Monday, December 27, 2010

Do The Right Thing

We really hadn’t intended to be a part of a high speed police chase but somehow that’s what transpired. Because hubby had been tired at the last Thruway rest stop, I was at the wheel. We were having a really lovely chat, the kind that can materialize when darkness falls on the highway and there are no ears buckled into the back seats. We’d just dropped our oldest two boys off at the airport in New York City. They were on their way to sunny Brazil, to spend their Christmas holidays with family friends. We had about an hour to go before we could collapse into our warm beds.

Then we saw him. A white full sized car in front of us was weaving around a bit. Then a lot. He started spending more time crossing over the lines than he did driving between them. I stayed back just enough to stay out of his way, but tried not to lose him, knowing he was tragically close to striking an innocent victim.

Suddenly our casual conversation had disappeared and we were frantically wondering what we should do about our fellow driver. Should we call 911? Who has jurisdiction on the open Thruway?

Then, before we could make a move, he put on a blinker and headed for the exit. Immediately we realized we’d be able to catch his license plate as he slowed down for the toll gate. I put on my blinker and we followed him. He approached the easy pass lane and barely slowed down enough for the sensors to register. In that brief moment, we caught his plate number and wrote it down. Then we zipped through the easy pass lane after him.

If I had been alone I probably would have let it go. I would have called in the plates and turned around to make my way home. But my husband is a man who takes responsibility. For years I’ve called him our ‘undercover super hero’ because he’s always the one who steps up and does the right thing, even when it puts himself in danger. By the time we entered the dark winding roads of rural Upstate New York, my man was committed to stopping this guy, hopefully before he killed someone with his reckless driving.

For almost 20 miles, as he continued to cross the center line (causing other cars to honk as they barely missed him) and weave around the corners, we followed him. For most of that time we had the 911 operator on the phone, describing to her the landmarks we were passing, so she could send the authorities to the correct location. Around hairpin curves, at speeds higher than I was usually comfortable with, we tracked him and kept the 911 operator up to date on his status.

Finally, as we passed through a small town, we saw the fruits of our effort. Two local police cars were standing by, ready to intercept this obviously intoxicated driver. Our part of the journey was over. We hung up the phone and turned around, winding our way back to the Thruway. But as the adrenaline continued to course through our veins, we had a different discussion. This one about the senselessness of a traffic accident caused by an impaired driver.

For much of our chase we were certain we’d eventually be assisting at a crash scene. The driver of that white car was so out of control, it’s a miracle no one died that night. All of those public service announcements, preaching the dangers of drinking and driving, suddenly became very personal. We talked about the reasons a person might be stupid enough to get in a car when they’re not able to drive safely.

The holidays bring more than the usual circumstances that would lead to a person driving while impaired. It starts at the office holiday party, or a friend’s Christmas party. Everyone’s relaxed, joking around, the alcohol is flowing freely.

Then someone decides it’s time to call it a night. Everyone knows he’s had a few too many to be getting into a car. But it’s an awkward situation. No one wants to spoil the fun. No one wants to be the one who stands up and says, “Maybe you should call a cab.” It’s easy to tell yourself, ‘I don’t know that guy very well. Someone who knows him better should say it.’

Because let’s face it, it’s a hassle to call a cab. It’s a pain to have someone drive you home. There’s the expense of the cab ride, or the favor owed to the chauffer friend. And there’s logistics of getting back to the scene to pick up your car the next day. It’s so much easier to look the other way. “He’s a really good driver, he’ll be fine.” “She doesn’t live that far from here. I’m sure she’ll make it without a problem.”

This weekend, as you celebrate the ringing in of a new year, think about the choices you’re making. If you’ve ever seen a drunk driver on the road, you’ll ignore the wimpy excuses. When it seems too hard to stand up and do the right thing, imagine the innocent car that may never see that drunk driver coming. The one with toddlers buckled into car seats in the back. The one traveling to grandma’s house for the holidays. Then step up. Do the right thing.

Consider it a gift to the universe.

Consider it a gift to yourself.

Tis the season to do the right thing.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Santa Good Bye

Disclaimer: This column contains material that might be considered adult content. Please preview before sharing with any person under the age of ten.

