Lessons from the Tollbooth

Every experience, good or bad, can be considered an adventure. And every adventure, positive or negative, has its lessons. Let me set the scene….

It is 6:00 in the morning. It is still dark, and there is an unmistakable crispness in the air, despite the calendar’s July date. My daughter and I are traveling an unfamiliar highway in a Midwestern state to get to the airport for an early flight home from a nearly week-long adventure.

I have my electronic toll pass in the car with me, and even though it is from our home state, in theory, it should work here. The toll experience on the way in was spotty, but we made it through. Our home state removed the gates on their tollbooths many years ago in favor of speed and efficiency. Such is not the case here in this Midwestern state.

At the first tollbooth, we pull up to the gate, but the booth does not pick up the signal from our transponder. I wave it around in the car. Nothing. I push the “help” button on the tollbooth, and a male voice wishes me a good morning. I explain my situation. He asks me to read my transponder number. Um… it’s fairly dark in the car and I don’t have my reading glasses, but I don’t tell him this. I pass the transponder to my daughter. She reads the number, and I repeat it to the voice in the void. Once he confirms that I do, in fact, have an account, the gate rises, and I drive through.

After an hour or more on the road, the second tollbooth comes into view. We pull up, fully expecting (well… hoping for) our toll pass to work. Of course, it doesn’t. I roll down the window and lean way out, holding it under the barcode scanner that I discovered at the last tollbooth. The bright red laser line crosses the code. I watch the gate, but it doesn’t move from its persistent placement directly in front of the car. I push the “help” button and wait for a friendly voice. Nothing. In my rear view mirror, I see a semi truck approaching, but I figure he will go into a different toll lane. He doesn’t. In seconds, the massive rig is directly behind my car. We are trapped, and my daughter is trying desperately to hold herself together as she begins to panic in the seat beside me.

I step out of the car into the chilly dawn air, transponder in hand. I frantically wave it in front of the scanner while simultaneously pushing the “help” button. This tollbooth is completely unresponsive—nothing functional here, it seems. I breathe deeply, forcing air into and out of my lungs. I turn to the truck driver behind me. I muster my most helpless and apologetic expression and I shrug, still holding my transponder in my hand.

He pauses for two seconds. Then motions for me to get back in my car, and he begins to slowly back up so I can switch to a lane with a real, live attendant. But not only does he back up, he angles his truck in such a way as to block any traffic that might be approaching. Oh, bless you! I think to myself. I roll down my window as I move over several lanes, and I wave my thanks.

“How many more tollbooths do we have to go through?” my daughter asks quietly.

I sigh, reluctant to tell her. “I think only one,” I say, keeping my tone low and tender.

It’s finally light out when the third—and final—tollbooth comes onto the horizon. The tension I feel from the passenger seat is pulling on my heart. I take a deep breath. “It will be fine,” I say by way of calming us both down. And it is. We sail right through. What? How is that possible? I glance in my rearview mirror, looking for answers that are not there. I take a deep breath and finally relax.

We survived and have had substantial time to decompress, and I am happy to share the lessons I gleaned from my not-so-good-morning at the tollbooth:

Don’t believe everything you hear or read on the Internet. We heard our toll transponder would work, but I checked the website to confirm. Even so, our transponder didn’t work exactly as we’d hoped.

Trust that people will work with you and rely on the kindness of strangers. For the most part, if people see you are in a tough situation, they generally offer their assistance. That could come as a helping hand, but it could also come as a truck driver backing up and blocking oncoming traffic so you can do what you need to do.

Always have an escape plan, or just a plan, in general Even if you don’t need it, it is good to have a plan in the back of your head. Just think, for a moment, about what you will do if you get stuck. What is it they say…? Anticipate the worst but hope for the best.

Be a calming force for those around you. Now in reality, I had no idea how we were going to get out of our predicament. But experience tells me that these things have a way of working themselves out. And after only a brief panic, they did work out. After all, when was the last time you heard of someone being permanently stuck in a tollbooth?

