"If you look around, probably a third of what you own has to do with your kids." -- Our last mover
I've taken three of the plastic bins that Jill labeled and stacked on the boys' toy shelves and flung their contents around the living room. I've then waded through and kicked toys under chairs and couch, then sprinkled pretzel crumbs among them. Then I have left the room on an urgent yet unrevealed errand.
I haven't done any of that. I can't even get out of the recliner. The big square cushions lean against the entertainment cabinet. The video drawer is open, the tapes tumbled from their boxes. Pez dispensers are scattered where Alex rooted for Charlie Brown and Snoopy to go with viewing "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Track of the two plastic train sets is spun across the floor, Ned's pattern as random and beautiful as tea leaves, the little cars tipped on their sides as if victims of some moment of miniature switchman's carelessness. A superball waits by the ottoman. Over there, Elmo is face-down like William Holden in the pool in Sunset Boulevard. Two plastic bowls, empty of all but pretzel salt, sit beside the TV. A sippy thing lies on its side in a tiny yet spreading pool on the coffee table. Directly beneath it, and about to receive a drip, sits somebody's little brightly colored plastic head.
This took the boys, I don't know, half an hour. Time was, when Jill was off shopping on the weekends and I had both guys, I'd cordon off a section of the living room and sacrifice it to this mess, reasoning that if I could keep the rest of the house safe it was worth losing all floor space between the dining table and the big window.
No more. These days, I'm turning my children into ants.
"Alex, Ned! Clean-up time!" I clap my hands. All I need's a whistle. My eyes fly around the room. If it's mine, kick it under the couch. If it's Jill's, ignore it. If it's theirs, pick it up and place in a little hand.
"Take this to your room, Ned. To your room. Alex, take this into the kitchen sink. Go put it in the kitchen sink, Alex. Your little plastic dishes go in the sink. The kitchen sink." I steer Alex's shoulders. Off he goes, pausing to shoot a glance over his left shoulder as he rounds the dining room table, watching to see if I'm still watching. I am. He vanishes into the kitchen, and I hear his bare toes slap the floor tiles, the pitter-patter of little feet put to work.
To my boys' credit, I can't remember the last time I really to toss one of their little plastic dishes in the sink.
When he comes back, I'll find something else for his toy shelf and rifle him toward Jill, who's waiting to put toys back onto their shelves in their room. I think I realize what Jill might not about Child Command: Your sole job is to find them stuff to do a few seconds before they actually get done doing what you told them to do a few minutes before. Fall behind, and they wander away like a herd with the fence down.
Ned has appeared with the same bucket of toy train track I dispatched him with a moment before, trying to loaf while I daydream. I spin on him, feeling like the Captain Hornblower of toy pick-up. "To your bedroom, Ned."
"Oh, bedroom. Ya..."
Back comes Alex. What took him so long? "Alex, do the train track for me. Put the train track back in the case for me." Do one piece of track and he gets the point. Clatter clatter goes the track back into the case. Without being asked, he shuts the case and hefts it toward the linen closet, where it lives.
If my family is really lucky, it's also laundry night. Jill or I haul it up from the laundry room and fold it. But once folded, it's stacked in category-like piles on the dining table: our stuff, two or three stacks of the boys' shirts, the boys' pants, the boys' socks. Here's where the drill really pays off. "Guys! Laundry!"
The first trick with putting away laundry is to bookend the boys: Me out by the dining table, Jill waiting by the dresser in their room. "Ned, Alex, laundry!" Ned snaps right to, and I had him two balled-up pairs of socks, and he's off. Alex I must pry from the Elmo video, and I place two folded-up T shirts in his arms. "Take them to mommy in your bedroom, Alex. To mommy in your bedroom." By then Ned returns, and I hand him one folded-pair of pants. He bolts for his bedroom, ricocheting off Alex who's returning to this chore by way of the Elmo video. "Alex, more laundry. Take it to mommy." I hand him two folded up T shirts.
The second trick here is to keep the boys' loads small. Repetition teaches them the chore. Also, the more trips they have to make, the more tired they'll get.
Alex hasn't returned from depositing his T shirts, and I suspect he's wandering his room, supposedly helping Jill. But I hear her voice rising, and more likely any household organization has degraded until Alex is rooting the dresser drawers for wooden puzzles.
"Use hand-over-hand with Alex if you have to," I call to her. "Keep talking to him. A stream of words. Don't let him let up!" Did she hear me? She did. I hear her talking.
A baseball cap and a sweatshirt, too, to go with the whistle. And a stopwatch. (January 2004)
I'm settled in for the evening -- which to Ned seems to be mean that I've stepped through the front door and unzipped my coat -- when he says, "Play Pillow?"
Sometimes Ned likes to fall into my stomach. Other times, he likes to jump on my crotch. Still other times he will just walk on my back, which I don't mind since five years of fatherhood have taught me it's the closest thing I'll get to a massage.
The action takes place on our bed, a broad, flat, soft space where little bones are unlikely to hit anything hard once it's cleared of such landmines as a hardcover book, one of Jill's bigger belt buckles, or much change. I clear the bed until I'm sure the only thing Alex and Ned could probably hit are each other: Nothing scoops at my heart like the clunk of two little skulls coming together, unless it's Jill demanding "What happened!?" afterwards.
Guys rough-house. I used to rough-house -- "rassle" -- with my big brother. He was nine years older, but I finally got him to the floor when I was about 26. My mother used to cheerlead: "Cut it out 'fore you break your necks!"
Rough-housing with your little boys, I've always heard, is one of fatherhood's most robust pleasures, a special one reserved for dad. You don't see too many moms take they toddlers and pretend they're James T. Kirk on a hostile planet. "My little bear- Oh, Alex. No. Sweetie, my neck!" says Jill, as Alex gets her in a good grip for The Bronco Buck (see below). Also, nobody ever mentioned dad's nausea -- the heat makes me woozy, along with Ned and Alex's little feet coming down on my skull until it feels like a canned ham in a pile driver -- but I take the condition as a reminder that I'm pushing 42, and Alex and Ned are not. Ten minutes into it, I'm murmuring to myself like an outfoxed superhero: Losing ... power ... Must ... conserve ... strength ...
I forget when Ned started this (too many blows with the little feet, maybe). He used to ask to play Pillow by demanding, "Put your head down!", but lately he just says, "Please." He soon summoned Alex, with whom I never rassled. He never seemed to want more than the occasional tickle, which he asked for by saying, "Again?" "Alex, c'mon. Play Pillow!" Sometimes Alex will just come running when he hears Ned's alarm, which to the rest of us is just piercing laughter. Alex comes running and bolts onto the bed. Sometimes he tries to burrow under me. Other times we go for something more acrobatic.
On my little sons I practice several kinds of takedowns:
The Bronco Buck: Alex and Ned climb on my back one at a time. My head is low, my face buried in the down blanket. I can't breathe; I'm sweating and getting a headache; they don't care. Sometimes Alex will pull my T shirt back down if it's hiked up on my back, but other than that my own sons don't care. As if smelling my blood, this is their favorite. They wrap their arms around my neck, brace their legs against my rips, and let me buck them off over the shoulder. This allows them a scrumptious roll on the mattress, unless I miscalculate and buck one of them into another. "Bump my head!" Ned complains, rubbing. Alex just giggles until he realizes it hurts, then lapses right into crying, then back to giggling. "I'm okay," says Ned. "You okay, dad?"
The Quarterback Sack: My favorite. Shoulder to chest (spearing with your make-believe football helmet is a penalty ...), arms around the shoulders, full follow-through to the turf. Trash-talk as I let them up. They giggle insanely.
The Jujitsu Toss: Variation on the Bronco Buck. I sweep my arm back and then forward, cutting Alex's legs right out from underneath him. Sort of carry/drop him, preferably face down. If face-up, follow through with vigorous tickling. Check everyone for fractured necks.
The Simple Shove: Quick and efficient, heel of the hand -- gently -- to the chest bone. This works especially great on Ned, and allows him to ham it up a little bit, as if acting for the ref. He's getting taller, and he falls like a tree.
Once in a while one of them will clip me in the eye, and tearfully I make a mental note to pick up a pair of goggles. Alex starts to tickle my foot. "No fair!" I bark. Sometimes we play while Jill is working at the computer nearby. Once after a spectacular jujitsu toss, I looked up to see her staring.
Is she going to congratulate me? I wondered. "You wanna watch their heads?" she said.
