We're Talking With Ned; Everybody's Friend; His Number; Someone's At the Door; Sponge Bobbing; What's Under His Tongue; Fleet's In; Once More, Once More to the Lake; Bully for Him
We're Talking With Ned
Alex likes Hebrew Nationals for dinner these days. So does Ned, as anyone would. Problem is, Ned also likes and eats a lot of other stuff, and we don't necessarily want him eating three hot dogs for dinner. So in the kit hen Jill cooked the hot dogs, but had to tell Ned that he was going to have ravioli and squash for diner. I was standing at the dining room table when Ned rounded the corner and said into his toy phone, "Hello, police Mommy is making hot dogs for Alex and she isn't going to give me any!"
A few nights later, Ned caught sight of our wedding snapshot on the bedroom bulletin board. "You got married!" he announced to Jill. "You got married with my dad!" He hugged and kissed mommy, as Jill recalls, "to commemorate this happy event."
"Where were you?" he wanted to know. Jill told him we got married at Aunt Judie's house. Paused. He frowned. "You went without me!" he cried.
You get the idea. Talking with Ned is a trip. I try to not make it a guilty trip, because Alex's talking is still pretty what Ned calls "hard." I've had dozens of conversations with Ned already, and he's not shy about the verbal pats on the back.
"I'm so proud of you, dad!" he tells me. "You're a good boy!"
In Barnes and Noble, I haul him over to look at my book, right there on the shelf. "Who's that, Ned?" I exclaim, pointing to Alex's headshot on the back of the dust jacket.
"Alex!" exclaims Ned, then he bolts back to the display of The Incredibles.
Ned does still reply "Yeeech!" when he encounters some of Jill's cooking that he doesn't like (despite having wolfed it just a few weeks ago, but that explanation to his mom requires, lucky for him, more English than Ned yet has), and he probably screeches more than is strictly necessary while playing "pillow" (a sort of bed-based NFL line of scrimmage, with me as the biggest defensive end). But all in all words are becoming more a part of just dealing with Ned. Which he have to do.
Time for bed, Ned.
"I'm not hearing that!" he'll claim.
Time for bed, Ned.
"I don't want you saying that word anymore."
What word? "Bed," he says.
I passed him once as he was kicking back on the couch and asked what he was doing. "Takin' a break," he said. Jill reports that Ned is also "blindly and robotically" (the loving mother - teach him to "yeeeech!" her cooking) repeating phrases freom TV, and that the other day he told her she had to buy Apple Jacks "because it's part of this complete breakfast." We don't want Ned watching too much Nickelodeon because we don't want him falling for the lies of contemporary advertising, such as that a "complete breakfast" comes with yogurt and strawberries and not bacon and toast with butter.
Still, it is cute.
"Stop LAUGHING at me!"
I'm laughing with you, Ned.
"Stop LAUGHING at me!"
He jabs a finger. His eyebrows crash together; his chin dips with what he must think is overpowering threat and dignity. "I'm not joooo-king!"
Funny stuff. Like when he stepped on the hard plastic octopus that Alex plays with in the bath and often flings on the floor afterward.
"Damned fucking toys!"
Whereupon the nearer parent yanks the reins. "Ned," Jill will say calmly. "We don't use those words, because they hurt people's feelings. We don't use those words, Ned." Of course we do, mostly me, when I step on something hard and plastic (I admire Jill's self-control, even I can't always equal it). With visions of notes home from his kindergarten next fall, I add, "That's right, Ned. You and Alex should just pick up your toys when you're done with them" Nice and calm. Don't make a big deal about it. Now we've taught him to talk by speaking to him, we have to cash in before he learns how to use silence, too. Like about 12 years from now, when I'll probably spend a few evenings dying for him to talk to me.
You'll understand when you're grown up, Ned. Are you grown up?
"Not as yet," he replies. (February 2005)
Ned had to have speech therapy a few years ago. Even then, upon meeting him, one therapist said, "He seems like a nice, friendly little guy."
Too true. Ned seems to think everybody's his friend. There's an older boy in our building; he must be about 10. Friendly enough with kids his own age, from what I've seen, like many boys, but visibly unmoved by toddlers. Ned counts him as a friend, as seriously as if they'd lived in same dorm then worked together at the same dot-com for half a decade. "Yeah, Terry's my best friend," says Ned.
I guess I wasn't moved by toddlers either, especially, until I had one. "Well you know, Ned," I say, "Terry's kind of older than you are."