{Image: FreeImages.com / Travis Cripps}

The Driver

I have found myself in the interesting situation of no longer needing to drive my own car. Well, not very often, at least. I can sit in the passenger seat, look out the window, and enjoy the ride.

I have moved into “chauffeur mode.” In this mode, I announce that I have to go somewhere, and I immediately hear, “Can I drive?” It doesn’t matter if I was planning to go alone or with my newest driver. New driver will find any trip—real or imaginary—a chance to do the driving and rack up some of the 40 hours he needs behind the wheel before he can get his license. Never mind that he is still 4+ months away from being of licensing age.

Imaginary trips involve the need to make up places to go just so he can get behind the wheel. We have taken a trip to Lowe’s for a three dollar package of screws, spending more in gas to get there than we did on the actual purchase. I think this kid would be more than happy to drive me around town in search of places that didn’t exist. Perhaps we could start a new adventure: new driver geo-caching from behind the wheel. Not only would they be driving the car, they would have to navigate while also paying attention to necessary land marks. Obviously, the kids would have to get out of the car to access the actual treasure and sign into the log at the end, but that would aid in the ever-challenging skill of parking the car.

In truth, I appreciate the fact that this driver is eager to get behind the wheel and regularly asks to drive. My other two were a bit more reluctant as far as volunteering, or even wanting to drive, often saying no when asked. And even though I am in “chauffeur mode,” I still have to constantly keep my eyes on the road.

If we cut a corner too close, and I say, “You’re going to hit the curb,” the reply comes instantly.

“I’m not going to hit the—” his voice breaks off when the rear wheel scrapes the edge of the curb.

But we are still early in the driving process, still learning to judge distance and where the car is on the road. My job as the chauffeured will become easier with time and practice. And soon enough, he’ll get his license. Then he’ll say, “Hey, can I drive?” And he’ll walk out the door, get in the car, and drive away without me.

Lessons from the Road

So I am at it again—driving with an inexperienced driver. Here’s the funny thing about driving with a new driver: When you get in the car, even if you know where you are going, you never really know how the drive will go. You might have a plan in your head when you embark on the journey, but when you get out of the car, you think, Well, that didn’t turn out the way I thought it would.

Take, for example, a drive we went on earlier this week. Unlike my older two children, this child is very anxious to be behind the wheel, and if we are going somewhere, he always asks if he can drive. So this week, we had to travel to the next town (a small city), and we had to get on the highway to get there. It was just past rush hour, and I knew a route that would skirt the main part of town and bring us to our destination without the worry of traffic, turns, and too many stoplights.

Well in advance of the exit ramp, I let the young driver know that the ramp was a sharp curve, and he would want to slow down. Way down. But the exit comes up quickly and there is traffic coming onto the highway that needs to be negotiated. As we careened around the turn, my son said, “Wow, that is a sharp curve!” But he was able to maintain control as he finally slowed to a better pace.

I took a couple deep breaths to calm my heart rate as he merged with the cars on the new road, and I said, “You’re going to want to get into the left lane.” I pointed ahead. “See that light? You’ll be turning left there.”

“Right there?” he asked, gesturing with a tilt of his head, as his hands were on the steering wheel.

“Yes,” I responded as we moved closer to the intersection that I was looking at. We remained two lanes away from the left-est lane. In my head, I knew we could go straight and still get to our destination, and I only briefly considered mentioning that by left lane, I meant all the way to the left. But I decided to let it slide.

We went straight through the light, and he asked where he was supposed to turn. “Back there,” I replied. “But you’re fine. We can get there this way.” In the end, we arrived at our destination safely and in plenty of time, and we got some unexpected experience navigating the city streets.

And I learned a valuable lesson, because learning is not exclusive to one person in any given teaching experience. I need to remember that even though—in my head, and with my years of experience—this driving thing is very straightforward, for a rookie navigator, the road system is a maze of unchartered territory. It’s always best to keep directions simple. Maybe we go a bit out of our way, but in doing so, we avoid the panic of directions given too swiftly and followed recklessly. It’s a process, this business of driving a car, and well… practice.

