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In pursuit of happierness

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image I don’t believe my time is more valuable than anyone else’s; we are all on this earth for a very short time. I think we are all just in pursuit of happierness. Mitch Traphagen Photo

Maybe we’re not so sad in the Tampa Bay area.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

The woman sat in front of an empty storefront on 7th Street in Ybor City working hard on turning palm fronds she had gathered — fronds that would otherwise had been swept into the trash — into beautiful flowers and crosses. Next to her, in a small, beat up rolling suitcase contained her entire life. All she had in the world was right there with her. She worked hard on the palm fronds and laid the results out on the sidewalk for the tourists to look at and hopefully purchase.

I picked up one that she had made into a rose and asked her how much she wanted for it. She said whatever I felt like paying, she was on the streets so she knows times are tough. I asked her how much people typically give her and she said $3 to $5. In looking at the rose, I figured there was probably an hour’s worth of work involved in it, perhaps more. It was beautiful and she had taken great care in making it so. I gave her $10 for which she expressed her sincere gratitude. She may have been homeless, but she wasn’t a victim. She was doing what she needed to do to get by in life. She wasn’t asking for handouts, she was working to provide something of value in exchange for much needed cash, just like most of us do. And to me, particularly given the beauty of her work, her time and skill was worth at least $10 per hour. It matters not that she’s homeless; her time on earth is no less valuable than mine. Thinking about it now, I should have paid her more.

I asked her if I could take her photograph and she agreed. I took it with a camera that cost $2,000 when new — more than 600 roses at the going the rate. I sometimes think that I work hard, but I have to think some more about that. In my opinion, the homeless woman had me beat in that regard.

Was the woman happy?  I don’t know, I can’t imagine it’s easy to be living on the streets. Florida is a rough place to be poor and nothing can be done about that. The weather draws both the wealthy and impoverished alike. While Florida is not known for its social safety net, the reality is that it can’t be everyone’s safety net. If you are going to be homeless, particularly during the winter months, Tampa trumps Chicago or Minneapolis. There isn’t a social safety net big enough for the number of people that would need to take advantage of it.

But, again, this woman wasn’t seeking a handout. With her beautiful work laid out on the sidewalk in front of her, she was a businesswoman doing the best she could. While she may not have been happy about living on the streets, she wasn’t complaining about it either. She wasn’t asking for something for nothing. She was offering her skill and time and a product of her own making in exchange for money. She was making her own way in the world. I sincerely hope that it eventually leads to a better life for her, perhaps with a home to call her own.

I think the phrase, “the pursuit of happiness” makes it sound like some elusive place  that we struggle our entire lives to find. I think that is mistaken. A more apt phrase, perhaps, would be “the pursuit of happier-ness”. Whether one is a homeless person making roses or a wealthy hedge fund manager, we are all looking for better days. But we need to keep in mind that today is pretty good, too.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about how Men’s Health Magazine listed the Tampa Bay area as among the saddest places in America. Now it turns out that Men’s Health has just listed Tampa as being the vainest city in America. Excuse me?
I’m trying to picture the scene here:  “Well, I think I’ll go out and refill my anti-depressants and then stop off for a few Botox injections or a workout at the gym.”

I don’t think so. I’m starting to think that Men’s Health just has it in for Tampa.

Michelle and I live in a house on a canal off the Little Manatee River. During Tropical Storm Debby, we had flooding in a big way. In fact, the day after the worst of the storm came the worst of the flooding. The house was literally an island with water on all sides — at least that water which wasn’t making its way inside. It wasn’t the most pleasant experience of our lives. But as the storm started and the water began rising, Bev, our next-door neighbor, called to ask if we were OK. That’s just like something people in our collective vision of a great America would do, you know, in Small Town America and places that aren’t sad, depressed, and totally engrossed in themselves.

Glenn and Norma Jean, our neighbors on the other side, offered to let us stay in their house, which was high and dry. That offer was even extended to our big, spoiled dogs. I couldn’t believe anyone would be so generous. They were going to be gone for the evening so they just gave us the keys. When the flooding finally started to recede, we went over to check on their house. On the kitchen counter, they had left out two drink glasses with a bottle of Irish cream in the refrigerator, assuming we’d need it if we had to evacuate. Had that happened, they certainly would have been correct.

The generosity and compassion shown to us by our neighbors is anything but sad. These are good people that I know aren’t found everywhere but, by and large, have reminded me that people really do care for their neighbors. People really do care for things beyond themselves.

Maybe we’re not so sad in the Tampa Bay area. And I can’t begin to figure out the vanity thing. Last week we were thwacked by a storm, but people picked up, carried on and helped their neighbors do the same. Sure, as I watched the water reach the threshold of our front door, I felt the inclination to be sad about it and play the victim. Why does bad stuff always happen to me?  How could I be so unlucky? Why do people say stupid and mean things on the Internet? OK, so I wasn’t necessarily thinking about the last one during the flooding, but I frequently do wonder that.

Regardless, what a load of hooey for which I am ashamed of myself. Even if water had inundated the house, how could I be sad?  I was worried about a bunch of stuff; stuff that can be replaced. I realized after the storm that my pursuit of happierness is on a pretty clear and easy path. I should be counting my blessings rather than wondering why an entire metropolitan area in paradise could be sad, and worse yet, inadvertently counting myself into that lot.

Me, sad?  Sheesh. Although I forget it far too often, I have no reason to be sad. If I need a reminder of that, all I need to do is start counting. I’ll start with my friends Steph and Jerry and continue on to my neighbors, Bev, Glenn and Norma Jean, my wife, my home, my job and much more. And in that list, which I know would be embarrassingly long, would be a rose made from a palm frond by a homeless business woman. Like life itself, that rose is beautiful. Seeing it makes me happy.

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