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Morning Glory; Remains of the Day; Puppet Love; Compare and Contrast; Official Report; The Apple and the Tree

Morning Glory

I roll out before the alarm goes off. The alarm used to be set for 7:20, but that wasn't enough time so now it's set to 7:10. Jill and I have friends whose kids get up at five, so we feel lucky.

I squirm into a T and plod to the kitchen to turn on the coffeemaker and unload the dishwasher. Some mornings I stack the bowls and plates on the counter before I open the cabinets, some mornings not. From the dishwasher I pull a plate and the microwave bacon-making-shield-plastic thing. I tear off a paper towel, fold it once lengthwise and then make a one-third fold, put it on the plate, and open the fridge.

In the CHILLED MEATS drawer -- horrible phrase first thing in the morning -- I find the bacon. I peel off three half-strips and arrange them on the paper towel. I put the bacon-thingy over the plate and set it in the microwave. I punch up 1:35 and press Start. I watch the inside of the oven light up and the bacon start to rotate. Satisfied that I didn't stick a fork in there to start my day with a bright blue spark and a ruined appliance, I again turn to the fridge.

There, where I left them last night, are Alex's chicken nuggets for lunch, double-wrapped in plastic, and my own sandwich unless we've run out of ham. From the top of the dishwasher I pull Ned's bottles. I line them up and start scooping in the powdered formula.

From one end of the apartment someone young and well-rested says, "Gle-ga-GA!"

"Jill," I call, "let's go! We've got kids up."

From Jill's end of the apartment I hear the bathroom door close.

Ding goes the microwave. I take down one of Alex's plastic plates, flick the bacon onto it, dump out some Cheerios or Crispex, run water into a plastic cup (Alex doesn't drink juice), and lug it all to the table where Jill has already turned on the halogen lamp's floor switch with her big toe.

"Gle-ga-GA!" In to the boys. Ned is upright and gripping the side of his crib. Alex is sitting up, ensnared in his cannula tubing. "'morning, men," I say. "Gle-ga-GA!" says Ned. "'murnin," says Alex. Some mornings I beat Jill to the diaper change, some mornings not. Both their diapers usually weigh about 10 pounds.

I carry Alex to the dining room table and strap him into his booster seat. His first action of the day is to carefully remove the bacon from the plate and start eating the cereal one piece at a time until he notices the plastic school bus we left on the table last night. He sets breakfast aside and starts fiddling with the little emergency door. He comes close to knocking his cup of water on the floor.

Ned's morning routine is more fluid. This morning, for instance, for the first time I sliced some banana into a little plastic bowl, and gave him a piece of raisin bread and some Cheerios, too, as he sat in the high chair.

The two boys eat while I get the paper from the hall and Jill comes to the table with her coffee. I scan the weather, the sports, and what we bombed overnight, and pry myself awake with sips. Ned throws his banana on the floor; Alex pulls apart a piece of bacon, eats half and tries to fit the other half into the driver's seat of the bus.

"Alex, eat your breakfast," I tell him. "School day."

"Say!" he replies. "Say. Mu-zik. Peas."

Let me get another sip of coffee before I explain. Alex used to just ask for "mu-zik," until I taught him to say "please" first. When he still just kept asking for "mu-zik," I'd tell him to "Say please." Pretty soon when he asked for mu-zik I'd ask him, "What do we say?" That's where "say" and "mu-zik" and "peas" (please) come from. Ned has dumped his bowl of Cheerios on the floor, where they join half a piece of Alex's bacon.

"No music this morning, Alex. School day. Jill, get Alex dressed." She does this because I like to brush my teeth and shave and use deodorant and do other things I used to do before I had kids in the morning. Also Jill often hates what I pick out for Alex.

I come out to find Alex wearing some casual yet hip combination, and he's looking around for his other big plastic school bus as Jill unstraps Ned from the high chair because it's good to have to watch your feet for a kitten-like human being with fragile fingers as you're trying to get out the door.

"Alex, c'mon. You've got to ride the real school bus. School. Jacket. Backpack. Eek eek eek."

Oh yeah: Alex's backpack is a little bat. "Eek eek eek" is one of the ways we got it on him and got him to stop crying during the first days of school.

