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Archive for May, 2005

“Hang on to something, please, Lillie! I don’t want you to fall down.”

The cross town bus was crowded, as is typical after school.

Lillie put her hand lightly against her brother’s backpack.

“No Lillie, hold on to the pole! You have to be safe!”

She put a second hand on her brother’s backpack.

I hate it when she does this. Crowded buses are not the place for power plays. I lean down and whisper.

“Lillie, what you are doing is not safe. You can get hurt. You must hold on to the pole.”

She glowers in derision.

A young woman sitting next to the contested pole stood. “She can have my seat.” She was wearing a school uniform—short plaid skirt, white polo shirt.

“Thanks, you are kind, but . . .”

Lillie hopped into the seat.

“Oh, now that it’s a done deal, thanks again.”

“I don’t mind,” she blushed.

At the first stop after the bus crossed the park, about half the passengers exited, freeing more seats. The kids sat on one bench, and I sat on a single seat. Lillie wanted to sit next to me, but that seat was taken by the school girl.

“Oh, I can trade seats with her.”

“No really, you don’t have to . . .” But she had already stood. Lillie rushed to fill the seat.

“Well, thanks again!”

On city buses and subways, there is a protocol of anonymity. One is expected to avoid eye contact, and to retreat into a private inner space where neighboring conversations are not overheard.

That protocol sometimes evaporates when young children are involved.

People smile at things my kids say, or comment on how cute they are, or scowl because, I don’t know, the planet was crowded enough before I started breeding so prodigiously.

Lillie and I were talking about the earlier incident, and then goofing about her friend Constance.

The school girl was watching us, smiling.

We reached our stop. Jason collected his trumpet and backpack, Collie got his things, and I grabbed Lillie’s backpack.

The school girl stepped off ahead of us.

We all stood at the corner together, waiting to cross.

Collie was talking to me as Jason loudly hummed “America” into his mouthpiece—he often carries it around to practice.

“Cindy was mad at Maxwell, why I don’t know,” Collie went on, gesturing for added emphasis. “But get this: suddenly Maxwell looked like he was gong to be mad at me, and so I told him . . .”

“Excuse me a moment, please, Collie, “ I interrupted.

I turned to Jason. “Will you please shut up, please?!” I barked in a playful rant. He nearly jumped out of his skin. “What is this, a parade?”

The kids laughed.

The school girl burst into giggles.

“You think that’s funny?,” I asked her. “Check this out: you know who Howard Stern is, right?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“You are about to walk into him.”

Howard Stern was walking up the sidewalk. She moved to avoid him, nearly falling off the curb.

She turned on her heels. “That was Howard Stern!”

“Cool, huh? We often pass him on this same block, at this same time, on this same weekday. Like clockwork.”

“My friends don’t believe it,” Jason said.

“Where do you go to school?” the school girl asked. He told her.

“Some of my friends went there. I’m a senior at Brearly.” She tossed her shoulder length hair.

“Oh, congratulations, “ I said. “I suppose you are going to graduate soon.”

“Three weeks! And then, I suppose I am just going to hang around the city next year.”

Lillie was watching closely.

“Daddy has a girl friend, Daddy has a girl friend!”

“Lillie, please.”

“Daddy has a girl friend, Daddy has a girl friend!”

There was no way to stop this chant, so better to be good-natured now and discuss it with her later. “Yes, Lillie, I would like you to meet my new girl friend.”

Lillie stopped in her tracks.

“No Lillie, not my girl friend. Kidding!”

The school girl laughed, covering her mouth.

“Sorry. The kids get silly.”

“They take after their dad, obviously.” Her smiles began when she scrunched her freckled nose.

“Guilty as charged. These little acorns did not fall far from the tree.”

We chatted as we walked a little further. Then she stopped. “Well, this is where I turn.” She looked down, then at me. “Do you mind if I give you my phone number?”

“Oh, uh . . .”

It was clear from the look in her eyes that she wanted me.

She wanted me to call her, to see if she was free on a Saturday night.

She wanted to come to my apartment, and stay up late.

She wanted me to call her at all hours, to say I would be coming to her after I was finished with whatever I was doing.

She wanted to tell me, stay out as long as you like. I will be here when you get home.

She made it plain: she wanted to be my very own . . .

Babysitter.

“Your kids are so cool! They are like my brothers and sisters. I’d love to take care of them.”

“Well, thanks, I do need a sitter sometimes.” I looked at the paper she had handed me. “Thanks, uh . . .”

“Gillian.”

“Thanks, Gillian. See you.”

