Monday, December 26, 2005

How Changing My Tire Changed Me...

BAM! thud thud thud thud thud thud thud skronk!

That's the sound of a bad day getting worse. I was going about sixty when the tire blew. The front right-side of my truck was suddenly six inches closer to the blacktop. I lurched and skidded my way onto the shoulder. Tractor trailers whipping past me rocked the truck as I caught my breath and pried my fingers out of the new grooves in the steering wheel.

Still not thinking clearly, I grabbed my flashlight out of the glovebox and squeezed out, taking great pains not to get run over. As I got out, the door shut behind me in the wind of a passing vehicle and when I reached over to open it back up... it was locked. NPR was quietly reporting the news of the day to an empty cab. Of course the headlights were still on and the engine was still running.

I giggled and gibbered. I cussed a little and beat my forehead against the glass. Finally, I wandered around to stare impotently at the gaping hole in the sidewall of my tire. It was literally big enough to put my fist into.

It was below thirty degrees outside and I had neither hat nor gloves. I stomped my feet and stared at the tire. I was in the middle of nowhere rural Washington highway. There was nothing for it but to hoof it. Desolate it might be, but I travel this stretch of highway daily and I know the exits pretty well, so I started walking. At least I had my flashlight.

Inevitably, when you're stranded and cold, you start to wonder what you would do if someone pulled over. And - cold as it was - I began to seriously consider sticking my thumb out for the first time in my life. No sooner did the thought occur to me than out of the cars whizzing past, one pulls over and pops the door open. It's a Mercedes and the guy waving me into the passenger seat is wearing a nice suit and what looked like a cashmere coat. I was wearing dirty jeans and a beat-up barn coat I had in the back of the truck and must've looked like hell. Why he pulled over for me... well...

I clambered gratefully into the warm interior and he asks me if I have the time. Five 'til seven I answered through rattling teeth. Very well then, he says, I have just enough time to drop you at the next gas station. Think you can get help from there? Yes sir. Thank you sir. God bless you sir. Wonderful thing you're doing, sir. I was blathering, but the guy took it well. He dropped me at the gas station and roared away. I watched him go, wondering when my guardian angel got a pay raise. I forgot to ask his name.

The rest is a long story. Basically, I spent most of the night at a gas station while other people were either frantically searching for me, searching for my wife to come get me, or trying to help me change the flat. Two highway patrolmen and a kitsap county sheriff's deputy helped me get into the truck (the deputy who opened my truck locked his keys in his car) only to find that the gadget for lowering the spare (which resides under the bed of the pickup on a winch mechanism) didn't work. The blown tire was taken off and put back on several times while we tried various things to fix the winch.

I use a combination of police radios, borrowed cell minutes and the 21st century equivalent of sending smoke signals to finally get hold of my wife. The people from my work brought me hot coffee (and God bless them for it) and finally not only got hold of Kristin but also got the message for her right (on the third try, I think). I got home at a quarter 'til one in the morning.

The next day, a Toyota salesman helped me dissect the winch and crank on a similar truck they had on the lot and we managed to get mine fixed the tire changed free-of-charge and the truck off the side of the highway. I remembered to ask his name, it was Mark.

Four new tires (given me free by my kind and generous father-in-law, by the way) and a few weeks later, I was bombing down the same stretch of road in the opposite direction when I spotted an elderly fellow standing next to a stranded pickup. He had the door of his gas tank open and was staring dolefully at the ground. With thoughts of a certain fellow in a Mercedes in my head, I pulled over. I rarely carry a gas can because since 9/11 you sometimes can't carry one onto the ferry. But that morning - for reasons defying me to explain them - I had tossed the little gas can we use for the lawnmower into the bed of my pickup. It was half full.