I see Ned fooling around with the switch of the halogen lamp. "Jill, come get Ned!"

Then somehow the door is open, and 45 minutes since I woke up we're headed down the hall, where Alex will press the button and summon the elevator that will carry us into our day. (December 2001)

Remains of the Day

I open the door on a bright scene. Jill likes every lamp burning. Alex sits at the dining room table, munching the last of his dinnertime fish sticks and trying to knock his cup of water on the floor with his big toy school bus. Our babysitter Stacy is trying her marksmanship with Ned, who's in the highchair and flailing at every approach of the spoon. Ned sees me and grins.

"Hi, Jeff," says Stacy.

"Hi!" Jill calls from somewhere deep in the apartment.

"Hello. Hi, Ned!" I say.

"Gle-ah!"

"Hi, Alex. Did you have a good day at school?" Alex gazes at my new tie, which has school buses on it.

It is five minutes to six. One half my day has ended. The busiest hour is about to begin.

I've done much to smooth this hour, which used to be haphazard: I'd wind up swilling bottled water and trying to stay awake at 6:30 at the dining room table while Alex picked at his last chicken nugget. We'd get the kids to bed and start our own dinner sometimes as late as 8:30. "If you have any suggestions about how we can make dinnertime go more smoothly, that'd be good," Jill said.

To her surprise, I made a list: "5:00, start Ned's dinner. 5:15, start feeding Ned and start Alex's dinner in the oven. 5:30, start feeding Alex and finish up with Ned. 5:45, finish Alex's dinner and get Ned ready for their bath. 6:00, bath. 6:30, BED."

To my surprise, Jill said, "This is great!"

We adopted the plan immediately, but there's still a lot for me to tackle while Jill and Stacy get the boys into the bath. I have taken it upon myself to: put the afternoon's dirty dishes into the dishwasher; make up Ned's bottles of formula for the evening and overnight; change into sweats; put up coffee for tomorrow morning; collect and take out garbage; re-fill Alex's backpack with snacks and diapers for tomorrow (if it's a school night); get a bottle of water for myself; and make sure we have wine chilling for later. In no particular order.

I go about these tasks in a way that a lot of people who'd like to shine Martha Stewart's shoes believe is counter-productive: I do a little bit of one job, then a little bit of another, then a little bit of another. I pull the garbage and get the basket from our bedroom. Get out the coffee filter and measure the water into the pot. Get the can of powdered formula and the bottles lined up. Get the living room wastebasket. Dump the water into the coffee maker. Lay out the kids' night clothes in their room, ready for Stacy and Jill, and be sure to add a clean diaper to each pile. Dim the lights in the kids' room and flip the lullaby tape. Make sure there are two warmish bottles for Ned and plastic cup of water for Alex. Get the boys' wastebasket as long as I'm here. Scoop up their dirty clothes from outside the bathroom ("Stacy, do you need a new T shirt? Is Ned getting you wet?") and scurry them to the hamper in the bedroom. Change into sweats as long as I'm there.

Take the garbage to the hall chute and hear that crap leave my life with a little swish.

Back in the kitchen, I get my water open and take a swig.

By the time this hour evaporates, Stacy is on her way home and Jill is sitting with Ned on her lap in the darkened room. Alex is in his crib, flipping through a book. His cannula is on his face. The lullabies kiss the air. We put Ned in his crib and as Jill heads to the kitchen to make dinner, I commence firing the first broadsides of formula into his lips. Ned's eyes usually close after the third. Alex is often down by this time, too, mumbling into his blanket. I join Jill in the kitchen.

Another day is ending, another evening beginning, and we marvel that out of the wilderness we have carved a home. We take a moment to savor that accomplishment, and, if neither boy starts crying, we crack the wine. (December 2001)

Puppet Love

Puppet Dramatis Personae: King Geoffrey: Humble, usually mild-mannered, brilliant, soft-spoken, gentle, misunderstood, talented, caring ruler. Queen Jill: His wife. Prince Alex: Age 3, older son of King G. and Queen J. Prince Edwin: Age 1, younger son of King G. and Queen J.

Scene 1: Sunday before Christmas. The royal household.

Queen Jill (in grating, rapid falsetto): Why did you change a poopy diaper on the couch? Why did you use Drano to clean up the stain? Why are you so stupid?

