New York: Accept No Substitutes

I was in Atlanta for work this past week and I wanted to go someplace for lunch. I was working in a very modern office that had some free pizza for lunch, but I wanted something healthier and to get out of the office for a little while.

Atlanta is not a pedestrian friendly city and my options were limited unless I wanted to take a cab someplace. A coworker recommended a shopping center a little way up the hill in the corporate park where we were, so I walked there.

My options for lunch were a Subway (no, a Subway worker once tried to put mayonnaise on a meatball sub and once you get past a certain age the smell of their bread is disgusting), a salad place, and a New York-style deli. For some reason, I picked the New York-style deli place. I thought maybe they would have good sandwiches.

The walls were painted with images from New York: the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and the like. It was a poor imitation of a New York deli. People waited too long at the counter and too long for table service. Maybe they have brilliant pastrami or hot dogs but the sandwiches I saw pass by were pretty paltry and would not have made it across the counter at a quality deli in the Big Apple.

I tried to eat a healthy option so I ordered a salad and a side of cottage cheese. I also ordered an egg cream because it’s rare to find those anywhere, so when I see one offered on a menu I feel I should order it. The egg cream was only OK: again, it would be way below par at a place like Ray’s Candy Store, where I’m proud to have taken people for their first egg creams.

This kind of fraudulent “New York” is not limited to outside New York. But if you’re within the five boroughs or even within a hundred miles of the city and you stumble upon a restaurant or deli that makes grand pretention to how “New York” it is, you can usually count that as bogus. If you’ve got to advertise it, you’re not the real deal.

Atlanta, and the South in general, has some of the best food in the world. I’ve been to outstanding barbecue restaurants, had soul food, Cajun food, and many varieties of Southern cuisine that are mouth-watering just to think about. I know there is better fare on offer in Georgia. Sadly, the metro-Atlanta area has undergone rapid growth that has scrubbed away meaningful culture, leaving it with a lot of the mundane corporate subdivision architecture. You see what this kind of consolidation has done to the New York suburbs and parts of the five boroughs as well: there’s an Olive Garden making money in Times Square while independent Italian restaurants in Little Italy struggle to get by.

I did not find an authentic New York restaurant in Atlanta. Maybe I never will, but that’s OK. The search for the real New York is enough of a herculean task at home. My children may have a radically different idea of what makes for a true New York experience than I do. As generations make changes and the demographics of the city churn through neighborhood after neighborhood, what counts as a true measure of culture fluctuates.

I made it back to the office after wolfing down my salad and cottage cheese. I had to get more work done before flying back to New York.

 

The savage madness of New York City Pre-Kindergarten

Having children in New York City means a life of deadlines and bureaucratic navigation. While every child is guaranteed a public education, it takes immersion into byzantine administration in order to ensure your offspring can access the best schools available, and the grapevine is full of horror stories and cautionary tales of kids being sent far from home to sub-par schools.

My wife and I are waiting to hear where our older girls will attend preschool. Universal Pre-K started several years ago and it’s free to all kids the year they turn four years old. We are lucky in that we live in an area that has good local schools. A lot of younger couples have kids and then find themselves racing a clock to get to a better neighborhood in or out of the five boroughs that has suitable education choices.

I am blessed with a great asset in making sure my kids get into a decent Pre-K: my wife. She was the one who did the research and learned how to traverse the absurdist labyrinth of rules and applications (e.g.: applying to only one or two schools won’t work, if you do that, the system will automatically fill in the other choices for you, so your attempt to limit the choices may backfire big time). She figured out which ones were closest and had good ratings, and came up with a list of preferences that will mean our older girls are likely to be in a good place.

The schools we applied to include both public and private schools close to where we live that run public Pre-K programs.

One of those public/private Pre-K schools is a place called Holy Mountain. This school does not have any religious affiliation that we can discern. It has a mostly Asian student population, but so do most schools in our area (we live in Flushing, Queens, an area known for its large Chinese immigrant population; it has a large Korean population as well).

But the name Holy Mountain will always first make me think of the 1973 Alejandro Jodorowski film, The Holy Mountain, which I first saw projected onto a wall during a punk rock show many years ago. It is an art film filled with strange and bizarre images, even watching the trailer many years later is to step away from reality for a few minutes.  One of the most well-known and memorable images of the film include a parade of crucified dogs that have been skinned and disemboweled.

