You Are a Runner

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For three years, I’ve struggled to reclaim my identity as a runner after setting it aside for nine months on doctor’s orders.

I’ve made a few paltry attempts to get back on track. I signed up for and briefly attended running night at my local mommy group; halved my regular route and peppered in extra walking breaks; registered for a 15K, in hopes it would serve as a carrot. But nothing worked.

Meanwhile, I created lots of good excuses to stay inside while my Pearl Izumis collected cobwebs in the garage. Lots of these profound reasons centered around my new identity as a mom (when I was nursing, I worried she’d get hungry while I was out; back at work, I felt guilty for spending my free time away from her; too, I changed physically– and if I couldn’t perform at my best pace and distance, what was the point?).

Being a mom shouldn’t conflict with having a hobby or taking care of my body. But I let it. It’s as if my brain decided I couldn’t be two versions of myself at the same time. My heart was engaged in an uphill battle.

And yet on those scattered occasions I found myself running outside, my heart would fill up, and I would ask myself, “Why don’t I do this more often?” I’d stagger into my house afterward, red and sweaty, vowing to make this consistent. But there was always a reason—good or bad—not to go for run number two. Bad weather. Icy sidewalks. Too late. Too early. Work. Project Runway. Lack of energy. Boredom.

This summer—living in New Jersey away from our typical routines—looked like the perfect time to start a new habit. Our building had a gym, we lived near a quiet residential neighborhood, we didn’t have many distractions or commitments, so why not rededicate myself?

In our two months on the East Coast, I ran three times. My excuse had something to do with working lots of hours coupled with the dread of climbing heartbreak hill. (Illinois is known, with good reason, as the Prairie State; we Midwesterners consider even the slightest rise in grade as a cliff face deserving of billets and figure eight knots). I took a picture of the behemoth, but it does no justice. Every time I mounted that hill, I was reduced to breaking down and walking halfway.

The bottom of Heartbreak Hill in Clifton, NJ.

The bottom of Heartbreak Hill in Clifton, NJ.

The first time I ran the route, my endorphins kicked in immediately. I am a runner, I said to myself. I’ve run races of every distance. I’ve run eight miles in Kansas City on a bum knee, 10 miles along South Beach. I woke up before dawn to run 12 miles along Tampa Bay in 100% humidity. I finished the Chicago Marathon the year it was canceled, even with the pain of tendonitis crushing the bones in my foot. I ran a 200-mile relay in Oregon, scoring my fastest time completely alone on a country road in complete darkness, racing away from a faceless man screaming threats at me about staying off his lawn. I’ve run through pain, thirst, hunger, baking heat, biting cold, loneliness and fear. That makes me a runner.

Back home in Illinois, Spring has officially arrived. The weather gods are still putzing around with wind chills and snow, but the promise of warm weather is upon us. And every day, there’s another reason to get out of the house. This week, I ran three times in the span of four days. And for the first time in three years, I felt great. Not, I know this should feel good, so I’m going to say it feels good and trick myself into believing it’s true. I mean really, honestly good.

And natural. Like I’m meant to be doing this. Like I’d rather do this than sit in my warm house, curled up on the couch watching re-runs and drinking Coke Zero on ice. I run my last mile in a zen state, my legs carrying me, pumping on their own. I get to my house at the end of thirty minutes and consider turning around and completing another two miles just because. That’s what it is to be a runner. It’s finally sinking in: how much of myself I’ve missed.

A couple years ago, I found myself telling someone that I used to be a runner. But that’s not true. I’ve been a runner ever since I slogged through my first 12-minute mile on a treadmill at Bally’s nine years ago. Sure, I’ve hit a few speed-bumps along the way (or, speed-humps, as they’re called in New Jersey). I won’t always be in top shape. I won’t always run long distances. I’m never gonna enjoy fartleks or sprints. I’ll never cross the finish line first. But I’m staking claim to my identity. There’s plenty of pain and sweat ahead, but my heart won the opening round. This is who I am.

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Crying on the Plane … It Happens

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I started a new job earlier this month. Booked a quick trip to San Francisco before starting the new gig.

