Obit for my Saab

The mechanic delivered the fateful news. My Saab 9-3 needed a major organ transplant or a kiss good-bye. And I was the decider. Either I issue a Do Not Resuscitate for my dearly beloved or face an uncertain future with cobbled-together parts because the Saab Corporation doesn’t make those cars anymore.

Faced with the choice of abandoning my faithful sidekick or continuing with a crude copy, I did what I always do in tough situations: I procrastinated. Meanwhile, shadows of Mary Shelley flickered through my brain as I contemplated resurrected parts from the car cemetery. Then I sought advice from family, friends and random strangers as I hoofed it around Acton and contemplated the Frankenstein-mobile.

“Don’t get a rebuilt engine,” said Amy, “they never work out.”

“How many miles?” asked Candace.

 "190,000. But I had hoped to reach 200K."

“You will always worry about what’s going to go wrong next,” said Candace.

“Just get rid of it,” said John who distrusts any car with that much mileage.

After a week of dithering, I rented an economy car at AVIS while I sorted things out.

Writing an obituary for my car and looking for a replacement were not on my To Do list this summer. Like the hymn in the funeral scene from the Big Chill, you can’t always get what you want

My teacher, Judy, told me that you cannot write about trauma until you have processed the grief. But with the body rotting away, there’s not much time for reflection before putting the pedal to the metal. My car deserved a moment of silence though and a small trip down memory lane.

Did I regret not naming the SAAB like the perky millennial in the Liberty Mutual commercial who called her car Brad or the unlucky engineer who named his computer Hal? In the spirit of R2D2 and 3CPO, my auto died with the simple numerical appellation, 9-3.

9-3 took my younger daughter from the Acton Barn Cooperative Nursery school to Mount Holyoke College. 9-3 carted Casey, Peaches, Dips and Ivy to the vet without complaint even when they made the car smell bad. 9-3 braved all sorts of New England weather and saved my butt in more than one snow storm. 9-3 put up with all the mundane trips, outings, play dates and errands of day-to-day suburban life instead of barrel-assing down the highway like a thoroughbred.

I will miss her enormously-comfy leather seats that molded perfectly to my body. I will miss her reliability—whether enduring the suburbs or escaping them. I will miss the feeling of safety that enveloped me when I entered her domain.

As I watch 9-3 sitting peacefully in my driveway, I think… “she still looks great.” And as I listen to Robin Young on WBUR tell me to donate my vehicle to a worthy cause, I think… “she would have liked that.”

I think I’m ready to let go now.

Obit for 9-3, personal assistant, transportation expert and all-round fun ride

Acton—Cosmic Blue Pearl Metallic SAAB 9-3, four-door hatchback with well-worn charcoal-gray leather seats, illuminating sunroof, and most excellent Bose sound system, died suddenly on Saturday the 30th of July while exiting the Route 128 off-ramp on her way home from a week in Wellfleet on Cape Cod.

Manufactured in 2002 in Trollhättan, Sweden, 9-3 loved to drive really, really fast down the highway. Besides trips to the Cape, 9-3 traveled from Maine to Washington DC, but spent most of her time bopping around town. Her 5-speed manual transmission and 4-cylinder 2-liter turbo-charged engine made her the peppiest car on the block, while her cobalt color never faded.

The bright blue 9-3 spent her entire life in Acton where she zipped around, weaving in-and-out of traffic in true Massachusetts fashion—a real cutoff queen. Her go-to, road-trip books on CD included the Series of Unfortunate Events followed closely by the Harry Potter set, but around town she preferred to rock it out old-school with Radar Love and new-school with Shut Up and Drive.

In appreciation for lasting twice as long as her predecessors, and in the off-beat chance this obit brings catharsis to those left behind, 9-3 merits a memorial playlist. Continuing the Big Chill theme, her last ride relies heavily on the Stones—driving past Miss You, swerving around Satisfaction, gunning it on Paint It Black, then taking a sharp right and down shifting to Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. If only I could add Start Me Up.

9-3 leaves behind her constant companion (Janice), her favorite passenger (Mark), and occasional joyriders (Amy, Jesse and Alyssa).

