THERE IS nothing quite like having a baby in the house -- except maybe having a shiftless brother-in-law who lays in bed until all hours and doesn't clean up after himself and eats you out of house and home.
Understand, that is no knock on babies. I'm just pointing out that a baby's lifestyle is eeriely similar to that of a deadbeat relative, although the baby, fortunately, won't hit you up for 10 bucks or ask to borrow the car.
The baby that lives in our house is nearly seven months old and seems destined for great things in life -- possibly a Third World dictatorship or a chain gang boss' job, judging by the degree of control he exercises over the household.
Every morning he wakes the rest of the family by caterwauling joyously in his crib.
The problem is that it's only three o'clock. His cries, therefore, serve as the signal for both parents to play the age-old game of pretending to be sound asleep, hoping the other will finally rise and take care of the baby.
(This is neither here nor there, but I have known fathers who take the game a step further by holding their breath and rolling their eyes and acting as though they've passed away peacefully in their sleep. This rarely works, though. Short of some tricky pre-dawn cryogenics, how can you cover a pulse rate?)
Of course, to a baby, time means nothing. So when one parent finally lurches out of bed and shuffles to the crib, the baby is smiling and kicking his little feet and all but shouting: "All right! Three a.m.! Time to rock 'n' roll, Jack!"
When it's my turn to get up with the baby, the two of us stumble downstairs and I feed him a bottle by the glow of ESPN, which features such stimulating fare at that hour as the Seniors Golf Tour.
I sometimes wonder, as we sit there, whether even brief exposure to an elderly man wearing a pink shirt and lime-green pants will do irreparable harm to the baby, perhaps even lead to cross-dressing later in life.
Of course, when the baby is sleeping, no one in the household is permitted to make a sound. The baby cannot be disturbed. If anyone does make a sound, everyone else in the family will put their index fingers to their mouths and whisper "Shhhhh," in an urgent tone that suggests it is an exhausted President Bush napping in the next room.
Traveling with the baby is equally interesting, especially wrestling him into his car seat.
The car seat has more straps and buckles than the cockpit of a Mirage jet fighter. By the time we get him strapped in, we're so tired from the effort that we'll often take a nap right there in the Subaru.
On any trip involving an overnight stay, the baby travels like a head of state. In addition to his retinue of mom, dad, brother and sister, he must have his stroller, portable crib, high chair, diapers, cans of formula, jars of baby food, his little blanket, his favorite toys, I could go on.
Friends and relatives wonder why we don't visit them any more. What's the sense? By the time we get there and unpack the car, it's time to pack up and leave again. We might as well just hang out in the driveway, have a quick cup of coffee and hit the road again.
Even watching prime-time TV with the baby is a challenge, now that he's become riveted by the Energizer bunny commercial.
God forbid that you turn the channel while that stupid commercial is playing. The baby might put his little fist through the wall. To him, that dopey Energizer spot might as well be "The Grapes of Wrath." It's sad, really. Seven months old and already hooked on TV. That's the kind of notation you see jotted down in the "Personal" file of reform school candidates.
Feeding the baby has become my favorite activity. As soon as you place him in his high chair, he starts wind-milling his little hands and kicking his little feet and squealing with delight.
The way he carries on, you'd think we were serving him filet mignon and lobster. And all he's getting is strained beets or squash or some other vegetable that would make a badger drop in his tracks.
It seems to me that if he gets this excited about strained beets, he'll probably be doing cartwheels for his first slice of pizza.
Which could come any day now, at this rate.