Wisps; Nice; Mirror Image; Squirrelin'; Nokay; Cocoa; I Help You; Bye Bye, Nemo; Riding High


I've taken the morning off to head to our local school district office to sign paperwork for Alex's Individual Education Plan, the blueprint for his schooling this year. The second reason I'm off is because today Ned gets his first haircut.

Down there in the stroller, Ned acts content in the warm sun. We just came from a coffee shop where he had bits of my egg and Jill's potatoes and some of both our rolls, so he's been fed. His nose is a little runny. But he seems ready for what will be a memorable Indian Summer morning.

Jill and I wheel Ned onto the barber's block when she says that it's nice that she, I, and Ned are all out together. "Sometimes, I feel Ned gets shortchanged," she says.

"Yeah, sometimes he probably does," I say.

Jill and I took Alex to his first haircut, to a place with VCRs, bins of toys, and plastic racecar seats. They employed Elmo videos and speed with the scissors, and they knew how to deflect tots who kept squirming around in the racecar to see who was doing what back there with the clippers. Then Jill took Alex to his next haircut, and reported that he was a terror: screams, wails, uncontrollable squirming. So I took Alex to his third, before school this year, and again they numbed him with Elmo and worked fast, and it went smooth.

That's all I have to go on as we wheel Ned into the barber's.

This isn't Alex's place, but they also work on kids here. They have four old chairs in the shape of racecars. These are metal. On one, the toy steering wheel is some kind of jury-rigged toy tire. There is no video machine, but there are dog-eared posters of Yankees and Jets, and the close aroma of old wood and years of young hair. One wall is covered with yellowed and laminated newspaper clippings about kids getting haircuts. Above them a magic-markered sign reads, "Kid's Cuts: $25. No Checks!" The place is quiet, empty of customers. Three barbers sit in the grown-up chairs and scratch at their Lotto cards.

A fourth, the youngest, gets up. "First haircut?" he says in thick English.

"First haircut!" Jill replies.

This barber places a toddler seat on one of the big chairs, as Ned watches him from the stroller. The seat has a wooden horse's head, worn to the wood on the edges, and some old plastic rattles dangling on a loop of brown clothesline. I lift Ned up and feed his legs into the seat.

First thing he spies is himself in the mirror. He smiles and looks calmly around, just like he did when he was born.

"First haircut," says Jill, leveling the camera.

The barber drapes a white apron around Ned's neck. He smiles at this, too, and drools a little. The barber hands him a lollypop. Ned has never had candy. Alex won't eat a lollypop.

Ned's eyes move from the lollypop, to the mirror, to us, back to the mirror. He keeps smiling as the barber closes a V with his fingers, and before I can think about it the first wisps of thousands in Ned's life have drifted to his shoulders.

Ned spends much of the next few minutes smiling at the mirror, studying the lollypop and the apron and the wooden horse. He drops the lolly at one point, and I pick it up. "I'll hold the lollypop, Ned," I say, noticing it is still wrapped. That must be to keep off the hair. Ned reaches out and takes the lollypop.

"He'll hold it," says Jill, between pictures.

The barber makes more Vs and snips, V and snip. Behind him, I see on the counter a small handful of hair.

Snip by snip, V by V, there emerges behind the wooden horse's head a new, little big boy. He has my hair -- maybe that's where it's going -- and suddenly he also has a cut like the first Darren Stevens. "No, it's cute," Jill says. Her eyes are a little shiny. A wisp is caught on Ned's ear. I call Ned a good boy.

Then the apron is gone. I lift Ned out and set him back in the stroller. Someone has unwrapped his lollypop. Jill asks if I have any cash ("No Checks!") as the barber hands her a homemade certificate and, in a little plastic bag, the hair I'd seen on the counter.

We wheel Ned outside. I take pictures of Jill and Ned as one of the Lotto barbers appears in the doorway, lights a cigarette, and does not watch us. Jill tells me to hurry up. I do, because I don't want to be late for Alex's meeting. I take a few pictures at last and we wheel ourselves out of there. I look down at the stroller, and see that the lollypop has gotten a lot smaller. (October 2002)


Ned's gone nice. He pries my baseball hat off my head, touches my hair with the palm of his hand, and says, "Nice." He draws out the I sound, little and sweet, "n-eye-sse," the way it's said by every two-year-old, and maybe also by Gollum in Lord of the Rings. His hand is tiny and featherweight, and solid.

