Road Rules

The houses seemed to be the only things that changed on those windy back roads. And even those changes were pretty subtle: a new porch, the crumbling barn finally collapsed, a few more kids’ toys scattered around the yard. For me, tracking the immutable qualities of the route was part of the ritual. If everything stayed the same then everything would stay the same. This is the slick and pretty lie we tell ourselves.

I’ve spent every summer of my life going to property that’s been in my family for going on four generations. In the early 1930s, my grandparents bought a large expanse of land on a lake and transformed it into a summer camp for boys. Think Meatballs, think Wet Hot American Summer minus the snogging and panty raids because, well, boys only. Duh.

My grandparents ran the camp for more than thirty years through the highest holy era of the summer camp movement. To put it another way, a lot of Richie rich one-percenters figured out how to get rid of their kids for the summer so they could hear themselves think in the comfort of their flats in Paris or on the decks of their cruise ships to Hawaii. And also, life lessons in resilience and fellowship and what not. Right. Sound. More caviar, Muffy? Camp activities ran the gamut from typical things—boating, swimming, tennis—to things that ring astonishingly ripe for a law suit now—archery, riflery, skeet shooting, and authentic Native American lore. We have photographs of boys in loin cloths and war paint sitting in a circle around a totem pole. Seriously. Parents couldn’t have been more delighted. “Look at Reginald’s headdress, Muffy! Our sweet, little injun Joe!” Yikes. But really I think it’s awesome, what my grandparents did for a living, the role they played in this part of American history, and the legacy they left to the rest of us.

Getting to camp was its own kind of odyssey that I looked forward to from the moment my parents circled our departure date on the calendar. The hour or so we spent on the highway was purgatory with toll booths. Linear. Borrr-ring. We’d make the turn off the interstate and follow the smooth curve of the off-ramp that gave way to quiet country roads lined with thick woods and houses perched on big tracts of land. It felt like entering Narnia. My brother and I would sit up on our knees (safety!) excitedly. Even my dad, who seemed suspended in life somewhere between unhappiness and weary resignation, underwent a shift. He’d roll the window down and the sweet, grassy, peaty air would pour through the car. He’d stick his arm out and hug the door. He’d even smile, I think.

Accelerator down, the car careened past the shoreline of a sizable lake. “Lake Koooollaaayyyymooook!” my dad called out in a goofy yodel, recognizing the first landmark on the route. My brother and I screeched it back, whooping out the window like those excitable monkeys at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey. There were other markers like this along the drive and they all had their own scripts. At the bottom of a hill to the right was a small, dirt parking area on the lip of a small pond with a dam at one end. “McElligot’s pool!” we’d shout from the back seat, referring to the Dr. Seuss book. I have no reliable memory of when my father started calling it that, only that for summers and summers we’d blow past that spot and he would bellow the lines, “You’ll never catch fish in McElligot’s pool!” I would stare at the water zipping past us and think about the weird and wonderful creatures living just underneath the ripples, about the book somehow made real just for me.

From McElligot’s the car climbed up a steep hill with wild fields on either side. At the top was a modest farmhouse. The land stretched out in all directions. The white peaks of one of the state’s mountain ranges were visible in the distance. I wondered at who lived there. Did they get scared in the dark nights of winter? Did they pile out on the back porch to watch storms sweep across the mountain? Did they see us zooming by season after season and wonder at us, too?

I know I hold too tightly to ritual. I know I invest it with poor man’s magic. If everything stayed the same then everything would stay the same.

 * * *

We recently discovered a new way in to camp. Thanks to our creepy GPS robot overlords, we realized that there is a more direct way to get there from here, as the saying goes. It shaves maybe ten minutes off the clock and has fewer “take this right then that left” kind of turns to it. It is efficient. It is faster. It is terrible and I hate it.

There’s no Lake Kolelemook, no McElligot’s pool. No heavy perfume of honeysuckle and damp earth. No hilltop view of God’s backyard. No father at the wheel letting his troubles peel away with the dust and grit kicked up by the tires.

If I’m alone I refuse to take it, no matter how tired I am or anxious I am to get there. If I’m not, I’m outvoted because quicker, easier, better goes the rationale. I am unconvinced.

I’m just not ready to leave off the part of my childhood that lived in those storied winding roads. I’m not ready to ditch the family in the car who seemed genuinely happy for a spell, disappearing together in the arms of the countryside.