The point of driving hours is to practice rather than to reach a destination. Destination will be the next step. In the meantime, keep your hands on the wheel. Keep your seatbelt on. And (as Dad always said) watch out for the other guy.

Lockdown

It was one of those crazy conversations that starts at the dinner table. The cat was outside, sitting at the end of the walkway waiting to come in, as he so often does. W got up from the table and let him in. When he closed the door, he said, “There. Now we are in lockdown for the night. No one goes out. No one comes in.” He sat back down at the table to finish his dinner.

“If that’s the case, you’d better lock the door,” I told him. Rather than get up, he leaned back in his chair, attempting to reach the door. He couldn’t quite reach, and the chair nearly toppled.

“You’d better get up to do that,” his sister advised. “Or you’re going to be the one going out. To the hospital.” W heeded her advice and stood to lock the door. “Or maybe,” she continued. “We’ll have to explain to the ambulance drivers why they can’t come in. GO AWAY! We’re on lockdown!” she demonstrated.

“But then they’d just kick in the door,” W said. “Lockdown or no, they don’t care.”

“True,” I said through my laughter.

By the time I got up from the table, I had completely forgotten about the “lockdown.” The cat was once again meowing at the door, and I let him out, clearly not thinking.

A few minutes later, J spotted the cat out the window. “I thought you let the cat in,” she said to W. “What happened to the lockdown?”

W looked out the window. “Wait… how did he get out? I let him in!”

I turned from the sink to see two kids looking at me. I shrugged sheepishly. “I forgot about the lockdown.” But then we noticed the cat going after something outside. He had clearly spotted something of interest, and he was hurrying toward it. I had been baking for an event at work, and I was sweating, so I took the opportunity to go see what he was after.

“Mom, you can’t go out. The lockdown!” the kids reminded me.

“I’ll just be a minute,” I told them. “I want to see what he is after. DON’T lock me out. There is no lockdown.” And of course, in my mind, my word was the word in this house since I pay the bills.

Nevertheless, I returned to a locked door and a sticky note. “Sorry. We are in lockdown. Come back tomorrow at 6:00 am.” Are you kidding? That’s a long time to be outside without a jacket.

I knocked on the door. “Let me in!” I laughed. “There is no lockdown!”

Yeah, they let me in. If they hadn’t, I would’ve gone to the neighbor’s house. I keep a key there just in case my kids do something crazy—like declare a lockdown and refuse to let me in!

Grocery Fun

Grocery shopping is not my favorite chore of the week. In fact, it’s one of my least favorite chores. I can’t really say why other than the tediousness of navigating the crowds (since I have to shop on the weekend), the need to plan out a week’s worth of meals in advance, and the cost.

But in truth, I have a tendency to purchase similar items each week, relying on habit and luck to get me through. The only list I bring with me is the running list that lives on my refrigerator—the list where we write down the things that we need to purchase as we run out of that particular item. Between that list, the weekly “regular” items, and the items I pick up to create something edible for week night dinners, I am able to get through my grocery trip without wasting much time on planning.

Last weekend, W and I went to the grocery store on the way home from several other errands we had to do. It was dinnertime on Saturday, and I figured together, we could quickly conquer this weekly chore. We entered the store, acquired a cart, and we were off.

But the grocery list from the refrigerator was on a long, narrow sheet of paper, and it was only half filled. So I ripped off the bottom half (which was blank), and handed it to W. “Here,” I joked with him. “You get the items on this half of the list, and I’ll get the items on my half.”

He stared at the torn paper in his hand. Then, as I went off toward the produce, he veered the cart in the other direction. I slowed my pace, looked back, and he was looking around with a feigned look of slight puzzlement on his face.

