ever be happy again. I started this post walking the dogs on a Sunday evening. Ev and Turner and Mackey and I had recently (w/in the last couple hours) returned from a flawless weekend in Blacksburg with my brother Shane and his wife Kristin and their dog Tara. The weekend before I’d spent the entire day Saturday visiting the Highland Maple Festival in Monterey, VA with Wren, one of my five lovely nieces. I was getting ready for bed Sunday evening thinking about how easy it is to be happy. At 10:10 PM my phone buzzed and I got a text from my oldest and dearest friend. We met four decades ago this September. We’ve been through a lot, lot, lot together. A member of his family has cancer. Another has dementia. He’d just learned a second family member was diagnosed with cancer. He has another family member with a significant disability. I was thinking that if I’d drafted my “Easy to be happy” blog post on paper, I’d have crumpled it up and thrown it in the trash. We had a long talk on the phone the next day, when life felt less overwhelming. No one’s path had changed. But he sounded better.

He’s happier more consistently than most people you know. It’s not because he’s lucky. Luck makes people happy for a brief time, but not consistently. It’s my observation that he’s consistently happy because he’s consistently nice to people. Being nice to others is a choice 100% of the time. Since he’s consistently nice to people, people are consistently (more often than not) nice to him. So when he walks into a store or an office or a home or anyplace where people know him, people are happy he’s there. Which makes him feel good every time. He gets used to people treating him that way, and it gets to be his routine, and he begins to feel that way even when he walks into a place where people don’t know him.

So today – and tomorrow – and next year – he will have family members with cancer. If they live that long. He’ll have a family member with dementia and one – minimum – with a disability. He’s not happy about it. But he’s still nice to people. And people are nice to him. And he’s happy about that. Because he’s made choices. That any of us can make any time.

Oy. Way too preachy. Please see this picture for a much needed change in tone:

Boy did I ever need a smile! And boy did Wren ever deliver!

Boy did I ever need a smile! And boy did Wren ever deliver!

That’s me with Wren at the Maple Festival. Behind us is a table full of “Pecan Yummies.” The picture was taken by Amy Yule, the “Yum Master” of “Pecan Yummies.” She has graciously photographed us every year at the Maple Festival. She always does a great job, but when your subjects are as pretty as my nieces, it’s easy to take great pictures! On the label of the Pecan Yummies it says: ingredients: pecans, sugar, butter, eggs, vanilla extract. They are beyond delicious. Their slogan is “Like Love, Best When Shared.” True story – we walked around the corner and saw this bumper sticker on a car:

A caption is obviously unnecessary.

A caption is obviously unnecessary.

I got out of order on those pictures. First, a picture of Ms. Yule (from their web site):

The Yum Master! Best job title EVER!

The Yum Master! Best job title EVER!

And since I’m really out of order, I have to backtrack – to breakfast. Our first order of business on arrival each year is walk to the century old Highland Inn for pancakes with delicious maple syrup. Casey (I hope I spelled her name right) was our waitress last year and we were fortunate to get her again this time around. She took our picture last year and she took it again this year – just me and Wren!:

I hope Wren was having fun. I KNOW I was!

I hope Wren was having fun. I KNOW I was!

I’ve been encouraged to do more “real” writing. Or anyway I think of it as “real” writing. My take on “real” writing is that the flow is, like life (and like the river) more linear. E.g. you don’t put the breakfast picture after the pecan yummy picture since that’s not the order they happened. But the flow of this writing is more like thought, which is non linear, than it is like life (or the river). Because in ten seconds you can think about something that you’re planning for tomorrow, and something that happened when you were twenty-seven (if you’re old enough) and something that happened when you were thirty-four or eight or sixteen.

