Stranger Danger

I’m driving down a busy street when Natalie starts screaming. At this point I’ve discovered my daughter’s wailing doesn’t always constitute an emergency so I keep going. But when her cries hit migraine inducing decibel levels I start to worry. Is she strapped in too tight? Something in her eye? Pulling her own hair again? Better check it out.

Since pulling over on a commercial thoroughfare is a recipe for disaster, I hook a right onto a residential street and park in front of a house. A boy about seven years old is standing in front of the driveway while his father washes his car. When I get out of my car the father runs over, picks his son up, and whisks him into the garage. Jesus.

Undeterred, I open the rear passenger door and my daughter breaks into a smile. Little faker. She was just jonesing for Pops. I knew I should have bought her that jumper that read, “When I cry I get stuff.” But I check her straps anyway, scan the backseat for hazards and then pat her little head. “We’ll be home soon, honey,” I say.

As I climb back behind the wheel the father in the driveway is watching me like a hawk. So much for the universal brotherhood of daddydom. To be fair, from his vantage point he can’t see I have a baby in the car, but his protective impulse strikes me as paranoid. The odds of a stranger snatching your child in broad daylight are astronomically low. Do I look like a kidnapper? White slaver? A strung out junkie trying to find kiddie kidneys for the Chinese organ market? To make sure I look in the rear view mirror. A pudgy but well groomed middle-aged daddy stares back at me.

“Paranoid asshole,” I mutter under my breath. Then I smile, wave cheerily at the man and drive away.

If I’m honest, part of me is hurt that someone thinks I might hurt a child. A few weeks ago I was walking Felix in my neighborhood when I came across two little girls about four and seven years old sitting on their front steps. The older girl asked, “Can I pet your doggie?” Since Felix is super friendly I said sure. I’ve let lots of kids pet him. But before the girl took two steps a female voice from within the house screamed, “Get back in here!”

“My mommy won’t let me pet your dog,” the girl said,

“You have to listen to your mother,” I said. “Go back inside.” As I walked away I heard the screen door open and the mother say, “What were you thinking? That man could have taken your sister!” I’ve lived in this neighborhood for eleven years. I’m not an unknown quantity. And this lady thought I was a kidnapper too? Wow.

I actually feel sorry for those children. While I’m all for protecting kids, I think the above mentioned parents are teaching their tykes the world is always a dangerous place. That’ll hurt them in the long run. The more reflective part of me wonders if the adults had bad experiences which powered their behavior, but I just figure they’re paranoid.

I know a mother who constantly pours over sex offender registries, saw the police shoo an old man enjoying his lunch by the playground off the premises and overheard a father explain the modus operandi of serial killers to his grade-schooler. I’m not denying evil exists or advocating a pollyanna view of reality, but I think a lot of this “stranger danger” insanity is more about people’s inability to handle their anxiety over the world’s perils than it has to do with childrens’ welfare.

Am I being too harsh? Just today a kid stabbed a bunch of his high-school classmates and we all remember the unspeakable atrocity of Newtown. But I’ve been working in mental health on and off since 1990 and I can safely say the person most likely to abuse, injure, molest or kill a child are their own parents or a close family member. I’ve seen it happen in households rich and poor, educated and uneducated. But let’s face it, that doesn’t sell papers. It’s the boogeyman in the bushes that drives ratings in our 24/7 news world. And despite all the terrible things that have happened, your child’s school is safer than it was when we were children.

When my Dad was little he was taught to “duck and cover” in case the Russians dropped the big one. Now we have kindergartners doing active shooter drills. Most of the horrors we see on the news are the result of people with untreated or under-treated mental illness. If you’re worried about wackos doing in your kids, or you for that matter, petition your congressman to raise taxes and fund mental health programs. The psych unit where I work part-time is overwhelmed because the state’s been closing psychiatric hospitals when they should be building them. Nah, that costs money. That’s “Big Government.” We’d just rather talk about how unsafe we all feel while funding for programs to keep parents from hurting their kids is siphoned away to bail out car companies that sell cars that kill people and subsidize coal companies that contaminate our drinking water. Instead of expelling a schoolkid for making a gun out of his thumb and forefinger, send those clowns to prison.