Memorial gifts are not accepted, but memorial playlist suggestions are always welcome at jward@acanthi.com.


It’s a Sign...

”I like your sign,” said our new neighbor as she waved and jogged past the house on her early morning run. Truth is, I’ve met more neighbors in the past year since I placed a political placard in the front yard than I have in the last 10. Is this an omen?

As a born and bred New Englander, I don’t usually wear my heart on my sleeve or my beliefs on my lawn. Until now. But this election reminded me of college. Not the books, tests and all-nighters, but the passions, causes and beliefs. The immediacy. The heightened reactions. The instinctual responses.  I never realized how much I missed the pure gutsiness of telling it like it is. Or how I thought it was. Or how I think it should be. Bear your soul; burn your bra; live your life.

After graduation, of course, reality set in. Jobs and student loans and responsibilities ruled. Besides, I needed that bra to support my power suit, and bra burning was such a budget buster. As far as offering opinions in the workplace? I think not.  Like Archie Bunker’s warning to Edith, I learned to “stifle.” My new mantra: seal your soul and spare the bra or pay the piper.

So it was a great surprise to me when I felt the excitement of engagement return over this year’s presidential race. My early feminist leanings, once thwarted by the failed passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, have risen—phoenix like. Maybe passion is not just for the young—even though I doubt my kids will believe that. Why should they? I didn’t believe it. For the longest time I proudly said, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”

My new vocabulary includes canvassing and caucuses, phone banks and primaries, down ballots and “off topic” election speak. I attend rallies, ask voters to volunteer, hand out pamphlets, donate money (to Mark’s chagrin), proudly present my “woman’s card” to anyone and everyone, and last but not least, carry a sign that tells the world, I’m with her.  I feel that I’ve waited my whole life for this moment—to see a woman in the White House. Not as first lady or cook, cleaner and bottle washer, but a woman holding the top job, president of the United States of America.

And yet some of my friends agree with the message, but fear the sign. “You're brave to post a sign on your lawn,” said one friend who preferred to remain anonymous for this blog and her election selection. She’s already encountered the opposition—Facebook friends who indubitably dis, locals who need neutrality, business associates who deal in “don’t ask, don’t tell,” nudgy neighbors who hold a grudge, even angry children who resent her preferred candidate. Whether I like it or not, fear of confrontation and concern for others often dictate a woman’s life.

Which means it’s time to find a soundtrack to assuage fears, starting with Stevie Wonder’s Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing til I reach a Higher Ground. Maybe I needed this unprecedented 2016 election to show me the way. Maybe my time has come todayMaybe I’m turning into my grandmother who believed that old age entitled her to tell it like it is. Maybe salad days and senescence have something in common after all. 

I knew there had to be a silver lining in our design flaw, formerly known as "aging." Maybe it’s a sign.


A road to nowhere. I blame Ike.

“I  feel a blog article coming on,” mused Karen with a sidelong grin as she listened to me kvetch about my car which had been banished to the body shop. My car was not the culprit; my lack of transportation caused my crabbiness.

Living without a car in Acton, Massachusetts is like being stranded on a desert island without drinking water, reading material, fresh food, flowers, music, sunshine, caffeinated iced tea, daily exercise, the internet, my cat and conjugal relations. As we used to say in the ‘60s, “it’s the pits.” And I’d only been without my car for a week. How do people survive longer?

My sad story started two months ago when I left my 14-year-old, blue Saab 9-3, sporting a mere 178,000 miles, in the body shop because a 50ish gray-haired man wearing a Hawaiian print shirt, jeans and Birkenstocks and reeking of some sort of smoky substance that did not resemble cigarettes, rear ended me. To make matters worse, Mark and I thought it would be no big deal for me to live without a car for a week or two.  Marooned in the woods at the end of a dead-end street, the nearest connection to civilization called Piper Road loomed ½ mile away. And that road is a killer. No sidewalks. No bike paths. Piper Road is a winding cut-through for speed demons zooming toward Route 2 at breakneck speeds, so they can arrive at work 30 seconds earlier. Even if I walked to the death trap, known as Piper Road, I’d take my life in my hands to cross it for the next ½ mile of my journey toward the real world.