God forbid I try to take a break to eat dinner, give them a bath, or clear my aching head (... losing ... power ...). "Noooooo!" shrieks Ned. "Play Pilloooooo!" It took me a long time to figure out who the "pillow" was; one too many blows with the little feet, maybe. But I still outlast them, until they've stopped bolting and kicking and instead just plop onto me like sacks. It is a manly game, and we will play it again tomorrow and tomorrow and forever. (January 2004)
Brush, Bunny, Brush
The last toy is off the living room and has clattered into whatever plastic well Alex or Ned dumped it from an hour ago. The boys have pitched the last of their dinner plastic-ware into the kitchen sink - good thing the fine china is a long way off - and it's time to begin our evening's last round-up.
"Alex! Ned! Time to brush teeth!"
We have a wooden two-step stool the boys stand on before the bathroom mirror, one at a time. Whoever gets there first goes first; whoever gets there second shuts and locks the bathroom door behind him. I've never told them to do this, but apparently they take this nightly ritual seriously. "Bring the stool over, Ned. Watch your toes when he sets it down, Alex."
Alex has the yellow toothbrush, Ned a black, two-piece travel job I found in the bottom of a linen-closet bin last night. Both boys, Ned especially, quickly turn toothbrushes into flat blossoms of bristles. Ned is a little further along in learning to brush his teeth, though his efforts still often degenerate into sucking off the Buzz Lightyear toothpaste. Ned likes to brush by the book, too: Brush! Brush! Bunny, the short history of a bunny, as you can guess, brushing his teeth. "Read the book!" Ned demands before he even puts brush to baby incisor.
"Hop up onto your stool, little bunny," the book reads. "Move the toothbrush up and down. Brush your front teeth and your back teeth. Up and down, up and down."
From where he stands on the stool, Alex's full face appears in the mirror of the medicine cabinet; seems like yesterday when all that appeared was his nose and forehead. I brush Alex's teeth. "It isn't enough that he's learning to brush," his pediatrician said in a testy mood months ago. "His teeth have to brushed clean!" Alex has, however, progressed far since his only visit to a dentist, who specialized in special-needs kids, about two years ago. Then, Alex would only open his mouth to scream (which still facilitates a good dental exam). Also, some dental students checked him over in pre-school and he came with a note that said he claimed he might have had a cavity, but nothing ever came of it.
He freely opens his mouth to let me scrub. Trouble is, he also dances on the stool and claps his hands about his head. "Alex, hold still!"
He sort of does, and I work off all the chicken nuggets and saltines and ice cream and pretzel rods and other stuff that constitutes his diet, and which I'm sure is propelling him toward a first cavity. We've got to get Alex back to the dentist soon. At his last appointment, though, the pediatrician fingered his lips and teeth like a horse trader and clucked with approval.
I brush Alex's front teeth and his back teeth, up and down. It goes quick once he settles down. "Okay Alex, drink." I hand him the plastic cup. He sips, then often shakes the cup in the sink to empty it. Sometimes he declines and cup, and keeps clapping.
"C'mon, Alex, drink. Tonight, huh?" He drinks. "Okay, you're outta here! Dry your hands and face." He gets down off the stool and rubs his face and hands, sort of, on the towel on the rack, then opens the door and heads out, usually straight to his bedroom.
Ned's next. All that's left to me when he brushes is squeezing Buzz's sweet blue glop on the brush, which Ned takes. "Read the book," he says again. He holds the bristles between his front teeth. "'Brush your front teeth and your back teeth. Brush your top teeth and your bottom teeth.' Brush bunny, Ned!"
"Eh-" he says around the brush.
"'Take a big sip of water from your cup, and gargle gargle! ... and spit!'" Ned doesn't usually gargle, but he does spit, right on target near the drain, with an accuracy I find for some reason encouraging. "Dry your hands and face, Ned!" He does, then it's time to dim the lights in the bedroom and read some other books. One of them is entitled "The Loose Tooth." (June 2004)
Until this year, Alex, almost monotonously, logged nine or 10 hours' sleep nightly, with an occasional pitter-patter into mom and dad's bedroom, usually around 4, to see what was happening.
"Alex go to bed!"
We've built a bedtime routine: toy pick-up by 8:15; brushing teeth by 8:25; in the big chair in the room reading or listening to mom sing by 8:30; Alex yawning once by 8:40; Alex yawning hard and often by 8:45; the binkie gently tumbling from his open mouth by 8:50. Ned we'd put to bed or take back out to the living room and let watch TV with us. Sometimes we'd do this with Ned before Alex was asleep, and one of us would keep hammering Alex with Green Eggs and Ham until the binkie dropped, part of a bedtime strategy Jill came to call "divide and conquer."
"Who has Night Duty?" I ask Jill.
"I'd rather get up for the school bus," she says.
Jill and I have worked out a strategy for overnight, in which one of us handles the kids if they get up, the other gets up at 6:30 to wake Alex for the school bus. (On weekends, we split the Night Duty at 4 o'clock.) It's a gamble: 6:30 is 6:30, but if the kids sleep through the night, you get a solid seven hours, maybe more. If they don't, your Night Duty could resemble that of a ship's captain during a hurricane. More than once, too, Jill has nudged me awake to handle the kids even thought she had night duty!
Why did you do that?! I demand in the morning.
Sorry, sweetie. Could you shut the curtains a little bit?
On a bad night, I try to not push Alex back to bed. But I do send him back with fewer and fewer words each time. I start by explaining as I escort him to his positively delicious-looking bed just why he should turn in: the bus is coming in the morning; we're all going to bed, it's time to pointless drivel from dad pointless drivel from dad pointless- My explanations shrivel, eventually, to just taking his hand, hustling him back to the bed, and turning without a word to shut the door. Again and again and again. It takes about five such trips, on a bad night, before peace.
Ned isn't guiltless here, I should say, not during the evening and not during the overnight. Alex usually does go to sleep first, and we often go into their bedroom half an hour after putting Ned to bed and find him sprawled on Alex's mattress and inching his big brother off the side. (I decline to speculate from which of his parents Ned got his sleeping style.) Often too, Jill and I wake up in the wee hours to find Ned dead to the world between us, in our bed. "How did he get between us? How did he do that!?" Jill marvels.
Alex bustles lately between 3 and 5 a.m. My strategy of night duty is to lay down with him on his bed. It's a soft bed. I built it. That was tiring. It has soft blankets. I'll be softly dropping away when his arm will touch my cheek or chest like a warm sausage. I'm starting to lose control of this, too: Last night I had the Duty and took Alex to bed -- I guess, because I have no memory of this -- and laid myself beside him, and when my eyes opened again it was 1 a.m. Alex was softly snoring. I went through the unreality of brushing my teeth at 1:15 a.m. and slid into my own bed. A few hours later, my eyes come open in the dark to see both my sons' shadows in the bed with us ("...how did he do that?.."). Alex tried to shove his feet under me; Ned scrabbled and flapped. What are the odds I'll be able to wake Jill and convince her while she's still groggy that she has Night Duty?
"Go to sleep, Alex. The bus is going - to - come - early! Alex, in three hours I'm to be coming in here to get you up for the school bus, and you are not going to feel like getting up." He won't be the only one. (June 2004)
Unless someone's sick, each overnight starts the same: the slide between the sheets around 10:30; the tingle of blood down my legs; the sudden moan from my tired, tired soul, and either me or Jill proclaiming, "This is the best part of the day. Sad to say." Then I read until the words swim, click off the light, place my head on the pillow, and within a few minutes the world goes away.
The world returns some time later, my glass of sleep shattered with a touch or push, or the slap and scurry of puppet-sized feet that not so long ago in my life, in the dark, would have seized my heart and sent me through the ceiling. Tonight, it's Ned and/or Alex.
I often have "night duty" (I get to sleep an extra half hour in the morning), so Jill touches my arm in the dark and murmurs, "Jeff..." in that pillow voice of hers that I once longed to hear and long to hear forever.
"...Jeff, could you take Ned and/or Alex back to his bed?"
That voice of hers in the dark. Once she woke me when she had night duty!
I've tried to share a mattress with my guys, but trying to sleep beside Ned is like trying to sleep beside an Alaskan King Crab who's had too much coffee. Alex, of course, likes to sleep diagonally.
