Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Bag Lady

At the risk of turning my blog into a giant Pinterest board, I wanted to share the lunch bags my wife created for Elliot's first week at camp — a different drawing for each day.

(Click to enlarge.)
He's a lucky guy to have such a great mom.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Twilight of New York's Horse-Drawn Carriages

As I mentioned earlier, Alice and I took a horse-drawn carriage around Central Park on Saturday. For some people, this was a controversial act. (And I myself have had misgivings about riding in the carriages because of concerns that the horses are mistreated.)

Ironically, now that it looks like the carriages may go away entirely, I have fewer qualms. The proposed ban makes me want to experience this time-honored New York tradition before it disappears.

From what I could tell on Saturday, our horse seemed to be perfectly healthy and happy. The driver stopped along the way to water the animal at a trough on 59th Street (it was described as a horse "gas station").

Alice, horse-crazed as she is, loved every moment of the experience. In fact, she refused to get out at the end. Only the promise of being able to pet the animal was enough to coax her out.

I'm not sure I'm ready to take a position on this issue, but I don't see the urgency of banning horses from Central Park.

The mayor has proposed replacing the animals with antique-looking electric cars. I like the eco-friendly sound of that, though I'm not sure the 3-year-old girls of New York are going to be swayed.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Mission Impossible: 3-Year-Old Sitting Still for a Half-Hour

As part of our daddy-daughter day, we had a sketch artist to do a drawing of Alice. Let the record show that it was her idea, but once Alice sat down, it was impossible for her to stay still.

It didn't help that the artist said it would take 10 minutes (the whole experience was closer to 30). But in the end, Alice loved the drawing.

I'm not sure the artist got her mouth quite right, but he did successfully convey a look of impatient annoyance. Bravo.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Unicorn Time

Today I had some one-on-one time with my middle child. I refer to this experience as "unicorn time," both because these moments are incredibly rare — as are unicorns — but also because we spent a good portion of the day actually discussing unicorns.

Alice was pretty convinced that the William Tecumseh Sherman sculpture was a "shiny unicorn." Pointing out that the horse didn't have a horn was to no avail. (In fairness, there's an angel in front, so clearly something magical is afoot.)

We spent the afternoon at Central Park, which is as good a place as any to bond with a 3-year-old. There's a charming yet manageable zoo.

And a 4-D theater (the fourth dimension refers to them occasionally shooting water at you).

We ate popcorn, had a sketch artist draw a picture of Alice and then rode around the park in a horse-drawn carriage.

It was one of those days where I was both delighted to be spending time with my daughter and delighted by New York City itself: a perfect, breezy summer afternoon spent among pleasant people and easygoing activities.

Unicorn time, indeed.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

One Sign You're Old: Your Favorite Gifts Are Homemade

I had another birthday come and go this week. Though I'm getting less eager to mark these occasions, the kids are compensating by becoming more enthusiastic than ever.

"IT'S YOUR BIRTHDAY, DADDY!" Alice shouted in the morning. She could barely contain her excitement about a secret dessert they were making for me that night. Elliot tried to shush her to preserve the surprise, but Alice is pretty much unshushable.

After I went to work for the day, the kids prepared gifts: Elliot created a story about a boy and his dad at the beach, and Alice made this hair-raising drawing.

(I also received some very nice non-homemade presents, including a money clip and an iPad pillow, but it's hard to compete with the kids' gifts.)

When I got home that night, we had pizza for dinner and the much-vaunted dessert: an ice-cream cake.

I'm sure the kids got some help from their mom, but it's pretty ingenious. The bottom layer is made out of ice-cream sandwiches. (That probably means it can't be melted.)

Now if only the kids could build me a new laptop.

Monday, July 21, 2014

I Guess This Really Is the Best-Kept Secret in New York

Sunday morning we promised to take the kids to Victorian Gardens, the amusement park inside Central Park. But we got off to a late start and didn't show up until close to 11 a.m.

We were scared it would be overrun by then. After all, it was a beautiful day in New York (high of 79 degrees, and a not-too-terrible 51 percent humidity).

But our fears were unwarranted. It wasn't crowded at all, and there were no lines for anything.

What is going on here? If this amusement park were located in the suburbs, it would be packed with screaming children on a beautiful Sunday in July.

Instead, it's quiet because it's...in the heart of a city of 8 million-plus people?

Something doesn't make sense. I realize a lot of Manhattanites don't have kids, but still...

The Victorian Gardens marketing does acknowledge that it's the "best-kept secret in New York City" (I'll forgive the hyphenation fail below). I'm used to that being a meaningless statement. In this case, it really appears to be true.

