All posts by Jamie Lynn

Love Knows No Mapquest

These are not Internet love stories, or tales of arranged matches. These are tales of soulmates finding each other the old-fashioned way, by living their lives and leaving the rest to fate.

Eric and Gretchen Kozen

The Scene: Oakdale Cemetery, June 25, 2004.

A long overdue ceremony to mark Grave No. 5, Row No. 8 and honor Sgt. Broughton, Union soldier, 2nd West Virginia Cavalry, who died April 10, 1865. Gretchen is Sgt. Broughtons second great-niece. Shes flown in from Pennsylvania for a beach vacation and this ancestral gathering. Shes holding a box of handwritten letters from Sgt. Broughton to his mother and family, dated 1862-1865. Eric is the superintendant of Oakdale Cemetery and has outdone himself to give Sgt. Broughton a proper burial. And hes helping Gretchen maneuver the video camera.

He: OK, Ill tell the story.

She: And Ill provide the colorful commentary.

He: So, I get a call in January 2004, from a gentleman named Carl. He tells me hes doing some genealogy research and that one of his ancestors is a Union soldier. I tell him Im really sorry, hes not here; the Union soldiers bodies had been moved to the National Cemetery. I even call over there, but, unfortunately, they have no record of him. Then Carl tells me he has proof of his relative being buried in Oakdale Cemetery, a handwritten postcard with a picture: Sgt. Broughton Grave No. 5, Row No. 8, buried April 10, 1865. So, we fill out the form for a Veterans Monument and I tell Carl Ill call him as soon as it comes in. Carl calls me probably ten times in the next four weeks and finally it arrives. And I assume thats the end of it. Nope.

Carl calls a few days later and says, Id like to do a family-reunion ceremony, bring in ancestors from England, relatives So I get a bagpiper who plays Amazing Grace, the preacher finds a bible from 1865, we bring in the Daughters of the Confederacy

WBM: For a Union soldier?

She: Oh sure. If they can put on a hoop skirt, and go to a funeral, theyll do it!  Read more….

Bronze Radio Returns…

…let’s hope so!  Jamie heads to the back room of the Soapbox Laundrolounge and Night Club, and tonight, the Sonic Byways Lair, to catch-up with Chris Henderson of Bronze Radio Return.  An appreciative crowd soaked up the positive on-stage vibes, and rock and roll’s nicest lead singer effuses on the importance of positive energy, radios with knobs and writing original music–and in a confessional, never-before-recorded radio moment, Henderson admits he’s intimidated by cover bands.

Emily’s First Warren Zevon

It’s a dark and stormy night on Sonic Byways, a perfect time for a good visit from an old friend.  And corralling her onto the mic.  Emily Hyatt from Aspen, and now Baltimore, drives down to Wilmington, grabs Jamie, and drags her to a beach bungalow in Oak Island, North Carolina.  Jamie straps Emily to the chair (this is getting good), introduces her to Warren Zevon, and peer-pressures her into co-hosting Sonic Byways.  Emily provides her own one-liners; you just can’t script this sort of thing.

Valentine’s Day Committee for Change

 

Once again, V- Day is looming.

I call it V- Day because Hallmark’s favorite holiday–Valentine’s Day–is a bit like D-Day, especially for the men, I suppose. It’s romantic warfare: the pressure is on and everything will completely blow up, if you don’t do everything exactly right.  You’ll have a disaster of epic proportions on your hands, and the history book of your relationship will posthumously dissect your foiled attempts on the romantic front lines.

I’ve had both good and bad Valentine’s Days, like good and bad any ol’ days—centering expectations around a contrived celebration has never made much sense to me.

And yet, a few years ago, in a sort of preemptive Valentine’s Day strike (strangely, relationship fits and starts seem to hover around February 14), I chose to distance myself from the wrong guy and head home to see the family.

Turns out, they have Valentine’s Day in California too.  My sister and I went to the midnight screening of Valentine’s Day, the movie. She was psyched to stay up late, and her husband agreed to man the kid-filled fort so she and I could enjoy a “sister outing.”  I told her this was the perfect Valentine’s Date: “There’s no point even going out with friends,” I observed. “You get bad service, because no one wants to be there.  And there’s nowhere to sit, because it’s all two-tops!”

Onscreen, Jamie Foxx was the Ladies’ Man of newscasters; but even he wouldn’t touch V-Day. “Now, listen, y’all know I’m a player,” says Foxx’s Casanova to his fellow broadcasters, “but I purposely shut down my playerhood from New Year’s to St. Patrick’s Day, yeah, that’s right—just so I can avoid Valentine’s Day.”

Last year, just before Valentine’s Weekend, I was skiing with some girlfriends in Colorado.  We boarded the long, slow chairlift and there was plenty of time to talk.

“Valentine’s Day is the worst,” declared Sarah, shaking her head. “Seriously, it’s like I dread it all year. Everything’s just going along fine and then –wham. There it is.”

Sarah had a boyfriend (we were finally using that word) who was a single dad and lived a few hours away; Heidi had been dating someone for a few months;

Heidi chimed in: “So yeah, I am not expecting much. I got him a card…but I’m holding onto it. We’ll see what he does first.” I asked how everything was going. “Oh, great. Really, everything’s fine,” she said.

