Author Archives: bus chick

A woman’s body is not public space

I started riding the bus alone at eight years old, younger than was common in 1980, and most certainly younger than is common in 2018. My initial solo bus trips were to school and involved a transfer downtown. After a few months of practice, I started branching out: riding to local stores, to my grandma’s apartment, to doctor’s appointments, even on adventures with my siblings. Even though at eight I was a bit on the shy side and pretty risk averse (OK, I still am), I never felt any reservations about taking the bus alone. I was confident in my abilities and proud that I could get around the city on my own.

Ironically, it was at around 14, an age when it is common to move through the world without the assistance of an adult, when I started feeling afraid to travel alone. This was the age when my body started to look like a woman’s body and, consequently, the age I first began to experience street harassment. My parents had prepared me well for the logistics of traveling by bus, but no one prepared me for life on the street as a woman.

Groping happened rarely, but leering and yelling were near constant. Back then, I didn’t know how to respond to the shouted comments about my body, the insults, the lewd jokes at my expense. I would cross the street to avoid encountering groups of men and hold my breath every time I passed a construction site. I would smile politely when disrespectful strangers pressed their phone numbers into my hand, because it didn’t take long to figure out that saying no to a man who feels entitled to your attention can activate rage. When men grabbed my arm, I would pull it away and keep walking (faster, and without turning back), so busy feeling scared and intimidated that it never even occurred to me to be angry.

But I’m angry now. Angry that experiencing this type of harassment so early in my womanhood changed the way I viewed myself and my right to move through the world. Angry that, when I was considering giving up my car 15 years ago, what gave me the most pause was not the logistics of how I would get where I needed to go, but the prospect of being on the street outside of normal business hours. Angry that my daughter, who will turn 11 in exactly one month, will soon face the same abuse I did as she ventures out on her own.

Even now, at several years past 40 (and mostly past the street harassment period of life), I regularly constrain my movements because of my gender. I repeat: I, a grown-ass strong, intelligent, capable, adult, regularly constrain the way I move through my city because of my gender. This is true for every woman I know, but, because I get around by bus, it’s especially true for me.

It goes without saying (but I’m gonna say it, just to be sure it’s clear) that harassment is not unique to public transportation. It’s a cultural problem that manifests itself in every corner of our society. (Ahem.) But the particular problem of street harassment happens more often to women who spend more time walking and standing outside. And yes, to women who share space with men on buses and trains.

Public transportation represents freedom. It provides mobility for everyone, regardless of age or ability or economic status. But women and girls will never be truly free to use transit until they no longer have to contend with abuse every time they walk outside.

Public transportation offers us the gift of contact with our community. But we cannot expect young women to embrace (or even tolerate) contact that is often demeaning and is sometimes threatening.

Public transportation, like any public good, is only as healthy as the culture it is a part of. If we want women and girls to embrace life on the ground, then we must pay as much attention to the misogyny that pervades our culture as we do to travel times and vehicle design.

Foster kids don’t need “saving”; they need strong communities

May is Foster Care Awareness Month, a time when we commit (or recommit) to understanding the conditions and needs of some of our most vulnerable citizens. But beyond educating ourselves, what can we do to help?

This is the part where I’m supposed to encourage you, dear reader, to become a foster parent, to “be there for a child” or “change a life.” Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

I don’t mean to be glib. In some ways, it really is that simple: A child needs a safe, loving home, and an adult (or adults) with the desire to parent steps up to provide it. But to truly show up for our kids, we need to do much, much more.

I was a foster parent in 2014/15. The experience was transformative for me. It taught me more about love than anything else I’ve ever done or been through. Yes, it was hard. Yes, it was messy and exhausting and it required me to stretch in ways I didn’t feel ready to. But the emotional toll, the love and loss – and yes, occasional drama – were human experiences that deepened my compassion and helped me grow. Interacting with the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services was the exact opposite.

Here’s the thing: I believe in caring for children in need, in making room in our homes and hearts and learning what it means to love someone — not with a particular outcome in mind, but just for the sake of it. I believe in the overused aphorism “it takes a village to raise a child” all the way to my core. These beliefs are what drew me to foster care. But to be a foster parent, you must participate in the foster system. And the foster system is deeply, deeply flawed.

