Yes, I know. I said I was going to take a six- or eight-week hiatus from Dad Zoning, and here we are almost five months later. But as any parent will confirm, time flies when you're having babies. And it positively zooms when you choose to raise them yourself, as opposed to giving them to friends as a highly personalized, one-of-a-kind gift--an idea that might have worked if I hung out with a slightly dimmer crowd.

In our last thrilling episodes, my wife and I had just doubled our parenting pleasure with a daughter. Well, Jessica is now six months old, has two teeth and is the most beautiful baby in the world. That's not just my subjective opinion. I can't push this kid around the block without six or seven little old ladies gasping, "Why, that's the most beautiful baby in the world!"

These are total strangers who have no reason to lie. Not to me, at least. I'll admit that I've heard them say the same thing to a woman in our neighborhood whose kid looks like Ernest Borgnine before his wife discovered that miracle facial cream. But what else are they going to say? "I thought your baby was wonderful on McHale's Navy?" Of course not. These little old ladies may lie through their partials to parents who are drawing from an unsightlier gene pool than myself, but they aren't going to be rude.

Anyway, the most beautiful baby in the world is now at the age where she's doing something new every time we turn around. This week she's "starting to crawl." This is the tongue-in-cheek term we use to describe her ability to get up on all fours, rock forward and backwards, and perform a daring ninety-mph face dive straight into the floor. If this kid ever runs away to join the circus, we can at least take comfort in knowing she has an act.

What we're really excited about, though, is that our darling daughter has already spoken her first words. So far, she's said "vizsla" (which is, according to our Scrabble dictionary, a Hungarian breed of dog), "fraenum" (a connecting form of membrane) and "zeugma" (the use of a word to modify or govern two or more words, while applying to each in a different sense).

Not only that, she's actually starting to assemble complete sentences. Just this morning she said, "Iwis cacucha aalii izar phyle." For those without a Scrabble dictionary, this roughly translates into layman's English as, "I would certainly like to perform a Spanish dance under a tropical tree in the fog while dressed in an outer garment worn by Moslem women near a political subdivision in ancient Greece."

We're very, very proud.
Jessica has also reached the stage where any common, nondescript floor covering is viewed as an exotic all-you-can-eat smorgasbord. This is both a curse and a blessing. On the one hand, some of the stuff she tries to ingest would gag a seasoned health inspector . . . but on the other, we haven't had to vacuum for weeks.

I'm thinking of letting her loose in the front yard once a week so we'd never have to mow the lawn. Maybe we could even rent her out to the neighbors as sort of a human goat.

One thing I'd forgotten about teething babies is that, of all the stuff which squirts, oozes, dribbles and explodes from their teensy bodies, the substance they produce in greatest volume is drool. Being safety-minded parents, we've instructed our five-year-old Matthew never to play with his sister unless he's wearing scuba gear. He resisted the idea until our cat drowned in the living room.

Naturally, the boy was distraught. But he perked up when we stocked his bedroom with trout and renewed his fishing license.

Okaaaaaaay. Maybe I'm exaggerating. But we have discovered that nothing cleans and shines linoleum quite like generous, repeated applications of fresh baby slobber. No more waxy yellow build-up in our kitchen.

My boy, by the way, is adapting well to his bouncing bundle of competition. Lately, in fact, whenever he accuses us of being the meanest parents in the world and threatens to find a more accomodating set of authority figures to live with, he says he's going to take his little sister with him. I have captured this promise on videotape to freshen his memory when I'm in my fifties and have two teenagers in the house. Until then I can only pray that, if nothing else, I'm raising a boy of his word.

For now, I'm trying to be understanding. It's been tough times for the lad. He just started kindergarten and approached the experience much like a hypochondriac would approach the community toothbrush in a leper colony. He was absolutely certain that his classroom would be loaded with kids he didn't know, wouldn't like, and who'd want nothing to do with him.

As it turned out, the first recess bell of the school year hadn't rung before Matthew boy-bonded with an entire gang of budding juvenile delinquents, one of whom convinced him that only evil parents from hell would refuse to buy their child a set of drums. As always, I had a better idea. I'm having my son transferred to a classroom loaded with kids he doesn't know, doesn't like, and who want nothing to do with him.

Yessiree, it's business as usual in the Dad Zone. Drop by for a visit sometime. If it's a bad day and you're not too bright, I might have a highly personalized, one-of-a-kind gift for you.

My son approached kindergarten in much the same way a hypochondriac might approach the community toothbrush in a leper colony.

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Michael Burkett