Friday, July 31, 2009

Downtown, Things Will Great...

In an effort to repair my failings as a parent (in not adequately exposing my children to the wonders of our nation’s capital) and to give the long suffering Mother Goof a break I took the little Goofs downtown for an adventure.

My daughter had somehow fixated on visiting the National Aquarium. She has visited the much larger National Aquarium in Baltimore many times. But she seemed to think there was a hammerhead shark at the DC aquarium, so that became our quest.

My son did a great job on the way downtown, by reading his sister the funny pages. (On a previous junket with my son to see the Lincoln Memorial I read the funny pages to him and attracted a crowd of listeners who laughed uproariously at my interpretations of Brewster Rockit: Space Guy. They might have been high… but my son thought I was very cool. I should hold onto this while it lasts.)

Road to the White House

Downtown, we added some elements to our journey. We decided to go see where the President lives. My daughter asked, “Does Barak Obama ever stand in the window and look at people?”

“No, he’s pretty busy.”

Along the way I told her about how the President lives and works at the White House and that inside there is a swimming pool, a bowling alley, and a movie theater. When we got there, we looked around for a bit and then my daughter got upset. When I asked her what was wrong, she replied, “Why can’t we go swimming here?”

“This is where the President lives, and he didn’t invite us.”

My son tried to distract her by singing the llama song – he can be surprisingly useful – while I tried to re-orient her towards our original goal. This is a key lesson of travel with children – what you tell them and what they hear can be vastly different.

We headed towards the Commerce Department – the National Aquarium lives in its basement. We passed the Treasury Department and I told the kids about what the Treasury Department does (isn’t it great having a dad studying Public Policy?)

My son and I discussed the major departments. I tried to convince him that State, Defense, and Justice are more important that Treasury. He wasn’t buying it, observing that without money you can’t have an army, you can’t fly to other countries to talk to them, and you can’t pay for police. These were good points and I have high hopes for him.

My daughter pointed out interesting features on the facades of the buildings as we walked around. On the one hand, they are just office buildings. However, they do have some striking features and it is refreshing to be reminded of these small decorative touches throughout the city.

When we got to Commerce, we followed a line of people and found ourselves in the new White House Visitors Center. It was neat, but not on the agenda – so the little Goofs got antsy. We did find a picture of Taft’s bathtub, with four regular-sized men sitting inside it (clothed.) Anything referencing Taft is always a crowd pleaser. Then, we turned a corner and went to the Aquarium.

The Nation's Oldest Aquarium

The National Aquarium is the oldest public aquarium in the country and it may be one of the smallest. This is not a bad thing. While its scale and holdings are modest, little children have low thresholds and can wear down quickly. The shark tank was modest – one can imagine a James Bond villain (or even a sitcom star) having something bigger in their living room. The exhibit emphasizes that sharks are an important part of the ecosystem that, in the face of human activity has become more prey then predator. The exhibit sharks were small - horned sharks and leopard sharks. But they still had that cruel shark mouth and even though they probably weigh less one of my legs – I wouldn’t want to encounter one while swimming.

There was also a modest alligator exhibit which affords nice close-up views – and if you are there at the right time, you can watch them eat..

Most of the exhibits are smaller tanks that feature the marine life of one of the various American marine sanctuaries – ranging form Guam and Hawaii, to the Caribbean, but also off the coast of New England, the Great Lakes, and the Mississippi River, and Appalachian Creeks. It provided a lot of nice digestible things to look at. Some tanks featured colorful fish and frogs. Others featured some wonderfully creepy sea creatures. In other tanks the challenge was finding something too see at all as these marine denizens were skilled at hiding. There were several activities, including one where kids could trawl around in a sandbox for shark teeth – a nice win (although my daughter kept putting them around her mouth and trying to bite me.

Again, after a lengthy visit to the gift shop it was lunchtime. I could have just brought the kids home, but I didn’t want our adventures to end just yet. On the way to a food court, the kids encountered a fountain and ran around it, putting their arms in it, and trying to grab the coins people had thrown in. They would have stayed for hours.

I dragged them into the food court where they got very excited about Sbarros (I got indigestion) and the immediate consensus was pizza.

The Odyssey Home

From there, I took them to the Botanic Garden on Capitol Hill. We have been listening to the various adventures of Judy Moody and her little brother Stink. In one, Stink decides to be a professional sniffer and discusses the worst smelling thing in the world – the corpse flower. We heard there was one at the Botanic Gardens so we went to check it out.

It was overreach. The corpse flower, which thankfully only blooms about once a decade, was not on display. The kids wandered listlessly through the gorgeous displays of exotic plants – although they were fascinated by change thrown into the fountains in the greenhouses. Walking back to the Metro, my daughter sat down and refused to walk farther, sobbing. She perked up when I propped her on my shoulders and carried her for a block while she enjoyed spectacular views of the city.

On the way home I told the kids how, while I am lazy in day-to-day life when I am being a tourist I get pretty intense. I told them how, when I took their mom to Belgium, she started complaining, “Not another castle, not another church… it’s Belgium, can’t we eat some chocolate and take a nap?”

When we got home they hugged mom, who asked them about what they saw and what their favorite thing was. They answered in chorus, “We had pizza for lunch!”

Lesson: The things kids will take away from adventures and what you want them to remember are two very different things.

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