And it’s no wonder. Our child welfare system is only as healthy as the culture it has grown out of, and – despite the “family values” rhetoric of some politicians — our culture does not prioritize families. Instead we prioritize profit, allowing “the market” to dictate who has access to human necessities like food, shelter, health care, and education.

Kids are placed in foster care when their families of origin are unable to care for them. In about 35% of cases, this is due to physical or sexual abuse. In the other 65%, it is because of neglect, which can happen for all kinds of reasons. Some parents struggle with addiction; others simply lack the resources to meet their children’s material needs or provide the supervision our culture currently deems appropriate. (We must remember that norms for supervision are extremely contextual and also that our current expectations require time and money that many – perhaps even most – families do not have.)

Child welfare systems across the US have a history of harming people of color — in particular, African American and Native American families. This harm has happened in egregious and obvious ways — Native American boarding schools, for example — and in subtle, insidious ways, such as the overrepresentation of children of color in foster care. In Washington State, Black and Native American children are removed from their families of origin at higher rates than white children, even when their living conditions are the same or similar. (And, of course, families of color are also disproportionately harmed by other systems, which makes them more likely to have contact with the child welfare system in the first place.)

Foster care, like many other critical services in Washington State, is underfunded. Social workers have more cases than they can handle and not enough resources to provide essential services. This means that even dedicated and well intentioned social workers will not have enough time or context to make informed decisions about what is best for a child’s future, and even when they do, they will not have the ability to meet every child’s needs.

So yes, we should show up for kids right now, as foster parents and mentors and even perhaps as social workers. (People of color, it’s especially important for us to show up.) But we must understand that serving the system as-is will not create the wholeness we are seeking for our children. We also must be willing to do the harder work of building a society that truly supports their well-being.

The best thing we can do for children is to sustain the families they were born to. This means we must build a society that prioritizes people, where living wage jobs, health care, child care, housing, accessible transportation, safe streets, and humane schools are available to all. We also must work to strengthen our communities, so that families have healthy social connections and can rely on support from friends and neighbors for short term needs or in the event of a crisis.

We must address the racism that is inherent in our child welfare system –- and all of our systems. This means that we must first acknowledge the harm that was caused in the past. We must look with clear eyes at the ways white supremacy and racial bias continue to influence the outcomes we see today. Then, we must commit to changing those outcomes.

And finally, we must fully fund agencies that are tasked with caring for people, particularly agencies involved in the foster system. Because when the state takes the monumental action of removing a child from her family of origin, the state is morally obligated to provide that child the safety and resources she needs to thrive.

Remember, Episode 8 – Elmer Dixon: All Power to the People

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Seattle Chapter of the Black Panther Party. I recently interviewed Elmer Dixon, one of the founding members of the Seattle Panthers, about the party’s work in the community and as a community — and about how his experience as a Black Panther continues to inform his life today. I hope you enjoy our conversation, and if you’re in Seattle, I hope you attend one (or more) of the many commemorative events happening this week.

All power to the people!

What we’ve lost

I live in a gentrified neighborhood. The Central District was once the heart of Seattle’s black community. Now, skyrocketing housing costs and rising property taxes have pushed all but a very small number of black folks out of the neighborhood. The circumstances that led to displacement in the Central District are not unique, but the community was. And what has been lost can never be replaced.

As a (biracial) black person who can afford to live here, as someone who did not grow up in this community but who is the daughter of a man who started his life mere blocks from where I now live and the granddaughter of a woman who lived here for a good portion of my childhood, my relationship to the changes is complicated. I am angry and sad about the loss of longtime residents and of this neighborhood’s identity as a black community, but I also understand that I am only here because of my own privilege. And I recognize my status as a relative newcomer, having purchased my first home here after prices had already risen beyond the reach of many longtime residents.

But this post isn’t about my complicated relationship to my neighborhood. (That post is coming; I only need another decade or so to process all of my thoughts and feelings.) It is about the community’s most recent loss.

The Promenade Red Apple Market, my neighborhood grocery store, closed in September. The property the store was leasing was purchased by a developer, and that developer’s vision did not include Red Apple. The store sat empty for several months after its last day of operation. Then, last month, the bulldozers came.