 

Lightning In A Bottle

There were no babies in the house; my brother and I were grade school age. Yet for some reason my mother had stock piled what seemed like several cases of those chunky, glass Gerber baby food jars.

For the most part they sat on the shelf in our basement storeroom alongside board games and old Christmas candles. My father used some to outfit the man cave section of the garage. Filling them with nails, screws, washers, and bolts, he nailed their lids to several 2×4 planks of wood that rested along beams in the garage ceiling. You simply “unscrewed” the jar portion. If only Pinterest had been a thing in 1978. In the fall, mom filled a couple with white glue and packed them into our pencil boxes as part of our school supplies. I have no idea in what Little House On The Prairie time or place that it was kosher for kids to bring their own glue supplies to school, but now I realize the whisker thin line between “hipster” and “weirdo.” In the summertime we used the jars to catch fireflies.

The yard around our modest ranch house was a blend of lawn, woods, and sloping, untamed areas overrun with blackberry bushes, sumac trees, and the weedy, tall grass that riots in vacant lots. It might as well have been the Scottish Highlands to us for how vast and sprawling it felt. Days unspooled in hours of adventuring around the area playing games like hide and seek, capture the flag, or any number of made up things with complex rules and elaborate back stories. And somehow we managed to hang onto all our fingers and toes.

Even living in a mid-sized suburb, the light pollution then wasn’t remotely like it is now, which is to say pretty terrible, as in there’s less lighting on soundstages of movies set in the Sahara then there is in an average, non-rural neighborhood. Stars readily appeared. On Halloween, ribbons of shiny, reflective stickers marred our store-bought costumes so that cars could more easily spot us. We were lucky.

Stalking fireflies was a summer ritual I definitely took for granted as something that everyone did, that everyone grew up doing. I thought the space to roam and explore was a given for most, that some of nature’s most simple wonders were available to all. I didn’t connect the dots between geography and privilege until many, many years later. And when I’m out in the deep country now and floating sparks appear, I’m desperate to believe the lie that kids will see this in their own real lives and not just on the screen in the latest Pixar flick.

Mom stood on the front porch twisting a metal skewer into the lid to make holes. She gave me the jar. “Put a little grass in the bottom,” she said. I reached down off the stoop and grabbed a few tufts of lawn, sprinkling them into the jar and then smoothing them out into a bed of sorts. “Go ahead,” she said, nodding off toward the yard draped in darkness, the outlines of trees and bushes barely visible.

I’d set off in any direction, watching for the tiny pinprick of yellow light that would briefly flare and fade and then scramble after it like a lunatic. The firefly’s light is actually its mating signal. It flashes in a unique pattern like some kind of Tinder Morse code. I do not think it bargained to attract a human. As I bore down on the thing, screeching with glee like some kind of deranged ostrich, I can imagine him panicking: “What the? That doesn’t look like the cutie I was just cruising. Oh God! Pull back, Phil! PULL BACK!!” I come in peace, gentle firefly, I felt like screaming. Laughing, arms outstretched, palms cupped, I’d swipe. Sometimes you could sneak up on them and make your move when they landed on a bit of grass, but that always felt like cheating.

I raced back to my mother carrying the poor, confused bug in my hand. “Drop him in,” she’d say as I carefully placed the firefly on the grass inside the jar. She screwed the lid on. “We’re just keeping him for a little bit and then we’ll let him go.” I nodded. Even at the age of five or six, this felt like more than operating instructions. There was something fragile and a bit magical in that jar–a life, a dream, a wish, a hope—on loan to you, dependent on your grace. You could let it grow weak and wane or you could release it back into the world so it could find its course and flourish in ways that maybe you couldn’t even begin to know.

I peered into the glass watching it pulse, my very own lightening in a bottle. Mom unscrewed the cap. I tipped the jar onto the grass letting the contents slide out. The firefly blinked once and then vanished into the darkness as if it had never been there at all.

 

Saturday In the Park

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Faneuil Hall has seen a lot of action in 300 years. Squatting on Boston’s harbor front, the hall was built in 1743 by Peter Fanueill designed as a public market place and given by Faneuil as a gift to the city. Original 1%-er coming through. Surprisingly, there was some grumbling about this by city officials because this was New England after all where the art of petty bitchery was hatched and honed. The pros included one-stop shopping, the cons included worry over noise pollution, specifically “noisy push-cart hucksters,” and price gouging. In the end, Faneuil got his plan approved by a thin seven votes. His lukewarm support secured, Faneuil barreled forward, dipping into some of his hard earned savings as a slave trader (*cough* *cough*) to help pay for the building.

