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The email in the Wall

I’ve been making final arrangements for my son to have his Bar Mitzvah at the “Masorti Kotel,” a part of the Kotel off to the side of the main Kotel Plaza that is known as Robinson’s Arch. This is the designated spot in the Kotel Plaza that allows for a mixed prayer group of men and women.

How do I know the final arrangements are official? The rabbi of whom I am in correspondence with in Jerusalem cc’ed his email to “hakotel.” Yes, the Holiest spot to Judaism in the world was kept in the loop that my son will be called to the Torah in Jerusalem. Now it’s really official.

There is no way of documenting in words what emotions my family will be experiencing when my son, his brother and sister, parents and both sets of grandparents along with friends and a few surprise guests will come to Robinson’s arch to pray in honor of Nathan’s Bar Mitzvah. We’ve been planning this moment since around his birth.

But this story goes back perhaps even farther, it’s a story of the power of prayer and placing a note in the Western Wall, and how Gd answers these notes in Gd’s own time.

Once upon a time, a boy and a girl met one summer  at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. They met through mutual friends on a cracked tennis court. The girl kept missing every shot, and the boy didn’t seem to mind chasing all these balls and retrieving them for her.

The boy really liked the girl. Loved the girl. But the girl just wanted to be friends.

That winter, the boy visited Israel with his family. They visited the Kotel, or the Western Wall. The holiest place in all of Judaism where Jews for centuries pour out their hearts in prayer for a united Jerusalem, for a rebuilt Jerusalem. The boy wrote a note to Gd asking that the girl would one day fall in love with him, his family would be blessed with health, and (a bit of a more material and earthly ask), that he would make it into the Engineering program at MIT.

Within a month of writing that note, the girl  (who would be me) turned him down when asked to prom. Within a month, the boy’s sister became seriously ill with meningitis and lapsed into a coma. And, the rejection letter from MIT showed up soon after that.

That boy felt like he was truly being punished by the Divine.

Not to worry. Gd answers prayers. Just not in the instant we would like them to be granted.

The sister of the boy recovered and thrived,  went to MIT and went on to finish an MBA at Columbia University, has a tri-athlete husband and four beautiful children, and a thriving cupcake business!

Nine years later the girl that turned down the boy for prom came around and they were married before 247 guests!

The boy in the story is my husband. Whenever we are having an argument, or whenever my husband is getting on my nerves like when he doesn’t like the way I load the dishwasher, I think back to his note in the Kotel, realize that our  marriage is meant to be by Gd, so I let it slide.

Now, I’m going back to the Kotel again, the fourth time in my life. No two trips to Israel or the Kotel are ever the same. Each time you go there, you are a different person perhaps at a different phase in your life. So, I’m going not only with my family, but I will also be going as a messenger taking along the notes my students wrote to place in the Kotel.

Most of them.

As my students started their note writing, they had many questions: How will Gd know it’s me? What should I write? How long does it have to be? Can I ask for anything…. anything? Is this a wish, or is this a prayer? And, will it come true, what I ask? How do they keep all the notes from falling out of the cracks?” …. and so on.

I guess this is a lesson to myself that it is hard for a child to know exactly how to compose a prayer of one’s own to be placed in such a holy place when one has only an abstract concept of the place itself. These students have only the most fledgling connections with Israel, let alone an understanding of the emotional impact that a united Jerusalem, and access to Judaism’s holiest site, has on the Jewish psyche. But they did their best, and I answered their questions as best as I could.

A note in the Kotel can express thanks to Gd for the health of family and friends. A note to the Kotel can ask to heal broken friendships or relationships. A note  to the Kotel can ask to be provided for, and to never know hunger but one should not ask for “Lots of Money and an iPhone.” A note to the Kotel can ask for world peace and haters of peace, for their plans to be destroyed. But a note should never ask for the death of your enemies, let alone a family member. Gd is not your hitman. These notes will not be placed, nor do they deserve a place in such a holy place.

How Not to do your kid’s elementary school take-home project

My son came home at the beginning of November with his first serious take home project in his academic career. To thoroughly research and display a natural landform.

Cry me a River.

If you have elementary school-aged children, you have been presented with the following scenario:

Your child comes home with a project assignment. They must research a topic and then display their findings in a creative way. Suggestions included making a diorama, a puppet show, a video dramatization. The project instructions come with a rubric so the child knows just what the teacher will be looking for in the research, delivery of facts and visual presentation before giving the grade.

