The boys’ guide to optimal utilization of toy trains and real dads

Playing with trains is fun. But you may not be squeezing out all the fun you can. Follow these simple instructions, young man, and you will extract every drop of enjoyment out of your trains.

Collect multiple, incompatible train sets

When asking for a new train for your birthday, choose one that doesn’t work with any of the sets you already own. When your dad buys the starter kit, he will become disappointed by how few pieces it contains. He will say something like, “This isn’t enough track to do anything with.” Fearful of ruining your big day with an inadequate gift, he will buy you lots of extra pieces so you can build a proper railway.

Nag your dad into helping you set up the track

Your dad is really just an oversized boy. He loves playing with trains, no matter how much work he claims to have. He may bitch and moan about his sore joints, but there’s no place he’d rather be than crawling around the floor, trying to force poorly molded pieces of plastic together. He may think he’s busy, but if you ask him to play trains every 10 seconds, his conscience won’t let him concentrate on anything else. TIP: Disregard any popping noises your dad’s knee makes when he tries to get back up.

Strategically distribute the pieces

By now, your mom has designated a specific box or basket for each of your many train sets. This would be a fine way to organize things if you were one of those focused kids who is satisfied to play with one thing at a time. Those focused kids are boring duds, and you are not one of them. Teach your parents this by putting all of your train parts into the correct storage bin, except for the most crucial piece. Place the piece that makes the whole set work in a different, randomly selected box. IMPORTANT: Forget which box you put it in. Now, you have to dump all the boxes on the floor in order to build the railway you hooked your dad into setting up. Parents secretly love this!

Mess of trains

An assortment of incompatible engines in front of a basket of almost all of the pieces of a track that may or may not be the correct gauge for one of the locatable trains.

Play with some random, piece-of-crap toy from the mess on the floor while your dad waits for you to find the missing piece

Remember that stupid toy you got in your Happy Meal? Yeah, the one you couldn’t even figure out what it was supposed to be. One of the three useless pieces of that junk just got dumped on the floor. Act fascinated by it while your dad waits for you to turn up the main bridge support for the Big Bridge Train Set you’re supposed to be building. This will supply your dad with three of the things he loves most in life: a big mess on the floor, a kid who’s making no effort to pick it up, and time wasted building a track that can’t be finished.

Whine about having to clean up such a huge mess

This is just a reminder. Everyone knows you are already an expert at this.

By following these instructions, you will get the most out of all your trains and even your lazy dad. Your dad really wants to play trains with you right now; he just doesn’t know it yet. And don’t forget about sharing. Share these instructions with your little brother. Your parents will be so proud of you.

More on boys and trains:
A good zoo will have some animals to compliment its train
History, trains, dinosaurs, trains, airplanes, and mostly trains

Zoo update: Bald Eagle hoax continues

Last spring I used this space to document some of the noteworthy discoveries we made at our local zoo. A few days ago, we paid the zoo another visit. This is an updated report about the goings-on there. Click here to see the original report.

Bald Eagle Hoax Flourishes

The Bald Eagle is still not bald. If anything, his hair is fuller and wavier than ever. This debunks a theory I had that maybe his name was just a little off and he was merely a Balding Eagle. In this theory, time would eventually catch up with him and we would find him straining to catch hopeful glimpses of the crown of his head in a mirror.

bald eagles at the zoo

He’s retired now, but the guy on the right used to make good money singing “If you want my body, and you think I’m sexy . . .”

This theory is now destroyed. His coiffure is more lush than ever. He seems to take pride in letting it flow freely in the breeze. Good for him. After his brilliant victory over endangerment, he deserves to flaunt his endowments.

closeup of zoo eagle

Right down to the bridge of his nose – how’s that for a non-receding hairline?

Tortoise Can’t Wait for Hares Any Longer

The tortoise is suspiciously absent from his pen. I wouldn’t be surprised if he has made a break for freedom and is most of the way to Mexico by now. When you are as deceptively quick as that tortoise, you will eventually get your opportunity to fly to your dreams. Vaya con Dios, Speedy!

After a long summer’s nap, the hares have roused themselves into a state of semi-consciousness. A combination of cold weather and general itchiness has caused them to rage against their natural lethargy long enough to change positions in anticipation of their long winter’s nap. When they receive the tortoise’s postcard from Acapulco, explaining that he couldn’t take them along because they stood no chance of keeping up with him, they may regret their laziness, but I doubt it.

zoo hare

“Must . . . drag . . . self . . . to . . . new . . . sleeping . . . position.”

hare scratching neck

If hares sang the blues, it would sound like this: “Woke up this mornin’, scratched my ear, and I lay back down.”

Train is Still Most Popular Zoo Animal

Four-year-old boys are just as fascinated by trains as three-year-old boys were. Though zoo animals will always be mildly interesting, they will never be trains. When a train passed on the tracks beside the zoo, we overlooked the Yak and watched the main attraction. The Yak shouldn’t take it personally. Last time it was the meerkats who got overshadowed by the train; next time it could be the lions.

lioness sleeping at zoo

“Go watch a train or something, kid. I’m trying to get some rest.”

boy pointing to train at zoo

Here’s the boy, making sure we all look at the train passing behind the farm area. That black blob in the center distance is a Yak, which might as well be invisible when there is a train passing.

If you can stand the chilly weather, a brisk autumn day is a great time to visit the zoo. There aren’t many people out, so you can get around very quickly, and the kids don’t have to squeeze in front of taller spectators. Our four-year-old enjoys visiting the zoo when it’s not crowded. He loves going to the zoo to see the trains.

stone turtle

Riding giraffes is so three-year-old. Four-year-olds wrestle turtles.