So here’s a picture from Ev’s and my most recent weekend – March 21, 22 and 23 in Blacksburg. This is Kristin, Shane, Ev and me standing in front of the Next Door Bake Shop (it was superb) in Blacksburg after brunch:

Kristin, Shane, Ev, me

Kristin, Shane, Ev, me

I don’t have any pictures (incredible, I know) but the evening before we had an equally superb dinner at Lefty’s Grille in Blacksburg. If you get to Blacksburg at all, go to both places. But if you really want to eat right, finagle an invitation to Shane and Kristin’s humble abode and talk Shane into making you a fresh veggie and pesto omelet. If I could choose to repeat just one meal from that entire weekend, I’d have that omelet again in about a second. No pictures of the omelet either, unfortunately. We did have dogs on the deck at one point, and I did get a shot of that:

Mackey, Turner, and their gracious host Tara - all waiting for me to stop taking pictures.

Mackey, Turner, and their gracious hostess Tara – all waiting for me to stop taking pictures.

Pardon (please) besides the non-linearity of this post, the bloated size. Hopefully no one has fallen asleep reading it. If so, I suggest you bookmark it and put it to good use the next time you have insomnia.

We’d had a first world problem or two on our weekend in Blacksburg, something to do with the toaster or coffee maker or whatever it was, all of our problems that weekend were of the first world variety. Then I got home and talked to my buddy who although he lives in the first world was having problems that are more universal. I have another niece with the Peace Corp in west Africa (Guinea). Guinea is most decidedly not in the first world – it’s practically a poster country for the third world, which I suppose is why the Peace Corp is there. And we got word not long ago that although she is happy and healthy, she’s being evacuated from the region due to an outbreak of ebola. While reading up on it, I learned this:

“Guinea has banned the sale and consumption of bats to prevent the spread of the deadly Ebola virus, its health minister has said…

Bats, a local delicacy, appeared to be the “main agents” for the Ebola outbreak in the south…”

Part of living in a first world country means we can choose – having the choice is a luxury – to live in a less luxurious fashion. Like I doubt if you know anybody who has eaten any bats recently or in their entire lives. I don’t have to heat with firewood, but I choose to. If I’m too lazy or cheap to buy firewood – I don’t even cut it myself, I’d like to point out – I can always just turn the heat on. One person we met at the Maple Festival was making wood implements by hand. He made these spoons, and I’ve been eating my oatmeal and my soup with them since we got home:

I think of the Maple Festival every morning at breakfast.

I think of the Maple Festival every morning at breakfast.

Not far from Ms. Yule and her divine Pecan Yummies, Wren and I met a guy named Nathan Jenkins operating a spring pole lathe. He was among the nicest people we met all day and the three of us had a long chat. He was the one who made those spoons.

After we got home I googled him (of course) and read this in the program from the 2013 Treasure Mountain Festival in Franklin, WV:

“Nathan Jenkins – Raised in Page County Va., [that’s where our cabin was!] son of White Oak Basketmaker Clyde Jenkins, Nathan Jenkins is no stranger to keeping alive folklife traditions. As a young boy Nathan developed interest in working the wood for making his own white oak baskets. Using wood that was discarded by his father Nathan learned the art of working the wood.


Traveling to 17th century market fairs at the Claude Moore Colonial Farm Nathan crossed paths with a volunteer there who demonstrated the spring pole lathe; Tom Kluwen. Tom introduced Nathan to the art of the spring pole lathe. Nathan is an avid reader. He read books on the art of turning the wood and Tom’s encouragement and basic hands on approach helped Nathan to further his interest in wood turning.


As Nathan has become more intrigued with all varieties of wood and what wood is best for what purpose his accomplishments include hand hewn dough bowls; chairs with white oak split bottom seats; hand turned goblets; bowls; etc.


There is no electricity to run the spring pole lathe. It is powered by the up and down motion of Nathan’s foot on the lathe’s pedal. This is an art that few people have ever seen demonstrated. This way of working the wood is awesome to see. It offers a real appreciation of times past.”

If you google Nathan and Treasure Mountain Festival, you’ll find that article and a picture of him. I hope he won’t mind but I took a picture of him later that afternoon and he didn’t know I took it and I didn’t ask his permission to use it here. But he was a singular human being, and I was in awe that his ease in communicating with my ten year old niece was as effortless and graceful as the way he turned wood on his primitive lathe. Here he is, with his lathe:

Nathan Jenkins - as skilled and kind and graceful and down to earth a human being as you'll ever encounter anywhere.