In true tradition of thinking in terms of our achievement and perfection driven culture, as demonstrated in the film Race To Nowhere, I initially got it into my head that this was not my third grader’s project, but it was mine. It would have to be mine if I was to make sure my son got the highest grade possible. I couldn’t just let my eight year old go it on his own, could I? Because  other parents in my highly competitive school district wouldn’t just hand off their kids project, would they? If I let him do this on his own, would I seem neglectful? Would I come off as apathetic mom in a tiger mom school district?

 Right away, I approached the project – Rivers –  like the 40something I am and not like the eight-year-0ld child that my child is. As far as the research, I would visit three different library branches to take out every children’s nonfiction book on rivers in publication.

The research went well and with much enthusiasm, my son, with some direction, came up with vocabulary flashcards with river terminology like “mouth” and “source” and “delta”. He also created about six flashcards with facts on the world’s longest rivers and New York State rivers. To top it off, he wrote the flashcards showing off his latest 3rd Grade skill: using cursive letters!

Next came the all-important presentation of Rivers. Should we create a video? I had the FlipCam ready. We could go off to the Genesee River with the University of Rochester in the background  …..we could script a newscast and dress him in outdoorsman clothing….what would he say? … Or, we can go in the über diorama direction. It would have to include mixed media like clay and pebbles for the river embankments and shiny cellophane for the river. And, some parts of it should be relief sculpture and for artistry’s sake, there must be perspective and depth to show a river’s origins far away and its mouth up close…

All these ideas were shot down during the design conceptualization meeting with my son.

 “I really just want to color, mom.”

Really? Just Color? Would there be an initial sketch? How would a sense of scale and perspective be achieved?

“MOM! I DON’T WANT TO MAKE A SCULPTURE OR A DRAFT. I’M JUST GOING TO COLOR! IT’S MY PROJECT, OKAY?”

The more suggestions I made, the madder he became until he started to cry.

Remember, this was supposed to be an enjoyable project to be completed at home.

So I backed off. And this is what he created: 

Three days later, he came home with his final grade: Outstanding. Well, good for us.

I mean, good for HIM!

If we knew you were coming… the art of the R.S.V.P.

A friend of mine recently took on a community outreach job where she has to arrange free events for a local non-profit organization.

The carefully targeted invitees are sent invitations both by snail mail and e-mail. The invitations are sent in a timely manner and indicate the event is free but space is limited and one must RSVP to attend.

There is a handy email address to send a response, a mailer to mail back, and a website to also let the event organizer of ones decision of attending or not attending.

At such a recent family friendly event, I watched my friend fly around the event venue in a panic.  Around 25 families responded that they would be coming.  Double that amount had lined up outside the door, waiting to come in. She feared she did not have enough forks or plates, or food ordered for the unexpected who showed up. Would she run out of craft supplies and disappoint some unsuspecting children. After all, it wasn’t their fault if their parents failed to R.S.V.P. And, in an event with a purpose to create inclusiveness, it would be wrong and off-putting to turn people away.

Do you R.S.V.P. yes  or no to every invite you receive?

To an event planner, that yes or no response makes the difference between having enough pre-cut craft pieces or not having enough. It is the difference between having enough juice boxes for the kids whose parents responded or having to turn people away with kids who may have wanted to do a craft project and a juice box but didn’t respond and feeling badly about it. And, if you don’t RSVP to an event like a wedding that requires head counts by the caterer or table seating arrangements, you may quickly fall off invitee lists of the future.

This problem seems systematic in my community, I wonder if this goes on everywhere. Are the e-vites that appear in our overloaded e-mail and social networking in boxes not as significant as the invitations that are mailed to us the old-fashioned way?

Now, am I innocent of the crime of not RSVPing to something, and then showing up? Absolutely not.

A few months ago, I had plans to attend what I thought was an informal learning session after Saturday morning services at my synagogue. What I, in my hurry in reading the email, failed to see that it was a LUNCH and learn, and one had to RSVP.

I didn’t RSVP

As a result, I felt like a heel. An idiot.

I had  no premade name tag. No table tent had been carefully prepared by an administrative assistant who made ones for  those who made it their business to RSVP in a timely manner.

