Dispatches from the Secret Playground
Thanksgiving came and went with still much to be thankful for in New York, at least for my family. While a second or third Coronavirus raged through the city, our immediate family remains healthy and those in our larger family circle that have been ill have recovered.
Everyone in our family has food in their stomach and a roof over their head. Even before COVID-19 rampaged through the world there were billions of people who could not say that much, and that’s getting worse now. I am gainfully employed and have not been sick and have more than enough food; I am thankful.
New York perseveres, but suffers a crisis of confidence. While we were the first place in the U.S. to see widespread COVID infection and death, we were the first to “flatten the curve” with social distancing and masks. Now we’re having a critical relapse with a spike of infections. Schools closed, now are reopening again in a swift reversal of policy. Crime continues to surge.
And all the while, we see thousands of our fellow New Yorkers not taking their own lives seriously. A Hasidic group worked secretly to arrange a large indoor wedding, sans facemasks, and was given a slap-on-the-wrist fine. I go food shopping and see people who can’t wear a facemask properly going about their business in blissful, entitled ignorance.
Yes, we’re not supposed to be judgmental during these difficult times, but this pandemic has revealed just how many of our fellow human beings are unfit to breath the same air.
Having children in a city apartment can be trying during good times; it has been especially trying during this extended pandemic. What we have though is a place we call the secret playground. It’s not really a secret playground, but a little-used playground in a neighboring co-op that we’re not really supposed to use. The old fogeys that run the board where we live did away with the playground for our building years ago, so to use a local playground is to be an automatic scofflaw.
But I take my girls to the secret playground as often as I can. There are rarely other children playing there, so I can let my kids take down their facemasks, if our family is alone. Usually a few residents will walk through on their way to and from their homes, and we’ll put our masks back up as they come through; they are still almost always more than six feet away. It is an oasis that the unseasonably warmer November weather has given us access to and I don’t want to let a single good weather day go to waste as we endure another lockdown.
Sometime next year, we will hopefully begin adapting to a post-COVID world, and some things we will want to stay the same. I’m not alone in hoping that the world remains one where we’re given more personal space and take extra steps to reduce indoor crowds and make spaces safer, with better ventilation and more protections. These are good ideas outside of pandemics.
And therein lies the appeal of the secret playground: it is a respite from the current world and a model for how to best rebuild when we emerge from our currently dismal state. We cannot live in a bubble world, but we can look at our better adaptations of today to keep our joy and our priorities in line with where we need to be.
The importance of city sunsets
This weekend was a typical blur for a person with an office job and small children. There was per usual a mountain of house chores to do, events to take the children to, and hours of each day dedicated to the day job, as our day jobs spread their tentacles into every aspect of our lives. On top of that add grocery shopping.
Sunday I took one of my daughters with me while we went grocery shopping. She helped me find things in the store and took pride in helping me load things into the cart. We navigated the crowded aisles and found everything on our list (with some extra popcorn and coffee thrown in for good measure).
We were running down the clock toward dinner time and I knew I had a full wagon of groceries to get upstairs and away before either I or my wife had to make dinner.
We made good time and were parked outside our building a few minutes after I had returned our shopping cart. I sat at the driver’s seat for a few minutes, trying to calculate in my head the things I needed to accomplish in the next few minutes: getting my daughter out of her car seat, loading up the groceries, cleaning out part of the car quickly between those two steps, getting the groceries away, making dinner, getting logged back in at work—
“Daddy, look at the sunset,” my daughter told me.
Through the trees and the power lines and shadows of nearby buildings, a patch of brilliant dusk sunset filled the sky with its pastel vision. It had been there the whole time, going unappreciated by me.
It was a testament to the excellence of children. They have not had years to become jaded or distracted with the compounded stresses of the mundane. It was a reminder of how grateful I ought to be for my family and my life.
When we think of New York’s beauty we usually picture its stunning skyline, its aged paving stones and its tributes to achievement wrought in stone or glass; the urban landscape is beautiful but almost always bears the mark of a human hand. Even the most gorgeous parts of our most popular parks were put there by design.
