Lasker Pool

Lasker Pool
Central Park, summer 2011

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Bee Story

Does this creature belong in my house? I think not.

Jesse brought a pet home from camp yesterday. Unfortunately, I didn't realized it until 10 pm, when I sat down at my desk and heard a strange sound. Bzzzz. Bzzzz.

Yup, he brought home a bee, squeezed between two plastic cups--with one cup sitting in the other, so the poor little creature had about a quarter inch of space in which to move and breathe.

I was absolutely speechless.

"You brought home a bee? A BEE? Into the house? And carried it on the bus all the way from camp? (It's a 45-minute ride on a cushy, air-conditioned bus) WHO thought this was a good idea?"

Jesse didn't seem to get the incredible dopiness of bringing the bee home. Apparently, neither did three of his counselors. When I asked him if anyone knew precisely what he was transporting on the bus, he ticked the names off on his fingers: "Annie, Nelson and Abby."

I calmly (not really) explained to him that bees don't belong in New York City apartments, that they don't make good house pets, that they sting, that we had nothing to feed the bee with and that it would probably not make it through the night.

Noting penetrated. "Mom, why are you yelling about this? His name is Jackie Robinson," Jesse replied. "And he's cute."

Now, I knew Jesse had developed some bee-catching skills at his out-of-the-city camp, because he'd told me he'd become the bee champion of Group 41. I actually meant to call the camp and ask why the counselors were allowing such a dangerous pastime (especially when we're spending mucho bucks for Jesse to experience more, um, enriching activities), but apparently didn't get to it quickly enough.

So, here we were, exhausted and cranky, with a bee in a plastic cup. I packed the boys off to bed, put a couple of holes in the cup so Jackie could breathe and went to sleep.

The next morning, as expected, J.R. was suspiciously still. Jesse cried when he spotted the tiny corpse. "I'm a killer," he wept. "Poor little Jackie Robinson."

He made a cone out of paper and slid J.R. into it. "I'm bringing him to camp to bury him in the lake," he said. "I'll bring him back to his home. I should, because it's all my fault he died."

I really felt for Jesse as he learned this difficult lesson--that thoughtless actions can have life-altering (or life-ending) consequences. But he bounced bac quickly, his remorse short-lived.

Tonight, the paper cone--on which he'd written "RIP Jesse's Bee"-- was still on my desk. "I forgot," he said with a shrug. "Can I have dessert?"

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Penguins' Tragic March

We watched March of the Penguins the other night, after much argument, er, discussion. Seth wanted to watch the old Steve McQueen movie Bullitt, Kyle was more interested in building a contraption out of PVC pipe and duct tape than any of the choices and Jesse argued passionately for the penguin documentary.

Penguins, after all, are his favorite animals, the subject of numerous books on his bookshelf and almost all his non-fiction reports at school—and represented by at least a dozen and a half of the stuffies that inhabit his bed. His three favorites travel with him back and forth to school via backpack: Pengy, Penguiy, and Penguiy Jr.

But cartoon, toy and even zoo-bred penguins are a whole other breed than those that strive to survive in the wild, though my nine-year-old—enchanted by their sleek faces and waddly walk—would have no way of knowing that. And since March of the Penguins focuses on the long, arduous hike that Emperor penguins make across the searingly cold Antarctic, from the ocean to their traditional breeding ground inland, I knew there would be at least a sprinkling of "Nature, red in tooth and claw" scenes.

And there was. While Seth proclaimed the lameness of the movie—driving home his annoyance at losing out on a night of cool-guy Steve McQueen—both Kyle and Jesse were wide-eyed throughout. And as the penguins' challenges mounted (standing stock still for months to keep their precious eggs from cracking, battling unimaginable storms, starvation claiming the lives of older, weaker birds, chicks snatched by predators) the boys tried to make sense of the alternately adorable and tragic scenes.

"Get up!Get up! You have to keep moving!" Kyle yelped as an exhausted, elderly penguin drifted off to sleep (probably permanently) in the middle a snowstorm. "Why do they have to live where it's so cold and awful?"

"Oh,that is just wrong!" Kyle added as a couple of grownup penguins ushered a group of downy chicks away from a predatory duck as it attacked another young penguin. "They're behaving like cowards! Why don't they save that baby penguin?"