Trust me. I’m not blasé about my child’s safety. I will teach her what to look out for at an appropriate pace appropriate for her age. I’ve seen a lot of dangerous people over the years. Just yesterday I had a patient describe how he’d cut my throat. I’m not ignorant of danger but I will not raise Natalie in a world where she’s worried everyone’s a possible predator. I didn’t grow up like that. Neither will she. And remember this, when people are screaming how unsafe you are, the odds are good they’re profiting off your fear.

Getting on the highway, I suddenly remember I have to pick up frozen kale (Yuk) at Trader Joes. Luckily for me, I snag at spot in the store’s crowded parking lot. Leaving Natalie in the car, I open the trunk, take out the carriage and unfold it. Then, just as I’m about to unlatch the car seat, a woman in a mini van misses the carriage by an inch as she races into a newly opened spot by the front door. Of course, she’s on her cell phone.

Those are the strangers you have to look out for.

Middle Aged Grump

It’s Saturday afternoon when I pull into the drive-thru of my local Burger King with my baby in tow.  Not the best nutritional choice, I know, but Natalie’s been a hot mess all morning and I haven’t eaten a morsel. Since parenthood begets frugality I order two cheeseburgers off the value menu for $1.19 apiece and a small Diet Coke.

“That’ll be $4.58,” the voice coming out of the speaker squawks. The meal should be $3.50 tops.

“$4.58!” I say. “How’s that possible? How much is the Coke?” The speaker box doesn’t answer.

Because the three cars ahead of me are ordering enough food to feed an infantry brigade, it takes fifteen minutes for me to inch up to the cashier.  Fast food my ass. Luckily my baby always falls asleep in the car.

“$4.58,” a skinny teenager says as I pull up. My order is ready and the receipt is stapled to the bag.

“May I see the receipt?” I say. The kid holds out the bag but, because my vision is bad, I still can’t read it.

“Closer, please,” I say. The kid moves the bag half an inch. Smart ass.

I reach out and grab the bag. Reflexively, the kid tries pulling it away, probably thinking I’ll drive off with it. I wonder if management would make him pay for it if I do.

“Just give me the bag,” I say, pulling it out if his hand. The kid looks pissed and I feel kind of bad but when I look at the receipt my guilt is quashed. My burgers cost $2.38. The small Coke is $2.00.

Costing pennies to dispense and garnering big profits, fountain drinks are a racket in the restaurant business. I once worked in a place where the owner upped soda prices a nickel a week in order to make up his food costs. He also demanded charging for refills but, after a father freaked over a $40 bill for his children’s drinks, I stopped that usurious practice. Burger King is trying to make up their losses on the “value menu” by overcharging me for soda.

“I don’t want the soda,” I tell the cashier. “Just the burgers.”

“Whaa….?”

“Just take the soda off my bill.”

The kid disappears and returns with the manager. “What’s the problem?” he says.

“Nothing personal,” I say, “But two dollars for a small soda is a ripoff.”

“We told them that,” the manager says, shrugging. “But I gotta do what I’m told.”

“Tell your boss I won’t be coming back because of this.”

The manager looks like he couldn’t give a damn. “Why should I tell them that?”

Now it’s my turn to shrug. “Customer feedback?”

“Have a nice day, sir.”

I park and eat my lunch. Luckily I have a bottle of water in my car. A hard rain is falling and as I listen to the drops pelting the car’s roof I unhappily realize I’m becoming a middle-aged grump. When I was a waiter those people aggravated the hell out if me. They’d hyper examine the bill, question prices, and bitch about portions. Now I’m doing the same stuff. The karmic wheel turns again.