“Bye!” She crossed west, the kids and I crossed south.

We walked quietly for a moment.

“Daddy has a girl friend, Daddy has a girl friend!”

I put my hand on Lillie’s shoulders.

“I wish you wouldn’t do that.”

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Blustery Day

Lillie knocked on door of her new plaything, our three-year-old-neighbor Holly.

Holly’s mom Trish answered.

“We are going to the park,” Lillie asked, looking up at her friend’s mom. “Can Holly come?”

“We are going to the park, too!” Trish beamed. “If it is okay with your dad, let’s all go together.”

“Hey Dad, Dad!” Lillie shouted, running back through our open door. “Holly can come with us!”

“Henry?” Trish knocked, standing in the doorway.

“Oh hi, Trish.” I was shirtless in pajama bottoms, just out of the shower. What does one do when unexpectedly found half naked in the presence of a neighbor? I pulled Jason close and hugged him in front of my exposed torso.

“Lillie says you are going to the park? So are we!”

“That’s great!” I replied. “We’ll get dressed and meet you in the hall in a jiffy.”

Trish is an at-home mom, mothering her daughter and a new baby son.

This week, I am an at-home dad, fathering my kids on spring break.

The children are happy for spring break, in part because it allows a reprieve for a month-long ban on television and video games. The ban was imposed by their mother—and supported, with a heavy heart, by their father—due to problems Jason and Collie were having in keeping their homework organized.

The ban has been an annoyance at times. How much easier my life as a single dad can be when I have Cartoon Network on my side. But it has had a few happen consequences. The kids are playing together well, resorting to toys and board games in the absence of Mario Brothers.

And Collie and Lillie have adopted little Holly as their own.

Holly, of course, is delighted for the attention. Her new baby brother is still an interloper in her world. It helps that she has “big girl” friends to distract her from her mother’s new distraction.

Trish, in turn, is glad to have my kids about to keep Holly occupied. I’m glad to have them at her place now and then, allowing moments alone with Jason, and providing a breather from the constant refrains of “Hey Dad!”

This is the first time we have gone to the park together. Trish carries her son in a snuggly, pushing Holly in a stroller. Lillie walks close by, holding Holly’s hand. Collie holds my hand, and Jason walks ahead, dribbling a basketball.

The old folks smile as we walk by.

They must assume that we are one large happy family. Trish has red hair, like my daughter Lillie. I have blond hair, like her daughter Holly. We present a plausible ensemble.

Where do they live with five young children? the old folks must wonder, mentally calculating the market price of nearby brownstones, the most likely residences for so large a Manhattan family.

We split up at the park, Trish taking the younger children into a playground, Jason and I heading to the basketball courts.

Already this is much easier than solo parenting. If I were the only adult, we would have chosen one activity and done it as a family. I would be fending complaints from Jason if we were at the playground (“This is so babyish!”) or from Lillie if we were at the courts (“This is so boring! Can we play invisible house?”).

Jason challenges me to a game of One-on-One.

For the first ten years of Jason’s life, I managed to keep him unaware of the fact that his father is no great shakes as an athlete. Now that he is eleven, he has caught on.

His shots hit every time. Nothing but net. Mine hit every other time, at best.

My only advantages on the court are my greater height—and my scathing intimidation.

“C’mon, you want a piece of me?” I scowl, as Jason soundly takes the ball I was just dribbling.

“You gonna take that shot, or is the defense too brutal?” I scorn, as he shoots over my arms for two more points.

He beat me, twelve to six, fair and square.

A boy Jason’s age, having watched this sorry spectacle, took pity and challenged him to a game. They were soon joined by two other boys, whose father was a very good coach.

Sidelined, I strolled to the playground to check on Trish and the kids.

Collie and Lillie were pushing Holly in a swing as Trish talked to another mom. I was introduced; we talked about the things parents talk about in the park—fresh produce, nanny gossip, tag-team parenting.

Tag-team parenting. When one parent takes over for the other, allowing each some down time to hit the gym, shop or whatever.

I remember that.

An ominous cloud was coming in from over the Hudson River. Nannies and parents gathered their charges into strollers to beat the rain home.

“Do you think . . . ?” Trish asked.

“We should,” I answered.

She put Holly and her son into her double stroller as Collie and I went to collect Jason. He scored another basket before Trish joined us.

A strong wind blew in as the sun vanished. Large droplets of rain plunked around us. A tree branch groaned overhead.

“Come on, Lillie, let’s walk quickly!” Trish encouraged.

We stood exposed on a corner when the gusts picked up. It was suddenly a windstorm.