The loss has been difficult logistically for our family because there is no longer a grocery store within walking distance of our home. But it has been much more difficult emotionally. It seems strange to say, but I am in mourning.

I’ve shopped at the Promenade Red Apple regularly for 15 years (and occasionally for even longer). In those years, I have visited the store close to 2,000 times. Red Apple wasn’t perfect. The many customers who walked to the store were forced to cross a giant parking lot that was at least as big as the store — and never more than half full — to reach the front door. Prices were (understandably) higher than you would find at a large chain. The produce wasn’t always the best quality.

But Red Apple was much more than a grocery store; it was a part of the community, a place where people felt seen and known and valued.

The management and staff of Red Apple showed that they valued people by the products they chose to stock, continuing to carry foods that are culturally significant to black folks long after the demographics of the neighborhood had shifted.

They showed that they valued people by the atmosphere they created, playing “the best soul music in the city” in the aisles at all times, elevating even a quick trip for a few forgotten ingredients into a spontaneous dance party.

They showed that they valued people by affirming our dignity, allowing anyone to use the restroom or come inside to warm up or cool off.

They showed that they valued people by asking about our days and asking after our loved ones.

They showed that they valued people by celebrating with us, hosting holiday parties and Easter egg hunts and backpack giveaways year after year after year.

The plans for the new development look lovely. There will be better pedestrian access and new apartments and even (if the early designs are followed) some sort of outdoor plaza. More housing in a city facing an extreme housing shortage, a built environment that makes walking safer and gathering with others easier — these are important improvements.

Except.

Except accessible design does not make a place accessible. And physical beauty is not the same as soul.

The new apartments will be unaffordable to all but the very wealthiest slice of this city. The new stores will likely be as well. If history is any guide, gathering will be restricted to those who are perceived to belong.

If there’s a grocery store in the new development, it will surely have perfect produce and squeaky clean floors and plenty of selection. But I’m guessing it won’t carry pig feet or turkey necks. And I know for sure it won’t host a holiday party where customers can do the Cupid Shuffle with Santa.

Remember, Episode 4 – Estela Ortega: Housing by the People, for the People

Happy holiday, everyone! As I’ve mentioned many times, Martin Luther King Day is my absolute favorite holiday, because it’s all about celebrating justice and equality and community. So today is the perfect day for me to share my interview with Estela Ortega, a woman who has spent her life fighting for justice and building community. Estela is the executive director of El Centro de la Raza (“the center for people of all races”), a revered institution that has been serving the Latinx community — and many others — in Seattle for over 45 years.


There are many things I could have talked to Estela about, but the focus of this interview was El Centro’s recent success building affordable housing — across the street from a light rail station — in a city that is rapidly becoming the exclusive domain of the rich. Without access to housing, there can be no community. And, in the absence of a government response our city’s housing crisis, we will need more organizations to learn from El Centro’s example and extend their service to the community by providing quality, affordable homes in every neighborhood.

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To learn more about El Centro’s founding, listen to Episode 2 of Remember, my interview with Larry Gossett.

Two of the reasons I stayed sane in 2017

I’m just going to say it: 2017 was trash. Black women — both my own loved ones and those courageous souls who stood up to evil in the public sphere — were primarily responsible for keeping me sane this year. Other than that, it was bus drivers.*

As you probably already know, bus drivers are my version of superheroes. I am consistently awed by their kindness and humor and professionalism. (And yeah, I have had more than a few bus crushes on drivers.) Here are a couple of recent examples of the goodness they add to my life.

Thursday before last, Chicklet had a restroom emergency on the 48. By the time we reached our stop, she was approaching panic mode, and we hustled off the bus in a bit of a distracted state. Somehow, in the commotion, my phone fell out of my coat pocket. I realized I had dropped it just as the bus was driving away.

WOMP.

After we made it home, I tried calling the phone a few times in case there was someone sitting near it, but no one answered. I kicked myself for my mistake, filed a lost item report on Metro’s website, and let it go.

When Bus Nerd arrived home, I filled him in on our (mis)adventure. Ever the problem solver, he texted my phone with a message for whomever found it to please call his number. I wasn’t optimistic that this would work, since, like most people, I have a password on my phone. Miraculously, about 20 minutes later, Bus Nerd got a call. The 48 driver had found the phone! He let Bus Nerd know when he would pass through our neighborhood again so that someone could meet the bus and get it. Like the last time I lost something important on the 48, my beloved was kind enough to handle the retrieval.

