A conversation I had with myself while waiting in January sub-freezing temperatures for two hours to spend about five minutes in an art exhibit so I could feel cultural and be able to Insta-brag. I had some real epiphanies about parenting and art…mainly: Art changes everyday life.
And even when it’s fleeting and temporary, that’s OK.
Thus: my misery in collective, cultural experience:
9:40? not bad. I’m probably about the 100th in line. But did any of these surrounding tourists drop off kids at school, this morning?
Surely that chalked sign on the sidewalk can’t be accurate: “90 minute wait from this point.” Yeah, right. It can’t seriously take that long to see this artist. Wait, what is this exhibit, again?
I know. But this is art and it’s fleeting. Maybe we should go all 19th-century?
I kinda think you shouldn’t photograph churches or sunsets. Photos never do it justice.
Um, 1986 called. It wants its photographic pretension back. Are you kidding me? This is why we’re here! Pretension! Shouldn’t we be too good for Instagram?
I suppose. This kinda thing drives me crazy, though. Reminds me of my
mom. She drug me around to museums and always took 6 hours to read
every panel about harbor seal genus or random Dutch painters who weren’t
even in the same epoch as Von Gogh. It was awful. I hated museums.
But you remember going, right?
And were you the most worldly 4th grader having schlepped through the Air and Space Museum for six hours?
Um, maybe? Was it worth it? Wouldn’t I still have been smart’ish without suffering through four hours in an art museum that no 10-year-old could care about?
(Hint: Art changes everyday life. Is that enough?)
They’d remember it like you remember suffering through the Air and Space Museum.
Is that why we do this? We bring on the sadist and the masochistic cultural suffering to brag we were there and hope our kids will have a faint memory of having done it…just so we all get social ladder points for saying, “I was there.”
Couldn’t we just see it in a book? Instead of waiting for 2 hours in 27 degree weather? How long’s it been? An hour?
I can’t feel my feet and my coffee’s gone.
Luckily it’s not snowing.
So then we will get inside and just video the entire thing and our
pictures of ourselves will be in mirrors with our own reflections. How’s
that an artistic experience?
I’m not sure.
Shouldn’t it be a pure artistic experience? Something zen-like?
Like through the eyes of kids?
Right. Un-besmirched by technology.
Sure. It’s the 21st century. But, I dunno. You’ll have recorded it.
Will I ever watch the video again? Sure as shit no one else wants to watch it.
What’s a “pure” artistic experience, anyway? Who can quantify that?
Does it matter?
I suppose just being silent with the art.
Sure. Silence is golden. But we’re limited to 30 seconds in this exhibit. It’s not like you can commune with any of this polk-a-dot nonsense.
How do you ever achieve zen –like appreciation of anything? A sunset, a church, a piece of art?
I dunno. Just…try to enjoy it.
Has it been an hour, yet?
Twenty three minutes.
Ohmigod. I’m really questioning this.
It’ll be great. Just…enjoy the moment.
I mean, shit. It’s just polk-a-dots. Are you supposed to get greater meaning out of life from polk-a-dots?
And tiny, repetitive eyeballs painted by a funky 90 year-old woman.
Right. That. Is that really art?
Well, it’s silly. And whimsical. And that’s fun, isn’t it? In the age of…
See? Don’t we need more colorful eyeballs and polkadots to take us out of our every day?
I guess that could be enough.
Sometimes it just needs to be. Smile at the polkadots, even with your phone in your hand. Enjoy it.
Yeah, I suppose even Van Gogh would say that.
Eh, probably not. He’d have already become pretentious and over-analytical.
But for the rest of us…just…enjoy it.
I’ll try. Makes sense.
How long, now?
Why am I sweating so badly in my pits? Always in the cold, if I just stand here, my pits are over-active. Are they confused?
I can’t answer that for you.
So this’ll be worth it?
Sure it will. You’ll remember the suffering, you’ll remember the polkadots, and you’ll remember how you smiled through it.