King Geoffrey: Shut up! Shut up! Shut the hell up! (tries to knock Queen Jill from the stage)

Prince Alex: No no no no no no no no! Don't go out! Don't leave me here with the evil babysitter witch! Don't go out! Teh-deh! Teh-deh! El-MO!

(Prince Edwin giggles on the floor. King Geoffrey falls over, dead.)

Take the laughs where they come. I never intended to double over, almost crying with laughter, in a toy store with Jill that Sunday. But it had been a tense day since I'd changed Alex on the couch that morning, a responsible bit of fathering that I gave not a second thought to until Queen Jill pointed out that odors stay in couch cushions for decades. I didn't know that.

I guess we're tired. We've been trying to shift Alex to sleeping in a bed, and Ned has been spitting up and hauling around a nagging cold. Sleep has been scarce.

Finally, though, we got a babysitter in and got out the door for a few hours -- not until Alex wailed and fussed about our going, an Oscar-caliber performance engineered to rip our hearts from our chests. He hates the babysitter; Ned isn't wild about her, either. But she's all we could get on a Sunday before Christmas. So we escaped, the King and the Queen over the castle wall for a bit while the princes remain locked in the tower with the $17-an-hour Evil Witch.

Jill and I found ourselves to the toy store, and down one aisle, scanning for last-minute goodies for the boys, we found the puppets and their stage. The puppets were about an inch high, wooden, with magnets in their bases. We moved them with magnetized sticks under the stage. I didn't catch the price.

We're not puppet people, we've never been puppet people. But, over this little stage at that instant in our marriage, something clicked.

Scene 2: Christmas afternoon. Subway shoppe on the Upper East Side. King Geoffrey and Queen Jill eat their sandwiches. Prince Edwin eats a cookie in his stroller. Prince Alex upsets bag of snack chips on the table. Queen Jill makes some intelligent comment. King Geoffrey laughs.

Queen Jill (derisively, mimicking King G.): Oh, my wife made an intelligent comment! How hilarious!

King Geoffrey (sobering): No, it's not that. It's just that it makes me feel lucky for a few moments.

(Queen Jill laughs, high and almost hysterically.)

King Geoffrey (seeing she is sorry and truly repentant): I wonder how much those puppets were ...

This theme hung around. Any spat, mean looks, or twanging of nerves became an excuse to mutter "Queen Jill" or "the mad old king." And no matter how big its seed, no argument sprouted when we doused it with a memory of the puppet show. You can't put a price of this kind of steam-valve on a holiday weekend, when both parents are home with both kids.

Scene 3: Christmas night. Bathroom in the royal household. King Geoffrey is overseeing splashfest between Prince Edwin and Prince Alex in the tub. King Geoffrey is soaked, but staying at his paternal post. Queen Jill stands in the doorway.

Queen Jill: We have such handsome children!

King Geoffrey: Yes. If you'd stayed married to your first husband, your children wouldn't be nearly this good-looking.

(pause) Queen Jill: Yes. But they'd be a lot smarter.

King Geoffrey: Shut up! Shut up! Shut the hell up! (pause) I still wonder how much those puppets were? Maybe you could go see now if the store is still open?

It's true: The best toys do rely on just imagination. I wouldn't be surprised to see that puppet set pop up as a present for my birthday, in about a month. As I said, I didn't see a price. It might be worth most any amount. (January 2002)

Compare and Contrast

Some readers have said that they can't imagine what it's like raising kids in New York City. It is a complex challenge. Dark humor is an answer.

"Why don't you write something on how much little kids resemble the homeless?" Jill suggests, "though I can't think how you'd do it so it wouldn't be in bad taste."

Luckily the subject comes up as we're trying to get the boys to bed, a time of day when our intolerance for bad taste has been battered by an hour of crying, screaming, toweling, diapering, and, lately, Alex scampering half-naked through the apartment like Nigel Hawthorne in The Madness of King George. We tell Alex to return to his bed at once. He climbs onto the mattress, presses his face quickly into the blankets, and bolts off again.

