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Bang Bang Bang; Classtime; Battle Stations; Beat the Clock; Never Again; Sack Time; The Kindness of Strangers

Bang Bang Bang

I'd never seen anyone intentionally bang their head on a table until Jill did it last Sunday.

Bang bang bang bang. Damnedest thing. The intersection of Jill's forehead and the cherry veneer of the dining room table - I think it's cherry - was occasioned by our fill-in babysitter wheeling the boys out for a walk so Jill and I could go for a walk alone.

The boys wailed, their sorrow ricocheting down our hallway. The babysitter did nothing, just stood there until it wasn't worth our going out. ("Clueless and useless," Jill would say later.)

Bang bang bang. How about that?

Jill is exhausted. In our marriage, I go out to the job and Jill stays home with the kids. This means scurrying after Ned during the weekdays and, on those rare afternoons when she ventures out into the cold, being back in time to scoop Alex off the bus when he gets home from school. Before this life, she was home with Alex and juggling therapists' schedules. Before that, she spent about every day at the hospital, visiting Alex.

The last four years of her life have dinged her up quite a bit. "Dinged" being just an expression, at least until bang bang bang.

"Jill, stop that," say I, the caring husband.

"I'm going to have a nervous BREAKDOWN!" she ripostes. "I can't take it when they cry like that!"

Maybe she could have taken it at one time, maybe even laughed about it in that way I thought of as callous until I had kids. Laughter comes hard to Jill these days. But she's developed a substitute: screaming "I can't live like this!" It doesn't seem to make her feel much better.

My friend Jon and his wife Cindy faced a similar situation some three years ago, where their second child was born. They were lucky enough, however, to arrange for Cindy to work part-time and retain her benefits, freeing Jon to also work part-time. Jon said that the arrangement allowed them both to "always be fresh" for both home and work. "Staying home with kids is a hell of a lot harder than having a job," Jon said later.

My boss was an angel when Alex in the hospital. But he adheres to banker's hours, which means I have to show up more or less at nine and leave more or less at five. And benefits for part-timers may have been a remote possibility when I started at this job and the company was still run by the band of Boomers who'd begun it. Since then, my magazine has been swallowed twice by corporations, both of which believe that employee motivation is better served by Snapple vending machines than creative hourly schedules.

So there's Jill. With Ned, and the breakfast dishes and the Cheerio crumbs and the week's Times she's been unable to read. Then some doctor says Alex is headed for big trouble in school with his bad attention span. Then Alex won't sleep in a bed. Then Ned won't sleep through the night. Then Jill must try to wring money out of eBay with a dying home Compaq.

I have a sense of her life. Last winter, I took a long unpaid paternity leave from my job. Ostensibly the leave was to allow us to get our then-new apartment in shape and cart all the cardboard to the basement. And it was fun at first, and we did things like order Florida grapefruit over the Net after the boys had gone to sleep. Soon, though, a bleakness settled over our lives. We couldn't take Ned anywhere due to frigid weather and a ton of snow. Alex wasn't in school yet; pretty soon "Mother Goose" videos drilled into our brains. The grapefruit never showed up. We fought.

I've told her to get away. We have an old friend in Philadelphia that she'd love to see. It's an easy Amtrak ride. We can still sort of afford it, and anyway it'd be cheaper than replacing the veneer of the table. Trouble is, it takes momentum to even plan such a trip, and one of Jill's big problems is momentum (Alex used to be in this boat, before he started school and had to live amid what I called "the aimlessness of home"). She has momentum for housework, cooking dinner, diapering, and the other chores that have without warning become Jill's life. She seems instead to have trouble making a train reservation, making time to pack an overnight bag, making a change.

That's not completely true. She wants to get the dining room table re-finished. "By the way," she adds, "it's teak."

(P.S. After Jill read the first draft of this, she asked to make changes. A few days went by, and she gave me no changes. I reminded her. She blanked. "You know," I said, "that essay about your head and the table?" "Oh yeah," she replied, "now I remember!") (March 2002)

Classtime

Jill finally gets me to attend a class on how to parent a child with developmental disabilities. I get to class late.

When I enter, one of the moms is pounding the other side of the oval table. She is wearing a fine gold necklace and a velvet shirt, and is screaming "No no no no!" as she pounds. Another mom is talking to her in flat, role-playing tones: "It's time to do this now."