This outlook often neglects the natural beauty that surrounds, us, and the fiery sky of an autumn sunset has few rivals of natural scale in our Gotham’s vision.
And so often in the execution of our ambitious dreams, the wonder of life itself gets lost in the shuffle. Having kids won’t bring the same reward if we can’t pass on an appreciation of beautiful things. Without the ability to stop and look at the greatness around you, are we succeeding in life at all?
I opened the passenger door so my daughter could get a better look at the brilliant sky, and took a photo so I could remember this and show her later. I made a silent vow to remember our sunsets, and make the time to take in the natural beauty that surrounds us, even in the densest cityscape.
Five years a parent
It is five o’clock on a January morning in 2014 and I’m driving a pickup truck on the Grand Central Parkway. My pregnant wife is in the passenger’s seat. It’s dark and the roads are nearly deserted.
“In a few hours we’re going to be parents,” I tell her. “Isn’t that crazy?” She agrees.
This week our older girls, fraternal twins, will turn five. That’s a half decade of parenting in the can. We have three now, the youngest will be three in June, sharing a birthday with one of her uncles.
Having kids is a definite turning point in everyone’s life, and it brings a kind of happiness that is hard to achieve in other places. But it’s not panacea where unicorns and rainbows to replace the regular sturm und drang of life. All the same stresses and difficulties are there, and now they are there with new mouths to feed and diapers to change. Kids won’t turn you into a better person. You’ll still be an angry curmudgeon if you were one before their birth. But as miserable as your life may get from that point onward, your children will be a consistent reason to be happy, even when they are throwing up on you.
I am extremely fortunate that I went into parenthood with a very wide support network, a steady paycheck and a happy marriage. Not everyone has that. When I was born my parents were half the age I was when I had kids. Neither one had a college degree at the time. I started out way ahead; I have no excuses if my kids become serial killers.
Luckily, our kids are great and continue to inspire us to be better people. I see how bright they are and how they enjoy learning and I want them to never stop loving life or the pursuit of knowledge. Despite the many stresses and strains; my wife and I enjoy our molding, shaping and unconditionally loving these impressionable young lives. It’s an awesome responsibility but also one of unlimited potential.
I vowed not to be the kind of parent that gauged someone’s worth by whether or not they reproduced – I faced enough of that before I had children.
“So do you have a family?” someone asked me at a business reception years before I met my wife. They meant to ask if I was married and had kids, but the question seemed like they were checking to see if I had hatched out of an egg. Well I was raised by wolves and since I’m not biologically wolf I can’t track down the pack that raised me by my sense of smell, so no I guess. —was how I should have answered, but I mumbled a simple ‘no’ and noted I wasn’t married and changed the subject.
And while my kids are crushing life, we must refuse to put their accomplishments in place of our own. No one outside a tight circle of family and friends care how awesome your kids are, and having children is no excuse to fall on your face in every other aspect of life. No slacking.
This weekend we’ll be hosting a kids’ birthday party for the twins with pizza, cake and animals. It will be a big, tiring, stressful day but one that will have a happy ending because we get to spend it with our children.
Five years have gone by fast. Wish us luck on the next fifteen.
The dark allure of the carnival
Two years ago, when our youngest was a newborn still in the hospital, I had a Father’s Day with our older daughters and decided to take them to a carnival that was being held out on Long Island.
The drive out there gave the girls some nap time and allowed me to treat myself to some drive-through White Castle in an indulgent celebration of my continuing my bloodlines.
It was on the grounds of a community college not too far into Suffolk County (the part of Long Island farther away from New York City—technically both Brooklyn and Queens are on the Island of Long Island but whenever a New Yorker says “Long Island” they mean Nassau or Suffolk County, which constitute the larger mass of land outside of the New York City borders).