"Yeah. He's my friend."
Oh, Ned. I tell myself it doesn't matter at Ned's age.
A few months ago, Ned and I were on a downtown bus on Fifth Avenue, and we took a seat next to kids who were maybe 8 or 9, two boys and a girl. After a few minutes, it was apparent that Ned kept looking at them and looking at them. We passed a church that has an elementary school adjacent. The kids started talking about that school, which is where they go, on a block of the Upper East Side that contains more money than the whole state I grew up in. Ned started telling them how Jill bought a fold-up tunnel at a thrift sale at that church. Then I think he added something about how his friend Annette comes to our apartment and plays in the tunnel, too. And Alex. And a few other dear friends and acquaintances of Ned that these kids didn't seem too interested in knowing about.
"Okay kid, okay kid, that's enough," one of them said, half to himself and his companions. Not admonishing or bullying, just dismissive. Just dismissive. This is how kids talk. How they've always talked. Ned continued on about Andy, another friend. Okay kid, okay kid. They got off the bus. Ned watched them leave.
He seemed unmoved. Maybe he's used to this with Alex, who I think has yet to answer any of the thousands of questions Ned has asked him. "You didn't have to be nice to those kids, Ned," I tell him. "If you're nice to someone and they're not nice back, you don't have to be nice to them." Was this the right thing to say? Ned has all the makings of an outstanding salesman - gregarious, genuinely happy to see most people (at least so far), yet occasionally showing a thick skin for dismissal.
Still, life can be tough on a nice, friendly little guy who thinks everyone's on his side. I was 24 years old, for instance, before I learned that I may have had my dreams, but other people had theirs, too, and it was, for me, suddenly clear that year which they considered more important. For the longest time, and still, when somebody says something I think makes no sense, something that runs contrary to how I know my world works, I honestly think they have to be just fooling.
There's a lovely little girl at pre-school of whom Ned is fond. She's chilly, to put it mildly, and will probably grow up to be one of those chilly, lovely women that Ned's dad has sometimes had questionable luck avoiding. "She's my best friend," says Ned.
What qualifies me to give someone like Ned advice that he may carry through the next seven decades? Who am I to try to set straight a future Salesman of the Month? The other day on a big slide, for instance, he tried to draw the attention of an older boy who was sitting nearby atop monkey bars. "Watch me, big kid, watch me," Ned said before he zipped down the slide. He hit the ground and headed over to stand at the foot of the monkey bars. "Did you see me?" he asked the big kid. "Would you like to go down the slide?"
"No," the kid answered.
Ned paused, wrinkling his nose. "Why do you think you wouldn't want to go down the slide?" he asked. The kid left.
Not that he's a lousy judge of character: Annette, one of his best girlfriends, is a sweet little kid who, at her birthday party, took cake out of her own mouth to give to Ned. I wouldn't even do that.
"Annie has a boyfriend," Ned announced one night.
"Who's that?" I asked, as if I didn't know.
I didn't know; it was some guy I'd never heard of. Ned seemed unmoved. You know when he's unmoved. You know when he's moved, too. Tears. Stamping feet. Screeching. All that stuff that should be allowed longer in life than it is.
"We've got to talk to Ned about when he thinks somebody has hurt his feelings," says Jill. "Hurt my feelings" is one of Ned's bedrock phrases, and it can mean anything from "Took a toy away from me" to "Bit me." We do have to teach him what do to in those moments. I will, too, just as soon as I learn myself. (March 2005)
I figured Ned was the kind of friendly kid who would have a terrific time in school. Yet, over by that ramp and the Matchbox cars this sunny morning in this private school's garden, I see trouble. Ned and another boy, the same boy with whom Ned was joyfully slapping blocks together just a half hour before, are jostling over a car. Ned doesn't want to share; Ned sulks off to sit in a chair. He crosses his arms. Oh god, he's crossed his arms. The 2-year-old little girl, daughter of one of the teachers, toddles over to look at a plastic lizard on Ned's T shirt. Ned clinches his arms tighter, and pivots away from her in his chair. Oh god.
This is a nice school, and this has been a tranquil sunny morning for Ned. The school is run by an elderly man, with patient and nurturing ideas about getting little kids used to school. I believe they'dd be kind to Ned, who's already been contaminated by too much TV, and who wrestles every day with trying to talk to an autistic big brother. Ned hasn't spent a lot of time around other kids -- not compared with some of the pre-K veterans who will soon be his kindergarten classmates -- and he tends to think that "He hurt my feelings!" is some kind of phrase that will magically explain, and solve, too many situations.
