Brunch Is for Jerks?

10-brunch-is-for-assholes-shirt.w529.h352.2x

A couple of days ago a friend of mine, an avowed foodie, texted the above picture to my cell phone.

“I disagree,” I wrote back.

“As do I,” he replied. “Sometimes that’s my only meal!”

I like brunch, but brunch done right. Post-waiter-stress trauma makes me leery of places that crank out fusion cuisine or Tex-Mex six days a week and then offer overpriced eggs on Sunday. Cooks making stuff outside their usual routine produce results ranging from bleh to disastrous. Did we forget Anthony Bourdain’s warning about chefs unloading the week’s leftovers by masking them with heavy sauces?  Most restaurants don’t do brunch well, it’s a punishment detail for waiters and the patrons can be jerks. If you want to see brunch done right go to the Westgate Hotel in San Diego. It’s a religious experience. My wife and I have been there a couple of times and we’re not assholes. At least I don’t think we are.

Then an article entitled, “Brunch Is for Jerks” serendipitously appeared in the next day’s New York Times. Its author, David Shaftel, delivers a blistering diatribe against brunch, decrying the “hung over and proudly bedraggled” affluenza zombies who’re wrecking the “pastoral” peace of the West Village neighborhood where he’s lived for twenty years in search of overpriced mimosas.

In the interest of full disclosure, the author readily admits he’s enjoyed many brunches, establishing his coolness cred by bragging about an epic fifteen-hour outing ending in a dive bar and some hedonistic affair in a Dubai hotel where he feasted on exotic foods and guzzled a jeroboam of Veuve Clicquot. But now, he writes, “It’s over. I’m through with brunch,” complaining that these legions of young, childless and “well-off professionals” munching on Eggs Benedict are emblematic of the gentrification driving middle class families out Manhattan. “Unencumbered by children” Shaftel writes, they are “exactly the kind of people who can fritter away Saturday, Sunday or both over a boozy brunch.” Meow! Something tells me income inequality isn’t driving Shaftel’s rage.

“But now that I have a young daughter,” Shaftel writes. “Brunch is completely impractical…For me, having a child — and perhaps the introspection that comes with turning 40 — made me realize what most vexes me about brunch: Once the domain of Easter Sunday, it has become a twice-weekly symbol of our culture’s increasing desire to reject adulthood.”

Brunch means rejecting adulthood? That fatuous claim pisses me off. When I was single I hated parents who looked down on my childless status. Before fatherhood hit me at 45 I already knew some parents used their children as an excuse to tell other people how to live. Their incessant proselytizing reminds me of convicts who discover religion in jail. When these earth-mommy/uber-dads were single they were having coke fueled trysts in my restaurant’s bathroom. But once the stork arrived they suddenly couldn’t countenance any one else having crazy fun.  You know these killjoy hypocritical types. They’re like people who stopped smoking two days ago and start snapping cigarettes out of other peoples’ mouths. These are the self-important people who’ve brought us breastfeeding jihadists; wimpy slides on the playground and Park Slope mommies trying to ban ice cream trucks in their neighborhood.  Question their orthodoxy and they’ll scream you’re a kiddie hating Nazi.

I suspect sleep deprivation’s partly to blame but let’s be real – many parents are pissed their freedom has been curtailed. So after Shaftel finished taking his dump on brunch I figured he was suffering from a case of sour grapes. All this fury over brunch? Really? He’s also upset about being out-gentrified. Sorry man. The West Village hasn’t been “pastoral” since Peter Stuyvesant was in charge.

Then I realized Dave and I aren’t that much different.

My wife and I are looking to buy a house in the leafy Jersey suburb where we now rent, but escapees from NYC are driving up prices. Seeing  Zip Cars with NY plates clustered outside a realtor’s open house makes me wish I owned an anti-tank gun. “Jerks,” I usually mutter. “Is Brooklyn full? Stay out of my town.”  So I can relate to Dave’s pain.

The similarities don’t end there. When I forwarded Dave’s article to a friend he said he thought I wrote it. That surprised me, but shouldn’t have. I was a cynical waiter and spent years skewering foodie culture, pretentious customers and power mad restaurateurs. If you follow this blog you know I can be a world-class curmudgeon. After all the yuppie bashing I’ve done, faulting Dave for lashing out would be a tad hypocritical.

