Family Life

Frank SinataSo here’s what’s on my “Trip to New York”  iPod Playlist….

  • New York, New York (Really? Leave this one out?) – Frank Sinatra
  • New York’s Not My Home – Jim Croce
  • Nights on Broadway – BeeGees
  • New York Sate of Mind – Billy Joel
  •  New York Groove – Kiss
  •  New York Minute – Don Henley
  • Bad Bad Leroy Brown – Jim Croce
  • Englishman in New York – Sting
  • Sullivan Street – Counting Crows
  •  I am, I Said – Neil Diamond

 Believe it or not, all these songs came from my current iPod library and not a single one purchased for the sole intent of this road trip playlist.

(I know.  My  iPod music could use a serious injection of something from this decade)

(Actually, it’s not even my iPod)

And no, as a matter of fact, not.  My kids recognized not a one.  Okay maybe New York, New York (thanks to the movie Madagascar).   If you can think of anymore I should add, please help me out.  My hip-itude is rapidly losing pace with children’s.

 Sightseeing in New York City…DSC01705
When in Rome, do as the Romans… right?  Having lived in Manhattan for a time, I really wanted to show my kids another face of New York and not just the touristy facade.  I guess we all got a taste of both and in the end, that’s probably not a bad way to see the Big Apple for the first time.  Hooking up with Manhattanites I knew and staying in an apartment instead of a hotel probably went a long way to help achieve our New York State of Mind…

 Here’s what we did in our first four days as New Yorkers:

  • Sony Wonder Technology Lab – It’s free but you have to call at least three weeks ahead to make a timed entry reservation.  Lots of techno-fun from making a footprint of your voice, editing your own video clip to anchoring your own newscast.  We were there for about 90 minutes.  We then enjoyed sipping some Starbucks in the Sony building atrium while the kids gawked at the gargantuan Spiderman (had to be 15 stories high) mounted on atrium window.
  • Walking tour of Central Park – We met my friend Adam, who was born, raised and has lived most of his adult life in Manhattan.  We picked up some awesome deli sandwiches at Lenny’s on the Upper West Side, and, along with his wife and their daughter, had a picnic at Turtle Pond in Central Park.  I could think of no one better to give my kids a walking tour of Central park.  We visited the Pond and all its RC sailboats, explored tons of statues including Balto the Dog and Alice in Wonderland.  I still enjoy the Poet’s Walk even if at my age, I still haven’t heard of half of them.  A carousel ride, some ice cream and a walk through the Central Park Zoo (although we didn’t actually go in).  Saturday in the Park – you’d think it was the Fourth of July.  New Yorkers are obviously used to walking.  Adam’s two-year old daughter complained the least on this leg of our journey.
  • The Cathedral of St. John the Devine – My kids were thoroughly unimpressed to be at church while on vacation, but the fact that the Statue of Liberty can fit inside this immense cathedral interested them enough to stay another – oh – 5 minutes.  However, this is a truly spectacular Anglican spectacle in the middle of Harlem… a couple of centuries in the making and still not complete.
  • South Street Seaport – this should be a weather-dependent excursion!  Though the vendors, eats, shopping and Harbour boat tour satisfied my crew, I would have enjoyed it so much more on a sunny day.
  • The Rock (observation deck) at Rockefeller Center – go at night so you don’t have to wait 3 hours in line and the night skyline is extraordinary.  The ride up the elevator is half the fun (don’t forget to look up)!  The professional picture taking was a little hokey but you’re under no obligation. It’s comparable in price to the Empire State Building.  We also got crushed in the crowd waiting to enjoy Leonard Cohen at Carnegie Hall.  “Please!” I begged the kids, “Someone ask me how to get to Carnegie Hall!”.  They didn’t get it.
  • The American Museum of Natural History – Don’t miss it – and take the subway!  It’s the best museum in New York hands down.  Take in the Discovery Room if going with kids (it’s a hidden gem).  It is also one of the many museums in New York which lists “Suggested Admission”.  Knowing we had only 3 hours to spend there, I told the clerk I had $30 to spend (I think suggested admission for all five of us would have cost $50 – which I believe is what we spend in their food court).
  • Yankee Stadium – We bought our tickets on line before hand.  Bleacher seats were all we could find (read: afford).  So for $15 a pop, we went early for batting practice, snagged a few free ball caps, caught a few errant fly balls, ate gross stadium food, sat in the bleachers and froze our buns off but the kids never complained except when we decided to leave early in the 8thinning..  The highlight for me?  The beer vendor carded me!  A great night out though.  Yankee fans are hard core and make Hab fans look like saints.  But seriously, when looking for tickets my husband misread the “best available’ seats for $29.00 when they were actually $2900.  “Who actually sits in these seats?” he wondered aloud.  Well, while at ESPN Zone we noted that Donald Trump was actually sitting in those seats.
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ( +Guggenheim, 92nd Street Y) – as much of a New York experience as this should be, my kids were not at all into this museum.  Once we’d finished touring the Egyptian and Medieval Wings it was time to lunch and lounge in Central Park again.   I did walk them past the 92ns Street “Y” which I called home for 8 months back in ’86…unimpressed.  En route to the Met I took them past the Guggenheim.  Not only were they interested in seeing the museum because it was shown in the movie Men in Black, but also because my friend Adam’s wife and regaled a very funny story about it.  Apparently, a friend of hers some twenty years ago had decided to see how far she could get skateboarding down from the upper level (you will only understand this possibility once you see the Guggenheim for yourself).  Well, the story goes that she got ¼ of the way down before a security guard nailed her and kicked her out.
  • Playing ‘catch’ in the park – just taking in a sunny day in the Park, I showed the kids the Reservoir where I used to jog almost daily.
  • Phantom of the Opera – I’m not sure if it’s the best place to get discounted Broadway tickets (apparently some theatres now have lotteries!), but still a sure bet are the TKTS booths offering 50% of same day shows.  What I did learn this trip, however, was that the booth at Southstreet Seaport was much more expedient than the one in Time Square.  So $300 later, we had 5 orchestra level seats to Phantom of the Opera.  “This is great”, my daughter quipped, “but when do they stop singing?”