I still have no idea how the driver saw the text (was he holding the phone at the exact right moment?); there was no time to ask during the quick exchange. But superheroes can do anything, right?

A few days after the miraculous phone recovery, this delightful human drove the 27 I rode home from a Saturday morning appointment.

She had left a sweet surprise on every seat.

On the way off the bus, I complimented her on her decorations — and her kindness. She said, “I figured, if I have to work the holiday, I might as well bring it with me.”

You guys. BUS DRIVERS ARE THE BEST PEOPLE.

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* Quadruple bonus points for black women bus drivers!

Remember, Episode 2 – Larry Gossett: Progress is a Community Effort

King County Councilmember Larry Gossett is one of my great heroes. He is a true man of the people who has served his community in a number of capacities for over 50 years, and I was honored to interview him for Remember.*

The biggest challenge with this interview was that there was too much to talk about. So, this episode will be the first of a series with Councilmember Gossett. If you want to learn more about his incredible contributions to our community, read Gang of Four: Four Leaders, Four Communities, One Friendship, by Bob Santos and Gary Iwamoto.

CM Gossett at a community dinner for tiny house village residents, with a member of the hosting congregation

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* Remember is a podcast about building community. Host Carla Saulter (me!) talks to guests about ways we can build connected, resilient, inclusive, interdependent communities to help us tackle our nation’s — and our world’s — most pressing problems.

10 things I’ve learned in my first 10 years as a bus parent

Today Chicklet turns 10 years old. My tiny little bus buddy is now a fourth grader, a self-described “horse crazy girl” who loves Prince, PAWS, books, trees, her baby cousins, and politics. Seriously, politics. She is the kid who insists on helping me fill out my ballot (which reminds me: gotta get on that), who enjoys watching debates and could easily name every elected official who represents her, from the senate to the city council. Despite her introverted nature, Chicklet wants to be one of those elected officials someday — and not just to make the world a better place. She has admitted (more than once) that she wants to “be in charge of people” just for the sake of it.

I digress.

Having a decade-old daughter means I’m 10 in bus mom years. I’ve learned a lot of lessons in 3,653 days of life on the ground — schlepping stuff and managing disasters (mostly minor) by bus. Here are 10 of them.

1. Creativity and flexibility are a bus parent’s most important tools. There are plenty of parenting practices — and even some products — that will make busing with kids easier. But the key to a successful bus parenting experience is an ability and willingness to adapt to whatever circumstances you are presented with.

Long bus wait? Play Connect Four. Heading to the beach? Pack tiny buckets. Struggling to keep up with youth ORCA cards? Get a lanyard (and a label). Toddler throws up on the 8? Use everything in your bus bag.

2. A plastic bag can solve almost any problem. A plastic bag is an essential item for most bus riders but especially essential for parents. Plastic bags are (unfortunately) abundant, free, easy to carry, and incredibly versatile. They can be used for on-the-way shopping (though these days, I carry an actual shopping bag, too), trash collection (for those random snack wrappers, banana peels, dirty tissues, diapers, etc., etc.); laundry (remind me to tell you about the time Chicklet sat on a mysterious brown substance at a bus shelter downtown), seating (to cover wet benches or ledges), and even, in a pinch, vomit (expelled by sick kiddos or those unfortunate individuals who are busing while pregnant).

Even if you’re not great at packing, it’s easy to keep at least one plastic bag in your backpack, purse, or pocket. And it’s worth it. Reduce, reuse, recycle.

3. Busing prepares kids for life. Several years back, I wrote a post about how busing makes kids smarter. It might have been a bit of a stretch (and it definitely scored high on the smug scale), but I am convinced that bus kids are more ready for the world than kids who are driven everywhere.

Busing involves waiting. In the early years, this can be challenging, but kids do get used to it. They learn how watch the world, or daydream, or make conversation, or read a book when they’re bored. This comes in handy when they’re in line at the grocery store, in the dentist’s office, at a restaurant, or pretty much anywhere kids are expected to keep their bodies calm and minds occupied for more than 30 seconds.

