Monday, February 02, 2015

GoofGirl visits the Museum of the American Indian

Inspired by a recent excellent expedition to the Museum of Natural History GoofGirl insisted - nay demanded - an excursion to the Smithsonian's Museum of the American Indian. It was MLK weekend and since the African-American Museum isn't open yet, this seemed appropriate particularly appropriate.

GoofGirl has always been fascinated with Native Americans, perhaps spurred by our regular trips to New Mexico. On any excursion, the Native American component tops her list of priorities.

It is a neat museum. The building is a vast, intriguing space. There are a range of permanent and temporary exhibits. Before we got to them, we went to the main atrium and learned about different boats built by various native American tribes. They are a bit small, but you can see a kayak and a canoe, and also a Hawaiian fishing boat. The Hawaiians also built somewhat bigger versions that were ocean-going and made their way around the Pacific in what strikes me as pretty heroic acts of seamanship.

Did Mayan banks give these
 for opening a new account?
We spent some time with the Mayan calendars: giant stone contraptions, that synchronized multiple harvest and festival schedules - structuring time is at the core of any complex society. The exhibit also discussed the lives of their present day descendants. Abuelo and Nana were from Guatemala and in the photographs of the activists from that part of the world I saw their faces. We looked for a section on Native Americans of northern Mexico. Abuela, who hailed from Guadalajara, was supposedly part Yaki Indian. But there was no exhibit on them. Still it was remarkable to realize the sheer variety of worlds GoofGirl straddles. I mentioned this to her, that she was probably two kinds of Native American, Spanish, and on my side Russian Jewish and a little German Jewish. She was less impressed, "Your side is the boring side Daddy."

I don't take it personally. Attending a Jewish Day School, my background hardly seems exotic or even interesting. There's a lot of Yiddishkeit - but not so many Mayan Warrior-Priestesses (or Conquistadors)!

There were many exhibits about the Native Americans of North America, including those of the Chesapeake region. One detail that struck me was an extensive collection of art using beads. Apparently the Native Americans treasured the mass produced beads of the Europeans. It revolutionized their art. This does not of course justify European (and later American) predation. The fundamental injustice done to the Native Americans pervades the museum, as it should. An exhibit on the history of U.S. treaties with the Native American tribes brings that home. But it is not a gloomy or oppressive place. The museum celebrates Native American culture and highlights its rebirth. Wiping away the injustice of the past is not possible, but the museum is a small step in the right direction where Native Americans have a prominent and respected place in U.S. culture, politics, and society.

Not an ocelot, but pretty cool!
One exhibit that interested us was on ceramics of Central America. Everyone knows about the Mayans, but just south of them in Central America were a number of sophisticated civilizations which built cities and crafted vast amounts of beautiful pottery. Some of the pieces were nearly 3000 years old. Ocelots were a major theme in their pottery, both as images on the vessel and actual ocelot shaped vessels! GoofGirl has a soft place in her heart for ocelots and was quite taken.

And then it was time for...

A highlight was unquestionably lunch. We ate at the Museum Cafe which features five different stations for different regions for dishes inspired by what the Native Americans in that region ate. There was a huge variety of choices, And of veggie and dairy options (although the Great Plains stand featured some good-looking chunks of buffalo meat while the Pacific Northwest station featured salmon) we hit the South America stand and the Northern Woodlands stand. We enjoyed yucca frites - I strongly feel that yucca fries could easily destroy world demand for French fries with their richer texture and flavor (we did also have some potatoes). We had sweet potato salad, a tomato soup, cheese bread and blue cornbread, and I had a half-coffee/half-Mexican hot chocolate (like a mocha con chile!)
It was an expensive lunch, but it was good and the museum is free so, it all works out.

After lunch we headed to the children's section. I thought, having gone through the adult museum, GoofGirl wouldn't be that interested. But she was, she climbed around. and explored at her breakneck pace. I found I liked it to. Having looked at stuff for hours, it was nice to go into stuff - see a house on stilts or the entire of a teepee.