Here’s what was also on my Agenda and had planned to do but ran out of energy, time and/or money:

  •  Magic Bus Tour of Manhattan City bus M5 route is a 90-minute loop we could have taken with our Metro card…. Takes you past all the major sites of lower Manhattan.  You can pick it up at Columbus Circle.
  • Chinatown
  • The Lower East Side Tenement Museum
  • The Shark boat tour of New York harbour (I guess I should say harbor?)
  • The Empire State Building
  • The Bronx Zoo

…all to do next time…

 There are close to 3,000 restaurants in Manhattan alone.  It is just plum full of amazing restaurants – a recent article in the newspaper highlighted some of the sweet deals you could get at many fancy and famous ones (ask for prix fixe or sampler menus!).  So when my kids are older, perhaps we’ll explore every one of them!  That being said, I had no intention of spending my Manhattan days shopping for groceries and cooking meals.  A quick trip to The Food Emporium on Third Av. ensured we were well equipped for a nutritious and ample breakfast in the apartment before venturing out (including coffee – especially since I recently heard of a bombing of a Starbucks in the neighbourhood in which we stayed!) and snacks for the road.  Plenty of delis and street vendors would ensure we were well fed at lunch.  While I did spend some time exploring reasonable and kid-friendly restaurants (ones that I could stomach as well), we still had some trouble finding a place to eat late on Sunday evening and sadly resorted to TGI Fridays after being turned away from several restaurants closing early Sunday evenings.  Note to would-be travelers to Manhattan:  even though my kids loved it, you can skip TGI Fridays. 

I was trying to maintain a pretty strict budget as well, so a trip to Momofuku Ko or Convivio were not on our agenda – nor was Tavern on the Green.  Here is my summary (bearing in mind the palates of an 8, 11 and 13-year old):