I try to not glance at the green numerals on the clock-radio, but always do. 3 a.m. and change I can live with. 5 a.m. and change counts as a full night. Anything before 1 a.m. kicks me. All nights feel the same, at first, strangely, until I actually look at the clock. We have a never-sleeping clock here, in the dining room, on the VCR - all the way, in fact, back to the boys' room.
Alex is easy to take back to his bed, though. He's often on his feet anyway, beside our bed, rooting the piles of clothing in the rocking chair for something soft to cuddle. I tap his back. "C'mon, Alex, back to bed." Patter patter patter as he scoots down the corridor, out into the dining room, clearing with bat's vision the table that cracks me on the thigh more nights than not. I trail his shadow into his room, see the shade of his T shirt scramble onto his bed. He snuggles down on his twin bed, where I keep a spare pillow from the couch and a bed sheet. Sometimes I lay down beside him, my head at the foot of the bed, and if I'm lucky I don't pop awake until 5:30, wondering where in hell I am.
Ned's usually more of a pry job. Unless he's really out there between us, he starts with the air raid siren the second I lift his head from my mattress. He'll screech "Noooo!" and/or "Mommy!" until I'm sure the neighbors must be phoning the 23rd Precinct. Some nights, Jill implore me to just bring him back. Some nights, she'll accuse me of making him scream.
But this is night after night now, and I'm feeling pushed around. I lug Ned to the couch, flip him onto his stomach - just to allow me to pat his back better; not to muffle his neighbor-waking cries in the cushions - and tell him we all have to go to sleep. This worked well the other night, but that was the first time I'd tried it, and taking Ned by surprise is already harder as he closes in on age four.
(Jill and Ned watched a new reality show last night about nannies who rescue troubled families. One couple with young kids hadn't slept together in four years, because the mommy kept giving in and sleeping with her son. The show had twin benefits in my home: making Ned drowsy, and showing Jill that the Stimpsons aren't on the absolute bottom of the Overnight With Little Kids barrel.)
Speaking of "four," that's about the middle of Alex's graveyard shift on a bad night. My reminders that the school bus is coming "in a few hours!" bounce off him like popcorn. He kicks his legs and chatters like a squirrel. I get harsh - I want him to know that this behavior at this pitch-black hour is pissing off his parents off. If I get too harsh, he calls for mommy. "Ah mommy!" he says, arm stretched out rigid in the general direction of our bedroom.
"Mommy's asleep!" I hiss. "You're stuck with me! Go to sleep!"
On the most lively nights, it all turns into a game of Musical Beds: Me asleep alone on Alex's bed. Alex asleep over on Ned's bed. Ned asleep on my bed, and in my spot. Jill asleep where she should be. I consider moving her to the couch, just to get us through the night properly. (November 2004)
(Jill again contributes this week's essay.)
About a year ago life had become so unbearably cluttered – children, toys, school applications, medical appointments, lists, worries, actual clutter (itself deserving of a parenthetical list, only this would consist of piles: of magazines, newspapers, mail, things I mean to get to, school stuff, invitations, receipts, recipes, phone messages, clothes, an old booster seat, tote bags from software vendors, shopping bags) – that I had begun dreaming about white. All white dishes. White walls. White sheets. White tile. White T-shirts. White underwear. White bathrobe. White jeans. White containers and white things contained. White writing paper. White envelopes. White blankets. White towels. (Not white shoes, however.) What would I listen to? The White Stripes, I guess, or the White Album, or Barry White, or James White and the Blacks.
Around this time, I bought a bunch of white cardboard magazine holders at Ikea because I was there and they were cheap. These sat around in shrink-wrap for about six months until I established a blinding row of them to act as lateral files. I admit I almost never look at anything I’ve ever filed. Still, it’s hard not to file. What to do with articles you think are going to save your life? Or at least your social life?
This shining block on an otherwise ratty looking shelf brought to mind the organizing binge I started about seven years ago, when I discovered within myself a capacity to organize that surprised me after the years of not being able to find things. One day out of the blue it occurred to me to take all the extension cords we owned and put them all in the same place. It may not seem like much to you, but it made an unmistakable difference the next time we wanted one and were able to pluck a cord out of the closet within seconds.
But when my first son was born (and hospitalized, and complicated, and out of our hands for over a year) I just got away from All That. Alex was in the hospital for a year, and I was hardly in a mood to whistle while I worked at organizing and whipping up cheery meals. At some point I believe I stopped opening mail altogether and then had to spend some months digging out of a few holes created by that. On the other hand, Jeff did keep on paying bills, and we never ran out of toilet paper. So there.
Now Alex is six and still somewhat complicated. But we’re stable – all four of us, now – so it’s time to get back to looking through boxes at the inventory. Have to face that the inventory consists of mostly crap. Here’s what strikes me about Life, Stuff and Organizing (to paraphrase those silly California Closet ads): life’s like a video game. Just like in Tetris or Space Invaders, a constant influx of stuff comes streaming into your life, and the less you can control it, the faster it comes. The more quickly it piles up.
I needed new containers, and I needed to conform rigidly to container type. This sequence of very organized thinking led to a container binge, with many happy hours spent in The Container Store, a place I love because of the feeling of serenity I get from staring at shelves of white plastic boxes or glass jars.
At Target a few months later I moved on to white mini drawers. These completely revamped my horrible linen closet, a space that has the double-edged virtue of being both capacious and very deep. It holds a lot of stuff; which translates to holding a lot of crap, since you can cram it all in. For a misguided while, I used plastic shoeboxes without their tops to hold surplus toiletries and stuff we don’t use everyday: a very big mistake. Tons of stuff in a crazy assortment of shapes and sizes got shoved into those boxes. We could never find anything. I hated looking at them.
Those little drawers from Target hold strictly curated collections -- dental things only, for instance – and it is a revelation to open one and see spare toothbrushes, dental floss and toothpaste, but no cold medicine, shampoo or sunblock. Another drawer holds Band-Aids, antibiotic ointment and skin lotions, but no thermometers or water balloons. I’m thinking maybe our cat can have her own drawer, too: cat brush, nail clipper, hairball remedy.
I find I have a real talent for thinking in rigid categories. (Maybe this is why I did so well in quantum mechanics in high school for one brief shining period in an otherwise dismal academic science career. Or maybe not.) I think sorting is the root of all effective organizing. Years ago I realized that a child’s room could look tidy even with toys spilled on the floor – as long as the floor was absolutely clear and the toys were all the same type. All Legos, all farm animals, all wooden blocks. What looks terrible is that mismatched welter of stuff: a jumble of dollhouse furniture, animals, blocks, an old phone or keyboard the kids like to play with.
Why people (by which I mean my husband and sons) can’t see how wrong this is, I don’t know. Jeff flapped on about how fun it was, when he was a kid, to paw through unsorted toys to find the things he really wanted, but I always found that rather frustrating. An early sign that Alex may take after me came when he was about 18 months. He picked up a wooden pounding toy – just the box – and starting looking around. Though he could not talk, I knew he was looking for the wooden balls and hammer.
I started labeling small boxes for the boys’ stuff, and it works as long as the main offenders of sorting, Jeff and Ned, cooperate. (November 2004)
The book says "it's fun to have fun." Sponge Bob sings to archvillian Plankton about fun ("...'F' is for the friends you share it wi-iithhh...") "What do you do for fun?" my friend Jon asked way back when Alex was still in the hospital. It was a good question then. I didn't think it would also be a good question now.
For example, the other day we were crouched on the sidewalk on W. 72nd Street, trying to pick apart a grilled hot dog so Alex would eat it from a paper plate balanced on my knee. We happened to be in front of a bar. "Remember when we had that nice talk in there?" Jill asked me. (At least I assumed she was talking to me, and not to Alex or Ned.)
I did remember. We were poised to begin dating. I was sure that night, in the flicker of the table candle, that I'd never seen such a beautiful face as Jill's. I still-
"Alex don't drop it! Hot dogs aren't free!" Plankton, incidentally, has his own take on that song, and it more fits my mood these days. "'F' is for 'fire' that burns down the town!.."
