Over the Top; Toy Stories; Ned and Maverick; Edwin Unger; Pistol-Packin'; Read and Discuss; The Silent Fit; Turn Down

Over the Top

Ned throws one leg over the raised railing of his crib, and turns to look at me. It's over, he seems to say, as I head to the living room. We both know it, and now I shall prove it!

It's over. I stare down at Ned, who's abruptly beside me in our living room. "Did you let Ned out of his crib?" I call to Jill in the kitchen.

"I didn't, no," she calls back.

Oh Christ.

A few nights later, or maybe it's mornings later -- who can remember on this little sleep? -- the last thing we know is that Ned is in his crib and the next thing we know he's trotting into the living room like the peacock who just took the blue ribbon. Not a trace of remorse, not one bead of sweat. Because he didn't sweat. Ned can almost climb down a playground ladder now, never mind up. Up is a cinch. Up he conquered, even on the wobbly chain ratline ladders, months ago.

Seems like last night it was Alex scrambling into the living room, proudly barging into our Blockbuster rental and/or dinner and making us brake our evening and cart him back to his bed. In fact, it was last night. Just once I'd like to eat my dinner and sputter at Blockbuster's lousy new movies in peace.

I recall getting little of that when Alex first broke out. He would raise one leg and let it hang over the railing while he slid and slipped to the floor. He fell at least once, I remember. Of course, now he's been in a bed for months, and for weeks he's been able to wrench open the balky knob of his bedroom door. (Balky knob. How lucky is that?) When we made the Big Bed Move for Alex, other parents assured us he'd soon get the message and just stay in there when put to bed. That message apparently hasn't arrived yet.

But now that he's back in school, Alex usually crashes first each evening. Half an hour or so later, I read to Ned and then let him sit with me a minute in the big chair. Then I say, "Ned, you know what time it is? End of another broadcast day ..." and carry him to the bed. If he puts up a fuss, I've always reached in and down, over the railing, and told him he had an exciting day today, he'll have an exciting day tomorrow, and it's time to go to sleep. If he's still fussing, I tell him he's so tired his knees are getting weak, and I reach behind him and gently knock his legs out from underneath him.

Why would he want to screw with this routine? But he does, and he seems to tease me about it. First time Ned threw a haunch over the railing right in front of me, he let it sit there a minute, strong and firm against the wood. What would you like, daddy? A triple-summersault to the floor, or just a lizard-like descent down the side of the changing table? What would you like, daddy? This railing has become a joke, daddy.

Dangerous too, I realize, so we're talking twin beds. Alex could use a bigger bed, anyway, as Ned spends half his pre-sleep playtime romping there. Ned is comfortable on a bed: A few weeks ago, Jill put him down for an afternoon nap (another nice routine that's evaporating) in Alex's bed. "Okay, goodnight!" Ned told her at about 1 in the afternoon. She supplied him with Red Bully Bear and Lamby and shut the door, and pretty soon to her ears drifted the sweet sounds of Ned crashing around. He can't open the balky knob yet, but she's pretty sure he never did get the nap.

He didn't get one yesterday, either, and last night he was up as a pup when Jill put him the crib and got herself ready to watch the Emmys. Ned watched her watch him as he jackknifed over the railing.

"Did you see how fast he did that!" she said to me.

What would you like, daddy?

It's positively easy for Ned, much as anything is ever "easy" for anyone. No doubt when we give him a bed, after a night or two of making it plain that he can get up anytime he wants but that he just doesn't want to, Ned will settle down. Even if he doesn't, it's not like he'll ever be able to open that balky doorknob. (October 2003)

Toy Stories

Jill bought a copy of the first Toy Story movie a few months ago, and at Ned's insistence it's been run through our VCR often enough to turn the tape to butter. I bought the second movie in the Disney corporate store three weeks ago, while walls of Buzz Lightyears stared at me.

These movies are sad and joyous, good, balanced stories. I've always liked stories that make us more aware of the unseen worlds around us, and now I think about the world of the toys every time I pick up Ned's own Buzz Lightyear action figure, the one he keeps dropping until the legs snap off at the crotch.