  •  ESPNZone on Broadway at 42nd:  Yes.  Absolutely.  A total media circus!  However my kids have never been to Manhattan so Time Square was a pretty fitting first outing.  Assuming this would be all-sports-pub-grub, I was actually pleasantly surprised with my tasty warm steak salad.  Be warned though, if you don’t like watching TV while [actually] going to the bathroom (no, seriously), you better take a Hail Mary pass on this restaurant.
  • Monte’s in the West Village is a traditional Italian eatery that has been around for almost 100 years.  The walk through this neighbourhood was part of the fun.  We walked past dozens of eateries and pubs (including my favourite from many years back, The Back Fence, on Bleeker Street).  The service was impeccable.  The only thumbs down came from my 11-year old who could not understand how an Italian restaurant could not serve pizza.  Suck it up, Buttercup.  And he did.  He ordered fresh, broiled lobster.  Who’s doing the sucking up now?
  • By far, our favourite meal was Ellen’s Stardust Diner on Broadway at 51st.  If you’re interested in knowing how Broadway wannabees earn their keep… this is a great place to visit.  The food is Americana 1950’s but we all found something we loved – especially the most amazing milkshakes.  You can’t leave room for dessert!
  • My regret?  We never made it to Chinatown.
  • My other regret?  It would appear that NYC menus now post not only the prices but also the caloric value…try not to get the two confused…ellensstardustdiner

Park Ave.Seven hours in the van and suddenly the skyline of Manhattan comes into full but hazy view.  The greenery and scenery of the drive from Ottawa to New York City are gorgeous but what we found truly astonishing was that while we were still in the midst of this greenery, Madame GPS was telling us that we’re 30 minutes from “arriving at destination”.    Oh – but wait – it took us an hour to get from E 42nd Street to Park and 63rd.  Then, at registration, I am told what no one wants to hear after 8 hours in the car:  “We have a little situation with your accommodation”. 

So let me step back a couple of months when I first started researching potential accommodation for our family trip to New York City.  There are literally thousands of hotel options!   If you’re flexible with your vacation dates, there are lots of deals to be found …especially with this recent economic turmoil.  A friend of mine alerted me to a Hot Deal at the Radisson at $160/night room rate but not for the dates we wanted.  I started making inquiries (by the way, most on line booking tools have an issue with any configuration beyond 2 adults and 2 kids), I was also informed by each hotel that, due to fire regulations,  we would require 2 rooms for our family of five.  Ouch.  Trying not to miss too much school we chose to go over the Canadian May long weekend.  Another friend told me about short term apartment rentals so I started researching that option.  Several places I contacted would not allow children (can’t say as I blame them) and several others would only offer a minimum of one-month stay (I thought that would be great but my husband thought it was a little excessive.).  After several calls, I found an agency that allowed children and had a minimum 5-night booking so we started to explore their offerings.  was able to offer us 2-bedrooms for $475/night.  I know that’s expensive, but it turned out to be cheaper for us that 2 hotel rooms for this particular weekend of our choosing.  A pretty big downside to booking an apartment versus a hotel is that most agencies have a pathetic or non-existent cancellation policy.  A 30% deposit is typical and is generally non-refundable if a cancellation occurs (though we were assured that if our plans were altered, a credit would be arranged).

So back to the saga of our check-in after 8 hours in the car.  Apparently renovations in the building in which we were originally booked (at 7th and 58th –) had required the rental agency to move several guests due to excessive noise and dust.  She offered us alternative arrangements, right there at Park and 63rd.  It was a very quiet first floor apartment at the rear of the building looking over the patio of someone much wealthier.  Two bedrooms, two bathrooms, renovated kitchen… couldn’t really complain.  Naturally she mentioned it was more expensive than what we booked but that discrepancy was quickly settled.  We unloaded the van and my husband was discharged to find parking which he did for $45/day.  There is cheaper parking available – certainly you can be lucky enough to find a spot on the street, but have you seen the way New York cabbies drive?  Outdoor lots are also possible and perhaps I would grow to love the graffiti on our aging Toyota Sienna.  Instead we opted for an indoor garage with security at $45/day. Once the van had also been settled into its own abode for the next five days (and $225 later), I got the thinking?  I wonder if anyone has tried to spend the $45 a night for parking and slept in their van?  Cheaper than a hotel and safer than the streets, don’t ya think?

The big apple

On a cold and dreary January morning in 1986, I was dropped off at the 92nd Street “Y” on Lexington Avenue in New York City.  I was in my third year of university and about to start an internship in Human Resources with the Riese Organization.  A restaurant firm that owned and operated some 350 fast food and full service restaurants all over Manhattan, they were ahead of their time opening the first multi-outlet locations (the Taco Bell, Roy Rogers Chicken and Dunkin Donuts trio dotted many Manhattan corners at the time).


