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You've come a long way, Daddy

There is no oatmeal on Hugh O'Neill's shoes. In fact, he is remarkably well put together: no tiny handprints around the knees of his gray slacks, no GoBots peeking out of the pockets of his blue blazer. His red tie is spotless, his striped shirt crisp, and he obviously found and remembered to wear a belt. There are no outward signs that this yuppie is a daddy. Ah, but clothes don't always make the man.

``I once said `horsy' to a grown-up,'' confesses the author of ``Daddy Cool'' (Warner Books, New York, 132 pp., $6.95). It was at the office, no less. Of such slips was born this book, which aspires to be a ``code of cool for the guy with teethmarks on his wallet.''

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``The bottom line is,'' he says, ``I think fatherhood is the greatest opportunity to be cool that you can have. Because anyone can be cool when he's well rested, when he's well groomed, when he's in charge of his life. But when somebody who weighs 42 pounds is running the show, that's a real challenge.''

His fatherly moment of truth struck one day at the beach.

He was staggering across the sand carrying, as he recalls, a playpen, a Fred Flintstone bottle, 16 toys, a thermos of white grape juice, a kite, and a beach umbrella. He sported a Goofy baseball cap, complete with floppy black ears.

His eyes met those of a young woman - a woman who gave him a look of such deep pathos that ``that's when I knew the kids had completely devastated any sense of style I had.''

He was depressed for a week. But soon after that, he began devising strategies for maintaining some semblance of cool while, say, having to carry a Strawberry Shortcake lunch box. (``Don't carry it by the handle; holding a cartoon lunch box by the handle somehow alters your gait - from macho shamble into cheerful bounce.'' Palm it, like Kareem.)

Or how to respond when, about to shake on the biggest deal of the year, you take your hand out of your pocket and discover Mr. Potatohead's eyeglasses dangling from your pinky. (``I'm sorry,'' you should say, ``but those aren't part of the deal. Those belong to Mr. Potatohead.'' O'Neill explains: ``Any other response suggests you can't be trusted.'')

How does one ride a seesaw with dignity? Tell the difference between Bert and Ernie of ``Sesame Street''? Deal with those eentsy chairs during parents' night at school? O'Neill is rarely stymied.

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What about the parental temptation to tell ``cute kid'' stories at work? ``I've taken a very hard line. My policy is that I'm not going to tell one until they beg. Eventually I'm going to have them begging for a cute kid story, though they don't seem to think they will be.''

Not even, the interviewer wonders, a story about a little boy who sometimes runs his head along the rug when he crawls, or tilts his head to the side and looks the cat right in the eyes, smiles, and says ``Hidat''?

``The funny thing is,'' O'Neill continues, ``you always think: This story, this is a good one. This one works. And they never do.''

If you feel a cute kid story coming on, he suggests, friends who also have children are less likely to roll their eyes back into their heads when you tell it.

Despite the fact that his literary references in conversation have changed from Herman Melville to the Smurfs, despite the fact that he's found himself using words like ``boo-boo'' and ``yummy,'' despite the fact that his coif resembles handlebars after too many shoulder rides, there is no question O'Neill is wild about his children: ``The very thought of them makes me woozy.'' But he has no illusions about who's doing most of the child-rearing these days. ``The `new and nurturing father' is a myth,'' he feels. ``Fathers are more involved than they were in 1955, but they still do only 7 percent of the work of raising children.''

O'Neill, who edits nonfiction books at a large New York publishing house, has two children: Josh, 6, and Rebecca, 2. His wife, Jody, is director of communications at a medical research center. He grew up in the Bronx amid four sisters and two brothers, with a father who ``filled the screen for all of us.'' This is his first book, though he's had such offbeat essays as ``How to be a perfect son-in-law'' published in magazines.

Most of fatherhood's changes have been on the surface, O'Neill says. But he cites one deeper change:

``Men are afflicted by this sense that they have to have an opinion about everything. Most of the men I know always sound like Henry Kissinger, as though they know something about the world.''

But ``your kids are so fluid, so protean, that it makes you less judgmental.'' What was certain on Tuesday is dismissed by Thursday, he says. It's a lesson to him. ``It's nice to put down the baggage of manhood, that obligation to have opinions, to be sure about things. That's a nice switch.'' His ideal: a blend of Humphrey Bogart and Kermit the Frog.

For all its humor, the book contains gentle advice. The best of it, to O'Neill, is likely to sound hackneyed in print because it's a truism: ``Our manly style doesn't let us let the kids run the show. But if you do, if you really give yourself over to your kids, and play on their terms, it's such an exhilarating feeling.''

``Often, riding on a bus with your child,'' he writes, ``shampooing her hair, answering earnest naive questions about people's shoes, getting a haircut with your son, often while presiding over a circus of bending and tending, you can actually feel time being lifted from your neck. Kids are the best weapon against time. Be their father. Now.''

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