Friday, December 31, 2010

Once In a Lifetime

Once in a lifetime – such an over-used phrase.  “A once in a lifetime sale, opportunity, event, etc.!”  Advertisers love to use that phrase excessively to hype their products.  There are only a limited number of actual once in a lifetime events or opportunities - births, deaths, weddings, funerals, graduations and such.  It is most unusual to experience two such events at the same time.  Several months ago I had the opportunity to experience exactly that, two once in a lifetime events.  And I lived to tell about it.

It began with a blind date in the spring, and ended with a wedding in the fall, my brother-in-law being the groom.  In the spring, several family members set up the blind date, and all went well.  The couple had a great time, and made arrangements to see each other again.  Things went well again, and again, and again, and again…you get the drift.  Many trips were made from Ohio to Texas.  And then came the realization that the rest of the family would need to make a trip to Texas for a wedding.

To fly or to drive, that was the question.  Personally, for the six members of our household, we decided we would drive.  Some people had made the drive in 17 hours.  That seemed reasonable, and with the price of airline tickets, it just made sense.  Oh!  And what if we would rent a large van, fill it with more family, and make memories that last a lifetime!

And so was hatched the fateful plan to put 12 people in a 15 passenger van, and travel around, oh, let’s say 2500 miles.  That sounds like fun!  And so we did.  Three preschoolers, four adults, and six youth, in a confined space.  No overnight accommodations, we were traveling the whole way in one shot, because that’s how we roll.  It wouldn’t be so bad.

We got an enclosed, locking box to attach to the hitch of the van for extra luggage space.  That didn’t quite carry everything, so we strapped an ice chest on top of that.  We would soon discover that all weight back there would make for an interesting driving experience, not only for the driver, but for all the passengers as well.  The van would dance and weave to the beat of a different drummer, as the driver would try to corral it between the lines, all while appearing calm, as if everything was normal.  He would get it under control, and then the next semi would come roaring past, sending the van into its next series of gleeful swerving.  As a passenger, it was hard to relax, especially after dark when it was time to sleep.  As a driver, it was stressful and tiring trying to keep the van under control.  A little bit of rain added another dimension to the mix, but thankfully it didn’t last long.  We were only a couple of hours into the trip, when one of the kids expressed all of our thoughts by asking, "Are we in Africa yet, I mean, Texas?"

The next issue was lack of planning from the parents of the preschoolers.  It seems that they forgot to make each one go to the bathroom every time a stop was made.  This resulted in several extra, unplanned stops, much to the chagrin of the other passengers.  Then of course, there was the normal complaining that comes from sitting in a car seat for an extended period of time.  Also, every spare inch of the van was cluttered with luggage,  blankets, pillows, books, ipods, snacks, and various other items designed to distract us on this un-ending journey.

We did eventually get there after what seemed like several years.  Actually it took us 22 hours. 

We were able to have an enjoyable time while we were in Texas, and the couple is happily married.  We broke up our trip home with an overnight stay, so we never reached the levels of despair we had previously experienced.  We also had less weight in our luggage box in the back, and the van ceased its happy dance, much to our delight.

It was a trip that needed to be made, and a wedding we were privileged to attend.  If such a situation were to occur again, I hope we would be wiser now in choosing our method of travel.

I truly hope this was a once in a lifetime event.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

That Day

Nine years.  Has it really been that long?  It seems like just last year.  Has it only been that long?  It seems like a lifetime ago.  September 11, 2001.  Everyone remembers exactly what they were doing when they heard the news, who they were with, the eerie feeling in the pit of their stomach, etc.   There are very few events of this magnitude in a person’s lifetime.

Looking back, I realize that I may soon forget some of the details of my own September 11th story, unless I take the time to write them down.  My story begins in April 2001, when I moved to New York City (Brooklyn).  My parents and girlfriend came along with me that first weekend, and we took the opportunity to do some sightseeing.  This included going to the top of the World Trade Center.  This would be my only visit inside the towers.  From the glass in the observation area, I took a picture straight down.  I would later look at this photo, and imagine what it would feel like to decide to jump out from that height.

My job in New York involved delivering books to various retail locations throughout New York City, Connecticut, New Jersey, and upstate New York.  My schedule had me going to Manhattan on Mondays and Tuesdays of each week.