"He's sad," Jill has often pointed out to Ned when Buzz realizes in the first movie that he's just a toy. Sad describes how we feel, over and over, at the song "When Somebody Loves You" in the segment where the Jesse doll gets dropped off for charity. "Maybe this time I'll actually watch it dry-eyed," Jill has often said. I don't think she's ever made it.

The first movie is about accepting your limitations and identity, the second about accepting mortality. The movies also contain many cool details, such as Woody and Jesse sliding from their owners' beds in the same way. In Woody's nightmare, all the playing cards are the Ace of Spades. The Eight Ball that's behind the dresser in the first movie, and used to lure Buzz out the window, has been banished in the second movie, with Woody and Wheezy, to the dreaded top shelf in Andy's room.

Jill and I and Ned all watched the other night as Stinky Pete the Prospector climbed back into his original box and pulled down the lid. "It's his coffin," I pronounced. Jill looked at me. "I love you because you notice things like that," she said.

We've traded comments about these movies until we refer to them with the intimate shorthand of "TS." For instance, "Sid represents the darker side of the movies' creators," Jill said once, further noting that this boy "villain" of the first movie uses tools to restructure and manipulate the toys the corporate world has fed him. In some ways, he's a more attractive character than Andy, and perhaps headed for a more distinguished future.

We're often humming, "You've Got a Friend in Me." "I like what they did with that song in the second movie," Jill added. She also enjoys Andy's bucket o' green army men ("They love what they do"), and to Bulls-eye, Woody's old horse.

"Bulls-eye reminds me of Gromit," I added the other night, over TS2. Gromit is the dog in the Oscar-winning British claymation stories Jill and I used to watch when we still had lives. "He's the only character to break the mirror," I said.

"What mirror?" Jill asked.

"The glass wall between the movie and the audience."

"Oh. That mirror. He never speaks, either, but he understands."

"Where's Ned?" I asked.

Jill and I are cooking up plots for TS3. She noticed, for instance, that Andy's mom refers to Woody as an "old family toy" at the yard sale in the second movie. Who owned him? "I also see a new toy being added," Jill said, "one that has been owned by somebody before." Hmm.

Don't we ever give Ned a book!? In the first place, TS has taught Ned a lot of useful words, like "infinity" and "beyond." But yes, we do still give Ned books: The graphic novel hardcover containing the stories of both movies, which I picked up Saturday from a street vendor for $5.

"Good job, dad!" Jill declared.

We have tried to trim Ned's TS watching, especially after a dinner guest watched him sit in front of the set for two hours and called him a "zombie." Last weekend, I introduced Ned to "Wallace and Gromit," three videos of a half-hour each. And so, the other night, at quarter to seven, not wanting to lock up our TV for two hours ("Star Trek: The Next Generation" comes on at 8!), I deflected Ned's demands for TS by suggesting W&G.

"Oh yeah," Ned said. "Watch Gromit, oh yeah ..."

Well, good, Ned. We'll put it in right after I check what else is on that shelf with Woody and the Eight Ball. (November 2003)

Ned and Maverick

Ned will spend this morning in a pre-kindergarten class to see if they'll take him next September. This morning is important: There aren't many pre-K slots available in New York City.

So he and Jill get into a fight about getting dressed. "He doesn't want to put on his sweater!" Jill says. "I've got to take a shower."

We had a tough night of sleep. Lots of kids up at hours when they had no business being awake. "Does he want something to eat?" ask I, wholly unfamiliar with Ned's likes and dislikes on weekday mornings.

"He wants it if he sees you eating it. I have to take a shower."

"Ned," I call, "want some Alpha-bits?"

"Naaaaahhhhoo," he replies.