I blame Ike.

Sixty years ago, Dwight D. Eisenhower did us in with interdependence on the interstate in this country, and on June 29 the New York Post wished the sexagenarian system a happy birthday. The Federal Highway Act of 1956 shaped America and the way many of us live now—in the suburbs, dependent on our cars. “Driving your Chevrolet cross the USA” was cool before the fitness craze, the oil crisis and climate change. Now, not so much.

The first few days of stranded living weren’t so bad, but I started to feel like I was in solitary when day four reared its head and the body shop hadn’t started work on my car yet. Friends called and offered rides, but I remained steadfast in my own personal isolation tank. Queue Helen Reddy. “I am strong. I am invincible. I Am Woman,” and I can live in the burbs without transport.

Day five broke me. Ann called and offered lunch at Nashoba Bakery in West Concord. Jailbreak time.

The next day Karen called and I accepted ride #2. “I don’t mind,” she said. “In fact, I want to. You’ve given me lots of rides, and you should let people help you.”

“You’re right, of course,” I said while secretly acknowledging my wussiness about asking for help.

Halfway through my week of woe, an email announced the “Acton Complete Streets Prioritization Plan” which asked residents to “join a public forum to share ideas & knowledge to improve Acton’s streets for all users, including pedestrians and cyclists.”

Aha, I thought, “Piper Road, you’re going down.”

The attached flyer described the new Complete Streets Funding Program, authorized by the 2014 Transportation Bond Bill which “offers Massachusetts municipalities incentives to adopt policies and practices that provide safe and accessible options for all travel modes – walking, biking, transit and vehicles – for people of all ages and abilities.” The program is competitive across towns in the Commonwealth, and each town can apply for up to $400,000 in funding. Because of rules, regulations and exceptions, Acton could expect about $250,000 in funding if approved.

Luckily the meeting started at 7pm after my husband got home from work, so I borrowed Mark’s mini and drove to Town Hall where 30 to 40 people learned about Complete Streets. Given that $250,000 only goes so far, the meeting coordinators asked us to break into groups and make suggestions for small improvements (like sidewalks and bike lanes) to alleviate Acton’s car-centricity.

I lobbied hard for sidewalks on Piper Road and tried to explain the isolation of living in a neighborhood that is cut off from the world at large. But my neighborhood is not the only isolated pocket in Acton, and I left the meeting wondering if I was doomed to auto dependency for the duration.

At the end of the meeting, the coordinators promised to consider our ideas, create a plan, present it to the state, and follow up with us in June via e-mail regarding Acton’s bid for funding.  It’s now July; my car is back from the shop; I am still waiting for news on Complete Streets; and my playlist includes Life is a Highway and Walk on the Wild Side. Thanks a lot, Ike. 


The Search for Soda Bread

As I listened to Brian O’Donovan’s Celtic Sojourn on WGBH radio last Saturday, visions of soda bread danced through my head. Not just any soda bread, but the moist, delicate concoction I sampled over 20 years ago in the Belmont hair salon where Joe, my former hairdresser/aerobics instructor, invited me to try one of his client’s specialties—a gussied up American version rife with plumped currents, golden raisins and caraway seeds. Unique in its tender crumb and foreign in its moistness, I sampled and swooned.

Knowing that the Irish prefer a simpler, unsweetened soda bread made from four ingredients—flour, salt, baking soda, and buttermilk—was irrelevant. Tradition be damned, that Belmont bread was the best I’d ever tasted.  Alas, no recipe accompanied that tiny taste. “It’s a family secret,” said Joe wistfully. That’s when my quest commenced.

Like Ponce De Leon’s never-ending search for the Fountain of Youth, I get the urge to discover the secrets of soda bread every year around St. Patrick’s Day. And this year was no exception. I thought I had it in the bag when I ran into Lily, a native Irish woman who joins us at the gym for Step aerobics. With her white hair in a French twist and blue eyes a-twinkle, Lily arrives at our health club in full force with a bonny brogue and sassy sense of humor.