As I watch and rise from my seat, ready to spring, Ned does not shove the little girl, but gradually unfolds his arms and works himself back into the car-and-ramp group. Come pick-up time, Ned does his share, and the kids all troop back inside to do art. There, over the tracing pencils and the vast drawing paper, the rest of Ned's morning unravels. I don't see exactly what happens. One of the assistant teachers looms over him and insists that he try to do his tracing over, that he hasn't got the knack of it yet. I look away for a second, and when I look back, he's racing toward my pants-leg.
"I want to go home!" he says, and buries his face in my leg. We head out with just a hint of rapidity, but it was almost time to leave anyway. The man who runs the school is on the phone, and we don't get a chance to say goodbye.
On the way home, I imagine Jill's maternal sympathy kicking in at news of this scene. "My buttery little Nedlet," she'll say, and will gather him in her arms. Later, while she's making dinner, I tell her how the teacher urged Ned to do the tracing over.
"Well good," says Jill, "because if he pulls that crap in the real world, they'll straighten him out quick! I think Ned thinks school is just this place where you go on occasion with mom or dad, and when you want to pack it in, you just say, 'I wanna go home!'"
I tell Jill that I thought this would be the point in the conversation where she'd be saying something like, "My buttery little Nedlet."
"Do I have his number or what?" Jill says, knifing a potato.
This fall, Ned will likely enter a combination kindergarten and pre-K class. School's changed a lot since I was half a decade old: My kindergarten was just the morning or the afternoon, for instance. Now, kids go all day. That will be a long day for a toddler who sleeps in like a frat brother, who rolls out about 9 or so to catch an hour of "Sponge Bob." Jill and I wish, of course, that we'd gotten Ned into a pre-K class last fall, but cracking a pre-K in Manhattan is like trying to get into Annapolis.
Still, this is the kid who conducted himself with that silent dignity throughout his grandmother's funeral and the graveside service. I said then and I say now that after that cold December day, any school that doesn't believe Ned has what it takes can get bent. He'll get the hang of this school thing. Then our family will have about seven years of good stuff while Ned gets the hang of the real world. After that, I'll probably long for the day when all he did when he was mad was cross his arms. (April 2005)
Someone's At the Door
Every weeknight after a hard day of work and computer Freecell, I come home to my building, ride the elevator up to my floor, approach my front door with my keys in my pocket. I pause, tipping up my baseball hat and listening to the sound of the opera singer practicing in her apartment down by the trash room. And I knock at my door.
"Ned, someone's at the door," I hear faintly from inside my own apartment. Nothing. I knock again. "Ned, someone's at the door..." The knob begins to turn; the door arches back to reveal an orange crack of the wall beyond, then more orange, then the licorice head of Toast my cat, then-
"Hi Ned!" Reactions vary. Sometimes he launches himself at my legs. Sometimes he raises his arms and says, "Huggy!" Sometimes he cascades into the bookshelves, shoved there by Alex who's bolted over to wiggle all over and hungrily help me unzip my jacket.
Sometimes Ned launches right into telling me, often in strangely grave tones, about his day ("Dad, I saw Adian today...") or something that happened to Toast ("Dad, Alex pulled Toast's tail..."), or something that happened to him ("Dad, Alex pushed me..."). Overall, though, I have to say it's all delight at seeing me home.
"Oh hurrah!" says Jill. "Daddy's home. Now you're not stuck with dull ol' mom."
I vary from this door jam ceremony at my peril. Before this stage of my fatherhood, I used to just walk in. I'd drop my back, wriggle out of my jacket (even Alex didn't pitch in then), and turn to begin a restful evening at home by carting out the trash and changing the shredded newspaper in the cat box. Then I'd turn around to see Ned's face dissolving over by the end of the dining room table.
"Oh NOOOO!" he'd wail, casting his arms into the air and deflating in a princess-like faint, followed by kicking and general flailing as he turned the volume knob on his fit farther and farther to the right.
"Ned, I had to come home. Get a grip on yourself."
"NOOOO!" As the waves of Ned's sound begin to make the tumblers rattle on the sideboard, I finally get to hang up my jacket and baseball hat, and wonder how I ever think of my second as "typically developing."