Well, I don’t have time to fool around, I thought, and I continued on my normal grocery trajectory. I knew he wouldn’t be far behind. I picked up broccoli, tangerines, lettuce. Of course, I had no cart to put them in, so I was loading up my arms. I started to look at the green peppers, but I didn’t have two hands to manipulate the bag and check the peppers for firmness.

But then I spotted W, at the front end of the produce section. He was wandering around, still glancing at the ripped “list” in his hand as if there were something written there. We made eye contact, and I waved at him, motioning for him to come closer, and he did.

I dropped my produce into the cart. “I was needing a cart, and mine wandered away,” I commented.

“Well, I was trying to find the stuff on my list,” he turned his “list” to me, so I could see what he was in search of. On the piece of paper was a drawing of an array of fruit in the basket. “I thought it might be toward the other end of the store, but I couldn’t find it there, either.” He shrugged, the smirk on his face growing increasingly visible.

And how was I to respond to that? This crazy son of mine took a meaningless piece of paper and pretended to make meaning out of it. In the process, he took an ordinary shopping trip, and transformed it into something just a bit special.

Nuance

Last night after everyone had gone to bed, I found a note on my kitchen counter. This note was not written to me, however. It was a note written from one of the children in my house to another.

My daughter had come into the kitchen before bed to make her lunch, but then she realized she didn’t need a lunch. She had an appointment today, and we had arranged to stop and pick up some food on the way back to school. But she had forgotten… until she pulled out two sandwich bags into which she was going to pack lunch items.

Rather than place the bags back into the box, she left them on the counter for her brother. With a note, apparently, instructing him how to proceed.

But after her brother had come down to make his own lunch, the bags, and the note, remained on the counter. “Pack your lunch with these. They are not poisoned in any way,” she had written.

Huh…. If something wasn’t poisoned, why would you have to say it wasn’t? Wouldn’t that be the expectation?

Instead, I had to think the very thought that poisoning had crossed her mind might make her brother wonder at her true intent. It certainly made me wonder.

Poison or no, I think he was smart to leave the bags on the counter. (The note has been confiscated should it be needed for “evidence” at a later date).

{Written in response to today’s one-word prompt}

Skittles and Logic

I took my son to the orthodontist today, and when we emerged from the office, I was thinking about dinner. Mac and cheese—just in case the teeth were hurting—and … well that was where I was stuck.

“Do you want broccoli for dinner?” I asked. “Because the only option I have at home is zucchini, but we can stop and get some broccoli.”

I know he’s not a fan of zucchini, so I was not surprised when he said, “I’ll take broccoli,” even if it meant a stop at the market. But when we got to the checkout, he also took a Three Musketeers and a package of Skittles. He’d already been out biking after school, and I don’t buy him candy very often, so I bought them.

In the car, he opened the Skittles. I held out my hand expectantly, but he just looked at me, feigning ignorance. I raised my eyebrows, my silent gesture for, I-paid-for-those-I-can-take-them-away.

“What colors do you like?” he asked as he dumped a small pile into his hand.

“Red, orange, and yellow,” I answered, turning my eyes back to the road, but leaving my hand out. He plucked three Skittles from the pile and placed them in my hand. Two orange and a red. I ate them while we chatted about the day.

As we got closer to home, I held out my hand once more. Again, he placed three Skittles in my hand, this time, an orange, a red, and a yellow. We listened to the political discussion on the radio. He chewed away on his candy, but he didn’t offer me any more, and I didn’t ask.

We turned into our road, and he read the nutrition information on the package. “Whoa!” he exclaimed.

“What?” I asked.

“There’s one serving in this package, and it’s 250 calories!” He seemed momentarily surprised; then he hesitated while he considered the facts, a characteristic glint sparkled in his eye. “But… I shared them with you. That means I only had 125 calories!”

I opened my mouth to say something. Something about the six Skittles I had eaten to his all-the-rest. But I closed my mouth. I’d let him have his faulty logic. At least this time.

{Image credit: FreeImages.com / Ryan Vinson}