Ned got the "nice" thing from our telling him and Alex how to touch each other, as in, "Don't hit, Ned! Touch nice," or "No biting, Alex! Touch nice." Ned will also tackle Alex, who finds the experience bewildering. When the bath has him all riled, Alex will still reach for a fistful of Ned's soft locks; the other night, Alex bit him. Yet, the most effective way to humanize Ned seems to be having him interact with Alex.

Often, it's not interacting with us. Getting dressed, if he doesn't want to put his arms through the sleeves of a shirt at that moment, he'll still use his skull like the head of a soccer hooligan. Shoeing a mad badger would be child's play compared to wrenching a four-inch-long sneaker onto Ned's foot in the morning. If he's annoyed while we happen to be holding him, he will rub his forearm against our shoulders over and over and over again. He has discovered throwing himself to the pavement if he doesn't like the direction in which we're walking. He will cast things to the floor, then look up like a flower and say, "Uh-oh." Sometimes, he also grabs my cheek.

"Ned, no! Touch nice."

"N-eye-sse." Little palm to head. I'm just not sure if Ned is saying, "Yes, I will be nice," or "See how I nice I am!" or is just recognizing this new state of nice in the universe.

He's doing more in general with his hands these days, having learned that these appendages can do more than yank off socks, jam the VCR, and propel applesauce to the wall. He feeds the ducks through the fence in Central Park. He slaps high five. He steers his toy stroller along the street, maneuvering from the playground all the way back home with just periodic adjustments to course by mom and dad. He picks up his clothes as we undress him for the bath, though so far all he does is just hand them back to me, when my hands are already full keeping him from pulling the cassette tape from the boom box and unraveling it. He helps Alex take the trash down the hall. He's stopped pulling books off shelves (at least, if you say "No!" and dash toward him, he no longer pulls the books off faster).

If I say, "No!" to Ned long enough, he will actually cease bad behavior, such as unscrewing the bathtub faucet, after wagging his head elaborately and crooning "Noooo! Noooo! Noooo!" He thinks it's a cute word.

This attitude springs from the snake can known as the Terrible Twos. Jill says Ned is trying to hold onto babyhood. I think it is Ned trying to propel me toward Old Age.

"Remember when Ned slept in here with us?" Jill asks. "In the little bassinet?"

We should put him back in that, I say.

"Yeah," Jill says. "That would work..."

The Terrible Twos continued this afternoon with Ned tackling Alex and sending him tumbling into a wall, pinching our babysitter's face, and throwing a bottle at Jill. A plastic bottle, of formula. "Good thing he doesn't drink Michelob," I pointed out to Jill as she called the eye doctor.

Here comes Ned, reaching for my baseball hat. "Whatsamatter with you!" I demand of my second son, as I haul him up and away from the light switch, the electrical outlet, or some other such attraction, and he twists and just misses my chin with his soccer hooligan skull. Then he turns in my arms to face me. His hand comes up. I look right at him. His hand wavers beside my cheek, then nicely and neatly just removes my hat. (November 2002)

Mirror Image

Ned's become an enthusiastic imitator.

The first person Ned imitated was the security guard at the front desk of our building. Morning after morning, he would give Ned a high five and call, "Aw right!" Now Ned cries "Awray!" whenever he gives me high five. Then, like the smartest Americans, Ned started mimicking TV: He had watched the opening of "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!" no more than twice before he'd mimic the "whoooo" sound of the owl who flies toward the camera just after the intro. The other night, he built a tower out of blocks; when we applauded him, he took a bow. We figure he learned this on TV.

I went through imitating with Alex. He doesn't do it so much anymore, but the other night, when the two of them wouldn't stop splashing water out of the tub and all over the bathroom floor, was a flashback.

"Alex! Ned! Cut it out right now or I'm ending this bath, dammit!"

"Dammit," said Alex immediately. "Dammit, dammit."

"Alex, no, cut it out-"

"Dammit, dammit. Cut it out. DAMmit!"

Ned imitates to the point where I think he's actually paying attention to me. After I finally have them locked with me in their room after their nightly bath, for instance, I kill time by tossing a ball into the air and letting it come down to see where it hits me. Wherever it hits me is where a member of my infantry platoon has been hit rushing an enemy position. The member of my platoon then goes down with a good old Sgt. Rock "Aggggg!" This is borderline normal, I guess, for a single guy who expects that for some reason he'll always live alone.

