It's three days into 2014. Have you meaningfully changed your life yet? Me neither. Instead I wrote this column on the best things to do right here, right now, with your family. There are whales, ramen, orbs of stuffed animals, giant Scandinavians, the NBA--something for everyone.
It’s the first week of January and you’re probably tired. Or moving slowly. School breaks are lovely and Quite Long. You may be dragging from New Year’s Eve, either because you had a raucous night out with a bunch of adults, trapezing from chandeliers like orangutans, or, let’s be honest, had one of those kid-inclusive New Year’s Eve dinner “parties.” Artisanal potlucks are popular in our corner of Brooklyn, where babysitters charge $20 per half-hour and people are tuckered before midnight. These New Year’s Eve gatherings are perfectly pleasant. Simply secure an invitation to a friend’s house that’s bigger than yours, contribute some roasted winter vegetables, slip on your No. 6 shearling Momboots, and douse the kids with sparkling cider all night. As I write this, we’re planning to attend a house party that our charming Swedish friend is co-hosting with her Brazilian friend. (It’s Brooklyn. Being from New York is a snooze, you see.) I’m imagining lots of people far more attractive than us, high-octane glogg, amorous dancing, and thongs. We’ve been told to dress in all white as per the Brazilian custom. Just considering the footwear is making me tense.
The first days of the New Year are filled with promise and exhaustion. Invigoration about what’s to come and dread about how tight your clothes feel. If you have kids, none of this is their concern. They’re not especially inspired by fresh starts or fatted by holiday gluttony. They don’t fool themselves into all kinds of nonsense yet. But they still expect to be entertained and enriched!
As we head into to the dark, cold months, I’ve compiled a list of offerings to pass the time nicely. I’m sure I’m leaving out some terrific things. But I’m tired too. My house is littered with wrapping paper confetti balls and enough Douglas fir needles to ignite a bonfire if anyone moves too quickly near the tree. Also, where the hell are those J. Crew gift receipts?
Whales: Giants of the Deep, through Jan, 5 at AMNH
The American Museum of Natural History is my favorite place in New York City. My family good-naturedly and patiently spends a lot of time there with me. More than they might like. But it’s always rewarding to be there, always a new experience. Most often, I go for the permanent collection, particularly the dioramas, but right now you have the chance to catch the very end of a special exhibition: Whales: Giants of the Deep.
There’s one weekend left before it closes! The allure of an expertly curated whale exhibit is obvious for children: majestic creatures, enormous skeletons, and the fact that these spiritual beings have zero interest in eating us. There are interactive exhibits and films, and a nutritious dose of education about conservation efforts. The highlight for my kids was a scale model of a 1,410 lb. heart from a Blue Whale. Kids can climb inside the heart via ventricles the size of water slides. Make them walk slowly from mouth to tail of the skeletal models. Make them stand still and look around and see how very small we all are.
Mike Kelley at MoMA PS1, through Feb. 2
This might not seem like a layup as a kid outing, but on a recent Saturday, my kids were thrilled by what they saw at this major showing of installation and multi-media works by artist Mike Kelley (1954-2012) . Some of Kelley’s videos and photography are not strictly appropriate for young kids, but the mature content is easy to avoid if you’d prefer. There might be a scary clown or two in the main screening room. I avoid scary clowns myself. We did the exhibit by scouting each room a few minutes ahead of the little ones before exposing them. Fully ninety percent of the retrospective is super interesting for kids. In particular, the “Kandors” are spectacular. Over a ten-year period, Kelley created these sculptures, which are depictions of domed Kandor miniatures, the Kryptonian city that Superman kept in a bottle. Kandor was not represented uniformly throughout the history of the Superman comics, and Kelley’s gorgeous, memorable models are comments on this. There is even one at the top of a short staircase where kids are invited to remove their shoes and climb for a close-up view. My eight year old couldn’t stop smiling.
“Educational Complex,” an astonishing architectural model of every single school Kelley ever attended made a huge impression on all of us and it said provocative things about the nature of memory. As did the rainbow hued constellations of stuffed animals suspended from the ceiling. It’s a wonderful art encounter for kids, who have to control the impulse to touch any one of the hundreds of stuffies tangled and floating just above their heads as if in a dream.
M. Wells Dinette is on-site too, where you can grab a great lunch if your kids don’t mind waiting. My son remarked that the restaurant made “the whole museum and all of the art smell like old hot dogs,” so we passed, but you may have better luck with your family.