Victorian Gardens also is relatively inexpensive (even Atlanta-area attractions seemed to be pricier).

And if your kids are shorter than 36 inches, they get in for free. Not that everyone in this city cares about getting a good deal. As I was encouraging Alice to take off her shoes in an unsuccessful attempt to beat the system, a family of more affluent Manhattanites squeezed by and happily paid full price without bothering to measure their small children (a reminder that money is no object for many of this city's residents).

Inside, there were virtually no lines for any rides. And if you wanted to ride something twice, you just stayed in your seat.

The carnival games were so empty that you were guaranteed to win a prize (so long as you beat at least one other person). When Alice and Elliot played each other, we were essentially paying $8 ($4 each) to win one stuffed animal. Not such a terrible arrangement — as long as the kids didn't fight over who got to keep it.

So I would say that I strongly recommend checking out Victoria Gardens. Except wait...I don't want to ruin a good thing.

Please don't come. It's terrible.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

One Photo That Shows Why Central Park Is Amazing

I snapped this photo of Elliot clambering on the rocks in Central Park.

To me, it crystallizes what makes Central Park special.

It mixes moments of bucolic splendor...

...with being in the largest city in the United States.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Last Streetcar in New York

New York's transit system is a marvel, especially compared with San Francisco's Muni. But there is one area where the Big Apple can't match the City by the Bay: streetcars. I love the New York subway and the tram, but I still miss the rattle of streetcars on Market Street and the rumble of cable cars climbing California Street.

Well, it turns out that the very last streetcar in New York City rolled over the Queensboro Bridge more than 57 years ago. I learned that from this fascinating video posted on the Roosevelt Islander blog.

Before 1954 — when a bridge was built from Queens — this trolley was the sole way to reach Roosevelt Island, then known as Welfare Island.

From Roosevelt Islander, which cites NYC Roads:
When the trolley would get to the Roosevelt Island stop, "riders descended a small staircase to a catwalk underneath the roadway, where they entered an 'upside down building' (the entrance was on the roof) in which they took elevators to street level. Trolley service ended with the completion of the Roosevelt Island Bridge in 1955. The old elevator buildings were demolished in 1970."
Can you imagine this bizarre portal being the only way on or off the island?

Of course, there was much less reason to visit this place back then. The plan for apartment buildings on the island wasn't adopted until 1969, and that was followed by years of construction.

The trolley-free Queensboro Bridge today.

For any local readers who want to see more of the Queensboro Bridge Trolley, there's a new exhibition on the streetcar featuring photography by Sid Kaplan. It runs until July 24 at the the Octagon Gallery (888 Main Street).

The trolley video also solved a personal mystery for me. When I wrote my paean to the Queensboro Bridge last month, I griped about how confusing it can be to cross it: "Depending on what onramp you use, you may be forced to drive in what appears to be a breakdown lane and stay in it the whole way across."

This was one of the abandoned streetcar lanes!

If I had known I was traversing an august stretch of transit history, I would have appreciated it more.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

This Is *Literally* Great: Weird Al's 'Word Crimes'

I haven't been this delighted by a "Weird Al" Yankovic song since the 1980s, when I would dutifully buy his albums on cassette and play them on long car rides. (It's probably just as well that the album era is over, because Weird Al's records forced you to listen to a lot of polka.)

This video combines a parody of "Blurred Lines" with some clever animation from Sacramento illustrator Jarrett Heather. It helps that it deals with one of my favorite topics: grammatical mistakes.

This is easily the best grammar-centric YouTube clip since "Semicolon" by the Lonely Island.

I still hum that one to myself sometimes...

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Little Green Men (But No Women)

A couple years ago, I reported on an exchange I had with our 4-year-old neighbor. She asserted that any creature with wings had to be a girl.

Well, I had the flip side of that discussion this morning with Alice, 3. She spotted this green woman on a plastic cup and asked about her.

"Who's that, Daddy?"
"Some kind of alien."
"But it's a girl."
"Aliens can't be girls?"
I was taken aback by this, but I guess our culture mostly presents aliens as male. They're called Little Green Men, after all, not Little Green People.

So now I'm on the hunt for good female alien role models for my daughter (there's a sentence I never thought I'd type).

I came across this video on the "Top 10 Sexy Female Aliens," but it doesn't seem appropriate for a 3-year-old.

There's always the female alien from "Aliens," but murdering an entire unit of Colonial Marines is not the kind of behavior we're trying to pattern for Alice.

This may take awhile...