Tuesday September 11, 2001 dawned a beautiful, clear sunny day.  It was Primary Day in New York City, with the mayor’s race being the main subject in the news.  As I recall, our day started around 7:00 AM.  Our route that day was known as “North Manhattan” and consisted of about 8 stores located between 14th St. and 96th St. mostly on the east side of Manhattan.  We crossed the Williamsburg Bridge, and went to our first store, on First Ave. near 23rd St.  Our next two stores were located on or near 14th St.  We were just getting done with these stores when the first plane slammed into the World Trade Center.  My co-worker, remembers hearing a noise, but not thinking much about it since we were in a city filled with constant noise.  At this point, we were about 1.5 – 2 miles (as the crow flies) away from towers.  We got into our van and drove north towards our next store at 75th St. and 1st Ave.  We were unaware of anything that was going on.  Parking at the next location was hard to find, so I dropped off my colleague and circled around the block to find parking.  I flipped on the radio as I spotted a parking spot along 1st Ave.  The time was 9AM.  They were talking about an airplane that had hit the World Trade Center and how downtown was a traffic nightmare.  I assumed they were talking about an amateur pilot in a little Cessna who had gotten lost or was too busy looking at the scenery, and had inadvertently smacked the tower.  It was only when they started talking about a second airplane that was heading for the towers that I realized the magnitude of what was taking place.  I quickly did my parallel parking routine and rushed into the store we were delivering to.  As I crossed First Avenue, I looked south to see smoke rising above the skyline.  We were too far north to see the towers themselves, but the smoke was very much visible.  I informed my co-worker what had happened, and the store employees turned on the TVs to see what was going on.  What just happened!?  We were shocked.  The only thing we knew to do was to keep on working.  As we left, I had the presence of mind to buy a cheap disposable camera.  We didn’t know what we should do, so we continued north to our next store.  While we were working there, we spoke to our manager in Pennsylvania.  He said he would contact our families to let them know we were ok, and told us to wrap it up and head for home.  Neither of my parents were home, so he was unable to reach them.  I called my girlfriend, told her we were ok, and that we may try to get closer to see what we could see.   Things were mostly quiet in the area where we were, except for the occasional siren, which was typical a sound anywhere in New York City.  We spoke several times with another co-worker, who was working by himself in the Bronx.  He was also stopping for the day.  We finished at the store and drove west toward Central Park.

We headed south on Fifth Ave. hanging on to every word of WCBS 880.  Our minds were swimming.  Both towers were hit, the Pentagon was on fire, there were unaccounted airplanes out there somewhere, all the bridges and tunnels were closed…the bad news seemed endless.  And it would not end for a while.  We continued driving, not knowing what we were going to do.  The commentators on the radio interrupted with an excited voice saying that one of the towers had fallen.  My heart sank with it.  In all the horror of the day, this was the worst.  It had not entered my mind that they would fall.  I had no words.  My mind raced.  One of the towers had fallen.  Would the other one stand, or was it doomed as well?  Was this just the beginning, or the end?  These were the landmarks, the points of reference for Manhattan.  Every time we went into the City, my eyes were drawn to the twin towers.  They were my compass in the City.

We drove south far enough that we started getting into traffic.  Every bridge and tunnel was closed, and Manhattan being an island, that was a problem for us.  We crossed through Central Park, and found parking near 68th St. on the west side of Manhattan.  We had no choice but to walk.  And walk we did.  We walked down to Times Square to see what the news tickers were saying.  The streets were eerily silent.  People were huddled in groups listening to a radio or watching a portable tv.  Everyone seemed to be in a state of shock.  We came into Times Square and watched the breaking reports on the big screens.  When they reported another airplane that was still un-accounted for, we decided Times Square was not the place to be.

Meanwhile, my parents still had not heard anything from me.  Making phone calls became impossible.  All the circuits were completely jammed making our cell phones useless.  Landlines and pay phones were no different, no one could get through.  Close to noon, our manager finally got hold of my Dad at his job, and told him I was ok.  My girlfriend had not heard from me since before the towers fell, and she remembered that we were trying to get closer.