Meaning, things probably were fine, except now that Valentine’s Day was looming, she’d decided to second-guess things and monitor every potentially unromantic twitch, or cough.  I chuckled, then asked her how long she’d wait until the big ‘card unveiling’… 10 o’clock? 11:59 pm?

She paused, a slight smirk on her face, then shrugged. “Yeah, and if he blows it,” she continued, “maybe I’ll give it to him right at the last minute—scribble something real quick then whip it out, just to make him feel bad.”

Romantic stuff, right? To Heidi—and to many women, I imagine, Valentine’s Day is some sort of showdown, little to do with genuine affection, more like “pistols drawn at 5:47 pm, the only time I could get us a dinner reservation.”

Sarah chimed in on the card conundrum. “Well, on the other hand, you don’t want it to be like Christmas. Scott unveiled the new TV set, and I showed up with a hat. I was like, ‘Um, yeah, still working on your present pile. But this’ll keep you warm while you’re installing my new flat screen…?’”

Heidi and I cackled, and the chair jerked forward.  Good thing the safety bar was down.

“Seriously, I was horrified!” Sarah continued. “I didn’t know we were going big already, geesh…”

I nudged Heidi. “So yeah, Heids, definitely hold out on the card, Don’t want to overwhelm him.”

“But seriously,” Sarah observed, between fits of laughter. “It’s a girl’s holiday.  Are we supposed to shower the man?

“Nope, it’s their turn to do the fussing. I’m hangin’ onto the card,” Heidi declared.  I’ll keep you posted.”

Sarah’s boyfriend was supposed to come down for the whole weekend, but family obligations had whittled the visit down to maybe, possibly, Sunday night; and then, come Monday morning—officially Valentine’s Day—they were both traveling for work for a couple weeks.

“I mean, I can’t be upset, because he’s being a good dad–which is awesome–but our weekend just got totally…shrunk.”

We starting referring to the Weekend of Dwindling Valentine’s as the Shrinkage .Our laughter was now causing the chair to sway from side to side.

“But yeah, he’ll be here for like four hours,” Sarah lamented. “Then he’ll take off on Valentine’s Day!”

And therein lay that rub. That Scott had to head out on Valentine’s Day turned an otherwise inconvenient change of plans into the big “red and pink” elephant in the room, so to speak. To Sarah, a small, interpersonal speed bump was in danger of becoming severe road damage, with the sign declaring: “He took off on Valentine’s Day!”

I got it; I really did. Disappointment sucks, but so does assessing your relationships through Hallmark holidays.

I guess I was raised with a different outlook on Valentines’ Day.

I turned to my friends and said, in all sincerity: “How about you get all Jedi Mind trick this year, and just ignore Valentine’s Day?”

 

In all fairness, I’ve had some solid Valentine’s Day mentors.  While my siblings and I were raised around love affection between Mom and Dad, my father held an utter disdain for Valentine’s Day.

He thought it was the stupidest, most made-up marketing ploy on the planet, and he refused to acknowledge it in the expected fashion.

That’s not to say he didn’t acknowledge it at all.

He gave Mom all kinds of cards on Valentine’s Day: Get Well Soon; Sorry for Your Loss; Congratulations, Graduate! The St. Patrick’s Day card year was the best. In true Hallmark fashion, St. Patrick’s Day cards came out a month or so early, surely by early February, and sometimes the leprechauns resembled evil cupids—so actually, Dad was pretty spot on, substituting St. Paddy’s for V-Day.  He’d take Mom to dinner and would always do something in honor of the day, but he never, ever, gave her a Valentine’s Day card.

Mom would sigh, shaking her head at a recycled Groundhog Day card, and say, “Oh, Spike, come on…”

This little ritual always made me smile. It’s one of my favorite memories of my dad. Spike Miller was an innovator in many ways, but raising his daughters to raise an eyebrow at February 14 was one of his finer moves.

 

I phoned Heidi after skiing. “Any developments on the card front?”

“Well, he called and asked me if I had any plans Monday night,” she said. “He’s like, I guess we should go to dinner or something, huh?”

Hooray! She now had plans.  Hooray, right?!

“I guess we should go to dinner?  Kinda weak,” she continued.  “Whatever. Not card-worthy yet. I’m keepin’ it in the drawer.”

So, while Dad thought the card was the least of the sentiment, a special dinner date on the big night didn’t necessarily mean Heidi’s date was getting a card.

A complicated Hallmark ritual, this Valentine’s Day, fraught with skepticism and withholding.

I then called Sarah to see how the Shrinkage was going. Scott was on his way, she told me. “No more talk of shrinkage!”

 

On Valentine’s Eve, I called my niece and nephew to chat. I missed them. Nate was then 9, Sophia 11, and I needed an update from each of them.  Nate’s pizza had herbs with an audible “h,” eww gross! Every Valentine’s Day, Sophia told me, the classes go to IHOP–International House of Pancakes–but this year, her class wasn’t going.

And she was mad.

I told her I’d be mad, too, if everyone went to IHOP but me. But hey, why do you all got to IHOP on Valentine’s Day?