There was food. None of it was ordered for me. Because they didn’t think I was coming.

So, I took no food. Not until after all the people who had the decency to respond had theirs first. Even though people said no worries, I should go up and help myself. No, I thought. I didnt’ RSVP properly. It served me right.

So, if you get in your email or social networking inbox an event, remember there are people behind that invite who have a lot of details to take care of, budgets to stay within, name tags to print and a finite number of  sandwiches to order.

Even if you have to say ‘no,’ a regret is far more appreciated than no response at all.

On your Face or In its Case:Rules for Keeping Eyeglasses

This is a response to a column written by Pam Sherman, that fellow Staten Island native and current Rochesterian Suburban Outlaw.  In the latest installment of her new weekly column in the Democrat & Chronicle, she spoke of the high price of getting just that right look in designer eyeglasses. I have yet to plunk down  a swimming-pool’s worth of money for my family’s frames, but Pam, I think I am on my way.

Early this spring, my son, daughter and I were all due for eye check-ups. Unfortunately, my husband’s company had just canceled our family vision plan. So, I knew this would prove to be an expensive, but necessary excursion. After all, you have to see.

Unlike Mrs. Sherman, who feels that her glasses define who she is, I have a bad habit of not wearing my glasses as much as I should. Like right now. I don’t need my glasses to see, just to tweak things ever so slightly into clarity.

When I do wear my far-sighted glasses, I think ahhhh, those blurry green blobs on the trees are leaves with sharp edges!

Or when I wear my near-sighted glasses, I think wow, thesse letters do look more crisp.

Do I have bi-focals? Not yet. I’m not ready to accept that my eyes, like the rest of me, are aging.

But my kids, who have inherited their dad’s bad eyesight, cannot function without their frames. My daughter is good with her glasses. Nathan and I abuse them.

First: the sequel to I Melted My Kid’s Halloween Candy: My Son Melted his Transition Lenses. My son has given me full consent to write this blog, just as he had fun writing about the melted Halloween candy. He has been blessed with an enormous sense of humor.

When my 12-year-old son has his mind set on something, say, a foolish experiment or fulfilling a “I wonder what will happen if I do this” curiosity, nothing, no amount of warnings, will sway him from his path.

In the three years he has been wearing glasses, he has bent them out of shape in wrestling matches with his brother and broken them in frisbee games with friends.  In spite of my constant badgering hiim with my mantra: On your face or in its case, glasses have been found on the bathroom floor after a shower or hanging from the lamp of his bed.

But he promised,  promised  this time would be different. If I get him transition lenses for the summer.  I thought, why not: I’ll get him the transition lenses.

I’m a fool.

I opted for gettiing a less expensive pair of frames (less here meaning they were still $190) and put the money into the transitions.  Total for his eyeglasses and exam: over $300. In all, my bank account was about $1,200 lighter for the three of us to have glasses. To see.

Now, I mentioned it was the early spring. In Rochester. If you can find me a bright sunny day in March in Rochester, I’ll show you a Congress that can get things done in Washington, but that’s another story…

But, cloudy days be damned. My son was going to make his transition lenses change from clear to tinted the minute we exited  from the eyeglass retailer. Even if he had to hold it up to the vanity mirror in the front seat of my SUV.

“Nathan, you CANNOT do that to your brand new glasses!” Regaining my composure and trying to appreciate his curious, impulsive nature, I explained that the sun would soon return to Rochester, and then his lenses would change. Until then, he would have to wait.

The next day…

I get a call from the school nurse’s office.

“Mrs. Gittleman, this is the nurse at school. Your son is very upset. Please try not to be upset, but he held his glasses up to the lamp at one of the reading tables in the library and, well.. he may need new glasses  now.”

One part of me, a small part, was quite impressed with my son’s determination and ingenuity. But, the rest of me was very upset indeed. Three hundred Fifty dollars and less than 24 hours later with new glasses, and he had burned a whole right through the lens. In the dead center of the lens. When I took him back to the optometrist, the sales people took a collected gasp in horror, as they looked at their destroyed work. Yes, I got him new frames. No, he won’t get transition lenses until he is paying his own rent in the distant future.