"No no no no!" The pounding mom seems to find this exercise relaxing. The skit ends to applause, and one of the two social workers overseeing the class tells us what could have been done better, such as offering a book or snack to distract the "tantruming" child, or offering praise, such as, "I like the way you're breathing." I'm guessing neither of these social workers has kids.

I sit in the corner. My mother always told me to sit quietly when I wasn't sure what was going on. But, since this is a class, I daydream:

I like the way you're breathing, Ned...

GLAAA!, as more books hit the floor...

In this class, semi-strangers sit in a well-used conference room on chairs that don't quite fit their rumps, trying not to stare at the mountain of muffins, doughnuts, and bagel halves in the center of the table. Beside everyone is a bottle of water or Pepsi or a ball of empty, breakfast-deli tinfoil.

Soon, Jill is pulled into her own skit, in which she plays the dad of a tantruming child. Her job is apparently to stand mutely by while the "mom" tries to talk "the child" into turning off the TV. "I wanna watch 'Clifford!'" yells this mom/tantruming child.

No one instructed her to say "Clifford," and I think this is a clever bit of improv. The mom/mom speaks in soothing, workshop tones, and the "Clifford" crisis passes. Dad/mom Jill sits down; she didn't say a word during the skit, and claims she didn't need to.

Jeff, can't you keep Alex from doing that!?

I don't feel I need to, Jill...

The women -- I'm the only dad here -- launch into stories. One mom says her child is in the fridge/toilet/stove phase, and the stove is "non-negotiable." Another mom got thrown out of McDonald's because her child was having a tantrum. One woman's child screamed a fit in the middle of Fifth Avenue. One mom says her child's tantrums drive her to a frenzy until she just shouts, "Fine! You want to be that way, fine!"

"I sometimes feel I don't want to be a mommy anymore," another mom says.

"You're human," the social worker points out. "You're going to lose it from time to time. Remember, each interaction is not life or death." Someone adds that "there's no overall parenting guide when it comes to wanting to kill your child!" That brings a laugh.

Then comes a video, which features a combination that brings another laugh: a busy mom, a toddler, an open fridge door, and a bowl of Jell-O. In the first scenario, the mom hits the roof and grabs a rag. In the second, she still grabs the rag, but also explains to the toddler that the fridge is off limits. In the third scenario, the mess has disappeared without mom apparently ever touching the rag, and instead she's providing the toddler with a drawer of his own stuff to play in, such as egg cartons and plastic baby bottles. We learn that the video mom's response was governed by ACT: Accept the child's feelings, Communicate the rule, and Target a positive choice, or alternative.

That'll be the weekend!, says the ghost of my mother. I see that there is a fourth option: Move the child. My mother usually went for Option Four, punctuating her choice with a whack of the yardstick.

Just as I'm coming to the conclusion that this workshop should be called "Common Sense, You Moron, 101," a handout comes around. This is on "Better Communication - 'I' Statements." The following parental statements "are almost guaranteed to be met by an angry or defensive" response: You are the messiest person I've ever seen; You are a selfish, spoiled brat; You never get anywhere on time; You whine like a little baby; Can't you ever put things away when you're finished with them?

Is this Alex and Ned I'm talking to, or Jill?

Then come the proper, calmer "I" statements: I can't work in the kitchen when it's a mess; I get worried when you don't show up on time; I don't like it when you use that tone of voice; I get discouraged when you don't put things away; I feel hurt and angry when you don't show appreciation for the things I've done for you.

My mother had another "I" statement: "I'm going to kill you!" But what did she know about parenting? (March 2002)

Battle Stations

On a recent tumultuous morning with the boys, Jill called me at work and told me her problems. I heard Ned and Alex screeching in the background. She described her bad morning, and I made the husband's mistake of saying to her, "I know."

"You don't know!" she replied. "You don't know because you don't have to do all the things I have to do in a day."

In fact, I often do. Jill rises at dawn on Sunday to disappear with grandpa, Uncle Rob, and family friend Eleanor to go grocery shopping, stranding me with Alex and Ned. Alex is sometimes placated by Elmo and crayons. Sometimes not. Ned often spends the three hours doing an impersonation of the mad little African doll with the knife in Trilogy of Terror.