Faneuil Hall resembles a traditional English country market (you can take the colonists out of the colony…). The first floor consisted of long rows of open stalls where merchants sold goods and food. The second floor housed an area for meeting rooms and general assembly. A fire ripped through the market in 1761, but by then everyone had quite warmed up to the place and it was rebuilt, but “biggahhhh” because, well, Boston.

In the end, Boston got way more than a place for farmers and butchers to sell their stock; they got a place to foment revolution. Maybe if Peter Fanueil had lead with that he would have gotten more than a few polite golf claps. In 1764 colonists gathered in the expanded and enlarged assembly arena to “discuss” (read: raise hell over) Britain’s oppressive Stamp and Sugar taxes. Not long after they would meet again to rail against the crown and eventually come up with the hashtagable: “no taxation without representation.” Faneuil Hall would be the hot seat of many, many rallies and protests leading up to the American Revolution, so much so that it became informally known as the “Cradle of Liberty.” Suck it Chicago and your “city of big shoulders.”

Centuries later, Fanueil Hall Market Place gets more tourist than rebel action. Three more market buildings—South Market, North Market, and Quincy Market—were added decades later and host restaurants, bars, and boutique as well as commercial retail outlets. Talk about your noisy hucksters.

On any given day, the space is a happy, chaotic sprawl: shoppers, sight-seers either wandering around or following along with groups led by tour guides dressed as historical re-enactos, horse drawn carriages take people up and down the cobble stone streets around the market, magicians, acrobats, bucket drummers, mimes, and all kinds of street performers stake out coveted real estate around the market areas to raise their brand of joyful noise (well, except the mimes).

***

This past Sunday I turned my feet toward Fanueil Hall not thinking much about where I was going only that I needed to be somewhere other than fused to my phone. The scene was very much like any other summer weekend with people strolling and enjoying the water front. In front of the great, granite steps of Quincy Market an ensemble of grade school violin players performed a medley of patriotic songs. At the farthest end a small carousel turned laconically, its plaster horses and tigers and bears gently galloping on their track while wide-eyed smiling kids perched on their backs, furiously waving. Unconsciously, I started humming that old Chicago tune: “Saturday in the park/I think it was the Fourth of July/People dancing, people laughing, a man selling ice cream.” You would never think a place like this was once home to the hard, messy, dangerous work of world changing.

I bought some food and found a bench. I enjoyed the feeling of warm sun on my face and smelled the salt in the wind whipping up over the waterfront. For a few seconds I thought to myself, it could happen here, at any time, right now, a choice put into motion causing catastrophic reverberations like the aftermath of an atomic blast. It could…

But that day was not that day…here.

I pushed the thought away, refused to give it energy, because that felt like the most radical act I had to give. Instead I pulled the ordinary happiness of the people enjoying this grand, historical market place around me and settled into the insulation it provided.

These hours, I decided, were for simply being here the way Bostonians centuries ago were, heading to Fanueil Hall as a matter of mundane routine, to buy and barter and sell until history demand something more of them, the way it demands more of all of us now.

 

 

 

Only Trees

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She cried and cried and said how can it be?

There used to be no roads here

Only trees –Natalia Zuckerman

 

My back patio looked like an environmental version of a CSI crime scene. Sawdust littered the porch stairs and outdoor furniture like the stuffing from some weird, wooden piñata. It stuck to the veins of plants and shouldered itself in small piles against the slats of the fence. Broken tree limbs were scattered around our fenced-in yard, their leafy crowns looking shocked in their abrupt severing.

Over the fence I saw a lone Tree Guy methodically dragging pieces of the tree over to his black pick-up truck.

“Are you taking this tree?” I asked, my eyes traveling up the tall, naked stalk of what once was a lovely maple in our neighbor’s yard. Even as the words left my mouth, I thought duhh. What did I think he was going to say? No, lady, it’s getting a make-over. How do you feel about pink leaves instead?

“Yeah,” he said. “Taking both trees actually.” I swung my gaze to the other maple resting about 5 feet from where its sister had stood.