"Ned-" I touch his arm. He snaps his eyes from mine and pivots away, faces the pantry, the perfect picture of a little boy who will never again for the rest of his life gaze on anything but the inside the pantry. "All right, Ned, all right." Jill always advises me to just leave him alone when he gets like this. So I do, and set to work cleaning out the wastebaskets and the cat box.
"Ned, you want to help me with the garbage?"
More tumbler-rattling. I do want to stress that often Ned helps me with the garbage. Alex does, too - he can almost take it to the trash room himself. Tonight, however, over in the corner, through Ned's noise, he is intent on "Elmo": Alex has of course watched "Elmo" through much worse than this. I take out the trash. I can hear Ned all the way down to the trash room. What must the opera singer think? I come back to my door, stop, and knock.
Longer wait this time. Repeated muted utterances of "Ned, someone's at the door." The knob begins to turn; orange wall, head of Toast, then Ned, and-
"Oh!" he cries, his heart split. "You have to have your jackettttttttt!" He has a way of crying out the last word of a sentence like a guy falling down a deep well.
Oh for God's sake. I slip my jacket back on - Alex glances over from "Elmo" and must wonder what dad's up to now - and step out. Knock. Knock. Someone's at the door. Someone's at the door. I hear them inside, coaxing, pleading, trying to move this three feet of stubbornness toward the door
They must succeed, because I see the knob turn. There is silence. Ned is willing. Oh, Ned is willing. Slit of door, slice of orange, and the little face regards me. "Okay, Ned?"
"You need your hat," he says. (May 2005)
Ned faces challenges most of us never will. As the brother of an autistic sibling, his life won't be easy. Nowhere at the moment is this as clear as in front of the television, which Alex often owns when he's home. Alex surrenders the set, however, weekend mornings between 9 and 10 a.m., and weeknights at 8. Then, it's time for "Sponge Bob."
At first, I didn't watch "Sponge Bob" with Ned, the way parents are supposed to watch all their kids' TV. What parent does, really? Have you ever had to sit through most kids' TV? Gradually, however, the show has drawn me in to the point of occasionally turning to Ned and asking, "When are they going to make some new ones?!"
Sponge Bob is a sponge who lives in the sea in the place named Bikini Bottom. That's pretty funny, I just realized, but then sometimes the humor of this cartoon creeps up on me like that. Sponge Bob is relentlessly cheerful, and a lover of life with big eyes and big eyelashes, which could be why he's been bashed as being pro-gay. I don't know what that's about, and I'm pretty sure Ned doesn't either as he stares at the set with glassy eyes. Sponge Bob does not make you gay. I don't think. Though Ned does love to vacuum.
Sponge Bob has a starfish friend named Patrick who I find a little hard to take, as he's simple-minded in a fall-down kind of way. Sponge Bob also has a bitter acquaintance named Squidward. Squidward is caustic and biting, and claims he doesn't like Sponge Bob much except he's always hanging around and claiming he has better things to do. The show has a lot of depth when it comes to sealife relationships.
Sponge Bob's most interesting relationship to me is his job at a fast-food dive called the Krusty Krab, and which is run by a skinflint named Mr. Crabs. One episode that proved "Sponge Bob" isn't just for kids was the one done like a training and orientation video for new employees of the Krusty Krab. If you've ever had a crappy job that made you jump through a lot of hoops, watch this episode. And remember: "NO employee wants to be a Squidward!"
I think I'm spelling "Crabs" right. "I think it might be K-R-A-B-S," says Jill. "Don't you think you could find this online?"
Let's check Google to see if there's a Web site for "Sponge Bob." Ah. There are 3.72 million of them.
Ned is therefore lost in a cultural phenomenon, and not just in terms of Sponge Bob. "Part of this complete breakfast" has become one of his favorite phrases, for example, and so has, "We'll be right back after these important messages." Ned loves cultural phenomena. It might be a good thing he wasn't born in Germany around 1910.
Probably we've let Ned watch TV too much, but I remember being caught up in my own cultural phenomena around his age. Every week in the mid-'60s, I watched "Captain America." I remember selling something made out of paper and related to "The Banana Splits" to my mother and big brother around age five. I had a "Howdy Doody for President" bumper sticker stuck on my dresser. ("Sounds about your speed," my brother said. What did he know? He wasted a dime on some construction paper shaped like Fleegle and Drooper.) As far as television goes, I noticed at AGE FOUR that networks never broadcast promos for shows other than those on their own network. This struck my little mind during a promo for "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" over the credits of "Flipper."
