Monday, November 15, 2010

The Guggenheim

THE RATINGS
(on a scale of 1-10, 1 being crap and 10, perfection)
Hassle (as in lack thereof): 7
Parent’s Enjoyment: 5
Kid’s Fun: 7
Educational: 8
Cost: $18.00 General Admission per adult; $15 additional per family for tour



The second you step into the Guggenheim museum you instantly feel like a more sophisticated, cultured person. It’s just that kind of place.

First, there’s the lofty space itself designed with stylish panache by Frank Lloyd Wright, with its endless, spiraling ramp and its high domed ceiling, which evokes the awe of visiting an imposing cathedral.

The Guggenheim has an impressive permanent collection too, modern and contemporary art, housed in the museum’s gallery annexes. But the real show-stoppers are always the Guggenheim’s temporary exhibitions—ranging over recent years from the work of Mathew Barney to the Art of The Motorcycle and Kandinsky—which take center stage, winding up the length of the museum’s central ramp.

None of this may sound exactly appropriate for kids. And one look at the place and you’d think that the last thing in the world they’d want would be a bunch of sticky-handed, little monsters messing up the joint. But believe it or not, the Guggenheim Museum actually goes out of its way to make the smaller set feel welcome. It has a huge array of programs for families, children and teens.

Many are class series, which require registration or even application for admission, but several of the Guggenheim’s junior offerings are single installments. We opted for the full-on kid’s tour option. Known as Second Sundays (or Summer Sundays) and taking place, you guessed it, on the second Sunday of every month.

THE SKINNY

Be Prepared To Put Some Leg in First

The Guggenheim’s family programs are a hidden gem in one of New York City’s crown jewels of cultural attractions. And when I say hidden, I mean that literally, starting with their out of the way placement on the museum’s website. Because we aim to serve, we’ll save you the hunt and peck, here's a link.

You also need to make reservations in advance by calling the reservation line. This too is easier said then done. The reservation line is only open between 1 and 5 pm and it took repeated attempts before someone actually answered the phone. There’s a charge for the tours too—$15 per family ($10 for members) on top of museum admission—which must be paid in advance and is non-refundable.

Life as a VIP

The upside of the price tag and all the prep is that the experience of the tour itself is lovely. Aside from the one for general admission, there are no lines to brave or crowds to navigate or stress that the tour might get filled up before you get in. You do have to be on time, but you don’t have to worry about arriving early. Plus, they have these little folding stools for you and your child that you carry from spot to spot so that you can sit while the tour lingers in front of a particular piece.

It’s all quite refined, in fact, civilized. For your extra $15 you do feel like you’re having a special experience.

Be prepared to linger, and linger and linger

Tours depart from the main lobby near the ramp—ask at information if you don’t see them—and consist of approximately twenty or so adults and children. The content of tours vary each time, though each follows a similar format. We focused exclusively on three pieces, of varying complexity, that were part of the temporary exhibit filling the Guggenheim’s central rotunda.

And we spent a long, long time, in front of each of these three pieces.

The museum educator that led our tour was a enthusiastic young woman with a great beaming smile and eager demeanor that made me wish she was my child’s kindergarten teacher—or maybe my friend. The children responded to her too, the sizable group of young ones staying calm and listening intently.

In turn, she listened intently to them, giving them each an opportunity to say everything that was on their mind. This was sweet, at first. But we had some chatty Cathy’s. And this was how I knew our tour guide couldn’t ever be a teacher. A real teacher would never have the patience for that kind of thing.

Not for the little ones

You’re welcome to bring the entire family along, including younger siblings, but the tour is geared for older kids. I’d say an exceedingly mature and patient four year old would be the absolute lower end of the spectrum. Kids are expected to pay attention and be quiet for long stretches. A younger child would also have a hard time following what’s going on. If you have little ones, consider bringing an extra set of hands with you, so you can divide and conquer as necessary.

What might annoy the crap out of you, your kids are going to love!

The best part was that the kids absolutely loved the Guggenheim tour. Ranked it tops among the kids’ museum tours they’d been on. Because that’s the thing about kids: they like to hear themselves talk. And they don’t find it monotonous when some other kids says for the fifth time that one particular abstract work looks like a garage—no a garage with a ramp, wait no a garage with a dirty floor, wait no a garage for motorcycles.

Like other kid’s tours at major art museums around the city, the focus of the Guggenheim kids tour is clearly to give kids some exposure to art and to get them thinking. And that, without question, it does. It’s interactive too, and there was a drawing component too. But it isn’t really about content. It’s about kids learning how to look at art and seeing that it doesn’t need to be intimidating.

And, as long as you remember that it’s your kids who you’re doing the tour for, you’ll be fine too. Besides, you are in the Guggenheim on a Sunday afternoon with a cute little portable stool. It’ll instantly up your IQ and transform you into a well-heeled, urban sophisticate. The tour only lasts about an hour too and the Guggenheim is blessedly compact. You can easily breeze through the rest of the museum on your remaining steam once the tour is over.