“Both?” I stupidly parroted. I felt like Cindy Loo Who in Dr. Seuss’ Grinch story: Why, why are you taking our trees? Why? Tree Guy waved me off with mention of the neighbor’s plan to widen their driveway, build a new stone wall, make a bigger play space for the kids.

Though the trees technically, literally, totally completely were on our neighbor’s property, I still felt a sense of propriety. The trees’ thick crowns gifted both of our yards with shade in the summer and with the delicious orange and red candy tones in the fall. One side of my study faced the trees and in the autumn it felt like I was sitting in the middle of a lava lamp. Perches to birds and what looked like a complicated network of superhighways for squirrels, the trees were gentle, friendly residents as much as any of us in the neighborhood.

I ain’t gonna lie: I took it hard. There were tears (mine), profanities (mine), elaborate fantasies involving Monkey Paw-level voodoo (mine again). I went into full Lorax-I-speak-for-the-trees mode, gnashing my teeth over urban encroachment and our shameful treatment of the environment. You would have thought they had broken ground on a Native American sacred estuary to build a Walmart instead of making a few modifications to their own yard.

They’re only trees, came the gentle reminder from a few friends whose ears I had flooded with my first world whining. From a big picture perspective, they were right, which made me grumpier. Intertwined in their response was another, also gentle, reminder about change and acceptance and the inevitable impermanence of things. Cliffs wash into the ocean; entire forests disappear under bulldozers; stars explode and collapse. Stars–the stuff of gas and microscopic dust particles that seem in endless supply! Even these wink out into the ether after a few million years.

It might not be an ideal system to you, dear little control junky, was the subtext, but it’s the only one we have at the moment and even that is only on lease. They were right, again, which made me grumpier still.

By the end of the week both trees were gone, ghosts. Traces of voodoo thoughts remained. The morning after both trees had come down, I wandered into my study armed with my stubborn pensiveness, prepared to remain sour and irked. I walked in on a room usually muted at that time of day, but was now lit up in the bright morning sun.

Oh.

The space took flight, elevated by the clean, clear light coming in from the two sets of west-facing windows. One of the reasons for choosing this “room of my own” was because it received some kind of light all day, even if that light was somewhat muted from the trees.

I sat down at my desk and gazed out the window to my right where the trees once were. Now I could see a large expanse of blue sky, revealed like the widening of a camera lens, exposing an entirely new view. Massive trees several yards away were visible. Everything was transformed, but not in the way I had imagined. The word “free” sparked across my brain followed by the thought “this is actually really nice.”

Oh.

I didn’t realize the trees were keeping something out because I believed I needed what they kept in more. We can get so invested in trying to lash ourselves to what feels familiar and comforting, with what gives us a sense of orientation that we miss the invitations for growth and discovery ushered in when we allow ourselves to be uprooted.

 

 

Heart and Soil

Spring is one of the most glorious seasons in New England. It feels like living in the middle of a time lapse video in the way that things quicken to burst, bloom, bud, and basically run amok. A leafless tree in the morning sports a full, arbor afro by the end of the day. Magnificent. It’s as if Mother Nature decided to juice herself on Red Bull and Meth just to “see what might happen.”

It’s also the time of year when a whole host of my own hang-ups take root (pun sort of intended).

It means tending—to mulch or not to mulch, that is the question that everyone is happy to answer with their own rule of green thumb, but continues to leave me baffled. It means an inventory of what survived another season, what mysteriously disappeared (“failure” whispers the soft indentation where the green thing had been not more than 6 months ago) or was taken down by fungus or some rare species of beetle that hasn’t been seen in this area since dinosaurs roamed the earth. It means the overwhelming, near paralyzing decision about what to plant and where. What’s the difference between part-shade and part-sun? Is there an app for that?

It’s too much. My teeth itch just writing this.

Somehow going to the garden center makes it worse, and yet I find myself returning season after season to this botanical house of ill repute like a gambler who thinks she can take the house.

I can feel my jaw tighten as I walk through the automatic doors into the humid and wonderfully perfumed greenhouse. Baskets bleeding fat blossoms sway lazily overhead like some kind of madman’s beautiful diabolical booby traps. People look so happy, so relaxed, so confident maneuvering their carts chocked full of pots and palettes of flowers and veggies. What do they know that I don’t? I imagine them going home to their organically maintained yards awash in lush, green grass. I picture them moving swan like through gardens so perfectly manicured they would make a French aristocrat weep. Maybe they pause briefly to admire a new, exotic strain of orchid bought on the black flower market. Believe me, if you can buy an organ online you can buy contraband fauna. A plague of snails, which I only recently discovered were not welcome harbingers of healthy plant life, but ruinous slimy bastards, on your houses, I think.

