Cougel takes Manhattan! With a 14 year old boy.

My first cousin who lives in Israel – who I love like an older sister – sent her fourteen-year-old son to the states for the summer. He is staying with my sister and her family in New Jersey, and to give my sister a break, and as a favor to my cousin, I offered to take him around Manhattan for the day. I feel embarrassed to admit that I was nervous. I hardly know this kid. When I visit the family in Israel I don’t think he even looks up when I say hello. It’s one thing to take my nieces around who I can take shopping and talk about girlie things like Hannah Montana and feelings. But it’s another thing altogether to entertain a boy who is only interested in subjects I know nothing about: history and math.

I took the subway down to Wall Street to pick him up from my sister’s husband’s office, which was an immediate induction into feeling like a tourist in my own city. Have you ever tried to find your way around the streets and alleyways south of Chambers street? My new iPad’s navigation system – which proved to be nine years behind – led me right into the WTC construction site.

Once I found my way to my brother in-law’s office and picked up the kid, it was only ten in the morning. I had eight hours of sight-seeing to kill before I could deposit him at Penn station for a train back to New Jersey with another cousin (don’t bother trying to keep track). I felt my stomach twist slightly with anxiety, clashing with my attempt to be positive. Admittedly, this was something new for me: breaking out of my own self-absorbed cocoon and daily “me” routine, in order to plan and entertain a kid. I understood that this was good for me, and for the kid, not to mention that it was a favor I wanted to do for my beloved cousin. Moms do this kind of thing every day, I told myself. You want a kid someday, right? So you better enjoy this. And if you don’t, pretend.

The tide turned on the corner of Greenwich St. and Chambers, when I spotted a beacon of golden light, otherwise known as the golden arches. My sister’s family is kosher, so this kid, who normally eats sausage for breakfast and shrimp for lunch, has been in kosher prison for four weeks. Suddenly, his non-kosher chaperone (me), found her ticket.“How about a McDonald’s Happy Meal for breakfast?” His expression brightened, as did my mood, especially after I inhaled half of his french fries (he let me).

Next stop, FAO Schwartz. The life-size stuffed animals, the big piano, the Harry Potter exhibit (amazing, by the way), didn’t interest him. The cars and trains did (yeah… duh!). I decided then and there that throwing money at my nerves would fix everything. I bought toy cars for him, a stuffed monkey for his brother, and then later loaded up on board games at my office that were left over from a recent shoot. The kid and I looked at each other and grinned. “This is cool,” he said in Hebrew. “But we didn’t plan this well. How are we going to carry it all the rest of the day? It’s only noon.”

I hadn’t thought that far. “Oh, it’s no problem. We’ll just stuff it all in this big plastic garment bag,“ I said, dumping out random hangers (it had once contained wardrobe from said shoot). “It won’t be that heavy.”

Cut to two hours later. Me, the kid, and lumpy bag the size of the kid, slumped in the long line for “Top of the Rock” (top of Rockefeller Center) where you can view all of Manhattan from seventy stories up. I have no patience for lines, especially when filled with tourists. Only a very specific kind of bribe could get me to a tourist attraction. That, or some Jewish guilt.

The view was breathtaking. The kid was entranced. Then he started asking questions that made me wish I had paid more attention in school (and in life) like, “Is that the Chrysler Building?” and, “How tall is the Empire State Building?” and finally, “Do you know how high we are right now, in millimeters?” If I had only coughed up two more dollars for the “Top of the Rock” map, I could have answered him (yes, after spending lots of money on heavy toys, I saved two dollars on a map made of paper). Since I didn’t have a knowledgeable husband there to answer these questions, I turned to the iPad and Wikipedia. It was awesome.

At that point, it was after three, and I was feeling my age. I was desperate for a nap. “Where now?” the kid asked. I called my sister, who suggested The Intrepid Museum. What boy wouldn’t like a WWII aircraft carrier? So we got in a cab. It moved two blocks in ten minutes, which gave me time to realize that I was headed towards another tourist trap. I looked out the cab window, and said, “Hey! Have you heard of Times Square?”