“Do you have a good recipe for Irish Soda bread?” I asked Lily, assured of getting the goods.

“Well, no. no.” said Lily. “My mother baked, but I don’t.”

My face fell, and Lily tried to console me. 

“Nashoba Bakery makes a fine soda bread—with raisins!” she exclaimed. 

So much for my blatant stereotypical behavior; I figured all Irish knew how to make soda bread and preferred the purist version without raisins. I nodded politely and moved on. 

Like fools gold, bakery soda bread fakes the form and fails the function—dry, overcooked, sawdust-flavored, stone cold, and solid as cement—a stale disappointment on a plate. Soda bread is best on day one, toothsome on day two and tolerable on day three. God knows how long soda bread sits at a bakery or grocery store, and how many preservatives were added to keep it fresh, encased in its shamrock-studded plastic wrap.

Mark’s no help either. “Soda bread? We never had soda bread when we were growing up. Now if you want a good raisin Challah, come back and talk to me.”

Wrong holiday, dude.

Over the years I’ve collected and tried many soda bread recipes. One bread is too tough. Another is too soft. I am still looking for bread that is just right. The balance alludes me. And being an American, I like it sweet and completely reject the idea that raisins turn “soda bread” into the unappetizing-sounding “spotted dog.”

The second and third best soda breads I tasted were at an International Fair celebrating diversity at our local junior high. Two women brought soda bread samples, and both had merit. One used the traditional buttermilk for moistness; the other sour cream. Since taste trumps tradition, I had no problem sampling both, and taking home their recipes which I still use. The problem is that they don’t completely satisfy—either they darken too quickly or lack the sweetness I crave. As a result, I am always rejiggering those recipes: adjusting the temperature and cooking time, tenting for color control, swapping loaf pans for insulated cookie sheets or adding different combinations of dried fruit.

This year I sought professional help online at the Ballymoloe Cooking School and Epicurious website that offered Six Tips to the Best Irish Soda Bread. Then I applied their techniques to the buttermilk recipe from the International Fair. I gently combined the wet and dry ingredients by hand, pre-soaked the golden raisins and currents in vanilla then dried them, and tented the bread earlier in the process. Bottom Line: I give this year’s bread a B+. Fully cooked in the middle, satisfying crumb, moist enough inside, not too crispy on the crust, but it didn’t quite make the grade sweetness wise.

While at the Ballymoloe Cooking School site, however, I noticed one of their class offerings, Bake your Own Bread after staying overnight at their charming B&B in County Cork, Ireland. “Step into the kitchen and roll up your sleeves, you can learn the secrets of Ballymaloe bread baking,” the website announced. My travel itch twitched, and I thought about speed dialing my travel agent for an adventure next March, 2017.

Who knows? Maybe Ponce didn’t care if he found the fountain; maybe the fun was in the trying. After all, he found gold along the way. Next year, my soda bread will be as sweet as Tupelo Honey.

PostscriptI couldn’t leave without posting some recipes.

Before you start…
For both recipes, presoak 1 C. golden raisins and 1 C. currents in boiling water with 1 tsp vanilla for ½ hour before draining and drying them off.

International Fair Recipe #1 with Buttermilk
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Sift and combine dry Ingredients including:
-       3C flour (I used half white-wheat and half white)
-       ¼ C sugar
-       1 tsp salt
-       3 tsp baking powder
-       1 tsp baking soda

Mix in 2-3 Tbsp caraway seeds.

Cut in ¼ C butter with pastry blender.

In another bowl, combine:
-      1 beaten egg 
-      1-1/3 C buttermilk.

Make a well in the dry ingredients, pour in the wet ingredients and gently mix by hand until moistened. (See Six Tips to the Best Irish Soda Bread for method.) Add raisins and currents. Do not overmix. Turn onto floured surface, gently shape into a round and cut an “X” into the top. Move the dough onto a cookie sheet covered in parchment paper and bake for 35 to 40 minutes. If your oven runs hot, add a tin foil tent after 15 minutes. Cool and serve with butter. This bread tastes better the second day.

International Fair Recipe #2 with Sour Cream

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. 
Butter a glass loaf pan, line it with wax paper and butter it again.