Art changes everyday life
That should be enough.
It has to be.
And we can brag “we were there.”
And that’s the point of art?
Sometimes. Why not? A memorable blip on our generally boring existence?
My mother was an inordinately thorough tourist and, I admit, when it comes to culturing my kiddos, this apple didn’t fall far from its tree.
But with my mom, it could be 6pm and we’d have been in a museum for the previous five hours and my mom would still be reading Every. Single. Panel in Every. Single. Exhibit.
After which, Mom would’ve remembered our AAA guide book’s recommendation and suggested, “Oh, that house where some obscure author slept one time in 1957 is just 16 more blocks away.” So we’d keep going.
She’d drag my whiny ass everywhere. And I do remember complaining; like…the entire time.
I swore I’d never be the same.
I feel empowered by walking out of a museum within 90 minutes because, let’s face it…nobody has that kind of attention span. Or hip-flexor strength. Or stamina in their shoulders to hold a backpack of fruit snacks and water bottles while staring at dinosaurs/paintings/historical re-enactments for four hours. (Even when that backpack is the best/coolest diaper bag for dads.)
But folks…I did it, today. Culturing my kiddos became my #1 mission…to their extreme annoyance and boredom.
I’m in London with my partner (after two months solo in NYC). But he’s still working all the time as his two Broadway shows are prepping for opening nights on the West End. So it’s still just me and the kids.
Except, again: we’re in London. Totally foreign city to me. No clue how to navigate with kids. Ugh. Pray for me with a charming accent.
So today we went to the British Museum. We saw mummies. Lots of mummies. Mummified adults the size of my 5yo, mummified cats, a mummified alligator, a mummified eel (wtf?) The kids were horrified/fascinated/traumatized. But mostly bored.
Seriously – we saw one mummy and my 3yo says, “I’m bored. Let’s go home.” Admittedly, he might’ve been overwhelmed by the 3,000 students mobbing the room of 3,000 year-old mummies. But really, I think he was like, “Nothing to TOUCH in this museum? This place blows.”
But we were in the GD British Museum. We weren’t gonna leave without seeing some more priceless stolen treasures. (I kept saying “And the British stole that, and the British stole this, and that…” Curiously, neither of them asked “why?” or “but stealing is bad, Daddy.” They just begged to leave and didn’t demonstrate a modicum of moral rectitude.)
We continued. “Hey look, kids – a 3-story tall statue of Buddha!”
“Daddy? Can we go to the cake pop store? (Read: Starbucks)”
“Shut up and look at this amazing stolen Roman thingy.”
“Daddy, my stomach feels angry that we are here. Can we go?”
“Are you gonna throw up? Look at that sarcophagus.”
“No. I mean, yes, I’ll throw up. If we stay here.”
“Can it, kid. Look at these stolen friezes from ancient Greece.”
And then: The Rosetta Stone. I mean – the translator that opened humankind to a trove of another rich civilization. Kids, this is one of the most important archaeological finds in all human history!
I mean…the ROSETTA STONE. This is bare minimum for culturing my kiddos!
Okay, okay. So they’re only 5 and 3. I should cut ’em a break. But we’re in the BRITISH MUSEUM for stolen’s sake!
“Look guys! Sphinxes and obelisks and some old stolen temple, oh my!”
“Daddy? Can we buy a present?”
“No. Look at this medieval…metal thingy.” (I’m boring myself, by this point.)
“I hate it, here, Daddy. There’s nothing to do but look at stuff.”
“Right, but you’re growing smarter by the second. I just know it. You’ll pass that test to get into the G&T program and I’ll never have to worry about you being dumb. I’ll just worry about you being a drug dealer at Ivy league schools. And that’s preferable to you being stupid.”
“Daddy, don’t say stupid.”
