Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Passing Lane

An ex-boyfriend once told me that he loved driving on what he called, "his stretch of highway", this certain little corridor of road near his house that encompassed all the places that he would normally go. It's the part of the road that you most feel comfortable on, where you know all the twists and turns, the potholes, the speed traps; the part of the road that you know like the back of your hand, that you could drive blindfolded.

Today I drove home on my own stretch of highway: It is comprised of the entire portion of I-95 in Westchester between Connecticut and the Bronx. I grew up learning to drive on that stretch of highway, driving with friends, racing cars, getting tickets and flat tires, sitting in traffic, passing accidents - I drove that stretch at all hours of the day and night and in all kinds of weather.Whenever I hit that stretch of highway, it just feels like I can put myself on auto-pilot and always find my way home.

Regardless of the year and a half I've spent in Pennsylvania, and as many times as I have driven on it's various highways, I am still unfamiliar with the pavement, with the construction zones, with the exit numbering, the toll plazas, the merges. I drove home this week for the holidays grasping the wheel, nervous and sweating the whole route from PA, through Jersey until I had finally hit my stretch of highway and could relax.

Your life when you're growing up is kind of like that familiar stretch of highway: you know what's coming around the bend, you have all your expectations, you know where to slow down and when it's safe to let it rip and rev the odometer well beyond the speed limit. Everything is set out right there for you - all the familiar exits and road signs and landmarks. You know where you're going and you don't need GPS. But as you get older, you start to venture out beyond that stretch of highway. You maybe go one exit further then you've gone before, get off and explore an area you've never been before, get lost and have to turn around or stop and ask for directions. 

That's kind of the perfect metaphor for adulthood for me. I'm still trying to navigate this new stretch of highway leading into adulthood. There are so many twists and turns, traffic stops, areas to slow down, exits that are few and far between. I have found myself turning around on several occasions, and even ticketed on a few. I've gotten off exits in bad parts of town and found myself struggling to get back on the highway, to get back on the road again. I know that one day I will get used to it. I will be able to recognize those bumps in the ground as my tires run over them, to be able to tell people how to get to those places that I can't remember now without a map, to know where it's safe for me to push the pedal all the way down and floor it. I'll be able to close my eyes and feel my way through the lanes to get to where I'm going. It will feel just like second nature. 

One day, I'll be able to call this new stretch of highway my own. 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Dear Santa...

When you're a little kid, Christmas is a magical time of year. All the lights and the big tree with the ornaments. The fairytale of Santa going from house to house leaving presents and eating the cookies and milk you've left out for him. The excitement you feel ripping the paper off your new favorite toy - "JUST WHAT I WANTED!", you cry out as your parents take pictures and smile.

But not everyone gets that same kind of Christmas. Many families can't afford to get the name brand toys or the video game systems or the expensive clothes that you want. (My grandparents were barely scraping by, but they still managed to have piles of presents under the tree and in my stocking. And while at the time I found myself sneering at the generic dolls, no-name toys and the homemade trinkets, I realized later on that they were just trying to do all they could with the little that they had because they wanted to see me happy.) Some people can't even afford to get their kids more than one or two gifts, especially the way the economy is now. Obviously, in some cases, people rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in credit card debit just trying to make sure that Christmas is a happy occasion and that everyone gets what they want.  And in more extreme instances, sacrifices must be made - even if that means disappointing little Johnny or Judy on Christmas morning.

That's where Operation Santa Claus comes into play. Each year, a group of volunteers receives the letters that children (and sometimes even parents in need) write to Santa Clause. They do their best to make Christmas miracles come true. This year, because people have fallen on such dire straits, Santa's letters aren't just asking for Nintendo Wiis or Justin Bieber T-shirts - they're asking for diapers, blankets, even money to keep the electricity on. Many of these kids who write to Santa have never had much, so they're not setting their hopes too high. Some children however, make excessive demands and even include price points. Everyone wants to believe that there's someone out there that will hear their pleas and help them. Everyone wants to believe that Santa Clause will make their Christmas wishes come true. The volunteers do their best to accommodate those that they can - but there's only so many letters that can be answered, only so many prayers that can be answered, only so many people that can be helped.

I have seen Christmas become so commercialized over the years. People become greedier; asking for unnecessary things, trying to satisfy these materialistic desires. I have had friends who only wanted to exchange gifts so that they could get something in return. People pushing and fighting for the last hot toy, trampling Wal-Mart workers to death on Black Friday just to get deep discounts on TVs, video games, etc. What happened to the spirit of the season? The spirit of simply giving and sharing and enjoying those special moments with your loved ones?

Maybe I've been a bit of a Scrooge the past few years, but since I've grown up, Christmas has just lost its appeal to me. Once you enter into adulthood, should you really be berating family and friends with a list of Christmas demands? I have shifted from asking for silly things like TV DVD box sets that will just collect dust or hundreds of Hello Kitty trinkets to useful things like luggage or supermarket gift cards. Anything that I really want, I make enough money now that I can just buy myself; I don't need to ask people to get me things. I used to get upset when people would buy me practical things like an emergency roadside kit for my car or a lunch bag, but now, I see that these are the kinds of things I can really be appreciative of.

Reading the stories about the kids who are writing to Santa has really touched my heart. I wish I wasn't already living paycheck to paycheck so that I could truly help people and change lives and make a difference, make children happy and make them feel like Christmas miracles really do happen. We did a toy drive at work this year and I wish I could have gotten everything on that list and personally distributed the toys and games so I could see the smiles on those kids' faces; so I could feel their joy in knowing that someone cared enough to think about them and get them things that they wanted and wouldn't have been able to receive because of their family's financial situations. So they could rip the paper off those presents and cry out "JUST WHAT I ALWAYS WANTED!" and smile so, so wide. And I would be smiling too while hiding the tears of joy in my eyes as I reveled in their excitement, knowing that I helped make their dreams come true.

I have always had this inner Philanthropist just bursting to get out. I remember coming up with a proposal when I was 16 about setting up housing for the homeless on Governor's Island and finding them jobs and helping them get back on their feet; I told my parents about it and they laughed at me. Whenever me and my friends would fantasize about what we would do if we won the lottery, in my mind I would always set aside a generous portion of my money to use for charitable purposes. I envisioned driving through the streets of Manhattan and handing out $100 bills to homeless people and picking them all up in a limo and getting them cleaned up and well fed for the night - even if they were only going to eventually use the money for booze or drugs or some other degenerate purposes.

I am not a greedy person. My parents came from poverty and always taught me the value of money and of things and making the most of what you have. We lived very comfortably and I never had to worry about having clothes or food for dinner or a roof over my head. Moving from the humbleness of the Bronx to the decadence of Westchester County, I grew up truly understanding the difference between the haves & the have-nots. While my classmates lived in mansions and got brand new cars for their 16th birthdays and wore expensive jeans, I knew that my parents couldn't afford those things and were doing the best that they could. I never took that for granted. Sure, I was jealous at times, but money doesn't buy you happiness.

One day, I am going to be rich and successful. I will live a modest and comfortable lifestyle (possibly splurging a little on expensive shoes & purses), but I will never live beyond my means. I am going to keep good on my promise to use my wealth to do great things. I will walk down the streets of New York and instead of passing over the vagrants with their empty coffee cups extended, begging for change, I will shove in a fist full of large bills. I will start charities to give back to those who really need it. One day, more of those letters to Santa will be answered and more Christmas miracles will come true.

I promise.