Married men with Ned watching them, however, should be more careful. Now, when he gets his hand on a ball, Ned will sometimes wiggle onto his back, toss the ball a couple of cute inches into the air, and emit a soft "Aggggg!"

Wonderment, flattery, and terror cruise through me at this sight. "Oh, Ned," I say, "don't do that. Don't imitate me. You could do so much better." I like to think he didn't get his "This is your fault" scowl from imitating me -- as in, "I just put my finger on that candle flame and it hurt and this is your fault!" - by mimicking me, but I think he did. Once, in the height of battle, Jill spun on me and said, "If you ask me, Ned takes after you!"

Okay. He never sees a cat without making my cat sound, which is "Raow!". After I blew on his dinner to cool it once, he blew on it, too, light and sweetly, like a small, porcelain version of me. One of his cutest imitations was in the bath. I took a Blues Clues space capsule, pretended to pull the thruster off with my teeth, then elaborately lobbed the ship into the water and made a ka-boom sound and splashed up water as if from the explosion of a real grenade. Then Ned picked up the space capsule, pretended to pull the pin with his teeth, threw it, and went, ka-booosch!

"Don't do things like that with him," Jill said. She needn't worry about my lasting impact: Any mimicking of dad will be shed like old skin in Ned's teen years. A lot of guys imitate their dads.

Even more guys imitate their big brother: Ned's towering role model now is, of course, Alex. Sometimes I watch Ned following Alex with his eyes, another generation drinking in the splendor that is The Guy Who Was Here First, thinking that if they just follow his moves, things will turn out all right.

It's hard for us to explain to Ned that maybe he shouldn't pattern himself rigidly on his big brother, who has "special needs." Ned slips into flapping his hands, screeching, and mouthing toys before we can stop him. Should we stop him? Can we? Maybe it's hard for us to explain to Ned because we haven't been able to explain it to ourselves yet.

We agree that it will be kind of a sad day when Ned stops imitating Alex. I also agree with Jill that Ned's mimicking Alex now is better than the grenade thing. I also do secretly look forward to Ned's first "dammit," because I can blame Alex for teaching it to him. (December 2002)


Jill called. "Remember the other night?" she said. "When you said all the crayons were missing from under the boys' easel? Remember whose fault you thought that was?"

Probably Jill's, but I said I didn't remember.

"It was Ned! He's been putting crayons in those cardboard boxes on the bookshelf. I found crayons, a nipple off his bottles, a rubber band, and a ball."

I too have seen him squirreling things away: the battery of the mobile phone; crayons in the bookshelf; magnetic plastic letters in the toy desk; said letters amid Alex's wooden puzzles; said letters and said crayons between the vent slats of the air conditioner. It's cute to watch Ned do this. Plastic Letter in hand, he approaches the air conditioner. One step, two. "Ned, no!" He stops, looks at me. I see the bright plastic letter disappear a little bit behind the tiny young fingers. One more step. "Ned! No!" He backs off. Alex asks for water, which we do not have in this room. Ned watches me cross the room toward the door. Cute. Almost as cute as the price of new air conditioner will be next May.

This morning, even before his waffle, Ned was wearing a grove in the dining room floor between the easel and the bookshelf, bookshelf and easel, easel and bookshelf, like an ant in a red onesie. No wonder I can never find a crayon when I want one. We also haven't found our first cell phone, which was last spotted by Jill as Ned headed into the boys' room.

"I know what you mean," the cell phone woman said when I called. "I have a two-year-old. In my house, we're still missing a set of keys."

I've long since secured my own decks against the onslaught of Hurricane Ned. He used to love to get to my bedside table and slash furiously with his open hands, palms down, scattering books, earplugs, and vitamin C candies so far under the bed that when I finally stretched under there, I found them well beyond the perimeter of dust bunnies. Ned also went through Pulling the Books Off the Shelves, giving that stage of human development a spin that made his dad secretly proud: If we told him "Ned! No!" and moved in to stop him, as we got closer he pulled the books down faster.

Then came Ned's mouthing phase, which steered me in a hurry toward putting the earplugs out of reach. Ned possesses that unfailing young human skill of tracking down, in my friend Jon's words, "anything that's a millimeter wider than his esophagus." Once I saw Ned find a penny on the floor and put it in his mouth. "Ned, no!" I said. I'm thinking of having that phrase put on a T shirt.