We live 20 minutes from O’Hare, and always use that as our home base, even though Midway is clearly superior (ask anyone). Chicago has had unseasonable weather all month. And when there’s bad weather, O’Hare is notorious for inbound and outbound flight cancellations. When I purchased the tickets, I wanted to avoid getting stranded in California and calling in for my first day of work. So I congratulated myself on finding a cheap return flight at 6 a.m. Sunday, with enough time remaining in the day to make up for any delays.

I’d braved 6 a.m. flights several times for work the past year. At O’Hare, the TSA has limited early morning staff, so it can take a full 90 minutes to make it through security. I’m usually scrambling to arrive at my gate in time, yet another anxiety-inducing detail.

A week before departure, I realized that our return trip coincided with the beginning of daylight saving time. Losing an hour that morning, I figured we’d need to wake up at 3 a.m. (equivalent to 2 a.m. pre-daylight saving time) to arrive in time for boarding.

Of course, we’d need to accomplish all this with a twenty-two-month-old on five hours of sleep, losing another two hours once we’d returned to our time zone.

Side note: San Francisco in the Springtime is lovely. I’m glad we took a mini-holiday while we had the chance.

The night before we returned to Chicago, I put a cranky little girl to sleep while someone decided to stay out all night. Let’s not go there.

What I will say is this: SFO is dead at 6 a.m. on a Sunday. Their security gates weren’t even open when we arrived.

Whoops, guess I could have allowed us an extra hour of sleep.

I’ve gotta say, our terminal was a traveling parent’s mecca. Let me show you what I mean:

Discovering the mini indoor playground.

Discovering the mini indoor playground.

Compost bins in an airport?!

Compost bins in an airport?!

The butterfly wall was a big hit for everyone.

The butterfly pulley wall was a big hit.

Fabulous chairs and a precursor of the crankiness to come.

Fabulous chairs and a precursor of the crankiness to come.

Not sure why all airports don’t have playgrounds like this. We would have been miserable waiting at our gate in straight-backed chairs if not for this lovely kid-friendly oasis.

This trip was our final chance for the little one to fly free, so of course we opted for her to ride on my lap. Before boarding, the flight crew arranged roomier seats in the bulkhead for us. That extra space was our saving grace.

Normally, we’re savvy air travelers. We have family and friends spread all across the country, so she’s flown round-trip four times in her two years. Jacob and I both have taken her on flights by ourselves on separate occasions, single-handedly wrangling baby and luggage and diaper changes and security disrobing.

Together should have been a snap– and it was, at least while we were in the spacious airport terminal. As soon as we boarded the plane, and there was no more playground, she started winding down.

She was tired and so were we. Our lack of energy translated to lethargic parenting.

We had to store all of our carry-on luggage in the overhead bins since we were riding in the bulkhead, so we didn’t have quick access to toys and snacks. Plus, singing Old MacDonald forty times in a row on three hours of sleep is hard to manage. We quickly ran out of milk, so she didn’t have a drink to swallow for un-popping her ears during altitude changes. We broke a record for number of diaper changes on the infant-sized changing table in the one-person bathroom. All of this on top of no sleep really did us in. 

And she only slept for 45 minutes of the four-hour flight. We had a squirmy, tired and clumsy girl on our hands, inevitably leading to cry-inducing collisions involving her forehead and the window, arm rest and tray table.

So, yeah, she cried. A lot.

I know that makes us the people everyone else on the plane loves to hate. But we deserve a little sympathy. Planes are not designed for kids. That doesn’t mean kids should be banned from traveling. With families spread across hundreds of miles, and so much of the world to see, are we supposed to leave our babies at home to fend for themselves?

I didn’t really have any left-over energy to feel guilty or embarrassed about the crying. We did our best to extinguish it, but it still happened. This was her eighth time on board an airplane, and the only time she cried longer than five minutes.

Come to think of it, I can’t remember ever flying without the sound of someone’s baby crying in the background.

So take it easy on us parents. Chances are, the crying is harder on us than it is on you. And if it’s really such a hassle, you can buy earplugs for less than you’d spend at Starbucks.

San Francisco in the Springtime

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Maneuvering around tourists to the end of Pier 39 was worth every ounce of trouble. Even when she fell asleep upon arrival. I still got to unstrap her from the stroller, hold her in my arms, close my eyes, feel the sun warm our skin, and listen to the sea lions bark and the gulls cry. It was heaven.