"Networks did that? I never noticed," Jill recently admitted. She didn't even know about "Cheers" until she met me. As Ralph Kramden said once, "Isn't that sad?"
We certainly pull the plug on some shows we consider too violent or action-filled, those that seem to rev Ned up in a bad way. I never used to think TV did this to kids, but I couldn't deny that he was wound up after watching Star Trek: Nemesis with me. I was also wound up, "Star Trek" being a cultural phenomenon I continue to be lost on.
"Sponge Bob" doesn't wind Ned up in a bad way. He shouts along with the pirate singing the theme song, and watches glassy-eyed, just like any good American during a favorite show. He's even got Alex mildly interested in Bikini Bottom. And why not? Sponge Bob likes stuff; he has friends. He likes his job, and he seems to like being alive. I should be more like Sponge Bob.
(PS: Last night, "Sponge Bob" came on at 7:30. I asked Ned why it was now on earlier. "I dunno," he said. "Sometimes the TV people just do that.") (August 2005)
What's Under His Tongue
Recently Ned's questions have worn me down. Like the other night, when he'd been hammering Jill with conversation for hours and she asked him to please, please, just talk to daddy for a while. I looked at Ned, hoping he'd tell me about his day. Instead, he stuck his finger in his mouth, looked at the ceiling for a minute, took his finger out, and said, "What's under my tongue?"
At school, they say Ned is kind of like an 80-year-old man; one administrator called him "eccentric." I can buy that. And part of being eccentric is questioning. Some of his questions are cute. Upon being informed that his school was putting on a parents' talent show, for example, he asked, "Do you have any talent, dad?" I told him I didn't think I had the kind of talent they were looking for in a Friday evening performance. He agreed, and told everyone so in school.
"What was Dr. Seuss's first name?" he asked the other night, as we got ready to read before bed. I said I thought it was Theodore. I looked at the jackets of our Green Eggs, Cat In the Hat and Sneetches, but they all lacked author bios. Ned is five years old. How come I already have to dig for author bios?
"Did he want everyone to think he was doctor?" Ned asked. "Why are sea horses called 'horses'?"
Ned's got a lot of questions. Dad, thanks to Google and a boss who is way too lax with personal use of a company PC, has some answers.
Googling "Dr. Seuss" and "biography" directs me first to catinthehat.org, a site of Springfield, Massachusetts, birthplace of Theodore (ah-ha!) Seuss Geisel 102 years ago, and home of the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture. "The influence of Ted's memories of Springfield can be seen throughout his work," the site reads. "Drawings of Horton the Elephant meandering along streams in the Jungle of Nool, for example, mirror the watercourses in Springfield's Forest Park from the period. The truck driven by Sylvester McMonkey McBean in The Sneeches could well be the Knox tractor that young Ted saw on the streets of Springfield. In addition to its name, Ted's first children's book, And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, is filled with Springfield imagery, including a look-alike of Mayor Fordis Parker on the reviewing stand, and police officers riding red motorcycles, the traditional color of Springfield's famed Indian Motocycles." Wow. You learn something new you're your 5-year-old every day, though there's no mention of any medical degree.
"Why are they called 'sea horses'?" According to a couple of sites that popped up with URL's too long to even cut and paste, "sea horse" originates with the idea that King Neptune needed something to pull his chariot. I'm trying to figure out how to help Ned understand this concept, but "Answering Ned's Questions" doesn't pull up anything on Google.
"What's under my tongue?", however, typed into Google with quotation marks and question mark does turn up one entry, what appears to be a crude music blog. "Under the tongue" turns up 45.3 million entries, covering everything Ned could put under his tongue from pebbles to pills. Definitely hope he doesn't learn about those. Finally, the Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia site turns up a click-through anatomy lesson of the tongue, including Structure, White Tongue, Tongue Rolling, Trivia, and Secondary Uses (my office firewall prevented me clicking through on that last item). Under Ned's tongue may be a frenulum, according to the encyclopedia, but don't hold me to this.
"Actually," Jill said, "I do know what's under the tongue. It's called-" She may have said "frenulum," but don't hold me to this. I just don't have all the answers, and luckily Ned doesn't need them all yet. By the time he does he'll be online himself, and Dad's answers won't mean as much anymore. (May 2006)
Jill was taking Alex to Ikea on Saturday morning, so I decided to take Ned to Fleet Week. Fleet Week is an annual New York event during which a few U.S. Navy warships nose up the Hudson to a pier in the middle of Manhattan, and nestle themselves between the WWII aircraft carrier Intrepid, which is berthed there as a permanent museum, and cruise ships. The cruise ships are the biggest; Ned found the warships more interesting, even after having to wait on my shoulders in a five-block-long line while having to go to the bathroom. Alex wouldn't have made it, though I do intend to take him some year soon. (Alex doesn't mind Ikea, where he plays in the ball pit -- or at least he did last trip until they kicked him out because he kept trying to open the emergency exit door. Both boys have a growing interest in making adults other than their parents scramble.)