"He doesn't put coins in his mouth anymore," Jill informs me.

He does, however, hoard, into any nook and cranny that's less than three feet off the floor. Some nooks are higher: Several times, I've caught him dropping crayons and plastic letters into the VCR slot. For that he needs to move a chair. Isn't that cute?

I've been known to hoard, but without using as much intelligence. Last night I was looking for my tape of Billy Joel's The Stranger, for instance, and I rooted through the little baskets underneath all the JeffsLife folders on top of my dresser. Whenever you have things on top of things, yet still underneath other things, you've got hoarding. When did I get little baskets? I found a blue marker I'd been looking for, and listened to Toys In the Attic instead. Jill thinks she hoards, too, but I like to think that one benefit from my spotty journalism career has been that we've had to move about every two years, and she's loaded the trash bins down every time.

Sometimes Ned squirrels things in the kitchen trash can. This morning he picked up a sharp little metal thing that I'm sure would have found my foot some night, and dropped it in the trash bag. And the other evening I found his little orange soccer ball and a toy phone in trash. "Ned, no," I said, reading my T shirt. "I mean that's good you throw things away, it's good you do that, Ned, but these are things you might want."

Somebody else might want them, too. Where are my keys? (January 2003)


Ned spends a lot of time chattering like Cousin It. Jill says he did learn the word "candy," however, in about 15 seconds. Last night, he kept saying "Can-dle!" and pointing to the Christmas lights that we still haven't taken down. After last night's reading of Marvin K. Mooney, he spread his arms and proclaimed, "I don't care!"

He also says "bad dog!" This he got from Tom and Pippo and the Dog, in which Tom takes the little stuffed Pippo to the park and teases a dog with him until the dog steals Pippo. They catch the dog, who sits in one panel with drooped tail and hanging eyes under the berating finger of his owner. Right about there Ned always says, "bad dog!" Then he slaps the page. "No no, Ned," we tell him, "never hit bad dog. Just say 'bad dog!'" Sometimes Ned also makes a little whimpering pup sound that he learned from Jill, who was trying to instill in him compassion for animals. The other night, Ned simply said, "bad dog," and visibly restrained himself from slapping the page.

He likes to sit on me and tell me about his entire day. He speaks in sentences, complete with exclamations and appropriate eye movement. He bubbles in appropriate tones when I prod him with questions, such as, Why'd you do that?, Really?, or How did that happen? None of the syllables makes any more sense than the sound of spring water running over rocks. He sits on me and I look into his face and think how, before long, this language of his will be gone.

We have some experience with kids learning to talk, though we're beginning to realize that with Alex speech was a jerky, slow ride. Alex used to say "Muh!" when he wanted more of something. Until recently he said "lolo" when he wanted a granola bar, but that's evolved into a thick "peana budder," for his preferred flavor. Alex gets the point across, though his speech is still pretty limited; he still prefers to grip your finger and place your hand on what he wants. We tell Alex to use his words. "Word!" he then says, always with hope. "Tell me, Alex," we say. "Tell me," he replies. He never says "muh!" anymore.

"Nokay?" Ned said, turning to me. "Nokay?"

"Nokay" is one of Ned's flagship words. I think it's his rendition of the shorthand "'sokay?", meaning Is this all right? Jill thinks "nokay" carries some negative, probably because it seems to have evolved out of "no," which Ned likes to say. Ned often uses "nokay" when he unexpectedly pulls a toy apart, bumps his head, drops something, bumps some other part of him into something he didn't see, or in general wants to know how you are.

"No-KAY!" I think he's confirming that you're all right, that he's all right, too, and/or that he didn't do anything too wrong.

Certain words Ned can't understand yet, such as, "Stop hiding the pens in the bookshelf," "Don't put crayons in the VCR," "Leave the TV remote alone," and "Get down from there before you break your neck!" At least I hope Ned can't understand these words. Otherwise, he's just ignoring me.

That "break your neck" line, handy in many situations when raising a child, I use a lot in the bath, when Ned tries to imitate Alex and climb to the rim of the slippery, slippery tub by holding onto the rack-thing where we'd keep the soap except it's all rusty. Ned tends to imitate Alex in all respects in the bath, including speech.