In some ways I’ve grown into being like my old customers. As I inch closer to 50, thanks to news about predatory lenders, financiers betting you’ll lose your house, computer wizards gaming Wall Street, bank bailouts and corporate money in politics, I’ve become more cynical. I’m beginning to think life is a con game where everyone is on the take. Burger King’s attempt to screw me out of two bucks just reinforces my paranoia. But there’ve been other incidents.

A few weeks ago I had four skin tags removed by a dermatologist. I was told the procedure was covered under the cost of the office visit. Later, when I got a bill for $300 and saw my insurer was charged $3800 in various fees, I called the billing department and told them I’d report them for fraud. The bill was magically erased. “It was a coding error,” they said.  Bullshit. They were trying to see what they could get away with. That seems to be the ethos of the modern age.

It’s a dynamic that plays out in human interactions large and small.. While waiting on a long line at Babies “R” Us, my wife and I watched as smartly dressed couple wheeled their tot in a $1000 carriage past the waiting customers and sauntered up to the register. I loudly complained until they left red faced with embarrassment. And when a guy, despite having a perfectly serviceable driveway, parked his two cars in the spots my neighbors and I dug out after a snowstorm, I let him have it. He didn’t move his cars that day, but he didn’t come back the next. These people were seeing what they could get away with and someone pushed back.

Of course, my “little sheriff” attitude hurts as much as helps.. Each time I confronted these doctors, line jumpers and spot stealers I got angry, my blood pressure shot up and I was grouchy afterwards. We also live in a world where “Don’t rock the boat” is a powerful social more and those who speak up are often viewed with suspicion. As a new father I can’t afford to alienate Natalie from future playmates by being the town crank –  but I’ll be useless to her if I let people walk all over me. You have to pick your battles, but it’s often hard to know which one is worth fighting.

Lunch finished, I turn in my seat to check on Natalie. She’s starting to squirm so I sing her an appropriate snippet of Bob Dylan.

Look out kid

They keep it all hid

Better jump down a manhole

Light yourself a candle

Don’t wear sandals

Try to avoid the scandals

Don’t wanna be a bum

You better chew gum

The pump don’t work

‘Cause the vandals took the handles.

Good advice written before I was born. As Natalie grows up I’ll have to help her figure how to avoid life’s vandals. But I’m also aware I’ll never be able to protect her from them all of them. To even try would hurt her. The only solution I can think of is to raise her with the notion that money isn’t everything; selflessness is the greatest virtue and the spiritual and corporal works of mercy aren’t just suggestions. The best way to do that is to raise her with an awareness of how beautiful the world is despite all it’s nonsense. That means my cynicism and I are on a collision course. I can’t be a middle aged grump all the time. How will I work it out? I have no idea.

Perhaps life is a mix of Subterranean Homesick Blues and St. Francis’ Canticle of the Sun.

Nobody Fucks With Us

It’s twenty-four hours after my daughter was born and our hospital room is filled with balloons, stuffed animals and well wishers coming to see that yes, I had finally managed to reproduce. As Annie basks in her new mother glory a nurse comes in and pulls me aside.

“I’m really worried about Natalie,” she says.

“Why?” I say, surprised.

“She hasn’t eaten for several hours.”

While it’s true Annie isn’t producing much milk and Natalie’s been falling asleep at the breast, the hospital’s lactation consultant told us the baby could go without eating for at least sixteen hours before there was cause for concern. I tell the nurse this.

“I’d still like to take her into the nursery and check her out.”

Natalie’s whisked away and twenty minutes later I walk over to the nursery to see what’s happening.

“Her blood sugar is 31,” the nurse tells me. “If it’s 30 she has to go into the ICU.” For the first time parental terror grips my heart.

“See how her lip’s trembling?” she says. “That’s from low blood sugar. She’s also dehydrated.”

“So what’s the plan?”

“We’ll give her formula,” the nurse says. “Get her sugar and fluid volume back up.”

I go back to Annie’s room and deliver the news. As you might expect she gets upset. After the visitors suddenly fall into an awkward silence I politely kick everyone out, even the grandparents.