I was at speed when I spotted him and had therefore stopped a good half mile away. As I hoofed it down the shoulder with my gascan sloshing, a cop pulled over in front of the poor bloke. I toyed with the idea of going back to my truck and leaving it to the authorities, but since I was already halfway there, I kept hiking. I've been chastised by the police for pulling over and getting out of my pickup before. Technically it's illegal in the state of Washington barring an emergency. I cringed in anticipation as I jogged up to the two men. I needn't have worried. The policeman was happy to see me and thanked me several times for pulling over to help.

I stuck around long enough to make sure his truck started and returned back to my own journey, confident he could continue on his. He waved for me to come around so he could talk to me. I waved back as if I thought he was just waving goodbye. I knew he wanted to thank me, but really, I didn't need it. Besides, he looked like times were a little hard and I didn't want him trying to pay me. Pulling over was my way of thanking the anonymous motorist in the Mercedes that pulled over for me as much as it was about helping him.

Throughout the night of my ordeal, the kindness of complete strangers kept me going. None of them asked for anything and brushed off my thanks. The guy at the gas station fed me coffee and warmed-over hamburgers while I waited for succor. My crew from work dropped by while I was talking to the policemen and brought me coffee and checked up on me. The highway patrolmen were the Heckle & Jeckle of the force, I am sure. They kept me entertained and the frustrations at bay with their good humor and wit, especially when that poor deputy locked his keys in his cruiser. I have always heard of this kind of altruistic goodwill, but never been a position to experience it before.

I couldn't even be mad about it all. I was too busy laughing. So I laughed once more on that roadside, reeking of gasoline and happily waved back at the old fellow before hopping into the policeman's car for a ride back to my own truck.

Joan's little friend said it best... it feels good to do something good for someone else.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Just Vision

I am going to stray a bit from home for this entry, as I wanted to share with everyone a fantastic organization I recently came into contact with. The organization is called Just Vision ( Its mission is to educate audiences about the spectrum of grassroot Israeli and Palestinian peace effots through documentary film. I attended the screening of the documentary they are currently working on, which I believe is scheduled to be released early 2006. It was an excellent documentary and the reason I would like to mention it, is because it strives to highlight the positive steps and actions that ordinary individuals and organizations in the region are taking to achieve peace.

I totally encourage you to check out their website, as it has all the biographies and interviews listed of those featured in the documentary. Below is a quote and a history on a woman named Ayelet Shahak that I found incredibly inspiring and amazing.

"In a way we are a ray of light; we give people hope of some sort. We are the “advance party.” If we talk and keep in touch then they obviously can do it too. We serve as an example, as the pillar of fire in front of the camp. And because it is so difficult, it is more important."

Ayelet Shahak's daughter Bat-Chen was killed in a bombing outside a Tel Aviv mall in 1996. During the mourning period the Shahaks discovered that Bat-Chen's diaries were full of writings and poems about peace. Ayelet and her husband Tzvika have made it their mission to pursue their daughter's hopes for peace, becoming founding members of the Parents Circle-Bereaved Families Forum, a group of over 500 Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost loved ones to the conflict, and who advocate reconciliation over retribution. Ayelet, along with her Palestinian partners, lectures in schools throughout Israel and in the West Bank.

People like this inspire me... Perhaps you have the same reaction...

The MTA Strike

We hoped it wouldn't happen, but the New York City transit workers went through with a strike today, leaving 8 million people to figure out how the heck to get to work. I won't go into my irritation about this because that's not what this site is about. Instead I want to write about my admiration and gratitude to all the people who just COPED! and helped one another; especially the people who helped me.

I live in Queens but work in Soho, in Manhattan. To those of you who don't know NYC, that means that I am pretty much totally dependent on the train to get to work. I could drive, but during the strike you have to have four people in your car to get across the bridge. Also, I have to drop my son off way uptown first; but I realized if I left my house early enough to get to work on time, there would be no one at the school to drop him off TO! Argh!

But we managed - and it reminded me of one of those Sesame Street segments about "Cooperation." Remember?