From Jesse: "Why don't they just have their babies near the water instead of marching so far in the cold? Then they'd have food all the time. This is a dumb way for penguins to do things."

Afterward, I explained that the penguins' grueling march in the frigid cold might seem strange, but that there are often factors and forces we can't see or understand behind animal behavior. "I don't care. I hate this movie," Kyle said. Jesse was oddly silent, but downcast, curling up on my lap with his head on my shoulder.

"Are you sad?" I asked Jess. He nodded. "For the penguins," he said. "I didn't know their lives were so bad. They always look happy in my books."

It was a little bit of a watershed moment, the millisecond in which Jesse was forced to control the universe's natural,random and often uncontrollable cruelty.(Kyle had already been witness to news reports a few years back about Vilma, a polar bear who had devoured two of her babies, so he was all-too familiar with nature's nastiness).

The living room was quiet for about 30 seconds. I pondered: How to explain this? What kind of productive, illuminating conversation could we have?

Then Jesse piped up. "There's something I don't understand. The penguins in the movie, Mom? Were they real? Or were they actors?"

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Summer in the City

I meant to write this a few days ago, but, well, just couldn't find the time to do it during the day and got tired of trying to wrestle the computer away from my kids and their RPGs (that's role-playing games for the blissfully uninitiated)at night.

Like a lot of New Yorkers, we try to spend as much time as we can away from Manhattan during the summer. Between the stench (sun-warmed garbage with an overlay of, um, urine), the absolute awfulness of standing sweat-soaked on miserably hot subway platforms waiting for trains and the forced rubbing of elbows with hordes of perspiring visitors, New York City is no place to be in July and August.

Except sometimes. Last weekend, just after the week's grueling heat wave broke, was one of those times. My oldest was invited to a birthday party in Central Park, and since my husband was working anyway, I decided to drag all three boys. Unlike our usual Central Park haunts—like Strawberry Fields, a mere two-block walk from our apartment—the party was a subway ride away.

The celebration kicked off at Lasker Pool, a 60s-era Olympic-size jewel hard by the Harlem Meer (which is, apparently, the Dutch word for lake).
After showing our locks (one of those bizarre city rules: no lock, no entrance), we crammed our clothing, bags, and other detritus into tiny lockers, showered off in a grimy stall (which made me gag just a little) and headed for the pool.

Which was clear, clean and absolutely enormous—Lasker can hold more than 1,800 people. But at 11 am, right after its official opening time, the pool looked almost empty, and, surrounded by huge, leafy trees, impossibly inviting.

Yipping with joy, the dozen or so boys at our little bash leaped in and we all spent the next two hours staying wet and getting wild in the water.

Right there in the middle of Manhattan.

Surrounded by the lush growth of the Park. And people kayaking in the Meer. And families picnicking on the grass around the Meer. And did I mention the kids fishing, with the free fishing poles they borrowed from the Central Park Conservancy?

After the swim, we picked a spot on the banks of the Meer, under a couple of huge old oaks, spread out towels and blankets and the boys just kind of...relaxed. Some tossed Frisbees back and forth, despite the heat. Others played cards.

One boy even pulled out the book Animal Farm, lay down on a blanket and read. When one of the fishing kids landed a fish, our boys ran to the shoreline and surrounded him, eager to see his prize. They came back to our picnic spot with their hands full of snail shells from the Meer. (Possibly a little yucky, but cool)

By late afternoon, the area was crammed with other groups of picnickers, elderly men sitting and chatting on benches, couples whispering in each other's ears. A radio playing one of the ubiquitous songs of summer 2011—I'm sure I couldn't tell you the name, but the boys knew all the words. When the birthday boys parents handed out the goodie bags, the kids spent a happy half hour sitting in a circle, trading pieces of candy and Legos minifigures. Then we all had a slice of homemade birthday cake.

It was idyllic, really.

During the ten-minute ride home on the subway—two stops on the express train—my kids leaned against me, tired, but full of the happiness of the day.