Because it was Father’s Day and extremely hot, or for whatever reason, the carnival was not well attended. There were a few rides where my girls were the only ones on at the time. One ride that was empty had a height requirement, and I told one of the twins to step up to the height measurement board by the entrance to see if she was tall enough. She misunderstood my instructions and began stepping up on the bottom run of the fence around the ride, which had the effect of both immediately proving she was not tall enough to ride the ride but making it look like I was telling my daughter to cheat. As I was trying to correct this, the man running the ride, who was wearing the requisite carny uniform of sun-leathered skin emblazoned with tattoos, quickly waved my girls onto the ride.
More recently, my wife and I took our girls to a local carnival held on the grounds of a Catholic school nearby. It was fairly well attended but our kids were only eligible to ride a few of the rides. Most of the rides were for older kids and grownups and some of them looked rickety and unsafe. The same carny types were running the rides, and the ones who were running the kids’ rides were happy to have the business. From a trailer-born midway, the typical games of change were running with giant stuffed animals to lure impressionable youth to beg for their parents’ money.
A few weeks later, another similar carnival, a larger one in Astoria, had a ride malfunction and injure a passenger who fell out of an open car on a rickety amusement park ride.
We hold the carnival folk in envy in some ways also: they travel and see the country in ways most of us wish we had the freedom to do. And we see their itinerant ways and employment in leisure as hinting at some greater, more liberated life, even though it is a much harder life that consists of working while other people have fun, for long hours in the hot sun for little pay.
Eight years ago, a Wisconsin writer traveled as a carny and wrote about it for the publication Isthmus in an article ‘My life as a carny.’ He summarized it this way:
“[W]here I expected dangerous men and unpleasant bosses, I discovered instead a unique community of people who slave away their summers for a pittance, and an enigmatic family that provides many of them with far more than just a wage.”
One counterintuitive point that the article makes is that traveling carnival rides have a better chance of being safe than those at established amusement parks, because they are inspected more frequently.
From the interactions I’ve had, I have some away with the impression that because my wife and I have raised our girls to treat people with respect and be polite, especially to the people who work for a living and serve us, that the carnival workers pick up on that and treat us well in return.
We come away from these carnivals a little poorer financially, I like to think that our family is richer in experience. Carnies are part of the brilliant milieu of New York City; we appreciate the dark allure of the carnival, as it is illuminating when you approach it with the right attitude.
Fatherly adventures of being your children’s +1
This past weekend I had several hours alone with my three children. Normally we have full family outings on the weekend but it helps keep our family healthy if my wife gets a break from being around children for at least a few hours each week.
There was a Twist & Sprout festival at the Queens Botanical Garden and I decided this would be a good place to take our three daughters. We had been there last year and it was a good time with plenty to offer the kids.
After getting my girls out of the van and dropping off some compost, we set off to explore the festival. Arriving at the Queens Botanical Garden with my daughters is like being a celebrity’s date at an award’s ceremony. Because they are there at least twice a week for the Forest Explorers program, my girls know a lot of the people who work there. One of the teachers at the program recently graduated college and gave my girls big hugs. Other employees waved hello to us from their zooming golf carts or from arts & crafts tables.
There was a puppet show and the puppeteer was the mother of another one of the students at the Forest Explorers program. Other parents stopped to chat with me; they recognized my daughters and asked where my wife was. It was all very friendly, but I was definitely a stranger among them. I was appreciated for bringing my girls there. No doubt they are the better life of the party.
While I pride myself on being a good Dad, the point was driven home that for most hours in the week, I am largely absent from my daughters’ lives. I am out the door to catch a 6:30 a.m. bus in the morning and with afternoon rush-hour traffic I am usually not home before 7 p.m. It is dinner time soon after I arrive home and time for bed soon after that. The weekends are when I try to catch up and cram a lot of living into two days before the cycle starts up again, at least on most weekends (sometimes I have to work on the weekends).
Since 2014 I have been my children’s +1. In theory I could show up at a family gathering without them, but I’d face an extremely disappointed crowd. There’s no substitute for adorable young children.
Case in point: my reception at the Queens Botanical Garden was warm and embracing, which would not have been the case if I had shown up on my own. No one would have treated me poorly, but no one would have known who I was or given me a second glance. When fantastic little girls are your posse, you are a 100% winner wherever you go.