“I don’t know. We just do,” she said, with 11-year-old exasperation. I suggested this was a nice way to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Pancakes for all. At an International House of Them!

“Yeah,” Sophia continued, “and I was supposed to bring cards to school for everyone but I told the teacher that was a waste of paper and glue, and I didn’t do it.”

“You did?” I said, stifling a laugh. “Wow. But wait, do you really feel that way about wasting paper and glue, or was it just a Valentine’s Day thing? Because I’m sure you waste paper and glue in other ways. I sure do!”

Sophia laughed. “Well I mean if it’s for Christmas or Chanukah, it’s OK. Because everyone gets presents. But Valentine’s Day is a lame, made-up holiday that was invented by the Hallmark card people.”

“Who told you that?” I asked, in total disbelief. Was this natural disdain for Hallmark holidays genetic?

“Mommy,” she said, giggling.

And then I told Sophia the story of our dad, Grandpa Spike, whom she never met, and how he showered Nana with many good things over the years but never, ever, with a Valentine’s Day card.

I ran through the list of bogus greeting cards, pausing for effect on the evil leprechaun/cupid phenomenon, and Sophia giggled and giggled at Grandpa Spike’s silliness.

I’m pretty sure she, too, liked the St. Paddy’s Day year the best.

 

Several years ago, Sophia sent me a handwritten Valentine’s letter, measured penmanship round and intentional on dotted lines, and sparkle pen explosions in Valentine’s-like colors.

“Dear Aunt Jamie, Happy Valentine’s Day! I can’t wait to see you in Mexico! We are going to have so much fun. We are going to go rock climbing and hiking. Maybe I can stay in your room one night.”

I put her letter on my fridge to enjoy every day. A note like that makes any day feel like Valentine’s Day.

* * *

If life is a box of chocolates,  love is something else.

Never be afraid to show your cards, especially those with glue smudges and sparkly stickers.

 

The Day the MP3 Player Died

What do Patrolled By Radar, Patti Smith, The Velvet Underground and The Wood Brothers have in common?  They were playing across borders, in unison, the day the MP3  player died.

Never mind the end of the world. This was way more catastrophic.

Jamie, stuck in the Dominican Republic; tropical rain falling down, music blasting through the MP3 player and across the palm trees until–dead silence.  Battery too low.  System shutdown.

She had an outlet but unfortunately, she had no charger.   So what were the last tunes on the desert island?  An amalgamation of punk, folk and rockabilly, in no particular order.  This week on Sonic Byways, we’ll revisit that fateful soundtrack.  Turn it up, bring your chargers–or better yet, throw a gal an IPOD.

Listen Only After World Doesn’t End

Jamie’s sailing off the edge of the world before the ball drops, so here’s an advanced musical surprise.  However: Do Not Tune In Before December 22, 2012.  I’m serious.  This is one present you can’t open early; you’ll jinx it, and then where will we be? Flailing about the universe without a post-apocalypic music bed.  Come December 23, here’s a sublime Sonic Byways for those who wait.

Music for the Last Night on Earth

Is this it?????  Really????  OK  just in case, Jamie offers up some stellar new discoveries, reminiscent of old-school prophets and toned-down, lyrically-endowed melodies.  Tune in below as Sonic Byways discovers “Searching for Sugarman,” featuring the music of Sixto Rodriquez, and thoroughly digests Neutral Milk Hotel upon Gravity Records of Wilmington’s life-changing musical recommendation.  If the world carries on, Jeff Mangum of NMH will appear at the Brooklyn Arts Center on January 30.  And if not? We always have this episode.

My Boyfriend Bruce

Catchy title, eh?  I actually mean my imaginary boyfriend Bruce–but if he ever hears this, he may just show himself.  It’s an experimental, old-timey-radio type of Sonic Byways: the music of the Boss set to a spoken-word tribute to the man, the music and my first true love, Bruce Springsteen.

Behavioral Issues

 

Last winter, I started going to the climbing gym in the mornings.  And by mornings I mean around 11.  My freshman year in college, I judged a class’ merit by its starting time: I majored in whatever subject started at noon. In the same spirit, starting my freelance day a little later suits my natural body clock—and it also allows for free-range of the climbing wall, which is virtually empty before the lunch-hour.

Bouldering problems are marked by colored tape next to each hand and foothold sequence, and it’s significant that they’re problems, not solutions.  In bouldering, there’s a built-in expectation of failure: if at first you succeed—well then, it was just too easy.  Now go find bigger problems!

And therein lies the beauty: you try to solve a problem, but it doesn’t work. So you need to get creative, and explore other solutions; you need to find a way to problem-solve.

I like bouldering to music, but unfortunately, the stereo isn’t always free.  Most mornings there are kids activities on the main floor adjacent to the wall, where gymnastics, yoga, and what I’ve come to call socialization classes are held throughout the day.

Tony, the kid’s instructor, always gives me a nod.  He knows I like to play music, so he lets me know if the stereo’s up for grabs: “Hey Jamie, why don’t you play us some music while we bounce around the room?” and twelve pairs of four-year-old eyes follow his gaze, expectantly, waiting for me to entertain them.