Dave’s also right about parents not having enough time in the day. Going anywhere with a kid is a logistical exercise akin to the Normandy invasion. By the time I’ve strapped my daughter into her car seat, loaded her diaper bag and stuffed the Baby Bjorn, carriage, bottles, sunscreen, hats and toys into the trunk of my car it’s taken me two hours to get out of the damn house. And, unless you don’t sweat the high therapy bills you’ll pay later, children require tons of attention. Kids make time a precious commodity. So yeah, brunch is sometimes impractical.

I don’t really think Dave’s jealous of childless people. He’s roughly my age and, like me, probably had his fun until it wasn’t fun anymore. I also don’t think he hates brunch –  he’s just projecting his anger on an often mediocre culinary pastime. How’d I draw this conclusion? I’ve detected the same anger in myself.

It’s nice if hitting your forties makes you introspective, but it can also make you a crank.      Realizing more days are behind you then ahead, a middle-aged myopia threatens to set in. You become territorial, parochial and start pining over a nostalgized past. It’s no accident people are more conservative by the time their AARP card arrives. Now young people are starting to bewilder me, forcing me to install an Urban Dictionary app on my phone so I can understand what the hell they’re talking about.

I’ve also become incredibly intolerant of bullshit. While that’s a good thing overall, it’s a problem when dealing with twenty-somethings. When I hear about their relationship dramas I want to vomit. If a guy doesn’t text you back for four days he’s an asshole! If a girl won’t let you crap in her bathroom after you’ve done the horizontal mambo she’s got a problem. Grow up! Then I realize I’ve misplaced my memory of what it’s like to be young.

It doesn’t help we live in a society that lionizes youth and marginalizes old age. We see teenagers becoming Internet zillionaires and are told youth is the fountain of innovation and genius. Didn’t you know artists and writers create all their masterpieces in their twenties? After that it’s all downhill. Bullshit of course, but when you’re doing late night feedings, worried about bills and terrified your house is conspiring to kill your baby, feeling the energy and enthusiasm of young people makes you wonder if time has passed you by.

So you bitch about it.

“Our youth now love luxury.” Socrates wrote. “They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.” The old philosopher probably wouldn’t have liked brunch either. But bitching about the young is as old as time. Dave’s just another guy wondering where all that time went.

My wife often calls me to task for thinking like Socrates. Since my daughter’s formative years will take place in my forties and fifties that gives me pause. Everything is new for her. I’ll need immense reserves of spiritual and intellectual elasticity to keep up. I’ll have to reign in my cynicism and remember the sweet song the bird of youth sings. If I don’t I’ll be no good to her.

That doesn’t mean I’ll age regress and try being hip. My experience and perspective is hard won and I’ll probably continue bitching about stuff. But I’ll pick my battles. Brunch isn’t one of them. I understand why Dave got hot and bothered, though. Everything changes and sometimes that sucks. That’s the price of admission life charges.

Brunch isn’t for assholes, Dave. Its just that assholes sometimes go to brunch. So from one fortyish guy raising a daughter to another, I wish you the best of luck.

Just don’t move to my town.

Clouds of Unknowing

I’m in the break room writing my notes while my coworker Jorge fiddles with his iPhone.

“Check this shit out,” he says.

I look up from my paperwork. My younger colleagues are very enamored with their smartphones. “What?” I say.

“Siri,” Jorge says. “What planes are flying overhead?”

“You’re kidding me.”

Jorge’s phone beeps and he hands it to me. “Take a look.” Sure enough, the screen displays the flight numbers of all the planes soaring above our heads.

“Ahmed!” I say. “Hand me the Stinger Missile!”

“Exactly what I was thinking,” Jorge says.

“Why do we need to know this stuff?”

Jorge shrugs. “It’s out there, man. You can download an app, point your phone at the sky and it’ll tell you the flight number of every plane it sees.”

Richard, one of our nurses from Nigeria, chimes in. “You Americans make too much information available.”

“You think people can track Air Force One using this thing?” Jorge says.