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Probably would have avoided the pier if it hadn’t been for my pint-sized companion.    In fact, last time we were here, we skipped right past the hot dog stands and gift shops to make it up the hill to Ina Coolbrith park. Savored a picnic lunch on a wooden bench– strawberries, samosas, and naan from the Ferry Plaza– overlooking downtown and the Bay Bridge, no one around but a feisty Chihuahua named Charger and his family.

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That was our favorite day in San Francisco three summers ago, before becoming parents. That day, we walked at least five miles up and down hills, through Union Square, the Financial District, Embarcadero, Fisherman’s Wharf, then up Russian Hill and Nob Hill, fueled first by coffee, then the picnic lunch, finally a bottle or two of white wine.

Sunshine was a novelty that week in the city by the bay. The jackets we brought were lacking, and we made an impromptu stop at the Gap on our first day in town just to buy more layers. But that day on our picnic, we took off our coats and scarves, and it almost felt like summer.

Three years later, I’m a Mom with my little girl. I know by now trying to recreate the perfect day never works out as well. But I loved the Farmer’s Market, and I loved the walk along the Embarcadero, and I knew my little animal-lover would be awed by the slippery sea lions. And it wasn’t a complete repackaging– new companion, no hills (no way, not with a stroller), full sobriety, different season. And this time around, it was kinda perfect.

I knew to carry a jacket and scarf, but they remained stowed away all day. The sun was strong, and there was a light, cool, breeze. I hadn’t planned much for the outing– in fact, we’d only decided to fly to California weeks before– so our pace was much more relaxed. All I knew was that I wanted to buy us a picnic lunch at the Farmer’s Market, watch the sea lions, eat at a park somewhere, and maybe or maybe not find time for a nap sometime, jumbled in with all the rest.

She enjoyed herself. Her favorite thing that day– in fact, her favorite thing all weekend– had to be chasing the gulls and pigeons everywhere we stopped around the city. Every single time I let her out of the stroller, she’d spot a bird, clap her hands, and commence to chasing after it on wobbly legs. Those patient, brave birds let her come so close, too.

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We spent too long at the Farmer’s Market, I know. Bought the best-ever cheese cubes from the Achadinha Cheese Company’s stall, a sourdough loaf, and a bag of blood oranges. And I stopped too, too many times along the Embarcadero to snap photos of things I’d already seen– palm trees, the Bay Bridge, Coit Tower, the Transamerica Pyramid, Alcatraz. And riding in a stroller in late morning along the bay is so relaxing. I shouldn’t have been surprised that she fell asleep.

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Or, for that matter, surprised that when she finally woke, after some gentle coaxing on my part as the crowds grew thicker, that she was hardly interested in the sea lions. Are you kidding?! How could anyone be interested in sea lions when there were so many pigeons and sea gulls nearby?

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So we walked another mile down the road to buy her dad a bag of overpriced-yet-unbelievably-delicious sea salt and caramel-filled chocolates and stopped at a park across the street, with views of the Rock and the Golden Gate Bridge, to eat our loot. While I licked blood orange juice from my fingers, she toddled away, in pursuit of another gull.

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Ending Hibernation & the Journey North

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My time working from home has come to an end. Looking back, I lived like a bear for a year. Venturing out only to forage for food, growing a protective layer of fat to keep warm, and hibernating with my little family for months.

With the nearing spring come warmer temps, a new job and more reasons to leave my snuggly cave. I think it’s also a matter of motivation; I think I’m shedding my bear skin for something new.

I love experiencing Mama/Baby days with my little girl, and there’s no better excuse to leave the house. We haven’t done a ton–a visit to Cosley Park Zoo and Downtown Glen Ellyn last spring, a trip to Grounds for Sculpture in Trenton while we were living in New Jersey. But they are always special to me. And when she’s older, she’ll remember, and they’ll be special to her, too.

In the seven years we’ve lived here, we’ve never made the 90-minute drive to Milwaukee. I’d always wanted to go, and Elena hadn’t been to Wisconsin yet, so I planned a Mama/Baby day last week to venture north to America’s Dairyland.