The Stats
The Guggenheim’s Second Sunday tours are held, you guessed it, the second Sunday of every month from 10:30 a.m.-12:00 pm
• Advanced registration is required; call 212 423 3587, Mon–Fri, 1–5 pm
• Admission to the Guggenheim is $18 for Adults, but children under 12 are free
• Family tours are an additional $15 ($10 for members) per family, paid in advance at the time of registration. We were told refunds for cancellations in advance weren’t available.
• Tours are intended for ages 5-10. Though the entire family, including younger siblings, is permitted, we would not recommend bringing children under 4, unless they’ll be asleep.
• The tour is stroller accessible, though we reached our first exhibit stop via the stairs.
• There are also Tour/Workshops 11 am–1 pm on various dates, which include a tour as well as a hands on component and are $30 per family
• You can also enjoy, hands on creative projects in a drop in area for free, on Sundays from 1-4 pm for ages 3-10 pm. Advance registration is not required.
• If all this advance planning is just too much commitment for you, consider a self-guided tour. Family activity packs, recommended for ages 5-10, are available, on loan anytime from the Information Desk. Last pick-up is at 4 pm.
• The museum is open Sun–Wed 10 am–5:45 pm; Fri 10 am–5:45 pm
Sat 10 am–7:45 pm. It is closed Thursdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day. Some galleries may close prior to 5:45 pm Sun–Wed and Fri (7:45 pm Sat)

If You Go

Refuel

You can grab a snack after the tour at Cafe 3, an espresso and snack bar adjacent to the permanent Kandinsky Gallery on Annex Level 3 of the Guggenheim. The café serves sandwiches, pastries, chocolates, coffee, tea, wine, and beer and is open 10:30 am–5:30 pm Friday–Wednesday. There’s also a more upscale restaurant The Wright, located across from the rotunda on Fifth Avenue at 88th Street. According to the Guggenheim’s website, “[t]he Wright combines an upscale atmosphere with a sleek, modern, and comfortable venue, comprising 58 seats and a full-service menu that emphasizes seasonal, local, and sustainable ingredients.” Now, if that sounds like kid-friendly dining to you— lunch is served Monday–Wednesday 11:30 am–3:30 pm; Friday–Saturday 11:30 am–5 pm; dinner Thursday–Saturday 5:30–11 pm and Sunday brunch 11 am–3:30 pm— by all means have at it, but we’d recommend enjoying it on a weekend when Nana and Pop Pop have got the kids.

Another good local option with kids is Le Pain Quotidien (1131 Madison Avenue, Madison & 85th;; 212.327.4900). Around the corner from the Guggenheim, this uber-kid friendly Café serves reliably good sandwiches, and pastries and soups. Part of a mini-chain, Le Pain Quotidien is great for breakfast, lunch or a quick snack. They even have a decent kids menu, though they seem reluctant to offer that information up, unless you ask. Most importantly, they have caffeine. Lots of it. And after a long day, politely listening as children fastidiously, dissect modern art, you might seriously need it.

Across the street from Le Pain Quotidien is also a Dean & Deluca (1150 Madison Ave at 85th Street; 212.717.0800) where you can grab sandwiches, snacks or desserts. There’s a small seating area, or you can take your booty a block west to Central Park for an impromptu picnic. Entering the park around 84th Street and heading up to the lawn behind the Met is probably your best bet.

Glutton for Punishment?

After you’ve satiated yourself and you and your little ones are cruising nicely on a sugar high, consider taking in the Metropolitan Museum of Art too. It’s right there, on 84th street. What are you, lazy?

I’m kidding, of course. Doing both the Guggenheim and the Met with children in a single day wouldn’t make you a Glutton for Punishment, it would make you certifiably insane.

Instead, stroll over to the 11-foot statue of Alice in Wonderland located north of Conservatory Water at East 74th Street. Central Park has a fantastic interactive map, if you need help finding it. The map also marks out other nearby points of interest is Alice isn’t your, well, cup of tea.

But we think it’s pretty awesome. Commissioned in 1959 by philanthropist George Delacorte, children are invited to climb, touch and crawl all over the Alice in Wonderland sculpture. Doing so will feel illicit and wrong to your children, and with therefore, of course, delight them. And don’t miss the line from “The Jabberwocky,” also by Lewis Carroll printed in the stone nearby: “'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe.” Memorize that for your friends at home, and between that and your visit to the Guggenheim, your cultural trasnformation will be complete. Okay, you might want to pick up a copy of the New Yorker too. But don’t worry, you don’t actually have to read it. No one really does.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Cloisters


THE RATINGS
(on a scale of 1-10, 1 being crap and 10, perfection)
Hassle
: 4
Parent’s Enjoyment
: 7
Kid’s Fun
: 6
Educational
: 10
Cost
:suggested donation, $20 adults, kids free





People generally fall into two categories, as far as the Cloisters is concerned: either you’ve never heard of it, or it rings a vague bell, but you’ve really got no idea what the hell it is. But I am here to tell you this -- the Cloisters are not just worth the trip all the way uptown, they comprise one of the coolest, most magical, and family-friendly museums in the great city of New York.

Put it to you this way: you will love the Cloisters if you love any of the following things: knights, princesses, unicorns; medieval art; herbal gardens; majestic views of the Hudson River; peace and quiet.

The Cloisters Museum is the branch of the Metropolitan Museum devoted to European medieval art, and it’s located in Fort Tryon Park in Washington Heights, inside what is basically a huge castle. Yes, there is a huge, gorgeous, UNCROWDED medieval castle sitting on the island of Manhattan, full of medieval art, featuring an immense terrace where you can see the whole Hudson River.

As for the confusing matter of the word “cloister”: a cloister is just a rectangular open space surrounded by covered walkways, and they were BIG back in the medieval days, I guess, especially in monasteries. From this description, it doesn’t seem all that impressive, I know, but actually go to one and you will feel differently. You will sit on the cool stone benches under cool stone eaves, listen to little birds chirp and the sound of the water in the fountain rushing and you will feel positively monk-like. Then your three year-old will run by and rip a big orange off the perfect orange tree and hurl it at you while screaming “I’M A PRINCESS AND YOU GO AWAY!!” at the top of her lungs and all the tranquility will vanish instantly.