I figure Siri is tapping into a database of information beamed from the passing planes’ flight transponders, similar to the system air traffic controllers use.

“Let’s hope the Air Force is one step ahead of Apple.” I say.

I’m flying out of New York this week. The thought of some Al Qaeda nutjob using his phone to send a warhead into my plane gives me the willies. While not an authority on military hardware, I know super portable missiles like Stingers have a very limited range. A terrorist would have to target a plane as it was taking off or landing and the flights displayed on Jorge’s phone are tens of thousands of feet up. To take them out would require a large and powerful rocket. I hope the cops would notice such a thing being prepped for launch in a parking lot.

“America’s openness makes it a great country,” Richard says. “But it’s also her greatest weakness.”

He’s right to some degree but I say nothing. Too complicated an issue for break room banter. I finish my notes, check on the patients one last time and clock out.

Walking to my car I look up and see the running lights of several planes blinking like rubies against a black velvet sky. Hundreds of people in pressurized tubes using aerodynamics to fight gravity are streaking to destinations unknown.

I could whip out my phone and find out all about them, but I don’t. Part of the fun of looking at airplanes is wondering where they’re going, Paris? Rome? Tahiti? What are the stories of the people on board? Are they excited? International spies? Or just a harried businesswoman stuck between two extra large passengers? Are they drinking champagne in first class or coach passengers bemoaning the lack of free peanuts? Right now a young man might be stroking his first love’s hair as she nestles against his shoulder while the guy behind them types up an idea that’ll lift millions out of poverty. Maybe the woman in seat 5A is a film star reading a script or a ravishing model traveling to a bikini shoot in Maui. If technology tells me I’m dreaming upon a Fed Ex plane delivering Amazon purchases to Albuquerque that would spoil the mood.

I shake my head. We are bombed with too much information. Tonight I crave mystery. There can be joy in hidden things. Hope dwells in clouds of unknowing. Fools may go where angels fear to tread – but sometimes they win.

Forgetting about Al Qaeda and Stingers I get into my car and drive home. Soon I’ll be flying beneath a canopy of stars. You’ll just have to imagine where I’m going.

Decade

Waiter Rant is ten years old today. If you told me when I wrote that
first post that it would lead to book deals, the NYT Bestseller List, Oprah, The Today Show and hundreds of radio and print interviews I would have said you were suffering from cocaine induced psychosis. But that’s indeed what happened. Life is wondrous and strange.

So much has happened to me in those ten years. I owe the faithful readers of this blog more thanks than mere words can express. Of course, my agent Farley Chase has to be singled out for his perseverance and optimism as well as the good folks at Harper Collins. And I would be remiss if I did not thank my wife Annie for her faith and unwavering support. I love you, darling.

As a new husband and father, I look forward to what the next ten years will bring. I hope you’ll continue reading this blog as my life enters a new phase.

My sincerest gratitude to everyone!

Nice Guy

It’s a cold December night and I’m taking my co-worker Tamisha home. She missed her bus and I don’t want her waiting at a bus stop freezing and alone. What can I say? I’m a nice guy.

“You sure you know the way?” I say, guiding my car through the streets of Newark.

“Sorry,” Tamisha says. I always take the bus and don’t drive. My sense of direction is rusty.”

To my the right glass sheathed apartment buildings designed by Mies van der Rohe tower over us, their windows winking like a binary code of light and dark squares. Ahead of us the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart sits on a hill bathed in light. Despite the weather plenty of people are on the streets.

“”There’s my cousin,” my passenger says. “Little jerk. He should be home.”

“How old is he?” I say, looking at a group of kids clustered under a streetlamp.

“Twelve.”

Something tells me these kids aren’t coming back from the malt shop. But Tamisha is black, I’m white and voicing my opinion would probably be awkward. Instead, Tamisha speaks for me.

“Already up to no good that one,” she says, “Damn shame.”

“Anyplace for kids to go in this town at night?”

“Now?” she says incredulously. “What do you think?” My silence withdraws the question.

“Make a left here,” Tamisha says. “ Steve, this town is crazy. One day some gangbangers had a gun battle in front of my house and bullets went into my baby’s room.”