"EEEEEEEEEEkk!" Alex will say. "EEEEEEEEEEkk!" Ned will reply. "EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEkk!" Alex will rejoin, and the debate is on. I'm not sure this exchange moves Ned's verbal skills forward, but maybe it's helping in other ways not associated with my getting a headache.

Ned also likes the word "baba," meaning bottle. On this word Ned puts his most heartfelt spins. He can bite out the word ("baba!") when he's dashed into the kitchen during a slow moment on "Elmo," plead it with tearful exhaustion ("baa-baaaaahahaha...") before bedtime, or wail it with indignation ("ba-BA!"). Depends on how his naps went that day. I don't know what he's going to say soon, when the baba is taken away for good. Probably not "nokay." (February 2003)


Pad pad pad pad pad. "Cocoa?" Ned has come straight from the diaper table to the kitchen, where he stares up at me, wondering why I have let him down yet again this morning.

"Yes, Ned, I'm getting it." Little metal pot to stove, fill with milk to the link that seems to have been burned into the pot, flame to low.

Ned likes cocoa in the morning. I prefer coffee, but one of the last things I want inside Ned is caffeine.


"Ned, it doesn't happen the minute you think of it!"


Why oh why is his own father torturing this urchin? And first thing in the morning!? Ned must think it's something out of Dickens. He arches backward and howls in hopelessness to the track lighting on the ceiling. His simple wish at day's beginning has crashed on the rocks, and all that the only father he's ever going to have can do is snivel about a slow gas stove.

"Oh, Ned..."

It's often best that Ned's vocabulary remains limited and that we can't tell what he's thinking. Last night, for example, he escaped the changing table after his bath and shinnied naked and skinny under the dining room table. We called to him but he only scooted deeper under there until I got one hand on his bare leg and pulled him out like Frodo grabbing Gollum in Lord of the Rings:

Ohh, what is it doing with Precious?! Nasty stinking parentses...

Ned may be a caldron and may have a short fuse - these facts I've documented - but no, he hasn't yet been driven insane by the One Ring of Power (take away his plastic train set in punishment, however, and you'll see a foul little creature). In fact, Ned has moments of real sweetness, moments when he pitches in and seems to treasure our approval. When I come home from work, he likes to sit on my knee and chatter about his day. When Alex was sick a few weeks ago, Ned stood beside him and petted his hair for a few moments. He's a terrific help in the laundry room, gathering everything that falls on the floor and dropping it in the basket. And, most darling of all, he used a sentence in front of me for the first time this morning: "I don't want cookie!" It was a negative, and he may have been (successfully) using reverse psychology, but it was cute.

Jill started making his morning cocoa months ago, and now we trade off the duty morning to morning. We heat the milk and dump in four teaspoons of Quick - I think that's how you spell it; who knows, since I have to deal with this crap before I get even a sip of my coffee - that we get around the corner at the Hispanic grocery, because that Quick has a pinch of cinnamon and Ned likes that. Then we stir and simmer. Takes a minute and a half, two at the outside. Often, Ned glares up at the burners like a pilgrim deprived of a glimpse of the Madonna.

I dump a half inch of cold milk into the Rubbermaid sippy cup, and set the cup in the sink. The pot has a metal handle, and about the time it burns the palm of my hand to the touch, Ned's cocoa is ready. He begins to dance. I use a potholder and pour the cocoa into the sippy cup. Some always slops over, which adds a rinse-the-sink cycle to my pre-coffee morning routine. I grab a paper towel. I wipe off the outside of the sippy cup and screw on the lid. I hand the cup to Ned.

Unlike Alex, Ned didn't spend his first year in a hospital. From the moment he appeared, there was never any doubt that Ned was a part of our family. His likes and dislikes have made it into our household routine, where they will stay for a long time.

"Co-" He takes the cup and whirls on his heel for the living room and "Sesame Street." "Ned, say thank you!" Someday, he will. (April 2003)

I Help You

I'm in the recliner, folding laundry from the portable hamper, when Ned spies me and bulls in. "I help you!" he cries, like an angry Chinese waiter struggling to get your order right. He grabs what I just folded and casts it back into the basket. "I help you!"

Right you are, Ned. I know Ned isn't going to bull in to fold laundry 15 years from now ("I don't help you!"), so I encourage this dawning period when he actually wants to pitch in around the house. Laundry seems to be a good point of entry for that, too, as he already accompanies me to the wash room to gather off the floor what clothes fall out of the dryer. He then scoops up these clothes and carries them back to the washing machine, where it's still wet inside, and tries to stuff them in.