And then, it happened. We stumbled into a room of pilloried splendor that even my kids couldn’t avert their eyes. They were transfixed, they were enlightened, they were stimulated. My nagging and dragging had been worth it. They were changed beings from near-toddlers to almost-tweens. Such magic a little T&A can do…even for little American, uncultured troglodytes.
For ten titillating and hilarious minutes, butts, boobs and penises made us all giggle and thrilled my kids. They were finally engaged and curious.
But after those ten minutes (make it six), and they were back to…”Daddy, this is boring. I wanna go.”
And we did. We’d been there an hour. Pretty good compromise, if I do say so, myself.
On this Martin Luther King, Jr Day, and after a conversation I had with some narrow minds over the holidays, I’m venturing into discussing race with my toddler. I’ll make it as digestible and relatable with 3 short lessons.
Or make that 3 1/2.
Have empathy for people who feel down-trodden
Don’t condemn an entire population for the actions of a few.
Racial issues are more about socio-economics than skin color.
Except it IS about skin color, so realize that and fix it.
So here’s a 3-part conversation (that I *might* have imagined) with my 3yo:
Part 1: Empathy for those feeling harassed and down-trodden
Son, if I were a perfect (or just better) daddy, I’d address all your tears with “I understand you’re frustrated that your brother stole your train. But you can’t body-slam him to the floor.” I admit I often roll my eyes and give YOU time-outs for your “brutality”.
But he took my train!
That’s right buddy. He was the aggressor. Doesn’t it make you mad that I gave YOU the time out? But, wait.
Can I have a cheese stick?
Okay, here. So back to this: you know how I’m always telling you to take your shoes off, and wash your hands? I tell friends you’re a demanding emperor. But really I’m the tyrant barking orders at you all day long. And sometimes you say, “No, Daddy! You’re not going to tell me to share my trains!”
Daddy! Sometimes I don’t want to share.
I get that, buddy. (Speed this up, pops. Make discussing race with my toddler a meaningful experience…) And when you tell me not to watch you as you’re hiding behind the couch to intentionally poop your pants, isn’t that frustrating? Doesn’t it make you angry to have anyone look at you suspiciously? Like you’ve done something wrong? (Pooping isn’t wrong, son.)
See? It’s frustrating to feel constantly harassed or have your stuff taken. And imagine having people stare at you suspiciously all day long. That would be sad.
You’re allowed to be frustrated. You deserve to speak out.
When you see people of all skin colors protesting in the streets, it’s because they’re frustrated that someone took their things or looks at them suspiciously or treats them unfairly.
I hope you might ask why they’re marching. Their feelings are important. Just like yours are.
(You still can’t tackle your brother or avoid washing your hands. In New York you wash your hands before going to the bathroom.)
Part 2: Don’t stigmatize an entire population
Son, sometimes you say “I don’t like kids at school!” And why is that?
That’s why(*) that boy pushes me and always takes Percy**.
But that’s just the actions of one little boy. It’s not the actions of everyone. See? You can’t blame everyone for the actions of one. Like, buddy, when you say ‘I don’t like green food’ but it’s really that you don’t like peas, right?
No! I don’t want peas for lunch!
Right. But you can’t stigmatize*** an entire group because of one thing. It goes for vegetables and people. Do you understand?
What do you think?
Um. I don’t know.
Okay. Well, we will not lump things together in this house. You don’t say ‘those people’, you don’t say, ‘I don’t like greens’ and you don’t…
Part 3. Don’t condemn an entire population for the actions of a few.
Son, racial issues are very often socioeconomic issues.
I’m glad you asked. (High five, pop. Discussing race with my toddler has already expanded into the socioeconomic factors and he is INTO it.) Poor people are often driven to make some bad choices to survive in our country. But they aren’t making bad decisions because of their skin color, rather it’s because they want to have what you have: food, warmth, a few toys. It’s not because of skin color, it’s because of money. You understand?
But because of the actions of a few desperate people, an entire population is found guilty. And that’s wrong.
Daddy? Can we play trains, now?