That talk in the candlelight with the beautiful face was "pre-K" ("pre-kids"), before Jill and I gave up fun for some sort of perverse biological fulfillment. Pre-k: When Jill and I got places on time, hung up only our own coats unless we were being polite, could actually sit down through a meal, and everyone was happy we came, or at least not as obviously, at times, unhappy. No doubt the antics of autism add to this, well, fire, but probably everybody with little kids is in the same boat. My uncle used to tell the story of when my cousins were little, and he and my aunt would head to her mother's. My grandmother used to sit there and make my aunt cry, so the story goes, for reasons now best buried with some of the participants. That was around 1960, and I can see it: My grandmother's kitchen table, that same wallpaper, my uncle with black hair, my aunt's Kennedy-era doo, the boys who are now almost grandparents themselves shooting about. Maybe my grandmother did make my aunt cry. Maybe too my aunt was, for the first time in her life, more exhausted than she'd ever dreamed possible.
I theorize that people with kids who are about five years old are usually liked best only by other people with kids about five years old. "It's a kind of biological imperative," I babbled one night at dinner, liking how the syllables sounded around my pasta, while Jill chewed her salad and likely wished I'd just shut up and Ned took the delicious dish Jill had really just tossed together and set about tossing it apart. Alex had long since finished his hot dog, and sent the plastic plate clattering into the sink.
"Maybe it forces you into isolation, and in that isolation the family truly forms," I think I said.
"Have you made this for me before?" Ned fired at Jill. "Do I like it?"
Alex grabbed my arm. "Chocolate!" he demanded.
For fun last night, I assembled Ned's new bed, the fun stemming from what turned out to be the misbegotten idea that two beds would actually facilitate my sons' sleeping through the night.
Jill and I have about a 30-minute evening. I have time to gulp two glasses of wine before checking on the boys and finishing loading the dishwasher, brushing my teeth, anointing myself with the balms of middle age. Jill does all this, too, except maybe she gets in online time and one glass of wine. (I worry about Jill's drinking. I don't think she does it enough. It is fun to have fun, but you have to know how.) In bed I read before shutting my eyes for a snooze before Alex/Ned leaps on us in the middle of the night. For fun the next morning, I go to work.
They'd better enjoy it, those two pink petals of youth, on this eve of Labor Day. For Alex heads to second grade and Ned to his own version of Pre-K in a few weeks, and both will find his days filled with a new adult. Mr. Yellow Bus will come a-honking once more at 7:30, and pretty soon every weekday morning mom and dad will come a-looming through the chill of dawn, looking for them both. Then the fun will begin. (August 2005)
Really Special Needs
For me, dad to an autistic son, New Orleans and Katrina confirmed what I believe we've all thought, usually to ourselves, about the disadvantaged: We'll help them when their city floods. I'm no fan of our government's "response" to Katrina, of course, but I think our attitude toward those who can't motor it out of town when a hurricane's coming has been fermenting for generations. Not to mention our attitude about maintaining levees.
Still. What was it like, I think as I watch Alex sleep in our New York apartment, to have an autistic child down there? In the heat and the sludge and the looters? Your home gone, right down to the "Elmo" tapes, most of your binkies, and the silken T shirts of Jill's that you sleep with every night? What would it have been like with Alex in the Superdome?
Dear Reader Cindy (not her real name) was in Mississippi, not Louisiana. She and her husband had quadruplets back in 2003, two of whom survived their early years to enjoy Katrina: James (not his real name, either), a 22-weeker (1 lb. 2 oz.), and "Helen" (23 weeks, 1 lb, 1 oz. ). James has a trach and limited vision; Helen was blinded by ROP Stage 5. Katrina didn't especially care.
"We're doing pretty good," Cindy writes. "I was one of the lucky ones that had minor damage to my house. A lot of my family members lost their homes and more. Unfortunately, I lost my job due to the storm: I worked at the President Casino as an assistant reservation manager for 10 years or so." What seems to bother her a lot is that she still has "a roof over my head at this time, and others do not. Bills keep rolling in and money keeps running out. But I'm very happy I have my family since all we have been through with them. If we made it through the NICU days with the babies, we can for sure get through this."
Good point. Rather than send cash (always in short supply, as here too the bills keep rolling in), Jill and I shipped three cartons of newborn supplies to the Mississippi chapter of the March of Dimes: corn starch, diapers, formula, blankets, tiny shirts, storybooks, and, I confess, a copy of Alex.
"Thank you so very much for the supplies," wrote back Lynda Buntyn of the Mississippi MOD chapter. "They could not have come at a better time. We got a call this morning from a local hospital that just delivered a 3-lb. preemie and two full-term babies to evacuee mothers who have nothing."
What would it have been like to lose our hospital in 1998 or 1999? To watch Alex's doctors and nurses fleeing town in their SUVs, their tires raising wakes on flooded, packed highways? To know that if Alex's bells went off, no ambulance, even no helicopter, would come? It can't compare, of course, but we did go through 9/11 and the Northeast blackout with Alex, and I can tell you that in such emergencies, special needs can become truly "special."
Oh well, no hurricanes come this far north, and what are the odds anything devastating is ever going to happen to New York City? Except next winter, maybe, when the fallout of Katrina and Rita jack up oil prices. To cheer Cindy, I told her to think of us next February, when the wind chill in New York will be 10-below and Mississippi will be getting mid-60s.
"You guys will definitely be thought about in February," Cindy replied. "I could not imagine being in that kind of weather!"
Ha ha. I also wrote back to the March of Dimes asking if they needed anything else, and saying I assumed none of the babies was named "Katrina."
"The list we received from the hospital includes onesies, blankets, baby shampoo, corn starch powder, baby towels, baby bath, and baby washcloths," Buntyn wrote. "And no, I don't think we will have very many babies named 'Katrina.'"
How about that? The night they arrived, those diapers that just a few days before had sat cozy in a Lexington Avenue CVS were catching Deep South wee-wee! We're shipping two more cartons, one of which Jill just got around to taking to the post office. Sorry they're late. I wish I could've told Jill that there was a rush. (October 2005)
Drink More Than You Eat
I wasn't looking forward to this year's Thanksgiving for the same reason I hadn't looked forward to the past half dozen Thanksgivings: I'm not a Detroit Lion so I have the day off, and I've always had to spend it chasing my kids. But after this year, I have two suggestions for a successful Thanksgiving:
1. Drink more than you eat, and
2. Have it at Jill's cousin's house.
A few beers, a couple of glasses of red wine (really smooth), a glass of champagne, another beer, and after that I sort of remember swaying for a few minutes beside various half-empty glasses to make sure they were abandoned before I grabbed them and headed to another room. I believe the pious call these "heeltaps."
We went to the house of Jill's cousins, Carol and Sid. They live in New Jersey, in a house that makes me hum the "Sopranos" theme every time I pull in the driveway. We went to a pool party there just before 9/11 (no connection), and that remains one of the happiest days of recent years for me. I don't believe Carol and Sid have ever thrown a bad party.
Thanksgiving was about 20 people. Hors d'oeuvres included a bucket of iced shrimp. Like most who serve me cold shrimp and cocktail sauce, these are pretty nice people. When Alex was deep in the PICU, for instance, Sid said, "Well, if your travels with Alex ever bring you to central New Jersey, you know where you can stay." That was a bright lifeline during the Alex Medical Epic. Sid and Carol's own two kids are Ben and Jonah. Strapping boys, and, I believe, upstanding people. I hope Alex and Ned turn out like Ben and Jonah. I hope I can still turn out like Ben and Jonah.
Ned you can fire and forget at a party (particularly if his hero Jonah's around), but it's with concern I bring Alex to sprawling family events in homes filled with breakables. "There's nothing here he can break that matters!" Cousin Carol maintained. Bold attitude, and once again I wished Alex could live here, especially on four-day-long holiday weekends. Alex has been to this house, let's see, once since that 2001 pool party, and on this Thanksgiving he bolted directly for the door leading to the basement playroom.
All of us spent the early part of the party playing zone defense against Alex, one of us picking him up in escort as he flew from the basement to the master bedroom to the kitchen to the upstairs. Carol's dad lives with them, and needs home oxygen, just like Alex used to. Alex never failed to step carefully over the cannula tubing.
At one point Alex did get out the front door. Unsupervised, he dashed down the driveway, then hooked around the back of the house, ran up the stairs to the deck, and back in the patio door. And then he did it again, to make sure he knew the way. He also spent a lot of time under the eye of Jonah, who loves kids. There's a picture of Jonah holding Alex in the PICU, carefully angling his arm around the CPAP tubes. Jonah is pretty responsible. Last time I really saw him was four years ago, when he was about 14. At this Thanksgiving, he folded up the front of his T shirt and carried half a dozen beers from the basement fridge like a practiced pro; he also seemed honestly willing to take a stab at making his grandfather a martini. I think that's responsible; a lot of kids Jonah's age ignore their grandfather.
