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.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Summer Adventures: Afternoon at the Museum

At the beginning of summer, before camp started, I took the little Goofs downtown to go to the Museum of Natural History.  The subway stop nearest the museum spills you out into the massive courtyard of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.  There was a summer concert series, so we bought some lunch and sat there for a while.  My children looked around in wonder, my son announced, "I never knew Washington DC was so interesting."

That they were wowed by the (admittedly impressive) courtyard of a federal office building means that I have been negligent in introducing my children to the wonders of our nation's capital.

The rest of that day went well.  My daughter wanted to see skeletons of animals and so we did.  The manatee skeleton was particularly important to us. 
One of the not-so-secrets of travelling with children is that they can get tired of interesting stuff extremely quickly – whereas, in the presence of such interesting stuff, seemingly boring things fascinate them.  So after some skeletons and trying to find the queen bee in the insect room, they were ready to get out.  Since we passed by, I dragged us in to see the Hope Diamond.

I told the kids that it was the largest diamond in the world.  My daughter was unimpressed (let that be a warning to any lad who seeks to court her).  I told her to compare it to mommy's diamond ring and quickly added, "But don't say anything about this to mommy."

We topped off our 80 minutes at the museum with about the same amount of time in the gift shop, kids find gift shops at least as interesting as museums – if not more so (see note above).  Then we headed home.  I told my daughter that I used to take the subway downtown everyday for work.  She looked at me incredulously, "You worked?"

"I work now, you were at my office yesterday," I said wearily, "Remember we watched a movie in the conference room?  But I used to come downtown everyday on the subway.  Wouldn't it be neat to do that?"

"People take this train everyday to go to work?  That's ridiculous," my daughter said, incredulous.  Commuters sitting close to us chuckled sadly.

We arrived home at about the same time as Momma Goof came home from work.  My daughter immediately took her hand and examined it.  My wife happened to wear her engagement ring that day.  Goof Girl looked at if for a moment and yelled, "You're right daddy!  It is teeny-weeny!"

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Veggie Extracts

The Goofs belong to a co-op, which means that over the summer we get fresh vegetables in bountiful quantities.  Although the co-op folks get very excited about how delicious and invigorating these fresh veggies are - the kids don't buy it.  It ain't cookies.

Fortunately, there are other aspects to vegetables for kids to love.

My son discovered that he rather liked roasted beets.  But he liked them even more later that evening, as he ran around the house yelling, "Pink pee!  Pink pee!"

Yes, beets have a certain impact on the digestive system.  My son now wants to eat beets at every meal so he can show his friends.

Now we just make up effects, "Cabbage, orange pee - but you have to eat a lot of it!"

When the vegetable fails to have the expected effect, we can always fall back on, "I guess you didn't eat enough."

Keep some food coloring hidden around the bathroom so you can provide encouraging examples...

"Daddy ate all of his rhubarb and and it made a rainbow." The downside of course is that for this to be credible, I actually have to eat rhubarb - the mutant celery.

My daughter found she liked fennel.  I mean, really liked fennel.  When I say she ate a fennel salad, it was literally that - just a big pile of fennel.

She was pooping good'n plenty for the next three days.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Harry Potter Debates

On a recent drive, my daughter called out, “Look a dragon on a castle!”

We were passing a mini-golf course, but both my son and I insisted that we hadn’t seen it and thus, she must have magical powers.

This adds fuel to the Goof clan’s lively discussion about whether or not Harry Potter is real. My daughter is certain (she views her life with us like Harry’s with the Dursleys). My son is hopeful, and I am carefully non-committal, giving the kids reason to believe it might be so. My wife just rolls her eyes at us.

My daughter watches the movie with a keen eye, because she believes firmly that she will be going to Hogwarts and studying magic. She’ll ask:

“What are the bathrooms like?”
“Do they ever celebrate Jewish holidays at Hogwarts?”
“I don’t think quidditch is a nice game for children, do I have to play if I go to Hogwarts?”

I’ve also caught her, waving magic markers, spoons, or stuffed animals at her brother and muttering under her breath.

She also keeps asking me to play this YouTube video of Avada Kedevra (the Killing Curse). She is studying it a little too carefully. This is not good, but in character for her.*

Recently, the three of us took a a Facebook quiz, “A More Accurate Harry Potter Sorting Quiz.” This determines which house of Hogwarts the taker should go to – Harry Potter and his mates are all in Gryffindor. My son and I were placed in Hufflepuff – which we were ok with. I believe (philosophically at least) that it is important to be nice and my son likes Cedric Diggory. My daughter got Ravenclaw and was very upset. She wants to be in Gryffindor with Hermione. Of course, if she keeps doing the killing curse, I warned her, she’s going to end up in Slytherin – and she doesn’t like snakes. But she does love her forbidden spells.