So no, this has not been a good year for eyeglasses in my family. And as I put on my new near-sighted glasses that I’ve had to replace because I’ve lost that pair I bought in March, I promise to follow the mantra that I preach to my own son.

On my face, or in their case.

Wear Your Bicycle Helmet, Damn It!

Yesterday, both my sons were glum and grumpy. They were missing their big sister who had just left for sleep-a-way camp for the entire summer.  My youngest simply missed her because she was his big sister. My oldest, he was just mad because HE wasn’t going to camp the whole summer.

So, to cheer them up, I cleared my day for an activity that would set us soaring and put us all in a good mood. We embarked on an extra long bicycle ride. On their bikes, they had to get along as brothers. They could not cut each other off because they would crash. The older one had to stay with the younger one and remind him about traffic rules like staying to the right of traffic, look out for parked cars, and stopping at stop signs.

Finally, after winding our way through side streets we had discovered in a previous bicycle ride. we made it to Brighton’s Buckland Park.  Finally, I could let my guard down, if just a little, and feel free to let them ride in safety the park’s dirt bike trails that took us through tall bulrushes filled with red-winged blackbirds and over wooden bridges. On the paths, I didn’t have to think about a car coming up from behind them or, well YELL at them to get off their bikes and walk them across the busy intersections.

The other night, as I was drifting to sleep, came on the Late News that a 15-year-old boy had been killed while riding his bicycle. He was not wearing his helmet.The next day, my husband came home from work and let me know that the boy was the son of a man who worked at his office. When you live in a small town, the local news is very local.

Today, I also read about a woman in her 50’s who had just died from injuries she sustained while bicycling. She also was not wearing her bicycle helmet.

But, back to our joyful bicycle ride……

On our way home, I saw a kid of about 13 on his bicycle. We both came to a stop at a 4-way Stop intersection. He said “Hi” and I said “Hi” back.

Yeah, he had left the house with his bike helmet. But somewhere away from his mother’s eye – he took it off and strapped it not to his head but the handlebars of his bike.

Little did he know there are a lot of other mothers out there.

“Put on your helmet.” I said. No pussy-footing around this time, no saying “I’m sorry for being pushy” or “I hope you don’t mind saying..”

I just said it:

“Put on your hemet. A kid your age was just killed this week on his bicycle and HE was not wearing a helmet.”

Maybe another kid would have snickered and flipped me off. But all this kid said was:

“Okay.”

And the helmet went right back on his head.

IF YOU SEE SOMEONE, PARTICULARLY A KID THIS SUMMER WITHOUT A HELMET, BUTT IN AND TELL THEM TO PUT ONE ON!

A Fashion Statement I Regret Making

As I write this, I am watching the academy awards. No, my biggest fashion blunder thankfully wasn’t televised, nor was it as bad as Bjork’s Swan dress from 2001. But, in a time when one should try to act as cool as possible – the first day of high school – I truly missed the mark.

My 25th high school reunion is coming up. Now, I don’t remember what I wore my very last day as a high school student, but I sure remember what I wore the first day.

No, the picture below is not actually my legs. Thankfully, I dont think there is a photograph to document my first day of Freshman year of high school.

My mom had just started a subscription of Seventeen Magazine for me. The preppy look was totally “in” for the fall, according to Seventeen’s big, thick back-to-school August issue. Maybe if you went to a prep school in New Hampshire, but back in Staten Island, not so much.

So there I was, high school freshman, which is cause enough to get egged or suffer a head full of shaving cream the first day of high school. But no, I had to draw further attention to myself with khaki knickers, argyle socks and penny loafers.

I just got it all wrong.

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A Fashion Statement I regret Making

As I write this, I am watching the academy awards. No, my biggest fashion blunder thankfully wasn’t televised, nor was it as bad as Bjork’s Swan dress from 2001. But, in a time when one should try to act as cool as possible – the first day of high school – I truly missed the mark.

My 25th high school reunion is coming up. Now, I don’t remember what I wore my very last day as a high school student, but I sure remember what I wore the first day.

No, the picture below is not actually my legs. Thankfully, I dont think there is a photograph to document my first day of Freshman year of high school.

My mom had just started a subscription of Seventeen Magazine for me. The preppy look was totally “in” for the fall, according to Seventeen’s big, thick back-to-school August issue. Maybe if you went to a prep school in New Hampshire, but back in Staten Island, not so much.