This morning, my beloved fiance woke me at 6 AM to tell me the strike was on. I muttered some profanity and imprecations and basically went, harumph, $(*#&(@&%, but he gave me a big kiss and hug, threw me into the shower, and had coffee ready. Then he went and woke up my son with a pillow fight. About 6:30, my coworker and neighbor Tom and his girlfriend showed up. I would take them into the city and in return they would fill up my car so that we could actually be allowed in!

We crossed the Triboro bridge at dawn. The city looked beautiful and remote - cold and silver gray in the early morning sunshine. The streets seemed empty - not the parking lot I had feared. We drove to the apartment building of two of Connor's classmates, whose mother had agreed to feed my boy breakfast and then walk with him and her twins the three blocks to school. The rest of us sailed downtown with no problems at all, parked in a garage around the corner from the office, and I was at my desk by 8:30 AM.

Ha! Take that, MTA! You are no match for the resourcefulness and kindness of the New Yorkers in my life.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Random Subway Niceness

This morning on the way up the stairs from the subway, my son suddenly realized he had lost one of his gloves and panicked, because they are these very cool special green gloves that match his coat and are extra good for making snowballs because of the smooth patches on the palms.

We were running late and I sighed and opened my mouth to tell him that we didn't have time to go back and look, when a guy ran past us up the stairs and tossed Connor his glove. "Here buddy, you dropped this," he said and ran on before we could thank him.

Also, a few days ago I got to witness one of my favorite New York moments. A tourist was on the N train and asked someone for help with directions. Everyone's ears perked up. A friendly argument ensued about the best route for her to take, with more and more people joining in to contribute their two cents of subway expertise. The map was perused. Several people offered to show her how to transfer lines. She exited the train escorted by someone saying "follow me!" and with many expressions of thanks, you're welcome, no problem, good luck, etc.

This happens a lot. It's one of those cool things that takes a subway car, full of individuals with Ipods studiously pretending not to notice that they are crammed together, and suddenly transforms it into a friendly community.

Last week on the way into town we were on an especially crowded subway car. A woman carrying a baby bundled up in a blanket came on and immediately someone jumped up so that she could sit down with her burden. For the next ten minutes we were then treated to the rapturous smiles of this adorable baby, who could not keep her eyes off of Fernando's face. I got to stand there and enjoy them grinning at each other until it was time to leave the train. By that time everyone around us was smiling and laughing because the baby was just scrumptious.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

President Justine

My son and I went to see The Chronicles of Narnia in Manhattan with a few of his friends from school (by the way, I thought it was wonderful, and I am a fanatical Narnia purist). After the movie Connor and I and one of his friends, a fabulous little girl named Justine, did a little shopping on the Upper East Side before heading back to Queens. We went to Barnes and Noble and Jamba Juice, and were preparing to catch a cab home when Connor noticed a Salvation Army bell ringer on the corner and urgently grabbed my arm to alert me.

Connor and I have a special, personal gratitude towards the Salvation Army, and we always give the bell ringers money. It's a great organization that deserves support.

Anyway, as soon as we saw the bell ringer the three of us hurried over to empty our pocket change into his red plastic bucket. He was ringing his bell with all his might, shivering in the cold, and wishing every passer by "Merry Christmas! God Bless You!"

"You look so cold!" Justine cried. "Yeah, I should have worn a scarf," he replied with a smile. "But if I ring my bell real hard, it keeps me warm."

I thought of the cozy taxi ride home I was about to take with two snuggly children, and the warm apartment, good food and loving man I had waiting for me there, and took off my scarf immediately. The kids giggled as I tied it around the man's neck, especially since it was a fairly girly pastel fleece scarf and looked pretty funny with the man's black leather jacket. But it was warm and after a moment's protest he thanked me with a huge grin and rearranged it to his liking. Then he started ringing his bell again.