“Jesus!” I say. “That’s insane!”

“We moved the next day,” she says. “But our new neighborhood isn’t much better.”

A large speed bump appears out of nowhere and I hit the brakes. “Like those?” Tamisha says. “City put them in to slow down carjackers escaping to the highway.”

I’m actually very aware of carjackers. My eyes are constantly checking the rearview mirror and I give the cars ahead of me plenty of room. Rule number one, don’t get boxed in.

“Ever since that white guy got shot in Short Hills people are suddenly interested in carjackers,” Tamisha says. “Happens here all the time.”

“The murder rate is going up I understand.”

“You have no idea. I’m Brick City born and bred but my husband and I want out of here.”

“Looking for a place?”

“We are but we can’t afford a car and take buses to work. So it has to be somewhere close to the hospital.” That will limit her options.

“Where do you live?” Tamisha asks me. I tell her.

“What a beautiful town,” she says. “Lovely houses, safe, good schools. You’re lucky.” For no reason at all I feel guilty.

“Lots of good people in this city,” Tamisha says. “But the bad ones run it. Sucks.”

After ten minutes of driving around I pull up to Tamisha’s apartment. She lives on the second floor of a house. Despite the temperature being in the lows teens, several young men are sitting on her porch.

“You see that shit?” Tamisha says, pointing to them. “They don’t even live here. That’s what I have to put up with.”

“I’ll wait until you get inside,” I say.

“Let me call Ralph.”

Tamisha gets a hold of her husband and a minute later the front door opens. “ Now I can go in,” she says. “Thanks for the lift.”

“See you tomorrow,” I say.

“Be careful going home.”

Tamisha walks past the men on her porch and go inside without saying a word. Then I notice all the guys on the porch are looking at me. Makes sense. I’m a stranger in their neighborhood. If the tables were turned I’d wonder what the hell they were doing in my town. Fair? Of course not.

Ten minutes later I park in front of the cigar shop. “Hey, Steve,” Rich, the proprietor, says. “Enjoying the weather?”

“I just dropped a co-worker off in Newark. It’s even colder there.”

Rich’s eyes narrow. “Where in Newark?” I tell him.

“Promise me you’ll never do that again.”

“Why?”

“Are you fucking stupid? You know how many people get shot in that area? You have a baby on the way, don’t be an asshole.”

“I’ve been driving around Newark for years. I know the score.”

The proprietor flicks an ash of his cigar. “Steve, you are too nice. That’s your greatest weakness. If you got blown away your co-worker would be on T.V. saying, “He was such a nice man!” but you’d be dead. Fucking dead. What good would you be to your wife then?”

“I dated a girl in Harlem for years,” I say. “Nothing ever happened to me there.”

“Newark is not Harlem.”

I spend an hour at the shop and then go home. With no traffic it’s fifteen minutes from my house to Tamisha’s but we might as well be on different planets. As I look at my pregnant wife sleeping Rich’s words ring in my ears. “You’re too nice.”

People have told me the same thing before. While it’s true suburbanites have overblown fears about the “inner city” Newark isn’t a playground. I know a guy whose cousin was carjacked at gunpoint on McCarter Highway. But my personality has gotten me into some interesting situations over the years and most people told me I was crazy afterwards. I guess I have one of those “where angels fear to tread” things going on.

I shrug to myself. Was I irresponsible taking Tamisha home? I have a kid to think about. Should I be a little more cautious? Do I have to change how I’m wired? If I’m honest, I like that part of myself. But will I pay a price for it one day? Thinking about poverty, race, inequality and my own shortcomings, I turn on the boob tube to shut off my buzzing brain.

Thinking about it will only take me to a place I’d rather not go.

The Greatest Casualty

It’s 10:00 PM and I’m sitting in the day room of the psych unit writing my patient notes. Because the hospital’s somewhat antediluvian, I have to scribble them out by hand. Unfortunately a Medicare auditor recently complained she couldn’t read my chicken scratch so my boss advised me improve my penmanship. Abandoning the cursive scrawl of my youth, I slowly print words like disorganized, delusional, and confabulating with the care of a medieval monk transcribing an illuminated manuscript. Well, you can almost read it.