He's slated to try for acceptance in what looks like a good classroom: neat stacks of books and pillars of art supplies, clean bathrooms, no sandwich halves in the stairwells -- all the stuff Jill and I learned to look for in the months of searching for schools for Alex. This classroom also has a guinea pig and a turtle in the corner. Real ones, alive. Jill and I thought we'd have to search all over Manhattan and shell out thousands a semester to find this kind of classroom for Ned. The school is two blocks from our house. A guinea pig!

"Ned," I say carefully, as if getting ready to snip the last wire on the bomb, "you're going to school today. Real school today. Okay?"

"Okay," he says, and I slip him into the red sweater.

We take him by the hand in the watery early sunlight. The air has a slight snap, like a school day in late October. "Ned, you're going to school!" He has been watching Alex go to school for all of his life. He smiles.

The very large police guard at the school's front door seems charmed by Ned. We get the hall pass of softened, red construction paper, and climb the stairs to find his classroom. "Ned, we're going upstairs!"

We find his classroom. It is empty except for the teacher, a tall woman with long gray hair. "This is Ned?" she asks him. She tells us to guide him around the outside of the room until he feels more at home, then we can wait in the principal's office next door, where there's a couch and coffee. I take Ned by the hand -- actually, he takes me by the hand -- to investigate the guinea pig and a turtle in the corner. Real ones, alive. Ned tries to touch the guinea pig, who jerks. "Oh no, Ned, don't touch," I tell him, trying not to recall how he picked our cat up last night. "Just look. Isn't he pretty?"

"Pretty, yeah," says Ned.

We really want to get Ned in here. Suddenly our best first hope to do so takes Ned's other hand. It is a boy a head taller than Ned, slender, with dark hair and eyes. Someone tells me his name is Maverick.

Maverick shows Ned the blocks in the corner, where somebody's built a huge castle. Somebody else has built a 4-foot-high tower. Ned wants to help Maverick pull little blocks from the shelf -- though I'm not sure this is what Maverick is trying to do at all -- and Ned's tush comes brushes the 4-foot-high tower and makes my breath catch. We'd have considered him, Mr. and Mrs. what-was-it? Stimpson? But there was the block tower thing.

Maverick takes Ned by the hand. The principal takes Ned by the hand. I'm glad I taught Ned to shake hands. Jill and I head to the coffee and couch. I sit and eat apple cake some mom made. I eat three pieces while Jill is looking and one more when she isn't. I keep watching for the flash of Ned's red sweater past the door. It never appears.

"Ned is doing what he's supposed to do," one aide reports. "We go through this every day; he's doing fine," the principal says. Are they concerned that we're concerned, or do they know how much we want to get in here and notice how I'm being careful to stop Ned before he knocks over the turtle tank?

I peer into the hall, then duck back as Ned emerges from his classroom, apparently being given the tour by Maverick. "Don't let him see you!" was the advice when we visited Alex's programs. Ned doesn't seem too interested in seeing me, though: He's following Maverick, looking at kids' backpacks, maybe wondering why he doesn't have his own little locker. Point is, he has a chance to bolt, but instead follows the herd of kids as they zip up their backpacks, sling them into their little lockers, and head back into the classroom. Ned follows the herd.

I peer into the class. Ned wanders a little, then finally sits in the story-time circle next to Maverick. His head is turned away, but at least he's sitting in the circle, doing what he's supposed to do. Bet that guinea pig is thanking God for Maverick.

"Yes, Maverick is a nurturer," an aide says. "Thank him for me," I tell the aide. Wouldn't it be something if we got in here, with that apple cake? I'm grateful enough to Maverick to imagine his whole future: City councilman 24 years from now, mayor of New York a decade later. Half a century from now, the first Hispanic Vice-President of the United States. Who knows from there? To think Ned shook his hand. To think I taught Ned how to do that. (March 2004)

Edwin Unger

Is Ned the world's youngest hypochondriac? Let his words speak for themselves.

"My foot is broken," he said the other night, drawing the word out into "broo-kin." "My arm is broken. My hand is broken. My thumb is broken. Go to the doctor. Have to fix Ned."

"You have to go to the doctor, Ned?"