Our children are better versions of ourselves, bright and new to the world with endless possibilities in front of them. When we’re well received based on being with them, it reflects their position in the world and how they’re being raised.
We’re doing something right.
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.
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.
Super Bowl Hype Has Run Aground
I had every intention of watching the Super Bowl this past Sunday but life got in the way.
Being a New York Jets fan, I have no real reason to watch the N.F.L., but believe it is a major current event that bears witnessing to be properly informed, not that one needs much of an excuse to sit and eat and watch TV. Also, in keeping with a tradition I had with my mother (RIP), my brother and I have decided to make a bet on the Super Bowl every year. My brother is a die-hard Patriots fan, so the bet was easy to make. I bet on the Philadelphia Eagles to win; the loser buys the other lunch.
As a New Yorker, I should despise both teams. The Patriots are cheating panty waists. They even cheated against my Jets, which is like cheating against people from the Special Olympics. Nonetheless, like the arrogant Dallas Cowboys of decades past, they have become the dominating franchise with numerous Super Bowl victories. The Philadelphia Eagles have been the hated rivals of New York football fans for decades. There’s something about Philadelphia fans absolute violent savagery and dedication that is endearing. They went into the game as underdogs.
Until I went to college, I could not see the use or interest in football. It is a slow game with rules that are not easy to comprehend (wait, they have to kick it again already, what happened?). Sports in general failed to arouse my interest as a kid. Why invest so much into a game when you could be out shooting bad guys or doing karate on people. I prowled around with toy guns, back when you were allowed to have realistic-looking toy guns, and pretended to hunt Russians or terrorists. I would rather practice being a bounty hunter or future warlord than try to remember a bunch of rules that made no sense. Sports seemed a poor substitute for real adventure in the world.
In college, sports made more sense. The athletes represented our school in the most primal, tribal way, and supporting the team was something that could bring even the most politically fractured college campus together.
So this Sunday came and I figured I would turn on the Super Bowl and it would be in the background while I had a regular Sunday with the family. The game was supposed to start at 6:30 p.m. Eastern time, and we knew that Pink was going to be singing the national anthem.
At the appointed time, we told our children that “Pirate Pink” would be singing on television soon. Our children know the singer as “Pirate Pink” from her appearance as a pirate on “Sponge Bob Square Pants.” But something went wrong. We turned in to the Super Bowl when it was supposed to start and they were actually starting to play football? What happened to the 45 minutes of bullshit before the actual game? The coin toss, the national anthem, the endless displays of hype and patriotism? We only have one TV in our home and I was banking on Pink’s appearance to make the transition from “Doc McStuffins” to football; no easy task.
As the actual Super Bowl got under way, my older children began to cry over missing “Pirate Pink” sing on television. I was the worst Dad ever. I made my chicken dip and enjoyed dinner with the family while watching “The Simpsons,” which is the only TV show we allow to run during meal times regularly.
I was glad to miss the game because I tend to jinx many teams that I watch on television. When the New York Yankees were in the World Series against the Atlanta Braves in 1996, I watched the first two games and the Yankees were crushed. I quit watching entirely and the Yankees won the next four games and reclaimed the crown as world champions once again.
Since then my not watching sports has helped my preferred teams. This year was a year I missed more Georgia Bulldogs games on TV than in recent memory, and they had their best year since 1980, making it all the way to the national championship game. Go Dawgs!
It was social media that informed me that my not-watching mojo had helped the Eagles win their first Super Bowl.
Congratulations Philadelphia. Please don’t burn your city to the ground.
Navigating the winter wonderland of the Queens Zoo
When the weather is bad, our family goes to the zoo. Our logic is this: Many of the indoor spaces will be overcrowded and the zoo will be sparsely populated. When you’ve lived in the city long enough, avoiding crowds is more important than avoiding pneumonia.
So this past weekend’s snowfall made our planned trip to Westchester unwise, but made a short drive to the zoo a piece of cake. The parking lot on 111th Street that is a chaotic mess and a graveyard of public parking dreams during the summer had plenty of spaces. I pulled into a space right near the ramp we would need for our youngest daughter’s stroller.