It’s finally happened in our house. After almost two decades of welcoming the red suited guy into our home, the last of our offspring has stopped believing. It’s a milestone I never thought about until it suddenly popped up this past weekend. It's a big deal to me, because it says so much about how our household is changing, so quickly, from young kids to young adults.

I guess I’m lucky that we got to squeeze a few extra years out of the whole magical process. Our firstborn stopped believing about the time our last born was, well…born. So as one belief evaporated, a new little person began his path to embracing it. It was a good run in our family. As older ones stopped believing, they took great joy in helping little ones hold onto their faith.

It’s a magical thing, to believe in something as special as a grandfatherly man who spends his whole year thinking about your desires. Sometimes it’s hard to let go. When our number three child stretched his believing years out longer than we had ever thought possible, the only way we could comfort him, as reality became too much to ignore, was by letting him stay awake into the wee hours of Christmas morning, to be a part of the giving. Suddenly playing Santa seemed just about as fun as believing in him.

I should have known this would be the year that our Santa run would end. Our youngest is in the later elementary school years. Most of his friends have stopped believing. But he is the baby in our family, so we all did what we could to stretch out the tradition.

In the past few years he’s jumped on the assignment of writing the letter. I’ve had to be pretty sneaky to get my photocopy of said letter (for my heirloom files) before he rushed it out the door to the mailbox. But this year he’d lost his zeal.

I reminded him several times over the course of last week. He never got around to it. I assumed he was just thinking about other aspects of the holiday and distracted by studying spelling words and book report projects. But then it all came together. At one point, in the lazy part of Sunday afternoon I said, “Sam, you should go write your Santa letter now.”

He didn’t answer me. He quietly kept working on the Lego creation that was in his hand. I pulled him in close to me on the couch and whispered in his ear, “Is there a reason you don’t want to write your letter?”

He quietly mumbled back, “I just don’t feel like it.” I took his chin in my hand and turned it to face me. “Is there a reason you don’t want to write that letter?”

He grinned.

And instantly I knew.

I knew that he knew.

And I knew our Santa era was over.

Once it was out in the open we curled up on the couch and had a long conversation. The football game we’d been watching was paused as we soaked in this historic moment. His dad and I laughed and talked about how old he suddenly seemed to us. This ‘baby boy’ who would forever hold that title in our family, kept passing milestones that told us otherwise.

He had questions of his own. He ran upstairs to retrieve the ‘signature’ Santa left him last year. “So, who did this?” he asked, accusingly. Then he wanted to know logistics. Who drank the milk and ate the cookies? How did we sneak presents out in the middle of the night when he knows for a fact that we’re old and desperately need our sleep?

It was entertaining but surreal to share stories with him about trying to pull the whole thing off, right under his nose. It got especially tricky when we started visiting Grammy’s house for Christmas, after we moved to New York. That van trunk full of ‘presents’ covered by coats and blankets made more sense now.

I told him I knew his belief was slipping when he lost his excitement about the letter. I reminded him that last year he’d been diligent about getting his desires sent to the North Pole. He looked reflective for a minute, then said, “Yeah, and do you know how many hearts I put on that letter last year?!” I suspect he was in his last stages of believing when he wrote that letter, and every heart included on his wish list was a small plea for validity.

Once the questions were asked and answered, we snuggled on the couch and turned on a holiday episode of the TV show Glee. I had been protecting him from it since the story line included a teenage girl who still believed, as her friends rally up to help her hold on to the magic. It held special meaning for my boy, now that he was one of the big kids, the ones who knew the truth. Several times in the course of that show he turned to me and grinned, with that knowing grin only a non-believer can possess.

And then came the sweetest moment of the night. Just as he was headed up to bed, he gave the regular good night hugs. But before he pulled away he whispered one sentence in my ear. “Thanks for taking it so well, mom.”

I think my boy is definitely gaining maturity. Even he could see that his not believing anymore was as big a deal.

To him, but also to his sappy hearted mom.