"Yeah," he sighed, much as he will probably sigh some 80 years from now. "Have to fix Ned. My hand is broo-kin."

"You said that, yes." Ned was lying down at the time. Absolutely nothing had happened to him in the past hour.

I guess as long as Ned thinks he's a hypochondriac, he is. He has his own Chap-stik, and one of his first phrases was, "Take me to my doctor." "Boo boo" is one of his favorite words. He has a collection of Band-Aids: sparkly ones, Sponge Bob ones, Pooh Band-Aids that come with a patch of red in the pattern and look like they're already bloody. Once I heard him honk like Felix Unger. He loves medicine, all medicine, and he treats it the way, well, Felix treats wine, savoring the bouquet of liquid Tylenol and the piquancy of kids' generic expectorant. The other morning we gave him a spoonful of a new Creamcicle-colored antibiotic for a rash on his foot. "Mmmmm, orange," he said.

"Medicine!" Ned declares at bedtime. "I need my medicine. My cough medicine." He coughs. My medicine?

All I'm used to with sickness in 3-year-olds is Alex, and with him hypochondria was one of the only things that wasn't a worry. Oxygen tanks running low, feeding pumps making him vomit, yes. Hypochondria, no. His problems were stakes to the heart, over and over again, and he never could, and still can't, tell us verbally when he's feeling bad.

Ned is under no such restriction as I pass him a crayon. "Ned, do you like to color with your right hand, or your left?" I touch the back of his left hand with the crayon. "Owwww!" he says.

He's standing in front of the TV during "Star Trek." "Ned, could you move, please, I can't see." I touch his shoulder to guide him to the side of the screen. He casts his hands high and flings himself to the hardwood of our living room like an NBA guard trying to draw a foul. "OOOph! Daddy don't shove me!" On his feet then, his finger in my direction. "Daddy don't shove me!"

"I didn't shove you, Ned."

"Don't shove me, daddy!"

"If I'd shoved you, you wouldn't be awake to tell me not to shove you." Trash-talking with a 3-year-old. I suppose I should be glad he didn't hold up his middle finger.

"I cut my finger. You have to be nice to fingers," he says.

Not that Ned lacks real health concerns. For months he's had a stubborn rash on his feet, and sometimes it blossoms behind his knees and in the crook of his arms. We've smeared it with over-the-counter creams ("I need my cream!") and, when that failed, took him to HIS skin doctor for a prescription of Creamcicle liquid. Soon as that was gone, the rash returned, and we got a new batch of creams that seem to be doing the trick. Still, it hurts to see him scratching.

"Does it itch, Ned?"

"Yeah," he says. This time it pulls at me. "Have to go to my doctor."

"Yeah, I know, Ned. We'll get it taken care of."

I'm holding him in the big chair, in the boys' bedroom. When both boys are awake I talk to them the same. But Alex is asleep beside us here in the dim light, and it's a moment to talk with Ned the way I wish I could talk with both my sons. "Did you have a good day today, Ned?"

He nods. "I have to go to my doctor," he says.

"You have to go to your doctor?"

"Yeah. Have to fix Ned."

If Ned's going to suffer from anything, it might the risk that I'll trivialize his need for Band-Aids, cough syrup, or attention. You do have to be nice to fingers. (March 2004)

Pistol Packin'

Jill went into Target with Ned, which means she had to come out with something made of plastic that cost about a dollar. She and he chose a pale-green squirt gun, with a bright orange plug where you put in the water. Ned brought it home and started pointing it at people. "Phew phew!" he says, mimicking gunfire. I think once he mimicked the whine of a ricochet.

Jill doesn't have a problem with this. Never thought I'd be a squeamish parent when it came to a touchy subject like guns -- of all subjects, not guns -- but I don't like Ned pointing his gun at people.