From Times Square we walked south on a deserted Broadway.  Never before or after have I seen New York streets so deserted.  We walked all the way down to Delancey St.  All the streets south of there were barricaded and we could get no further.  There we saw emergency vehicles covered in dust.  We walked across the Williamsburg Bridge in a sea of humanity.  Looking back at Manhattan from the crest of the bridge gave one an ominous feeling.  Smoke was billowing from the site of the twin towers, battle ships were parked in the bay, and fighter jets were circling the skies.  It looked like a scene from a movie, unlike anything I had seen before in real life.  I was in a war zone.  Like a refugee, trying to get away.  The magnitude of it all started to grip me.  Our sense of security and innocence had been ripped away in several moments.  I am sure the Statue of Liberty had tears in her eyes.

On the Brooklyn side of the Williamsburg Bridge, the local Jewish communities had rows of tables set up and were distributing bottles of water and snacks.  There were rows of city buses, and they were packed.  We stood on the front step right inside the door.  After walking 7 miles, we were just glad to have transportation.  By late afternoon, the trains in Brooklyn started running again, and we got back to our apartment around 4:30.  We spent the rest of the day watching footage and news reports.  The full impact of everything started soaking in, and I realized this was a day I would never forget.  I was able to get hold of my family and my girlfriend and assure them I was ok.

We had the next day off as well.  It took some time for the numbness to wear off.  The new reality was here.  Our delivery vehicles were searched at every bridge and tunnel.  Everyone was more watchful and on edge.  Patriotic displays were everywhere.  Many tourist attractions were closed indefinitely.  Downtown was a traffic disaster, and we didn’t do any deliveries south of Canal Street for about two months.  We saw cars parked, covered in dust, whose owners' never came back.

In the weeks and months that followed we slowly adjusted to the new normal.  Our innocence and naivety were stripped, our vulnerability was exposed.  Our landmarks were gone.  Forever.  Never the same.   A deep sense of sadness and loss was still there, but we knew that as a city, as a nation, we had banded together.  We were closer.  We were stronger.  We were scarred and battered, but we were better.  Forever.  Never the same.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Goodbye, For Now

I hate goodbyes. Mostly when I have too much time to think about them. With too much time, I start getting sentimental and reflective, and it puts me in a melancholy mood for a while. Quick and unexpected are the best goodbyes for me. No thinking, just goodbye. And that is why I don’t understand my urge to write this goodbye post. I have never said this goodbye before. Maybe the heat of the summer is getting to me, or I am just being sentimental again.

I am saying my goodbyes to Summer. It has been nice to have you around, but I know that you need to go away soon.

We tend to cram August full with activities, so much so that it is October before we realize that summer is over. August is the “Do All The Things That You Were Going To Do All Summer But Have Not Taken The Time Yet” month. Do some camping, go to the zoo, finish the outdoor projects that were started in April, go fishing, grill, go to the fair, have a cookout, and all the other similar things. We have done lots of these things this summer, yet with August here, we feel the need to maximize the short time of summer that we have left.

So my sentimental, reflective side takes over in a review of the summer. We added more animals to our “farm” this year. In April we brought home some fuzzy little chicks (all pullets we were told). Over the months, they have grown into full grown chickens. There was a time when their pen had some places where they could get out. The kids became quite skilled in chasing them down, catching them, and getting them back into their pen. One of the chickens has developed a different body type, and has started crowing in the morning. We are assuming that the feed store gave us a rooster, and that we do not have a cross dressing pullet. So the chickens have added action to our place, in addition to the rabbits who continue to reproduce each month without fail. So far, the record longevity for the baby rabbits has been 1 week. There is always next month. And the kids have enjoyed the animals. All except taking care of them of course. That is now officially Dad’s job. Just like I figured. Once the chickens start laying eggs, they may gather them for a week or so before it is solely my job again. I have never thought of chickens as pets, but the kids enjoy them. They have gone as far as giving them rides on the baby swing. And the chickens don’t seem to mind too much.

Memorial Day weekend we went camping with some friends. The most eventful night was when one of the kids fell out through the side of the camper in the middle of the night. Thankfully there were no injuries.