Sift and combine dry Ingredients including:
-       2C flour (I used half white-wheat and half white)
-       ½ tsp salt
-       1 tsp cream of tartar
-       ½ tsp baking soda

In another bowl, combine:
-      ¼ C melted butter

-      ½ C sugar
-      1 beaten egg
-      1 C sour cream.

Make a well in the dry ingredients, pour in the wet ingredients and gently mix by hand until moistened. (See Six Tips to the Best Irish Soda Bread for method.) Add raisins and currents. Do not overmix. Place the dough in the prepared pan evenly and bake 35 to 45 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean. If your oven runs hot, add a tin foil tent after 15 minutes. Cool and serve with butter. Bread is crumbly; make sure to cool and use a good serrated knife to cut it. 



The Soba Noodle Story

“When did you feel yourself coming down with a cold?” I asked Mark on the first day of our trip to Tokyo.

“At work,” Mark said. “I suppressed it.”

“You suppressed a cold at work and saved it for vacation?”

The nod. The guilty shrug. Classic workaholic Mark.

“Could you get me some cold pills at the drugstore?” he asked sheepishly. “There’s a shop across the street from the hotel.”

“Sure,” I said, not realizing that a drugstore in Japan is not like my hometown CVS until my Moscow on Hudson moment when I faced a 10-foot wall of boxed medicines covered in indecipherable symbols in a foreign country with people who didn’t speak English. 

I returned to the hotel empty-handed, roused Mark out of bed, and enlisted the help of Koko, our native Japanese, multi-lingual guide who was chatting it up in the lobby with the other four members of our small group tour. Mark’s dilemma became a group mission, and our squad marched to the drugstore en masse.

“Do you have congestion?” asked Koko.

“Yes,” said Mark.

Koko turned to the druggist and spoke for two solid minutes in rapid-fire Japanese. She turned back to Mark.

“Do you have coughing?”

“Yes,” said Mark. 

That was enough to set off five more minutes of conversation with the druggist. We were Lost in Translation.

After a few interminable back and forths with symptoms and suggestions, we managed to purchase a small packet of cold pills. But my out-of-element feelings lingered until Koko took us to a noodle restaurant. She ordered thin buckwheat noodles called soba and thick wheat noodles called udon, which arrived nestled in miso-flavored broth and sprinkled with scallions—chicken soup for this American soul and Jewish penicillin for Mark.

Over dinner, Koko told us The Soba Noodle Story in her precise, enunciated English with pauses between phrases and an occasional dropped article.

“Years ago, when I still lived at home with parents, my father retired from government job and needed hobby,” said Koko. “One day on television, my father saw ad for soba noodle cooking school and signed up. After much practice, he make excellent soba noodle. In fact, my father enjoy his hobby so much, he make soba noodles every morning.

The problem is that father expect me to get up early every day to eat soba noodle--even on my day off. “I had to tell him, ‘I love your soba noodle, but please do not wake me for soba noodle on my day off.’

Then one morning, I woke to a crying noise from downstairs. It sounded like my mother. I looked in the kitchen. No one. I looked in the living room. Nothing. Finally, I found my mother sitting under the dining room table, not just sobbing but wailing.

`What is wrong?’ I cried.

Mother gasped and sniffled and sputtered, `Your father is home all day making soba noodle. I have no life. My friends and I don’t have lunch anymore.’

Now, my parents have happy marriage. But Japanese women have fulfilling life that is separate from husbands. The change from husband who work all day to husband at home all day making noodle was hard. A transition. They needed time to adjust. In the end, it all worked out.”

As Koko finished her story, the waiter brought more noodles, with lemon-scented broth this time. “The aroma comes from yuzu, a citrus fruit,” said Koko as she handed out fruit packets in powdered form for us to take home.

Suddenly, whoosh. Like the food critic’s culminating scene in Ratatouille, the portal opened and whisked me back home to mom’s tiny yellow 50’s kitchen. Surrounded by pine cabinets and speckled linoleum, I sat at a gray Formica table while mom served gooey grilled cheese and a cup of Campbell’s tomato soup. My best friend, Lulu, joined us for lunch even though she preferred chicken noodle. Did mom add lemon to make the soup taste better or is this revisionist history?

