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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.

Banana in the tailpipe

It was the mid-1980s and my brother and I were visiting my mother in Yonkers and going to the Westchester County Fair. She lived within walking distance to Yonkers Raceway where the fair was held every year. But this particular Saturday night my mother and I left the fair early so I could watch the movie Beverly Hills Cop on cable television.

We ran through the crowds at the fair and down the quieter streets off of Central Avenue to get to the house where my mother’s apartment was. We made it just in time.

There’s a point in the film where Eddie Murphy’s character makes fun of the way someone says “banana in the tailpipe” that I found uproariously funny. I perhaps laughed harder than I had every laughed before.

From that time forward, if I was taking life too seriously or my mother wanted me to smile in a photograph she would whisper “banana in the tailpipe” and despite my efforts at serious, curmudgeonly dignity I would eventually smile. She had long ago decided that life, even at its most solemn moments, should be met with a certain levity. When I danced with her at my wedding and she looked as if she might be overcome with emotion, I got to tell her “banana in the tailpipe,” to keep the occasion’s needed levity.

My mother was a theater person and that’s how she and my father met. My brother and I are proud to be descended from theater folk on both sides of our family. My mother’s life was an extension of her love for life upon the stage. For her life was a grand performance where she relished every part she played and interpreted each role in her own unique way. She lived life with the expectation of celebration and a disdain for conventions that would get in the way.

When I learned my mother had ovarian cancer, I was hopeful. They were doing surgery, and that’s a sign of hope for ovarian cancer, which is often detected very late. I started planning the victory party early. We would do the T.E.A.L. 5k Run and Walk and have cool t-shirts made up about my mother making cancer her bitch. We’d enjoy a jack-o-lantern show every year from then on out to make up for the one she missed when she first became ill. Things would go back to normal, I was sure of it.

I made the mistake that is so common; I thought I had more time. I thought that my mother would be able to see her grandchildren at least once more, that I could say goodbye to her in some organized way that would leave me with no lingering regrets. I didn’t know that the last time I saw her or spoke with her would be the last time. I don’t really remember the conversation that well. She told me she didn’t have long to live and I believed her, but I left that conversation thinking we had a few more weeks or even months. Two days later I got a call from my stepfather informing me that my mother had passed away the night before.

If there is one moment in time with my mother that I could somehow freeze or replay forever, it would be the moment I went to the waiting room at the hospital after our first two girls were born, and seeing my Mom as a grandmother for the first time. I don’t know if I ever saw her happier than at that moment. I had made her dream of becoming a grandmother come true and she had years of happiness ahead of her as a Grandma.

While I mourn my mother’s loss and regret all that we have lost with her, I’m comforted by the fact that our older girls were gifted with very early memories of her and saw her almost every week of their lives until she was diagnosed.

A few weeks ago, we held a memorial service for my mother at Bear Mountain. Bear Mountain was a popular place for us to meet up and it was the last place I saw my mother. Friends and family from all over came to remember how my Mom had held a special place in their lives. I had a few prepared remarks that I kept brief, and signed off with this:

“My mother did not believe in funerals or being memorialized with an engraved stone. She left it up to us, her family and wider family of friends, with the lives we live and the love we share, to create her monument. We thank you for joining us in this.”

Thanksgiving roll call 2017

A pre-Thanksgiving “Tofurkey Trot” charity run on Randall’s Island was overcast and blustery, with high winds making logistics a difficulty. Opening the back door of the van sent various pieces of paper, old candy wrappers and other flotsam and jetsam of family life spraying across a parking area, prompting the awkward conscientious shuffle to step on and pick up every piece of litter before they could blow away and make us the city’s environmental villains of the day.

My wife and I arrived with our three children just as the event was getting off to a start. We got our numbers and soon were off, trailing most of the runners and walkers with our two strollers.

This particular Tofurkey Trot was cosponsored by My Dog is My Home, a charity that helps homeless people find shelter that will accommodate their pets and was vegan themed. The organizers were friends who had a fun vegan wedding at an upstate animal sanctuary earlier this year. It was an example of how life can be interesting and varied at all times: the day before the run I had spent in the woods hunting deer, now I was at a vegan event. I didn’t even see a deer—maybe I had been hexed by some vegan mojo—but free doughnuts from Cinnamon Snail makes for terrific comfort food.