Of course he had. He knew about the ball dropping on New Year’s Eve, he knew what Broadway was, but more importantly, he loves chocolate. We ran into the Hershey store, followed by the even bigger and better M&M store. The kid was so happy he was squealing in delight. I let him scamper around the store while I sat down and watched our bags. I figured if he hadn’t tried to run away until that point, it was probably OK for me to take a rest. The M&M store was educational for me. I learned that you can mix and match a pound of chocolates from an M&M’s buffet for eleven dollars.

With one hour left in the day, we decided to eat. We were in Times Square, surrounded by restaurants I would never dare set foot in on a regular day like The Olive Garden, and Bubba Ghump’s Shrimp Factory. Then I saw the Hard Rock Café, and so did he. “You wanna eat here?” I asked. “OMG can we?” he cried. I made it seem like I was doing him the favor, but the truth is, being a bit of a wanna-be rocker, I was psyched. We sat at the bar and stuffed our faces with chicken fingers and BBQ ribs, swaying to nineties tunes. The music was too loud for us to have to talk to each other, but neither one of us minded.

As we pushed through the throngs of people rushing to Penn Station, I noticed that the morning’s anxiety had been replaced by a light and airy thrill. It turned out that shifting my inner self outward and engaging in the new and unexpected, was not only good for me, it was liberating. And judging by the kid’s face, his mouth covered in barbecue sauce and chocolate, it was totally worth it.

Step away from the iPhone. Daydream instead.

The Atlantic magazine has a bunch of interesting ideas in this month’s “Ideas of the Year” issue (go figure).  Walter Kirn (Author of Up in the Air) writes about how boredom – a condition we detest and run from – has become extinct. Thanks to technology (the iPad, the iPhone, Twitter etc), we are offered up distractions that save us from ever having to be bored again. But perhaps it has robbed us of daydreaming, and in turn, creativity. I’ll bet that when writers, musicians, artists, think back on where and when they came up with their favorite chapter or lyric, it was when they were bored. Or when their phone died or had no signal. They had nothing to do. Nothing to distract them, but the thoughts in their head.  Which is why almost every author will tell you that they generate most of their ideas in the shower. Or while driving. Or in the subway (which incidentally, is where I came up with the idea for this blog).
I don’t have an iPhone, an iPad, or any “I’s” that allow me to over-indulge my impulses (an iPod doesn’t count). My Blackberry (texting and bbm), is distracting enough (although I am guilty of an i-chat addiction). I don’t really watch TV, and now I realize why.  It’s because it tempts my thoughts away from co-mingling with one another. They’re better off staying where they are: in a mixed up daydreaming stew.
This reminds me of how my teachers (oh I dreaded my report card) complained that I was a “daydreamer.” To their chagrin, my notebooks, rather than containing transcriptions of that day’s lessons, were littered with “doodles.” Intricate graphic illustrations of connecting lines and shapes. I didn’t draw these deliberately. A whole hour would go by before the bell would ring and I’d lift my head up to see pages filled with these designs. Looking back, I think these doodles were my daydreams, mapped out on paper. To decode them would be impossible, but all I know is that I’d be doing myself a disservice stemming their flow.  I stopped doodling and daydreaming for over a decade in my twenties, and the creative repercussions of that lost time are evident to me.  I wonder, are kids today scolded for daydreaming? For not paying attention? Is commanding your mind to train on one thing, although it has its advantages (learning, sharpening the mind etc), have its disadvantages too? Does it take over the space we have set aside to daydream and to create?
I wonder if one day we will look back on this day and age and discover that we we’ve lost a certain kind of artist. I’m not saying that new and amazing things aren’t being born out of technology. They certainly are. But it’s up to the individual artist now to actively choose that space to write in – free of distractions, free of wi-fi. Whether it means choosing an internet-free café to write in (no matter how tempting the couches and Facebook are in the internet café next door), or choosing to ride the subway all day. Or running up your water bill by taking ten showers instead of two. 
That is, until they create waterproof iPads you can take into the shower with you. And then we’ll have to go somewhere else in pursuit of that inspiring condition we call boredom.