Ned finally got the bathroom moments after passing through what I think was his first metal detector while an absolutely huge Shore Patrol officer looked on. We boarded the U.S.S. Kearsarge, a small carrier that specializes in bringing its 1,700 marines close inshore where they can drive off in tanks, armored personnel carriers (APCs), humvees, attack helicopters, hovercraft, and other vehicles kids love to crawl around. I realize of course that any one of these vehicles costs about as much as 50 elementary schools, but all my life I have thought this stuff is just so cool!
So did Ned. "He enlisted!" I informed Jill in mid-afternoon.
"Don't let him sign anything," she replied.
Many parts of the Kearsarge were open to the hoards of visiting kids, their cries of excitement echoing off the gray walls of the hanger deck. I watched Ned vanish into the innards of an APC and emerge moments later on the top of the armor, into the arms of a yet another strapping and tan young marine. Ned then got to sit in the driver's seat of a humvee (a position just as suburban as military in contemporary America, if you want to get picky), and stab the horn of a flight deck tractor.
"Ned LOVED Fleet Week," I would later e-mail to my big brother, who lives in Maine, "especially crawling all over and in and out of an APC. He also pulled the trigger on a heavy machine gun, which should prepare him for deer hunting."
"Ned's training is starting a bit early," my brother e-mailed back, "so we'll hold off on the napalm education until he hits 'expert' with the .50 cal." My brother is in no small part responsible for me thinking this stuff is cool!
Ned squatted at a six-foot long machine gun and used his tiny thumbs to make the big, big trigger go clack. I stopped over what looked like a 5th grader in desert fatigues at another exhibit, who was showing the crowd how to strip an M-16.
"How old are you?" someone asked.
"Just turned 18, sir!"
Up on the flight deck, Ned sat in the cockpit of the attack helicopter. Through the Plexiglas I saw him in there hogging the pilot's seat, yanking at the stick and punching every red button until a tense mom tapped on the Plexiglas and tried to make him hear that there was quite a line behind him for the seat.
Every red button he could find, I later told Joe, an ex-infantry officer. "That's trouble for somebody!" said Joe. Joe has a 2-year-old son. Joe was also wounded in Mogadishu about 15 years ago: first shot by a sniper, then moments later peppered with shrapnel.
Last stop was the line of tables where they were giving away Fleet Week posters to the kids and selling T shirts and baseball hats to benefit the ship's Family Fund, which I'm guessing helps the folks back home while dad -- and mom these days -- is at sea. I bought a hat, and talked to one sailor from North Carolina. "First time in New York? Got any liberty yet?" I asked, sounding like either an ex-sailor or a dork who thought all this stuff was cool.
Yessir, the sailor said, first time in New York, and yes he'd had some time off the ship. I asked what he'd seen. "The Statue of Liberty," he said, "and Ground Zero."
Ned didn't want a T shirt. After I bought my Kearsarge hat, I found him with another boy; they were both using their rolled up posters to pretend to fence. I'm not sure who won before we had to go home. (June 2006)
Once More, Once More to the Lake
We spend Father's Day at grandpa's lake house. In the afternoon, I hope to take out grandpa's sleek kayak while Jill takes the boys in the rowboat and we all play "Surfaced U-Boat Stalks Lost Allied Merchantman on Father's Day, 1941," but instead Jill takes Alex to some mall and Ned and I go fishing in grandpa's canoe.
Grandpa had found two old fishing poles in the shed when he bought this place last summer; I assume the spiders in the shed were done with the poles, and they (the poles) have served Ned and I well in practicing our casting. Casting, in case you respect fish and aren't fond of being kind of bored while you and your 5-year-old get sunburns, involves trying to snap your lure and bobber out as far as possible and then reel it back in a way that convinces a fish to maybe give up its life.
There are fish in this lake, somewhere. This afternoon, Ned and I practice casting off the dock. I use a pale plastic worm; Ned uses a faded pink plastic worm that for years to come we will be able to spot up there in the branch over the dock. But soon Ned's actually not too bad, getting most casts a respectful distance over the shorefront algae, and once or twice getting the fish to swim near our lures before they dart off, laughing.