I clutch a piece of paper, my map, my guide, my weird talisman on this quest. On it, I’ve written a list of Latin names along with cryptic notes—“good for near Holly bush,” “dry will work,” and “full sun, fence, not side.” They’re clues to a riddle I wrote and still cannot solve.

I want to stick to this list, badly. I want to fill my patches with goodies that will thrive and be happy. When it comes to the garden I can’t help but think in these, somewhat embarrassing, emotional terms. I associate this with the vernacular of gardening from my childhood. I remember walking around the yard with my mother and Nona as they weeded and pruned and clipped whatever was growing. “She’s getting too much sun, so she’s not very happy here,” my Nona might say, gently cradling a stalk in her hand and looking into the flower’s tiny, vulnerable face as if they were speaking directly to each other. There’s so much heart involved in growing and of that, I have it to give in spades and spades. The head you need–the willingness to crack the code of Ph soil levels, proper drainage, and the quirks of cultivation—is where I seize up.

I rarely stick to the list. I am easily seduced by something with tall, violent magenta stalks. I suddenly decide that the plant with variegated leaves and bursts of pink is better than whatever it was I was going to stick near the Holly bush per my notes. It’s like going to the shoe store for sensible flats and gorging yourself on impractical open-toed, strappy stilettos.

I leave with cardboard boxes of leafy things, two of something, one of something else, nothing matched or coordinated. I feel the way you do when it’s closing time at the club and the lights come up, disoriented, a little foggy on the details, but certain that you had a good time.

I drive home and the buyer’s remorse sets in, but it’s more than that, it’s performance anxiety. Will these look ok? What if I kill them in the end despite my mothering? Who was I to think that I could have nice things growing in my yard?

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It’s just a garden. I actually have to tell myself this. It’s just a small, nearly non-acreage plot of land of grass and flowers and trees and shrubs. It’s just a garden.

There’s a part of me that longs to give up and call it in the dramatic tone of the surgeons on medical shows, wrenching off the gloves: you just don’t have the skills, the green brain. It’s the part that wants to be free of garden envy, to be done with Pinterest make-your-own-flower-boxes-repurposed-from-old-shutters-and-car-mufflers disasters. But there’s another part of me that hangs in there and forges ahead despite the tide of trial and error.

It’s the part of me that can see my Nona bent over the cherry tomato plants that she somehow got to miraculously thrive in a stretch of sandy, malnourished dirt and grass running alongside our driveway. She’s checking the undersides of the leaves for slugs, snails, and other nasty critters. As she works, she picks the plump, ripe rounds and drops them into the fold of her house dress, which she gathers in a makeshift tray. Every few minutes she pauses and pops one of the juicy red tomatoes in her mouth as if she were a kid with one of those cinnamon gumballs from a quarter candy machine. She smiles and turns her face to the sun.

That’s the part of me that picks up the trowel, the part I nudge to get moving because the light is climbing and soon it will be too hot to weed or dig. That’s the part of me that whispers, it’s not just a garden, it’s your garden.  It’s weird and a little wild and ruled by impulses that might not make sense to someone walking by, but it’s clearly loved with conscientious hands and a generous heart. I smile and turn my face to the sun.

 

 

Unchained

That was the spring the master escape artist came to Boston. Everyone knew about Houdini—the man who slipped through chains as if they were ribbons, the man who spirited his way out of locked coffins, the man who burst from straightjackets the way other people glide through rooms. In April of 1908 Houdini was booked to begin a two week run of shows at Boston’s popular B.F. Keith Theatre on Washington St. Earlier in the month he had appeared in New York where he performed one of his most spectacular escapes to date. But of course, they were all the most daring, the most spectacular, the most dangerous feats worked up especially for you, dear audience.

The stunt in New York was sponsored by the Weed Chain Tire Company. Bragging that not even the tire maker’s thick, rubber could contain Houdini, the magician was first placed inside two enormous tires. Then stage hands bound his body with eight chains and twelve locks. They lead the great artist to a cabinet where they locked him in and waited to see if the “King of Handcuffs” would materialize or perish. Nineteen minutes later they had their answer when Houdini emerged unscathed and triumphant to the delight, excitement, and relief of all (including Houdini no doubt).