And why dredge these memories now? Mom’s no longer with us, and I hadn’t seen Lulu in a decade.

On my way Back to the Future, I remembered the last time I saw Lulu and her story surfaced. When Lulu’s father retired, he tried to micromanage the household where her stay-at-home mom had handily raised 10 children. The final straw? Instructing his wife on the proper method for loading a dishwasher. I could imagine him saying, “Do it this way, Marge.” I could imagine her response.

As I sat slurping soba noodles, I thought “maybe this trip is not so foreign after all.” Food, family, and friends are common denominators, and Mark’s miraculous recovery the next day is proof that hot soup cures all. But I still don’t want him to retire anytime soon.Why take chances?


Valentine’s Day at the Gym

If God is a DJ, Life is a dance floor
Love is the rhythm, You are the music
by Pink

Below zero temperatures and frozen pipes kicked off our Valentine’s Day this year, so Mark and I were late for our daily dose of exercise at the gym. The women at our health club immediately imagined a narrative where Mark was serving me breakfast or, better yet, bonbons in bed.  What other excuse could there be for such tardiness?

Our cohorts at the club certainly have a healthy imagination where Mark is concerned. They admire his energy, his joie de vivre, his willingness to try any new exercise moves while bolstering the confidence of those around him. And as one of the few husbands who works out with his wife, Mark gets extra credit.

Not that Mark and I are one of those cute couples who hold hands before class and wink at each other across a crowded room. Quite the opposite. We are workout buddies who take turns nudging each other to the gym every morning, competing in Step class with a vigorous dose of one-upmanship, goading (I mean encouraging) each other to add extra weight during strength training, spurring each other to log more miles in cycling, and finding as many ways possible to make exercise fun and challenging, but mostly fun.

As much as I hate to encourage the group fitness fantasy of our fellow workout warriors, I must admit that Mark is entertaining. He sings in class or counts to the beat. As a former step aerobics instructor, he learns routines readily so attendees tend to follow his moves—and those attendees are mostly women.

“I watch Mark because some people [no names mentioned] are off the beat and distracting,” says Jane.

“It helps to watch Mark when I don’t know whether to move left or right,” says Chris.

“I follow Mark when the teacher messes up,” says Candy.

“It’s nice when Mark stands in front ‘cause he knows what he’s doing,” says Sue.

Even the teachers are happier when Mark shows up.

“I’m so glad when Mark comes to class,” says Chantal. “Everyone works harder.”

Talk about cutting this guy slack! He gets points during class for cheerleading and points when he’s late for some fantasy breakfast in bed that he’s supposed to be dutifully serving his wife. Humph.

“Let’s hope that other men don’t read this blog because they will learn my secret,” says Mark. “If you want to meet ladies, go to the gym. Not that I’m trying to meet ladies!” he backpedals. “But I do enjoy dancing with several during exercise class.”

Some things don’t change; Mark and I first danced together at a club in Panama City, Florida 27 years ago, and that set the tone for a relationship full of music and movement, rock and roll, and blues and boogie—even if we traded nights at a dance hall for days at a gym. Just like the Enchantment Under the Sea dance in Back to the Future, we adopted and adapted our own "rythmic ceremonial ritual."

As we wait for class to begin, Bruno Mars fills the air and Mark joins in.  “Come on, dance, jump on it. Cause uptown funk gon’ give it to you. Don’t believe me just watch.”  And we do. Then Bon Jovi chimes in with You Give Love a Bad Name and Mark’s fast feet fly over the Step as he waggles those hefty eyebrows in my direction. Tap. Tap. Tap. Shuffle. Shuffle. The game is afoot.

After class I stifle the snark and politely inquire about that missing breakfast in bed. Growing up with a Jewish mother, Mark is inured to guilt. Still, I try.

“If all these women think you’re making me breakfast in bed, let’s not disappoint them,” I say.