One of the goals for this weekend was to help give my wife time alone at home to prepare our home for Christmas. I was on my own for several hours with three children all under four years of age, and found myself pushing a stroller through a moderate snowfall in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park on our way to the Queens Zoo. There was a small group of teenagers having a snowball fight when we got there, and one cyclist pedaled past us and shot me a strange look is if to be amazed he came across someone crazier than he was out in the snow.
While the children were equipped with proper hats and coats, one pair of mittens was inevitably quickly lost and our youngest got wet and hungry very fast. The snowfall was not bad. It was only one or two inches in the city and the snow did not stick to the streets very well. A few runs of a plow with some sand and salt made things OK. But cold kids make for cranky kids and herding three youngsters through the wet and cold is a chore with an additional distraction (snow) that is also a physical obstacle. The front wheels of the stroller would stop cutting through and spin in a sideways fashion, gathering reels of snow around themselves like some perverse cotton candy machine. Otherwise they would stop moving completely and I’d be essentially be operating the world’s most ineffective snow plow.
The Queens Zoo is a perfect place to bring kids because it’s relatively small compared with its larger and more famous counterpart The Bronx Zoo. It can be done thoroughly in a morning or afternoon. Arriving at the zoo after a snowfall revealed a hushed atmosphere covered in a gorgeous layer of fresh white powder that proved perfect for making snowballs. It was one of those days when you look around and can’t believe you are in the middle of one of the largest cities in the world. A few times you would hear the rush of the highway or the sounds of people playing in the park outside the zoo’s fence, but it was desolate and beautiful and well worth the soggy feat and cold hands.
The zoo posts the times of the sea lion feeding and I had to hustle to get us there in time. When we got to the sea lions, there was one other couple there. This couple were the only other non-zoo employees we saw during our entire stay. They huddled under an umbrella while two of my daughters climbed a snow-covered rock and declared it their mountain and the other sat on the wet ground to have a better vantage point to scream her undefined infant rage at the world. That’s right, normal couple at the zoo: my children are many times tougher than you and earned the grudging respect of the animal kingdom.
We had an up-close view of the sea lion feeding up close but cut it short because we were all hungry. The Sea Lion Café offered a warm, dry refuge and sold hot coco and coffee among its souvenirs and snacks. We took our time eating before we bundled up again, only go head to a restroom where it was necessary to take coats off again. We easily killed 20 minutes in the restroom, making sure everyone either used the toilet or had a diaper change. Then back out into the snow.
The girls enjoyed looking at the animals but probably enjoyed handling the snow and stomping on puddles more. Even though my wife had packed more than adequate snacks for us, “snow burgers” became a much sought-after treat, and there was no keeping my young charges from indulging in them, only trying to police the color and source of the snow (only white snow, not from the ground).
We marveled at how close the sea lions and the bison came to us, and followed with a mad dash to get to a restroom again. By the time we finished there and thought about returning to glimpse more animals, security guards looked to be closing the zoo for the day. It was just as well, my girls were showing signs of fatigue and by the time I got them back to our van and buckled in, they slept soundly for two hours while I went on a coffee-fueled road trip from Corona to Flushing and Bayside.
I returned home with three tired children to a home in much better order. Mission accomplished.
How to be a fellow parent, or not, in New York
This past weekend, my wife upheld an 18-year tradition she has of working at the Super Saturday charity event to benefit ovarian cancer research. That left me to look after our three small children by myself.
The weather forecast called for rain, so I took my three girls to the New York Hall of Science, which is a great place to take children. It has a dedicated indoor play area along with tons of other hands-on educational fun throughout.
“Wow, you’ve got three kids. Respect,” said a guy in the bathroom as I was shepherding my girls to the sinks to wash their hands.
“Thank you,” I said, not knowing what else to say. A few hours later, as I and the kids were finishing up our lunch, another Dad come over and offered to give me some beverages from his cooler, saying we looked low on drinks (we weren’t). I thanked him but declined the offer.