And that was enough for one day.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Snow Day Project: Kinder Egg Knockoffs

During our recent trip to NYC, we visited Economy Candy. The little Goofs were stunned at the sweet bounty before them. But GoofBoy, after carefully looking over every square inch noted, "They don't have Kinder Eggs."

GoofGirl was intrigued, what was this forbidden candy?

(Technically called Kinder Surprise, it's a chocolate egg with a toy inside that you had to put together - which is pretty awesome. They were banned in the U.S. because kids chowing down on chocolate eggs might eat the toy parts inside, choke and die. That would happen eventually, and then there would be a movement demanding to know why these things weren't banned.)

In seeking the answers to her questions, GoofGirl does what she always does. She went to YouTube where she found the channel of the DC Toys Collector, which consists of innumerable videos like this one:

I watched this one, barely (the key demographic is not jaded middle-aged academics, but small children). However, this channel has 3.5 million subscribers. A stunning fact that is causing me to re-evaluate everything about my existence and purpose on this earth. But that's neither here nor there.

GoofGirl was entranced, but more than entranced she was moved to action!

We just had a three-day weekend, which became a four day weekend thanks to snow days. GoofGirl made her own Kinder Egg knock-offs --

Model Magic Surprise Shapes

Have I mentioned recently how awesome my daughter is? Well, if you don't mind, let me say it again.

By the way, my son spent the day cleaning his room, so he's awesome too!

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Goofs Take Manhattan: Going to NYC with Kids

Because I am a terrible parent, I had not taken my children to NYC, despite living only a few hours away. To forestall a visit from Child Protective Services, we rectified that between Christmas and New Year's.

Although the little Goofs thought it would have been awesome, we left before New Year's because I'm pretty sure taking your kids to Times Square to see the ball drop is a form of child abuse in its own right, or at least insanity.

I am a meticulous and intense traveller and travel planner. I want to maximize the things to be seen while balancing different interests. I study maps and guidebooks and badger everyone with questions and just generally make a nuisance of myself - I'd like to think it all pays off when, in the middle of the trip the children announce, "Dad, we are soooo tired. Can't we just get pizza and watch TV at the hotel?"

New York, with its scale, density, and variety challenges any trip planner. But I did my best.

Day One: Mid-Town Muddle
We arrived about noon, parked, checked in and had some sandwiches we had brought. Having just been in the car for almost four hours, we didn't want to have a family debate on where to eat (even in NYC, where options abound - besides our next ten meals would be at restaurants, no need to start on that too soon.)

Our hotel (cheap, clean, convenient, and with a few neat features - I almost don't want to post it...) was about a block from the Empire State Building. So we walked over. The little Goofs were astounded when actually confronted with this massive, iconic skyscraper which they had seen so often on TV and in movies. There was however, little interest in going to the top (the little Goofs don't love heights), which was fine with me since it is expensive ($29 each) and time consuming. However, wandering around the beautiful lobby is free - so we did!

We then took the short walk to the Museum of Mathematics (in the Flatiron district), which features a range of mathematical puzzles and games for children of all ages. MamaGoof (who is kind of a math ninja - PhD in statistics) loved it. It was a bit crowded. Still the exhibits were fun and gave at least some sense to yours truly about who mathematics underpins and shapes our world. Cool stuff.

Then we walked. Walking around NYC is half the fun, stopping in shops and looking at the barrage of architecture. Second-rate, little-noticed New York skyscrapers would be the pride of cities like my beloved hometown of Baltimore. We wondered to the New York Public Library and went in. It is a beautiful building, a temple of learning and not of tremendous interest to the little Goofs. Meanwhile my checklist monster had emerged. I knew we couldn't see everything mid-town Manhattan had to offer, but I hoped to show my children a few more of the iconic sites they had seen so many times in movies.

The troops, however, began to get cranky - and I began to get annoyed because whiney children are annoying children. This meant we were hungry, so we grabbed pizza. I don't hate pizza, but I don't love it either. I was hoping to wait a bit longer before playing the pizza card, but there was a rebellion in the ranks.

It was also a tactical mistake, because Grand Central Station and its extensive market was just a few blocks away. It is an architectural marvel in its own right, we got dessert, and played at the Apple Store. We also got a nice look at the Chrysler Building.