How about Sunday brunch after exercise? Hot, molten grilled cheese on Nashoba Brooks’ whole wheat with a steamy side of tomato basil soup kissed with citrus, a heart-shaped bowl of juicy raspberries garnished with Giradelli curls atop vanilla-scented whipped cream, and a steeping cup of Lady Grey would do nicely. A touch of chocolate. A whiff of bourbon. And thou.

C’mon Mark. Live up to that reputation! Then we can turn on WZLX’s Sunday Morning Blues, listen to Carter Allen and dance around the kitchen—waiting for those pipes to defrost.


Countdown to Caucus

“Are you ready to meet the next president of the United States?” asked Jesse to a charged crowd of 1500 in the Col Ballroom in Davenport, Iowa last month. The audience hooted and hollered. But Mark and I cheered for another reason—our daughter Jesse had just introduced the former and [hopefully] future U.S. presidents, Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Little did we know when Jesse invited us to Iowa that we would watch her emcee onstage, shake hands with the Clintons, canvass for Hillary at 160 houses, dine with the former mayor of Davenport, learn about caucus campaigns and get a taste of America’s heartland.

It all started when Jesse graduated from Mount Holyoke last year and moved to Iowa to work for Hillary for America. Mark and I supported her decision because Jesse is outgoing and passionate for politics. We, her techie-homebody parents, could never imagine ourselves electioneering, until Jesse invited us to Iowa under one condition.

“I’m going to put you to work,” she said.

“How hard can it be?”

Friday, January 29, 2016: Three Days to Caucus

After flying from Boston to Chicago and driving three hours along frozen fields dotted with working farms on the Ronald Reagan Memorial Freeway, Mark and I arrived at the recently-restored Hotel Blackhawk in Davenport, a small city cradled by the mighty Mississippi.  Like rookie recruits, we called our boss and asked when and where to show up for work. But election campaigns turn on a dime, and the Clintons were coming to town.

“I couldn’t really send you door-to-door without a chance to hear Hillary and Bill,” said Jesse.“Come to the rally tonight. You can make it up tomorrow by volunteering for three shifts instead of two.”

“How long is a shift?” I asked.

“We’ll talk later,” said Jesse.

Per Jesse’s instructions, Mark and I stood in the queue in the freezing cold from 4:00 to 5:45pm waiting for the ballroom doors to open while we chatted with locals and prepared ourselves for a night to remember—watching Jesse work the crowd, and ultimately meeting the Clintons (in the rope line with 1500 others).

Later that night over dinner, which Jesse ate intermittently during a conference call, she explained the tasks at hand.  Mark and I were to work from 9am to 6pm on Saturday and noon to 6pm on Sunday to GOTC by distributing lit; thereby completing three packets on Saturday and two packets on Sunday.

“What is GOTC?  What kind of lit? What are packets?” I asked.

“GOTC means Get Out the Caucus,” explained Jesse. “It’s similar to Get Out the Vote in Massachusetts only simpler. All voters have to do is show up.”

Participants of Democratic caucuses (as opposed to Republican caucuses which involve secret ballots) show up at their caucus locations and stand in the corner of their candidate of choice, waiting for a headcount. Discussions and debates ensue. Some participants migrate to other candidates’ corners. The first vote takes place. If one or more of the candidates fails to achieve 15% of the vote, those supporters must pick another candidate, and move to another corner. A final vote and headcount ends the evening.

“Don’t worry,” said Jesse, “One of my volunteers will explain lit and packets tomorrow during your training in Bettendorf, the next town over.”

“You mean we are not working with you in Davenport,” I said.

“That’s right. I won’t even be in Davenport tomorrow; I’ll be in Clinton, Iowa.”

Mark and I were on our own.

Saturday, January 30, 2016: Two Days to Caucus

In Bettendorf, one of the Quad cities in Southeast Iowa, we met Matt, a highly-energetic, whip-smart high school student, who provided training for our first foray into election volunteerism.

“You’re Jesse’s parents,” said Matt, and everyone else we would meet during our three days in Iowa.  It turned out that Jesse was the big cheese, and we assumed the disconcerting roles of powerless parents.