There seems to be a common thread among any comments that strangers make to me when I’m out on my own with my kids that since I am a Dad it’s a miracle that my children are not dead from disease or living as feral savages five minutes after leaving the house. I have no cause to think that I can do this job better than my wife, but keeping children alive is not a rarified art form.
It wasn’t that long ago that people less education and lower-paying jobs had many more kids. My father is one of seven. There are people in New York today with giant families. When I worked at JFK Airport, I met an immigrant who was bringing his 13 children into the U.S. on immigrant visas. His wife was in a wheelchair and looked very tired.
My wife gets a different comment: “I see you got your hands full,” is what people say to her. It doesn’t matter if they are male or female, old or young. That’s what everyone says to her that feels the need to comment on her managing our superior offspring.
I got that comment only once, at the supermarket, after one of our toddlers threw a temper tantrum that must have been heard by all of College Point, Queens. It was an older woman, her voice filled with schadenfreude, and cigarette smoke, and the sickening crackle of base stupidity. I ignored her and went about my grocery shopping.
Tantrums elicit the most unwelcome attention from armchair parents or bad parents who need to feel superior. On the 7 train recently a woman was struggling to contain her young son who was in the middle of throwing a blood-curdling tantrum when I got on at Grand Central Terminal. By the time they got off the train many stops later, the kid had calmed down, but not before a dozen people spent an inordinate amount of time staring at her. One of the slack-jawed gawkers was a father who had kids with him. He had the chutzpah to bring a double-wide stroller onto a crowded 7 train, plowed into several passengers trying to squeeze out of the train, and then cursed us from the platform for not helping enough. A loser Dad to beat all loser Dads.
If you see a child throwing a temper tantrum and a parent is handling it, let them handle it. Don’t stare at them or made sarcastic comments. If there was a cure for the terrible twos (and threes and fours…) someone would have had a vaccine for that long ago. The kid’s screaming is nowhere near as annoying to you as it is draining and mortifying for the parent or parents involved. If you sincerely have something positive to contribute or do to help, then thank you tenfold. You are the rare gem among a sea of self-satisfied and smug breeders that love to torment their fellow parents.
And unless your comment is actually helpful and important, like “Excuse me, I think your daughter in the pink dress just pooped on a street corner,” or “Your baby just picked up a large knife,” then no one needs to hear your comments about our (relatively) large brood. Thank you for noticing our amazing virility and the ability to keep all of our children alive. Please leave us alone.
The blinding allure of technology
This past weekend my wife and I got new smart phones. It’s a ritual we are accustomed to doing every two years, and it was hastened by our one-year-old daughter putting my wife’s phone in a cup of coffee.
We took our brood on a shopping adventure to our local wireless store and purchased the latest Android phone. We picked out our phones and accessories and I remained at the store while my wife took our three daughters to visit stores with less expensive breakables.
By the time the store closed an hour and a half later, my phone was not done transferring so I had to keep my old phone close to it as I searched for the rest of my family. We hadn’t arranged to meet at any specific location but I’d simply start walking around the Bay Terrace Shopping Center and hope to see them. I couldn’t text my wife to find out where they were, I had her phone stuffed in a shopping bag along with extra charging cables and other accessories.
While I may have once taken pride in being somewhat of a Luddite, there is no stopping the increasing use of technology. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. I was the last person among my circles of friends to get a cell phone and one of the last to get a smart phone. I’m not as technologically connected as my younger peers at work. I have come to embrace technology even if I use it more sparingly than others. It’s a matter not only of etiquette (sending a text message if you are going to be late) but increasingly of safety (knowing who can see our children’s photos on social media).
I refuse to be one of the zombies I see slowing down foot traffic in the city, and those slothful grown children are not the product of technology but rather bad character and upbringing. If mobile phone technology had never been invented, no doubt these self-centered techno rubes would be finding other ways to make our lives more difficult.
The people who are abusing smart phones and gaming technology are inheritors of the slack-jawed mindlessness of those who abused television and less advanced video games years ago.
Technology does not cause any moral rot any more than it creates virtue. Throughout the centuries there have been two schools of thought that have reacted to technology that have been totally wrong: those who think that it will bring about the downfall of mankind and those that thought that it would bring a new era of virtue and help create a more equitable society.