Then I found Alex and Jonah in Jonah's room, where there is a stereo, a computer, and shelves of books, in addition to the TV and VCR/DVD player. Alex was watching a "Mother Goose" tape. Jonah was on the floor, his pre-parent eyes glassy. "How do you STAND this?" Jonah asked me. Ah, youth. But I did note that this bored teenager wasn't at his computer or his books or his stereo. He was doing nothing except watching Alex watch "Mother Goose," because he knew that's where his responsibility was.
They love my boys here. Last year at the funeral of Jill's mom, Carol bit Ned's cheek, just like my Aunt Freda used to do to me. They also respect Alex; Carol even negotiated with Alex for a hug. The kicker, I think, is that last summer Carol and Sid let us use their Cape Cod house free right in the $1,500-a-week season! No small gesture when you realize they've got one son at Cornell and another who will probably also go a college that annually costs as much as I annually make.
So that's my recommendation for a successful Thanksgiving. And if you have to come next November, keep away from my shrimp, and watch your glass. (December 2005)
The Boys of Winter
I took a few weeks off, but Alex and Ned did not. Here are the headlines:
-Alex is using a few sentences. The other night he got out of the bath and said, clearly, "It's so cold!" As I've always said, if the language would just emerge, the whole picture would change.
-Ned has been curious about death. "You're going to die Sunday," he told me the other night, walking home from the subway. "Ned," I fired back, "I didn't say I was going to die 'Sunday.' I said 'Someday'!" "Yeah," he replied, "yeah, Sunday."
-Alex is taking liquid stuff without a wrestling match. Luckily, these liquids include mango-flavored kids' vitamins, V8 Juice, and two white powders that help him poop. On the subject of the latter, Jill has played the cards with precision in getting Alex to realize that a toilet bowl isn't just a place to dump a pound of Aunt Julie and Uncle Rob's $11-a-bag crystal cat litter.
-Alex seems to also want to help empty and fill the dishwasher. Not sure how I know this, but he's been eagerly dumping liquids down the sink, such as glasses of water, full cartons of milk, and Jill's cups of tea. For some reason, I think this means he's ready to help fill the dishwasher.
-On Super Bowl Sunday, Alex dumped a pound of Aunt Julie and Uncle Rob's $11-a-bag crystal cat litter down their toilet. Don't tell Uncle Rob, who has admitted that this phenomenon has "never come up before."
-Ned is becoming a whiz at peeling shrimp and making meatballs. A few weeks ago he made something like three pounds of meatballs, and in fact we lent him out for the afternoon to a neighbor who needed to make five pounds of hamburger into meatballs. Does anyone know the going hourly rental rate for this? Also, under the kindly eye of a former special-ed teacher who we had over for a Christmas party, Alex has learned how to put the toppings on pizza. Both boys are sort of becoming prep chefs.
-Alex's sleep has gone to pieces again. He bounces up anywhere from 1:30 to 4, and is sometimes up chirping for one to two hours. We're working with time-release Melatonin, something called Quietude that dissolves as I look at it, and assorted other stuff to try to make sure we get a night of sleep once again and I don't keel over of a heart attack before age 50. On Sunday.
-Ned loved shredding the Times for Toast's box. We started using newspaper, torn into inch-thick strips, in the cat's box after she had surgery a few years back and the vet said it would be a perfectly effectively idea and much cheaper than, say, $11-a-bag crystal cat litter. Aunt Julie bought the shredder, a small blue plastic elephant that doubled as a pencil sharpener and that you operated with a two-inch-long crank. We still had to tear the Times into inch-thick strips, but then Ned - and soon, I too - eagerly fed the strips into the shredder and wound the crank. Wound and wound the crank. (I bet nobody in Little Blue Plastic Elephant Shredder/Pencil Sharpener School even told this poor toy that it would actually have to work for a living.) I wound the crank a little too much, I guess, because soon the blades wouldn't even shred the thin Help Wanteds. Maybe the blades just got dull. "Run some sandpaper through it," Jill suggested. I doubt Toast would like sandpaper.
-Alex loves to play the piano at Aunt Julie's. He actually tried to pound out a little tune last night. Ned probably ought to not quit his day job as a prep chef, by the way, to become an accompanist.
-Ned is solidifying his position in after school. He attends a play program from 3 p.m. to 6, and though he seemed shy with the idea at first, it's now like dynamiting him out of there in time to the subway home for dinner.
-Ned is studying the human reproductive system in kindergarten as a classmate's mother prepares to have a baby. "You got married and mommy got married 12 years ago?" he said the other night. "Twelve years is a long time. When you got married, I was in mommy's uterus and Alex was in mommy's uterus." Where did you learn that word, Ned? "In school," he said. "I was in mommy's uterus and Alex was in mommy's uterus. Mommy has a big uterus- Oh look!" he said, pointing at a health club through the windows of an office building. "Exercising!" (February 2006)
Alex and Ned each made one big statement during our trip this year to Cape Cod. Ned made his on the first day, as we drove deeper onto Route 6, the Cape's main artery. Ned aimed his face at the seafood shanties and mini-golf courses that were whizzing by, and said: "I love you, Cape Cod!"
Alex made his on the last day, as we drove closer and closer to where Route 6 merges into MASS 25, I-95, and the real world. "Beach!" Alex demanded from the back seat. "Beach!"
This was our third trip to the Cape, where Jill spent a few childhood summers and where her mother once owned a house in Wellfleet (a quiet town off season, and one that features mushrooming property values, some stunningly good pizza, and the house of Jill's cousin).
Since Jill's mom died, the Cape seems to have taken on a growing emotional importance for Jill. "You should buy a place here," I told her on our night out (she'd secured babysitting). I was only half-kidding, I guess, as the prices of Cape real estate have gone the way of all prices of real estate you can stand on and smell salt air. "We should move here," I added.
"We'd be happy one week of the year," she replied, "and miserable the rest of the time." There'd be lots more driving than in New York, it's true, and probably winter weather like that which sank the Edmund Fitzgerald. But still, Jill and this year's trip won me over to the Cape, and not just because two forecast days of rain turned into but one afternoon of drizzle (the latter spent largely in the superb children's section of the Wellfleet Public Library, where Alex took every wooden block and stuff animal and several board books off the shelves, and Ned attached himself to older boys for some sort of Lego-based action game). This year, my enjoyment of the Cape went up proportionally to how much easier the boys were to handle. The scales tipped so much that I began calling Cape Cod "the Cape."
Alex played on the beach, with little bolting. I accidentally left his Topomax home -- I'd packed it meticulously in a Zip-Loc bag with two metal cups and our vitamins, and then left the bag home -- and we had to burn a vacation hour in a pharmacy. The dirt bombs (ask Jill) were disappointing. Ned faced the sea, shaped pistols out of his index fingers and thumbs, and shot the breakers. Our rental car soon turned into a rolling vacation home: saltine bags, jeans and shorts and shoes scattered as if by explosion, an inner-tube blocking any hope of my seeing out the back window, sand in all crevices, swim trunks spread on the dashboard to dry in the sun. As is becoming typical of our annual visits to Skaget Beach, we supplemented our growing line of Skaget Boys Wear with two mint-condition T shirts that had washed up in the weeds.
With Ned, casting a tennis ball into the surf, watching it wash back to the sand; building a dam of sand with Ned, rushing with him to repair the breeches from the flow of the tidal pool, knowing all our work was doomed to mush; Alex finding one beach too cold, and proclaiming, "Sad. Sad. Very VERY sad!"
"Are you cold, Ned?" I asked him in the surf.
"Yes," he said. "But I like it." What happened to last year's Ned, who was scared of seaweed? "I'm still scared of seaweed," he said. Last year Ned told me that eating lobster "wasn't nice." This year, he cracked one with me, and didn't seem bothered by conscience so much as by the lack of salt on his claw meat. Later, he would pick up the shell of a lobster claw - left over from a beach clambake, I guess -- to take back to his first-grade class in New York to show them authentic nature. (Ned and Alex were supposed to write nightly homework journals about each day on the Cape, but that idea held up as well as a sand dam.)