You sold your right to rest, old man

My eldest son recently turned four. He hasn’t taken a daytime nap in two years. A lot of parents of two-year-olds seem to be terrified at the notion of their children ceasing to nap in the afternoons. I’ve always been fine with my son not taking naps. What’s bothered me is all the naps I’ve missed.

I don’t get to take many naps these days, which is troubling, because I’m getting old and I need my rest. I am my son’s First Runner Up Playmate. This means that I am on call whenever the Grand Champion Playmate is not available. The Grand Champion Playmate is any child, aged 3-10 years, who happens to be at our house for any reason. Since children, aged 3-10 years, don’t cycle through our house as often as they might, I am regularly called up to active duty.

Playing with trains on floor

He always gets a supercool, long train while I’m stuck with the little nothing engine. Plus, he can fit in between the tracks, so he doesn’t have to crawl all around the room. No fair!

When I come home from work, the first order of business is to help the boy build a train track. There is already a train track in the middle of the living room floor, but the boy has at least four different sets of tracks, and those present are yesterday’s tracks – outdated and out of favor in these modern times. They must be replaced by a different set of tracks to meet the needs of present-day society.

Roughhousing while play trains

He can sense when I am especially weak and vulnerable. This inspires him to introduce an element of horseplay (guess who gets to be the horse) into playing trains, making it extra fun.

I should point out that I adore my boys, and I love spending time with them. It is only when I am very tired that I become a stick-in-the-mud at playtime. When you are all tuckered out, the only one you want to spend any time with is Mr. Sandman. Mr. Sandman doesn’t like playing trains.

Playing in a tent

Notice that the big set of feet seem dead to the world while the little set of feet are still active. This is the ideal way to play in tents; everybody gets what they want out of it.

Mr. Sandman does play some games, though. One that he can be persuaded to play for a few moments at a time involves tents. Kids love to play in tents, and if you can get a small enough tent, you can steal 40 winks in the middle of the game. If the only way you can get into the tent is by lying down, you’ve got a good tent. The trick is to make sure the game involves staying in the tent, as opposed to getting into and out of it. Inventing games that include occasional snoring helps too.

Parenthood means lost sleep. It’s a fact of life. My advice to those who are soon to become parents is to take a big, long nap right now. Right now!

History, trains, dinosaurs, trains, airplanes, and mostly trains

My three-year-old son likes our local historical museum quite a lot, but it is nothing that can prepare a boy for a visit to the various museums of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Nor is it anything that can prepare the dad of a three-year-old boy for the adventure of taking his son to those behemoths.

Archie Bunker’s chair and assorted other cultural artifacts. To a three-year-old, this is one big blah, blah, blah exhibit.

The Smithsonian American History Museum is famous for its many exhibits that hold no appeal to the three-year-old boy. Many of the displays include a panel of text, describing the item and its importance to our culture. I read the first line of several of these descriptions before I was dragged around the corner to see if there were any toys or displays with buttons to push hiding there. I wish the museum would find writers who could explain an exhibit in five words or less. That would be a great boon to every tourist parent.

The saving grace of the American History Museum was the area with the locomotive engines. To a little boy, the world is composed of trains, trucks, and diggers, but mostly trains. While the rest of the museum was a blur of verbose descriptions, fattened with wasteful prepositions, conjunctions, and articles to vex the skidding parent, the train area was a wonderland that needed no words. There were huge hulks with wheels and metal on tracks; who needs a placard to tell them that is the most glorious combination on Earth? Nobody endeavored to drag Daddy away from the trains.

This is the meaning of life.

The Natural History Museum holds dinosaur skeletons. My son enjoyed the dinosaurs, if you only count the first two we saw. After that, they lost their charm. He quickly formed the conclusion that their most prominent characteristics were that they were big and they were dead. Judging by these criteria, the skeletons all turned out to be pretty much the same.

Dinosaur-on-dinosaur violence was an issue that was left unaddressed for too long by the dinosaurs. This display depicts a sad chapter in the demise of dinosaur culture.

It was the human remains that interested him the most. He wanted to know what happened to that guy, whereas the demise of each of the dinosaurs was less intriguing. Based on the many dioramas of various dinosaurs attacking one another, I think he just assumed that they ate each other up until the final tyrannosaurus died of loneliness.

He was also fascinated, and creeped out, by a time-lapse image of a woman posing as a colonial era matron. I might have inadvertently led him to believe that she was a witch, but that wasn’t completely my fault. They buried this colonial lady in a lead coffin; so what did they expect ignorant fathers of future generations would blurt out when they didn’t have time to read the entire description? “I bet she was a witch,” is exactly what our forefathers should have expected me to say. Of course, I meant that she must have been falsely accused of being a witch, but I doubt my boy inferred the distinction. He held my hand as he stared at her changing image, cautioning me not to get too close.

Playing with a nondescript, toy airplane while countless real aircraft sit unappreciated in their quiet, historic nooks.

In the Air and Space Museum, my son went straight for the places where he could push a button or move a lever. He might not have known what the lever did, or why he should take such unbounded pleasure in pulling it, but who cared? It was enough to know that it was a lever, and levers are meant to be pulled with glee by the hands of little bodies. I watched a lot of really fantastic lever-pulling and button-pushing in that museum. Somebody told me there were vintage aircraft in the building as well, but I must have missed that part.

Each day, we rode the metro back to our hotel, and that was the very best part of all. The many museums we visited were a wonderful excuse to ride the train back and forth. But even if they weren’t there, we would have had to ride the train into town every day to watch the grass grow on the mall.