And then there is the garden project. After my experience with container gardening, I decided to build a raised bed garden this year. I got a late start, but my resolve was strong. I built the bed and filled it with dirt, compost, cow manure, and potting soil. I would give my plants the best possible chance of survival. I planted tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, carrots, lettuce, and spinach. I carefully watered and fertilized the bare dirt with dreams of giant vegetables by the bushels. Reality came by and crashed into my dreams. I pulled one of the tomato plants due to its lack of interest. I have one carrot, and two lettuce plants. The pepper plants were pulled as well after most of their leaves fell off. The cucumbers and the rest of the tomatoes have made up the empty spaces. One of the tomato plants has gone out of control. It has grown over the top of its cage and spread its vines over all the other tomato plants. It is the ruler of the garden, the conqueror of the cages. So I have had mixed results. The lettuce, spinach, and carrots were doomed when the neighbor’s cats decided to use the area as a litter box. I still don’t know what the problem was with the pepper plants. I have bought a product to spread over the garden to keep the cats out. We will see how the fall planting of lettuce turns out.

As the heat of summer burns out, the final camping trip is planned, the cookouts are done, and the last burnt hot dog is eaten, football season will distract us long enough to let winter slip right in. And then is when we fondly remember those 90ยบ scorchers, that day at the zoo, the swinging chicken, the times with friends, the daylight until 9:30, the grilled fare, the ferris wheel ride, a picnic in the park. And my heart will be a little sad. So Summer, leave if you must, but return as quickly as you can, and stay a little longer next time.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


So my resolution to post once a month has long ago been broken. If normal is only a setting on your washer, I have been stuck between permanent press and the spin cycle. It seems summer started yesterday and will be over tomorrow.

One highlight of every summer is our wedding anniversary. We generally try to get away for a night or two, and this year’s destination of choice was Chicago. Being on a shoestring budget, we spent most of the weekend using public transportation, since less than $6 could buy a 24 hr. transit pass. The first day started out clear and sunny, absolutely perfect tourist weather. Just so everyone would know that we were tourists, we got on a double-decker tour bus (hop on, hop off style) and rode around looking at the sights. We got off in the Magnificent Mile area, and spent some time walking around looking at all the magnificent places to shop. The most magnificent thing was the sales tax, the highest rate in the nation. We did indulge in one chocolate laced milkshake (one for the price of two), which we shared. We went into the American Girl doll store, where I made a mental note never to let my daughters enter. We got back on the next tour bus, and of course, sat on top again. As we headed for the Willis Tower (Sears Tower) the clear skies started to cloud up. A few sprinkles were felt, and the tour guide pulled out the complimentary ponchos (plastic bags with holes in the appropriate areas). The wind picked up, and we soon decided this was not just a passing shower. The sky to the west was an ominous shade of dark gray with some lightning accenting the foreboding clouds. We donned our ponchos, and held on tight against the gusting winds. Loud claps of thunder added to the chaos. Then came the monsoon. The ponchos kept us partially dry, but as the rain and wind came heavier, they were about as effective as spitting on a bonfire. I was able to use it to keep the camera dry at least. By the time we came to our stop, we had driven two blocks in stop-and-go traffic in a full blown thunder storm. We were soaked to the core. We later found out that this storm had knocked out power to hundreds of thousands in the area, and had blown out windows in some downtown skyscrapers, including the Willis Tower.

We got on the train and rode back to within a mile of our motel. We were going to take the bus to our motel, but after waiting 15 minutes we decided to walk the rest of the way. So being soaking wet, grumpy, covered in plastic, and walking an extra mile in a drizzle was not the storybook picture we had in mind for celebrating our anniversary.

In spite of the surprise shower, missed buses, a lost transit card, and various other unhandy events, we had a wonderful time. The good parts of the trip far outweighed the bad. Being able to overlook the other’s mistakes/errors, and having a sense of humor when your socks and underwear are wet, goes a long way in maintaining a good marriage. The events of Friday could have easily set a sour tone for the weekend, but as in other times of our lives, my wife’s positive outlook made the unpleasant times bearable. I am beginning to believe the old timers when they say that their marriage gets better as they get older. At seven years in, I feel the same way. Even in my wet socks

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Mr. Mom

As parents of three preschool girls, there comes a time when a break is needed by the primary caregiver. These events leave me alone with the girls at times, so I revert to the emergency backup plan. This is a proven plan that works to divert the girls' attention from the absence of their mother, and make me look like a hero of significant magnitude. Stop number one is a McDonalds where they have a large indoor playground. This step is crucial to success. However, I have learned that for this plan to work successfully, one must not only have an exciting event in the beginning, but also have something left for the end.