OK - I knew we didn't have a lot of gas left, but I really felt it was my duty to show my children Rockefeller Center and Times Square. I was not the only person to come up with that plan. As we got close to Rockefeller Center the crowds became very dense. The little Goofs were a overwhelmed and GoofGirl was a bit scared. I should say, it was a very nice, polite crowd. Nothing to be scared of.

So we pushed through and saw the buildings and Christmas Tree. We got to see the ice rink and, serendipity, one couple was skating and he got down on one knee and proposed. She said yes and the crowd cheered. I have a feeling that happens every five minutes now - I think you can purchase a proposal package. NYC experience - check!

The crowds dampened GoofBoy's enthusiasm for Times Square, so we headed back to the hotel. MamaGoof and I got a drink and decided we were hungry. There is a brewpub in the Empire State Building and it is pretty good. It is also awesome that the little Goofs are old enough that we can leave them for a stretch in the hotel.

Day Two: Meet the Met
I set myself a limit of one museum a day and only one art museum. Kids overall have a lower tolerance for museums in general and art museum in particular. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of the great museums of the world. Its collection would take a lifetime to explore. The little Goofs were nervous about our visit, knowing that I would spend hours studying paintings which bore them. But I had chosen carefully, the Met's collection isn't just paintings. It has vast exhibits of artifacts from ancient civilizations throughout the world.

I also promised a long break in the middle of the day.

We started in the Egyptian wing. GoofGirl had studied Egypt a bit and explained some stuff about hieroglyphics to me. However, in her unbounded enthusiasm she kept running off when I paused to read about a display. I was angry, but my frustration was tough to sustain in the face of her sheer enthusiasm. GoofBoy, with his iPod Touch was excited to take pictures. After a bit, we agreed to let the little Goofs explore as long as they stayed together and MamaGoof and I could examine items at our leisure. Text messaging makes coordinating a family in a big space much, much easier.

The Egyptian exhibit is awesome, featuring items collected from tombs that are 4000 years old and a reconstructed shrine. The scale and antiquity of ancient Egyptian civilization is humbling. As it happens on the car ride up we had started listening to Rick Riordan's Red Pyramid. I'm a big fan of Riordan's Percy Jackson series based on Greek mythology. The Red Pyramid is about Egyptian mythology and features a big battle scene in the Met's Egyptian exhibit.

Two hours of ancient Egyptian artifacts was enough, it was time for lunch. We went to an upscale Mexican fusion place and were unimpressed. MamaGoof and I had the idea of walking to the water. This was several blocks east. We visited the riverside park that is also home to Gracie Mansion, official residence of the mayor of New York. We saw Roosevelt Island across the water and a bunch of bridges. The little Goofs were unimpressed and started to get whiney. Have I mentioned that I don't like whiney children - even if they are mine?

So we stopped for coffee and donuts but that did not improve the spirits of the little Goofs. However, a maintenance man from a nearby building came in and yelled at the cashier about leaving the stores garbage in his bin. Cool, an Upper East Side trash residential trash dispute - staple of New Yorker short stories.

We headed back to the Met by way of the Guggenheim - merely to grab a glimpse of the building. I don't know about your kids - but mine really don't seem to care much about architecture. I believe this is near universal to children and a serious design flaw.

Back at the Met, GoofGirl dragged her mother around the Asian art exhibit at lightning speed. GoofBoy checked out arms and armor. Having looked at ancient stuff all day, I needed a bit of modern art as a kind of palate cleanser and checked out a major exhibit on cubism for contrast.  Again, thanks to texts, we all kept in touch and linked up when we were done. The little Goofs showing evidence of suffering from Museum Fatigue Syndrome (it's a thing!)

The GoofClan keeps flexible kosher - we eat fish, dairy, and veggie at restaurants but meat must be kosher. Usually on trips we just plan on not eating meat. NYC of course features a huge range of quality kosher restaurants. I had found one near the Met, but no one was hungry so we went back to the hotel to rest.

When we got hungry I found Mendy's the kosher deli was nearby. I hadn't wanted to go, because in a Seinfeld episode the unctuous Banja made Jerry take him there as payback for a favor. This is, of course, a silly reason not to eat somewhere and when we did go, we ALL chowed down on burgers and meatballs.