But most of the time, Tony plays his finely-tuned kids’ soundtrack, and I chalk up my hands to a steady stream of child-development background music.  There’s some decent stuff on there: Israel Kamakavivole’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” some hip reggae for kids, and Jungle Book-sounding music, with a groovy back-beat.  And the kids remind me of Mogli from The Jungle Book, running around with messed-up hair and curious expressions, bewildered by the big space full of colors and mats and things to roll over and crawl under, and most importantly, full of other kids to interact with.

I smile at the music and the kids exploring their bright new world. A few minutes later, Tony gathers them in a circle to regroup and review group behavior tactics.  A little girl named Daia hasn’t said a word all morning; she’s not ready to talk in public—but she’s ready to use her voice. She points to a certain chair and starts to cry: slow and steady at first, then bringing it to a high-pitch wail, the kind that makes moms very sad and makes others struggling to get a good grip on a small, sharp climbing hold, decide it’s time for a breather.

“Daia?  Sweetie? What’s wrong?” says Tony. “You want to sit next to Arabelle? Well, let’s use our words,” he suggests.  “Come on Sweetie. Daia? Repeat after me: ‘Dan’….”

Daia chokes back a sob, and says nothing.

Her friend Arabelle looks at the chair in question, where a defiant-looking boy is seated.  Arabelle chimes in with Tony, channeling Daia’s voice like some sort of medium, or Daia ventriloquist: “Dan?”

“Would you please?” continues Tony.

“Would you please?” repeats Arabelle.

“Let me sit there??”

Daia sniffs, and waits. We all wait. No response from Dan—just a head shake and a grimace.

“O.K….well, looks like Dan doesn’t want to move,” says Tony, stating the obvious, for the record. “So now, we need to deal with this new reality.”

Suddenly, a voice pipes up from across the circle. “You can sit here, Daia,” says a little girl, a tentative smile on her face, gesturing to the empty seat next to her.

“There we go,” declares Tony.  “Problem solved.”

 

***

I’ve been eavesdropping from the bouldering mats, and I’m impressed:  Speak your truth. Ask for what you want. Register disappointment, readjust expectations—and then problem solve.

“Hey Tony,” I call out, across the gym: “I think I know a couple of adults who could take your class.  What’s the height limit?”

I get back on the wall and attempt the neon green traverse; I’m working on endurance today, concentrating on breathing and pacing myself and just staying on the wall for as long as possible.  Back on the floor, Tony’s motivating the troops for the next round of teamwork.  “Now remember what we say when we head on the trampoline,” he tells the class.

Their small voices grow loud, rising in unison, vocal chords resonating with the ancient wisdom.  “GIVE. KIDS.   SPACE!!”   They know this mantra well.

I shake my head, suddenly wishing someone else was here, so we could jointly process the greatness.  What a phenomenal life lesson, for all ages. How many arguments, bad moods, counter-productive conversations have been logged into the miscommunication record books, because one person needed space, and the other person wouldn’t give it?

 

* * *

 It’s been awhile, but I cringe, recalling some of my own spatial relations issues over the years.

He: I’m tired.

Me: Well, we need to talk!

Insert Yell for Talk, slam door.  Wait 45 seconds.

Knock on door; or open door and look around—depending on whose door’s whose.

Alternate Ending: Slam down the land-line. Feel superior.  Start to call back, then hang up and sit on hands. Congratulate self on self-control.

Call back 11 seconds later and let it ring.  Still ringing.

A friend of mine once told me he really loves his girlfriend; but she never lets him just feel what he’s feeling.  If he’s mad, or sad, she pushes him to get over it.  He said it really bothers him.  He said he won’t marry her because of it.

Personally, I’ve learned “I don’t want to talk right now” usually means “I don’t want to talk right now,” and counting to ten in separate corners of the playground really means giving the other kid space.

 

* * *

Over at the trampoline, Daia’s calmed down. She’s still not talking, but her high-pitched squeals are now of delight, not angst. Tony is calling out other things for kids to keep in mind. Help others! Share! Be POLITE!

Be polite. I stretch my sore fingers, and think of an incident during a recent trip to Fiji.  There were four of us crossing the international dateline: my two best friends, Heidi and Sarah, myself, and one of Heidi’s work friends, the Wild Card, who vaguely resembled Naomi Campbell, and subsequently acted like a supermodel.  Enter hormones, colossal fatigue and five days of torrential tropical rain.  Patience had worn wafer-thin, and our coping skills had all but disappeared.

One rainy afternoon, an expat invited us for spontaneous cocktails at sunset, but we’d already made plans for the trek to town for Friday night festivities.  In Fiji, heading to town involved multiple bouts of public transportation and promised to take most of the afternoon—and so, on behalf of the group, I politely declined the invitation, asking the man for a “rain check,” instead.  We both laughed at the ample opportunity for a rain check in a tropical rainforest, and he sent us on our way with a pat on the back, and a chuckle, wishing the “Colorado ladies” a “very dry evening.”

The four of us piled into a taxi, my friends and I crammed into the backseat, while Wild Card stretched out up front, the only seat she deigned to occupy.

“That was so rude, Jamie,” she said, craning around the headrest to glare at me.