In between, however, tasks must be done to keep the house running and clean. Done by me. Dreary tasks, too, if I think about them. Which I do not, at least in any normal sense.

What I have to attack these chores -- and what Jill, a girl, lacks -- is a fantastic military mindset. As a little boy, I read the likes of Guadalcanal Diary and Run Silent, Run Deep. I played with a plastic M-1, a plastic M-16, and a metal Luger cap pistol. I was killed and decorated in every branch of the service and in every war America ever fought in, and a few I made up. My favorite board games were Dogfight, Skirmish, and Hit the Beach. While Jill was wasting her time with "The Flying Nun," I was preparing for parenthood by watching "Rat Patrol," "Combat," and "Baa Baa Black Sheep."

I don't stand over my sons with a plastic rifle -- not a bad idea ... -- but I do approach each chore with the same sense of history and degree of imagination that kept me talking to myself almost into my twenties.

I'm not re-filling the diaper drawer, but re-loading the magazine. I'm not dropping toys into the tub, but catching the Akagi off Midway. Ned isn't napping, but sacking out. Every dirty diaper is a spent shell. I take the boys for a run every Sunday morning to the 116th Street CVS for "gear" (diapers and powdered formula). I strap them into the stroller thinking of World War I pilots. "Let's roll!" I bark, sometimes causing Alex to turn around in alarm at this sudden, colonel-like stranger who's about to wheel him and his brother into traffic.

Sometimes we head straight up Fifth Avenue and cut over; sometimes our patrol takes us across 110 and up Lenox Avenue. We roll down the sidewalk as if down a Normandy back road; we plow through puddles like a Sherman through the Rhine. Or a jeep through the Yalu. Depends on much firepower I want to bring, where my geopolitical leanings and head for history are on any given, fateful Sunday morning.

Often along our route, Ned drops his bottle and whines. You try doing this stuff any other way.

The same fantasy land works for household chores. I did take a mop to the kitchen floor once or twice with fantasies of swabbing a deck, but that never took off. Commanding officers don't swab decks. Also, I lost myself quicker by imagining I was somehow readying our home for another week's battle, getting the place ready for seven more days of slopped formula and dropped Goldfish, another week of Ned flinging plastic spice bottles out of the pantry.

I'm not changing the sheets, but rigging the camouflage netting. Not scrubbing the sink, but polishing the big guns. Not picking up toys, but shoring up sandbags. I'm not re-filling the diaper drawer, but re-victualing the ship.

Jill reads this essay without a word. "Jeff," she finally responds, "you are quite insane."

I know, I know, I already did the diaper drawer. But it's my game and if the boys don't like it, they can go play at their house. (April 2002)

Beat the Clock

It's time to play "Get Alex Out the Door and Ned Settled Down in the Morning!"

"And Allow Jill Time for a Shower!"

"And Don't Forget Your Men's Room Key."

Jill says her mom used to say that, when you were trying to get out the door in the morning, every minute was 45 seconds long. Believe it. It's just like the old "Beat the Clock."

The boys beat the alarm clock by 15 minutes, dragging mom and dad into consciousness, where the latter's first thought of the day is, "Why in God's name doesn't the kettle heat faster!" From that moment each weekday, Jill and I face a surmountable, but numerous, list of tasks. Cheerios in a bowl. Kettle on the stove. Peel a banana and crack a soy yogurt - which he hates - for Ned. It's 7:15.

Get the weather. Empty the dishwasher. 7:35. Get ourselves dressed. Get the boys dressed. 7:50. Rinse and spit. Comb and brush. 7:59. Alex's bus pulls up at 8.

"Oh look at Alex," a still-dry Jill says from the bathroom doorway, the towel in her hand. "He's getting so long..."

"Take your shower now!" I snap. It's 10 to eight. Still, until my morning cup of Earl Grey kicks in somewhere on the subway, I'm groggy. And grumpy.

"Jeff, stop talking to me like that!" Jill says. "I don't even think we should talk to the kids like that."

I am the weakest link.

