Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Are We There Yet?

Although I've recently learned to appreciate traveling solo and all the experiences that affords, nothing takes the place of setting out for adventures in my car with my number one traveling companion: Jack. Yes, if you really want to learn about life, pack your car full of Capri Sun juice pouches, cherry Twizzlers and Goldfish crackers, charge up the Nintendo DSi, safely buckle your wise-beyond-his-years, average eight-year-old in the back seat and hit the road for a six hour sojourn and see what happens.
   There was a time not so very long ago when I dreaded long car trips with Jack. When he was an infant, and easy to manage in a snuggly strapped to my chest, we would board a plane and fly to Little Rock for visits. Even the two-hour layover in Memphis seemed tailor-made to our purpose because it allowed time for the all-important diaper change and feedings. When he started to walk, travel became dicier. As a frequent flyer, I swore I would not be one of those parents who subjected fellow-travelers to the plaintive howling of my young child as his ears filled with fluid upon ascent and descent from the friendly skies. How many times did I roll my eyes and turn up the volume of my earphones to drowned out the screams of someone else's sweet, dear, baby darling, cursing both child and parent as I feigned slumber? Too many to recount. And so, upon entering parenthood, I recalled the dread of sitting in front of, behind, or—God forbid!—next to an inflight infant. No matter how sweet and well-behaved, a baby on board an airport is tantamount to one of Dante's lower levels of hell. Long before I embraced Buddhism in earnest, when traveling with Baby Jack, I already lived by the mantra to end all suffering and the causes of suffering when it came to consideration of fellow-flyers. And so began the era of the road trip.

   I've lost count of how many miles Jack and I have logged on the road together. I'm just counting our twosome outings because, when Drew and I traveled together with Jack, he was much easier to entertain since we had him outnumbered. But the two of us made frequent trips back and forth to Little Rock (that's six hours, each way) when my parents were in their decline, beginning when Jack was about age five. And yes, in those days the inevitable wail went up from the back seat, just an hour outside of Birmingham, How much longer do we have until Little Rock? Are we there, yet?
   My most recent trip to Little Rock with Jack was markedly different, dare I say, even pleasant. Think about it: When do you ever intentionally spend six hours in the same thirty-cubic foot space with your child other than when you are on the road? Outside of sharing a car ride together, when would you ever want to? There is something about travel that allows for the extended proximity (and this goes for adults traveling together as well.) A pact is struck. You know you must get along for the duration, or time will creep by in a most unpleasant fashion. Disagreements must be resolved quickly, or you will sit in funky silence, trapped in a cloud of anger, and that is just not fun.
My backseat driver.
   But fortunate that Jack is of an age now where he can entertain himself for long stretches (thank you Nintendo DSi for your clever and oh-so-portable game system). Long past the Wheels on the Bus stage of life, Jack now shares my taste in music, thank God, and so the trip is consumed by singing together with The Blackeyed Peas, David Bowie (the Ziggy stuff), The Flaming Lips and, of course, The Beatles. And in those quiet times when the DSi has become boring and we just can't bear to hear Fame one more time, we talk, and not just about whether Pikachu could beat Raichu with thunder tail or if Burger King chicken nuggets are superior to Wendy's. I mean, we really talk.
  I suppose I am making a more concerted effort these days to talk to Jack because I want to ensure he feels comfortable discussing his feeling about the divorce, but I've always been fascinated to discover his young take on the world. Now, I'm just listening more closely. So the trip to Little Rock gave us time to get into some fairly philosophical conversations. For example, somewhere near Southaven, Mississippi, we began discussing the importance of friendship.
"Why is it important for us to have friends?" I asked.
"'Cause you need someone to play with," Jack said, looking up from his game.
"Do you need friends, or do you want friends?" I asked.
Jack thought for a minute. "You need them," he replied.
"I think you're right," I said. "Why do we need friends? We don't have to have them to live, you know. You have to have air and water and food, but we won't die without friends, right? So why do we need them? Other animals don't have or need friendship. Why do humans need it so?"
Honestly, I don't know the answer to this question and I was interested to hear what Jack would say. He thought for a few moments, winning another level at Pokemon Heart Gold before replying.
"Well, if someone is trying to hurt you, it's good to have friends to help defend you," he said.
"That's true," I said. "Although today that's not so much the case, but I think you're right, I bet early humans—"
"You mean monkeys, Mom," Jack said.
(I am so relieved our public school system teaches evolution, even though we live in a Bible Belt, fundamentalist state.)
"Yes, monkeys or whatever those earlier humanoids were, I bet they first created friendships as a means of survival. Banding together you know. Well, wild dogs do that, but I don't think they are really friends, do you? But we don't need friends for protection now, do we? So why are friends so important?"
Jack plugged away at his game for a moment and then replied, "If we didn't have friends, we'd be lonely!"
"You're right," I said. "You are absolutely right."
"And I stood up for Mitchell the other day," Jack said. "A fourth grader shoved him so I gave him a taste of his own medicine."
"Yes," I said. "Mrs. Gunter told your Dad and me about that. You're a very loyal friend. What did you do to the boy?"
"I shoved him back," Jack said.
(Jack weighs all of fifty pounds and is one of the smallest kids in the third grade, but he has a big heart.)
"Do you think that was the best way to handle that situation?" I asked.
"Yes," Jack said. "He shoved Mitchell, so I shoved him."
"Did it help? Did it teach that bully a lesson?"
"No."
"What else could you have done?"
"I could have told the teacher."
"Yes, that's always a good idea," I said. "You know what else you could do? Ignore him. Walk away. Don't give him the satisfaction of seeing that he got to you, you know?"
"Yeah," said Jack. "But he shoved Mitchell for no reason."
"But shoving him back didn't help, did it? It just made that boy madder. If you walk away, you diffuse the problem. He wanted you to react, so when you react, you are giving him what he wants. Understand?"
"Yeah," Jack said. "But that guy was a jerk."
"Yeah," I said. "And you are not. Next time, just walk away and then tell the teacher."
Jack thought for a moment.
"Mom," Jack said. "Can we stop for Burger King? I'm hungry."

   We were through Memphis and across the Mississippi River bridge by the time we determined that friends are indeed essential in our lives—almost as necessary as food and water and air—and that the best way to handle bullies is to not give them the attention they want. Would we have had this conversation at home while going about our regular chores and routines? Probably not. Would we have then gone on to have a beautiful discussion about the impermanence of life and how death is a part of life and theories about heaven as we drove past the barren cotton fields of the Arkansas delta? Probably not. And that is the beauty of travel: It provides opportunity for perspective if you are willing to view it in your rearview mirror.

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