So there I was, high school freshman, which is cause enough to get egged or suffer a head full of shaving cream the first day of high school. But no, I had to draw further attention to myself with khaki knickers, argyle socks and penny loafers.

I just got it all wrong.

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I Hereby Declare February Sickie Month

Looking for tips on how to not get sick in February? Good luck!

I am sure you know the drill: Wash your hands after going to the bathroom and before eating and preparing food. Use hand sanitizer when getting to a sink is not convenient. Opt for the elbow shake or an air kiss. But there comes to a point in the winter, especially February, where if you haven’t gotten sick yet, you are just plain lucky.

Sometimes, the best way to stay healthy and build up that immune system is not to lock yourself away until spring thaw but to dance straight into the fire. In other words, you can spend a lot of time with preschoolers, like I do.

Entering the preschool classroom in February is like entering the lion cub’s den of viruses. The rhino virus comes to play with the blocks while his friends influenza and roto hang out by the toy kitchen. Streptococcus and the dreaded Conjunctivitis like to frolic in the water table.

I guess I’ve developed a sense of humour along with the immune system. Because thinking back to when I was a young parent, the germful world was a very fearful place.

I remember being so worried of my children catching something when my kids were in preschool.

“Did you hear?” I asked another mom one day during a Yoga class that was scheduled during preschool hours.   “The stomach bug is going around in class. What if my daughter gets sick?” As luck had it, I, the novice and neurotic first-time mommy, presented this question to a veteran mother-of-three mommy.  I was feeling a bit guilty because despite this worry, I still dropped Jolie off because I wanted to go to my Yoga class.

“Don’t worry,” said veteran mommy in the middle of practicing Triangle pose. “They get sick. They get better. That’s why they have immune systems.”

This was probably some of the best advice a new mom could get.  And as my kids get bigger, they get sick less often, but February is always the time they get sick. One February break, when my kids were in preschool, I cancelled nearly every playdate we made. The week was spent watching movies and reading books between doses of Advil for fever reduction and ice pops for hydration. 

One year, my lucky husband was away in California for a conference just in time for the rest of us to get the dreaded stomach bug. I spent a wild Saturday night dragging sheets from my son’s bunk beds into the snow so I can hose them off.  

I probably should NOT say this, but these episodes of illnesses seem to grow more seldom as my kids get older. So preschool parents, hang in there!

But if you are a younger family,  this is the time of the year where a preschooler’s immune system gets the most rigorous of workouts. Unfortunately, that little 3-year-old may also take their whole family down with them.  Siblings get sick. Parents have to reshuffle work commitments.

This is why I proclaim February as Sickie Month.

It is Sickie Month because it is the time in school when we see the most absences. I hear it in the lingering coughs when sick kids come back.

I see a sick day coming when the boy who usually roars like a tiger with his preschool pals loses his roar. I see a sick day coming when the girl who usually bubbles and twinkles with all the enthusiasm and glee of a little girl loses her twinkle. I’ve sat with kids as they shiver with fever and wait for their caregivers to pick them up. Now that I’m a veteran mom of three, my maternal instincts know that a dose of ibuprofen will make the child feel right as rain, though I know my school policy makes me as a teacher unable to administer any medicine.

If you have any doubts why it is necessary to have a February break, just ask a preschool teacher.

Over the River and Through the Woods: Tips from Thankful Road Warriors

How do you get from here to there?

Thank goodness for Thanksgiving.  The long weekend affords most of us a breather from modern life’s breakneck pace. We pause to focus on coming together with family and friends, preparing a meal, tossing a football and sleeping late in your own bed.

But,  if you are like my family – transplants – Thanksgiving means hitting the road. Or, heaven forbid, the airports. That is the only way the family-coming-together aspect of the holiday happens for us. 

In our case, traveling is not as idyllic as over the river and through the woods.  It’s more like Down the Thruway and over the Outerbridge Crossing to Staten Island We Go.  Where there are hardly any woods left to go through.

For eleven years now, we have traveled to see our family every Thanksgiving but one. This is another consequence of being Transplantednorth. If you leave the area where one’s family roots are still entrenched, the roads are rarely traversed the other way. It’s just expected. We are the only part of the family “upstate.”  We left. Everyone else still lives Home — the New York Metro Area. Or, in a term I only learned when transplantednorth – “downstate.” 