If it all goes smoothly, it goes on time. I volunteer to get Alex and Ned dressed while Jill showers. She lays out their clothes and vanishes into the bathroom. This should work. Doesn't. Getting Ned dressed is like trying to button overalls onto a mad monkey. Then, as I fumble in mounting panic, his sneakers turn into the one thing no parent can afford in the morning: a battle of wills.

"Ned! Stop! Hold still! Nedkeepyourfootstill!" I get one on. Even tie it. Start to get the other one wedged on -- "Nedkeepyourfootstill!" -- and the first one falls off.

Next thing I know Jill is beside me, fully dressed, her hair even dry. "Jeff, I'll do Alex! You get dressed!" I do, stalking away from Ned, who gazes after me, grinning in his stocking feet.

A few 45-second minutes later, between spitting out the Aim and finding my subway pass, I hear the lobby buzzer. "Jeff, I'll take Alex down!" I hear Jill call.

This is the ultimate Weekday Morning indignity. Dashing down with barely tied shoes, Alex in my arms, a split second of lost footing on the stairs as for a blink I see myself pinwheeling into space and Alex flying to meet the floor, while the bus driver looks on from out in the double-parking lane and takes notes for the upcoming Social Services investigation.

"No, I'll take him," I call back. "C'mon, Alex-"

Some mornings he slides right into his jacket. Others, it takes a crowbar to pry him from the opening credits of "Arthur." Why can't PBS run "Wall Street Week" after "Sesame Street?"

"C'mon, Alex! School!"

As we near the door, Ned realizes that he's never going to see either of us again. "Ned," says Jill, more hope than authority in her voice, "want to read a story?" But they'releaving they'releaving they'releaving they'releaving-! That's what Ned would scream if he could talk. That or, "When am I going to get out of here?!"

"C'mon, Alex! School!"

To the elevator and down to the lobby, to the steps (... pinwheeling into space ... ) and out to the bus. I hand Alex over to the bus matron, he vanishes inside, and DING!

Tell me what I've won, Johnny!

You've won ... one more morning toward the WEEKEND! Yes, it's a weekend. Two days to sleep all the way to 7:15. (April 2002)

Never Again

It's one thing to write about medical procedures to my helpless baby, worries about his future, my wife's faults both big and really big. But this topic here will be something I did that I'm ashamed of. It's been a long time since I did anything I was ashamed of, by which I mean it's been a long time since I was caught doing anything I was ashamed of.

Looking back on Sunday morning, it was probably questionable judgment on my part to leave a pair of boys, one of them three and the other age 16 months, alone in a home full of breakables and spray window cleaners while I dashed to the basement and fetched the laundry.

Questionable I'll admit, but not shameful, unless something bad happens or unless I get caught. Which it didn't, and which I did.

"Are you out of your mind?" Jill asked when I came through the door and found her home early, goddammit, from grocery shopping. Now normally when somebody asks this question, they hit the word "mind" extra hard, and to me that's always been a hint that they're sort of kidding and maybe I can get off the hook. That's the way it works on sitcoms, anyway, as the situation gets more and more hysterical and funny.

Jill's voice was calm, rock-solid with Right, and if there was a wrinkle of hysteria in her conviction, I couldn't find it.

To back up a minute, I'm a responsible father. I do the laundry a lot. I have a job and an insurance policy, and I like one of them a hell of a lot more than I like the other, believe me. I change the boys all the time when I'm home. I go to Alex's school and talk to his teachers, and someday I'll do the same with Ned's teachers. I pick up toys -- don't listen to Jill on this -- and I read to my boys. I miss them when I'm gone. I get up in the middle of the night, almost as much as Jill does though I doubt she'll ever believe this.

Jill didn't look like she cared to believe much I had to say on Sunday, when first out of my mouth came that standby syllable of the Busted: "Ohhh..." Then I fumbled into something about only being gone a second, and how laundry is very hard to find time for on the weekends, and about how I ran into a neighbor we hate, and...

"Never do that again," Jill said.

I won't. And I won't do the laundry on Sunday morning either, because it's really crowded down there. Would this have a good moment to stomp my foot?

"Take the boys with you," Jill said. "Never do that again." Still solid. Still right. When was she going to get hysterical?