Jill took Alex and the car while Ned and I were doing our dam, and in a while (there is no measure of time on these beaches) she returned, and Alex was carting a big orange ring festooned with Big Bird. "It was a dollar!" Jill said. Alex had wanted an inner tube since the previous day at the swimming pond, where a little boy kept taunting him with a tube: "This is mine! I got one!" Alex should've bit that kid. Later, Alex experimented with his inner tube in the surf, holding it down and feeling the power of the waves coming up his arms.
On our last morning, we stopped at a beach. Somewhere off Bermuda, a hurricane flogged the Atlantic, sending nine-foot breakers here for my boys to see. Ned's tennis ball was carried down the beach by the tide, and I walked down to get it. I turned around, and there were the forms of Ned and Alex, dark and silvery in the spray. Jill sat on the beach near them.
"When you got back," she said later, "did you notice that I'd taken off my watch? I looked up, and there were the boys, and I thought I was going to have to go in for you. You were nowhere in sight."
I was in sight. I was on the Cape. (September 2006)
Flyboys (Inspired by True Events)
LaGuardia to Myrtle Beach is 90 minutes in the air, which doesn't include some two hours in the airport checking in, going through security, and hunting for my kids.
"Where's Alex?" I ask Jill as the Spirit Air lady tags our suitcases. Our heads spin, spin, and spin again. No Alex anywhere, just mobs of harried strangers and their bags. Jill dashes off with Ned. I dash to a luggage x-ray and find an official-looking guy in a tie and white shirt; on his shoulder tab is "TSA," which I guess means "Time to Search for Alex." His mouth opens a little when I say the word "autistic." He guides me to a cop, who pulls out a walkie-talkie and relays my description that I can suddenly see in white print at the end of a heartbreaking TV movie: brown hair, brown eyes, blue jeans, dark blue hoodie, black-and-white checkered sneakers. The cop's radio crackles.
I head back inside the terminal, and see the man in the white shirt escorting Alex back to us. "He was over by the escalator," the man says.
"Up the stairs!" Alex says.
In the weeks before our trip, I had all sorts of visions of Alex and Ned on their first airplane ride. Most of these visions hinged either on Ned's swinging feet and the back of the seat in front of him (occupied by an air marshal who hates kids), and unceasing screeches or cries of "batroom batroom!" Particularly vivid in my mind was Alex and his love of opening doors, and the sweet, inviting, big lever on the plane's emergency exit.
Ned's been through metal detectors, but would Alex wig out? What will both boys think of taking off their shoes? "Why do we have to take off our shoes?" Ned asks. I tell him I don't actually know. He's been told in school that you can't bring water on a plane because bad men have tried to make a bomb with bottles of water. But it's Jill who's first in my family to run afoul of security measures, when she tries to smuggle a can of V8 juice onto the plane in her carryon. She tries to argue with the security officer, and loses both the argument and the juice.
We have brought many books and magazines for the boys, as well as markers and writing pads. By the time we're taxiing, months spent on school buses are paying off for Alex. He flips through a toy magazine and pulls the window shade up and down, up and down, up and down. Alex has the window seat for the take-off, and Ned has it for landing. I'm on the aisle. Jill sits across the aisle, and contributes to caring for our sons on their very first flight by reading the Style section of The Times.
"Ned, no kicking the seat!"
Jill tries to speak to me from across the aisle. "My ears have popped," I tell her. "Your lips are moving, but there's no sound. It's wonderful!"
"Can you hear this: ------!" she says.
I tell her that for some reason the Fs and Ks came through fine. "May I remind you," I add, "that you're already in trouble with the TSA for a violation with a V8?"
"Are you writing about this?" she demands.
Next to Jill, a mom reads to her own little girl a magazine that appears to stimulate reasoning. Beside me, Ned studies a Bionicals catalog. "Why does the airplane go 'ding?'" he keeps asking.
Jill and I switch seats for the landing in Myrtle Beach. Beyond Jill, I see Alex about to bite Ned for the window view. Next to me now, the mom tries to get her little girl to sit down and leave the window shade alone. A flight attendant helps her by saying: "This is a $20-million aircraft. Those shades have to stay up! They're not a toy!" Who wouldn't love to fly with kids these days?
All I'll say about our time at Myrtle Beach itself is that the conference was great and that Alex slept like crap, frequently darting down the hall and play with the ice machine. We're going to hone this process of living with the kids in one hotel room, and points to remember for the future are:
1. Listen to Jill more.
2. Rent a car.
3. Listen to Jill more.
4. Work harder in advance to find a local babysitter.
5. Listen to Jill more.
On the way home, in Myrtle Beach Airport, Ned pauses at the display of knives, box cutters, scissors, and other implements forbidden on aircraft. "Hey," he announces, "my dad has all of these!" On the flight home, Alex munches Goldfish and leafs through another toy catalog. I also write with him ("I am on a plane; I see clouds and sky; I see the wing"). Ned finds a baby nearby to whom he can appear wise. "Baaaa-BE! Baaaa-BE!" Ned says.
"Can I have your straw?" Ned asks me a few minutes later, meaning the swizzle stick from my $239 (round-trip) plastic cup of Diet Coke. Ned uses it to paint his tray-table with ginger ale. Alex switches to the smashed saltines given to us aplenty the day before in the hotel restaurant, where the waitress had a son with Down's Syndrome. Alex dumps crumbs all over his own tray-table, assuring that when he returns it to its original and upright locked position Spirit Air will have to do about $239 (round-trip) worth of vacuuming.
"We're going down?" Ned asks at the top of his voice.
"'Descending,' Ned. People like to hear the word 'descending.'"
Soon, there's a billion-dollar view of the Manhattan skyline out the window. I'd love to share it with my sons, but Alex continues his doctoral study of Go, Dog, Go! in the window seat, and Ned studies the instructions for an emergency landing in water. "What's this?" Ned points to the drawing of the yellow oxygen mask. "It's an oxygen mask," I tell him. "The air's much thinner 'upstairs.' Remember we said 'upstairs' in our flying talk?"
"Okay," he replies, "so push the oxygen button! Push it! Push it!"
I reach across the aisle and clasp Jill's hand. I tell her it was a good trip. "You should have listened to me more," she says.
"You should have listened to me more."
Her lips press together until they're white. "Hey," I say, "I got you to do it twice. That's not too bad after 13 years of marriage."
"I'm so TIRED!" she says just before we land. (October 2006)
Get a Job
"Alex, Ned, let's go!" I call from the kitchen, as I fish utensils out of the drawer and squeeze lemon into the water. "Time for dinner! Let's go!" Ned appears, and it's time for the first chore. "Ned, go get Alex." In a few moments, usually, they both appear. I hand one of the waters to Ned ("Two hands, please!"), but that's not really the main act here.
"Alex," I say, handing him a bundle of knives, forks, and spoons, "take these to mommy at the table. To mommy, At the table!" Off he goes. When he returns with Ned, I give him Ned's water for dinner, and I give Alex's water to Ned, so they must switch off.
Homework, bath, and teeth-brushing aside, chores for Alex started with clean-up, which remains one of his quickest-executed skills (second only to strewing toys around the living room in the first place), and has since come to include other stuff. At least a few times every evening, for instance, I'll stop him over a pair of his socks or his daytime T shirt and shorts in a little pile and say, "Dirty laundry, please." He will scoop up the clothes and dash to our room, where the hamper is. "And come right back!" I add, feeling like Rick talking to his Russian bartender as the latter takes the drunk girl home in Casablanca. If Alex isn't back in a moment, it's maybe because he's paused to jump on our bed and borrow under the blankets, and I have to go fetch him.
Ned is an old hand at chores, but new to tasks is Alex, and the advantage is plain: to involve him and get him to be part of the family. It's a surer way than getting him to eat dinner at the table with us, which he was sort of dabbling at for a while before he slid off again to munch his chicken nuggets by the TV. Alex has also been at some chores for a while, such as turning off all lights as we leave the house and busing dinner and other dishes to the sink or kitchen counter after meals. To this list we've recently added wiping the toilet seat after his visits (when appropriate), and shaking the pillows from their pillowcases when we strip the beds. I also now make him get out and count the frozen nuggets he'll have for dinner, and I make him tear off the tinfoil.
The notion of getting Alex more into chores started with a Passover dinner. We had set the table for about 10 guests, and Alex circled the table and arranged all the coffee cups so the handles were all pointing in the same direction. Surely there's talent here? I also thought that given his fixation with puzzles, Alex would be a joy to load a dishwasher with. That hasn't taken off, however.