Boston, he thought, required something bigger, something showier; he needed something that would inspire awe and, of course, sell out his run at Keith’s. Houdini arrives in the commonwealth. He takes in the wide Charles River that travels through the city like a restless animal, stalking this way and that, and he suddenly knows what to do.

On the afternoon of April 30 he leaves his hotel and walks over to the Harvard Bridge that joins Cambridge and Boston. More than 10,000 Bostonians have turned out to witness what newspapers and chatter have called one of the magician’s “most spectacular escapes to date.” See? Don Draper take note.

Houdini walks to the top of the bridge where a policeman cuffs his hands behind his back and chains to a collar around his neck. Out on the frigid, wind-whipped waters of the Charles a towboat sways and blows a whistle. As the whistle sounds Houdini steps from the bridge and plunges 30 feet into the water. Later the newspapers would report that it took all of 40 seconds for Houdini to resurface from the frigid river, proudly brandishing the shackles that briefly held him. Cheers and shouts from the crowd echoed up and down the shores of the Charles.

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That day more than one little boy raced home to knot his hands with rope and see how long it took him to pry himself loose. That day people dispatched themselves back into the city telling neighbors and friends of what they had seen, of Houdini’s incredible daring. Some will say they saw a flash of fear in his eyes and that they held their breaths for the great artist struggling to free himself from under the mean currents of the Charles. Others will claim he laughed as he fell from the bridge, poking fun at a God who refused to claim him during one of these performances. And still others would leave content to be left in wonder at the wonder.

Years, decades maybe, later, a lot of those same people might discover that there were all kinds of physical contortions, bodily machinations, sleights of hand, and specially crafted tools that Houdini used to successfully complete his stunts. They would read about the way Houdini trained his remarkable constitution to obey him and respond quickly and consistently to his commands. Did that make the magician any less magical? Did it tarnish the memory of the young woman who watched him slip from the Harvard Bridge that April day because it had all been an elaborate series of calculations or did it make her smile wider to know that someone would go to such lengths for the sake of giving people an experience unlike anything they know?

These days it feels as if the world is woefully stripped of the kind of awe a personality like Houdini conjured. We’re a little impaired on the belief for belief’s sake front. We move pretty quickly to take things apart bolt by bolt to expose the guts of the machine as something wholly unremarkable. Our curiosity could use some jumper cables.

What’s the risk in letting yourself be mystified? Something amazing happens when your imagination takes the reins and you step through the doorway to the unknown. Houdini’s greatest deed wasn’t untangling himself from manacles in any number of impossible scenarios, it was getting others to stand inside that space of impossibility with him, it was fueling a collective spirit of amazement that stays with you long after the performance ends.

That’s true magic, completely binding and totally inescapable.

 

 

 

E-Z Come, E-Z Go

I recently watched a TED talk by leadership expert Simon Sinek who said that 2.5% of the population are innovators, 13.5% are early adopters, and 34% make up people in the late-to-the-party majority. If there were any math left over, I would claim it for my family who were the staunch hold-outs, the-this-VCR-thing-is-obviously-a-fad disbelievers.

Many of my friends were already on their fifth or sixth generation microwaves with their shiny, sleek black facades, lower price points, and new dedicated buttons for things like baked potatoes and popcorn (SORCERY!). We were having none of it until one day my father came home from work heaving a grey, metal box only slightly smaller than Al Capone’s vault up the basement stairs into the kitchen.

“It’s a microwave!” he proclaimed, sounding like the dad in A Christmas Story attempting to pass off his tacky leg lamp as a “statue.” It was a laughable oxymoron taking up three-quarters of our already small kitchen counter. Someone at work looking to get rid of it had pawned it off on my father. We weren’t surprised. This was the same man who went “shopping” for pencils, pens, and notepads in the company office supply closet. My dad produced two packets of some generic brand of microwave popcorn for the thing’s maiden voyage. We plugged in the machine, put a packet on the rotating dish inside, punched in the time on the oven’s enormous, sticky keypad, and waited. The microwave kicked on to produce a deep hum somewhere in frequency between a sump pump and a jackhammer. I am pretty sure the lights in the kitchen dimmed ever so slightly. The air took on the scent of artificial butter and burnt lint. We fished out the damp bag of slightly undercooked popcorn and picked at it like a family of birds fussing over the remains of a worm. This was the future.