Bus kids build physical stamina from all the walking they do. Kids who walk a lot are healthy, ready for almost any outdoor adventure, and able to keep up with parents on shopping excursions and other walk-intensive outings.

A Monday walk to school

Bus kids learn to navigate at an early age and develop an intimate, on-the-ground knowledge of their community. This prepares them to get around on their own long before they are old enough to drive.

Bus kids learn to interact safely with people they don’t know. They practice setting and respecting boundaries, and they are exposed to people of all different ages, colors, orientations, incomes, temperaments, and abilities. This helps them understand that everyone belongs. And the way I see it, there’s nothing more important to learn.

4. Policies matter. Back in the dark ages, when my kids were still portable, Metro’s stroller policy required parents to remove children from strollers and collapse the strollers before boarding the bus. This made some sense from a safety and space use perspective but absolutely no sense from a parent’s perspective.

Long before I became a bus mama, I knew I would never bring a stroller onto the bus if I could possibly help it. And when I did have kids, I wore them in a carrier as often — and for as long — as possible. When they started getting too big to be carried in a pack, I struggled. There was a good six-month stretch when I was willing to walk very long distances in bad weather to avoid the bus, because the stroller hassle was just too much.

The benefit of this excruciating period was that I was very motivated to get my kids walking on their own. Both of them started their “walk training” before they turned two and were full-time walkers by two and a half. To this day, they have incredible stamina and patience and can out-walk most adults.

Again, I digress.

These days, Metro has a sane stroller policy. Parents can leave their child (and stuff) in the stroller and can use the lift and wheelchair area if it is not being used by a wheelchair passenger. It’s not a perfect solution, since parents sometimes must unhook, unpack, and fold in the middle of a ride, but it’s impossible to perfectly balance the needs of a diverse group of riders in a vehicle with limited capacity. And certainly, the current policy is significantly better than what I dealt with — so much better that I sometimes wish I had another baby just so I could take advantage of it.

OK, no I don’t.

There are so many examples of the positive impacts that thoughtful, people-focused agency policies have on riders. (There are also plenty of examples of the negative impacts of poor policies.) I hope Metro continues to incorporate feedback from folks on the ground into all of their decision-making processes.

5. Bus drivers are the best people. I’ve always been a bit in awe of bus drivers, so it’s beautiful to see that my kids feel the same way. I’ve written so much about the ways drivers have cared for and entertained our family over the years, I don’t have much more to say on the subject. Except this:

6. Seattle needs more public bathrooms. One of the most common challenges we deal with on our bus adventures is the restroom emergency. (The fact that the emergency is mine as often as it is one of my children’s is a minor detail.) Being stranded at a bus stop with a potty training kid who has to go (or a diapered kid who already did) is a not awesome aspect of busing with babies.

If the world were as it should be, there would be clean, safe restrooms at Link stations and all major bus stops. The world is not as it should be (so very not), so bus riders (and everyone else) must fend for themselves. I make it my business to know all the restroom options in the neighborhoods I visit frequently. My preferred restroom hierarchy: public (library, community center, government building, park [except YUCK]), private but accessible (hotel lobby, large restaurant), private but inaccessible (small restaurant or coffee shop with a key or code).

In case you’re not a restroom savant, there’s — obviously — an app for that.

7. Bus parents don’t “run errands.” When Chicklet was a baby, I was desperate to prove that our family could live like everyone else. Or, at least, that we could do everything other middle-class families did. This was in part because I was still in my “bus booster” phase (Who am I kidding? I will always be in my bus booster phase.) and was therefore more interested in proving that carfree living was possible than I was in analyzing its limitations.

Yes (thanks mostly to our proximity and access), my kids get to dance classes and sports practices and birthday parties and doctor’s appointments. Yes, we have food in our refrigerator and clothes in our closets and all the essential hygiene products in our bathroom. Yes, we go on fun outings. But the effort, time, and physical and mental energy that is expended to make all that happen can sometimes feel overwhelming. (Carrying capacity has always been, and as far as I can tell will remain, a huge challenge for me.)

And even with the basics covered, there are plenty of things we choose not to do, or do less often than we would like, because we don’t have a car. There are other things that we only do when we decide to rent a car.

What I have learned over these years is that we aren’t, in fact, trying to “live like everyone else” by bus. Instead, we are building and modeling a different way to live. And really, that’s always been the point.