After half an hour of writing the arthritis in wrist suddenly flares up. As I massage it I look around the unit. Half the patients are watching television and the other half are zonked out in their rooms. We have a fairly mixed group of patients this evening – schizophrenics, depressives, two really far out bi-polars, a demented old woman and someone the docs haven’t figured out yet. Most of our clients are “frequent flyers” which means I see them over and over again.

“Can I talk to you?” a voice behind me says.

I turn around. It’s Gustavo, a paranoid schizophrenic we admitted three days ago. “Sure Gustavo,” I say. “What’s up?”

“They’re watching me you know. I’m worried all the time.”

“Who is watching you?”

“Them,” he says pointing to the ceiling. “There’s cameras everywhere.”

Gustavo is absolutely right. With the exception of the patients’ rooms and the showers, the entire unit is blanketed with CCTV cameras. We’ve made no effort to hide them.

“The cameras are there for your safety and mine,” I say.

Occasionally a patient tries tearing the unit apart. If there isn’t time to reach a panic button or call for help, the theory is the security guys will see the fracas on their screens and come running. But the reality is the cameras are there to watch me. Assaults, neglect and sexual abuse perpetuated by staff are not unknown in the mental health world.

“But my phone’s tapped,” Gustavo says. “The government is watching me through the television. They got drones, man. Robots! They watch me from the sky.”

When I started working psych twenty-four years ago everything Gustavo’s saying would be patently ridiculous. Now it’s not. Governments monitor our emails, listen to our phone calls, use drones to look for terrorists and have the ability to watch us surreptitiously though our computer’s camera. The police scan our license plates with high speed readers, track us down through our cell phones and use Google Earth when planning a raid on a crackhouse. It’s not paranoid to think Big Brother is watching you when he is watching you.

This has ramifications for dealing with the clinically paranoid. You can’t say, “It’s all in your head, now take your meds.” Mentally ill does not mean stupid. My patients read the papers. They see how privacy is being eroded in our hyper connected world. Paranoia is a “thought process heavily influenced by fear and anxiety, often to the point of irrationality and delusion.” Well, how many of your “sane” friends spin conspiracy theories about how the government is using the Internet to watch our every move? How many times have you heard a parent worry about their kid doing something stupid online that will be digitally archived forever and scare off potential mates or employers? Twenty years ago such thoughts were for the tin-foil hat crowd. Now we’re all thinking them. We’ve entered the era of Paranoia 2.0. So instead of bullshitting my patients, I’m straight with them.

“Yes, Gustavo,” I say. “We live in a world where a lot of what we do can be recorded and analyzed. The police use drones and the CIA can tap people’s phones. You’re totally right and there’s a lot of debate about it. But let me ask you, why do you think they’re after you personally?”

“I don’t know.”

“You up to something? Planning to overthrow the government?”

“No man, I’m straight up American. I tried to join the Army.”

If you’re not doing anything illegal I doubt they’re looking at you.”

“But they’re everywhere.”

“I worry about that stuff too,” I say. “But when worrying about it screws up your life, when you start yelling at people and don’t trust anybody, not even your own mother, then something’s wrong.”

“But my Mom called the cops on me!” Gustavo says. “She’s in on it!”

“She’s looking out for you, man,” I say. “She doesn’t want you to get hurt. Listen, when you take your meds do you have paranoid thoughts?”

“Not as much.”

“You keep taking those meds and you’ll be outta here in no time,” I say. “Just relax. You’re safe with us. Okay?”

Gustavo shuffles off, not looking convinced. He’s only been here a few days and the drugs we’re giving him haven’t fully kicked in yet. But I fear the increasing omniscience of modern technology is just exacerbating the suspiciousness Gustavo’s illness inflicts on him.

I’ve written previously about how uneasy our brave new world makes me. Just the other day a college kid told me how she submits her term papers through a system called Turnitin, a computer system designed to sniff out plagiarism. But when she told me how her school’s “Office of Academic Integrity” occasionally suspended innocent students tripped up by the system’s unfeeling algorithms, I thought of Orwell’s Winston Smith toiling away at the Ministry of Truth. I also watched this kid happily use free services like Twitter and Facebook on her phone, blissfully unaware that nothing’s free and the data stream she’s producing is being sold for profit.