I think it was the first and last time we used our “new” cooking miracle worker. We preferred to eat reheated Chinese food without the copper aftertaste.

My dad’s been gone for more than twenty years, missing out on all the tech that has made our lives easier and more challenging. I often wonder what he’d make of the watches that serve as computers, the drones delivering soap and shampoo door to door, or the phones that could launch nuclear missiles. I think he would have eventually, haltingly, complainingly embraced some of it, except for one innovation: the highway E-Z pass.

To those like my dad who came of age in the 1950s and 60s, driving was not the functional, time-sucking nightmare it often is today. I can say this because I’m from Boston, a city built on a series of cow paths where drivers navigate inscrutable arteries in various stages of crumbling disrepair or questionable construction, competing with busses, bikers, Uber and taxi drivers, and pedestrians meandering around with their eyes pried to their smart phones (guilty). I’ve been in miles of cars backed up on route 93 at noon on a Friday trying to get to Cape Cod, but feeling more like you’re in a gridlock scene clipped from a zombie apocalypse movie. The only drivers who look like they’re enjoying themselves are the ones hired for BMW commercials, careening along empty coastal roads or flying through desolate New Zealand countryside. Do not attempt at home, reads the tiny disclaimer at the bottom of the screen. No shit. Couldn’t if we tried.

My dad’s generation had an entirely different relationship with driving. A car was freedom on four wheels. Cheap gas and roads that unspooled through big stretches of America for anyone to experience. Saturday nights were spent cruising—roving hang-outs with your friends, driving around the same loop of road to see and be seen. Girls were usually involved. For guy’s like my dad who were under their own father’s thumb, who were struggling with reconciling who they were against who their families expected them to be, driving meant you could literally transport yourself to another place; you could shed your skin, trade the stifling alley of your life for a wide expanse of open road.

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There was a change that came over my dad when he was driving, especially driving long distances on the highway. An ease stole over him. He’d often hang his entire arm outside the window, hugging the car door a little or sometimes he’d grip the edge of the roof. All the windows were always rolled completely down, leaving the rest of us wind whipped. Yet none of us asked him to pull them up a little bit as if we implicitly knew not to tread upon whatever this gift was he gave himself.

And then there were the tollbooths. Every lane was almost always staffed with a worker when I was a kid. The automated bucket and ticket dispenser were the exceptions, not the norms. My dad had a sort of ritual going through the tolls that became a part of how my brother and I absorbed these long trips. Whoever was in the passenger seat, which was typically my brother while my mother and I sat wind chapped in the back seat because GENDER, had the job of giving my dad the money for the tolls so that he wouldn’t have to fumble around for change.

As he rolled up to the window, my dad would give the person a very formal and distinct nod as if they were exchanging some kind of code. After he handed over the money or collected change back from his bill, he’d say loudly: “Thankyou” in this clipped tone that sounded like it were one word. The level of gravity in these exchanges was on par with getting an commendation from the President. My brother and I started mimicking him mercilessly. We tried to match his serious voice with our own “thankyou” called out to the collector as we drove off because HILARITY. Why he never pulled off at the closest rest stop and leave us with a “FREE” sign pinned to our shirts, I’ll never know.

I think about all of this when I’m zipping underneath the metal skeletons and electronic eyes of the E-Z pass lane. It’s wildly convenient. You barely have to dial down the gas as you sail through, shaving seconds off your drive time, dodging the interminable line of cars inching towards the booths at the beginning or end of travel on a holiday weekend. It’s also lonely.

I miss that brief pause at the tolls when you got to connect with another person for a few seconds. I miss pulling up to that window at one o’clock in the morning in the middle of a long ride home and looking into the eyes of the guy working his crappy graveyard shift at the tolls. There is that moment where you smile and say “how’s it going?” because you can see in that instant that there is a whisker-thin membrane between the two of you and your small talk is a way of really saying “I see you. You’re doing your best to make it work, to get by, to be here with the rest of us.”

From time to time I would also pay the toll for the driver behind me. It seemed to make the tollbooth operator as happy as it did the motorist—humanity puncturing our automated existence, a reminder that there is more to being on the road than finding the quickest route.

I think my father had a sense of this as well. His quirky, stylized exchanges at the tolls his own way of recognizing that we drive to find ourselves, but we’re finding each other along the way.