Monday, July 07, 2014

One Way of Measuring Sprawl

I'm still in Atlanta this week and I did something unusual today: got into a car and drove solo. (Living a car-free existence in New York, I feel like this is a pretty exotic experience.)

Anyway, I noticed that traffic was far worse as I got outside of Atlanta. When I reached the so-called perimeter — Interstate 285, which rings the city — more cars poured onto the freeway.

Atlanta traffic. Photo courtesy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

This got me thinking: The city of Atlanta itself is a tiny part of the region. It has a population of about 444,000, which means it's smaller than Sacramento or Mesa, Ariz. That's crazy for a place with a total metro-area population of about 5.5 million.

To gauge just how unusual this is, I looked at the 20 largest metro areas in the U.S. and measured the percentage of residents living in the region's major city.
Portion of metro population in largest city:
San Diego: 42.2%
New York: 42.1%
Houston: 34.8%
Phoenix: 34.4%
Los Angeles: 30%
Chicago: 29%
Philadelphia: 26%
Baltimore: 22%
San Francisco: 18.54%
Dallas: 18.47%
Seattle: 18.1%
Detroit: 16%
Boston: 14%
Tampa: 12.3%
Minneapolis: 11.6%
St. Louis: 11.3%
Washington, D.C.: 10.9%
Atlanta: 8%
Riverside: 7.23%
Miami: 7.17%
Regions like Atlanta, Miami and Riverside/San Bernardino were below 10 percent. I feel like that means citizens don't have as much pride and money invested in the local urban area. In Atlanta, for instance, cultural institutions have moved outside city limits without much backlash.

Note, though, that this isn't a perfect system. Texas cities such as Houston have basically annexed every municipality around them, creating a situation where you have a lot of sprawl despite there being one giant metropolis at the center of it. San Diego, which ranks No. 1, is basically in that situation.

The 405 in San Diego. Photo courtesy of KCRW.

Even some fairly dense cities like Boston and D.C. score poorly, mostly due to building restrictions that make it tougher for people to live at the urban core. (But I would argue this spotlights some failures in urban planning.)

In any case, it's an interesting way of viewing our nation's urban areas. And I think most of us would agree that the best metro areas are places in which people want to live in the inner city — not ones where residents flee for the suburbs.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

A Safari in Georgia

It already feels like we're traveling with three wild animals, so going on a safari seems redundant. Still, everyone had a good time at the Wild Animal Safari, a 5-mile drive-thru tour of giraffes, rhinos and other animals in rural Georgia. (It's the South, so even the zoos are drive-thru.)

I have to admire the safari park's business model: They get their customer to feed the animals and even pay for the food.

The downside is some feeders aren't especially qualified, as you can see from Alice's 0-4 attempt to throw a pellet in a steer's mouth.

Things got precarious in the middle of our drive when our 5-year-old had to go to the bathroom. You're not allowed to leave the vehicle, so the poor guy had to handle his business from an open doorway. I assume this is how they handle it on the African plain.

In the end, the biggest challenge was dealing with all the slobber. This bison's tongue is going to haunt my dreams for some time.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Apparently the Second Amendment Also Applies to Nerf Guns

While at Stone Mountain, we took the kids to an indoor activity area that had hundreds of small foam balls flying around the room.

The idea was to scoop up the Nerf-like balls and put them in pneumatic tubes or use them to play games. The kids also had fun just letting the balls rain down on them.

There were only two rules: No running and no throwing the balls.

That made sense, I thought. You don't want kids hurling projectiles at one another, even if the balls were pretty soft and harmless.

Then I got to the second floor, where there was a row of machine guns set up to blast the balls at hapless victims down below.

Welcome to the South, where the right to bear arms shall not be infringed — even in a kids' activity center. But there's no problem restricting regular arms (the throwing kind).

The most alarming part: Our 3-year-old took to the machine gun with the enthusiasm of a Navy Seal sniper.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

A Red Tram With a Very Different View

We're on vacation in Atlanta this week, and apparently the theme of our trip is "doing New York things slightly differently."

When we arrived on Saturday, we almost immediately went to a restaurant called the New York Pizza Exchange. (Sadly, I didn't bring a New York pizza to exchange, so we had to pay with cash.)

Things got weirder when we went to Stone Mountain (the fictional home of NBC page Kenneth Parcell) and rode a familiar-looking red tram up the mountain.

When the tram operator was explaining things to us (like how the ride gets bumpy as it passes the support towers), I was tempted to say, "Yeah, we've got this."

I made a video of the ride, so you can compare and contrast with the Roosevelt Island version.

Helpful hint if you're having trouble telling the difference: Roosevelt Island has fewer monuments honoring the Confederacy.