But though you shouldn’t bank on kids falling under the spell of quiet, chances are they will totally dig the Cloisters. Princess-types will go nuts for all the unicorn tapestries and romantic balconies. Knight-lovers will have plenty of battle scenes to keep them entertained. And children who have no particular affiliation with medieval times will love the chance to run around the paths of the Cloisters because your shoes make big sounds on the stone and that is fun.

The Skinny

Kids’ tour is totally engaging (and un-crowded)

Each tour has a different theme, and will focus on different elements in the museum. Our tour focused on medieval animals and it was really engaging for the kids, with lots of interactive discussion. The tour leader devoted a lot of time to hearing their thoughts and ideas and gave them animal-themed drawing assignments which they did in adorable little books made of colored paper and bound in yarn. But, unlike some of the other museum tours, in this one, the leaders actually gave us some specific factual, historical information, which I, for one, found fascinating (kids seemed to as well, if that’s of any consequence). Plus, hooking up with the tour was very straightforward and low-key: it started right in the main entrance of the museum and we didn’t need to get there especially early. They were also super nice and accommodating about letting my unruly 3 year-old join in halfway through, for which I afford them bonus points.

Leave the stroller at home

The one big drawback for parents is that there are zillions and zillions of stairs (one thing they didn’t have back in medieval times was elevators). So be advised: do not bring a stroller along unless you want to work really hard on your biceps and give yourself a heart attack. But a baby carrier will work wonderfully so don’t be deterred from bringing little ones along -- all that peace and quiet may rub off on them. You will feel positively beatific carrying your baby in a sling on your hip as you stroll through the grove of quince trees – and it makes for better photos, too.

Stuff that doesn’t look like art IS art. Don’t touch it.

When you go to the MOMA or the Whitney, you understand that you won’t be able to eat snacks in the galleries or touch the sculptures. But much of the Cloisters – the terrace, the garden, the cloisters themselves – seem like little parks in which casual behavior is totally OK, and that’s not entirely the case. You can’t eat or drink anywhere but in the café area and though it’s fine for kids to run and jump and sit on the paths of the Cloisters (and roll around like a worm on the grass) there are some pieces the kids shouldn’t touch, like the big, ancient fountains that my preschooler couldn’t keep her hands off.

The Stats:

  • Family gallery workshops are held at 1:00 p.m. on the first and third Saturdays and the first Sunday of each month
  • Tours meet in main foyer, next to Ticket Counter, in the Cloisters – enter at 99 Margaret Corbin Drive, Fort Tryon Park, 212-923-3700, metmuseum.org/cloisters/
  • Age range for tours is kids four through twelve, and their families
  • Tours are free with admission: recommended donation is $20 for adults and free for children under 12 (one donation covers entrance to Cloisters and the Met)
  • No reservation required. First come, first serve.
  • There are no elevators or ramps, and lots of stairs, so leave the stroller at home (or bring a burly, brawny fella)

If you go

Refuel

We opted to bring a picnic and chowed down al fresco on turkey sandwiches and juice boxes at Fort Tryon Park, which has tons of picnic tables and grassy areas to spread a blanket. If you’d like to get your grub on at a restaurant, though, there are a bunch of options, depending on what you’re looking for.

If you’re traveling by car (and this is one trip where we do recommend it), you can head to a favorite neighborhood spot, Indian Road Café (600 West 218th Street, 212-942-7451, indianroadcafe.com). Owned by the producers of the Sopranos (the tables and chairs come from the show’s Vesuvio restaurant), the Café is comfy, unpretentious and very kid-friendly, especially for weekend brunch, but with adult-pleasing food (Duck confit! Cheese plates! Lobster mac n’ cheese!) and drink (organic French Press! Microbrews! Prosecco!). Kids don’t have to opt for the vegetarian Thai curry, though – there’s also French toast and scrambled eggs, not to mention lots of sweet baked goods. The best part - prices are totally reasonable.

If you’re on foot, you’ll need to stick closer to the Cloisters. The very closet place is a lovely restaurant located in Fort Tryon Park, called New Leaf Café (1 Margaret Corbin Drive, (212) 568-5323, newleafrestaurant.com). Be advised, though – this joint is fancy, people-get—married-here kind of fancy, so unless your kids are really well behaved, the seen-and-not-heard variety, you may want to save this place for a romantic date night.

If you want a low-key casual restaurant, and you don’t have a car, just head down 181st Street and you’ll have tons to choose from, including diners and sushi and pizza (try George's Pizza at 726 W. 181st).

Glutton for Punishment?

An afternoon of analyzing tapestries, sniffing around a medieval herb garden and waltzing around the Cloisters like you own the place might be considered a full day for some, but you’re not a quitter, are you? So, take your now-highly-cultured behind and the somewhat-smaller-but-still-very-sophisticated behinds of your little ones, and head over to New York’s last remaining lighthouse, in nearby Fort Washington Park. All you have to do is walk down to 181st street, turn east til you hit the West Side Highway; take the pedestrian overpass to cross the highway, head into Fort Washington Park, and the path will bring you directly to the foot of the Lighthouse.

OK, so it’s a bit of a hike – about a 15 minute walk and a bit intimidating because of the highway – but it’s totally worth it, if you’ve got the stamina. Why, you ask?

It is, as advertised, really little (40 feet), really red, and really a lighthouse. Finding such a sweet, quaint-seeming relic in the heart of Manhattan is pretty cool in and of itself. It stands literally at the foot of the the mammoth George Washington Bridge, and it’s so tiny compared with the immense bridge, that it offers a delicious play of perspective, almost like looking at an optical illusion.

But besides that, the lighthouse is really special because of its history. When else in history has a picture book helped to save a landmark from demolition? Yeah, The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge, written by Hildegarde Swift and Lynd Ward in 1942 helped to save the lighthouse from being auctioned off in 1948. It was given to the Parks department and us still kicking it today, You can only catch tours at specific times of the month but its worth the walk just to look at the lighthouse – and plus, afterwards, the kids can run around the beautiful Fort Washington Park and fully exhaust themselves in a sanctioned way.

Cloisters! Grub! Literature! Landmarks! What are you waiting for -- an Evite?

Friday, November 12, 2010

The New York Public Library

THE RATINGS
Hassle (as in lack thereof): 2
Parent’s Enjoyment: 7
Kid’s Fun: 7
Educational: 4-7 (depending how much legwork parents put in)
Cost: FREE!



Libraries are an oft-overlooked, ace in the hole for urban dwelling or urban touring parents. First off, they’re educational (i.e. guilt-free) child entertainment. Even if you take the opportunity, while visiting your local library, to have a seat and zone out while your little ones riffle through the litearture on offer, you can feel better than okay. You can feel like mother (or father) superior. Furthermore, the kids probably won’t even realize it’s good for them. Children’s rooms in New York City public libraries are usually dotted with enough kid-friendly bling—toys, or stuffed animals, cute little furniture and computers—that they can dupe even the book adverse.

So if you haven’t hit a library recently with your kid, go, immediately. You’ll be a better person for it. Better yet, visit the mack-daddy of them all: the Main Branch of the New York Public Library. You’ll feel smater, more elegant and savier, the secomd you set foot in the place.

THE SKINNY
The main branch of the New York Public Library is housed in a gorgeous Beaux-Arts building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street called the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. Before you even get inside take a minute to take in the amazing architecture and to linger over the literary lions standing guard out front.

Stay off those lions and steel yourself for some entryway gymanstics
Personally, we had visions of putting our children atop the lions and snap a few photos to amuse them, or at least us. There were no obvious signs prohibiting it. Of course, this may be because the lions are actually so far off the ground that putting your kid up there would probably get you carted off for neglect. Plus, it just feels like someone is going to yell at you if you do it. We settled instead for precariously propping our kids up on the side for a second or two each, which seemed to suit them just fine.

From there, proceed inside, but keep in mind that getting in through the main, Fifth Avenue, entrance (up the steps between those lions) can be tricky, to say the least, especially with a strollers. The only way in at that entrance is through a narrow and fast-moving, old revolving door which our children were intent on darting into without adult supervision, escaping narrowly with their lives. We do not recommend letting them do this. It’s not fun. If it doesn’t kill them, it will kill a little piece of you. And while you can fit through the door with your stroller folded, but only if it’s a very compact umbrella stroller i.e. not a McClaren Techno or the like. If you have any other kind of stroller, try the entrance on 42nd Street between Fifth and Sixth avenue’s which we were told is more easily accesible.


Once inside, you’ll have to get through a brief security line and be awarre that there is not food or drink or cell phone use allowed inside the library. So make sure the kids are good and tanked up on snacks and beverages before heading in.

Inside, a literary oasis awaits

Largely a non-ciruclating research library, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building contains texts covering everything from from anthropology and archaeology, to religion, sports, world history, and literature and it’s 15 million items include everything from medieval manuscripts and ancient Japanese scrolls to to baseball cards and comic books. None of this is likely to be of any interest to your children, of course, but knowing it was in our general proximity just made us feel better about ourselves. The building itself is also just lovely inside, with architectural history and details that you could spend hours purusing if you did not have children with you. Seeing as how you do, you’ll have to settle for a quick glance or two here and there as you zoom past shushing your children. It’s also blissfully cool inside on a warm summer afternoon.

Happily, there is one circulating (meaning that books can be checked out) part of the library and that’s the Children’s Room. Located on the ground floor and easily reachable by elevator, the Children’s Room is a bright, cheerful, immacualately organized oasis of children’s literature with a helpful accomodating staff and plenty of space to sit and read.

It also has computers that can be used free of charge (a password and acccess code was readily handed to us by a helpful librarian without us even having to ask), which allow access to some quasi-edcational computer games. Which of course we did NOT let our children play—we were there in search of high literature after all—okay so maybe we did let them use the computers, but not for longer than the forty-five minutes their passwords alloted them.

After you take a (trust me, well earned) break and wrestle your kids off the computers and finally get them at least pointed towards the books, the choices are so plentiful they’re bound to get sucked in immediately. Inevitably, they’re also going to want to check some out. For that, you’ll need a New York City Public Library Card ( for you outer-borough dwellers, note that this is different than a Brooklyn or Queens Library Card). But it’s astonishingly easy and quick to get one. An application can be processed there while you wait in the Children’s room and requires only picture ID with an address and that you either reside or work in New York State.

The only hang up is that you’ll have to return the books to a New York Public Library location. Luckily, there are many in Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island. In full disclosure though, as Brooklyn dwellers ourselves, we did have some borrower anxiety on the way home, already immagining some interminable schlepp back into Manhattan to return one child’s coveneted Greek Mythology texts. On the upside, that same child did write his own version of the Odyseey in school the following week, so perhaps a little schlepping is a small price to pay.

Don’t miss Winnie-the-Pooh
There was also a very small exhibit in the children’s section featuring the real Winnie-the-Pooh and friends, the actual stuffed animals owned by the son of Winnie the Pooh author A.A. Milne, on which the beloved children’s books and countless movies and cartoons were based. As a writer, it was amazing to see the objects from which these stories sprang. Our children, however, looked vaguely horrified. In their defense, the stuffed animals have not weathered the intervening 80 years all that well, and really who came blame them. But if your interested in making an event of the Pooh exhibit we recommend you brief your chidlren on the background of the stories and the author—helpful articles and information is provide on the New York Public Library website--lest they regard poor little Pooh, as our children did, like some kind of dead pigeon boxed up for display.

When you’ve had your fill and are on your way back upstairs, take a second to stop at the old-school phone booths located right next to the elevator. It’s worth a good ten minutes of playtime. The kids will delight in locking themselved in the charming little booths and playing with those funny contraptions that kind of seem like phones, except not really because they’re attached to the wall. Be forewarmed: there’s nothing in the world that can make you feel quite as ancient as your child regarding common technology from your own childhood as a relic from the Bronze Age.

Keep the joy of reading going in the great outdoors
Okay, well, maybe it’s not the great outdoors, but Bryant Park—a small, but immacualtely maintained park—is lovely and it’s located right behind the Main Branch of the Public Library on Sixth Avenue between 42nd ad 41st street. Bryant Park has an outdoor reading area especially for kids, complete with a stocked cart of kid’s books and little tables and chairs in a plesant gravel area set under the shade of enourmous trees. It is, in a word, delightful. It’s also apparently a well-kept New York secret because, on the two occassions we visited, there were only a couple other children there, leaving our rowdy pack to rifle through the books unfettered.

Oh, and did I mention that this outdoor reading nook is right next to a carousel? God knows, there’s no better way to bribe your kid into behaving, then to hold out as a treat a spin on a carousel. Well, at least that worked for us. I mean, sort of.

Bryant Park’s Le Carrousell is small—only fourteen animals in all—but it’s pretty and in great condition, plus it plays French music, which makes you feel like you’ve just jetted off to the Left Bank with your kids instead of hanging a left on 42nd Street. On both occassions we visited, there was no line at all for the carrousel either and on designated Saturdays there are also children’s shows put on there. Check the park’s website for details and schedules.


The park has a grown-up reading area too and ping-pong tables, chess and backgammon and boules—some free of charge and some for a nominal fee. Depending on the age and temperament of your kids—and your own personal fortitude—you might be able to partake in some of these other ativities as well. For our part, all we can attest to for sure, is that people sure looked like they were having fun doing them as we glided on by.

THE STATS
• Bryant Park and The New York Public Library are free.
• Carousel Rides in Bryant Park are $2.00 a piece, adults accompanying young kids are free
• The New York Public Library is open Mon, Thurs, Fri and Saturday 10 am to 6 pm and Tues and Wed 10 am to 9 pm; the library is closed on Sundays; check the website for details about special events and tours (www.nypl.org, got to the Schwarzman Building location)
• No food and drink or cell phone usage is permitted in the library and voices should be kept low—it is a library after all.
• Bryant Park is open May-September 7am-11pm; check the website for winter hours
• Also check Bryant Park’s website for special events. There are regular concerts, free lessons (for adults), and summer movie series and readings in the park, as well as those children’s performances at the carousel.
• Possible the best public bathroom is all of New York City is in Bryant Park, located on 42nd street between 5th and 6th Avenues. It’s tiny, so there can be a line, but it is often immaculate (not always—this is NYC after all) with nice fixtures and a huge flower arrangement in the entryway. This bathroom makes those port-o-johns in Central Park look like torture chambers.

REFUEL
We made the decision to start getting lunch sorted out, before we were even hungry. This was an excellent plan, as doing anything with children—as you all surely already know—takes ten times as long as it does when you don’t have children. Even when you have twice as many adults on hand. This is doubly true in New York City. We recommend you do the same and, upon exiting the library, head straight for lunch to Tom Colicchio’s ‘wichcraft, which is right in Bryant Park.

Before heading up to get lunch, we secured a great big table under some shady trees. Seating in Bryant Park is plentiful, but this is New York City, so grab a table as soon as possible. There are three ‘wichcraft kiosks in Bryant Park each offering a somewhat different menu—sandwiches and soups, sandwich express and a coffee and pastry outlet. When we arrived around 11:30 a.m., only the coffee kiosk was open, despite the indication on the website that the full service sandwich kiosk the full service opened at 11:00.

Part of our party opted to stay behind to get food while the rest of us went off for our spin on the carousel. This was an excellent idea. We also recommend that you be at ‘wichcraft when it opens, which, as we said was 12:00, at least on the day we were there. By 12:15 the line was quite long, and not particularly zippy. But ‘wichcraft is not supposed to be fast-food, and isn’t priced as such either. These are gourmet hot and cold sandwiches, prepared to order. So something of a wait is to be expected. It’s not oppressive or unreasonable, but do plan ahead, i.e. leave a childless person or two behind to handle the ordering of and then waiting for the food. Also, while there are kid-friendly-ish options on the menu (a grilled ham and cheese, simple soups) you’re not going to find chicken fingers or mac and cheese. And be careful: there are some decidedly kid-unfriendly ingredients in some of the sandwiches. My three year old thinks pasta with butter sauce is too spicy, I can’t imagine what would happen if she’d accidentally nibbled the jalapeños in my delicious pork and cabbage sandwich. While the sandwiches at ‘wichcraft are heads and shoulders above the usual park fair, they aren’t necessarily quite as good as those on offer at the full scale ‘wichcraft outlets which dot the city. Which seems reasonable considering that, they are produced in a tiny hut.

Picnicking in Bryant Park is another great and likely much cheaper, option too. And while there is a no food or drink policy at the library, we were not given any trouble entering with the snacks we had packed away in our bag which was searched by a guard. But if you don’t feel like lugging sandwiches from home, there’s also a PAX Wholesome Food (80 West 40th Street; 212.221.0301) right across the street from Bryant Park. PAX is a rank and file New York deli masquerading as something a bit more upscale, but wholesome is definitely a stretch. But you can grab sandwiches, salads and snacks there and take them back to the park. If you’d prefer not to dine al fresco, there’s always Le Pain Quotidian (70 West 40th Street; 212.354.5224) right next door, a reliable, kid-friendly, mini-chain which turns out consistently good sandwiches, soups and pastries.

There are more upscale options nearby too, such as The Bryant Park Grill (attached to the back of the library; 212.850.650). But take our word for it, don’t do it with the kids. It might sound and look like a good idea—particularly if you are by then in the grips of a touristy fugue—but dine there with tired kids and you’ll surely live regret it.

GLUTTON FOR PUNISHMENT?
If after you’ve read to your hearts content, spun again and again on the carousel and refilled on tasty sandwiches, you still don’t feel like you’ve had your fill of New York adventures for the day, head a couple of blocks east to Grand Central Station (87 East 42nd Street bet. Vanderbilt and Lexington Avenues).

Nearly 100 years old, Grand Central Station is depot to more than 600 trains, home to more than 100 retail stores and boasts more the 500,000 visitors a day. And it’s beautiful. Breathtakingly so. It’s pristinely clean too, which given the foot traffic it sees is something close to a miracle. And in a city so overtaking by modern architecture, not all of it good, Grand Central Terminal and the main Branch of the Public Library are both fitting homage’s to all that the city once was. And between the constellation-studded main terminal ceiling and the endless ramps down to the Oyster Bar, Grand Central Station truly is a kid’s playground, even for kids who aren’t crazy for trains.

Plus, with everyone rushing this way and that anyway, no ones really going to care if your kids are running around like lunatics. (Though, it is crowded, so be sure to keep a close eye on them.)

Truly there’s enough at Grand Central to warrant an entire afternoon—including guided tours and an annex of the New York City Transit Museum with rotating exhibits—but even a quick pass through will give you at least a taste of all that history. There’s even a self-guided walking tour laid out on Grand Central’s website which will give you a great place to start, and some fun facts and history about the station you can share with the kids as you stroll through. You can pick and choose just a couple items on the tour to visit (see if you can get the Whispering Galley to work—we sure as heck couldn’t) and breeze through in a few minutes or stretch out your visit for much longer.

And just when you think your kids—okay maybe you—are just about to lose it there in Grand Central Terminal are Zaro’s (Upper Level) and Junior’s Cheesecake (Grand Central Lower Level) to the rescue. Who says a cookie the size of your head can’t save the day? We, and our sugar satiated children, would certainly beg to disagree.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The MOMA

THE RATINGS
(on a scale of 1-10, 1 being crap and 10, perfection)
Hassle (as in lack thereof): 4
Parent’s Enjoyment: 7
Kid’s Fun: 5
Educational: 10
Cost: Free!



The Museum of Modern Art is, without question, one of the best museums in New York City. Housing one of the biggest and most influential collections of modern Western art in the world, the MOMA is a must see for tourists and native New Yorker’s alike. The museum is an ideal mix of cutting edge installations and astonishing, modern masterpieces, all wrapped up in a gorgeous newly renovated building. And with a helicopter hanging from the ceiling, brightly colored sculptures big enough to walk through and an outdoor sculpture garden with room to ramble, the MOMA is, for kids, about as good as an art museum gets.

And the MOMA goes out of its way to cater to the diminutive set with their “Tours for Fours,” (4 year olds and their caregivers) “A Closer Look for Kids,” (ages 5 to 10 and caregivers).

So being the intrepid, art loving, adventure seeking New Yorker’s that we are, we decided to head to midtown with our gaggle of eight, on a recent weekend, to find out whether these MOMA tours are worth the trip.

THE SKINNY

Be prepared for some logistics

Getting through the logistics of the MOMA kids’ tours-finding where they leave from, lining up for tickets and dealing with the administrative details—is a process. Figuring out how one could get into the MOMA somewhat before 10:00 a.m. (as the website suggests) if the museum doesn’t open until 10:00 am is confusing.

The explanation becomes clear, however, once you arrive and realize—in our case after asking a bunch of people and getting lost twice—that the Kid’s Tours actually leave from the Research and Education building, an entirely separate place, with a separate entrance, attached to the back of the MOMA (See below for address)

Once we finally found the Research Building, things stayed intense. By the time 10:00a.m. rolls around, the Research Building is crowded and noisy, with the harried vibe of the line for free tickets to Shakespeare in the park. Okay, it’s not that bad, nothing is that bad. And on the upside all this means that if you have truly unruly little ones with you no one will notice, much less care, if they’re loud.

It’s better than free!

Not only are the kids tours free but Free MOMA admission for a family of four is included which will make you feel petty and ungrateful for complaining about any of those earlier, minor inconveniences. In fact, it might just make you decide—as we did— that the MOMA kid’s tours is one of the best kept secrets in town.

For us, relief came quickly anyway, when tickets in hand, we were soon sorted into our color-coded tour group. Groups have about ten kids (and their respective parents) per leader and there were about a half dozen groups. Each group heads to a different place in the museum, covering a different group of works, organized around a different theme.

Be prepared to pay attention and participate

And soon after we’d found our group, we were off. Whoever designed the tour, clearly knows their audience—impatient, short-attention spans, unable to sit still for long. Tours last less than an hour and the guides keep things moving, literally as well as figuratively.

On a related note, we left our three year olds with our husbands (who, no doubt used their time to educate them about abstract expressionism), taking only our five year olds on the tour. While, you are permitted to bring younger siblings along, unless (and even if) you have a second adult with you, it would be extremely difficult to manage a second and keep your older child engaged.

The tours are interactive too, including opportunities to sketch, work in groups and answer questions, encouraging kids to think about the art in ways parents would be unlikely to on their own. But this isn’t the kind of situation where the tour guide takes your kid off your hands so you can linger at the back of the group surfing your I-Phone. Kid participation is required, so is that of the adults.

Don’t count on masterpieces

Our tour focused on the architecture and design section of the museum. And this is where the tours can be hit or miss. On the upside, we explored an off-the-beaten-path part of the museum. On the downside, maybe there’s a reason not so people go to that part.

We’d expected the tour to highlight some of the museum’s major masterpieces, to discuss broad artistic movements, to teach our kids about some major artists. But this isn’t what the tours are trying to do. Instead, they give kids some digestible, bite size pieces of art, engaging them by getting them to think creatively. The MOMA is nurturing future art lovers, not providing a survey lecture in Art History.


This is to the MOMA’s credit, of course and is surely a far more effective way to teach very young ones, but if you’re hoping to get a little art education yourself here, you may be disappointed. You’re not necessarily going to get that forty-five minutes about Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans or Matisse’s dancing ladies you’ve always wanted. In fact, you may spend time in your least favorite part of the museum looking at works of art that seem wildly insignificant compared to so much else on offer at the MOMA. Of course, every tour is different. And anyway, stop being so selfish and judgmental. Everything doesn’t always have to be about you.

The Bottom Line: it’s good and good for you

The MOMA kids tours are like vegetables for the brain: nutritious and depending on preparation and expectations, even quite delightful. And even if the route your guide takes isn’t exactly your cup of tea and even if your kid pitches of fit, you can still spend the rest of the day in the museum, completely free of charge. That is, if you haven’t, by then, pitched a fit yourself.

Because, let’s face it, grown-up museum going with tots in tow ain’t what it used to be. It’s best to keep expectations low and the visit short. And if you manage to linger for a minute or two in front of those Water Lilies, glimpse a Pollack as you rush to change a diaper and manage not to cave to the temptation of locking your tantruming child in the cage some artist spent a year living in, you can count the visit a success. Bonus points if you can keep your kids from fondling any of the art or ending up naked in one of the reflecting pools.

Hell, you have little kids and you’re at the MOMA for Christ’s sake. In our book, even if you do get scolded by a security guard or two, that at least entitles you to treat yourself to pack of Picasso note cards from the gift shop or something.

THE STATS
• MOMA’s “Tours for Fours” and a “Closer Look for Kids,” are offered Saturdays and Sundays from, 10:20–11:15 a.m. with a new theme explored each month, and a different tour given each week depending on your guide leader.
• You do not pick up the tour inside the MOMA itself. Programs begin—and tickets are available—in The Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building, located at 4 West Fifty-fourth Street (closer to Fifth Avenue).
• Tickets are given away on a first-come, first-serve basis starting at 10:00 a.m. and capacity is limited. Plan to arrive by 9:45 a.m. to ensure tickets. Tours depart from the research building at 10:20 a.m.
• No reservations are required. There is a separate program suitable for teens older than 11. This program requires advanced registration.
• Tours are free and tickets include free admission to the MOMA and MOMA Film Screenings so that you and your family can stay and peruse the rest of the collection and even take in a flick afterwards.
• The program is for individual families of up to two adults and three kids. Tickets will not be given to partial parties. Additional Adults $20, seniors $16 (65 and over with ID), students $12, Member guests $5.
• Kids must be four years old or five to ten, respectively to attend the programs. Younger siblings will be allowed to accompany the group, but the participating child must be at least four, or five depending on the tour.
• Tickets issued for the tour are organized according to color-coded groups of about ten children and their families, assigned to a single tour guide. Each Tour guide heads to a different location in the museum. Therefore, if you plan to attend with another family and wish to stay together be sure that you are assigned the same color.
• Free, token-operated lockers are provided for coats and other belongings.
• Strollers are permitted, for younger siblings, but once tours are underway, they move quickly through the museum and utilize escalators. If you must bring a stroller be prepared to find out where your group is headed so you can find them later
• Call ahead to be sure that the Tours are running on any given weekend

REFUEL
When you’ve finished your kid’s tour, sucked every last drop of culture out of the rest of the MOMA and your eyes have glazed over as you sneak bites of a wrinkled fruit leather you found at the bottom of your bag, it’s time to find some real food.

On the day we visited the MOMA, we headed to nearby to the Warhol infused POP Burger (14 East 58th Street, nr. 5th; 212.991.6644) to try and reclaim our equilibrium and keep our love affair with art alive. POP Burger is a casual-sheik, fast-food joint with light-box and lithograph covered walls and a soundtrack that’s good enough to hum along too, but not so good that you’ll feel over the hill. Pop Burger’s main thing is sliders, but they have a handful of other offerings too. The burgers are pretty-good and while not cheap are reasonable, particularly considering the other neighborhood offerings. The big selling point for POP Burger is convenience and ambience. We went on the early side for lunch and the place was nearly empty. You order at the counter too, and your food arrives in minutes. After taking down one of New York City’s biggest cultural institutions with the rug rats, what you want more than anything is a place to park your rear end. Pop Burger is also pretty cute inside too, with a nice youngish buzz (and by young, we mean twenty-something, not twelve). And the kids will have fun spotting pictures like the ones they just saw in the MOMA. Be prepared to distract your children upon entry and exit, though. Pop burger is right across the street from FAO Schwarz.

You can find a burger to really write home about nearby at the Burger Joint (119 W. 56th Street, near 6th Ave; 212.708.7414), tucked inside the Le Parker Meridien Hotel (if you can’t find it—yes, it’s hidden—ask hotel reception). The place is quite deliberately a little hole in the wall, delightfully worn and decidedly kid friendly. But it can be crowded and finagling to get a seat can require some good old fashioned New Yorker-ing. You’ll get an amazing burger here, but if you and your kids are over hungry or tired it may not be worth pushing your luck.

Another good local option with kids is Le Pain Quotidien (7 East 53rd, Bt. Madison & 5th;; 646.845.0012). Only steps from the MOMA’s door, this kid friendly Café serves sandwiches, and pastries and soups. Part of a mini-chain, Le Pain Quotidien is reliably good for breakfast or lunch and though they don’t have a kids menu per se they have a broad enough array of choices that you should be able to find something you can get even the pickiest eater to choke down. And they have caffeine. Lots of it. And by this point, you might seriously need it.

MOMA has a café too on the second floor, aptly named Café 2, with a big, sophisticated menu. Don’t overlook it as an option, especially if you realize you’ve already pushed it too far and everyone is melting. $11.00 for a cheese panini can be a very small price pay for a sliver of sanity. That said, going with children to either of the MOMA’s other, fancier restaurants—Terrace 5 or The Modern, would be, in our humble opinion, insane.

GLUTTON FOR PUNISHMENT?
If you are still ambulatory after all that and are either 1) trying to win an award for parent of the year or 2) trying to work off some serious parenting guilt, consider heading east to Dylan’s Candy Bar (1011 Third Avenue, b/t 61st and 60th Street; 646-735-0078).

It’s a bit of a hike, but not terrible (provided you have strollers/carriers for the wee ones and kids who are used to walking). And, really, what’s a few extra blocks anyway when a sugar wonderland awaits? The candy filled steps inside Dylan’s are alone worth the trip. Just be sure to 1) come up with some semi-logical limit for how much candy your kid can get before you get in the store and 2) buy some candy for yourself while you’re at it.

No matter how delightful your own little darlings are, they’re not going to share with you, no matter how we all know you deserve it.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Welcome!

So this is us. And this is why we're here.

Nicole and I have each enjoyed our fair share of adventures over the years. I’ve climbed a mountain in Japan, backpacked across Mexico, and zip-lined through Costa Rica. I braved the visa requirements of Russia and honeymooned in the wilds of South Africa. Of the many things that united my husband and I, perhaps most powerful was the desire to forge a life grounded in discovery. Nicole, for her part, walked the boards Off-Broadway and sought fame on the silver screen in Hollywood, auditioning to play Herpes-afflicted kickbozers, and brides overdosed on Botox. She trained as a contortionist, learned belly-dancing tricks and bartended in the meat-packing district. She fell for her director while making an indie movie in the hills of Appalachia and they got hitched and together read (OK, part read, part skimmed) James Joyce's oeuvre.

Then, we both had kids. And let’s face it, things change. Not your fundamental personality, of course. Deep down, we're still the itinerant, thrill-seeking souls we’ve always been. But day in and day out, we’ve had to adjust. And while we’re determined not to allow our passions to die simply because we decided to procreate, we’re also not the types to drag our newborn to Antarctica or to hoist our toddler on our backs and hop on the flying trapese. Instead, we’ve learned to manage our expectations. We've come to accept that--at least for the time being--we need to ferret out most of our excitement a little closer to home.

The great news for us is that our home is New York City, a city with enough intellectual and cultural heft to broaden even the most expansive horizon. But even these more local forays need to be tailored to the realities of life with tot-in-tow—strollers, bathroom accessibility, short attention spans. One could ignore these limitations. People in New York City certainly do. They take their children to the Metropolitan Opera or for dinner at 9 pm at Nobu and get angry when their progeny are frowned upon in their favorite bar. To each his own, of course, but in our families we believe that inflicting that kind of pain on or ourselves, or others, is insane, not to mention terrible Karma.

So like so many parents we turned for guidance to the “what to do with kids in New York” lists which abound. But they left us wanting too. I mean, one suggested that we take the kids to FAO Schwarz at the holidays? Really? Because I’d rather drill needles into my eyes. And are we really relegated to a lifetime of Children’s Museums now? I mean, for the next eighteen years? Even the good suggestions are often so woefully lacking in detail as to be almost useless.

What both Nicole and I really craved were suggestions for things to do in NYC that would be fun and educational for the kids, but also entertaining and enriching for us as adults. And we wanted some insider tips and off-the beat and path suggestions too. We are New Yorkers after all. We want to know what exact time is best to arrive and what’s the secret entrance with no line to get you in and the perfect place to grab gelato afterwards, the kind of details our favorite grown-up travel guides had always given us. But, as helpful as all the articles and lists and profiles are, we never have found exactly that.

So we decided to make it ourselves. And here it is. Because you’re a parent, but you’re not dead yet. You just need to Think Outside the Sandbox.