We have made a warm room for the boys: clean, with binkies at hand and shelved ranks of toys free of such things as clown faces, soft bedtime lighting and music, plenty of fluffy blankets, pillows in the shapes of fun things like school buses, Elmo and other stuffed friends. Any same person would be happy, happy, happy to have this bedroom as an address. As if to thank us, Ned grips the railing of the crib and heaves with all his two dozen pounds, trying for no comprehensible reason to work the crib into the center of the room. To stave off boredom, he screeches like a big bird.

So, rather than lumping together everyone on the streets - a population that continues to silently grow, and which spans the down-on-their-luck to the strung-out-on-their-crack - let's compare little kids with just the more-insane homeless.

For instance, both little kids and the homeless rave; often their proclamations make sense only to themselves. I have heard Alex shout "Twinkle twinkle luddle GAR!" over and over in precisely the same tone I once heard from an old guy on the 6 train who kept screaming "Stolen proper-TY!"

Often their proclamations start to make sense to you if you listen long enough. They both calm down if you don't make eye contact. Both may also rave louder if you don't make eye contact.

Both like to drink. Both carry around blankets, even on hot days. I saw a thin man with lightless eyes yesterday on Varick Street, patrolling the same block for half an hour while wrapped in what I think was a padded blanket from a moving truck. Last night I came home to find Alex streaking through the house at bedtime with one of my T shirts and a binkie.

Time and sleep mean nothing to little kids and the homeless. You might find them awake at 3 a.m. and dead to the world at noon. "Wish I could sleep like that?" you might say to yourself in both cases.

They both wear hand-me-downs. They both often smell like they are dirty or couldn't make it to the bathroom. You don't want to be disgusted at this, but you can't help it.

Both little kids and the homeless love to push carts. Alex shoves a chair room to room. Ned ignites when behind his Fisher-Price stroller. Today I must have passed three ragged men with the shopping cards brimming with tin cans. One of them had a ukulele. How about that?

Given a huge selection of favorite things they keep insanely handy, they both nonetheless always select just a few of those things at a time. The also both find the oddest things, like floor sweepings, spellbinding. (About this last one, let me add: Ned more than the homeless.

There is no way you can write about either of them with complete honesty: If you were once a kid, you've since grown up; if you were once on the streets, you've probably found a home if you've got leisure to write. Nobody really knows what goes on in their heads. Most people are afraid to ask.

Unless you know them, you'd prefer not to sit next to either on the subway, but sometimes you have no choice.

Both occasionally make sense. Alex has occasionally been refusing to wear his cannula to sleep; we're figuring he's beginning to know when he needs oxygen. He also looked at a picture of a chair in a book and said, "chair." About 15 years ago, I told a homeless man I was just a receptionist in an office. "Don't say 'just,'" he replied. "Every job is important."

Both need your money, and you never have enough to give them. They both often sleep behind bars, often without any cause other than to make life easier for those in authority. They're both basically helpless in the swirl of society. You hope they'll both eventually get jobs. You earnestly hope their lives will get better, but if you think about it long enough, you realize that there's only so much you can do. (January 2002)

Official Report

"Very-low-birth-weight infants born during the initial years of neonatal intensive care have now reached young adulthood. We assessed the level of education, cognitive and academic achievement, and rates of chronic illness and risk-taking behavior at 20 years of age ..." -- New England Journal of Medicine.

Tom Brokaw appeared in my living room to tell me what this meant. I've never been great at the deciphering the jargon involved with having a premature baby, and it's even harder to decipher anything when Alex is in pre-bedtime romp around the living room.

"There's new information out about tiny babies born extremely early," Brokaw exclaimed. "And the news about their outlook may surprise you!" Well, good. About time.

Except Grandpa happened across the very article Brokaw was reporting on, from a recent New England Journal of Medicine, a few days earlier. Jill had the photocopy in front of her during "NBC Nightly News," and she followed along while I tried to keep Alex from climbing onto the glass table.

First, Brokaw went after the good news: Grown former preemies have fewer brushes with the law, and less involvement with illegal drugs. (That seems fair, since if they're anything like Alex, they've had more than their share of involvement with legal drugs.) They're also less likely to have an unwanted pregnancy. What about falling off glass tables?