After taking care of Annie I go back to the nursery. Natalie’s polished off a bottle and her sugar is up to 41. It’s supposed to be over 60. “We’re going to give her another bottle,” the nurse says. “We’ll keep her here for observation.”

“Can you tell me why you waited until a crisis point before you intervened?” I say.

“We didn’t want to worry you,” the nurse replies.

I tamp down my fury. “My wife and I are rational and fairly well-educated adults,” I say. “When it comes to our child we want to know what’s happening. Feel free to worry us. Now, why did you wait until this point before you acted?” I also want to know why the lactation consultant’s advice turned out to be medically unsound.

“In the old days,” the nurse says, shrugging “If a baby didn’t eat for four hours we gave them formula. Now with the family friendly policy it’s different.”

Ah, the family friendly concept. The hospital’s slick brochures proudly trumpet how they encourage “skin to skin” contact, moms rooming with newborns and breastfeeding from minute one. But I’ve worked in health-care on and off for years and can read between the lines. “So there’s tension between administration encouraging breastfeeding and what the nurses think should be done?” I say. The nurse nods.

“Sounds like your family friendly policy is marketing,” I say. “I don’t care about marketing. I care about facts. I trust a blood sugar monitor. I do not trust bullshit. You have my permission to give my baby formula whenever you feel it’s warranted.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Get a supervisor down here. Now.”

Half an hour later an administrator arrives. At this point Natalie’s out of the woods but I’m still pissed. I calmly explain what happened. The administrator listens patiently.

“You do understand that if something happened to my child I’d sue you for millions?” I ask in a low even voice.

“Yes, sir,” she says, taken aback.

For the first time in my life I mention all the media contacts I’ve accumulated in my Rolodex and how I got them. “Your family friendly policy sounds like marketing and not medically sound. If something happened to my baby I would not rest until someone lost his or her job. Understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Here’s what’s going to happen,” I say. “My child will be under observation in the nursery tonight. Then I want a pediatrician to evaluate her prior to any talk of discharge. Someone’s ass is going to be on the line for this kid. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

And that folks is how you become the most popular father on the maternity ward.

The evening passes without incident and Natalie is one-hundred percent.  Early the next morning another nurse intercepts me in the hallway.  “I’m glad you spoke up,” she says. “We were all talking about your case this morning.” Then she tells me that the nursing staff has serious problems with the hospital’s family friendly policy and its emphasis on breastfeeding and how children are not getting enough food at times. She tells me they have had conflicts with the lactation consultants. “You’re not the first parents to run into this problem,” she says. “We’re going to have a meeting with administration and voice our concerns.”

So there you have it. A hospital’s policy put my kid at risk.

Now I’m sure that wasn’t the hospital’s plan. My mother told me horror stories of how nurses used to rule maternity wards like guilt tripping dictators so family friendly policies are probably a good change. But working in mental health showed me how even the most well-meaning plans can be full of unforeseen holes. And when hospital administrators, who often operate like feudal lords, put agendas that look good on paper over real world medical concerns, problems will arise.

A quick perusal of the Internet showed me all I ever wanted to know about the lactivists, Nipple Nazis and the breast-feeding war being waged in America. I don’t really give a shit. While I’m all for breastfeeding and recognize it’s benefits, it’s a function of nature and not an ideology. If a new mom is not making enough milk or the baby’s not latching on; giving a baby formula is not the end of the world. It will not wreck their chance of getting into Harvard. Of course every baby is different and every parent’s experience and needs will be different – but I’m talking about my baby here. This nerve wracking episode showed me you have to protect your child from day one. Even from the people who are supposed to know better.

Later that day the nurse who sounded the alarm tearfully apologizes to my wife, saying she would never again let her nursing judgment be influenced by hospital politics. I thank the nurse for speaking up and express our gratitude to her and the entire staff for taking care of Natalie.

“Sounds like you started something,” my wife says after the nurse leaves.

I look at my daughter as she sleeps in my wife’s arms. My outward demeanor is calm but a protective fire is raging within.

“Nobody fucks with us,” I whisper, stroking my daughter’s hair. “Nobody.”