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Son's emotions grab dad by heart

(ran NTP edition)

Batman died today, and though his death was preceded by that of his brother Robin, my son Ryan took this loss worse.

Maybe it's because we had Batman longer. Maybe it's because he was black and not the more common brown like Robin. Or maybe it was because Batman the gerbil, like his super-hero namesake, just got more attention than his brother.

When it came to building a maze out of blocks, Batman was always the one chosen to prove the intellectual superiority of meriones unguiculatus. When the kids asked to have a gerbil taken out to be petted, it was Batman and not Robin who enjoyed those brief moments of freedom.

Perhaps Robin died of a broken heart. I don't know.

All I know is that Ryan's heart broke today. As we had done with Robin, we placed the deceased in a small box which we carried solemnly out to the back yard. The box was set into a small square hole, and Ryan managed to shovel some dirt onto the box, a feat not easily accomplished when the shovel is bigger than the shoveler.

I quickly finished the task of filling in the hole; a gerbil grave is not very large. I leaned the shovel against the fence and, thinking it would be appropriate to say something, told the assemblage, "Batman was a nice gerbil. We all loved him very much. I know I'm going to miss him."

I glanced over at Ryan. Tears were streaming down his cheeks. He began crying softly. I kneeled down in front of him and took his small hands into my own.

"What are you thinking about, Ryan?"

He looked at me and the pain he felt was evident in his eyes. "About Batman . . . and Robin. I miss them."

He started crying again, and I wrapped my arms around him and held him tight.

At that moment I thought how strange it was to hear Ryan cry. I mean really cry. Oh, he cries a lot, but it's the kind of crying that's sort of like screaming and the result of being really upset because his brother has his favorite toy or being really frustrated because he can't fit his Hot Wheels track together.

This crying was different, and I was surprised at how much it affected me. Knowing that in just a few short minutes Ryan would be laughing and giggling as he played with his siblings did not lessen the intensity of the emotions he was expressing.

Sure enough, Ryan was soon playing with Emily and Austin, the passing of Batman momentarily forgotten. As I watched them play I decided I would take the upset, angry and frustrated crying over the "'real" crying any day.

FINE DINING: At least our midday meal has gotten progressively better, and I am now able to finish my lunch by the time the kids finish theirs. But there's room for improvement.

At first I would have them wash their hands while I prepared the food. I found myself constantly torn from my culinary duties to help settle disputes in the bathroom over who should get their hands wet first or who got to dispense the soap.

After several days of arriving too late and then sponging up water, I decided to assist them. That worked fine. With clean hands and hungry tummies, I then had them sit at the table while I fixed their plates.

Of course, that meant they were at the table with nothing to do but get out of their seats, pull on the tablecloth, make faces at each other, and talk exceptionally loud.

I tried playing the "quiet game" _ "Okay, let's see who can be the quietest!" That worked for a while. I put up a chart on the refrigerator and gave stickers for using good manners and a quiet voice at the table. I tried just about everything except tying them down and gagging them (the thought did cross my mind).

After a couple of weeks of this I decided to try a different approach. I let them play while I fixed lunch. This worked fine at times. At other times, as with washing hands, I found myself dashing from the kitchen to broker a peace settlement between warring factions. I'm ready to join the State Department and help with some shuttle diplomacy in Bosnia.

So we're back to them sitting at the table while I slave away in the kitchen preparing their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The only difference is that now I sing while I work. My voice seems to keep them occupied. I haven't been pelted with tomatoes yet, so I figure I'm not too bad.

ON THE ROAD AGAIN: I haven't seen the movie Multiplicity yet, but I think the premise is fantastic. If it was possible I would clone myself three times so that each of our kids would have a personal nanny and playmate for our upcoming vacation.

We're getting ready to exchange the warm salty waters of the Gulf of Mexico for the cold, fresh waters of Lake Michigan.

We're going to be camping (most of the time) in a poor man's Winnebago _ a pop-up camper. We've planned everything, sent deposits and camping fees, made reservations at hotels, and activity plans for each location. We've even calculated mileage, fuel costs and driving times.

Sounds like we're prepared, huh? We are except for one thing: Since lashing the kids to the luggage rack is not an option, we still have some serious planning to ensure we're not all driven crazy during the several days in which we will be cooped up in the van.

My wife has been busy with contingency plans for keeping Ryan, Emily and Austin occupied, but if you have any ideas for traveling with young children, please send them to me in care of The Times, 1000 N Ashley Drive, Suite 700, Tampa, FL 33602.