As I searched for my family, I came across a man who was standing idle on the sidewalk. He looked at me as I looked across the parking lot and struck up a conversation, asking me if I was bored and commenting that this part of Queens is boring and Manhattan is where it’s at. I made polite conversation, but noted we were not far from interesting nightlife closer to Northern Boulevard and that the shopping center had a movie theater.
The man was odd and too eager to speak with strangers. He was not threatening at all, just awkward and sad. I did not ask him if he had a smart phone with him but if he did I did not see it. Such a device would have helped him find something to do. Queens does not have the same social scene as Manhattan, but that’s no matter. No one in the five boroughs has any reason to be bored.
And someone by themselves at a shopping center on a Saturday night striking up a conversation with me has social issues holding them back more than geographical challenges.
But no matter, a few minutes later I found my family at a frozen yogurt shop, and we enjoyed some brain-freezing treats before heading back home. My wife and I had to feed our kids and get them to bed before spending time with our phones getting them set up properly. We’re almost done.
Seafaring adventures for city folk
One of the benefits of living in a non-trendy part of New York City is that you can benefit from a lot of cultural enrichment without crowds of five-borough tourists that flock to the city’s more fashionable haunts. Everything in the Flushing-Whitestone area where I live is a long train ride plus a bus ride away from where the ‘in’ crowd frequents in Brooklyn and Western Queens.
We recently took a journey to Little Bay Park, a slice of land between the Cross Island Expressway and Flushing Bay. It is directly adjacent to Fort Totten, an old U.S. Army base that is now a public park but still houses military and other agencies such as the police and fire departments and the Coast Guard Auxiliary.
The larger family fun day that had been scheduled for Fort Totten was canceled, as recent rain made their fields too muddy for any public events. Instead a smaller event was taking place on a small strip of land right along a walking and bike path that lead from Fort Totten into Little Bay Park. The main attraction being free kayaking for families.
Here is where a semi-suburban city Dad gets to experience some of the monotony associated with being a hipster festivalgoer. We stood in line in the hot sun for quite a while waiting for our turn to have a free kayaking experience. The start was delayed because the kayak operators found they had only a small sliver of beach to work with and it was covered in garbage. Vest-wearing volunteers using rakes and shovels filled six large garbage bags with garbage while would-be boaters and other park visitors gawked at them while also enjoying the sights of the bay.
This was going to be a killer father-daughter experience that would instill a love of nature and the seafaring life upon my two older girls. My wife had no interest in boating and was happy to wait on land with the baby and the stroller. I have good upper body strength and have paddled canoes before through swamps and on lakes. How difficult could kayaking be?
After a long wait we were finally given life vests and lead to the kayaks. The launch area was filled with empty kayaks and there wasn’t really enough room to both load and unload boaters at the same time. Once we managed to get around the empty kayaks and other boaters, we found that our vessel was already taking on water. That’s normal, the people told us. Water just gets in there. So I sat down in a puddle of water on the seat after having to step into water in my sneakers and socks (you had to keep your shoes on so I thought they had a system where we wouldn’t get our feet wet).
With the girls loaded into the boat, we were ready to launch, but it was a lot harder to do than I thought. I couldn’t hold the big oar steady in front of me without hitting one of my girls in the head, and it felt like we were sinking since I weigh so much more. I managed to paddle us out a little ways, but the wind began blowing us back pretty steadily, and I narrowly avoided getting blown into a rocky jetty.
Now I had something else in common with the hipster festivalgoers of Brooklyn: a general ineptitude and overall disappointment in the performance of manly duties. I’m not stupid and I’m strong enough to lift and move heavy things. But a plastic kayak with a payload of two 40-pound little girls had me stymied. After just a few minutes, not happy with sitting in water and feeling insecure in the shaky boat, they asked me to paddle back ashore. I happily obliged.