“Henry!” Trish shouted. “I need help with the stroller!” It tilted in the wind as she leaned against it with her full weight.

Collie burst into tears.

“Hold my hand, Collie! I’ve got you!” I shouted, holding the stroller with my other hand. Jason ran to hold Lillie’s arm.

Huddled over, linked by hands, we crossed the street. Holly’s ball was blown from the stroller, vanishing across the street. Collie saw it bounce away; no one else noticed.

We made it to the next corner and turned, so that a building shielded us from the wind.

“Whew! That was something!” Trish said, shaking her hair, composing herself.

Collie was still shaken. I knelt in front of him.

“That was scary, huh? But we are okay now,” I said, adjusting the hood of his windbreaker.

“I was afraid I would blow away,” he sniffled. “I’m not that big, you know.”

The way he said it reminded me of a worried Piglet. What would Christopher Robin say?

“If the winds were blustery,” I replied. “I would tie a string to you and fly you like a kite. And then I would reel you back”

He smiled, his eyes still teary.

Lillie reassured Holly, who seemed unfazed.

We avoided cross streets, and cross winds, all the way home. We found the building lobby filled with strollers and moms and nannies with stories to share.

Trish lingered to compare tales. Everyone checked on each other’s babies.

I was the only dad. Jason, Collie and I hung out, waiting. “C’mon, let’s go up,” I finally said. Lillie opted to stay with Trish and Holly.

For about a week, Lillie had been looking forward to this evening. Trish had promised a pizza party with Holly at six o’clock prompt.

“Dad?” Collie asked, once we were upstairs. “Can we make brownies for the pizza party?”

I was just sitting down to check my email. “Great idea!” I stood to preheat the oven. “Can you get the ingredients, and I will join you in a minute?”

I replied to a few notes as Collie pulled out a mix and a measuring cup, a bowl, an egg and vegetable oil.

“Ready!”

He mixed the brownies, cracking the egg by himself. I gave the mix a final whisk, and we spooned it into a pan. I put the pan into the oven.

When they came out, Collie decorated the brownies with M&Ms. We had a nice offering for the party.

Trish ordered a pizza and we convened in her living room. Holly wore a bib as she chewed on a sliver of pizza. My children balanced plates on their knees.

Trish’s stereo played Laurie Berkner. Her bookcases were stacked with Dr. Seuss and Marc Brown. Her infant son looked out at us, unblinking and fists clenched, still alert in the snuggly on his mother’s chest.

I remembered when my home was like Trish’s. Two parents, two babies, two bedrooms and one future together.

“Your kids are so polite and easy to get along with!” Trish said. “I hope mine do as well.”

This raised our “with the children” conversation topic: raising good children.

She said that she hoped to have one more child in about three years. She liked the spacing of mine—Lucy and I had planned our children a little over two years apart—but she wanted more time between her son and her future baby.

“I guess we’ll have to leave Manhattan then. No one can afford three kids in Manhattan, right? How did you find your house in the suburbs?”

I answered her questions, wanting to offer good advice. I have led the life she now plans. It didn’t turn out as I planned. But I know this stuff.

School districts, real estate, mortgages, tuition savings . . . it seems so long ago.

A young mother from down the hall stopped by. She is due any minute with her second. Could Trish watch her Sam for a few? She had a call to make and she had to pee in the worst way.

Sam toddled in.

Jason and I exchanged glances. “Maybe we will get back to our place,” I offered, my hand on Jason’s shoulder as if to suggest he was weary of baby talk.

“Oh sure,” Trish smiled. “You boys have fun.”

Jason had fun by settling on the couch with Jon Stewart’s America. I had fun by typing an outline for work, thinking of anything but what I was doing.

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Lucy called.

“How is everything?” she asked.

“Nice! We spent the day in the park with Trish and Holly. There was an awful wind at the park . . .”

“Can I talk to one of the kids?”

“Uh, sure, just a sec. Here’s Jason.”

The phone worked its way through the children’s ears.

After a while, Lillie handed the phone back to me.

“Anything else?” I asked.

It was dead.

Collie came into the living room and sat on the couch, limp.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he replied.

“You look sad.”

He shrugged.

“You want to talk about it?”

He shook his head.

“Are you still worried about the wind?”

He shook his head.

“Do you miss your mom?”

He shrugged.

“We can’t talk about it if you aren’t talking.”

He shrugged. “I’m going to play Game Cube.”

“Okay . . . let’s talk later if you want.”

He headed to his bedroom.

A few moments later, Lillie rushed into the living room. “Special delivery from Collie!” she shouted, waving a piece of paper.