Ned generally likes to help, unless he's too occupied bewailing his fate at that moment. For example, he's learning to sweep. He'll hunker down over the pile of Cheerios and granola crumbs that he helped create and reach out for the hand broom and dustpan. He hasn't got the grip on the broom quite right, but he shows a heap more enthusiasm about the project than some people I could mention.

He will carry a bag of groceries home from the store by dragging it along the ground, usually in the process wearing a hole in the plastic bag, the box of Cheerios, and the brick of coffee. Ned does this chore the way I write a lot of bill-paying news stories: in a steady chug, nothing fancy, looking straight ahead. He picks up his toys, and Alex's, too. We have two incomplete Battat plastic sets with interlocking track, plus a compatible and cool wooden set grandma got them. Ned flies into these when it's time to pick up. Clink, clink, clink, go the cars and pieces of track into the carrying cases. Ned is the only person so far who's managed to get both sets into one carrying case without breaking anything.

Ned loves the garbage room more than most people. He scampers up the hall. He's still too small to actually pitch the bag into the chute door, but he does his part by darting into the little chute room and asking me to close the door, which makes the light go out. I started by just shutting the door for a second, but have extended Ned's time in the dark to almost half a minute. He doesn't seem to mind; I kind of wish he did. He runs to the garbage room in the same way he runs through a museum of priceless relics: powerful and forward, shoulders pumping, dodging with skill every obstacle and bump until something catches his toe and down he goes in a pile of tears. The tears don't last as long as they used to.

I haven't seen much of Ned's kitchen skills -- at 2 1/2, he's already got more a secret life than I do -- but Jill reports that he's a big help making lasagna, matzo balls, and cookies. (He will also help eat these.) He stands on a short folding stepladder to stir, pour, and handle eggs. I suspect he can already cook better than I can, too and his confidence in the kitchen seems to be mounting.

The other night I was standing at the sink when Ned came in and, for some reason, had it in his head that were going to make cake. He began hauling over the ladder, then stopped, turned to me, and said, "You wanna help?" (July 2003)

Bye Bye Nemo

I'd wanted to see Finding Nemo with Ned since Jill took him last month. For weeks he's wanted to, "Go see ... a movie ... want to see ... Finding Nemo!" Every fish on the window of a seafood restaurant has been Nemo. About the time last week when Ned told me there was only one movie star - guess his name - I hit the Disney store in midtown to see if they had any Nemo stuff. They had little between $2.50 bath cloths and $40 stuff animals, so I bought two - guess which - but the bath water wasn't chilly before Ned had cast the washcloths over the side and made it clear that movie magic wasn't to be had by dropping three singles in a corporate toy store.

Movie magic was to be had in the dark, through this thick open double doors, down the black-red carpeting of the aisle of the theatre, where a little guy and his dad could walk hand-in-hand between the twin rows of little yellow lights toward the huge, wavering silver rectangle.

"Oh yea, yea," Ned whispered up to me, nodding.

"You can talk normally now, Ned," I said. "The movie isn't going to start for another half-hour."

My first movie was Monkeys Go Home. My mom took me, when I was six. I've never been the biggest movie fan, and it usually takes a good picture - I must be the only person in the world younger than 85 who insists on calling them "pictures" - to get me to sit still for two hours, and not fidget and seethe that I'd parted with 10 bucks to see this crap.

Jill had made us a bag of popcorn at home, so there wasn't anything to do except let me hit the men's room. I told Ned this plan, and he dashed toward the bathrooms and took a sharp left right to the men's room door. He's only been in this theater before with Jill: How did he know where the men's room was?

"Yea, Nemo..."

Ned guided us to our seats: Inside, near the wall, far from the aisle and from where I'm pretty sure he was going to want to run about half-way through this 100-minute movie, plus previews. Long time for a kid to sit. I found him a plastic booster seat. He pried it off the chair. Two elderly women took the seats in our row nearest the aisle. Much of the audience was other little kids. Occasionally, they squawked.

Ned began to tell me the shapes of the ceiling lights. "Ned, where's your ticket stub?" I picked it off the floor and put it in my wallet. I was pretty sure I'd want it. Then the lights began to dim and Ned squirmed into my lap. The lights faded completely, and do did Ned's voice.

