Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Very New York Christmas

This Christmas, my husband and I are writing a Countdown to Christmas blog in lieu of Christmas cards or a newsletter. I realize now, half way through the month, how many of our outstanding Christmas memories are from the time we lived in New York City. We were dink's (double income, no kids) back then which gave us carte blanche, relatively speaking. Nonetheless, whatever your family size or budget, New York is an educational and literary place to visit, anytime.

New York has a lot of everything. The key to a pleasurable time there is having a good guide or knowing where you are going. Otherwise, you may just feel lost in the mass of opportunities hidden in every dark alley, as if in the proverbial forest not the trees. I recommend focusing on the trees in the Big Apple. Pick a theme or a few specific destinations that will structure your visit. Then allow space to inhale the sights, smells, and sounds in those particular neighborhoods. New York has a pulse that is palpable in every single neighborhood so you want time to "poke."

Whether you choose to beeline it to The Met and see their tree and Neopolitan creche or do a walking tour of the department store window displays, there is a book to embellish your jaunt. Through the Shopping Glass by Sheryll Bellman chronicles the artform that continues in retail window dressing. The Angel Tree: A Christmas Celebration published by The Met is a piece of artwork in itself, like everything they touch.

Be sure to allow time to people watch, duck into a bookstore, and sample a hot chestnut from a street vendor. The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill is an engaging satire on the history of street vendors in the city. A battle ensues when a Mac truck bulldozes one of their kind. Getting to know Morris the Florist and Harry the Hot Dog before you buy that hot pretzel from Wetzel's modern day equivalent, will heighten the experience. The book also introduces kids to grass roots activism and political protest in a witty, understandable way.

Music and action tend to be the winning formula with kids--at least my kids. Ice skating at Christmas in New York is more of a photo opportunity than a sport. My suggestion for action is to skate at Wollman Rink in Central Park instead, where this clip from Serendipity was filmed. Then definitely gawk at Rockefeller Center's rink (perhaps at night) on your way to the Radio City Music show. You will feel less a tourist and more part of the fabric of the city. We did it the other way around one year and braved a mob scene to skate through slush 3 inches deep and get a shot with Prometheus! The good news was, we didn't really have to skate since the crowd held us up, packed in shoulder to shoulder as we were.

As far as music goes, two performances have taken on near mythic proportions in my memory. The Jazz Nativity at St. Bart's Bending Toward the Light, is in its 23rd year. It is mesmerizing to see jazz legends like Tito Puente, Lionel Hampton and Dave Brubeck process up the aisle of this historic church portraying the Wise Men and blasting their horns to the glory of God. My faith makes me a regular church goer yet, this turns it from a mustard seed to mountainous terrain. They blow the roof off the cathedral without upstaging the spotlight which is brilliantly used to personify baby Jesus. Only in New York!

The Messiah Sing-in at Lincoln Center is a slice of heaven on earth. To call it a sing-along seems insignificant and yet that is exactly what you do. An usher hands you the entire score of Handel's music as you take your seat. Then, with the utmost respect and expectation of excellence, the conductor directs the audience of paying patrons to sing the magnum opus with a full orchestra and professional soloists. It remains indelibly marked on my mind and one of the ways I picture heaven: unceasing praise and worship with choirs of angels. New York boasts numerous other performances of Handel's Messiah as well. I have yet to find one, in any city, that compares with the participatory experience we enjoyed at Avery Fisher Hall some 20 years ago...and I've been looking!

The Very New York Christmas
by Michael Storrings is a good guide to familiarize children in advance with the destinations and as a memory book afterward. It sets the stage for the magic and identifies the must-sees for younger kids, even if they are landmarks you pass in a taxicab. My other favorite souvenirs would be from one of the many gift shops at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. They stock the finest children's books, art books, jewelry, scarves and ornaments. And if you don't have the airfare this year, they offer most of it online!

In that case, you could also do a tour of New York right from your mailbox with Netflix and a comfy sofa. Here is a list of movies filmed there. For a homemade Christmas, why not take a map and mark the sites you spot in films like Elf, Newsies, Home Alone 2, White Christmas, and A Christmas Story. Your very own version of Scene It!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Cleveland, My Hometown

I know you may not rank Cleveland high on your list of desired destinations. But don't be too hasty. Even if you are just driving through, allow a little time to discover why the old slogan, "If New York's the Big Apple, then Cleveland's a Plum" is in fact, true!

I recently read The Toothpaste Millionaire, aloud to my son. This gem of a chapter book by Jean Merrill has engagingly real boy and girl characters and touches on themes of math, invention, entrepreneurial business, character, womens' rights, and racial integration in the most honest and innocent way.

Having grown up in the East Side suburbs of Cleveland, I can readily picture the brick houses and tree lined streets of Shaker and Cleveland Heights where it takes place. They were conducive to riding bikes home from school in the bygone era in which Rufus and Kate embark on enterprising endeavors. Today, you can tour Cleveland in a couple of innovative ways. Jennifer Coleman has developed a podcast narrated tour, Cleveland CityProwl, of the urban neighborhoods she loves. Another fun tour if you'd rather ride is Lolly the Trolley with an informative narration.