So now whenever my wife and I discuss Pre-K for our kids and we note that Holy Mountain was one of our top choices (it’s nearby and it has high ratings with a Montessori-based teaching style, so what if it has a weird name), all I can think about is my older girls parading down 31st Road in gas masks while carrying crucified dogs.

This week, the results came in: and our girls will be headed to Holy Mountain in September. Mutilated canine parade, here we come! I now need to watch that film again. I’ll have to find a time when the rest of my family is asleep, as I am the only one in my household who has this big a taste for eccentric cinema.

We are lucky to live in an area where such services are available within walking distance. For the value it returns, no investment in public education can be too big.

When you become an indifferent monster

I was at a conference for work where people were going to be talking about important things that could affect my job, the line of business I work for, and the company I work for. I had to be there for certain speaking panels and a regulator’s speech. I had to take copious notes and report on what was said. I needed to be there to talk to any journalists that might be asking questions of our company’s executives.

I work in corporate communications. I like to think I’m good at my job, or at least have a good work ethic and honestly try to do my best. It was after lunch and I was loading up on coffee to make sure I stayed alert. Since I had consumed enough caffeine to give an elephant a heart attack, I really wanted to try to get to the restroom between two panels that I had to be present for.

To my luck, the program at the conference added an extra speaker between these sessions and I saw this as my chance to head to the bathroom. As the conference organizers asked us to stay for this speech, I was darting out of the conference room to get to the men’s room.

Outside the auditorium, closed-circuit televisions were broadcasting what was happening inside, and I saw that I had walked out on a young teenager who was recovering from a horrible form of cancer. People in the lobby watched the young man on television recount his struggle to live a normal life while fighting a horrible disease.

I stopped for a minute to listen, feeling like the worst kind of corporate monster for walking out on the most heartfelt talk of the entire event. But nature, and my need to be back in time to take notes on the next panel, called, and I continued with my plan and made it back to the auditorium with just enough time to not miss the required discussion.

Cody Strong for a Cure is a charitable organization that helps support children with cancer and their families and raises money to fund research into pediatric cancer. I missed a brief talk by the inspiration for the charity, Will Cody, who is thankfully in remission after being diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia two years ago.

After priding myself on having good priorities and not being blinded to the truly important things in life, I had become the indifferent monster I had always despised. I consoled myself in that I had already donated to the charity raffle at the event, using all my raffle tickets on the prize for a free trip to a Rangers game (I didn’t win).

There are times when life gives you a punch in the gut that reveals how unimportant so much of what we think about is, and our carefully tended self image comes crashing to the floor in a jumble of jagged shards. This was one of those times. No matter what was said or done at the conference that affected my job or the company I work for, none of it amounts to jack shit compared with a child stricken with a terrifying illness.

I stayed up late that night typing up my notes for work, and I have no idea how many people read them. One of my colleagues said I did a great job with them, but they will always be stained with a dark self-knowledge. At some point in our lives, we see a side of ourselves that we despise.

A Punk Rock Anniversary

Mike Moosehead is the hardest working man in punk rock, and this weekend he’s playing shows with five different bands. Four of those bands are playing a special show to commemorate his and his wife Xtene Moosehead’s 10th wedding anniversary. The two are both punk rock bass players, though Mike plays guitar quite a bit also.

The Cobra Club in Brooklyn is the venue where the show will be. It is in a now-trendy area of Brooklyn where the remnant industrialization means a greater chance to find parking if you are driving there.

Full disclosure: I’m playing guitar in Beer Drinking Fools, the opening band of the night that features Mike on bass. The name of the band pretty much gives you the story: songs about beer. But there are some really great songs not directly related to beer that make me love Beer Drinking Fools long after I left the drinking life. Songs like ‘Work Sucks’ and ‘Let’s Get on Welfare’ offer common anthems for anyone frustrated by the standard dirge of working life. And even if you don’t drink, ‘Drinking 40s on the Subway’ is a great homage to the spirit of freedom that makes life worth living.

The second band playing that night is a special guest, and the name of the band will not be announced in advance. I happen to know what band this is and I can say first-hand that they will be in keeping with the spirit of local New York punk and hardcore with a sense of humor and chaotic stage performance.

