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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.

Hockey is for girls (and that’s awesome)

My wife was one of the many thousands to participate in the New York Women’s March this past weekend. My social media feeds were dominated with friends and family participating in these marches in New York, Washington D.C. Oakland, New Haven, Atlanta and elsewhere. There was even a march in Antarctica. It turns out women don’t like being insulted by lecherous politicians who count the Miss Universe pageant as foreign policy experience; who knew?

But these marches are not the only route to empowerment. And the Women’s Marches of this past weekend adhere to a strict political agenda that is not for everyone.

But no matter what your politics, you want the women of your tribe to be treated fairly and to be strong. Sports are good for young girls on many levels.

I tried taking my twin daughters to a women’s hockey game earlier this month but the game was canceled due to the weather. This weekend we were able to see the New York Riveters take on the Boston Pride at the Barnabas Health Hockey House in Newark, New Jersey. I am pleased to report that the game did not disappoint and that women’s professional hockey is a great place to take young girls to foster their interest in sports.

I want sports to be something my girls know that women do and that is not out of the ordinary. I want women’s pro hockey to be a fact of life and not a novelty and for women’s sports to be appreciated beyond their value to the mostly male sports audience. The National Women’s Hockey League is doing just that. It was great to be a part of the game and to show my girls that female athletes are the rightful center of our attention.

There is parking for only $5 a few blocks from the game. I got my new tickets for the current game with no problem and there is not a bad seat in the house. The Barnabas Health Hockey House is the New Jersey Devils practice facility and it’s attached to the Prudential Center. There are fancy bleachers on one side of the ice so no matter where you sit you are close to the action. We took seats close to the side of the ice because it allowed me to make a quick dash to the restroom with toddlers still getting adjusted to regular toilet use.

Hockey is a fast-paced and exciting game and hockey is the best game for watching with young people. There are two intermissions – great for frequent bathroom and refreshment breaks, and the people working the Riveters games keep it very family friendly.

The games seem to attract a lot of lesbians. There were a lot of rainbow scarves and jerseys at the game and I got the impression that it wasn’t just because there was a special You Can Play promotion going on (favorite t-shirt of the night: a large Best Buy logo that read ‘Best Bi.’). This is a good sign in my view and shows that the league is about quality hockey and not trying to be a cute offshoot of a men’s team. Women’s professional basketball has a large lesbian following also (a lesbian friend once posted a video of a WNBA game online and called it “lesbian porn”) and it’s going strong. Women’s hockey deserves the same level of recognition and I look forward to taking my girls to see the Riveters play at Madison Square Garden someday.

So if you like hockey, go see the New York Riveters play – it makes visiting New Jersey worthwhile.

A Welcome Night in the (New Jersey) Devils’ Lair

Like any parent, I want my girls to grow up to be strong and full of confidence. We’re going to teach them martial arts and as soon as they are old enough to go hunting, they’ll be spending some quality time in the woods with Dad. I want them to be exposed to strong women outside of family members, and to take an interest in sports.

My daughters have taken a liking to hockey thanks to a small video I took of a goal celebration at a recent New York Rangers game. And luckily, there is a local professional women’s hockey team, the New York Riveters. I made up my mind to introduce them to the sport of hockey and purchased tickets for a Riveters game against the Boston Pride.  The Riveters play in Newark, New Jersey at the Barnaby’s Health Hockey House, which is attached to the Prudential Center, home of the New Jersey Devils.

Despite a snowstorm that made the roads treacherous, I was determined to get my girls to this game and make hockey fans of them while providing them positive female role models outside of the pop culture poison that’s being shoveled at women most of the time. I kept on checking the Riveters’ web site as well as on social media. I even called the Barnabas Health Hockey House (no one answered). Because I knew a long drive was ahead, I left home two hours before the game was supposed to start.

When I made it through the metal detectors and handed my tickets to the ushers, there was a problem. She told me that I needed to go to a different window to have my tickets reprinted.

Just then a man in a suit approached me and informed me that the New York Riveters game had been canceled. “But you’re in luck,” he said. “How would you like to go to the Devils’ game?”

I said I was up for that and he gave me three tickets to the game that was about to start against the Edmonton Oilers. He gave me the tickets despite the fact that I was wearing a New York Rangers hat and scarf.

This was an amazing stroke of luck. These seats were amazing—the second row behind the penalty box in the club section of the arena that came with free food and drinks. It was a very rare treat indeed. Each of these sets had a face-value ticket price that was more than four times what I spent on three tickets to the Riveters game. It was an amazing up-close view of the action from right along the center line of the ice.

The ushers were incredibly helpful and helped us get to our seats – not easy when you’re juggling concession stand food and two toddlers.

It was a great way to introduce the girls to hockey, though since they are three years old the game did not hold their attention as well as the ice cream and the M&Ms. It was a struggle to keep up with the game and try to stop the girls from climbing all over the seats. People around us were very understanding and it paid off that they are cute and adorable in every way.

The New Jersey Devils have a tradition of chanting “Rangers suck!” at random times during the game, even though they were not facing either New York team. Rangers fans have a tradition of chanting “Potvin sucks,” referencing retired N.Y. Islanders defenseman Denis Potvin.

While I can’t betray the Rangers, it was certainly a nice time at the Devils game and I can’t express enough gratitude to the executive who was so kind and generous and the people working there who were so helpful.

I made hockey fans of my girls, and while that may change next week, I remain a proud and lucky Dad.

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