“Excuse me??” I countered, leaning forward into the hostile air space between us.

“Yeah, it was. In fact, you’re the rudest person I’ve ever met,” she declared, eyes flashing below overly-sculpted eyebrows.

“Whoa” said my friend Sarah, with a slight cough, trying to still the escalating emotional tide. “Now that doesn’t sound right.”

Fast-forward to total behavioral meltdown, heated talk of new lodging arrangements and parting of ways and finally, upon my suggestion, a group conference in the living room, Real World-style.

In this case “giving each other space” wasn’t the answer; I think we actually needed an escalation. Because the old way of doing things wasn’t working, and it was time to face the new reality: Wild Card and I were two totally different types of women—and we weren’t getting along.   However, the old reality was still in effect: we were on a group vacation on the other side of the world, down several dirt roads and five days into a 15-day excursion. We had to find a different way to deal with each other.

To my astonishment, Wild Card apologized—twice, in fact, saying “You know, I just say what’s on my mind. Sometimes I don’t think!” I listened without interrupting, begrudgingly admiring her self-awareness, impressed by her ability to take responsibility.

Our anger cooled. The rain stopped. We put on dresses, and went out drinking.

And she and I actually enjoyed each other the rest of the time.   For her high-maintenance looks and uncanny knack for taking over the front seat, Wild Card had a surprisingly pliable travel persona.  She’d throw her perfectly ironed hair into a baseball hat and come kayaking; when the first shuttle was full, she opted to walk back in the mud.  Our last night as a group we decided to splurge, and end our trip on a four-star, air-conditioned note, and we stayed at the Hilton; Sarah and Heidi left the next morning, while Wild Card and I flew out a day later.  We were last seen laughing, just the two of us, toasting the end of the Fiji chapter at the underwater bar.  We took the same flight to Australia, navigating through customs – and customs detainment – like good travel partners.  We shared a taxi through the streets of Sydney to her friend’s flat, before finally parting ways.

The taxi continued on to my own friend’s flat and for the first time in weeks, I was on my own.  I took a deep breath, and sighed.   The driver pulled in for petrol, and I asked if I might sit up front.  Then I thought of Wild Card, and laughed; she’d ridden in the back this time. And I sort of missed her already.

* * *

I hop back on the climbing wall, refocusing on today’s bouldering problem: yellow tape with blue stars, and long reaches for my short arms between almost every move.  I glance over at the kids. Tony’s moved them beneath a giant rainbow-colored sail and I’m not sure what the lesson is now, because I can’t see them, can only make out the outline of their little selves crawling around under big sheets of fabric.

The mood in the room is optimistic, however.  It seems they’ve managed to maneuver the trampoline, without trampling on anyone’s fingers—or feelings.

 

 

Hope

 
If you’re not Episcopalian, Anglican, Advent Christian, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, Mormon, Unitarian, Roman Catholic or one of the many Baptist varietals—or if you’re a Jew who likes to jog, you pretty much have the streets of downtown Wilmington to yourself on a Sunday morning.  I usually run over to the nearby city park/rec center, which consists of some fenced-in baseball fields and an expanse of ill-kept grassy ground around the perimeter.  It’s the soft ground I’m looking for and most often, I have the field to myself.

There are three and a half pages of Church listings in the Wilmington Area phone book, followed by listings for Cigar and Cigarette Lighters; so if you’re not in church, and you’re not jogging, you’re probably smoking on a Sunday morning.  Two Sundays ago, I run to the park, and the usually deserted baseball field has a couple of observers.  There are two black men sitting side-by-side in the bleachers, right next to the dugout.  They peer out at the ball field, not talking much, occasionally taking a phone call or a drag of a cigarette. I nod hello and continue my laps around the field, and we all go about our business without much interest in the others’.

Around Lap 4, the men start to chat and look around the field, and I notice that they start to take an interest in my run around the bleachers.  I’m just about to round first base when the man closest to the dugout yells: “How many times you gon’ go ‘round?”

I chuckle, and smile to myself.  And then I decide to ask his opinion. “I don’t know,” I counter. “How many do you think I should do?”

He cocks his head, thinks a moment, and shouts: “Eight! I think you shuh’ do eight.”

“Hmm.  That’s about four more,” I tell him. “I can do that.” I continue my jog with an end point in mind.  I now have a coach—better yet, an audience; and I now feel highly accountable for my progress.

As I head into Lap 7, I notice a commotion coming from the bleachers.  Dugout Man is yelling straight-ahead, cussing and madly gesticulating into the air.  It takes me a second to realize he’s yelling into the phone, not at his friend, who sits calmly by, unfazed by the smack-talking, and continues to stare out towards the pitcher’s mound.  Dugout Man’s words grow louder and fouler, and his energy flies off him like a boxer’s beads of angry sweat.

I take a wider berth around the bleachers to give the scene some space, but I can still hear the fuss.  As I near the back of home plate, he’s feverishly conjugating the word “fuck.”  He sees me pass by and he jerks the phone down, cranes his head around and yells: “Fo’ mo’!  You got FO’ MO’”!