I could go on and on about the traditional sights not to be missed in Cleveland but, you might better buy the book, Cleveland Family Fun by Jennifer Stoffel. My personal favorites are off the beaten track and would include
Severance Hall, to which Rufus and Kate could have walked. It is home to the world famous Cleveland Orchestra and boasts regular children's concerts. Don't miss the Goodtime III boat tours on the Cuyahoga River. They chug under and through countless bridges of every known variety with intriguing names like the bobtail swing bridge. It never gets old for boys, photographers, and urban architecture fans! It is a true slice of rust belt history and lore. The Goodtime III was the Goodtime II when I was a kid; it has been a wedding venue and favorite fieldtrip since 1958.

The most obvious toothpaste factory to tour would be Tom's Toothpaste in Maine. Short of a road trip, while you're still in Cleveland you can tour The Plain Dealer, newspaper plant. It was here that Kate ran classified ads for toothpaste tubes. Their Tiedeman Production Plant is supposedly state-of-the-art and tours can be arranged. Highly educational and novel for kids, more factory tours are listed by state at Factory Tours USA. Karen Axelrod has researched and written a book, Watch It Made in the USA, about them. Of course several are in Cleveland including the Plain Dealer's newspaper plant which boasts that "its 10,000 acres stores 6,400 rolls of newsprint and its presses can print 21 newspapers a second!" Those are figures that would really jazz Rufus! Kids 8 years and older should tour it now before the newspaper industry, like Alaskan glaciers and American manufacturing are defunct.

Alternatively for the juvenile gourmand, Malley's Chocolates offers a tour. You'll need some Colgate-Palmolive or Crest after sampling the chocolate. If you take this option, do at least pick up The Plain Dealer and read the funnies over breakfast. Show your kids the classifieds lest they grow up knowing only e-bay and Craig's list as resources for used goods and services.

And when you get home be sure to re-read Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to find out where Grandpa Joe worked when he was young. Long live factories!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Molly's Thanksgiving

The article, What Newcomers Know About Thanksgiving, in today's Wall Street Journal reminded me of the book Barbara Cohen wrote years ago. Molly's Pilgrim remains one of the best Thanksgiving books I've read--juvenile or adult. Not saccharin sweet in anyway, it is an unexpected portrayal of gratitude and history. Molly is a Russian immigrant and new girl at school. In order to finish her classroom assignment she readily empathizes with the Pilgrims. Her classmates and readers of the book, are offered a heaping serving of tolerance. Good multi-cultural lesson in history and current events of our American melting pot.

Here is a clip from the educational film made by Phoenix Learning

Traveling to Plimoth Plantation was a highlight of our family vacations. Not only did we visit a beloved babysitter whose hometown was Plymouth, Massachussetts but we also experienced a smidgeon of the hardships and sense of accomplishment the early settlers must have felt. Walking dusty roads, smelling dirty "slops," sweating in the dank summer air, hearing faintly British rounds wafting through the air, and sensing perpetual chores to be done brought to life a different century. From their storehouse of historically accurate souvenirs, I bought the Penny Merriment CD which my kids endure every November and a 3-handled ceramic "loving cup" we pass around for our annual feast.

My kids still talk about the giant slide in the theme pool at the John Carver Inn. And I am a sucker for historical reenactments! Every Friday night in August, an impressively small and sober group of costumed actors process by the Mayflower and up to Burial Hill reminding everyone how imminent death was for the settlers and how present God was in their thoughts.

If you're thinking of going, go! My advice is to stay long enough (4 days) to assimilate and fully benefit from the myriad workshops, lectures and interpretive presentations. Study their website and the schedule of events in advance so you can pace yourself. And pack Molly's Pilgrim in your bag!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Got Crabs?

My daughter and I enjoyed a beautiful beach walk this morning at low tide with our dog. It was the first day that really felt like summer to me. We were enjoying the freedom of time not just sleeping in and regretting the laziness later.

The great part for me was reflecting with her about various beach memories--both home and away. It is gratifying as a parent to hear that the experiences we afford our children have actually registered and can be recalled.

We were poking around the tidepools at Cardiff Seaside beach in North County San Diego. Another great section of tidepools is at Swamis just 3 miles north toward Carlsbad, California.  She remembered seine netting in Nantucket at the Maria Mitchell Association one summer. And also finding a whole unaltered sand dollar on Sanibel in Florida another summer. So whether you are bound for our neck of the woods or another beach, be sure to investigate local tidepools at low tide. 