This plan allows for some routine errand running, etc. in between the high points of the evening. Recently, I was even able to get them excited to go to Lowes (they have carts that look like race cars). After our evening out, I had one more trick up my sleeve – a slumber party. We moved the beds and air mattress around for our party in the girls' room and had our snack of grapes and cheese curls. Another key to success is getting them good and tired before attempting to settle down to sleep. Pop in a movie, and they all fall asleep before it is over. The plan worked to perfection and a good time was had by all.

These events provide plenty of humorous/embarrassing moments, such as taking all the girls to the bathroom. A man is standing at a urinal, and to be sure everyone is being polite, one of the girls loudly informs the others, “don’t stand there and stare at him!” He quickly leaves without looking at anyone. Later, we are playing Memory and one declares that she “is the best Memory player in the world.” Hmm! Maybe we should cut back on the compliments. Once we were checking out at the library, when one of them noticed the clerk’s tattoos. The question was asked (very loudly I might add), “Daddy, why did he write on himself?” Oh for a hole to crawl into.

Injury is always a concern. I am currently nursing a burn on my elbow from a twisty, tubular slide I went down. Mostly though, I am nursing a bruised ego.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

February (from a Northerner’s perspective)

Everyone must hate February. The poor selection of holidays should be our first clue. Groundhog Day, President’s Day, Valentine’s Day.

Just how drunk were the ones that came up Groundhog Day? I can picture two guys at a bar in some cold state like Michigan or Minnesota, getting bored with the long winter nights. They finally run out of things to talk about, and decide to invent a holiday. Think about this. A groundhog is considered a pest in most places. A groundhog hibernates from October to March or April. February is a boring month. Winter is cold. People are crazy. Combine all that, and ta-da – you have Groundhog Day!

As month of the year go, February is the third verse of a hymn. That month you really want to skip and get on with things. January has some leftover excitement of the holidays, and winter is just starting to get old, but then comes February and you are smack dab in the middle of winter with no quick exit. March has hopes of spring, and shows us glimpses of it, but February is firmly mired in the snow, cold, rain, mud cycle of winter.

President’s Day is nice for federal employees who get an extra Monday off. For the rest of us, it is just another day when we bundle up to go get the mail, and as we look into the empty mailbox, we remember that indeed it is February and we should have worn more clothes to go outside, and oh, today is President’s Day, and there is no mail service. Bummer!

Since everyone is staying inside in February, Hallmark decided that Valentine’s Day would be an excellent way to improve profits. A husband/boyfriend dare not forget Valentine’s Day. It’s not like he can go outside and hang out in the back yard until things quiet down again. He has to face the music if he forgets. He must get the card, chocolate, roses, and wouldn’t you know, Hallmark has it all. He can even pickup a teddy bear as a bonus while he shops. For those who are not in the husband/boyfriend category, Valentine’s Day is a bummer enough without going to Hallmark.

If life offered a fast forward and rewind button, my Februarys would be even shorter.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Car Insurance

Everywhere I turn, I am bombarded by their advertising. There is a giant green lizard on a billboard telling me how much money I can save by switching my car insurance. The glossy ad in a magazine shows how great this company’s agents are, so great that you would want them as your neighbor. Are you in good hands, another asks? We are reminded how short life is by another well-intentioned company. Billboards, mailings, newspapers, magazines, tv, radio, internet, no means of advertising is overlooked by the insurance industry.

I researched my annual auto insurance costs. I pay a whopping $180 per year to insure my vehicle. The green lizard with a British accent says I could save $27/year (15%) for 15 minutes of my time. So that would take my car insurance down to $153. After switching to Geico, I would switch to Allstate. According to Allstate’s advertising, they save Geico customers an average of $581/yr. If they want to send me $428/yr., I will not turn it down. If I want someone who is on my side, Nationwide says they can help. Plus, by switching to Nationwide, they can save me up to $523/yr. Cha-Ching! That would bring my yearly car insurance income to $951. Next up are the good neighbors. State Farm says their average savings is $489/yr. Things are looking up. I can always use an extra $1440/yr.

Now if I can only find 100 more auto insurance companies to switch to, I can retire.