Alex is good in general with handles. "Alex, turn the bath water on for Ned." Ned takes Alex's hand. "Alex," he says, "turn the water on for my bath..." For some reason Ned, to whom may eventually fall most of the care for Alex, can't turn on a bathtub tap. Ned has, however, taken to the idea of helping teach Alex do such things as hang up coats. Ned doesn't actually take Alex's hand for this, nor does he figure out where the collar loop is on the inside the coat, nor does he teach Alex to hang the hoodie by draping the top of the hood over the hook. Then again, hanging up coats is a little more theory than practice with Ned, anyway. We'll work on that.
Another job Alex excels at is trash, specifically opening the chute for me in the garbage room. He's sort of taken to this one over Ned; he beat Ned to the chute the other night, and Ned howled for 15 minutes. My boys will always be like this, right?
Which brings us to the best reason to teach Alex chores: to train him for the day when I don't have to do them anymore. (March 2007)
Stopping for Gas
I took a month off, sort of, through September, though it didn't helped re-fill my tank. My publisher, as far as I know, hasn't even opened the envelope containing the manuscript for Alex 2. The first book continues sinking on Amazon. There are no talks slated for this fall. I finally saw the DVD of one of my lectures from last fall and thought I made Al Gore look lifelike. And I like Al Gore. I'm tired and bitter. Jill and I have upload problems with our podcast, which I try to cram online before we leave. Nobody listens to the podcasts anyway, and even if they do it's hardly made a difference over the year we've been doing them. Early this fall I also bagged the idea of a one-man stage show on life with autism because, as I said, "theater work is just not for me." I also had to give up the idea when I realized that I'd trade just about every theatrical experience I've ever had for one really good episode of "Star Trek."
I think, in the words of one friend, "OFI," with the "O" standing for "oh," the "I" for "it," and the "F" for a word you can imagine. I need my tank filled, and the brand of gas I need is called "Skaket."
Skakat is the name of a shallow beach on Cape Cod, where we're headed for a week in the summer house of Jill's cousin. This is no longer summer, of course, but the time of year when the beaches are empty of all but the poor vacationers.
It's a quiet house, back from the road, padded with sloping pines and tucked onto a hill of sandy soil. It has a back porch where Jill and I sit at night on vacation after the kids are asleep. We look at the stars and listen to the crickets and the dings of the buoy somewhere nearby. No streetlights shine through the window at night; there is no need for earplugs, and no e-mail except for at the local public library. And soon after we arrive I'm asking myself, Where is my cell phone?
We watch crabs scuttle and bury themselves in tidal pools. I buy postcards for the boys to send to my boss, who as usual was terrific about me getting as much of the work off as possible, as well as the time. On the beaches, I don't wear a watch. I lose track of what hour it is, and of what I'd be doing at that hour on a normal workday. On the way down one of the dunes, Ned does say, "I have a question. Is the Footprints book the only book you've published? Would you come to my school on author day? You're an author."
Somewhere back there, yes, I sort of am.
Ned gets a potato-pellet gun, and learns to play War from a babysitter and a deck of Mohegan Sun Casino playing cards left by some rich and previous vacationer. I no longer take a vacation without employing a babysitter and a deck of playing cards. "Remember, Ned," I say, "the joker is the 6 of spades."
"That's a vacation deck of cards!" says Jill.
Alex runs across the sand until he's a dot (luckily the swim shirt we've brought for him is bright red). He tries to scamper up the dunes, unwilling or unable to read the signs proclaiming beach erosion. He walks the dunes on his wild lone, directionless. I think Alex is like me, though from him I can't get an answer about what he likes about the sea. I ask Ned if he likes to be here, on the end of the world. "I do like it," he replies. "I sort of become like you."
The days melt in an unbelievably warm stretch. It becomes harder to remember that we have cats and voicemail. "It's hard to believe that when we go back, everything will still be there," says Jill.
One thing that isn't there on Thursday evening that was there on Thursday morning is Alex's pink and orange Big Bird inner tube. The stiff land breeze twirled it like a big plastic doughnut into the surf, where I assumed it would wash back to the beach. It didn't. "Dad!" says Ned. "If I tell you to run after it, run after it!"
"Pink!" said Alex, holding an arm outstretched toward the sea, as something he loved bounced on the ocean until it shrank to a dot. "Hope Big Bird can swim!" I said to Jill.
Alex's sleep was ragged; he was up two or three times each night, used to streetlamps and no buoys. He also poured a whole bottle of detergent into the washing machine (thinking he was helping, I suppose; after all, he didn't dump it on the couch). With trepidation and a ready mop I ran a couple loads of clothes, adding no soap. There were a few extra suds, but nothing else. Alex spots a tape of ElmoPalooza! in a thrift shop, and tortures us with it for a few days. Ned insists on hearing every playing of "American Pie," which for some reason a local FM station is airing over and over. Ned also complains that he's lonely - the playgrounds are empty, with all the Cape Cod kids in school - and so on Friday we hit the Hyannis Mall for about $50 worth of skee-ball. Alex watches the balls come down the slot when I put in the money. Ned wins a 99-cent cap gun.
One last time this year I walk the cold surf, letting the hiss and foam bury my feet in shifting sand. I bend down to pick up the glassy rocks to skip into the sea and occasionally get a mouthful of water, and lick the salt off my lips. (October 2007)
Keep on Giving
This is one of the last years I'll be able to write about what I'm going to give the boys with little danger that they'll read it ahead of time, or at least understand what they read. (They don't spend much time on this site, anyway. Ned prefers to play Bionicles online, and Alex is enthralled by building and re-building the Mouse Trap game [see below]).
Some gifts I've already given. Before the holidays I gave Alex a realistic toy Sally Brown to go with his new video of "A Charlie Brown Christmas. She came with a little mailbox and a tiny version of her Christmas list that appears on the top of the screen as she dictates it to Charlie Brown ("Dear Santa, did you have a good summer? How is your wife? I have been extra good this year, and have a long list of presents ..."). For Alex I also bought a Mutts book, Just Like Heaven (Jill's suggestion), in which the cat Mutts takes a nap outdoors and wakes up after fog rolls in. He strolls around and believes himself in heaven. "Alex is like Mutts," Jill says, meaning I guess that he makes do with what comes along.
For Hanukkah, I gave Alex a realistic little school bus; it's one of the short ones, like special-needs kids ride, the kind he rides. At the same shop I picked him up a foot-long NYPC car. The hood and the doors open, but not the back doors so he won't be able to take downtown any of the tiny Legos Ned leaves around. This gift did, however, serve a tactical purpose on the night Jill's family came over and Alex was, well, Alex, again this year refusing to cast himself into family chit-chat or a sit-down dinner. As he kept trying and trying to switch grandpa's Jets game over to "Elmocize," I decided it was the moment for that cop car, which sure enough carried Alex right away from the TV. It wasn't until almost our dessert that he'd pried the tires off and opened the doors and in general left the new toy under the footrest looking like a cop car in the South Bronx in about 1978. Alex pulled himself together, again this year, for the feeding frenzy of presents. The construction of one of these presents, a Mouse Trap game, quickly took him over Alex. The day after our Hanukkah celebration, he was up at 5:30 a.m. trying to build a better mousetrap. He continues to try, like all of us.
Ned's homerun gift from me this year is not to be. I wanted to get him a phaser, the pistol from the original "Star Trek." They were in many stores last year to commemorate the show's 40th anniversary, but this year the only ones I could find were on eBay; I prefer to have my gifts in hand this late in December. Would've been fun, though ("Ned, Starfleet force is used only as a last resort. Set to 'kill'"). I guess I should mention here it was going to be a toy phaser. On this subject, I did get Ned a "Star Trek" card game, which I can't figure out how to play despite having some idea of what "anti-matter" is. Ned unwrapped this Hanukkah gift just before his nightly reading time, and it came in handy. Now he can spell "crew," "Enterprise," and "To boldly go where no man has gone before." Last Christmas I gave Ned a model of a Klingon battlecruiser, except at that time he'd never seen "Star Trek." "I love it! What is it?" he asked. I pledged to myself that as God was my witness, that would never happen again.
For his birthday, I bought Ned a fisherman's friend, an all-in-one tool with a scaling knife, hook and weight scale, and other do-dads that will come in handy for cutting his fingers next August in Uncle Lee's boat. "He can also take all his stuff apart and see how it works," added Uncle Lee, with whom I used to spend Christmas afternoons driving around looking for pinball machines. "That's what I liked to do." Uncle Lee and Aunt Diane got Ned a rod and reel, to go with the creel from Ned's last birthday. Soon Ned will see that "creel" is almost spelled like "reel." Getting presents does benefit his education.