To say I was nervous would be a colossal understatement.  I moved my meager belongings (2 suitcases) into my 8th floor dorm room I would be sharing with my college friend Anne who was also doing an internship in New York.  Later that day, as I sat in a coffee shop eating my dinner of toast and coffee (more ample meals would have to wait until that first paycheque came in), I confessed to Anne that I thought maybe I’d made a mistake.  I wasn’t sure if I was up to living in Manhattan.  Not sure exactly she said but I think it was not much more than a shrug, accompanied with “Well, go home, then.”   I’m pretty sure she followed this quickly with giving New York a chance, the commitment I’d made to the Riese Organization, the credits and tuition money I might jeopardize and a litany of other perceptive and practical comments.


Of course, I did stay in New York for 8 months and quickly learning the ins and outs of the subway system, the bounteous salad bars at the corner grocer and a neat little pub on the Upper East Side that sold Rolling Rock beer for a buck.  I also found that there is nothing like a sunny Saturday afternoon in Central Park and that “Suggested Admission” means exactly that (thereafter I paid 50¢ each for numerous evening and weekend visits to the Met). 


I brought my husband-to-be to New York a few times.  He enjoyed all my old stompin’ grounds (especially that little tavern on Bleeker Street) as much as I and even took in a jog around the Reservoir.  This weekend will mark the first time I bring my three children to New York City with me.  I’m bound and determined to show them not just the touristy Times Square and Empire State Building New York, but some of the real pleasure of this extraordinary metropolis.


So start spreading the news, we’re leaving on Friday!


I’ve rented [what I hope will be] a cute two-bedroom apartment on West 58th near the Park for 5 nights.  I’ve got Yankee tickets in one hand and “New York City with Kids” guidebook in the other. I have a tentative itinerary set up that includes some old favourites (like the American Museum of Natural History, Rockefeller Center and the Bronx Zoo) but some interesting side trips I hope the kids will appreciate (St John the Devine Cathedral, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, Statue Stalking in Central Park).  I think I even still have an old subway token kicking around (Oh, that’s right!  They don’t take tokens anymore).  Should we warn someone that we’re coming?

What’s the silver bullet for me?!
I was reading the newspaper over coffee this morning and – there – on page A4 of the Ottawa Citizen –  is MY ARTICLE!  Well, okay, not my article exactly, but certainly very similar to one I wrote recently.  Shannon Proudfoot (nope, don’t know her) wrote an article on the “silver bullet for raising happy and health kids”.   If you haven’t already read it, take a look at my post from a couple of weeks ago called Your daily investment advice:  Have dinner with your family at  I pitched this to several magazines and got rejected.  Yes I know, boo hoo.  I’ve also been trying to find Canadian content for this article for months and I guess Shannon beat me to the dinner table.  Dare to compare and let me know what you think!  Maybe that’s the silver bullet though.  I need to look for the Canuck Connection in everything and then pitch it.   Yet the idea was inspired by American based research, so why not give the credit where it is due?  Obviously it was necessary to ensure the same research held true on the Canadian population.  Apparently, it does.   Here’s Shannon’s article:

french-cafeI guess I shouldn’t be so surprised.  The OECD, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, is an organization in Paris that determines the impact of government policies on societal habits.  I read a article today which summarizes one of their reports.  Not sure how they did this but the global sample size was actually pretty substantial.  They found that Canadians spend an average of 70 minutes a day eating and drinking.  However, 30% of Canadians have a body mass index (BMI) of over 30 (that’s bad by the way).  Compare this to the French, who spend an average of almost 140 minutes a day eating and drinking while only 10.5% of their population have a BMI greater than 30.  The eating and drinking time differential can be attributed to the length of time you spend in Paris waiting for a server to actually notice you (and your frustrated gesturing will only make him ignore you longer).   I just can’t quite figure out why the French are skinnier.  With all their café au laits, croissants, vin rouge, frites and patisseries you would think their average BMI would topple the Eiffel Tower.   Note to self:  about time for a café au lait break, isn’t it?
But it made me think for a minute:  how much time do I really spend eating and drinking per day (drive-thru and take-out dining in the car should probably not be considered).  I figure I spend about 10 minutes tops at  breakfast, maybe 20 minutes at lunch and I think I spend at least 30 minutes at the dinner table with my family (I know, I know – this really contradicts my previous post).   So I’m certainly one bringing down the Canadian average.  Note to self:   fix that.
The report also measured the global differences in time spend on leisure activities (Norway takes the prize with 26.5% of their time spent leisurely on hobbies, games, TV viewing, computer, gardening, sports and socializing) and sleeping (where the French took the gâteau yet again with an average of 8 hours and 50 minutes of sleep per night).
Note to self:    send resume to 