(You’re losing him! You’re losing him, pops!) One second, buddy. I’m on a roll. Here’s part 3 ½: The system is stacked against poor people. Some kids don’t do well in school, but it’s not because of their skin color. It’s because of a whole host of reasons: they have underfunded schools, they didn’t eat breakfast, no one read to them like I read to you.
Daddy? Can you stop talking? Pleeease?
Buddy, I just need to finish this one point: I said it’s not about skin color and yet it IS about skin color, because in our country many people are afraid, so very, very afraid of anything that’s “other”. And that “other” is a different skin color. And because of their fear, they hate.
Daddy? (He over-dramatically rolls his eyes with annoyance at me.)
And hate always comes from fear.
So anyway, buddy, some people hate people with different colors just because of their color. So they’re treated differently and not given privileges and not respected. And some kids drop out of school because they don’t have support at their house to strive for greater academic achievement, but that doesn’t have to do with their skin color.
Some parents can’t give successful tools to their kids, but that’s unrelated to their skin color. They never had those tools in the first place (because other people were afraid of them and hated them), and because they weren’t born into a lucky position with support and resources (and a different skin color), this vicious cycle of racism and socioeconomic disparity cycles through several generations. It started with fear of “otherness” and skin color and then it becomes about economics. But they’re people just like you and me.
He walks away from me. I pursue.
Buddy, you cannot make blank statements about groups of people and you cannot discount how people feel. But you can empathize and ask why and you can seek to understand the world through their eyes.
Daddy? Stop talking. You play with green trains. I don’t like them. They’re green. I want the purple trains.
And you can always talk with me and ask questions about these topics. Because discussing race with my toddler is something we should do. A lot.
Give me my train.
I’m glad we had this discussion.
* My son says “that’s why” in place of “because”. I hope he never changes.
** Percy = Friend of Thomas.
*** You don’t know what stigmatize means? What are they TEACHING you at that preschool?
Though I loathe the culture war centered around “putting the
‘Christ’ back into ‘Christmas’”, I’m definitely one who wants my
children to know the reason behind every season, or in most
This applies most especially to holidays as “abstract” as Veteran’s
Day. Yesterday my older kid jumped with joy as she celebrated having THREE DAYS OF MORNING TELEVISION
this weekend. Uncharacteristically, I held my tongue so as not to
deflate her joy. I’ll save the posturing about Veteran’s Day for the
I’m feeling particularly attached to Veteran’s Day, this year,
because of the 100th anniversary of the WWI armistice. I’ve always been
masochistically fascinated by WWI. It never fails to send a sobering
chill down my spine to reflect on the first war in which men were able
to massacre acres of men without catching sight of each other. The
wide-scale use of machine guns, tanks, airplanes and trench warfare that
wasted a generation all because of agreements between insecure, rich
white men trying to keep their place in the upper-class mastering the
Talk about toxic masculinity.
WWI was the end of an era (for the Western, caucasian paradigm, of
course) in which impersonal savagery replaced, well…personal savagery.
A pall of sadness always lingers over WWI media (books, poems, movies, stories.) And so much changed for men in that time – so many poets
and authors emerged from the battles in France scarred for life…with
new-found expressionism. Seems to me, WWI created a generation of
self-reflection, as opposed to WWII which created the emotionally stoic
“Greatest Generation”. It wasn’t just a triumph of good vs evil, allies
vs. axis. it was the destruction of humanity.
Because nationalism (setting national gain over international
citizenship) is what caused WWI and could easily cause another
unthinkable world conflagration. This is what most scares me about Trump
and what most scares me about my kids’ generation not having a grasp of
history. I pray neither of my children ever has to endure a
generational war (although let’s not forget that American forces are
waging battles around the world, today).