I dug out Jill's Baggie of popcorn, and Ned perched on me as the titles took over the big silver rectangle.

Nemo is a good movie; it deserves its buzz this summer. A couple (as in married, with kids on the way) of clown fish move into their new split-level kelp and lay eggs. They're going on and on about the family they're going to raise when, the deep blue sea being what it is, predators strike. All that's left afterward is one egg, whom the father (voice of Albert Brooks) christens Nemo.

Nemo grows up with a bum fin and under the over-protective gills of his dad. Then one day dad steps over the line and Nemo heads out to sea, and disappears. Dad embarks on a 90-minute journey to get him back, braving sharks, jellies, and the voice of John Ratzenberger to find his son, who's meanwhile plotting his own escape from the fish tank of Sydney dentist.

There's a lot here to get overwrought about if you have a few dozen pounds of pink and content little son on your lap. Ned lounged there through the spectacle, the back of his head on my left shoulder. I handed him popcorn, a few kernels at a time. Once or twice I thought he'd dozed off and looked down. His eyes were open, and he was smiling. He never squawked. One kid down in front bawled. Ned never moved, never spoke, his only sound the soft crunch of popcorn, a few kernels at a time.

Then the adventure ended. The credits started, accompanied by "Beyond the Sea:"

Somewhere ... beyond the sea ... Somewhere ... waitin' for me ...

I wiped my eye. We sat through the music.

Somewhere ... beyond the sea ... She's there ... watchin' for me ...

"Bye bye, Nemo," Ned said, waving his fingers at the screen. "Bye bye, Nemo."

So long, sailin' ... bye, bye ...

The lights came up, and it was time for all the monkeys to go home. (August 2003)

Riding High

The Victorian Gardens in Central Park is a cute amusement park for kids under five, with rides like Family Swinger, Circus Train, Red Baron, Crazy Trolley, and the Samba Balloon. This will be my first visit with both boys.

The sounds of fun echo through the trees; color flashes through the leaves. "Go on train!" says Ned, 2, lugging his red stuffed bull. I tried my 5-year-old Alex here a couple weeks ago, but he didn't want to go on anything.

Again today Alex hangs around the picnic tables and scarfs Cheese Doodles with grandma and our babysitter. Ned tosses Red Bully to me and bolts toward Circus Train. I load him into the locomotive, and he sits securely buckled as we chug off. I sit behind him and make sure he doesn't stick his head too far out on the curves.

Next is Red Baron. The attendant tells me to pull down on the lever to make the two-seater plane on the ride go up. Ned and I rise and start circling against a wild blue wonder cut by the tops of skyscrapers. I take us high as I can, and spy my wife Jill down on the ground. I snap her a salute. Ned jabs the machine-gun button.

I want to try Family Swinger, where we'd sit in a seat hung by chains and go up and up, and get spun around and get sick. Ned fits in the seat, but I soon see I haven't had a hope of fitting into this seat since ninth grade. I haul out Ned and find Jill, who says: "About you and Ned going up in that thing: Are you insane?" I say I thought it'd be fun. "It'd be 'fun' to see your 2-year-old go flying off into the trees?" she says. What's the problem? I'd go find him in the bushes.

On Samba Balloon, we sit in a round booth that rises on a pole, and a wheel in the middle of the booth lets us spin the whole ride. I'm heaving us into a fast twirl before I recall that I had pizza for lunch. After a few twirls, Ned's smile freezes and he looks down. He's got my stomach, I think.

He recovers to hit The Trolley, a lively ride: The turns are sharp, and jam Ned's solid little weight against my side. "Hang on, Ned!" He copies the other kids by letting go of the safety bar. His arms shoot up and pierce the bright setting sun. "Ned, put your hands down!"

Over by the picnic tables, I see Alex is out of Cheese Doodles, our babysitter out of gas. "We have to go, Ned," I say, and here Ned introduces his own little ride: The Meltdown. He casts himself to the ground, wails, and lunges toward Samba with the desperation of one who's tasted the freedom of a wild twirl. I try to put him on my shoulders. He tries to kick my head off. I almost forget Red Bully.

"We have to go, Ned!" I slip him off my shoulders and reach for his hand as we head out of the gate. He squirms away. He will leave this fun behind on his own two feet. (September 2003)


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