*My wife is extremely upset that our daughter wanders around the house practicing the killing curse (mostly using a pink magic marker). This makes no sense to me, since my Mama Goof doesn't believe any of it is real, so what harm is there in a five year old in cupcake pajamas leaping around the house yelling, "Avada Kedevra!"

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Bedtime Disinterest

It may be borderline child-abuse, but my kids have been particularly resistant to bedtime lately. So, to get them to sleep I've taken to reading excerpts from the foreign policy journal The National Interest to them. I'm not sure if my motivations are (to put it in the terms of statecraft) deterrence, distraction, or punitive. Whatever my intent, even a few sentences along these lines and my kids begin to protest (I'm fascinated):
The question is: are these arguments of sufficient weight to justify resistance to closer U.S.-Russian coordination on issues of strong mutual interest?

An even-more complex question is whether there is innate resistance within the American foreign-policy community to an improved relationship with Russia. Are we holding the Russians to a higher standard of performance than we do other nations with whom we deal? And, if so, why? The continued existence of the Jackson-Vanik amendment—which withheld trade benefits in an effort to force the Soviet Union to allow freer emigration—almost two decades after Communism’s collapse seems to be proof positive.
By the time it got good, the kids were screaming.

What do they have against Jackson-Vanik anyway?

So when I pulled out the latest issue they begin to howl.

"No," I said pointing to the cover, "This is Harry Potter 8, Voldemort's revenge. Look at the cover, you know they cast some cool spells."

"No it isn't, it's your magazine, the National Boring"

When I began to read, my son grabbed it away and it flew open.

"See," I said quickly pointing to the picture on the open page, "It's Dumbledore!"

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

My Illuminated Daughter

One of the joys of parenthood is that you can play with Legos without any embarrassment whatsoever. (Not always doable, in college I was banned from the Lego bins at several downtown Boston toy stores - my sharing skills needed work.) When our synagogue youth group had a "10,000 Lego Event" I joined the children. Although I was underwhelmed since my mom told me I had "three million Legos." This figure was based on estimates derived from how many she had to pick out of her foot each morning when she walked to the kitchen.

While picking up megablocks (really big Legos), my daughter asked if I could build her a big "triangle." My pleasure, I spent the next 40 minutes on the task (note, building is pretty quick - but developing a good color pattern is a challenge). My daughter, who can build a perfectly good Lego pyramid just sat on the couch and watched me. After a while, she announced, "I'm like Pharoah and you are building me a pyramid."

Not exactly the lessons I'd like her to take from Jewish history.

Then, she insisted on the putting an "eye" block on the top of the pyramid.

Has she joined a Bavarian dueling society, or is it the unblinking eye of Sauron? I may need to talk to her teachers.

I guess, as a modern caring parent I need to encourage her in whatever she wants to do. So if she is intent on world domination, I'll just enjoy the ride. Empresses take care of their daddies - right? Or will I just end up on pyramid duty?

Monday, July 06, 2009

Swimming with Manatees at the Condo

We went to visit the GrandGoofs over the long weekend and the little Goofs romped in the condo pool with the senior Goofs. I always enjoy these visits. Their condo is like a college dormitory for elderly Jews. The kids have learned to randomly walk up to old people and ask for cookies. To get their specific grandmother’s attention they yell, "Bubbe! Bubbe!"

And every head turns.

The little Goofs like carrying out splash attacks, but this was a bit wearing on the GrandGoofs. My parents were trying to get me into the pool to take on the battle. But, as I sat poolside with my latte, I replied, "Sorry, but I'm eating something - I'll have to wait at least twenty minutes!"

My mom grimaced as all the other Bubbes nodded their assent. I will remember that moment for the rest of my life.

Still, as my son attempted to be a one-boy tsunami battering my father I helped my dad out by reminding my children that manatees are a protected species.

This resonated. My children respect these majestic aqua-cows. While reading Barry Louis Polisar’s Peculiar Zoo, my daughter exclaimed, "Poor manatee. I am sure he would be so delighted if he didn't have those terrible scratches on his back."

Besides being relieved by the decline in water damage my father was not insulted because he also loves the manatee. (A fondness for large mammals runs in our family.)

I told the little Goofs that pop was a were-manatee, or manathrope who became a manatee when the moon was full. (Manatees have been sighted in the Chesepeake Bay - and if you've every seen my father do his lazy side stroke* - well, it would explain a great deal.) So as my father circumnavigated the pool we serenaded him:
Manatee, manatee, lovely lady of the sea.
Around us aged women asked each other: “Who’s grandkids are those?”

*Lazy sidestroke is redundant. I believe the world record in the 100-meter sidestroke is about 20 minutes. Breaking this record would even challenge Michael Phelps. It is a stroke that enforces leisure.