I felt proud on so many levels. Of my community, of the rich and wide variety of kids and families we get to meet and befriend here, of the way the boys had just seamlessly, easily gone with the rhythm of the day. Of the joy we'd all reaped from an afternoon in Central Park.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What Seth Brought Home From Camp

Seth went to sleepaway camp for the first time this summer an exciting event for any nine-year-old, no? We packed up the requisite 14 T-shirts, 14 pairs of shorts, 14 pairs of socks, underwear, pajamas, sleeping bag, toiletries...even a beginner's fishing rod. And, after informing us that he would not be writing or calling during his two weeks at Fairview Lake, off my boy went.
Each day, every so often, I'd stop for a moment and wonder what Seth was doing at that particular moment. Making S'mores? Swinging in the hammock outside his bunk? Singing "99 Bottles of Milk on the Wall?"
As promised, Seth was completely imcommunicado during his two-week stint in the mountains. But once we picked him up, boy, did we hear stories! "It was awesome," Seth told me. "The best place ever!"
Seth regaled us with tales of the two beaversharks said to inhabit the lake, the old Rusty Knife camping shack where transients were said to sleep on occasion, the kissing snapping turtle that gave its affection to counselors and campers alike, and the teens who snuck out of their cabin at night and got caught. I'm pretty sure the last story was true.
After a couple of days of rest at home, we packed Seth off to day camp—much less glamorous than sleepaway, he assured us kind of grumpily. "I wish I was still at Fairview Lake," he complained. "Day camp is lame."
But Seth did bring home a memento of his gloried time at Fairview Lake.
Note: If you're sqeamish, you may want to stop here.
Okay, ready?
Here's what Seth brought with him: Head lice.
Here's the message that greeted me at work this morning:"Hi, it's Lindsey, from Day Camp Camperoo. Seth's fine, but we had a lice check this morning, and guess what? He's got them! So, if you'd like to pick him up and get him treated, that would be great. Otherwise, we'll keep him in the office all day."
So, the decisions began.
Do we buy the icky, stinky, chemical-laden lice-killing shampoo and hope to be done with it in one shot?
Try the natural route?
Bring him to Lice Enders for a $150-minimum nitpicking session (I kid you not)?
Head to Brighton Beach, where the nice Russian ladies get rid of nits for a few dollars less?
We opted for a partially natural, partially icky, stinky blend of treatments, followed by a buzz cut.
And we cleaned. Jeez, did we clean.
My husband did numerous loads of laundry. We washed two stuffed animals for each child, and bagged dozens of others, along with blankets, pillows and comforters.
The bags are not to be opened for two weeks.
We also treated my other two boys, who have shoulder-length hair, and combed everyone's hair with the special $21.95 Lice Enders comb, which is, apparently, far superior to the plastic comb that comes with the icky,stinky lice-killing shampoo.
After about 6 hours, we had clean sheet, clothes, towels and children.
And not a nit in sight.
Now, I'm not blaming Fairview Lake.
As a New York City parent, I'm all too clear that lice happen.
But the best camp ever?
Let's talk after I finish washing the comforters.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Sunday in the Cemetery

We had the unveiling for my mom recently, a custom in which a covering is literally removed from the headstone, signaling some sort of closure, or at least an ending to the mourning period. Not that there's ever closure—a word I've come to loathe—when a loved one dies, but that's a conversation for another day.
We started prepping the boys a few days ahead of time: "On Sunday, we're going to leave the beach house and drive to the cemetery in New Jersey where Nana is buried and have a small remembering ceremony. It's a chance to talk about her and think about her."
They nodded, apparently getting the picture. At least, we didn't get our usual stream of questions: "Who else will be there? How long will it take to get there? Can we bring the computer?"
It seemed odd that Jesse, who always has at least twice as many questions about a given topic than I can stand to answer, appeared so nonchalant about the unveiling. He considered Nana his special person in the world. He even wrote her a posthumous valentine last February.
But the emotional dam broke the night before the unveiling. After brushing his teeth, Jesse asked, "Mom, can I talk to you? Alone."
I guided him into my room, where, seconds later, he began sobbing.
Hard, uncontrolled sobs. The kind that come from a deep, deep place and can't be restrained. Even by the toughest, most in-control of nine-year-old boys.
"I can't go," he choked out the words. "I miss her too, too much."
I stroked his always-tangled hair and held his quivering little body in my arms. "It will be okay, Jess. I even think it will be a good thing for all of us to think about her and talk about her when we're together," I told him. "I know it's hard to believe, but it will be nice, even though it will be sad too."
"But I think about her every day!" he protested. "You don't know, but I do. I think about her and cry about her and miss her all the time. Sometimes, when Seth is asleep I go into her room and sleep there."
By now, I was sobbing too. I had no wise lessons, no words of comfort that could erase his pain. "I miss her too," I said.
I rubbed Jesse's back until he fell asleep, in my bed.
The next afternoon, we all huddled at the gravesite. The rabbi said a few short prayers, then spoke briefly but passionately, about my mom and the funny, energetic, engaged woman she was. He talked about her great love for her grandchildren, her kindness, her intellect.
Then we all placed small rocks on Nana's headstone—a traditional signal that we'd been there. My sister brought small alphabet stickers so the boys could spell out their names on the smooth, shiny stones before placing them atop the headstone.
After a long, noisy lunch, where the boys received much attention and many hugs from their relatives, we got back into the minivan for the ride back to the beach. I kissed each boy before I got into my seat, leaving Jesse for last.
"You're right mom, it was very, very sad. But also nice," he told me.
Then Seth threw up in the back of the car.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Not-So Wild Boys