I feel kinda guilty for this because there are plenty of things to do in Chicago and the suburbs without driving 80 miles. But I wanted something new. So, I planned a day for us to visit a couple kid-friendly places that exist in practically every city: a children’s museum and the public market.

She loved the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum. It was amazing to watch her clap and stomp in excitement after sliding on the toddler playground, steer the delivery truck with confidence, and tentatively interact with other kids. I was worried she’d be too young to enjoy, at 22 months, but it was perfect. We discovered an area reserved for toddlers and spent most of our time there, but we also managed to explore the entire place.

Somehow, we clocked more than two hours there, and nap time was at hand. I had worried over how she would react to leaving. And she definitely didn’t agree with me about it being quitting time.

I had to be the worst mom ever, picking her up the exact moment she was at her happiest, and carrying her out of the toddler room, away from opportunities for distraction and delay. She forgave me quickly enough, and fell asleep in the car the moment we left the parking garage. So much for the Milwaukee Public Market: I know by now not to interrupt a good nap. There’s always next time.

On I-94, thirty miles from town, my stomach started rumbling, and I started searching for a pair of golden arches. She woke up the moment I pulled up to the drive-thru.

Facing the reality of eating a cheeseburger and fries, giving her something equally unhealthy to eat in her car-seat, and attempting to help her–one hand on the wheel–every time she dropped her food, I realized there were better alternatives. So, I apologized to the voice in the speaker, left the lot, and went off in search of a Cracker Barrel that, according to a recent billboard, was less than 15 miles away.

This is how I figured: If we couldn’t do all the Milwaukee things I had planned, we might as well do something we couldn’t do at home. And Cracker Barrel seemed fitting for our trip to Wisconsin. A stop at the Mars Cheese Castle would have probably been more apt, but not for a toddler.

She jettisoned the high chair and ate lunch sitting on my lap, my hungry bear cub, eating a grilled cheese and apple slices, not stopping till she finished my hash browns, too. Then back, back, back. Back in the car, back to Illinois, back home. Filled with food and joy and hopes of more adventures to come.

Sunday nap/My ecosystem

We lay in the afternoon sun, at once restless and content. Time passes slowly with one of us gone, our balance thrown off and the silence unnerving. Elena refuses her nap and I stopped trying to get her to sleep.

I imagine that outside our walls, it is cold, but I wouldn’t know. I hear cars whoosh past on the highway. Down the street, a door slams, sending my dogs barking in defense of the house and my baby girl into my arms, clutching me for protection.

The dogs are enjoying the closeness; little do they know, it will be gone in two short weeks, once I’m back in the office. Shane kisses the top of Cheddar’s head, and Elena bends and does the same, checking first to see if I’m paying attention. The sun turns her gray eyes blue and shines on her straw-colored hair.

At lunch, I spilled cheese in the oven, and a faint charred odor remains in the house. My daughter has a red line running up her leg where my ring scratched her as I helped her get dressed. Her nose is raw and chapped from Kleenex.

She is hosting a tea party with star-shaped blocks as cups, filled with paper clip tea. I helped her open the packages of paper clips. Sitting on my lap, she reaches back and puts her arm around my neck. There is a trail of paper clips spread down the hall, indicating where she has gone and where she cannot go.

Shane’s white hairs are on the cushions, blankets, my sweater, Elena’s knit pants. I know that years after he’s gone, we’ll still find traces of the millions of hairs he shed in our home.

Time passes, and the sunlight patches drift and shrink. The dogs move, little by little, until they favor a spot curled next to me on the couch. She lays her head on my chest, I feel her heart beat through her shirt. Her breathing slows, and I reach carefully for a book. I read a few chapters in the dying sunlight.

Soon we will hear the grumble and feel the rumble of the garage door opening beneath us. Shane and Cheddar will fly down the hall, whining and howling, and you will be home, and she will awaken and shriek your name, “Daddy!”

First Run of the Year

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I talked myself into hitting the streets and going for a run today at lunch.

The sun was shining, the ice and snow had been diminished to slushy piles, and the temperature was a balmy 37 degrees. How could I resist?