"Ned," I say, "try to get your lure to act like a hurt little fish. Tug it a little bit like this. Then wait a minute, then tug it again like this..."
"God forbid you should actually catch anything," says grandpa back on the porch, where he offers more effective lures. I decline: The point this Father's Day is not to catch, but to acquaint Ned with real fishing.
The best teacher would be my brother, Uncle Lee, who's up in Maine and who's been fishing since before he was Ned's age. Uncle Lee (who as my big brother was of course not "Uncle Lee" but "He Who Hits Me a Lot") lent fishing a mystique from the time I was only six, when we were at our grandmother's one Sunday morning and He informed me that He was going to get to go fishing while I was "sitting on my brain in church." Every spring, I'd watch Lee pick through his gray metal tacklebox containing spools of line, lures of obscenely bright color, and hooks I knew I'd never get out of my eye.
Lee took me fishing a few years after "church"; I remember hanging my feet off some bridge while cars zipped by about five feet away. I think I caught two sunfish, a type of ugly species that even cats turn down. A few years later, Lee took me out for a day on the canoe, during which I fumbled his needle-nose pliers overboard and caught two fish and a future-sarcoma-grade sunburn. I haven't fished much since.
I feel this Father's Day is practice for when Ned joins Uncle Lee to truly fish. I knot new lures to our lines: a bright green one for me, and a minnow-white one for Ned. "Ned, you have to do everything I tell you," I say. "When you go out someday with Uncle Lee, you'll have to do everything he says. Stand over there while I get the canoe unpadlocked from the tree." Of course Ned soon wanders near me on the dock, and his fishing career nearly starts with an aluminum bow in his face. He's wearing the blue life vest that Uncle Rob and Aunt Julie bought the boys a year ago. It encased Ned last year; this afternoon it's no bigger on him than a real Navy life vest might be on me.
The canoe slides into the water. "Okay, Ned, step aboard."
Ned does. I consider switching again to the more-stable rowboat (the "Merchantman"), but there's something about the whisp of a canoe through the water that says Fishing on Father's Day. I haven't handled a canoe solo in years. I pick a paddle from several in the shed as if picking a pool cue, and I'm not settled in the stern of our aluminum Pequod five minutes before I realize I picked a paddle that's too short. In two more minutes, I realize I'm actually sitting backwards in the bow. In three, I remember why He always brought boat cushions to sit on.
"Okay, Ned. Cast!" His rod and the hook of his lure whiz by a few inches from my nose. "Ned, watch the rod, please!"
"Sorry. Could you cast on the other side, dad?"
We settle into cast, paddle, cast, paddle, untangle our lines, cast, paddle, pull the unearthly long green weeds off our hooks. It's hot, all sun and sultry, little breeze to make the wavelets chuck under our bow (stern). I think about Ned and sarcoma.
"Wanna head for that island?" says Ned. We do. I nestle the canoe into a small mossy cove, trying hard not to impale Ned on the dead branches hanging over the water precisely at the level of his shoulder blades. He steps onto what I proclaim Edwin Island.
"Edwin Island?" he says. "Dad, don't leave!"
"I'm just maneuvering into a better berth," I say. In fact, I'm trying to find a stable spot so I can haul my aching rump into the real bow.
Ned re-boards. We move out and trace a lazy 8 across the water, Ned casting, me and my paddle trying to hug the shore and the shade. Ned smears on sunscreen until he looks like he's putting on Kabuki makeup. He says the life vest is hot. He casts and casts, and his eyes narrow and his mouth settles in a thin line. "What do we have to drink?" he asks. I hand him a bottle of lemony seltzer. He swigs it and casts, swigs it and casts. He rubs at the white globs of sunscreen on his cheek. He swigs.
We catch nothing. "I wanna go in," he says at last, but not in the defeat of a disappointed boy. It's a tired guy who's ready for a drink with ice, and cartoons on the TV in the basement. We head in, and after I return to the rods to the spiders and re-chain the canoe to the tree, I find him in the basement of the lake house, sipping Sprite. I sip beer and we watch "Tom and Jerry" until Jill comes home.
She asks Ned what he's doing. Sitting on the bed, he nods to her, watching cartoons. He hefts his Sprite.