2, rue André Pascal
F-75775 Paris Cedex 16

See more at:,3343,en_2649_34637_42671889_1_1_1_1,00.html


Ok so I’m NOT having dinner with my family but I wish I was.  Bear with me – this blog entry is a work-in-progess.


The time famine is a modern day phrase social psychologists use to describe the on-the-go, activity-filled, duel-career lifestyle of today’s average family. We are literally starving for time.  How fitting then, to turn this phrase around and use it to suggest the best way to invest in your family: A moment to feast. Do you want to help ensure your kids are well adjusted, emotionally stable, and substance-free? Then, invite them to your dinner table.


My memories of mealtimes growing up were of formality, perfunctory etiquette and respectful manners.  We always lived in what can only be described as typical mill towns, but my mother rarely backed down on the rules of engagement at the dinner table.  Hands and face better be scrubbed clean by the time the silver dinner bell tinkled its call to the dining room table.  All four children sat in eager but subdued anticipation as my father served up a portion to each of us… youngest first.  Waste was not permitted but dessert was always served.  No one dared leave the dinner table until everyone had finished every morsel, only when permission was granted and with appropriate thanks to the chef.


Fast-forward 30 years and my own table resembles nothing close to this ritual.  First of all, I’m reasonably certain the last time we officially sat at our dining room table, was Christmas Eve – I kid you not.  The more commonly used kitchen table where my own three now sit (not all of them officially sit; my daughter leans back with both knees balanced precariously against the table) is a scene of semi-chaos with multiple unrelated coincident conversations.


Nevertheless, despite the dichotomy of these dinner traditions within my own life, they represent some tradition and still involve gathering as a family.  I am also vindicated knowing that there are now sufficient studies to support the fact that regular shared family meals can protect your kids against all types of destructive behaviour including drug and alcohol use, eating disorders, and support mental stability and overall well being. Consider the work of the Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. Founded in 1992 by Former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph A. Califano, Jr., this nonprofit organization states that its mission is to “inform Americans of the economic and social costs of substance abuse and its impact on their lives, as well as, remove the stigma of substance abuse and replace shame and despair with hope.” In examining the underlying factors associated with adolescent destructive behaviours such as alcohol and drug use, their 1996 study of 1,200 teens revealed that the majority of those who refrain from drug and alcohol use and other adolescent misbehaviours participated in another shared a family event: they sat down with their families on a regular basis for mealtimes. To take their results even further, when it came to predicting kids’ behaviour, eating dinner with the family was ranked of higher importance than going to church or getting grades at school. Since then, CASA has repeated this study annually and the golden nugget still holds true. They now include a section on family time on their website. Called Family Day, it is a national initiative aimed at reminding parents “all your kids really want at the dinner table is you.”

In her book The Surprising Power of Family Meals (yes, I read it), author Miriam Wienstein goes even further. She examines the link between this important family ritual and emotional stability, self-esteem, eating disorders, obesity, and substance abuse as well. Her research suggests there is a huge payoff for families who regularly eat meals together in lower instances of smoking, drug use and teen pregnancy, better results at school, understanding family cultural values, lower instances of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, improvement in vocabulary and conversational skills, stronger sense of resilience and just plain old good table manners.  Oh no!  Could mother have been right all along?


A family dinner satisfies two basic human needs: sustenance and human interaction. How easy it is to draw a link between our generation of convenience and individualism to increased incidences and earlier onset of substance abuse, eating disorders and depression in our teens.    We should all be reminded that making and sharing regular family meals is one of the simplest ways to promote a healthy quality of life…plain and simple.        

About Astra
Ottawa mom of 3 poking fun at myself, motherhood, and minor hockey! I am steering through life dodging stinky hockey gear and empty wine bottles.
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