"NBC Nightly News" just skimmed several points from the Journal, however. Fewer very-low-birth-weight young adults had graduated high school, and most had a lower IQ and lower academic achievement scores. Very-low-birth-weight men were less likely to be enrolled in post-secondary study; very-low-birth-weight participants had higher rates of neurosensory impairments and "subnormal" height.

"Educational disadvantage associated with very low birth weight persists into early adulthood," the Journal concluded. I wonder if Brokaw would have been so cursory in reporting the long-term after-effects of exposure to anthrax?

"When these stories come out, there's always a disparity between what's in the report and what's reported to the public," Jill said.

For almost four years, I've tried to decide how reporters find out about the world of premature babies. This time, I ranted to Jill about drug companies being owned by the same corporations that own media outlets. Jill - one of the few people qualified to talk to me about this subject equally -- called that ridiculous. "Jeff," she said, "you know it's just one tired reporter under deadline with a phone pressed to his ear."

She's right. Now that I think about it, I can count on one hand the number of actual patients I talked to when I was a health reporter. What's wrong with my head these days? Alex get down!

Prematurity reports invariably harp on the miracle of saving the young life. Mandatory is a distant shot of the baby in the isolette, preferably with a nurse's hand in the frame for scale. The babies look like bandaged GI Joes. If the parents appear at all, its as peasants to the medical establishment, grinning with gratitude. Any heroic glow emanates from nurses and doctors.

There was nothing miraculous, or even little, about Alex. On a June afternoon four years ago, his 21 ounces steamrolled into my life. He was gigantic in that isolette, simply the gigantic center of everything as I watched him with my nose pressed to the plastic, my ears deafened by the wheeze of his first breaths rasping through a tube. Every day revolved around him in the hospital. Every conversation sagged under the weight of his struggle.

Drugs and machines -- such as steroids and the oscillating vent, both being increasingly questioned now -- may have helped him. Maybe they didn't, too. Preferred treatments change like fashions. This science is new; "neonatology" and "necromancy" are still only a few letters different. I think Alex grew and got out of that box mostly because he's strong and because he worked at it.

There's nothing miraculous about him now, either. He has many words, new ones every day, but he hasn't yet strung together a sentence. He's getting taller, but he can't eat with a knife or fork. To see, he often has to look out of the side of his eyes. If I didn't hold his hand while he walked down steps, he'd fall. His pediatrician believes he has asthma. Sometimes, often during a meal, Alex still lapses into what I've heard called a "sit and stare," a kind of catatonic seizure.

I can't envision him playing soccer, balancing a checkbook, or asking a girl on a date. I hope that says more about the limits of my imagination that it does about Alex's future abilities. (Thank God this big bed wrangle is proving typically, naturally exhausting.)

Last summer, I saw an old high school friend for the first time in years. Smart guy, went to Bowdoin. I tried to convey to him how fathering a preemie inflicted on me its own style of neurosensory impairment. Suckled on the mass-media message of premature babies, however, my friend's only reply was, "Yup, it's amazing what they're doing with little babies these days."

It's even more amazing what they're doing with some parents. (January 2002)

The Apple and the Tree

I come through the door one evening, and our babysitter is feeding Ned and Alex. Ned is in his high chair. Alex is in his booster seat. Only Ned looks happy. In the kitchen, Jill is frosting a chocolate cake with fast swirls and flashing knife.

"Paige was very mean to Alex on the playground this afternoon," Jill says.

Paige is the 4-year-old daughter of Angela. They live in our building. ("Angela" is not the woman's real name, and "Paige" is not the little girl's real name. Uncle Rob made up this name for "Paige," and he wasn't being kind. All I'll say about "Paige's" real name is that it's a verb her mother isn't too familiar with.)

"Paige called Alex 'crazy,'" Jill says, "and she poked our babysitter with a stick. Then she encouraged another little girl to do it, too." Angela was reportedly right there, and did nothing. Jill was not there; our babysitter was. "Alex wanted to leave the playground," our babysitter adds.

This was coming. I'm rarely on the playground with Alex when Paige is there, but I've heard she's also called Alex "monster" and mimicked some of his pre-language noises. I believe our babysitter because she's been with us a long time, and because I have seen Paige glance at Alex and run away screaming in a tone that makes my spine twitch. Paige, only child of a single mom, seems to be able to turn coyness and bile on and off at will. She has a mean mouth, and over the past year her and her mom have steadily become the fruit in question whenever Jill and I observe that apples don't fall far from their tree.