Enough for a day.

Day Three: Lower East Side Finale
For a last day, we headed to the Lower East Side to visit the renown Tenement Museum. We had heard great things, and it was a terrific tour. There are several different tours available, each focusing on the experience of a  different group of immigrants. Since it was my background, we went on the tour about a pair of Jewish families who immigrated from Russia around the turn of the century to work in the garment industry. Originally, the tenements (about 325 sq. feet) would be home to large families that also ran small garment factories or sweatshops inside the tenement. Later reforms moved the factories out of the tenement so that it was only an apartment for 6-10 people.

As awful as these conditions were, many, many families managed to work their way out of them and into more comfortable quarters. Then their grand-kids became doctors and lawyers and their great-grandkids became bloggers. The American dream.

Some of my great-grandparents lived in tenements in NY, others in Baltimore. I know the conditions were rough. But it was such a good thing to GET THE HELL OUT OF RUSSIA! That is almost always good advice and I am glad they had the brains to do it.

The Russia they left was oppressive, impoverished, and anti-Semitic. It was bad enough, but only decades later they would have been crushed between Scylla and Charybdis of the 20th century Hitler and Stalin.

It was a good tour - have I made that clear?

We got to the Lower East Side before the museum opened and wandered around. Chinatown is next door. But the area is pretty sedate in the single digit hours of the morning. After the museum we headed to Essex Market for lunch, which looked great but the little Goofs wanted pizza. Fine, we let them have pizza - then MamaGoof and I wandered around Essex Market and had some good upscale tacos, yummy veggie soups, and a terrific fish sandwich. I'm not a big foodie, but I have my limits as to how often I can eat pizza.

It turns out, we were right next to Economy Candy which is a candy store selling familiar candy, retro candy, and just plain weird candy (including candy cigarettes!) We let the little Goofs go nuts and they were - well - kids in a candy store.

And that was enough. We knew we either had to leave NYC by 3 or plan to stay till 8. I had a good sense by now of how much the little Goofs could tolerate and it was time to pack it in and drive home.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

GoofGirl's Magical Christmas

We are pretty Jewish, so Christmas is not a thing for us. I actually had to go out of my way to make sure the little Goofs had basic information about Christmas since they live in a country where about 300 million people celebrate (I didn't work that hard, this primarily consisted of showing them Christmas specials and the terrific Will Ferrell movie Elf.)

In fact, we are so not into Christmas, we often can't even be bothered to do Jewish Christmas (you know, going to the movies and eating Chinese food.) This is for the best, since somehow this has caught on and everyone is doing it. While some may complain that this is ruining a Jewish tradition, I see it as flattery. In the United States Jews are, overall admired and respected, so everyone else figures if the Jews are doing it maybe it's a good idea. (Here's a rundown about our typical Christmas experiences.)

Anyway, I kept joking that everyone couldn't wait to wake up early this morning and see what presents had been left for them under the tree. This was ludicrous on a lot of levels, most notably that the little Goofs were coming off of eight days of presents (and thanks to China even cheap presents are pretty awesome.)

But GoofGirl, took my words to heart and wanted to make sure I got a little Christmas.

"Daddy, there's a present for you under the Christmas Tree!" she announced. "I made the special Christmas wrapping paper myself!"

So this year, I got to open a Christmas present. It was actually something of mine that she wrapped up, but the presents aren't the point. It was the spirit of Christmas.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Knee Football & Remembrance of Things Past

I recently mentioned GoofGirl's surprising prowess on the gridiron. She comes by it honestly, I too had a moment of glory playing football. Well, not football, knee football.

When I was in high school we had a gym teacher who combined the virtues of fundamental disinterest in the standards of his profession with a a great desire to be amused. He was a great football coach. But he was not interested in much of anything else. So rather than go through the standard gym (it's called phys ed now of course) stuff, he would either not pay attention to us at all. The class would just do whatever the hell it wanted - which seemed to primarily to be to throw a ball at me. FUN!