An essential part of living life and embracing adventure is the knowledge that not every adventure is going to go so well. This was one of those adventures that didn’t go so well. Not to fear though, the promise of a picnic and some delicious food was enough to motivate our girls to move on to the next thing. Soon we were enjoying a delicious lunch in the shade of a small tree in Little Bay Park.
After our meal we returned to the event area and acquiesced to the demands of ice cream at one of the city’s ubiquitous Mr. Softee trucks, we visited more of the event.
The highlight of the day was singing along to pirate and seafaring songs with Scuttlebutt Stu, who regaled everyone with great sing-a-long songs about pirates and sailors. His songs came with a lot of interesting history. I learned that the term “son of a gun” came from times when sailors would be allowed conjugal visits with their wives aboard their ships, with private beds being made between ships’ cannons. I knew that the term “groggy” came from grog, a mixture of rum and water, but did not know it got its name from Admiral Edward Vernon, known as “Old Grog” from his wearing of grogram jackets. Each song that Scuttlebutt Stu sang came with an interesting lesson that increased our fascination with the sea and demonstrated just how much of our modern culture has been shaped by the ages of the explorers and privateers.
Scuttlebutt Stu was dressed like a pirate with a heavy vest, long-sleeve shirt and tri-corner hat in 86-degree heat and no shade. He was a trooper like I’ve never seen. The breeze and briny smell of the bay lent a great aura of authenticity to the experience of learning about the pirate life through song. Stu is part of a duo called The Royal Yard that performs frequently in the New York area both together and individually.
I’m not a great singer but it was great fun to sing along, the wife and kids sang along as well and soon others joined in. It was perilously close to the kids’ nap time, and it’s always somewhat of a race to get home so they can sleep a little longer and get some more rest. But we stayed around for a few more songs and then headed home.
We made it back in time to let the kids nap in their own beds, another day’s adventure behind them. We were all the richer for it.
Drive time solitude amid the slumber
I was put in the terrifying position of watching over all three of my young children on my own for several hours. My wife does this every day as I commute to work in Manhattan and back. But she was doing food demonstrations for Flushing C.S.A. at an event at the historic John Bowne House recently and I was on my own with our three girls.
I had not planned what to do but my wife convinced me that taking them to the New York Hall of Science would be good. She was spot on. If you have young children and if it’s convenient to get to, the New York Hall of Science is a great place.
We stayed as long as we could but after about four and a half hours there, our three-year-olds had clothes that were wet from one of the water exhibits and it was time to start heading home. We had arrived before it was open but we left around 2:15 p.m. and I made a bee line straight for home and kept up conversation with the kids as best I could, hoping the motion of driving would not put the girls to sleep, but it did.
Kids napping in the car is a double-edged sword. On one hand the kids are guaranteed to take a nap at the same time. On the other hand that nap will not be that long and you will be stuck in your vehicle for an hour. Sometimes that’s fine but sometimes that doesn’t work at all. You can’t go on a long trip because the kids could wake up at any time and start crying and you’ll need to take them home quickly. If you have to go to the bathroom, you are out of luck and may have to improvise.
I realized less than a mile from home that I was now going to be spending at least the next hour or more in the minivan. I was at peace with that.
Drive time can be a time of much-appreciated solitude. Quiet solitude is remarkably achievable even when you’re living in a city of millions of people. The size of New York gives its citizens a certain degree of anonymity. During my drive I passed by thousands of people, had close encounters with maybe half dozen drivers down narrow two-way streets, and did business with one fast food worker. I could give you the basic pedigree information about the fast food worker but nothing else, and I doubt anyone I encountered during that hour and a half could tell you anything about me.
When you spend most of your days without any peace and quiet, you learn to appreciate any small moments of quiet solitude you can get, and these drive times with napping children can be very valuable. They are something that takes the edge off of the frantic pace of the city, that gives us a moment to enjoy the sights and sounds of our own corner of this metropolis without interruption. The same can be said of walks in the park or even walking anonymously down city streets.
Our teeming Gotham demands much of us and part of the thrill of living here is to embrace the breakneck pace of life. But when you get a chance for an hour of respite, no matter how diluted, grasp onto it and enjoy every minute.