It's always interesting to observe your kids and their attempts to negotiate the kiddie social network. So yesterday, in the face of high temps and humidity, we gave up on the beach and headed for the local indoor pool, where I can do laps and the kids can play water basketball.
My three are not known for being good losers or winners--despite our constant, umremitting efforts to instill the "shake his hand and say 'good game'" lesson. But yesterday, I saw progress.
A bit, anyway.
Kyle and Jesse hopped in on a water basketball game with two other boys. Taller, probably older, and considerably more skilled than my guys at stealing the ball and getting it into the net.
But they were kind of, well, punky. A bit obnoxious, a bit overbearing, crowding shorter-than-the-average Jesse (who was, literally, half their size) into the corner of the pool and then grabbing the ball from his little-boy hands. Ignoring the standard rules of fairness and whooping and crowing each time they made a basket against my guys: "We rock! You s-ck!"
What should we have done? Preemptively end the game? Take over and make sure everyone is playing nicely together? Slap the little brats?
Mick and I opted to see how our kids worked it out, staying closer to the action than usual and watching for early signs of an argument.
What we saw: Kyle and Jesse working together (!!!!!) to try to wrest the ball away from the b-ball brats. Kyle patiently and calmly explaining the proper rules. Jesse looking our way for reassurance and advice, while biting his lip to keep from losing his considerable temper. Kyle and Jesse helping a little girl who wanted to play by tossing her the ball.
And my kids getting slaughtered by the older, tougher, better players.
Amazingly, Jesse and Kyle managed to keep their cool throughout the game, until we lured them away with lap swim (I bribe them with a quarter a lap).
Over dinner (Jesse and his chicken fingers, Kyle and his new obsession of mussels marinara and roasted clams), I complimented my guys on their, wow, I think, maturity.
Kyle shrugged. "Yeah, you're always gonna run into jerks in life," he said.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Viva la France

Jesse came home from Cubs Camp (where, he proudly reported, he is no longer a Cub but has graduated to full-fledged Lion) a couple of days ago with a rather unusual request.
He needed a list of French words.
The reason? He'd bonded with three other young Lions who speak only French. "They're really nice, and they love dodgeball, but we can't really talk to each other," Jesse explained. "I mean, I have NO idea what they're saying."
So we drummed up a list of the basics: hello, goodbye, how are you?, what's your name?, let's be friends, and, of course, bread with chocolate.
Instead of tuning into the newest episode of Dragon Ball Z on Cartoon Network, Jesse actually spent an hour going over the words and phrases, lisping his way through them. We practiced again on the way to camp the next morning. He couldn't quite get the hang of 'au revoir," but his 'bonjour' was flawless.
After camp, when I queried Jess about his conversation with his young European buddies, he beamed. "When I said 'pain chocolat' they rubbed their tummies and said yummy!" he told me. "And now we understand each other perfectly!"
It was one of those moments that reminded me of how easily children bridge what we grownups often think of as huge chasms.
A smile, the toss of a ball, a mangled phrase or two and a shared love for sweets.
Perhaps that all it really takes.