I’ll start my first column of the new year with a sheepish confession. For the first time in my life, I ran out of gas. Common sense will tell you that’s not a good idea to ignore the empty gauge on your fuel tank, and then to forget about it for almost a day. But I only had one more child to drop off, honest, and I was headed straight for the gas station, truly, when it happened, sputter sputter, conk conk.

Common sense will also tell you that it’s not a good idea to hitchhike, (don’t tell my kids) but it was 7:45 in the morning on a Saturday, it was too far to walk to the gas station, and no one at my house was picking up the phone because a) they were sleeping or b) they were exercising with the music cranked up at full volume.

So I did what any red-blooded suburban mom would do under those circumstances. I flagged down another minivan driven by someone who appeared to be another suburban mom. Adding to my hedging that I was going to be okay: she had a Northern Knights sticker on display in her window. Turns out she was, indeed, a suburban mom. She had just dropped her son off at High School North for wrestling practice, and, in the teeny tiny world that West Windsor Plainsboro sometimes can be, she was the friend of a friend.

Of course, common sense would dictate that it’s not a good idea, in general, to pick up a hitchhiker, but she also used her intuition to figure that a) I was not a mass murderer and b) I was a fellow suburban mom in need. Thank goodness. She drove me to the gas station and then back to my car where I filled my car with enough gas to get me back to the station for a fill-up. Did I feel silly? Yes. Did I feel grateful for the kindness of a stranger? Absolutely!

I’m going to talk more about common sense here, because it seems in today’s world, there’s often not enough of it to go around. I offer myself as a case in point, but I would venture to say that universally, in the year 2008, many more people could use a hefty does of it.

Take kids, for example, and one of my favorite pet peeves: the over-reliance on such technology as GPS and the underuse of such standbys as old-fashioned maps and a good sense of direction. Map-reading and navigation, I fear, have become lost arts today. Many believe it’s not necessary to be able to discern north-south-east-west when you have handy-dandy devices with cool names like Garmin and Magellan to take you where you want to go. The only problem is if you take a wrong turn, or if there’s construction, or if the street is too new to be included, then you might end up totally lost. That’s what happens when you depend too much on machinery and not enough on independent thinking.

A friend of mine who is a scout leader has a lot of colorful anecdotes about the lack of common sense he often witnesses. He’d taken some boys out camping. It was cold and windy, so he had used a tarp to set up a wind block and moved his table close to it so he could be protected. He saw a group of boys huddled together at another table trying to light a stove, but the flame wasn’t catching because the wind kept blowing it out. “I called the guys over and told them to set up a windbreak. So they set up a windbreak, but then don’t move the stove over to the windbreak, so they still can’t get the fire going. The synapses of the brain just weren’t working!”

Of course, one of the reasons why we have such groups as the Boy and Girl Scouts is to teach common sense skills. It’s the same reason why the schools still have hands-on classes like wood shop and electrical shop and working in the kitchen- higher levels of math and science are very good, but the knowledge to handle real life challenges are just as important.

My same scout leader friend says you’d be amazed at how many kids have never picked up a shovel in their lives. “If you’re right-handed, you put your right-hand on top to guide the shovel,” he explains, “and the power should come from the knees, not from the back, because you don’t want to hurt yourself and your legs are where you get most of your power.”

As for common sense, “they parked the wheelbarrow to carry the dirt way over there, and the hole is way over here. No one thought to move the wheelbarrow closer, so I started to move the wheelbarrow farther and farther way, just to see if they would catch on. Finally one of the boys asked me what are you doing. And I said the wheelbarrow has a wheel for a reason. Why are you moving the dirt to the wheelbarrow instead of moving the wheelbarrow closer?”

Here’s another example of common sense or lack thereof, from my friend. “I was helping this one kid and he had to divide a distance in half. It was nine feet, four and a half inches. He told me, boy I wish I had a calculator. I told him that wouldn’t help because the calculator worked in base ten and the measurement was in inches, on a base 12 scale. He looked at me blankly. He simply could not divide that length in two. He kept looking for a calculator. I told him first take the nine feet and divide that in two. You get four and a half feet. Divide the four inches in two, and get two inches. Then divide the half inch into two quarter inches. Add it all up and you have half of the original.

Today’s high school kids can study to the test and ace it. But ask them to do a basic real life problem and sometimes they don’t even know where to start.”

The idea of common sense can be applied to so many life situations. For example, the whole weight loss thing. As my husband keeps telling me, if you want to lose weight, burn more calories than you consume. Eat less and exercise more. (I do maintain that metabolic slowdowns can affect the rate of weight loss, but I do understand the basic mathematic principle involved.) The same thing applies to staying out of debt. Save more than you spend. (Easier said than done, but again, the math is elementary).

So here’s my one resolution for the new year. Use more common sense myself and encourage everyone around me to do the same. Should make for better times for everyone. Happy 2008!