So good-bye, jolly Santa. You will be missed. Don’t stray too far away though. Someday down the road, when grandchildren start ringing my doorbell, I’m going to be thrilled to call on your services again.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Great Characters Make Great Kids

My youngest son, Sam, has spent his lifetime trying to keep up with the three older kids in our family. He skipped the Fisher Price people and moved up to Hot Wheels as soon as he could sit up. He strapped on roller blades and skis before he started kindergarten, he was so determined to do what the big kids did.

So when my fourth grader came home from school one day and announced he wanted to read a book called Hatchet, which is a book most kids read ‘for school’ in the fifth grade, I was not surprised.

He plowed through the first chapter and realized it might be an easier read if mom helped him out. So for the next few weeks Sam and I went on an adventure together. Every night at 8:30 we snuggled in my bed and found out ‘what happened next’. The book is about a young boy who gets stranded in the woods by himself, in a remote area of Canada. He has no supplies (except a hatchet) and has to figure out how to survive. The draw was obvious for my adventure loving/woods loving boy.

As the character discovered new ways to find food and provide shelter for himself, Sam and I went along for the ride. As he had set backs and frustrations, Sam and I sympathized, and soon felt like he was a friend of ours, stuck in a bad situation. Sam saw him as a kid he might definitely be friends with and my protective mommy heart craved a chance to save him.

Soon it was time to do the monthly book report project and Sam was determined to use this book. It was imperative that we finish it up so he could dive into his project. We met on the couch on a Sunday evening, knowing we had to read until the end.

The story picks up a lot in the last chapters. The tension builds as the boy tries, almost in vain, to retrieve an emergency supplies kit from the crashed plane that put him in the situation in the first place.

Finally, finally he gets his hands on it. After two months of figuring out life in the wild, and setting up a pretty logical and productive system for survival, the boy is suddenly surrounded by simple supplies that can mean the world to a person, if your only possession is a hatchet.

Pots and pans.

Fishing line.

A small gun that could replace his crudely built bow and arrow.

And dozens of packets of real food.

Sam and I had become so involved with this boy’s plight, that as we read the list of supplies he’d found, we were giddy for him, like it was Christmas morning.

These items that are so accessible to us in our daily life, were so priceless to this boy who was lost in the woods.

I paused my reading and we sat for a minute, just looking at each other, in awe.

Sam had been literally bouncing up and down on the couch next to me as I’d read the list of supplies, he was so excited. As we got to the part where the boy is setting up his first real meal, a bowl of hot beef stew, boiled in his precious new pot, and realizing his long term survival seems even more likely, we were both struck with gratitude.

You can imagine how excited we got then, when just a few pages later, a plane touches down to rescue this long forgotten boy. Talk about cheering and high fiving; we were ecstatic.

We did finish the book that night. Then we ran off to tell Daddy about how it all had ended. It somehow felt like this boy was our friend and we were ready to call the papers to announce his rescue, but telling Daddy had to do.

As I laid in bed that night, trying to go to sleep, I realized something. Through the gift of that well written book I learned a few things. I became more educated on wilderness survival for sure.

But I was also reminded of the value of character dense books. That kind of story that makes you feel like you are a part of the character’s life, and have a vested interest in the resolution to his problem. The kind of book you don’t want to end because it means saying good bye to a new friend.

And I realized that with child number four I’d become lazy. It was too easy to set him up with books that were easy reads. The kind of books I’d call fluff books. Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Captain Underpants. Goosebumps. He can read through those quickly and feel good that he’s finished another book. Those books are fine every once in a while. But it’s important I give him a steady diet of meatier books too.

They might take longer to read, and sometimes he might need me to encourage him to tackle those harder books, but they have such value. He gains so much by seeing how more literary books are written and naturally falling in love with their characters.

He sees how other people live and react to life, outside of his own experiences. It makes him a better writer, having read deeper books, but I think it also makes him a better citizen of the planet.

I know the books I’m going to encourage him to read. I made his siblings read them when they were his age. I’d just forgotten how important it was to make sure my last little guy had good literature in his hands too.