My wife and I had our goal to make sure we were not last, and that meant we had to jog a bit now and again while pushing strollers. We were able to stop and chat with friends who were either running or manning the doughnut and water stations at the 5k. It was a chance to see Manhattan from Randall’s Island, a place we rarely get to visit. The run took us over a small footbridge called “Little Hell Gate Bridge” to part of Ward’s Island, which is now connected to Randall’s Island by landfill. The run went past the grounds of the Kirby Psychiatric Center, a state hospital for the criminally insane.

We feasted on doughnuts and got to visit with friends, and it was a great way to start the day. We even won a gift certificate for a Tofurkey meal in a raffle, which we sent to a vegan friend. It was a satisfying start the Thanksgiving season.

Gratitude is a helpful practice and it is good to keep a running list all through the year of things you are thankful for. Refer to that list when you are going through some dark times, and it will help you to see things through with a more balanced view.

Here are some things I am thankful for in 2017:

A wife who loves me and our children and who has infinitely more patience than I do. She signed us up for the Tofurkey Trot and has made me a better person.

Three great children who make me proud every day.

A wonderful extended family that has been there for me in the worst of times.

Great friends who represent the best of what friends have to offer.

The creative urge. Losing the will to create means losing the will to live, because life without literature, art, and music would not be worth living. No matter how burdened with work or other obligations I may be, that spark stays alive somehow. For that I remain grateful.

A roof over my head, a job, and my general health.

I’m thankful that I’ll spend this Thanksgiving having a meal with family and enjoying more time with my wife and children than I normally would get on a Thursday.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Being a jerk with two phones

I am now a jerk with two phones. My general disposition has not changed and I don’t behave differently towards people now that this has happened. I remain polite and respectful to everyone unless they prove themselves unworthy of respect.

But by definition if you have two phones you are a jerk. I never wanted to be a jerk with two phones. I make it a point not to become too attached to one phone, but now I am attached to two.

I began a new job about a month and a half ago and along with the job came an additional phone. This wasn’t a choice. At my old job we were able to check our work emails on our personal phones and the company paid us a stipend for that. But I joined a larger organization that has its own rules and doesn’t mind spending the money to give a lot of its employees their own phones.

Now I can walk around with one phone on each hip like the Sherriff of Douche Town. I can be on three phone calls at once if I sit at my desk at work and dial into separate calls on each phone.

I try to keep my work phone in my bag with my work laptop (which I also take home with me each night), but sometimes I know I’m going to have to look at it more than I want to. But at odd times the work life creeps into the home life and I have had to get a lot of work done on the weekends, which I often consider a sign of personal surrender.

I recently found myself text my wife with one phone, telling her that I was on the phone with my boss on my other phone so I wouldn’t be able to speak with her. While holding two phones in one hand and speaking on one of them, I walked around my neighborhood looking like a crazy person. Seriously, 10 years ago if you saw an adult walking down the street holding two phones in one hand and a jumble of charging wires and car keys in the other, you would have thought that person was insane; well today I was that insane person.

I am glad I am not an unemployed Luddite and don’t want to disconnect from the world. But there’s got to be a way to be a more balanced person and live life to the fullest while still putting food on the table for your family. I will hopefully find this balance before dropping dead of a heart attack while talking on my work phone.

20 Years Back in New York

Twenty years ago this past week, I started the drive to move to New York City. I hadn’t lived here since I was a baby though I grew up visiting frequently. Both my parents were raised in the five boroughs and I felt that my life’s dreams were big and grandiose enough that it justified entering the crucible of the Big Apple.

My friend Matt helped me pack all of my worldly possessions into a small rental truck and I began the 900 mile journey from suburban Atlanta back to the city of my birth. I stopped in the Washington D.C. area that night at the home of my friends Ryan and Scott and set out early the next day to finish the trip. I remember being shocked at having to pay $8 for the honor of crossing the George Washington Bridge (a moving truck crossing the GWB today would pay a $34 toll off-peak) and drove up to Westchester to my mother’s house. The fall leaves were gorgeous and I felt like I was home.