So we have to teach our children the significance of world
citizenship, collective good and personal sacrifice so that insecure,
rich men don’t repeat history and take us down the path of
I don’t exactly know how to talk with my kids about such disturbing
issues as massive loss of life in the name of freedom (and on behalf of
European royals and leaders). But I’ll lecture my kids, tomorrow, and
will embrace the eye rolls in the interest of world citizenship and
patriotism. I’ll recite “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, even though it’ll mean nothing to my kids.
I know – I’m exhausting: I just can’t abide y kids NOT undersatnding the reason behind any celebration, and so even at Christmas (even though we aren’t regular church-goers), I need my kids to have Santa with a side of Jesus. Or vice-versa. But let’s be honest: our culture focuses MUCH more on Santa than Jesus.
Like yours, my kids are obsessed with receiving presents. It always makes me nervous they’ll become unappreciative, acquisitive kids lacking any appreciation for the reason for the season. I fretted about it. So I quizzed them:
“Right, but beyond that, people believe someone named Jesus was born.”
And my innocent child blandly responded, “Jesus Fucking Christ?”
We were actually decorating the Christmas tree in this moment and my partner and I could absolutely not look at each other for fear of guffawing uncontrollably.
After we both bit the inside of our cheeks til we tasted blood, I responded, “Well, we usually don’t use his middle name.”
This year, we’re reading diverse books about Rudolph and Santa with a side of Jesus.
As I’ve alluded, I’m a believer in a higher power, a worldly energy, a
united human spirit. But I don’t think there’s a grandfatherly figure
with a white beard deciding whether or not we get into pearly gates. And
Biblical stories?, word-for-word?…not so much.
Of course we embrace the spirit of Christmas, spreading joy and good
tidings and all that jazz. But (as with appreciating Veterans’
sacrifices on Veteran’s Day – and that it’s not just a day off
from school, and that Labor Day celebrates sacrifices made by people
once working in deplorable factory conditions – and that’s it’s not just a day off from school), the birth of a baby named Jesus is the reason for Christmas – not just getting presents from Santa.
That’s the origin of this holiday; the why. I want my sons to know why we celebrate Christmas and why we give gifts in the same spirit of the wise men and kings bringing gifts to Jesus.
I won’t allow my kids to go through life not understanding the why – of pretty much everything.
No need to lump me in with people who get freaky-outy about keeping
the “Christ” in Christmas. I really don’t think Jesus would (is?)
insulted by secular shopping mall decorations or red Starbucks cups
lacking snowflakes. If He weren’t so full of forgiveness, I’m sure he
would be rolling his eyes at us…like incessantly.
The “war on Christmas” just sells more advertising on FOX. Christians are not the victims. And if you’re really that pure a religious observer, you should be able to separate your authentic & personal celebration from consumer frenzy.
Sorry. Stepping off my soap box.
Recently, I read an interesting tidbit in the NY Times about how Washington Irving (he of Legend of Sleepy Hollow fame) crafted a Christmas tradition for America and helped invent Santa Claus. (So much to unpack, here…not the least of which is we crafted our own consumer Christmas frenzy. How…American.)
Until the early 1800’s, there was no national Christmas holiday, like…anywhere; let alone the United States. They didn’t even have Santa with a side of Jesus. Christmas was even approached differently by Episcopalians and Unitarians and every other Christian denomination. (Some saw it as blasphemy. WTF?) But in a book parodying the history of NYC, Washington Irving made the Turkish St. Nicholas the patron saint of NYC. Then Irving’s neighbor wrote a poem for his daughters describing St. Nicholas as a “Ripe jolly old elf.”
Up to that time, Alexander Hamilton and Mayflower refugees weren’t dreaming of sugar plums or fretting over any war on Christmas.
It was a religious holiday celebrated by some, not by all.
Isn’t that fascinating? (I love our current culture of revisiting history with different lenses.)
I’m excited to pass this history on to my kids and help them understand the why, plus the crafting of traditions from mistletoe to crèches and mangers to Coca-Cola Santa Claus.
