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.”

Copyright of the Soul

In addition to buying car seats, bassinets, clothes, carriages, thermometers, infant tubs, diapers, mobiles, blankets, toys; thinking of names, going to birthing classes, finding pediatricians and gaming daycare scenarios, another issue is pressing on my harried consciousness – will I take pictures in the delivery room?

Many people, including my wife, think this is a no-brainer. Of course you will! But I’m not so sure.

It has nothing to do with propriety. I wouldn’t dream of snapping pics from the obstetrician’s vantage point. That’s a good way to get choked out by a hormone raging spouse. But do I really want to spend the first seconds of my child’s life, a time that will never come again, trying to figure out the exposure settings on a camera?

I’ve never been one to take pictures. I got a digital camera for Christmas but never used it. Now it sits in megapixel obsolescence in a desk drawer. I’ve also never liked having my picture taken – a fact that aggravates my wife to no end. If you look at snaps of me as a child, I’m withdrawn, even fearful – as if I was some pygmy in the Amazonian jungle fearful the alchemy of light and celluloid would somehow capture a piece of my soul.

As a result, much of my adult life went undocumented. I have few pictures of my time in seminary, vacations went unrecorded and I’ll be damned if I can find a single picture of my time as a waiter. The obvious exception was all the publicity photos and vids when my books came out. For the most part, I’m a figure lurking in the background of other peoples’ photo albums.

My wife, Annie, however, is a ferocious photographer. She owns a very expensive digital camera and can do wonders with Photoshop. Whereas you could stick all the pictures I’ve taken on half a single memory stick, her multi-terabyte collection requires a server farm. She gets the urge to record things, I do not. I guess opposites do attract.

Sure, I’ve taken pictures of my dog, my wife standing on the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, but those are exceptions. When I see something I want to remember I just look at it. I think scrambling for a camera interferes with the memory making process. Today, with camera phones, Instagram, You Tube, Facebook, Pinterest, and Flickr people are photo archiving their lives. Do we really need to take pictures of an entree in a restaurant? Do we need a slick video production of a baby’s first steps complete with a cutesy soundtrack? We’re offloading our memories onto the Internet and, as some studies suggest, we are weakening our natural ability to recall the very memories we seek to capture.

There have been times in my life when I saw something and realized that image would be in my mind until the day I die – a meteor storm while camping in the mountains, a naked girl lying in the moonlight, The Twin Towers burning, my Dad in the recovery room after heart surgery, my dog snoozing in his favorite chair, a woman’s face when I told her I didn’t love her, my wife in her wedding dress, a person dying of AIDS, the skyline of New York shrouded in fog, watching seals play in La Jolla, gondoliers on the Grand Canal, the seductive evening sprawl of Vegas, rocketing down Laurel Canyon Boulevard, my wife running up the street because she was late for our second date, our first kiss, a woman dying in front of me, getting a toy firehouse for Christmas, monks chanting the Hours, a boy I punched, the dark eyes of a violent psychopath, my nephew only an hour old, my friend dying of cancer, eyeball to eyeball with a majestic buck in the forest, Mom making paper hats and the raucous crowd at the first ball game my dad took me to in 1974. All these images and more are seared into my brain, no camera needed.

Of course, people who eschew photography can be as annoying as those media snobs who say they don’t own a T.V. or only watch PBS. I’m well aware of photography’s ability to capture beauty and pathos, to shed light into dark corners and literally change our view of the world. It is an art form to be respected – and something my wife does extremely well. But I wish people would just stop clicking their iPhones for a moment and see reality unadulterated. Enjoy dawn in the Piazza San Marco with your camera in its bag. Give that gustatory delight its privacy. Capture images with your mind – a place where the NSA won’t find them, Facebook can’t sell them and they’re copyrighted with your soul.

Oh don’t worry, they’ll be plenty of pictures of my little girl, but not in her first moment, the font of all her moments to come, Some things are too sacred for pictures.

That moment is just for my wife and me.