My directions were mailed to me by AAA and included maps with highlighted sections on it. The moving truck didn’t have a tape deck so I brought along a boom box and listened to lots of cassette tapes on my way. I got off the highway in a rural part of North Carolina to tell my friends how far away I was and to get the score of the Georgia – Florida game (Georgia won in 1997: a promising omen).

I arrived here with dreams of being a famous writer. I have not achieved the literary fame and fortune I set out to make here in the city but I’m still here, still keeping that dream alive in some way. With this column I have one thing that every writer needs the most: a deadline.

I’ve had the honor to indulge other creative urges as well: I took up music and went farther with it than I ever thought I could and miss playing punk rock regularly. I’ve also had a hand in some comedy that has been well received. I can lead somewhat of a double or triple life sometimes. One hour of the day I may be laying out a media plan for promoting a financial product, hours later I may be playing bass while people careen into one another in an orgy of music, sweat and beer; it’s amazing.

I can honestly look back on the last two decades and be proud of where I am in life. I’ve got a great wife and children and lots of excellent friends. The biggest lie I could tell you would be that I got here completely on my own. If it weren’t for family and friends, I would not have anywhere near the good life I have today. I’m sure there are people in this city who arrived completely broke and alone and pulled themselves up with no one’s help; I’m not one of them.

The city and the world are much different places than when I came back to New York in 1997. Two decades from now they will be different still. We’re at a very volatile time in our history relative to where we were 20 years ago.

One thing that is also different is that I still have a tremendous amount to be thankful for. Moving to New York was a homecoming of a sort but also a very new beginning in a city that I had never known as a resident.

Thank you all for being part of this great adventure with me. I promise the next 20 years will be just as great.

The Greatest Bastards on the Ice

On August 20th 2003 I went to a show at the Knitting Factory, which was then still located in Manhattan, to see a punk rock show. What drew me to the show was that a former Lunachick was playing with her current bands—Squid’s Team Squid—but I was interested to see what other bands were playing.

As Two Man Advantage took the stage, I was prepared to be disappointed. People who wear sports jerseys outside of sporting events tend not to have a lot to offer the world, and now the whole stage was custom-made hockey jerseys. I figured out they were hockey jerseys because one of the guitar players was wearing an old-style goalie’s face mask.

The music kicked in and it was really good, aggressive punk rock that the world needs more of. And by the time lead singer, with ‘Drunk Bastard’ on the back of his jersey—all are numbered ‘69’—hit the stage, I realized this was a band with a sense of humor. Hardcore bands with a good sense of humor are rare, so I settled in to enjoy the show. But I found that even though I had never seen this band before, I was drawn to get close to the stage and join in whatever way possible. I took a few lumps in the mosh pit at that performance if I remember correctly, and it would not be the last time. But I left the Knitting Factory a confirmed Two Man Advantage fan.

Their songs are almost all hockey themed and include “Zamboni Driving Maniac,” “I Got the Puck,” “Hockey Fight,” and “I Had a Dream About Hockey.” The band is so good that listening to Two Man helped get me into watching hockey; going to a Rangers-Red Wings game a few years ago sealed the deal.  Hailing from Long Island, most of the band are die-hard Islanders fans, though one of their guitar players, SK8 (“Skate”) is a Rangers fan, and drummer “Coach” supports the Pittsburgh Penguins.

In the intervening years I’ve had the good fortune to not only share the stage with Two Man Advantage but to put out a split 7-inch record with them through my band Blackout Shoppers. We did a short weekend tour with them to promote the record a few years ago and it was a blast. I’ve had many good political and philosophical discussions with The Captain, who has forgotten more about math and music than most people will ever know. Two Man’s drummer, Coach, and lead singer, Spag, DJed my wedding. We visited Spag’s home to plan out the music and it had the most records I’ve ever seen in one place outside of a record store. Spag had the good sense to talk me out of blasting Iron Maiden’s “Aces High” at the reception.

Two Man Advantage began as a one-time performance as a joke at a Halloween party. The band was comprised of people who had played shows together in other bands writing a few songs about hockey.