"He looked old there on the bed," Jill will say later. "'Sittin' on the bed. Watchin' cartoons.' He looked like he was holding a gin and tonic." Fishermen drink beer, but I don't correct her. (June 2006)
Bully for Him
All summer, Ned's worn the face of a kid who seems to be making the best of it. We paid $2,600 -- peanuts, I know, compared with the fees of some day camps -- for him to attend a day camp: swimming, sports, arts and crafts, the brand of fun to be had in life before you realize how miserable humidity makes you.
But since late June, when he started camp, he's answered questions about his days with at best single syllables ("Good") or near-pleas to change the subject. He hung back almost from the first from the other kids at his bus stop, though on the first morning he did try to romp with two older boys who paid him attention only to make little Vs of their fingers behind his head. I watched this, and tried to remember from the height of my 44 years if this was just a little guys' way of playing. I reached no conclusion by the time Ned was gone on the bus, and on the mornings since he's simply kept his distance from all the kids while waiting to be picked up.
Never once has Ned burst with a sense of fun, like he often did in his excellent kindergarten. Maybe it's just that this camp isn't kindergarten, I told myself, listening to the single syllables. The bus is often late in the evening. They don't use quite enough sunscreen on Ned, despite our instructions. The whole summertime routine is feeling a lot like work feels the rest of the year, only with a heat/humidity index. Still, I guess it's something for Ned to do.
Then one morning on the subway to the bus stop, I just asked if he liked camp. He shook his head. "There's a problem," Ned said. I knew what it was. I was a little guy once. Funny, but I always thought Alex would be first to run afoul of a bully.
There was a kid who wouldn't leave Ned alone. Near as I could make out through the fog of the five-year-old vocabulary and half-shamed mutterings, there was a boy who stamped on Ned's feet, pushed him, and even hit him -- sometimes on the head: Oscar (not his real name).
How old is Oscar? I demand.
Four. Ned is five. Is Oscar bigger than you, Ned? No, smaller. I can't discount Ned's powers of observation, though I do think he has a lot to learn about how this bullying thing works.
"Tell your counselor," I advise Ned on the subway, as across the aisle a homeless man giggles to us. I try to keep Ned talking so he doesn't glance at the homeless man. "Tell your counselor. He'll straighten things out," I say.
"He's not like you," Ned replies. "He's not good at straightening things out."
The sweetness of that comment floats me all the way to the bus stop. This morning Ned has brought a little toy, a palm-sized plastic video game from Burger King. He's not supposed to bring toys to camp, but he's brought the game today, I think, to comfort himself. One of the older boys who made the V with his fingers on the first morning comes up to Ned. The boy is wearing stupid sunglasses.
"You can't bring toys to camp!" Mr. V says. "We learned that on the first day! Jeeez..."
Ned shrugs at the boy, laying on him the same expression he used on the homeless giggling man on the subway. Mr. V leaves. "Let's put the toy in your backpack, Ned," I say.
"Why don't I just let you keep it for the day," Ned says, all practicality.
That evening, I tell Jill about Mr. V. "What - an - asshole!" Jill says.
Oscar keeps at Ned, so we hear. Oscar gets Ned to say a bad word. Oscar Oscar Oscar. Jill and I have the first of the big talks with Ned. She tells him it's okay to defend himself. I tell him that if anyone pushes him, he has a right to push right back, and yell for the kid to stop at the top of his voice. Ned smiles -- I used to smile, too; I could never believe somebody honestly wanted to give me trouble -- and a couple of times I wonder if Ned is pulling my leg. We have told him about the short story "Charles." Oscar, Mr. Stimpson? We have no "Oscar" registered at camp...
"I don't think Ned is kidding," says Jill. "For one thing, he keeps wanting to talk about it."
On this morning at the bus stop, there is a new boy, a small boy with brown eyes and dark hair. His dad has brought him, on a bike. The boy is crying and holding on to his dad's leg. A counselor gets off the bus and bends down to talk to the boy in soft tones. The dad bends over, too. The boy is wiping his eyes.
"Ned?" I call through the side bus window. "Do you know that boy?" Ned shakes his head. "Well, when you all get to camp, give that boy a pat on the back." I don't know if Ned hears me, or if he understands, before the bus pulls off.
(PS: Ned and Oscar had another run-in. A counselor told Ned he "wasn't a very good camper," and that my advice on pushing back was "unfriendly." "Ned," I explained, "I never intended it to be friendly." Unfriendly! What - an - asshole. We're trying to transfer Ned to another camp.) (July 2006)
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