Matt defined election acronyms then distributed packets which are manila folders filled with maps and directions to households of Hillary supporters. Packets also contain lit or campaign literature such as flyers with caucus locations and stickers to post on doors of people who are not at home. Our job was to visit each household, hand out flyers with caucus locations and ask supporters if they needed transportation on February 1st.

“How many households in a packet?” is the question we should have asked. Mark vaguely remembered Jesse telling him something about 30 households per packet, but somehow our packets contained 60 households.

We proceeded with trepidation even though Iowans proved generous and friendly. Our finest moment occurred when we knocked on the door of the couple we met in line outside the Col Ballroom.

“You’re Jesse’s parents,” they said.

“Yes,” we said. “Do you know your caucus location?”

But election campaigns fluctuate--wildly. Highs and lows. Ins and outs. Every day is an adventure. One minute we handed out flyers to cheerful Clinton supporters; the next minute we were heckled by Sanders’ supporters. As one young woman crowed “feel the Bern,” out the window of her black, Nissan Sentra, we were forced to respond, “Yeah, the heartburn.”

As darkness fell, Mark and I had completed two packets, visited 120 households and logged 25,000 steps on my FitBit watch—the equivalent of 10 miles—and the day was not over.

Campaign workers often board with local families, and Jesse’s host was Thomas Hart, the former mayor of Davenport who not only generously gave room and board to several Hillary supporters but invited us to dinner.  Over salmon and cod, Mark and I learned about Davenport’s history and politics, elections and caucuses, business and commerce. But most importantly, we learned about the genuine nature and hospitality of Iowans.

At the end of the evening, we felt like the old Chuck Berry tune, “Too pooped to pop.”

Sunday, January 31, 2016: One Day to Caucus

Thank God for the religious Midwest because no canvassing happens on Sunday mornings. Mark and I met Jesse before her 9am meeting at the highly-recommended Machine Shed, a Restaurant Honoring the American farmer. Mark started with the Hired Man’s Breakfast: two eggs cooked just as he liked em, plattered with smoked country sausage, three strips of thick Applewood smoked bacon, shredded hash browns and a buttermilk pancake the size of a serving platter.

“Did you want to try our famous cinnamon rolls or caramel sticky buns?” asked the waitress after hearing our order.

Portion size is something else in Iowa.

By noon, we were back in Bettendorf where Mark and I vowed to accept only one packet. On our way to the neighborhood, Jesse called and diverted us to Davenport.

“Can you drive some student volunteers down for the day from Chicago?” she asked.

“Sure, but we already have a packet,” we said.

“You can finish the packet after you drive the volunteers,” she said.

“Slave driver,” we murmured.

Two hours later, we started our packet and just managed to finish before dark. As a reward, Mark and I headed back to the Machine Shed for a hearty dinner of BBQ brisket and heartland pork chops, and prayed that Jesse would not ask us to work on Monday, our departure date.

Monday, February 1, 2016, Caucus Day

We slept in on Monday, and didn’t leave the hotel til noon. Jesse phoned in her “good-bye” and told us “you two were some of my best volunteers. Too bad you won’t be here long enough to finish another packet.” Our three-hour drive to Chicago awaited.

Squirming in my seat at O’Hare International, listening to CNN pundits speculate, waiting for real results to trickle in from the Iowa caucus, I felt like a hard-core sports fan on SuperBowl Sunday. Heart hopping. Emotions bouncing. Spirits soared then flagged then soared as I cheered for my team—Candidate Clinton and Organizer Jesse.

Even though electioneering is outside our bailiwick, these two Massachusetts voters didn’t regret flying halfway across the country to campaign door-to-door in Iowa. If you want to feel the surging emotions of a 22-year-old again, get involved with an election.


Since returning from Iowa, I’ve kept the momentum by posting to Facebook, tweeting on Twitter, canvassing in New Hampshire and spreading the word among friends. Their first question is “What does Jesse say about the elections… or the primaries… or the Clintons?”

Jesse doesn’t talk about subjects that are ‘Off Message,' I say.

But I remain hopeful and promise to vote with my head and my heart to put a woman in the White House. And next November, when that happens, I’ll borrow Etta’s song from Michelle and Barack’s playlist, At Last.