It was only a couple of minutes. The laundry room is crowded on Sunday mornings and the double-stroller is wide, and if you take Alex out of the stroller down there he makes a beeline for the bathroom and locks himself in. The laundry bag is heavy. We don't have time to do laundry the rest of Sunday, because a babysitter comes at 11, and we go out for a few hours' couple time. The kids were absorbed in Elmo, anyway, and ordinarily Jill would have stayed out shopping until 10:30 or so, and never would have known.

Oh, forget it. The real sign of how high I've hit the Stupidity Meter comes on Monday night, when I try to pass off my Sunday bungle as a joke, or at least a light moment. Jill looks down and her smile dies. "Never do that again," she says.

I must never do something this stupid again, especially when there's a chance of getting caught. I wish it was just stupid. Leaving the boys alone for even the time it takes to claw clothes out of the dryer was, however, irresponsible and stupid. I'm ashamed of it, grade-school ashamed. As writing about it hasn't made me feel less ashamed, let's just keep it among ourselves. (April 2002)

Sack Time

"Nighttime, daytime, anytime's a good time to hit the sack." - The talking bed on "Elmo."

On workdays I get away from the kids until about 6 p.m., at which hour I play with the boys before they go to bed. That duty lasts about an hour, maybe 75 minutes. At the end of it, I feel like I've played a football game.

Until about a week ago, the boys slept about 12 hours a night, 7 to 7. Most parents marvel at this. So do we. They often sleep sprawled; Alex tucks his hand under the back of his head; Ned lies on his stomach with his knees tucked in and his butt in the air, like the fins of an old Cadillac. Our nights are mostly silent. "They sleep like marines," I tell people.

Bear in mind that marines wake up at 5:30. The boys generally commence gurgling around 6. Their insistence doesn't hit penetrate-the-pillow-over-dad's-head volume until about 6:30. Jill hears them sooner; in fact, she's usually awake with they start.

I spoke with Jill this afternoon. I could barely hear her. "I don't know," she said. "I'm just so tired. I had a long nap today, too. I dozed off with Ned about 10:30, and the next thing I knew it was 12:30. That's a long sleep. And I got a good night's sleep last night, too."

Not always. Three things break Jill's sleep.

1. Ned;

2. Alex;

3. Everything else.

Jill and I are sleepwalking through two levels of tired. One level is superficial and normal: Ned supplies that, enthusiastically. He was up and howling from about 11 to midnight. Sometime after he either settled down in the darkness, or we fell asleep and stopped hearing him.

The other level is deep, like a scar that aches when it rains. This level stems from Alex's struggles. Late-night dashes to the hospital, late-night calls, worries, stress, conferences with doctors (often the source of the worries and the stress), the prolonging every workday by a few hours spent beside my sometimes-comatose son. Even when he came home, it was with a sleep-shattering pulse-ox. He still coughs a lot whenever he gets a cold - the docs say it's a form of asthma - and his sounds pierce our nights until one of us climbs out of the blankets and mixes him a neb. I've often wondered when it was all going to catch up with me, when I was going to cross into a kind of tired you don't dent with a couple good naps.

Ned didn't come home with a pulse-ox, of course, but he did come home with his lungs. He uses them well on a night like last night, when only the press of mommy or daddy's chest will quiet him, and when he splits the night at the looming of the crib, when he flings the blanket away as if it were a snake.

When I recap our reasons for exhaustion to Jill, she grunts in incredulous agreement, as if I'd just told her something she was too tired to realize. "Remember when we could just swaddle Ned?" Jill asks. Yes. Hold onto that blanket, kid, I silently tell him. Someday you might really want to use it.

Then there's everything else. Alex has issues. Maybe Ned has problems. Jill's mom is sick. Jill is worried about someday resuscitating her career after years on the home front. Everything else. The other night she lay awake for an hour, right around the dreaded valley of 4:30 a.m. What was she thinking about?

"You always ask that," she replies. "Not bad things. I was trying to think of good things. Soothing places, lists of soothing things. Like that." That probably got her to 5:30. I've had those valleys, too, but not as often.

Maybe it's just a mom thing. I think my sister's like that. One of the best landladies I ever had was an older mom who at last earned herself an official diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome. She'd always be wandering around in a housecoat in the middle of the night. You could smell her coffee at 2:30. I used to wonder why she did that, with her kids all grown, and how she got that way. Now maybe I know. Moms get that way because of times like Jill is going through now.