And I grew up with guns. On the wall of the room where I slept as a child in Maine was a bolt-action shotgun, and a Winchester knock-off 30-30 ("the deer rifle"). They hung high on the wall, out of my reach, and it never occurred to me try to get them down any more than I'd plant my hand on top of the kitchen stove in January, or go down to the cellar and stick my foot in the furnace. My best friend's room when I was growing up was at the top of the narrow stairs in his house, and to get there I had to pass within inches of a single-shot breech-loading 10-gauge and a German sniper rifle his dad got after World War II. Somebody in my childhood also had a pump-gun, and my big brother had numerous .22's, and pistols. (So why'd he have to study karate so he could really protect himself from me?)

"My god," marvels Jill at this inventory. She grew up in New York City, where the populace usually doesn't run across shotguns outside of 7-11s or liquor stores.

Before age 12, I had treasured toy guns: a cool metal Luger; a plastic M-1 that I ruined with glossy green model paint; a plastic M-16 that was never the same after I broke it in half; a beloved wood and metal Kentucky cap rifle; a long silver cap gun revolver; and, at one point, a phaser made of old boards. I mimicked my own gunfire, ricochets a specialty. When I was 12, my cousins gave me a real gun: a muzzle-loading, .45-cal. percussion-cap pistol. It was the kind of weapon that a trained Napoleonic infantryman could load and fire three times in a minute; my average was three rounds in an hour. But Jesus did it fire, with a roar and a cloud of foul white black-powder smoke, shooting a bullet the size of a small thimble. I used to go into the woods and blow holes in army men, the six-inch-tall ones. Everything was bigger in those days.

My cousins thought guns were like hot stoves, too, and believed that kids wouldn't shoot themselves and others accidentally if they were taught by parents that real guns were to be left hanging on the wall except if adults were around. Period.

Guns, of course, have long been one of those subjects from which parents feel they must shield their kids. Another, and closely related, is violent television. I never believed that TV influences kids to act nuts until Ned spent about an hour rolling around as if shot after watching an especially violent "Star Trek." Ditto raucous westerns on AMC; we won't take him to the new Spiderman movie. We're not wild about him watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail, even though there were no guns in Arthurian England and even though he does endearingly call it "the bucket movie," because of the armored helmets.

"'Band of Brothers!'," Ned demands every Monday, at about a quarter to nine. "'Band of Brothers!'" I'm sure he likes this violent history of the 101st Airborne only because I've taken to the show, and after all it is history. It's also soldiers flying around, and being vociferous about why they don't like what's causing them to fly around. I watched World War II stories when I was pretty young -- my brother hogged the TV during "Rat Patrol" -- but for some reason I think that Ned's too young to watch war. Incidentally, I hope he stays that way long past draft age.

Guns aren't going away. Ned wants another one for the playground, a fat pistol you fill with soap and pull the trigger to make clouds of bubbles. I guess I'm more okay with this, except that Ned wants the bubble gun with the clown face on the front. That's scary. (June 2004)

Read and Discuss

Alex just finishes one or two of the sentences, especially in Tom and Pippo, and drops off in the dim light. Ned, however, has questions.

"What's that?" His fingertip taps the thick page of the board book Drummer Hoff, which is a lyrical tale about seven soldiers assembling and firing off an old-style cannon.

"That's Captain Bammer's sword, Ned."

"What's that?"

"That's the ornament on the tip of the scabbard of Captain Bammer's sword, Ned."

"What's that?"

"That's Major Scott's cannonball, Ned."

"What's he doing?" Actually it comes out Was'he do-ing?

"He's putting the cannonball in the barrel so they can fire off the cannon."

A tiny nod. It's rare to get through a book without Ned asking a question. The more tired he is, the more questions he asks. It seems to be more than just a delaying tactic to avoid being put to bed.

"That's Major Scott's hat, Ned ... That's a decoration on Major Scott's hat, Ned ..."

Ned usually asks about Drummer Hoff's drum, Private Parriage's carriage, the chain that lowers Corporal Farrell's barrel, and the keg that Sergeant Chowder hauls his powder around in. Ned has never asked about Sergeant Chowder's wooden leg. That's interesting.