As we were waiting to cross the street Justine grinned up at me and asked, "Isn't is fun to be one of the Good People?" She was sort of hopping up and down with joy and proceeded to tell me about the club she had started at the school. Her mom is an emergency room nurse at Bellevue, and Justine had discovered that there were lots of kids in the hospital. "At CHRISTMAS TIME! In the HOSPITAL!" she exclaimed, scandalized. So she started a club of girls at school who make handmade Christmas cards for these kids during recess. "I'm the president," she told me modestly.

At the end of the movie we had just watched, the four Pevensie children are crowned kings and queens of Narnia, and I had just been reflecting on the idea that maybe having children lead us isn't such a bad idea. I'm constantly delighted by the natural sympathy and generosity of the children I know. It gives me hope.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Loaves and Fishes

I was raised Catholic - about as Catholic as one can possibly be. My mom was a nun before she married my dad, I was the youngest of eight kids, and every one of us attended at least 12 years of Catholic school. We went to mass every Sunday without fail, even when we were on vacation.

In the intervening years, I have struggled to reconcile my very real belief in God with my dismay and horror at many facets of Catholic and other religious institutions. I have felt very cynical and disillusioned at times, even enraged and betrayed by the church.

Now my 10 year old son is attending St. Ignatius Loyola, a Catholic school in Manhattan. At first, I enrolled him primarily for financial reasons. Private schools are horrifically expensive here (think $25,000 per year - for KINDERGARTEN!) and the public schools run the gamut and just - scare me. But because of the generosity of the school community in endowing this school, the tuition for us is about the same as it would be for a Catholic school in Omaha. Connor is receiving a top notch academic education, and is also being carefully taught compassion, good manners, and ethical behavior by the amazing, dedicated teaching staff and the stellar leadership of the school.

A few weeks ago in the weekly newsletter, there was an appeal for people to contribute home cooked meals for a school family whose father was in the hospital. The mother was juggling a full time job, hospital visits, and caring for three school age children - not to mention untold anxiety and stress. I called the organizer since I love to cook and wanted so much to help, and she asked me to come to a meeting the next morning before school.

There were twenty mothers at this meeting. Most of us work full time in Manhattan.

We divvied up days and duties. We figured out a central location to drop the food, and someone volunteered to drive the meals to the family. From that evening onward this family has had a homemade dinner delivered to their door every single night.

The mother called the principal in tears, saying that she could never express her gratitude, not only for the food but for the feelings of comfort and safety it gave her children during a time of great sorrow and fear, and for the unforgettable example it was giving them on how to treat others.

I can't even write about this without being all choked up and blinking back tears. It's such a simple thing - just dinner. Yet it means so much. I'm so proud and humbled to be part of this large, vibrant community of good people. What an example for my own son to witness!

So the principal put another item in the weekly newsletter, telling the story and dubbing our group "Loaves and Fishes." She asked for more volunteers so that this could be an ongoing benefit for any school family in difficult circumstances, and now there are dozens of people involved!

Hurray! Hurray! This is how it is supposed to work!

P.S. Of course, it is a Jesuit school. Go Jebbies!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The 59th Keyboardist

For those of you that live in New York City, you understand the significance of a great street musician. Whether it is in Union Station, Grand Central or outside on the streets, the sound of good jazz, an acoustic guitar, or a lone saxophinst playing a classic Christmas carol on a cold night can make even the longest and most disheartening days in New York a little brighter and sweeter.

By far, my favorite musician is the keyboardist that plays on the N/W platform at 59th and Lexington. He secures the keyboard to his body with a strap that wraps around his neck. This causes the keyboard to face vertically - an awkward position for anyone to play. But despite these handicaps, he is able to serenade each and everyone of us on the platform with the sweetest Stevie Wonder and other soul tunes that have ever been created. He brings so much soul to that platform, which is often usuallly filled with impatience and fatigue. And as the N/W eventually comes, I drop a dollar into his case, and he replies, God Bless you, and I step into the subway with a HUGE smile and thinking, ahhhhhh, yes, everything will be alright.