Skum City features Mike on guitar and Xtene on bass. They started this band in 2007 and played their first show in 2008. Some former members are going to be coming back to play, and it will be a great time. Skum City blends old school punk rock with West Coast style early era hardcore. If you are looking for down-tuned grunge music to fall asleep to, look elsewhere.

Mike is also a guitar player for World War IX. World War IX was a band I learned about from reading their founding guitar player Justin Melkmann’s biographical comic strip of G.G. Allin in the New York Waste. They have been friends and comrades for years and they made my punk rock dreams come true when the inspiring Renaissance man Philthy Phill became their lead singer. I have had the honor to play some villainous characters in a few of their music videos. Who will they proclaim to be the King of the King of the King of Beers? I’ll have to find out (will not be me).

Headlining the night is Philadelphia’s Loafass, a band I have loved since I saw them open for Murphy’s Law on St. Patrick’s Day in 2003. Their lead singer, Fish, was the officiant at my wedding. Few bands are able to harness the sense of humor that punk music requires as well as Loafass. If a ramshackle jalopy with Pennsylvania license plates careens across the highway in front of you in a blaze of marijuana smoke and empty beer cans, the band playing on that car’s stereo is Loafass.

The show is only $5 dollars and requires you have an ID that says you are 21 or older. Mike and Xtene have put together a great show and the longevity of their band and marriage is a testament to the notion that making great music together can make a lot of people happy. I hope to see you there.

Doktor Kaboom Drops Science on the Queens Theatre

Queens Theatre in Flushing Meadows Corona Park is not one of the park’s better-known attractions. The iconic Unisphere gets much more attention, and the Queens Zoo probably sees a lot more foot traffic, but the Queens Theatre is a lesser-known gem in the large park.

This past weekend it was the sight of a recent performance by Doktor Kaboom, a comedic science performer who has a family-friendly show that targets impressionable young children and works to give them a love of science.

The good Doktor, with his spiky blond hair and thick faux-German accent, looks and sounds like the love child of Guy Fieri and Angela Merkel (who has a PhD in Physics), but he’s actually a native of North Carolina who lives in Seattle and found a way to combine his love of comedy and science.

The whole family went and we were lucky enough to have extra tickets for a friend and his daughter. The Queens Theatre mainstage theater seats 472 and the rows are on a gradient generous enough to provide decent viewing from all angles.

After a brief introduction, Doktor Kaboom took the stage and we were on our way. The entire show is geared towards children, working to spark an interest in science and there’s no better way to do that than to show them that science allows you to make a mess. Using a catapult to try to help a young volunteer from the audience catch a piece of banana in his mouth, the bit had the stage littered with banana pretty quickly and it was good fun. I vowed to never feed my children bananas the same way again, but I’m not sure I am going to be able to build a catapult fast enough to realize this dream.

One of the best parts of the show was when the good Doktor implored the kids there to have confidence and faith in themselves. He said that at a previous show a 10-year-old kid said that he was a failure, even though he was a bright young man who could speak three languages. That base level of self respect is sadly missing from a lot in our society.

Unfortunately, some basic theater manners are also lacking. The Doktor had to remind the audience to refrain from using mobile phones, which is Theater Manners 101. Lack of civility as well as a dropping aptitude in the sciences are general signs of societal rot and sad to see, but at least there’s one guy out there fighting the good fight. That guy wears old-fashioned goggles, a bright orange lab coat, and shoes with flames painted on them.

But that didn’t slow down the show. There is a lot of safety instruction in the Doktor Kaboom show, even though the worst you may be exposed to is high-velocity banana and some soapy residue. He manages to use some optical illusions to trick your mind in ways that even jaded adults will find fascinating, and he takes time to explain what is happening in terms that children can understand. There are also plenty of under-the-radar jokes for adults as well.

There were no loud explosions as the Doktor Kaboom name might imply, but fear not. The show is well worth the time and has a big impact.

The continuous triumphs of raising girls

I was driving my three girls home from the Queens Botanical Gardens and as I merged onto a highway overpass that would take us home, our van overlooked some athletic fields where several teams were playing soccer.

“Daddy, do girls play soccer?” one of my three daughters asked.

“Yes, of course,” I said.

“Then I want to be a soccer player!” she said

“Yes, me too!” one of her sisters chimed in.

They expounded on their plans to dominate the sport of soccer. I reminded them they could play both soccer and hockey and they agreed that they could excel at both sports.