8. The journey is the adventure. Sorry to resort to a cliché in an already cliché’ “10 things I learned” listicle, but folks, we’re talking transit here. Schlepping kids across town on the bus for an everyday errand like shoe shopping when you’re tired and pressed for time can be a hassle. But riding transit to go on an adventure is, well, an adventure.

When we take the bus (or train) to an event, or to a beach or park we rarely visit, we try new routes, walk in new neighborhoods, and enjoy new scenery. We spend our travel time focusing on each other instead of the road. These transit adventures have made some of our best memories as a family, and they’re a beautiful reminder of why we ride.

9. Our “sacrifice” is a privilege. While it’s true that our decision to live without a car requires determination and some amount of sacrifice, it’s also true that it wouldn’t be possible at all without a number of privileges lots of people don’t have. Living the way we do is possible for us because we have work that is flexible and accessible by transit, reliable internet access, and sufficient income. We are able-bodied and live in a centrally located neighborhood with sidewalks, pretty good transit, and nearby services. Because we are fortunate enough to own a home, our housing costs are stable, and, barring some unforeseen disaster, we can count on the access we need to keep doing this.

Back when I started my carfree adventure almost 15 years ago, Seattle was already an expensive city. But, it was possible (if challenging) for many carfree families to save enough on transportation costs to afford to live in a small space in the city. Now, city living is inaccessible to almost everyone. It is no longer a matter of tradeoffs or determination; it’s a matter of not having enough money to make it work, no matter how you get around.

And it’s not just about access. If any number of circumstances in our lives were to change, we wouldn’t be able to live this way anymore. If, for example, someone in our family developed a medical condition that required regular appointments or procedures or that made it difficult for them to walk long distances, we would need a car. If we decided to foster another child, who might attend a different school than our other kids and would almost certainly have family visits and other appointments outside our neighborhood (not to mention his or her own share of middle-of-the-night illnesses), we would need a car. If one of us started a job that involved a non-bus-friendly commute or that required us to travel around the region during the day, we would need a car.

For a few years now, I’ve been wondering about the point of it all. Why make a choice that constrains our lives in so many ways if it’s not a  choice most others can emulate? Is there value in doing something so outside of the norm if it has little to no real impact, especially if we could be of more service to our community and extended family if we drove?

All I’ve got is this: You have to start somewhere. Sure, lots of people can’t get by without a car. But some of people can. And those people should. If they don’t, we cannot expect to see change in our lifetimes. Or ever.

So, the way I see it, our family needs to make the tradeoffs and feel the occasional discomfort and keep living this way for as long as we are able. We also need to fight like hell to make sure the privileges we have are available to more people. We must insist on affordable housing, so that working people can live in the city. We must insist on sidewalks in every community. We must advocate for more and better transit and safe bicycle infrastructure.

We must do this because living without a car should not be a choice only for the desperate or dedicated. It should be an option available to everyone.

10. Holding hands is awesome. The challenges of bus parenting change over time. You go from the physically exhausting infant period, to the squirmy, bathroom centric (and also physically exhausting) toddler phase, to the payment logistics and window-seat battles of the early school years, to the scheduling struggles of the older kid years, to … Lord only knows.

But the joys of bus parenting? Those remain constant. Playing “telephone” while waiting for the 8 on a rainy night. Reading books — together or separately — on the way to visit cousins. Running into school friends or church members or neighbors on almost every ride. Holding hands, sitting close, telling jokes.

I will continue to be grateful that we can do this, even on days when I’m exhausted and resentful and over it already. Because the truth is, busing with babies is beautiful. And we are so fortunate.

I have a podcast!

Over the past couple of years, I’ve started to think (and write) a lot about community. I believe that connected, resilient, inclusive, interdependent communities are essential to our well-being as a species and are the best hope we have of solving the planet’s most pressing problems.

In the podcast, which I’m calling Remember (as in re-MEMBER: bring back together), I plan to explore ways we can strengthen the communities we are a part of and use our collective resources to create a world we want to live in.

This first episode is essentially just an introduction — in other words, me talking to myself — but future episodes will almost always include interviews with more interesting people.

I’ll be posting all future episodes here. I hope you’ll listen — and tell a friend!