Sometimes I get exasperated with his questions: "Ned, we're reading here." But I don't like to react like that. I think it's a good idea for Ned to read with questions, especially in a world that's going to spend the next several decades trying to get him to open his wallet.

Sometimes he strays into statements. He follows right along with General Border's order to "Fire!," for instance, and he relishes the ka-bla-bloom when Drummer Hoff fires it off. Last night, a British children's book on grocery shopping also prompted him to declare which of the drawings were of cans of soup, and which of beans. I explained that I wasn't sure myself, because this drawing was of a grocery store in another country, where things are slightly-

"Have to get a Sponge Bob camera!" Ned said.

I begged his pardon.

"Have to get a Sponge Bob camera for me, and a Sponge Bob camera for Alex!" He tapped his chest with significance, and then did the same for an unconscious Alex. "Have to get a Sponge Bob camera for me, and one for Alex, 'cause I want one, okay?"

Then there was the porridge moment from The Three Bears, when Ned noticed that Momma Bear was hesitating to eat her porridge after returning from her walk. "She's scared of the fly," Ned said.

Sure enough, there on the page, near Momma's bowl, was a fly.

"Well, could be, Ned. She-"

"Like you can't watch 'Sponge Bob.'"

"Why can't you watch 'Sponge Bob,' Ned?"

"'cause there's a bee in it, and it's scary," Ned said. "They shouldn't put that in that movie."

Sometimes I feel that when he's on my lap before bed, Ned is parading the thoughts and jetsam of his day, which he has spent away from me and about which I know diminishing amounts. Other times talking to Ned is simply like trying to make sense out of a tourist from some part of the old Soviet Union.

"Wha's his name?"

That's a big thing with Ned. "You like to know people's names, don't you, Ned?"

He nods. Then I get the idea to shake his little world. "Wha'she do-ing?" I say, mimicking him. "Wha's his name?"

Ned erupts in giggles. The more I ask the questions over and over, just like he does, the more he laughs and laughs, and demands, "Again!" I begin to wonder if Ned is going to become some kind of actor, or politician. Neither is cheap, from my perspective.

Every book anyone's ever going to read can inspire some question. Glasses for D.W. in the Arthur series, for instance: "Is that trash?" "Is that a dog?" Astounding that on many days all my thoughts come down to answers to questions like these. That's the fish's bowl, Ned ... That's the Cat in the Hat upside down, Ned ... That's ... that's a long story, Ned ... Some books inspire more questions than others, and some inspire tough questions. Ned always asks, for instance, what kind of animal the yellow goat thing is in Dr. Seuss's The Foot Book. I never know what to tell him.

Other books inspire questions at precisely the same point. "Where's Max?" he asks every time at the centerfold of Where the Wild Things Are. There are no words at the centerfold. He points to the claws on the foot of Max's wolf suit. "What are those?" At the end of Drummer Hoff, when the cannon has long since ka-bla-bloomed and the flowers and birds have taken over, and the soldiers are gone, Ned asks, "Where'd they go?"

"I don't know, Ned. They all went away." Time for mommy to come sing him to sleep. (August 2004)

The Silent Fit

A day of three Cape Cod beaches was winding down, and Jill agreed with me that the perfect capper would be a root beer float. Even now, a few days after Labor Day (Season of the Cheap Vacationers and the Roomier Route 6), there were ice cream stands open.

We also chose to forgo our usual dinner of chowder or fried fish for pizza from some corporate joint in the little town of Orleans. So far so good. But as Route 6 sped under our tires, Ned began to have one of his nights. He began with pleas for ice cream for dinner. Over and over and over. "No, Ned, we're having pizza..."


By the time we pulled into the pizza joint, Ned's idea of behaving had become to wait at least two and a half minutes between demands. Part of the burden on Ned to behave stems from, unfairly I realize, his parents' need to settle Alex into a booth or table in a restaurant. Alex has always been liable to bolt. Tonight, maybe showing prescience to what was coming, Alex seemed content to study the placemat and occasionally and quietly ask for crackers. We'd hoped he's eat pizza, but so far he eats in only one pizza place, on 96th Street in Manhattan. And besides, he was right there a moment before when we'd hit a grocery store for $1.99 boxes of Cheese Nips.