What struck me about this conversation was not my girls’ enthusiasm for soccer, but that they thought, at their early age, that they could be limited because they were girls. It was heartbreaking that in just over four years, they could conceive of being constrained in what games they play.

It was an interesting discovery that before they were three years old, my daughters craved representation of females in media; they were very conscious of what characters were in front of them. Most cartoon characters are boys, and the female characters in most popular children’s television are either princesses or fashion-obsessed mice. There are some notable exceptions (Dora the Explorer and Doc McStuffins), but even in cartoons with some positive female role models, they are usually a small part of the larger action.

This is one of the reasons my wife and I bring our girls to professional women’s hockey. The Metropolitan Riveters of the National Women’s Hockey League have been a must-see for our family. Besides being a fun sport to watch, women’s professional hockey, by the very fact of its existence, provides an invaluable service for the parents of girls. Our daughters can see women held in high esteem and being celebrated for hard work in their chosen field.

While my wife is a stay-at-home Mom for now, she is active in local civic affairs and has a leadership role in her local Community Supported Agriculture Group. We like to think that we don’t avoid the facts of life but present the world as honestly as possible, but there is no reason our girls should think that there are limits to what sports they can play.

There are efforts underway to have more portrayals of girls in various roles in different media, not just in hockey, but in all of life. People are making their own books, controlling their own art.

A former co-worker who has daughters older than mine said that girls are more likely to drop out of playing sports when they reach age 10; she noted that her oldest daughter made it through that age with her love of sport intact. It was a relief.

While hockey for me is a more interesting sport than soccer, I’m happy to have my girls interested in soccer. It is an easier concept to teach. Everyone knows how to kick a ball and run after it; hockey requires players to be proficient ice skaters to play.

I’m cautious about pushing hockey on my girls too hard, not because I really care if they play hockey, but I’m determined that they remain interested in playing sports.

So yes, girls play soccer and much more. Let it always be so.

 

There is no such thing as too many books

“The reader, the booklover, must meet his own needs without paying too much attention to what his neighbors say those needs should be.”

—Theodore Roosevelt

“We need to make books cool again. If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.”

― John Waters

 

When I first moved back to New York City as an adult, I made it a point to make regular pilgrimages to The Strand to stock up on books. There was no way I could manage to leave there without several bags of books.

My small studio in Queens had two windows that looked out over a bus stop on 101st. Avenue and Woodhaven Boulevard. One of those windows was home to my air conditioner, the other window became my extended library. I already had a hutch bookcase filled with books but as my trips to The Strand and other bookstores multiplied, I needed more space for my books. Soon I was picking up plastic milk crates I found on the street to use as bookshelves. Then I acquired more milk crates, and soon had to double-stack books in them. More than once I found a great deal on a classic book at The Strand and bought it only to find that I already had that book at home.

When I moved to new apartment a few years later, I had space for actual bookshelves and bought four of them. They were quickly filled.

No longer single and free to binge at bookstores, my wife and I are now in the process of trying to make more space in our apartment for our family of five. That includes making more space in our living room, which currently houses most of our books. It is not an easy task.

It is not easy to part with books, nor should it be. Each book is an adventure waiting to happen, to give away a book without having read it is to deny a future possibility, a potential new thrill or idea. To turn away from books is to turn away from inspiration, from moving dreams and a new way of looking at life. Books are the lifeblood of the soul, and the building blocks of a civilized society.

Some purists may not forgive me for trying to adapt to the confines of space in our urban environment and using a Kindle. I know, I know: there is no substitute for the printed page, and the satisfying heft of a hardcover tome cannot be replicated by any electronic device. I agree. But as a commuter it is helpful to be able to read things with one hand, and while I would love to fill every spare inch of wall space in my apartment with shelves full of books, my kids need space to sleep and play. The Kindle has been a great evolution in the reading life if you can adapt to it. Some die-hards will not have it and I understand. If space and convenience were not factors, I’d be there.

But I have not given up printed books altogether. I will buy printed books when I can and use the Kindle as much as possible as well.

My collection of printed books will continue to grow, albeit a bit slower than in my bachelor days. My children are growing up in a home with plentiful books. They already love reading and if I fail in every other aspect of life, I have already achieved great success there.

 

%d bloggers like this: