The Big Questions

“What are Captain America’s powers?”

These are the kind of questions I have to field now that my 5-year-old has discovered superheroes. Which is mostly awesome. Though most of my superhero facts come from 70’s Saturday morning cartoons like Super Friends.

So I know a little too much about the Wonder Twins and their monkey Gleek and less about Captain America. Oddly, the Wonder Twins aren’t really taking part in the superhero renaissance we’re having right now.

But even when I know the origin stories, it can get a bit dicey explaining them on a 4 and 5-year-old level. Telling my kids Spider Man got his powers when he was bitten by a radioactive spider doesn’t exactly play into my goal of trying to get them to calm the hell down when they see a stinkbug. “But what if it’s radioactive?!” I mean, come on. We’re still working on not being scared of thunder; do I really need to introduce the concept of radioactivity?

Even though superheroes are marketed to young kids, they actually exist in a dangerous and morally ambiguous world that can be exhausting to explain to a preschooler. The gray ethical areas around vigilante justice meted out by people who have been deformed by radiation poisoning is not what I want to get into Tuesday morning before I’ve had coffee.

“Is the Hulk good?”

“Um….hey, want to know where babies come from?”

Luckily I often get a few softball questions too, like, “What’s Superman’s power?” Or, my favorite because it’s one of the few things I can be definitive about in this world, “Are superheroes real?”

“No, honey, they’re just stories.”

Which is something I need to remind my kids of a lot around bedtime. Just like almost every Disney movie starts with a mother dying, almost every superhero story starts with some horrific science tragedy. And we wonder why the U.S. is lagging in the sciences. I’m sure this rising up in the face of adversity theme is a great message for kids and all, but I’m just trying to get them to sleep. I don’t need primers for thought provoking discussions on when mommy is going to die or be accidentally trapped in an atom smasher.

Coinciding with the superhero obsession is a pretty aggressive curiosity around God. And, let’s be honest, you can see how this might get confusing; especially when you throw Thor into the equation

“Oh, so he’s a god. Like God?”

“Kind of.”

“What’s God’s superpower?”

“Um…”

“Is God real?”

“Hey, do you know how you got out of mommy’s belly?”

Derailed

I love a good music festival. Sitting on a folding chair with an umbrella, drinking beer and eating fried foods, it’s as American as apple pie. Which probably explains our obesity problem. Still, the Three Rivers Arts Festival is right up my alley. I was excited to try it out one of my first summers living in Pittsburgh.

Unfortunately I have children.

I’m sorry, that came out wrong.

My wife and I chose to bless ourselves with two little miracles who prevent us from doing fun things. Their bedtime and babysitter logistics made it difficult to make the festival at night. But no matter, we decided to take the kids during the day. We would make it an outing. Now, when planning an outing with a 3 and 4 year old, I find it important to remember the ”box principle” That is, you can buy your kid a super fancy cool toy and they will spend the day running around with their head in the box it came in, singing “I am a musical robot!” until they trip over the actual toy and break it; you can never predict what a child will find entertaining.

Once we took our kids to see a live performance of their favorite show, Yo Gabba Gabba. We bought the tickets, battled through traffic and parking at the Benedum, and sat through 2 hours of this:

We did not do this for our own entertainment. But their highlight: the escalator. The box principle.

So we take a shotgun approach to discussing any day’s plan, no matter how cool we think the end game is. “Guess what we’re doing today? We’re going to have breakfast?! Yeah. And then we’re going to pick out some pants for you to wear?! “

It was in this spirit that we decided to take the subway to the Three Rivers Arts Festival.

And we struck box gold.

It turns out our kids had become obsessed with subways after an episode of Caillou, a horrendous kids cartoon from Canada. The show stars a 3-year-old named Caillou who is inexplicably bald. At first I thought it was about a kid struggling with cancer which would have been very bold. But it turns out it’s supposed to just make Caillou more of an “everykid” that both toddlers and babies can relate to. In practice, it’s creepy. And his parents are annoying in that overly indulgent, everything is a lesson Canadian kind of way.

Plus, I know this is going to sound weird, but his mom’s chest is drawn all wrong.
It’s like the chest of a once buxom 80-year-old showgirl on a middle aged woman. In scenes where it’s just close-ups of Caliou’s head talking to his mom, you can still see the contours of it. It’s an odd choice. And the illustrator also randomly draws Caillou’s babysitters or young teachers with crop tops for some reason. It’s all off. Like Canadian bacon.

Anyway, one day Caillou takes the subway somewhere and learns all about the wonders of public transportation. My kids watched this episode about 100 times.
So when we mentioned the subway they lit up; “You mean we get to take the subway just like Caillou?!” Well, hopefully not exactly like Caillou. Mommy will wear a bra, but yes.

There was much jumping around the house and singing, “We’re taking the subway!”
And if we’re being honest, it wasn’t just my kids who were excited. I grew up in Los Angeles where public transportation is exotic, like driving on the wrong side of the road or using a unicycle. So I’m a bit fascinated by it myself. “Oooh, a subway? Will there be a salty nut vendor? A crazy hobo?”

The subway in question was the extension that connects downtown to the North Shore. When this station opened it was heralded around my office on the North Side like the opening of a new ride at Kennywood. We all took it downtown for lunch one day. It took us two hours to pick up Mongolian BBQ at the food court in Gateway Center and bring it back to the office. As useful workday public transportation goes, this route only makes sense if you are trying to get fired.

But as a way to give drunk people a chance to nap on the way back to their car after a Steelers game, it’s spot on. For what they spent to build this one mile connection the city may have been better off just covering everyone’s taxis for the next 15 years. But for coming south down Route 28 and to avoid downtown parking on a weekend, it’s perfect.

So our subway journey started with a 20 minute drive; out of the gate my kids are learning the wrong lessons about public transportation. “Everyone get in the car. Let’s buckle up so we can drive to the subway.” When they’re told people in New York don’t need cars because they have the subway, my children will be confused. Once we hit the North Shore we could have continued driving another five minutes to get to our actual destination, but that was no longer an option. You do not renege on the promise of a subway ride.

The station itself is a new, shiny modern building of glass, steel, concrete and sharp angles; a bit of architectural sleight of hand to distract the residents of the North Side and North Hills from the fact that the Pittsburgh subway runs twenty-three miles south of the city with forty-five stops, and then ends with this 523 million dollar two-stop nub on the other side of the river. An urban planning booby prize. “No, we don’t go to Cranberry, but look at this flying buttress!” “Up to Millvale? No way. But look at this glass elevator!”

On this sunny Saturday morning with a huge festival just across the river, the station was a hub of inactivity. We entered at street level and saw there was already a train waiting above at the platform level. This could have been perfect timing if not for the ticketing machines on the lower level which were apparently designed by the same committee that decided to replace simple parking meters with a new streamlined system that involves waiting behind someone as they try to remember their license plate number in the snow. In this case there was some kind of zone system involved and by the time we deciphered the map and figured out we were travelling in a free zone, we had missed the train.

So for one of the first times in my life I managed to be pissed about getting a free ride.
The kids were, of course, unfazed, focused as they were on the escalator. “You didn’t even tell us there was going to be an escalator!”

Kid outing tip #2: always keep a few surprises to yourself. There will be a day, probably very soon, where I will not be able to entertain my kids just by taking them somewhere that is two stories. So we rode up and down a few times. Then they ran back and forth on the platform. Then they noticed the tunnel.

The ride from the North Shore to Gateway goes under the Allegheny River and standing on the platform you can see the track curve toward the river and head down. If you’ve at all been paying attention you should be able to guess that tunnels are right in my kids’ wheelhouse. “A way for something to get somewhere?! Sign me up!”
Waiting for the subway now took on a sense of urgency. They couldn’t have cared less that we were taking it to the festival. In fact, I’m pretty sure they didn’t remember where the hell we were going. They just had to get into that tunnel. And until they did, they were going to grill me about it.
“Are we going to go under the water? How do we get under the water? Will we get wet? Why not?” I felt like my Saturday morning was turning into a McCarthy hearing. By the time we got into discussing what the fish may or may not have been doing while the tunnel was being built, I wanted to grab them both, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

I mean, seriously, the last time I even tried digging a hole I was seven and attempting to make a trap for my sister. The plan was to cover the hole with leaves and brush, lure her out and she’d fall in. Just like in Looney Tunes. Instead, I got stuck to the shovel by a large splinter and my mom had to call the paramedics to detach me. I’m not going to have your answers on this tunnel.

Eventually, the subway came and we went to the Arts Festival , which would have been a tremendous disappointment had anyone actually been looking forward to it at this point. There were no bands in Pittsburgh awake, let alone playing at noon. And the festival’s vaunted “kids area” is essentially a few folding tables with crayons and a guy who keeps a bongo in his van. Don’t get me wrong, I think the Three Rivers Arts Festival is a great event. We were just there at the wrong time for our tastes; my kids have limited interest in buying framed lithographs of the Pittsburgh skyline.

But it didn’t matter anymore. We’d eat some fried food, probably on a stick. Followed by chocolate-covered things, also on sticks. And then we would ride the subway home. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, life is journey a, not a destination. And to think, he hadn’t even ridden an escalator.

Dog Day

I don’t currently have a dog, but I had one  growing up and like to consider myself a dog person; for the most part I trust dogs and am comfortable around them. This is an attitude I’d like to pass on to my kids, even if we’re never going to own our own dog for various reasons.  (Reason #1: I’ll never again knowingly bring something into my house that is going to wake me up at five in the morning. No matter how cute it is.  Got fooled twice on that one already.)

So when I was attacked by a pack of dogs at the park, more than anything my feelings were hurt.

It was a weekday afternoon and the park was mostly empty; just me and what  appeared to be a drum circle waiting for the guy with the drums. Their dogs, five or so, were playing around them unleashed.  As I passed, the dogs headed toward me. This would normally not concern me except the owners not only smelled like a Phish concert but were also not paying attention.

I should clarify my comfort level with dogs is directly proportional to my comfort level with their owners. I don’t think twice about a friend’s dog just like I hope they don’t worry my kids are going to lunge at them and gouge their eyes out with a My Little Pony comb.  But  I do get slightly nervous when I see a German Shepherd being walked alone by a fifty pound eight-year-old or an unleashed Rottweiler  bounding toward me while his owner is on the phone scheduling their next neck tattoo.

As these particular dog owners  were otherwise engaged in a deep a debate over what’s more anti-establishment, hacky sacks or those juggling sticks, their dogs formed a semicircle around me and began growling and baring their teeth.

I slowly started backing up,  doing my best to appear calm and not show fear while  yelling,  “Hey, come get your fucking dogs!”  It was one of those moments where the local paper headlines about you flash before your eyes.  “Man Mauled!”  “Lunch Hour Dog Attack!” “Local Man Not As Cool With Dogs as He Thought!”

Finally, right as one of the them jumped for me, an unemployed Janis Joplin impersonator hopped up from the circle and called off the pack, “I’m so sorry, they are never like this.”

Bad opener. Subtle victim blaming is not the best approach to take with someone your dog has just attacked.    Unless she was going to follow that up with, “You must be one of us,” and then induct me into their gang of hippie undead Lost Boy-style.

But much to my chagrin she did not.  Which meant she was really just  saying,  “Why is your negative energy bumming out my dogs?”

Shaken, I headed back to work.  It wasn’t until then that I realized one of the dogs had actually scraped me and drawn blood. This led to one of the more awkward office bathroom exchanges as a co-worker walked in on me with my jeans rolled up,  wiping blood off my leg.  “How’s it going?”  “I was just attacked by dogs in the park.”  “Mondays.  Am I right?”

I then spent the next hour at my desk  self-diagnosing rabies.

Worked into a panic I went back to the scene of the crime to find the owners and ask if the dogs had their shots.  Sure enough, the drum circle was still there. Still sans drum.  Janis Joplin assured me all the dogs were very “well taken care of.”  Which, of course.  What is she going to say, “Oh, these dogs? No, they’re totally illegal. Here, do you want me to call the humane society or do you want to just put them down yourself with this rock?”  Still, I felt reassured.

I ended up not getting rabies (yet), though my doctor did have me come in for a tetanus shot. I still like to consider myself a dog person.  But I am definitely more wary of drum circles.  Especially those without drums.

Frequent Flyers

Earlier this summer we took a family  trip to Sedona, AZ.  Many people flee a place when its temperatures reach over 110 degrees.  Not us.  We pack up the suitcases and dive in.  Because we live on the east coast now and so think 110 isn’t that bad if it’s a dry heat.  Even though, as my mother-in-law pointed out, so is a fucking oven (I might be paraphrasing).

Still,  Sedona in July is beautiful in that Breaking Bad, this-would-be-a-good-place-to-dispose-of-a-dead-body kind of way.  Though, oddly, “dead body disposal” never shows up on the Sedona tourism literature.  Instead the focus is on spiritual renewal.  This is because Sedona is apparently blessed with four strong energy vortexes; swirling centers of energy which resonate at a frequency that can strengthen the Inner Being (that’s capital I, capital B in all Sedona literature).

Unfortunately I can’t really speak to the effectiveness of the Sedona vortexes since I was traveling with energy vortexes of my own, TB and TG,  who resonate at a frequency that makes your Inner Being go out for a pack of cigarettes and never come back.

Yes they are amazing and a blessing and all that.  But, seriously, it’s hard to get away from it all when the all you are trying to get away from is in the seat next to you asking for gum and another episode of  Caillou every 5 five minutes.

On top of them, there’s all the them-related stuff.   I once traveled across Europe with one backpack.   We now need an excel spreadsheet just to pack our carry-on luggage for a four hour flight.   “Do we have enough snacks? Diapers and wipes for TG?  A change of underwear for TB?  A change of pants for both of them – remember the explosive diarrhea incident.  Crayons?  Are you sure we have enough snacks?  Paper?  DVD Player? Books?  The iPad? Are you SURE we have enough snacks? Good lord we cannot run out of snacks!”

Overkill, perhaps.  But trust me, you do not want to be caught unprepared on a plane next to someone with a short attention span and little understanding of social norms.  A three-year-old doesn’t respond well to “the journey is the destination.”

Which is why our kids actually love flying — they’ve learned airplanes are an anything goes zone; all normal rules for screen time and snack food are on hold when we’re trapped in a metal tub with strangers 30,000 feet in the air.  It’s Vegas up there for them.  Just a bacchanal orgy of lollipops, Pixar movies and juice.  And when we finally try to put our foot down, the flight attendants cruise by preemptively throwing bags of cookies at them.  My kids roll out of airplanes like they’re coming out of Jeff Spicoli’s van from Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

WordPlay Returns

WordPlay

As the 3 of you know, I produced a show in L.A. called WordPlay for over 5 years.  It was comedy writers telling true stories to a live DJ soundtrack.  And as you also may know, thanks to support from the Sprout Fund and Bricolage Theater, I’ve revived the show here in Pittsburgh.  I won’t toot my own horn, but you can read other people tooting it here and here and here.   Don’t miss the action. Mark your calendar for our next show (tickets on sale soon).

WordPlay: True Stories with a Live Soundtrack
9/6 @ 8pm $15

Bricolage Theater 937 Liberty Ave