After about three minutes, I was feeling pretty confident. This is easy. A breeze! Why didn’t I start running a month ago? There were some warm days in January, right? Why couldn’t I have just run straight through the winter, snow and all? Maybe I’ll run a full three miles. I bet I can run a full three miles, without stopping to walk. Maybe I’ll do this every day, from now on. I’m sure I’ll be up to five miles by next week. Maybe I’ll sign up for a marathon.

Then I came to a hill. And I remembered I hadn’t run in four months. Ugh. The marathon suddenly became two-and-a-half miles, then two, with a walk break at the half.

I guess all those positive thoughts in the first three minutes were the endorphins kicking in.

Endorphins or not, I really enjoyed it. I felt alive. It was great to get out of the house and out of my head. My body feels good, too, if a little stiff. I feel less guilty about eating seven (I’m not lying) Tagalongs last night while I waited for the State of the Union to begin. And I still think that I’d like to do this every day. Well, most days, at least. Especially if that means I get to keep snacking on Girl Scout cookies.

Venice is for Lovers

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You want romance? Forget Jared, forget Fannie Mae. Hop on a flight to Marco Polo airport in Venice (or better yet, take the train in to Santa Lucia station, because, seriously, trains are romantic, and you may as well set the mood off right). For starters, Venice is definitely more memorable than some diamond-crusted heart-shaped pendant. That’s not reason enough? Well, let me elaborate …

  • A trip to Venice is a trip back in time. It’s old-world Europe at its best– the city’s centuries-old history lends an unbeatable charm.
  • Venice has a beautiful architectural fusion of Roman and Byzantine influence. From Doge’s Palace to Scala Contarini del Bovolo, St. Mark’s Basilica to the Rialto, you’ll drink in the beauty around every corner. How can you go wrong?
  • It’s an island– or, rather, 118 tiny islands linked by bridges, set off from the rest of the country by an expansive canal. When you’re here, you’ll leave reality behind on the mainland.
  • Venice is quaint — the cobblestone streets, canals, and complete absence of cars combine for this incredible trifecta — you’ll want to immediately sell your car once you return home (if you return home).
  • It’s incredibly secluded, if you stay away from the tourist hot spots. Sure, the train station is overcrowded, and Piazza San Marco, but walk a few blocks, turn the corner, and suddenly you’re alone.
  • Those beautiful wrought iron lampposts on the piazza.
  • Cicchetti. Rick Steves will not steer you wrong. We set off on a giro d’ombra (a fancy name for a pub crawl) on our second night in Venice, sampling delicious Italian munchies and vino (the cicchetti is the origin of Italian tapas). We found ourselves in some very hard-to-find baccari, rubbing elbows with the locals, getting more and more lost as the night wore on. 
  • Speaking of getting lost, it’s unavoidable. The buildings are tall, the streets are narrow, and there are very few wide open spaces to use as points of reference. Embrace it and enjoy it. Getting lost is part of the intrigue.
  • Venice is quiet, due to the absence of cars, and the absence of people, and the tall buildings that frame the streets. Good thing it’s walkable.  
  • It seems the best hotel rooms are furnished with beautiful Rococo pieces. I don’t care if you prefer clean lines– by staying someplace modern, you’ll miss out on the complete experience. We stayed at the Hotel Antico Doge and loved it.
  • Harry’s Bar. Hemingway frequented this place, and all those American ex-pats from the 1920s who exuded romance. Just be sure to dress nicely and expect to pay $10 for a cup of coffee.
  • Peroni. We spent a day walking the city, going nowhere in particular, stopping periodically at bars and cafes, and now any time I drink Peroni, I think of Venice. I’d recommend enjoying a Peroni at La Rivista, in the Dorsoduro, near the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.
  • The dueling bands on Piazza San Marco, and accordion music.
  • Gondola ride for two. Need I say more?
  • It’s fleeting, a sinking island. Someday, Venice may be our Atlantis. See it now before it fades into oblivion.

Venice is romance. More than Paris, more than New York. It’s compact and old and complicated and full of mystery. Explore it. Experience it. Just be sure to do it with someone you love.