Nathan Jenkins – as skilled and kind and graceful and down to earth a human being as you’ll ever encounter anywhere.

This post has gone on far too long but it’s been an exciting couple of weeks and I’m not quite finished. If you’ve made it this far, thanks for bearing with me, I’m nearly done. Each year after we’ve eaten and made the rounds of all the sights in town, we head to “Duff’s Sugar House” about three miles away to watch maple syrup being made “the old fashioned way.” The sap (they refer to it as “sugar water”) is boiled in a huge iron kettle and the steam goes out of the top of the building. We always like it because it’s cold in Highland County in March and it’s warm in the “Sugar House.” This is what it says in the festival guide:

= = = = =

Duff’s Sugar House

Located southwest of Monterey (3 mi. south on U.S. 220 and 3 mi. west on Route 84), Duff’s Sugar House is a small, family-run sugar house where the trees are still “opened” by hand and the sugar water collected in buckets. Cooking is done in a wood-fired open pan and finished in an iron kettle. Hands-on participation is encouraged. Maple tours all day.

= = = ==

This is what it looks like from where we parked on the side of Route 84; I cherish this view:

It makes me calm just looking at it.

It makes me calm just looking at it.

To the left is an enormous old “Sugar” as they call the big sugar maples. The sheep barn is the white building directly in the center at the top. Just below is a small gray building, the “Sugar House” proper, I suppose it’s called. The sugar house (the whole farm, really) is owned by Tim and Terry Duff. One of the reasons we like to go there last is because it’s usually quite cold at the Maple Festival and it’s always warm in the sugar house. Here’s a picture of Mr. Duff explaining the procedure:

Mr. Duff explaining the syrup making procedure.

Mr. Duff explaining the syrup making procedure.

Mr. and Mrs. Duff’s entire operation was fascinating. They had an explanation of the farm (Fair Lawn Farm) and of the Sugar House (Duffs Sugarhouse) posted outside. I took a picture of the signs and they’re here. I highly recommend reading them. Click on the images to make them larger so you can read them:

Explanation of the farm

Explanation of the farm


Explanation of the Sugar House

Explanation of the Sugar House

Enough already! I’ll say goodbye by with a picture of Wren saying goodbye to their adorable pup – whose name I didn’t get!:



If there’s a theme in this post – there’s not, but hypothetically – it’s that if you’re nice to people, you’ll be happier. If you live long enough you’ll go through tons and tons and tons of crappy stuff and you’ll feel horrible sometimes. But: if you’re nice to people, you’ll be happier.

About Jay McLaughlin

I am a rehabilitation counselor. I have many friends with autism and traumatic brain injuries. They help me learn new things constantly. I hike with dogs at the James River in Richmond - a lot. I've completed an Iron distance triathlon a year for 11 years. My most recent was in Wilmington, NC in November, 2013. I currently compete in mid-distance triathlons. And work and hike and take pictures and write and eat.
This entry was posted in Dogs, Fun, People, Rivers, Smiles (including "dog smiles"!). Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Easy to be happy

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  4. Tim Duff says:

    Good morning!
    After years of requests, we have decided to create a website for our farm, Fair Lawn Farm. Have you ever, or would you consider allowing the use of some of your photos for such a purpose? No children’s faces, full credit given etc.

    Thank you in advance-

    Tim & Terry Duff
    Fair Lawn Farm

    • Hi Tim and Terry!
      I apologize for the delay responding to this! I would be honored if you’d use some of my blog photos for your farm web site. My March visits to Fair Lawn Farm have been a highlight every year for the past ten. I’m looking forward to visiting for at least another ten, but hopefully twenty or thirty! Also feel free to email me at N E W F A Z E (at) g m a i l DOT com. Of course take out the spaces, etc. Thanks for the note!

      All best,


  5. Tim Duff says:

    Our site is up and running, we’ll be constantly updating with new photos, including yours. Check us out at comehometofairlawnfarm.com

    We just finished our “Wheelin’Sportsmen” event. 23 folks with disabilities and their families, it was great! Keep us in mind for your clients, we’d be honored to host them.

    Tim & Terry Duff
    Fair Lawn Farm

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