Trouble's coming, sure as warmer weather, if we don't do something. I suggest to Jill that we steer Alex toward that playground, with us as escorts, within the next few days, so we can handle trouble right there and in person. Jill thinks about this a while, then suggests we should go talk to Angela tonight.

I put on a crisp dress shirt, Jill changes her clothes, and we head down. I think that Angela will question Paige in front of us then call our babysitter a liar. Jill has slightly more faith. Inspiration strikes her. "The phrase to remember is, 'We would like to know if it was us,'" Jill whispers to me in their hallway.

I ring their bell. "Who is it!" I hear Paige screech. "Jeff, from upstairs," I say.

The door opens. The lights and stereo are low. Angela and Paige are in pjs. I tell Angela we would like to talk to her, alone. "Well," Angela replies, "there's nowhere for her to go ... "

A fine start. We step inside. Angela keeps a neat apartment. It would make a good model for available rentals. It's clean and quiet. Angela wants Paige to emerge from an orderly home and attend all the right schools, probably all the way up to Harvard. Paige begins this journey tonight by going to play at a table nearby, well within hearing of the soft grown-up tones this moment demands.

I start. "Did anything unusual happen at the playground this afternoon?" I ask.

"No," Angela says. "Like what?"

"Well, I heard that Paige called Alex a bad name. She called him-" I trail off. Angela's face dissolves into a wince of conspiracy among grown-ups. "Oh no," she whispers back. "She has no clue. Really. She doesn't know from that. She's not even allowed to say the word- "

Yes?

Angela twists her face into a big stage whisper. "-the word 'stupid.'"

Ah. For me, this conversation ends, much as a talk once ended the instant that neo told me that Jill and I had interfered with Alex's treatment "to his detriment." Any parent who'd introduce the word "stupid" into this conversation is indeed an apple tree, and a brittle one. With splinters.

Jill persists. She informs Angela about the poking with the stick, and suggests that Paige apologize.

At this, Angela's voice goes up. "They were collecting sticks!" she proclaims. "They collect sticks!"

Maybe they do. Since I don't have an electrodes handy, I try to spur Angela with a phrase. "Well, I am hearing about this second-hand, but we'd thought you'd want to know."

"Well I was there. I was right there," Angela says. "I was two feet away."

So I heard. "Well, we just thought we'd want to know," I say, "if Alex was doing something in school, for instance, that other parents objected to."

"Paige is doing great in school!"

I nod, wondering how many more times Angela is going to say "I was there!" before this mini-Munich conference disintegrates. "Well, that's good," I say.

"I was there," Angela says.

Paige wonders over. She rocks her chin in her interlocked fingers and smiles close-mouthed, her eyes wide. Jill looks down at her. "Paige we're trying to have a serious conversation," Jill says. Angela says nothing. Paige smiles and rocks her chin and says nothing, and stays. "Paige," says Jill, "do you remember what happened on the playground today?" Rock and smile. Rock and smile. "Do you remember seeing our babysitter on the playground today?" Rock and smile. "Do you remember going to the playground today?"

In response, Paige grabs her mother's sweatshirt just below the shoulders and hangs off her. "Mommy, I'm hun-ga-ree," Paige says.

My mother had an expression; it was about some kids, and it ended with the words "ass blistered." But my mother isn't here for the end of this chat -- good thing for Paige -- and I just say, "We won't keep you" as we head toward the door.

"Well, if there was any misunderstanding," Angela murmurs, "we'll keep our distance, I guess."

So ends our first parent-to-parent collision. I head back upstairs glad we did this. This is not for the first time nor the last -- not for Paige, and not for us -- and people need to know when we're paying attention. And Angela did make one stunningly intelligent comment, about keeping her distance (we won't discuss here how she called our house two hours later, while we were out, and told our babysitter to stay out of her way).

There is nothing but bile here: bad words; tightening stomachs; a 4-year-old girl who has already learned when to be hun-ga-ree; actually considering asking her, "Paige, where's your daddy?" Bile. Keeping their distance is best. Any other course would be ... what was that word? Oh yes. Stupid. (February 2002)

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