It took a very special evening on the couch, cheering together for a good solid character, to remind me to pay attention.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Big City Holiday

One of the reasons we were drawn to the Albany area a handful of years ago was its proximity to some pretty fun places. Boston’s just a couple of hours away. Scenic drives in Vermont are even closer than that. Montreal is a nice weekend trip. And New York City is a very doable day trip. The big city is especially fun this time of the year.

My husband and I both had some business down in the City this past weekend so we rounded up a few of our kids and headed down the great Thruway. I’d highly recommend the places we were able to hit, all in a single day, so I’ll share them with you. Disclaimer: There are ten kazillion other fun things to do in NYC this time of year, but this little list contains the handful of things we picked to explore this time around. Next year I'll probably give you a whole different list.

We parked in a parking garage near the lower southeast side of Central Park (great coupons online for the Icon Parking Garages). As we walked out of the garage we could see the giant Menorah at the edge of the park. Just around the corner we passed by the Apple store. If you’ve never seen a picture of it, look it up online. It’s a massive glass box, sitting in the middle of a huge sidewalk. A spiral staircase inside takes you to the actual store, which is full of electronic holiday treasures.

Just behind the Apple store is the world famous FAO Schwartz. It’s as amazing as you would imagine, which is why it is featured in so many famous movies, but to get in the door (past the fully believable live nutcracker people) there’s a waiting line that circles the block. Either come early to this one, or wait until February, when the toys inside are just as fun and there’s not usually a line just to enter.

Then across the street from FAO Schwartz you’ll find Bergdorf Goodman’s. Unless you’re in the market for five thousand dollar suits you may not choose to shop there, but do check out their windows. People around the world know about the inspiring holiday window displays that many major department stores in New York City host every year. Bergdorf’s windows are usually on the short list of ‘the best’. This year we were not disappointed.

Just a few blocks from there you’ll find the department store called Barney’s. Their theme this year was food and famous chefs. The windows were full of whimsical scenes, putting some favorite celebrity food masters in silly scenes with amazingly realistic looking food. Even my boys enjoyed these windows.

Head a few blocks east and you’ll find Dylan’s Candy Bar. In our family it’s known as the “Willy Wonka store”. There are three levels of everything related to candy. The wallpaper is dotted with scattered candies, the lighted steps to each level have candy imbedded in them. Some of your old favorites will make you say, “I remember those!” and the assortment of novelty candy products will make you start to think you need one of each. This year there was a huge chocolate fountain set up, and for a small fee you could buy a chunk of rice crispy treat, or a marshmallow, and take a dip.

Don’t leave that sugared wonderland without going to the top floor and trying out one of their delicious candy packed ice cream sundaes, while you’re perched on a candy swirl stool. The four of us shared one sundae and regrettably had to leave some behind, it was just too big for us.

If the weather is good and you don’t mind passing by handfuls of other tempting shopping opportunities, you can head south a few blocks and see all the sites at Rockefeller Center. The tree is the main highlight but the skating rink is also a lot of fun. Be forewarned that if you want to skate, you’ll stand in line for a bit, since they only allow 150 people on the rink at a time, for quality control. And if you want a picture of your kid in front of the giant tree, just know he’ll be surrounded by four to five hundred other tourists because that area of the plaza is very popular.

I accidentally discovered that one of the best places to take a picture of the rink, the tree, the gold statue and the plaza itself is the second floor of the new Lego store. Of course we had to go check it out and while hubby and the boys wandered through the inspiring displays I tucked myself in near a window, trying not to be run over by package stuffed strollers. The second I turned around I knew I’d found a great hidden secret to getting some pretty good shots for the scrapbook, at this crazy time of year.

The last spot to round out our list this year was Grand Central Station. Head a couple of blocks southeast from Rockefeller Center and you’ll find this gorgeous historic building. In years past they’ve had light shows that rivaled any I’ve seen at planetariums, the moving lights and scenes circling the great domed central hall. We were saddened to hear there wasn’t funding this year for a light show (but maybe next year?) so we settled for wandering through an amazing holiday fair that was set up just off the main hall. Live holiday music set the scene and unique gifts in row after row of booths definitely made it feel like Christmas.

So think about making time to head to NYC this December, or maybe in a year or two. It's a treasure that’s worth a look, every month of the year, but especially during the holiday season.