Thank you my friend.

My Lost Wallet

A couple of weeks ago, I was leaving my office in Soho with my fiance to walk to the train. To leave our office you have to wave your ID card in front of a little electric eye, which I did, and then replaced my wallet inside my bag. As we walked out we realized it was raining.

I was filled with delight as I realized that for perhaps the first time in my life, I had (a) known that it was planning to rain, (b) remembered to grab an umbrella before I left the house, and (c) not lost it on the subway, left in a taxicab, or forgotten it at my desk. Triumphantly I swept it out of my purse and opened it with a flourish, gloating at my own prudency and organization skills.

Still suffused with pride and well-being, I kissed my fiance goodbye, furled my umbrella, and descended into the train station, reaching for my wallet so I could... get... my... Metrocard...

Wallet gone. GAH! Panic! No! No! Digging in purse. Frantic digging in purse. Removal of all items in purse. Sinking feeling. Slow motion vision of umbrella catching my wallet and flinging it onto the wet street while I walked on all blissful and unaware. Life awful. I ran back to my office looking on the ground. The security people in the lobby were sympathetic but helpless. I had no money and had to get uptown pronto to pick up my kid at school, and had to borrow money from a co-worker just to buy a ride on the subway, humiliated, disgruntled, and very, very late.

I tried to be philosophical about it, but kept thinking about all the things in my wallet and bursting into tears. Drivers license that took me all day to get! Insurance cards! Credit cards! Little drawings and notes from my son! Curses! Curses! I was in despair.

About a week later, I had become resigned to the whole thing. I'd cancelled the credit cards and was girding my loins for another nauseating New York DMV experience. I came home from work and grabbed the mail as we lugged my son's heavy packpack, saxophone case, and several bags of groceries up the steps to our apartment.

In the mail, in an envelope from the post office, was my wallet. Intact. Complete with credit cards, Metrocard, driver's license, notes from little boy, everything.

Thank you anonymous New York stranger! You made my day, and it was so uplifting and restorative to rejoice about your kindness with my family.

The Garbage Cans and the Reindeer

For the last two Thursday mornings I have promised my elderly landlady that I will drag the heavy trash cans to the curb for her. Both times, some other neighbor has already done it for her by the time I leave the house at 7:45 AM.

My next door neighbor has two electronically moving lighted reindeer in his tiny front yard (gotta love Astoria at Christmas time!) The reindeer frequently blow over in the wind, and lie pathetically on their sides feebly moving their heads from side to side, unable to get up. My 10 year old son considers it his sacred duty to climb over the fence and carefully restore the poor things to an upright position. No words are spoken about it, no one sees him do it but me; he just does it, and comes back to our door dusting his hands, full of well being and satisfaction.

Isn't the news depressing?

Every day I read the news and my heart sinks. It seems from the papers as though the world is a cesspool of violence, ill will, pettiness, greed and selfishness.

But when I think about the people I encounter every day on the streets and subways of New York, and the wide circle of friends and relatives with whom I communicate here and all over the world, I have a wholly different impression.

Every single day of my life, I see and hear about people being kind, brave, selfless, thoughtful, and giving. I see strangers helping each other navigate through rush hour. I talk to and work with people who are involved in heroic endeavors to help their friends and fellow men. Friends and random strangers are constantly showering me with blessings, and I often have the opportunity to help others and brighten a day myself.

So I was talking about this with my friend Andrea, and we were bewailing the fact that none of this awesome stuff that feeds our hearts and motivates us IS EVER REPORTED!! And we decided that we should do something about it! So I am starting this blog, where I will write down the nice things I see people doing every day. Anyone is welcome to contribute - just send me an email and I will add you as a contributor. My hope is that maybe lots of people will post the cool things they see and that it will be a place to lift your heart for a moment or two.

Let me know what you think. I wish you a wonderful day.