I believe that as Alex moves beyond the life-threatening times and Ned moves toward some sort of daytime -- and, we hope, exhausting -- structured activity of his own, we the parents can only keep to the sack whenever possible. This fatigue won't be dented by a few good naps, but I know of no better place to start. Maybe that's a dad thing. (May 2002)

The Kindness of Strangers

The other day I took the boys to the playground while Jill took a few well-deserved hours off.

She actually trailed after us for a few of her precious free hours, helping corral the boys in the Central Park flower garden when I set them free from the stroller for a romp. At one point, she had to dash after Alex before he reached the dry fountain and its potential plunge onto dry concrete. She came back with one of those looks. She worries too much, I thought.

At last she disappeared to meet a friend, leaving behind two boys -- tugging at their seat straps like idling speedboats tugging at docking lines -- along with one confident dad in the traffic of New York. A dangerous combination, especially when we got to the playground and dad (me) unclipped the runner (Alex) from the stroller first.

I don't know who built this brand of umbrella double-stroller with the little loop on the center belt that always catches on the latch thing and traps the leg of the little squirmy boy (Ned) nine times out of ten, but whoever it was I wish he'd been there to grab Alex, who became a blur headed in the direction of busy Lexington Avenue.

Ned's foot never looked at big as it did that moment. Ensnared in the seat straps as the stroller tipped backwards under the weight of our bags of crap. An instant before, Ned had been enjoying a view of the swings; suddenly he was face to the sky, his bottle on the pavement, his big brother free and gone, and his foot going numb in the loop of the strap while dad fumbled and fumbled.

My fingers never felt fatter as I tugged at the loop. The thing just wouldn't come undone. The seconds dragged yet flew. Look up: no sign of Alex. Was that the squeal of brakes? The subway's over there. Maybe Alex had squirreled away a MetroCard. Dad-sweat did nothing to loosen the strap.

"Need a hand?"

Two men, really big men, plainclothes cops, probably. No doubt they'd shoot me when this was over, for the boys' safety. "Yes please," I think I said. "My other boy just took off-"

Their hands appeared over Ned's foot and without a thought I left my second son to the care of two really big strangers and bolted after Alex. There he was, blocked a few feet from the street by an enormous woman who had him by the arm. "Thank you. Thank you. I'm sorry," I panted. She didn't reply. I think she thought I should spank Alex. Instead I dragged him back to where the would-be cops had righted Ned, who was probably thinking, Now these guys are dads!

Okay. So I got some water and we all settled down, Alex in the swings while a boy next to him twisted the other swing seat around and around in a knot, and Ned was left to grope through a chain-link fence for yet another stranger's red ball, which he couldn't reach.

"He can borrow it," said one of the strangers, another big woman. "Thank you. Thank you," I said. I tried to amuse Ned by tossing the ball to and fro in a fun-filled yet rigidly confined 9-square-foot patch of playground, while Alex gradually lost momentum in the swing.

"Is he playing soccer?" the boy twisting the swing seat asked. "Can I play?" The boy looked about 12. His sneakers were bigger than Ned. I mumbled something. Watching two is hard enough, let alone protecting them in this urban jungle. The boy moved off. I took Alex out of the swing and herded him and Ned toward the slide.

It was a nice day, a little humid. Hint of the summer weather to come, but there was a breeze. The woman with the ball watched me and I thanked her again. Ned decided to climb to the top of the wood-and-steel slide thing and stand, inches from my grasp, with his toes over the edge of a three-foot drop. Another parent's arm came up, and I thanked it. Then, because responsibility for the boys on this afternoon was all mine, I caught my breath, gathered my wits, and let Alex get away from me again.

"Alex! Alex!" I sprinted. He didn't get as far this time. The boy from the swings stood in front of him, his hand gently holding Alex's. Alex looked puzzled. "Thank you. Thank you," I told the boy, who put his hand on Alex's back and guided him back toward our stroller.

Which, I decided, it was time for the boys to occupy once more. I strapped Alex in first -- fool me twice ... -- then Ned, and caught the eye of the woman with the red ball. "You're doing a very good job," she said to me. "Happy Father's Day!"

The boys walked beside the stroller on the way home. One at a time. (May 2002)

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