I chortle, and then shake my head; I’m thoroughly enjoying the progression of antics.  Without a second thought, or even a “hold on a minute” to the person on the other end of the phone, he’s interrupted his tirade to let me know he’s on top of today’s workout. No cheating!

“Oh, man, come on,” I call out over my shoulder: “I already did eight.  You lost count!”  He waves me off and without missing a beat, he puts the phone back up to his ear and resumes his string of F-bombs.  His tucks his thumb and throws the back of his free hand over his shoulder, four fingers pointing defiantly into the air.

On my way back, I pass a group of people on South 5th Avenue just getting out of Catholic Church. They’re milling about on the sidewalk and I step off the walkway and into the street, to give them time and space to congregate.  Inevitably, they turn to watch me as I run by.  One woman nods hello, taking in my purple face, my shorts, my irreverent Rock Star Energy Drink baseball hat, and she lets her gaze linger a bit.  There’s a trace of a smile on her face.

I think of telling her I went to the early, early service; that’s why I’m out running, instead of just out of church, on a Sunday morning.  Instead, I think of the men on the bleachers and how our disparate lives intersected, in such a positive way; I realize the interaction has left me feeling hopeful—about what, I can’t exactly say, it’s just a general feeling of increased well-being and inspiration for the day, and separate from the runner’s high that’s still coursing through my veins.

* * *

After my run I go to the store and on the drive home, at the corner of Dawson and Oleander, I see an oversized Romney sign draped over an entire building.  “’Hope’ is not a Strategy” it reads, the word hope italicized and in quotes, as though hope is something to be mocked, and isolated for dramatic effect.  It occurs to me that, in addition to using the word “not” and thereby putting a negative twist on a positive call to action – a basic law of attraction no-no –  Romney has utterly missed the mark.

Because someone once taught me that sometimes, hope is the only strategy.

* * *

 An old boyfriend had a roommate named John, who soon became my favorite member of their household.  John and I were fast friends, enjoying the same stupid movies, laughing at ourselves and generally sharing a similar light-hearted outlook on life.  John was loud, theatrical and his laughter rang throughout the apartment, up the walls and out into the street, disturbing the neighbors at all hours of day and night.

Before I knew him, John had tried to commit suicide, more than once.  The first two-times were half-hearted, he told me. “I was too depressed to really figure out how to do it, like how to actually make it happen.  That’s what people don’t understand,” he said.  “The real risk isn’t when people are totally depressed; it’s when they feel capable enough to figure it out, you know? When they can muster up the energy to devise a plan–that’s when they actually go through with it.”

The third time, he had a plan.  In telling me his story, he didn’t tell me what that plan was but he told me what happened to change his mind, and he told me something I’ve never forgotten. “People commit suicide because they don’t have hope,” said John. He watched my face and then paused, letting it sink in.  “That’s it.  It’s that simple.  They don’t think things will ever get better—and it’s not always that they think they’ll get worse; their biggest fear, truly, is that things will never change.  They’ve lost all hope.  That’s why people do it.”

He was on the brink of his first successful attempt at killing himself, he continued, when the phone rang.  “All day, I’d been waiting for a sign, for something to happen, for some way to know that this wasn’t the final answer.  And the phone rang.  It was my sister. She invited me over for dinner, with the husband and the kids.  Yeah, she was like, ‘What are you doin’?  Want to join us for dinner? The kids are asking about you and I haven’t seen you in awhile. Come over.’”

It wasn’t a gushy phone call, it wasn’t a plea for sanity or an impassioned intervention; it was just a natural human gesture: sister to brother, niece and nephew to uncle, one person reaching out to another, at exactly the right time.  “I thanked her for calling,” said John.  “I told her no, I hadn’t eaten. And then I went over for dinner.”

We both sat there in silence; I didn’t know what to say, and he smiled, ever so slightly, perhaps feeling the unbearable lightness of being unburdened, at last.  “I can’t even tell you what that was about.  It just gave me hope, for some reason.  I realized I mattered to someone.”  He laughed his maniacal laughter, jolting us both out of our separate reveries. I put that wisdom in a box, to be opened only in case of emergency: sometimes “hope” is the only strategy.

 * * *

 Hope permeates our lives, from religion, to relationships to the recent political season.  Recently, I moved from a place where 97% of the population thinks – and looks – like me; when I complained to a Colorado friend that my car got egged on Halloween, he told me the Republican Headquarters back home got egged—again. And so, my vote in North Carolina seems to matter more—this election, it feels heavier; it feels like it actually carries more civic weight than it did in Aspen, Colorado.

Last election, my mom flew across the country and canvassed her way back to California.  She teamed up with various Democratic volunteers and knocked on doors—for about eight weeks.  It felt like the country was more hopeful last election; personally, I felt more hopeful last election.

This time around, I feel compelled to make more of an effort. For some reason, voting early and parading around with my “I Voted” sticker and then hoping for the best doesn’t feel like enough. I respond to an email from Moveon.org, and I agree to volunteer to help out during the final days of voting season.

Monday morning, I show up at the Democratic Headquarters, strategically located on 9th street next to the organic coffee at Folk’s Café.  They have urns of coffee to fuel the volunteers and Jason, the campaign coordinator said, “Thanks so much for coming out!  We need all the help we can get. Do you want to make some phone calls, or would you like to knock on some doors?”