It read: “I don’t know what’s wrong with me do you? (Please respond!)”

When Collie was five, he was upset about something and closed himself in his room. He did not want to talk. After a while, Lucy and I knocked on his door. He told us to go away.

We sat on the floor next to his door and wrote a note saying “We love you? Are you okay?” We passed it under the door and knocked. “Special delivery!”

He picked up the note and took it to his desk. He passed it back with his own addition: “Jason is bad.”

We passed him another note. He wrote a response. Soon the door was open and he was over his anger.

Since that time, Collie has often preferred to pass notes when he is upset.

I knocked on his door.

“No,” he said. “You are supposed to write a note!”

“I know, but I want to talk with you on my lap. Is that okay this time?”

He nodded. I took him in my lap.

“I know you can be sad when you miss your mom, or when you miss me. It’s hard to be away from your mom or dad. But you know we love you, right?”

He nodded.

“And you know you will see your mom soon, right?”

He nodded.

I showed him his note. “I think that is what is wrong with you right now. Talking to your mom reminded you that you miss her. You might feel better if you just think about seeing her soon. Can you try that?”

He nodded, smiling. I kissed his head, and left him to play a video game.

He was working the controls when Lillie came into his room waving a piece of paper. “Special delivery from dad!”

Collie took the paper and read it.

“You are a special boy and I love you. Dad.”

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Take all your problems
And rip ‘em apart

Carry them off
In a shopping cart

And another thing you
Should’ve known from the start

The problems in hand
Are lighter than at heart

Collie was listening to the White Stripes, a little too loudly, reading the lyric sheet as he sang along.

Lillie was in the hallway, playing stuffed animals with our neighbor Holly.

Jason and I were cooking dinner.

Earlier, as Collie and Lillie read Pickles over Pittsburgh, Jason was inspired to cook chicken and dumplings. So now, as the chicken simmered in stock, he chopped celery as I chopped onions.

“Dad, you are a very good cook, so don’t take this the wrong way,” he ventured, “but if you were going to open a restaurant, you would need to know how to make more things.”

“Well, thank you for the compliment. I don’t plan to open a restaurant, but you are right: it would be good to know how to make more things if I were a professional chef.”

“Right! Like you make good fried chicken, and good burritos, and good hamburgers . . .”

“. . . and a killer Thanksgiving dinner, thank you very much.”

“Yes! And that barbecued chicken, the one you wrap in bacon, that’s very good. But a restaurant needs to have, like, seven pages on a menu, and you only have, like, four or five.”

“True. I wonder what I would like to learn to make? I don’t know how to cook Indian, that would be good to learn.”

“I like Indian, but we can go out for that. Is this enough celery?”

“Uh, yes. Toss it in the pot.”

“Okay.”

I gave him some carrots to chop. He focused on cutting them for a while. Then he mused, “I wonder what I will do when I am seventeen.”

“You mean, like Rachel?” His half sister Rachel is seventeen, and newly graduated from high school.

“Yeah. I think I would take off a year too. I mean, I’m also going to be seventeen when I finish high school, and that’s younger than most people in college.”

Rachel has decided to work and save money, at least for a semester.

I had lobbied for her to go directly into college, but she prefers to wait until she is eighteen. Besides, as she reminded me, I had taken some time after high school to save money and apply to better colleges.

Her mother’s family doesn’t have money, and with my divorce, I am struggling. It’s hard for me to argue that she should race into college with no financial backing.

“What would you do for a year?” I asked Jason. “Oh, and cut those carrots smaller. Remember, they have to go on your spoon.”

“Well, maybe I would cook. In a restaurant.”

“You do like to cook.”

“Yeah. And if you opened a restaurant, I could manage it.”

“But I’m not opening a restaurant. And I thought you wanted to cook?”

“Dad, you have to hire people to help you. You can’t do it all by yourself. You might be the cook, but someone has to hire people. That can be my job.”

Lillie was sneaking a small box of Cheerios to share with Holly. “When I am in college, I will be rich!” she said.

“I hope so!” I smiled at her. “Then you can give me money.”

“Only if you pay me back!”

“Lillie, no one has money in college,” Jason interjected. “You have to work all the time.”

“Here, cut some more carrots.” I said. “Those are ready for the pot.”

Later, Lillie helped us to form dumplings. She picked up dough in her freshly-washed hands, and rolled out marble-sized balls that Jason dropped into the broth.

“Dad, can I work in your restaurant too?” she asked.

I pointed a thumb at Jason.

“You’ll have to ask the boss.”

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