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.