Okay, this is obvious. And less challenging than Mike Kelley’s audio loops. Certainly no one needs instructions on how to further enrich Disney. Your kids have probably seen it twice already. But if it gets cold enough outside, you might have to go again. This movie was brilliantly marketed to both boys and girls. It was initially difficult to determine what the movie was about. Once you get your sons in the door, they are equally charmed and riveted by the story. Our very sporty boys watched it without blinking, giggling while popcorn fell out of their mouths, and felt zero shame in exclaiming how much they liked it. Our girls sing the dramatic musical numbers in the shower. And for the better part of each day. All day. Of course the sisters Elsa and Ana look like the usual tourniquet-waisted bombshells, and there’s a number of issues in the predictable Princess realm that are problematic, but no doubt, Olaf the Snowman is the most endearing and legitimately witty character Disney has created in ages. Also Oaken, the giant proprietor of the forest Trading Post and Sauna. “Yoo hoo, Big Summer Blowout…” In Olaf’s honor, for a month now, every time someone in our house enters a room, we say, as Olaf does to the Snowmonster, “Oh hiiiiiii, we were just talking about you!! All good things, all good things…” We can’t stop.
The Brooklyn Nets
What could be better for families on a budget than a hometown sports team that stinks? Now you can afford the tickets! Seats at Barclays for the game on Jan. 6 against the Atlanta Hawks are selling on StubHub right now for TEN DOLLARS and FIFTY CENTS. Really. This is the price of a single movie ticket to my previous suggestion: Frozen. So much for the Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett experiment. Wasn’t that exciting for a minute? Perhaps it’s anecdotal, but I sense resistance among many of the kids I know to sign on as full time, no turning back, Nets fans. The Nets record has something to do with the tepid response. Kids are divas; they want a One-Namer. LeBron, Carmelo, Kobe. No one says Kevin and Paul.
The black and white jerseys are cool, but the rest feels murky. Fan or not, once you get inside the Barclays arena, it’s incredibly fun. The whole experience is easy in and easy out, and now that tickets are affordable, it’s a terrific way to spend an evening with your people. Particularly if you spend a bit more and don’t have to sit in the top-level vertigo chamber, which feels a lot like being pinned to a Gravitron by centrifugal force. It’s hard not to spill your $20 popcorn and sloshing $45 beer up there. Speaking of the Barclays, I’d like to endorse the idea of someone other than yourself taking your kids to see Disney on Ice when it arrives there in January. Some very fabulous relatives of ours bought tickets for our daughters for Christmas and their glee about attending the bedazzled, nude pantyhose extravaganza matched our relief in not having to go ourselves.
Jean Paul Gaultier Exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum
Put aside the immediate fashion connotations that spring to mind and take the kids to this. It’s a joyful and fun exhibition, and it closes Feb. 23. There are towering mannequins from all phases of Gaultier’s evolution dressed in spectacular garments and Ex-Votos gowns. There’s fierce leather and punk mohawks. Through the magic of high-def projection, the mannequins feature interactive talking faces and make eye contact with observers. It’s delightful, creepy and cool, and will blow your kids’ minds. My favorite piece is Gaultier’s tattered, childhood teddy bear preserved and propped up in a case. It’s incredibly moving to encounter it there in the shadows. The bear’s name was Nana. She’s wearing, unbelievably, a tiny newspaper cone bra that Gaultier made for her as a child! Long before Madonna, there was Nana. It’s heartwarming. And heartbreaking. I’m serious.
A Good Family Meal
After hosting relatives for a week and planning/discussing/cooking/re-constituting more meals per day than seems possible, I don’t want to hear for a long while the clanging of pots and pans as they are extracted from the jigsaw of the cabinet. So before or after any of these cultural excursions, I suggest a steaming hot bowl of “Kid Ramen” from Dassara on Smith Street. Our family went on a freezing evening recently. The adults ate mushroom ramen and fried chicken buns with ginger-infused refreshments. The meal was delicious and inexpensive and perfect. No one even mentioned building all five of their new jumbo Lego sets or playing the dreaded Wii or assembling the American Girl Dog Spa. We just slurped in quiet, convivial peace.
Happy and Healthy 2014! Go Forth.
This essay first appeared on the South Brooklyn Post on January 2, 2014.