(I should add, this gym teacher inspired my first not-awful comedy bit when I took a stab at being a stand-up comedian: Due to budget cutbacks, the school had to let the football coach teach history. "The equator is the 50 yard line of the world!")

Or he would invent some odd activity to keep him interested. The best of these was knee football. He had the class line up by weight. (I was towards the bottom, weighing in at a solid 108 pounds of raw hormonal nerve.) We then counted off, odds on one side, evens on the other. Knee football is football, but played on wrestling mats and well, you move about on your knees, and tackling can turn into wrestling.

The gym teacher would call out a range of numbers say, 4 through 9, and the guys who counted those numbers would come out - on their knees, odds vs. evens - and play a round of football.

For some reason, that simply boggles the mind, I was fantastic at this game. I caught passes, I wrestled kids down, and I was surprisingly quick running across the floor on my knees. I was called out for three plays and I scored a touchdown each time.

I might have been because I was mostly going up against the other skinny weak non-athletic kids. I don't know. But it was a glorious day.

We never played again.

A sport at which I excelled, no matter how inane, could not be allowed to exist in the world.

Years later, over dinner, I was telling my family about it. They harangue me for stories of my youth, which are we funnier than the youth they are actually living. So I told them about knee football and how awesome I was at it!

Mama Goof looked at me and said, "I wish I had known about this."

"Because it makes me even more awesome," I suggested.

"No," she replied, "I would never have married anyone who played knee football. It sounds so weird."

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Goofy Gratitude

Turkey has been eaten, football has been watched, and drinks have been spilled. Thanksgiving is winding down and I thought I'd take a minute to think about the things for which I'm grateful.

Obviously there are the big things - my freedom from want, my safety and health, my two great kids, and being married to MamaGoof. These are all big things, I should be grateful for them every day (although sometimes I forget.)

But sometimes it is the little things that turn a bad day into a good one, or a good day into a great day. So here are a few little things for which I'm grateful.

Good Guidance Counselors
The little Goofs are sensitive kids who are good at discussing their feelings and troubles. On the whole, this serves them well. If you can discuss it, you can process it, and not let it consume you. (Not that the little Goofs are particularly troubled, but they get upset and anxious - just like any normal person.)

But sometimes it is a bit much for me (and I'm not always helpful).

I try to listen, express concern, and be helpful. But I have my limits. I don't want to discourage this positive (really wonderful) tendency, but sometimes I'm out of gas and just can't give them the attention they deserve.

Fortunately, their school has terrific guidance counselors. Knowing that the burden of listening and absorbing their troubles is not completely on my shoulders is a huge relief. I always want them to tell me what's up, but I almost always also recommend that they talk to the guidance counselors.

No Football
GoofBoy really, really likes football. A LOT! If his school had a football team, he would play on it. Unfortunately, football is an excellent way to acquire concussions. As much as GoofBoy loves to play pretty much every game that exists, genetics ensures that he will not be terribly good (better than I ever was, but not scholarship material.) He is going to make his living off of his brains, and i would just as soon they not be rattled.

Fortunately, I don't have to order no football. His school doesn't have a team, so there is no issue.

Built in Baby-Sitting
GoofBoy is 13. Under Jewish law he is now a man, more importantly under state law he is old enough to stay home and mind his sister. (At 10 she really doesn't need his minding, and in fact she looks after him.) MamaGoof and I are free to go out on weekend nights - or really anytime we want. We have taken advantage of this some, and we will do so even MORE! We can go out to eat, to the movies, whatever we want. We frankly have no idea what to do with our freedom - but we'll learn.

When we leave them, they carefully plan attack strategies should there be an intruder. They array traps and weapons around the house. We live in boring suburbs, but it amuses them.

Sibling Affection
And that brings me to the final little things for which I am grateful. My kids get along. I don't have to worry that if we go out the kids will fight all night. More importantly, it means for a quieter house, the two of them aren't yelling at each other all the time.

To me this is remarkable because based on the relationship my brother and I had, I did not know this was possible. That being said, I wouldn't settle their squabbles. I'd probably just let them fight it out. But, I do appreciate the quiet and that they help each other out.

So those are my small blessings. Think about yours.