"Not yet, Alex. Wait until our pizza comes."

Jill goes to the ladies room. With even more urgency, Ned bolts for the claw toy machine in the back of the restaurant and presses his nose to the glass, eying the stuffed and useless toys inside. I sprint after him. I try to take his hand. "Ned, we have to wait for-"

"I want to see the toys," he replies.

I glance over my shoulder and see Alex still sitting over the placemat, so I figure fair enough, and give Ned a moment with his toys-in-glass. Then another moment.

"Ned, let's go get our pizza."

"I want to buy a toy," he replies.

"Maybe later, Ned. Let's go get our pizza now."

"I want to buy a toy!"

I haul him away. He breaks loose and returns to the machine. I glance back at Alex, who seems to be getting antsy. Again I haul Ned back. Jill has returned, so I leave Ned with her and go get our pizza and salad.

Immediately Ned wants to eat Alex's crackers when there's pizza. Can't blame him, I guess: It's got to be hard for anyone to understand why his brother always seems to be dining on something different. But I can blame Ned when he keeps bolting up to look at the claw machine.

"I just want to buy a toy!"

"Ned, behave or we'll take you to the car."

Quicker than it takes for a parking lot to get dark, I'm looking at my wife and younger son out there on the blackening asphalt, pale through the black glass of the pizza joint. I see Jill's face leaning in on Ned; I see her mouth working. Alex munches crackers. I see Jill point. I see Ned drop to his knees and hang from her hand - the boys' ultimate pose of protest. I see Jill and Ned disappear deeper into the black lot, then in the night the interior light of our car explodes to reveal her strapping him into the car seat.

Jill returns to the restaurant and grabs a slice of pepperoni. "Ned d is eating his in the car," she announces.

I eat two slices and half the salad, and offer Alex pizza, which he turns down. Except for the crunch of Alex eating crackers, I eat in silence.

Jill brings Ned back in. He sits quietly and picks all the pepperoni off one slice. We're a postcard of a happy if silent vacationing family for a few moments until Ned whispers, "I want to see the toys."


"I just want to buy the toys!"

By the time we're back on Route 6, we're a postcard of a happy and excruciatingly silent vacationing family: Alex sated with crackers, Ned figuring it's best to say little right now, and me still yearning for a root beer float. Jill is thinking. Every now and then, though, from the shadows of the back seat: "Ice cream?" It isn't Alex who's asking. I watch the lines on the road.

"How are we going to handle the ice cream?" I finally ask.

"Ned, no ice cream," Jill says. "You were not a good boy back there, and I told you if you weren't a good boy you wouldn't get ice cream." Then Jill slips into her adult-to-adult voice and turns to me. "You can't back down on this," she says. "If we're not careful, we might be raising a not-so-nice person here. Hard as it is to enforce, I think it's harder still not to enforce it."

Sure glad Jill makes these decisions. Like maybe uncounted fathers going back to when protozoan youngsters threw fits in pools of ooze, I agree 100 percent with my wife and I will support her to the end. But I'm glad she made this decision.

"Ice cream?"

Moments later, Alex is using a spoon on his vanilla cone in the cool glow of the ice cream stand. I see Ned in the shadows of the back seat, his eyes slitted and glistening, his mouth a writhing "O". I can't hear him through the car glass: I'm watching the silent movie of his night of anguish. Jill is reading. I never get my root beer float. Out of sympathy, I guess.

We drive home amid diminishing sniffles. Before bed, Ned cheerfully eats yogurt with Jill. (October 2004)

Turn Down

I was in the front row, beside Jill and her family. Ned was about three rows back, with his cousins. Ned was three then, and his grandmother's funeral was by far the most solemn thing he'd ever attended. I kept one ear on the rabbi and the other alert for the kiddie chatter that would mean I'd have to rise at a bad moment and silently remove Ned from the room. Throughout the ceremony, that sound never came.