The new homerun gift is a bound "Enemy Ace," several editions of a comic book about a WWI German fighter pilot. This teaches him history and that there are two sides in war, and it dovetails with his new love of the game "Dogfight." "Hope he enjoys it!" the clerk at the comic book store said as he handed back my AmEx. "Oh, I will!" I replied. Ned's gift to me - and he doesn't even have to stick a crowbar in his piggy bank - is that I'll get to read it with him.
The NICU; the spit-up; the crying and the diapers and all that crap. If I have to live with all that being over forever, I can take comfort in my sons entering that magic age for a dad, when they're too young to want much of their own stuff and old enough so they can love the stuff that I'd like to own once more. This applies as well to my final gifts for them this year: model kits, probably little Battle of Britain Spitfires. Because Ned wants to do a model again, because Alex loves to snap things together, and mostly because I'll be stuck home with both of them on Christmas afternoon. (December 2007)
Alex goes to day camp through late August to the same special-needs day camp he was at last year. Ned is trying a new day camp that's devoted to nature studies and building cool stuff (rafts) out of what you find in the woods (pine cones). Among other headlines:
Pick-ups: We were touring Ned's prospective camp last spring ("...and here's our POND!...) when Jill noted that Alex getting dropped off and picked up on the Upper East Side and Ned getting picked up and dropped off on the Upper West Side might eventually pose a problem, especially since both boys were to be picked up and dropped off at identical hours each day. Smart observation.
For a while this summer we tried 110 and Broadway with Ned, likely the hottest corner in North America, except for the one where I had to wait to pick up Ned from day camp two summers ago. Night after night this year my shirt has been soaked with sweat - I leave my office early, and sprint to the subway - so mid-stint during Ned's six weeks we shifted it to 96th and Broadway, thinking that way Jill might even be able to drop both boys off in the morning. But no: The crosstown bus at 96th was too slow. So I get to work late and leave a little early and live on the forbearance of my boss.
I thought camp was supposed to be a break for parents? They get to swim and play organized ball. You get to kick them out the door with their packs and shorts and hiking boots and they came back someday soon, and in the meanwhile you and the wife have the house to yourselves and it's like old age except you can still walk.
Crafts and activities: The afternoon Ned came home with his pine-cone raft, he got off the bus and scaled a parking meter to reach a low branch of a tree on the sidewalk. He plucked off a leaf. "The flag," he explained, pinioning the leaf on the stick that serveed as the raft's mast. "I don't actually know if it floats," he added. He also found a snakeskin and has built a wooden boat that's powered by a rubber band and a thin strip of wood.
Alex's camp is a little more in-your-face fun, with themes like Western Day and Beach Day that Alex largely runs around oblivious to. He's also been hitting a few waterparks and amusement parks. Someone, apparently, has taught him about baseball. His para, Elaine, is a heck of an alert, athletic, and conscientious college-age woman who shadows Alex like an All-Pro cornerback and who's on her fourth summer working with special-needs kids. She is also no doubt on what Alex's teacher once called "The Alex Diet," especially on 100-degree days. At the amusement park, Elaine writes in Alex's "communication" notebook, Alex loves that big boat-like ride that swings high, high up in the air like a pendulum. I don't believe Elaine was that fond of the pendulum.
She writes that he spends his full hour in the pool most days, and that he likes archery and other activities that he, well, likes. When it's an activity he doesn't like or that doesn't hold his interest, he runs around playing with the light switches. One day, when she's out sick, Alex spends the morning saying, "Elaine? Elaine?" This story touches her when she hears it.
Ices: Ned gets one every night at drop-off, from a cart at the hot, hot corner where the attendant sits during every possible moment under an umbrella. Ned likes the $1 rainbow, or sometimes the cherry/mango.
Food: I don't know if this has anything to do with camp, but one Friday we go out to celebrate the end of the week, and Alex eats a bowl of spaghetti sauce. He has also been eating watermelon.
Overnight: Alex gets agitated when Ned wheels out the brown suitcase to begin packing - three days in advance - for his overnight tent-out. Ned swiftly stuffs the luggage with shirts, underwear, a hoodie, and cold spaghetti to put in the girls' sleeping bags. Alex seems to think the suitcase is for his own weeklong trip, which comes up later in August. "Maybe too he just doesn't want you to go away, Ned," I say.
"Well," Ned replies, "that's too bad." We finally convince Ned that a suitcase would be better suited to an airport than to the woods, and to take his big backpack. He acquiesces. On the day he's to leave, he's up at 5:30.
Summer school: Ned has learned how to spot a birch, and that bumblebees will gang up on one person ("We have a bee guy"). At the edge of a pond one day, Ned finds two fishing bobbers in the mud. He is the only person there who knows what they are; his counselor doesn't know, and his fellow campers think they have something to do with Pokemon.
"Interesting," says my brother, a lifelong fisherman. "I hope the counselors are better at counseling than identifying basic terminal tackle."
Says Jill, more philosophically, "That's so cool that only Ned could identify it. The only thing better than raising a city kid is raising a country kid. Seems like Ned is getting some of both."
Ned also wants Alex to go to his camp next year.
The raft floated, by the way. (August 2008)
Jill, Ned, Alex and I have spent a lot of time together. A lot of time together. Tons of time together. We've covered beaches and zoos, playgrounds and grocery stores, train stations and water rides. We usually come back home after a day together outdoors about an hour too late. The boys snarl at each other over the TV the minute they return home. Jill snaps at me. "There, dearest," I say back to her.
Times change. As the days and nightmares of babycare become something I smirk about to new parents, the members of my family disappear into different worlds. More than normal and natural, this is fabulous! As I've often told Jill, the best way for us to stay together is to spend more time apart.
Jill has been teaching knitting on a volunteer basis at Ned's school for a while now. It's become so regular she doesn't even necessarily mention it school day to school day, but "knitting" has become a familiar-enough expression to stand on its own in our timetables. "It's mesmerizing and soothing," Jill says. "Everyone says it's relaxing, and everyone is right. When I first learned how to knit, I thought it was really almost magical, taking a piece of string and making it into an actual thing: knitted fabric." Not my cup of tea - I'd rather put decals and a China/Burma/India camouflage pattern on a 1/48th Spitfire - but Jill says that when she arrives, all the kids hug her.
"Look what one of my students made for me," says Jill, showing off a yarn bracelet. She should teach knitting professionally. On Sunday, in fact, she did return from Fabric Sale-A-Thon with a potential student.
I used to just go out in the backyard and play, sometimes with friends from "over the hill," but being a city guy Ned needs something a little more formal. We take him to the grandmother of his long-time school friend, or sometimes that friend's dad picks him up, or sometimes we escort Ned to a birthday party. I might have to hang around one of the parties, or I might pick him up at the grandmother's just in time to see the video game being snapped off. Not having a backyard and a drizzly Maine April to play in, Ned will only someday, I hope, know the joy of spending an afternoon making G.I. Joes relive the mud of Verdun.
Ned also attends sibshops, gatherings of young brothers and sister of special-needs kids. It's indoor play: crafts, lunch, spinning or blindfold games enlivened with only slight talk about feelings. I've asked Ned about sibshop in the past. "We play 'Hot Potato,'" he told me. What's that? "You pass around the potato and whoever gets stuck with him has to tell the group how their sibling makes them feel." Did you get stuck with the potato, Ned? "Yes." What'd you tell the group? "I don't remember."
I send a note to his teacher about Alex not doing his homework with me. "He does everything here in school," she writes back. So that tells me something. School also reports that he may be making friends, but all I ever hear about that from him is repetition of their names toward the end of weekends and school breaks. Ditto Saturday programs: "See you next Saturday, Alex," he will sometimes say out of nowhere. I know this program touches him, because one day when we ran him over to it we got to see his expression when he saw all the staffers he knew but hadn't seen for a long time: cautious and skeptical, dissolving into an "okay-you-impressed-me" smile.
The worlds. "What's this?" Jill asks, finding a draft of this essay on the dining room table. "It looks like something about how nice it is to get the hell away from your family..." So off they go, and up I reach to the top shelf for my DVDs of "Star Trek," right beside the Spitfire. There, dearest. (October 2008)
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