I definitely want to knock on some doors.  I’m curious who’s behind them, and what kind of conversations we might have.  Turns out, they only send you to like-minded doorways, so there was no call for persuasive rhetoric, rebuttal or even political peer-pressure to vote; most everyone isn’t home, and those that are have already voted, are late to work and quickly thank me for stopping by.  Gobama!

I park at Castle and 3rd and walked down towards Greenfield Street, stopping at random house numbers owned or rented by registered Democrats.  I cross the railroad tracks, wait for the traffic to subside and turn left on Meares Street, looking for my first side-street address.  Rosa Miller is already out on her sidewalk, waiting for some diversion to walk by. She seems happy to see me.

I ask Rosa if she’s voted.

“Yes, I already did,” she replies.

“Great!” I say.  “Thanks for getting—“

“Yes Ma’am.  I voted for Romney,” Rosa declares, cutting me off mid-sentence.

There was a time when I maintained I didn’t care who you voted for as long as you exercised your right to vote—but I admit, my stance has changed in the last four years. However, upon hearing Rosa’s vote for Romney, I silence my true feelings and hear myself say, half-heartedly: “Well, OK, as long as you voted! That’s what counts.”

“That’s right. I voted for Romney,” she repeats, “because Obama wouldn’t let me kiss his SEX-Y lips.

There’s a moment of silence, and then she bursts into laughter.  I laugh too, in relief, and at myself, for my surprise and what must have been the totally bewildered look on my face.

“I got you good!” she says, pointing her finger at me. “Come on girl.  I vote for

o-BAMA!  Romney is the devil.  That man the devil.  Michelle, and the kids, they’re such a loving family. Them kids is so well-behaved, and smart, and Obama and Michelle, they love each other. Michelle won’t let no one touch her man, that’s right. Gimme some a’ that.  Oh well.”

Rosa has a cane, and one bad eye turned up toward the sky, a thin membrane covering the space where sight used to be. Her other eye is fine and though she’s smells like she’s been drinking this morning, her words and clear and deep.  “My son come home from school when he was little, cryin’.  This little white girl he used to play with come to class one day and start yellin’ at him at recess, sayin’ things like “Ku Klux Klan, nigger nigger, you’re dumb,” and my little boy, he ast me, ‘Mama, why she start sayin’ those things to me?’  And I tell him, I say, “Baby, it’s not her fault. It’s her parents fault. They ignorant and now, she gone be ignorant, too.”  She pauses. “Hey, where you from, Miss Jamie?”

I tell her I’m from the mountains of Colorado, elevation 8,000 feet.

“Woo-wee!” says Rosa.  “Shoa is differen’ here for you, huh?”

I nod, and say, “Yes, it really is.  There’s too much oxygen down here, Rosa; I can’t think straight!”

She chuckles and shakes her head, patting my hand.  “Well I like yo’energy.  You got a nice sense of humor.  Alright baby, thanks fo’ comin’ by.”

She walks me next door in search of the next person on my list, a Nellie Foster. There is an old woman sitting on the front porch and I realize she’s already seen me, and has heard most of our conversation. She smiles at me, her eyes sparkling, mirthful, optimistic about something today.  I introduce myself and she nods, and shakes my hand.

“I like your beautiful flowers,” I say, gesturing toward matching planters of fake yellow and pink roses, a few faded blossoms clinging to the weathered stems.

“They’re fake,” replies Nellie, stating the obvious. “But I really like ‘em.  My former husband gave ‘em to me.  He’s gone now.  They used to be a full a’ flowers, but someone keeps messin’ wit’ ‘em.” A frown narrows her sparkling eyes and she sits down, settling herself in the porch swing, and sighs.  “Where you from, Baby? Colorado?  Ooo, big change for you, huh?  You like it down hea’?”

Nellie Foster is 83 years old.  Her former husband has passed away and now, she lives alone on the edge of Meares Street.  Rosa lives next door and keeps an eye on her, calls herself Nellie’s guardian.  Nellie lived in Brooklyn for many years, which she didn’t like: “Too cold!  And too many damn people.”  She likes it here well-enough and the sunshine feels nice today.  It’s a good day to sit outside.  I ask Nellie if she’s voted and she said, “No, baby, I cain’t get to the polls,  I haven’t voted in years.”

I’ve only committed to canvassing today and they have people on-call to help drive people to the polls tomorrow, but now, I want to be the one who makes it happen.

I tell Nellie I’ll give her a ride.  Suddenly, capturing Nellie’s vote seems like the most important thing in the world.  I think of how she’ll feel; I think of how the people who help her with the voting booth and show her how the computerized ballot works and escort her back downstairs will feel; every vote counts, and I feel certain that Nellie’s vote will count more than ever.

Rosa has joined us on the porch.  She tells me that Nellie doesn’t go anywhere without her, but tomorrow morning around 11 could work, yes.  Nellie says she can go earlier, but Rosa tells us she’s busy in the morning.  She needs to get her brace on, and then wait for her check.  She can’t leave the house to help Nellie before 11.  “How ‘bout today?” asks Rosa.  “Can she go today? “

Early voting has ended and we all feel a little disappointed; it’s a beautiful, hopeful day, a good day to go for a drive, cast a vote; be a hero.