The Bronx Zoo is the Best Zoo

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I’m a mom. Ergo, I spend lots of time at the zoo. Which is cool, cause I enjoy animals maybe more than my kid enjoys animals. I like to think this makes me an expert when it comes to zoos. Ergo, the superlative in the title.

My family lives in the general vicinity of Chicago. So, we often make trips to the Lincoln Park Zoo. And by often, I mean we visited that place at least five times last year. As a rule, we generally skip Brookfield because it’s expensive ($10 for parking and another $15 per person just to get in the gate is a costly way to spend the day, in my book); and even though it’s much bigger than its alternative, I really don’t see how it’s any better. Plus, I like the juxtaposition of seeing the top of the skyline peeking out from behind the zebras, camels and ostriches in the city’s zoo.

This summer, our little family was living in Jersey, about 10 minutes from New York City. I worked during the week, but we had the weekends left to explore. Naturally, New York City was a big draw. When you’ve got a toddler, climbing to the top of the Statue of Liberty loses its appeal. So our first foray into that behemoth of a city was a good old-fashioned trip to the zoo.

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The drive in was a breeze. I was nervous at first, because strangely, even though we’ve lived in large metro areas our entire adult lives, I always get nervous driving into a new city for the first time. We took the GW Bridge (I later learned that New Yorkers refer to us non-residents degradingly, if not aptly, as “bridge and tunnelers”), and found a spot in the Bronx River Gate’s mostly empty parking lot.

I doubt the parking lot is typically mostly empty at 10 am. But, I’ve neglected so far to mention that we picked the hottest day of the summer to visit. We lathered baby girl in SPF 50 and strapped her into her flimsy umbrella stroller (I’m too cheap to shell out hundreds for a top-of-the-line all-terrain beauty), and made our way to the gates.

The zoo’s seclusion was overwhelming. One minute, we’re in bumper-to-bumper traffic, alongside homeless people pushing shopping carts past chain link fences, to the music of cars idling and honking. The next, we’re shaded by tall, leafy trees, hearing nothing but birds chirping and kids laughing. Totally surreal. And as we made our way deeper into the zoo, it became more and more remote. We completely forgot we were surrounded by millions of other people.

Apparently the hottest day of the year equates to the best day of the year to visit the Bronx Zoo, because there were absolutely no crowds. True, it was hot, and we probably sound like terrible parents for taking our toddler out in such heat, but there was so much shade, and so many indoor exhibits, that we didn’t really feel any discomfort. Plus, around noon, the humidity broke into a brief shower, which cooled us off and made the rest of the day much more bearable.

Thinking we’d need to stay hydrated, we bought one of those giant souvenir cups that cost $7 filled, but come with free refills. It took us a good three hours to finish the drink, so we never did get a free refill. But it did have a great future as a rinse cup at bath time.

The zoo is huge. 265 acres huge. In terms a Chicagoan would understand, it’s like a giant forest preserve, with non-native wild animals. The website warns against trying to see the entire zoo in one day. Normally, I scoff at messages like this. Right, it’s just the zoo’s PR team convincing patrons to spend more money on a second visit. But now I know better. We spent five hours there and only saw half.

It’s also impossible to know where you are without consulting a map because of its sheer size, as well as the towering trees that add to its forest-like charm. The exhibits are huge, too. Not just huge by Lincoln Park Zoo standards. It was nice to see the animals could spread out in their habitats, stretch their legs a bit.

The animals were the same as any other zoo animals. Some did interesting things and some did nothing but sleep and poop and hide. Maybe the Bronx Zoo animals are not necessarily the Best Zoo animals. And recent maulings come to mind, although what do you expect will happen when someone jumps into a tiger’s den …

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We were impressed to see there was a red panda exhibit. My husband loves red pandas, so we spent a lot of time watching those adorable little creatures. We also spent quite a bit of time admiring the life-sized Lego animals, which startled us until we realized that those uncaged animals on the path up ahead were not in fact alive and were not preparing to devour us.

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If you have kids and live in New York– heck, even if you don’t have kids and just want to get away and spend your Saturday with animals that can’t give you the finger, cut you off in traffic, or overcharge you and deny it in a grating Brooklyn accent — I’d hands-down recommend the Bronx Zoo. Just don’t forget to bring your walking shoes.

Did I mention it’s huge?