This past weekend I drove out to Long Island to see one of two shows the band played to celebrate the two-decade mark. I got there just as the very excellent Refuse Resist, who recently celebrated their 10th anniversary as a band in their native Boston, was about to play.

True to keeping their sense of humor, the show began with a recording of the national anthem, to see who among the band members and audience would “take a knee.” A few band members and audience members did so, as Coach gave a preamble joking lamenting how politics had reared its ugly head at their show. Everyone enjoyed the levity of the moment, and no one got offended and left.

It was great to see the Two Man members again and I was at the front of the stage when the show started. I’m not as game for a mosh-pit bruising as I was in 2003, so I enjoyed most of the show from a safer distance, returning to the danger zone only once more later. It reminded me how much I enjoy music and miss making it.

Two Man Advantage played a lot of favorites and a few deep cuts, and did it all with ferocity and sincerity that the world needs more than ever.

Thank you, Two Man Advantage, for 20 awesome years.

Escaping the room, or not

My wife and I recently celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary by being locked in a room with strangers and working for an hour to escape. The ‘Escape the Room’ and other similar franchises are popular but we had never done one. A holiday gift from a relative gave us the chance to try it.

We went not knowing what to expect, though we had heard good things. For the time slots that worked for us and had openings, we chose the “home” theme. “Office” had been our other choice but I spend most of my weekdays trying to escape an office, so for weekend activities that was a no-go.

We arrived a few minutes early as instructed in the Flatiron district on a Saturday night. The Escape the Room – Midtown is a few doors down from New York’s 40/40 Club, which is famous for being owned by Jay-Z. Beyond that club I don’t think that area is a particularly popular party and nightlife area at the moment, at least judging by how quiet things seemed. The streets were still. Then again, the night was relatively young at that point.

We took an elevator to the eighth floor of a nondescript building and found ourselves in the small waiting area of Escape the Room NYC, where our four teammates, consisting of two younger couples, were already waiting. A receptionist welcomed us and said our host would soon be with it.

Our host for the evening was Junior, a vibrant presence dressed head to toe in pink and wearing a large afro. Junior led us to our room and gave us some basic rules and pointers. “You will never need to break anything or punch through a wall or ceiling. You won’t have to exert any more effort than a five-year-old would.” Junior said we would receive clues through a screen that would also show our time. We had one hour to escape the room.

With that information, the six of us were locked in the room. This isn’t a tortuous process—there’s an escape button if you have to go to the bathroom or want a break—but the six of us wanted to dedicate our efforts to learning to escape. Basically the room is full of clues that will eventually give you a key to turn and escape the room.

The room was a sparely-furnished office with a non-working fireplace, a few dressers, a bookshelf and desk. Several of the dressers had combination locks on certain drawers and in those drawers are more clues. Other clues such as notes written in book margins or numbers written on walls or on a piece of paper in a typewriter will get us combinations to other locks and more clues will lead to more clues.

There were some high points in the evening as the six of us found some clues and cracked some nice codes. We managed to open a door, only to find another room that we had to escape. I had heard that some people got out of these rooms in nine minutes or 20 minutes. One coworker had told me she hadn’t been able to escape her room.

And that’s what happened to us. We were on the right track and came very close to escaping the room. Junior was feeding us more and more clues as time ran out, but in the end time counted down and we had spent an hour in the room with no heroic escape to show for it.

Junior came to retrieve us and was an incredibly gracious host, nothing that we did very well and that we worked together marvelously and made great progress. “I’ve seen couples break up. I’ve seen children get shoved around…” The room we were meant to escape had a 20% success rate, which is low. Most participants required many more clues from their hosts.

Junior led us back to the waiting area for a group photo, offering us some signs and props for the occasion. My wife and I held a sign that said “#fail” and some of our team members wore some deerstalker hats (the kind of hat Sherlock Holmes is known to wear). We posed for our photo, thanked Junior, and took the elevator back down to the street. My wife and I bid farewell to our teammates, walked through Madison Square Park, and got on the subway for the ride home.

While we failed to escape the room, it’s a worthy New York adventure we’d do again.

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