‘Oh, that’s OK, I can’t find my pocketbook, anyway,” says Nellie, patting her hair, telling me she really needs to find her headscarf. I tell them I’ll come back tomorrow, 11 a.m. and I’ll drive them to Mount Olive Church, just four blocks away.  And Nellie will finally be able to vote for President Obama.

I shake both their hands, again, thank them for their efforts and I say to Nellie, “I’ll see you tomorrow. Are you excited?’

She looks at me, eyes thick with emotion and says “Yes. Yes, baby, I am.  I’m very excited.”

* * *

 

Election Day is cold and windy and mid-morning, it starts to rain.  I pull up to Nellie’s house around 10:45 and she’s on the front porch, gently rocking in the swing.  She nods hello, visibly fatigued, no trace of yesterday’s optimism on today’s porch.

“Good morning Nellie!  Are you ready to vote??”  I try a light-hearted approach, smiling and doing a little we’re-gonna-go-vote dance. I’d already called the people at Mount Olive to let them know Nellie was coming, so they could help make it as easy as possible for her.  I could bring her right up to the curb; she didn’t even have to get out of the car.

I share this good news.  I tell her we’re all set.

“Where’s Rosa?” asks Nellie, a worried look on her face.  She shuffles side to side, left foot, right foot, and looks around for Rosa.

“We can wait for Rosa, no problem,” I say.  “I’m a little early.”

“Oh, I dunno, Baby.  I’m not feelin’ too well today.”  Nellie clutches her cardigan and wraps it tightly around her chest.  The hopeful mood is gone. Yesterday’s excitement is today’s exhaustion, and Nellie doesn’t want to leave her porch. She rocks back and forth, shakes her head and looks down at the steps.  “I just don’ think I’m feelin’ up to it.”

“Are you sure?” I am trying to find the right tone, a blend of patience and persuasion, hoping to convince her to head to the polls – it’ll be quick! – and it’ll feel so good; she’ll be so happy she voted.

In a flash of self-awareness, I realize I’m over-invested in this outcome.  I mentally step outside myself and start to observe what’s really happening here.

Helping Nellie leave her porch, and cast her vote, feels like hope.   And that’s why I’m here: I want to tell the story of how I drove an 83 year-old woman named Nellie to the polls; I want to share how good it felt to help her into the car, to see her face after she voted, to hear how she felt after voting for the first time in years.  I want to hear how my action made a difference. I want to take a picture and I want to send it to my mom, to let her know I’m  doing alright and I’m doing good things, and she doesn’t have to worry about me in this random new place where I’m trying to feel at home.

I want a happy ending because it will make me feel good and while I’m still convinced that casting her vote will make Nellie feel good, too–right now, Nellie doesn’t feel well.  I wait another moment or two and look out at the street, giving her time to gather her thoughts and see if she might feel up to it, after all.

I bring my gaze back to the porch and see Nellie patting her hair.  She hasn’t found her headscarf.  “I cain’t go anywhere lookin’ like this, Baby. I’m sorry.  Oh, I don’t know. I think I need some aspirin. I’m not feelin’ well today.  Well, I just think I’ll stay on home today.  I’m sorry.  I just – I’m sorry.”

I’ve regained my presence of mind and I reach out for her hand.  I assure her it’s OK, it’s not a problem; I tell her it’s a nasty day and I think I’ll go home, too!  I smile.  I ask if I can get her anything.

“I’m alright, Baby. I thank you for your patience. You’ve been very kind.”  I lean in and give her a hug. I tell her it was wonderful to meet her.  “You take care, Baby,” says Nellie.

As I walk to my car I see Rosa, in an electric wheelchair, motoring down the sidewalk. She nods at me, but doesn’t say hello.  Obama’s sexy lips are yesterday’s news; today, it’s raining, and the view from her front porch is a cold one. I start the car and she waves; I sit there a few more seconds, hoping she’s somehow changed Miss Nellie’s mind.  I hear the shutter door slam shut.  The porch is now deserted.

And then I drive away.

 * * *

 

I run around the park on other days, as well.  I haven’t seen the bench-warmers since that certain Sunday, but no matter what the day, or time, there’s a group of older men just across the street from the third base, sitting on someone’s front stoop in lawn chairs, with various refreshments scattered around and “Mmhmm’s” and Lawd Have Mercy’s” murmured up and down the sidewalk.   It’s the world’s longest tailgate party to nowhere.  They good-naturedly whistle at cars and ladies and while they’ve noticed me go by, they don’t seem to pay me much notice.

Thursday morning, I am all alone at the park.  Halfway through my run and hoping for some sort of distraction, I reverse my direction: sometimes the slightest change in routine can save a waning workout. I am tired today.  I turn up my music and try to quicken my pace.  A new sound breaks into my favorite song, a strange, muffled lyric I’ve never heard before. Puzzled, I turn down the volume to investigate, and I realize the new sound is coming from across the street.  One of the elderly tailgaters is on his feet, yelling, his hands cupped around his mouth: “You got three mo’!”