And on Thanksgiving, just as the larger planet pulls on its smaller orbiting moons,  down the Thruway we go.

One especially hectic year, we stayed in Rochester for Thanksgiving. The weather was beautiful – warm even —  and we spent a relaxing weekend feasting and playing into the evening at the Brighton Town Hall playground. I prepared perhaps the only Thanksgiving feast I will ever make. I made the turkey on the barbecue. I made a chestnut stuffing ala Martha Stewart. Everything tasted delicious. But the lonely looks on my childrens’ faces taught me a lesson: Thanksgiving tables are too empty without grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

So, after traveling for 11 years with two and then three kids in tow, I have become thankful for a thing or two on what I have learned and would like to share them with you, especially if you are a novice at parenting on the go:

  • I am thankful that cries for Sippy cup refills and diaper changes have been replaced by three contented souls in the back who can pass snacks to each other, operate the remote to the car DVD player, and participate in family sing downs and games of 20 Questions. 
  • I am thankful for every rest stop we have discovered between here and there, especially to kind workers who have supplied us with buckets, hoses and slop sinks for carsickness cleanups.  Really, if you do have a kid that gets sick in the car, find a truck stop like the Flying J Travel Plazas that have showers and washing machines. The folks there are all too kind to help you in your distress.
  • I am thankful that we finally come “home,” we have relatives who bound down steps and out into driveways to greet us, no matter the lateness of the hour.

In our 11 years of travelling down to New York City, here are my family’s dos and don’ts when traveling the Western New York-to-New York City Route:

  • DO strap everything down very carefully. On our first trip back to Rochester, on a windy, windy passage of Route 78 in New Jersey, our Peg Perego Stroller came loose and flew off our roof rack. One minute, there it was, and then it was on the side of the road, thankfully killing or injuring no one in its catapulted flight.
  • If you are traveling with very young children that might become carsick, but may not alert you at the most opportune time that they will become carsick,  DO pack a puke kit. This kit includes a roll of paper towels, a bottle of Lysol all-purpose liquid cleaner, and a change of clothes that is easily accessible.
  • If traveling with those same small children, DO invest in one of those Art Cart on the Go Tables that can be placed over a child’s lap. The Art Cart has legs that double as side pockets that keep paper, crayons and markers handy. Or, in the worst case scenario, those pockets also can come to the aid of the carsick child. I speak from experience.
  • For a meal break, DO stop in Scranton or Dickson City, Pa. It is exit 191 A or B on Route 81.  Home of The Office, it is a great little town to stop for meals. If we hit Scranton for lunch or dinner, we eat at Tonalteca. The place is clean, the decor features hand crafted carved booths from Mexican artisans, and there are plenty of choices for vegetarians. The guacamole is outstanding.  And, for those of you who get stir crazy in the car, they play great salsa music in the bathroom. If they have the security camera going by the sinks in the ladies room, they might have footage of me doing some salsa steps I learned in Zumba for all I know. Anything to work off that guacamole.
  • DON’T stop in the Poconos for any reason. There really is no place to stop. The gas stations for bathrooms have nothing more than outhouses or bathrooms around back that you have to carry in those huge keys for admittance. And, if you see a billboard for The Cheesecake Factory, don’t believe it. No, it isn’t The Cheesecake Factory, the upscale eatery. It’s just – a cheesecake factory. So, unless you want to sit in your car with your family consuming a cheesecake for a meal, ignore the sign and keep driving.
  • DO find the small village of Whitney Point along Route 81 and stop at Aiellos Italian Restaurant for the best pizza you can find in Western NY.  And I am not saying this is good pizza for Western New York. I mean, this is thin-crust Brooklyn Pizza that somehow found its way to Western New York. And, the quaint restaurant in the back will be decked in its Christmas decorations this time of year. You won’t want to miss out on this.

And as for traffic…..

  • DON’T be anywhere near Binghamton or Syracuse on Sunday afternoon if you can at all avoid it: college kids coming back from Thanksgiving break.
  •  DON’T go near the Delaware Water Gap if you don’t want to get stuck in traffic during peak hours
  • DON’T go over the George Washington Bridge or traverse the Cross Bronx Expressway.  Ever.

Safe travels to you and a very happy Thanksgiving.

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