The Beach Map site launched by Surfrider Foundation is a handy tool for choosing your destination anywhere in the world. As a wiki, it is being written through active participation. You can find, enjoy, or add a beach to the site which is set up like a google map withthe added value of information about lifeguards, parking, snack bars and access. Check it to learn what locals know about the beaches in the area you're be visiting and contribute to it what you learn about a particular beach that you frequent. The luddite equivalent and my personal preference is the California Coastal Access Guide which really is the Bible if you are going to drive the California coast and want to know anything (and everything) about the beaches on your way. 

A tide chart from a local fishing or surf shop will clue you in on when to arrive for the best visibility (as the tide is receding and crabs are hanging on for dear life to their little caverns and nooks). Tidepools are God's water parks! They offer free of charge, natural diving platforms, interactive squirting anemones, and countless scampering crabs to chase. Engaging with a tidepool for even a half hour is a sensory experience offering cause and effect, hand-eye coordination, and proprioception galore to children of all ages! Beats the heck out of Soak City, if you ask me. 

The perfect book to read before, during, or after your tidepool encounter is Pagoo by Holling Clancy Holling. Pagoo is a hermit crab who lives his exciting lifespan over the course of 20 chapters. In the process of getting to know him, readers learn the equivalent of an ocean biology course because of the accuracy of detail Holling incorporates into his riveting 
personification of the crab as well as the dense sidebar notes on each page. Teachers have used it to write lesson plans that fulfill California standards in a most engaging way. Many homeschool groups have mined it for material. I usually have multiple titles to cross reference and engage different level readers but, this one truly stands alone. Take it with you this summer to a tidepool! 

photo credit:

Monday, April 21, 2008

New York City from the Air

Stephen Wiltshire is a talented man with autism.  In this video he visits New York City and is able to draw it in exact architectural detail as he has done in every major city of the world.  It is an amazing reminder in April--which is Autism Awareness Month--that when one area of the brain is impaired very often another is exceptional.  More on that in my other blog, Autism Unplugged.  For our purposes here, Mr.Wiltshire gives a new twist to the frequently visited observation decks of New York.  If you're headed to New York, have your children take a sketchbook and see how much they can draw from memory back at the hotel that night.  Mr. Wiltshire has been nicknamed, The Human Camera.  

Have you read the Cam Jansen books by David Adler?  Cam is short for camera and has become the nickname of the girl heroine who has a photographic memory and uses it to solve mysteries around school and town.  My son has autism and a strong visual memory system.  He loved this series of early chapter books because he could so readily identify with how her mind worked.  Check them out!
While we're on the subject of New York City for kids, be sure to find Madlenka by Peter Sis. His books are incredibly well designed and this one is in the shape of a city block.  Reading it puts you in the shoes of a young NYC resident who knows each one of her multi-cultural neighbors quite well and shares her daily life with them.   His website offers a Teacher's Guide as well as an animated excerpt which is will give you the feel for the book.

Enjoy for now.  There is always more to say about New York City.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Boy Overboard-Saved!

You know I love books. So much so, that we have opted out of television at our house--for the past 10 years.  Anything for more family time and reading! What you also need to know is that I am married to a movie buff.  In addition, our son is such a visual learner that he has the production studios and ratings of his favorite movies memorized.  Ask him what movie Julie Andrews was in and he'll recite a list including Victor, Victoria.

So, once in a while, I cannot resist sharing a movie that will make you want to jump ship or catch a train or hit the road! Captains Courageous is an oldie but goodie to be sure. It is loaded with character lessons about hard work, honesty, courage, the Bible and heaven. It also fleshes out the cod fishing industry from the perspective of a self-indulged 11-yr old boy.

Why not watch it this summer and visit Gloucester if you're in the Boston area. You could re-stage a tribute to "those who have died at sea" at the Fisherman's Memorial where it was filmed; experience the difference between trawl fishing and open line; visit the Cape Ann Museum ; and be sure to taste of some cod liver oil on Portugese bread!

As all good movies are, Captains Courageous is based on a book by Rudyard Kipling.  One could think of it as a masculine version of The Secret Garden where a pampered, arrogant boarding school brat is miracuously transformed by adversity. 

It is worth joining Netflix!  And I won't say that very often.

For the younger set: Burt Dow Deep Water Man Robert McCloskey's last book will embellish the Jonah ("badluck") reference and reinforce the saltiness of fishermen.

For the grown-ups: Cod by Mark Kurlansky will fill in lots of historical detail.

photo credit:,

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Around the World in 80 Ways

I must say I am envious. This family of Soultravelers has set out indefinitely to travel the world and what's more, to document their travels. I love the quotation of St. Augustine's on their site:

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel, read only a page.”

Do you think they packed any books?  

Maybe Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray.  It is the account of an eleven year old traveling minstrel boy who travels the road of Medieval England, visiting town and encountering a variety of different people.

There have always been people for whom the road —any road —is not simply a cleared strip of terrain that makes travel easier. For them it is a central part of their way of life. Adam’s father, Roger, a minstrel in thirteenth-century England, talks to him about the road: "It brings all kinds of people and all parts of England together. And it’s home to a minstrel, even though he may happen to be sleeping in a castle."