My shift finished, I go home to find the baby sleeping in her crib and Annie passed out with her iPad glowing softly in her lap. Feeling uneasy I pour a finger of Scotch into a tumbler and flop down on the living room couch. As I feel the liquor burn a path down my throat I turn on the television, but the jabbering talking heads disgust me and I switch it off. Thumbing on my smartphone, I check my email. My mother has sent me some disturbing news. A mentally ill homeless guy stabbed a man to death in my old hometown.

The daughter of the man who was killed was a friend of my sister-in-law. Scanning the news reports I read a sad and familiar story. The homeless man’s territory was a strip mall. He slept in a restaurant and washed his clothes at the neighboring Laundromat. Clean and presentable he never caused any trouble. Then the restaurant closed and he was forced to live in a boarding home in a bad part of town. He deteriorated after that. Probably went off his meds. Now a man is dead, one month before his was to meet his first grandchild.

I think of Gustavo. Most mentally ill people don’t commit acts of violence, but when they’re off their meds and actively hallucinating bad things can happen. I know this because patients have sent me to the ER more times than I care to remember. Untreated, Gustavo could end up preyed upon or commit violence himself. And when he’s discharged he’ll probably end up in a boarding home just like that assailant.

The reason so many of my patients are frequent flyers is that they don’t have a decent place to live. Families are often unable to cope with them so discharged patients go to boarding homes, halfway houses and shelters. Some of these programs are good, but many of them are run by lazy incompetents more interested in profiting from government contracts than providing care and supervision. Assaults and abuse are common. Patients have their medications stolen and sold on the streets.

Deinstitutionalization, the closing of mental hospitals nationwide and moving the patients into the “community” has been a disaster. In 1955 the U.S. had 300 hospital beds for every 100,000 people. Now the national average is around 15, with some states barely having 5. As a result the penal system has become the largest provider of psychiatric services in the country and deadly encounters between the police and mentally ill are daily news. When I was on my honeymoon in San Diego I was stunned by the legions of homeless psych cases wandering the streets. They all didn’t need to be locked up but a large number of them required constant care. We need to be building mental hospitals not closing them.

But let’s face it, as a nation we’ve thrown these people away. They’re shadows – modern versions of untouchables. Who care what happens to them? If you watch television commercials you’ll see where our priorities now lie. We’re constantly enticed by young and shiny people to enthusiastically embrace the promise of the Digital Age, Have you ever seen that commercial for American Express? A well dressed hipster in a coffee shop buys an expensive bauble online and gets a fraud alert on her phone. After confirming her purchase was legit, she leans back in her chair with a smug blissed out look on her face while the announcer proclaims, “This is what membership is. This is what membership does.” Hey, I don’t like people ripping me off either, but Amex is using the same systems that allow governments and corporations to hoover up every byte of information about us they can find. Don’t believe me? Apply for life insurance. The underwriters know all about you. We’re in danger of becoming just ones and zeros. Data. A commodity. A product observed, dissected and quantified with inhuman precision. The problem is that commodities are used up and thrown away. Just like the mentally ill. Just like Gustavo.

Technology has given us many gifts but it has now enabled Orwell’s dark vision to threaten us in ways even he couldn’t have imagined. The interconnectedness of human beings is being replaced with a pale digital imitation – to the detriment of empathy and compassion and to the advantage of those who exploit us. We are being forced into digital cocoons that foster self-interest and consumption. People like Gustavo have no chance in this world. If we’re not careful we’ll create a new breed of people like him.

I finish my drink. Maybe I’ve been working around paranoid people too long. but dealing with the mentally ill has made me feel their pain in my gut. A veteran co-worker always tells the new recruits, “Imagine what it’s like to be them. No one likes them. No one wants to sit with them, take them to dinner or let them into their homes. They’re passed on the streets like they’re nothing everyday.” The answer is to take care of them, to protect the least among us. That’s what membership in the human race means. That’s what membership does. But we’re not doing it. Worrying about the world my daughter will inherit I realize why I feel uneasy.

The greatest casualty of 1984 was human love.

.

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.”