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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.

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