For this year, my kids still see Santa and say presents presents presents. But when I nag, “Why do we celebrate Christmas and give gifts?” they parrot, “Because Jesus was born.”
“And what do we do besides get presents?”
So they regurgitate my words. I’m okay with that, for now.
Next year we will work on generosity, world peace with a side of virgin births.
Last night, my partner’s brother came over with his sons (ages 16 and 13). They’re great doting cousins.
My kids were excited for their arrival, but when they walked into the house, my older kid promptly veered into “shy kid” land, wanting to “play indoors” and not interact.
One family rule we don’t negotiate is “you must say hello to
friends and family. You don’t have to talk more than that, but you must say
And holy cow my older one took that to heart – she said
“hello” then disappeared.
But that’s fine.
I tell myself over and over that I don’t want to push my kids
to become slaves to social obligations. I have this revulsion because so much
of my upbringing was spent pleasing people around me.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m social and out-going. I love groups
of friends and comradery and fellowship.
However, my entire youth was spent feeling the desperate
need to be the life of the party and center of the action. My FOMO trampled any
self-awareness that could “just being chill and quiet”.
I wanted to please/impress/delight everyone around me, so I
pushed myself to be “that guy” All. The. Time.
It was exhausting.
I came from a family life that always put forward the best,
happiest filter. So it just didn’t occur to me that we could be anything but
And as an adult, I’ve finally
realized I don’t like big parties
(I’d rather have a conversation around a dinner table with eight friends, max)
and I don’t like hosting (I’m
terrified no one will show up) and I don’t like
going out all that much (I’d rather hang in my sweats.)
Maybe I’m just getting old?
But what’d I do that evening with my kids and their cousins? Forced socializing.
When my older kid wanted to go inside, I cajoled her into
joining the rest of us outside kicking balls and playing chase in the summer
And I got pissed when she didn’t want to join in.
Granted, she was whining for me, “Daddy! I want you to come
inside and play with me!”
Perhaps I was a teensy bit justified. “No, Sweetie. I’m
playing outside with family and it’s a gorgeous summer evening. I’m not coming
I didn’t make her feel bad, but I didn’t make her feel good.
It’s just that, “NO! On a gorgeous July evening, I’m not going to indulge the
sudden impulse to play with those damn LOL dolls!”
(And mind you this wasn’t with random people that might
induce shyness…but actual family whom they know and love.)
A good friend of mine inadvertently has given me permission
to pump the brakes on forced socializing. Once I invited his family over for a
playdate leading to pizza on a Friday evening and he said, “You know what?
Fridays our kids usually just melt down and it ends in tears. We’re more likely
gonna play it mellow at home.”
(He also pointed out to me that he loathes our school’s
“publishing parties” all the adults are crammed in a room frantically
pretending to enjoy the classroom party, when in reality it’s just a sweaty fest
of parents judging other kids. I’ve given myself permission to loathe these
parties, too…or at least to lower my expectations and not force myself into
enjoying them, at the very least.)
So anyway. Summer evenings spent indoors.
Am I being a hypocrite? Am I making my kid feel bad for not
jumping into horseplay with her older cousins?
Gavin! Remember: you weren’t that, either. Playing sports was not my idea of an idyllic summer evening. (Kick-the-can with neighbor kids was the ideal.)
Forty-five minutes later, she came out of her shell and was
intrigued by the baseball game we’d all struck up.
She picked up a bat of her own volition, after I’d long
since chilled the hell out.
And she was GOOD! A little slugger.
It just takes her a little time, perhaps.
My take-home from the night? Try try TRY not to pressure your precious child into being instant participants. Let them observe. Let them suss it out. Let them play inside a little bit. Who cares if everyone’s outside? They can do their own thing and make their own decisions about socializing.
But don’t force the comradery to keep up appearances that your
kid is – what? Well-adjusted? Smart? Sociable?
How about let them be their own form of well-adjusted?
Don’t force the socializing or the happiness, because that
just takes the enjoyment out of it.