On the limo ride to the cemetery, Ned sat and watched gray Long Island slide by and kept himself quiet and busy while we adults talked about the stuff adults talk about during funerals. Then we were all at graveside, bunched in a chilly rain beneath the battered umbrellas provided by the limo drivers. Here, I thought, here he will give out and behave like a normal toddler doing something slow-paced and unfamiliar in uncomfortable surroundings. Instead, Ned stood quiet and appreciated the moment, somehow seeming, as I watched his back, to understand what was going on and to whom we were all saying good-bye. He reminded me of John Kennedy Jr. saluting the casket. I began to get a sense of the kind of person Ned would become.

That was the funeral, two months ago. This morning was the kindergarten.

Ned was to spend this morning at a local school with a killer arts and music program, with motivated students and a kindergarten lauded seemingly by every parent who'd ever walked past the building. Ned was turned down last year, after a classroom tryout by a teacher who advised at the time that we should maybe bring him back in about a year. In that year, Ned spent a lot of time, and a lot of our and his late grandma's money, on various one- or two-day-a-week classes around Manhattan. Ned loves school, and loves other kids. He loves being part of a group so much that sometimes I think it's best he wasn't born in Germany around 1918.

So we did bring him back in a year, for another morning's tryout. Jill calls about 9:30. "We're getting out of here!" she says to me.

I wasn't there, but Jill says she and Ned arrived about 8:30, the time of the appointment. Jill says the office was empty, but the kindergarten teacher was in her classroom with two teachers and no kids. The teacher asked Jill to wait in the office. Jill claims she was told 20 minutes later (while Ned thumbed the six-month-old Weekly Reader, I guess) that the teacher was having an "emergency meeting" and that Ned would come into her classroom at 9:15. "We go to the library to find a book to read," reads Jill's notes.

"9:15" I peek in and the aide tells me he is fine. They are writing, and Ned is drawing at a table with two or three other children. He seems OK.

"9:30: Ned comes in and tells me he wants to leave." The teacher reportedly says Jill may need to sit in there for a while. "We go back in the classroom and I sit where Ned had been sitting. She asks me to sit somewhere else. She tells me I don't need to 'be on top of him.' Ned continued to want to sit near me and with me. Finally when we give up. I get Ned's coat."

As they were getting ready to go, the teacher reportedly appears, and Jill says Ned just seemed very unhappy. The teacher reportedly replies, "Then this may not be the right place for him."

Tonight we call Rick, a different teacher who worked with Ned and Alex during their time in Early Intervention. He confirms that the teacher's comment was at best unprofessional, at worst reflective of actions that could mar Ned for his experiences at other kindergarten tryouts. I don't know. I think any kid who stood in the rain and watched a pine box being lowered could rebound from this morning.

But, later, as Jill and I hash out what to do next -- more schools, yes, but also a letter of complaint to the board of education? -- I remember a time when other professionals reached opinions about my kid, and then refused to back off. People you run across when trying to get your kid on in life just don't voice opinions only to later back off them.

When I call the principal of this school the following morning to suggest another try ("seemed to be an atypical morning for everyone," I venture, holding back from asking why somebody couldn't have been a little more welcoming and just plain polite during an "emergency meeting"), her response reminds of my time on the police beat: the same kind of stance, the same brand of inflexibility. "Nothing to see here," the principal seemed to say.

On some of the last of grandma's advice, we're telling Ned that it's he who's trying out the schools, not the other way around. Not that I hold Ned up as the paragon for little-kid behavior. He has fits. He pesters the cat until he almost gets bit. He doesn't eat his peas or his beef stew. Then he pesters Alex until he does get bit.

"What happened at the school today, Ned?" I ask that evening. "Just didn't like it?"

"Nah," he replies, not looking up. "Just didn't like it."

Jill really wanted that school. I wasn't at the school. I was at the graveside, in that rain, and any classroom that doesn't take this kid isn't the place for him, and no maybe to it. (February 2005)


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