I’m agnostic on the subject of Supreme Beings. One may exist. One may not. You can’t “prove” either proposition unless you turn off part of your brain – popular option though that has been.
Despite this uncertainty, I attend church. God doesn’t have to exist to be important.
But I’m a complete atheist when it comes to the Cult of the Baby.
You know what I mean. Some parents – and they’re rarely poor – project all their anxiety about life onto their child: Little Numkins must be actively nurtured and protected in every way: only organic food, only private schools, only rigidly-scheduled after-school activities, and on and on.
The Cult is strong in Santa Cruz, particularly in the neighborhoods where live the high-tech meritocrats and scholastic brahmins. We’ve had a couple of vivid crimes in Santa Cruz lately, and every time the cultists cry: “Our children aren’t safe!”
But unless your two-year-old likes to loiter outside the Red Room bar at 1:30 on a Saturday morning and argue with Watsonville gang-bangers, Little Numkins has little to worry about. Ditto your ten-year-old sitting alone in the dead of night at an isolated bus stop in a deserted industrial neighborhood, with a laptop in one hand.
So I look somewhat askance at the eight- or twelve-wheeled infant limos cruising the aisles at New Leaf Market where the parents plunk down a couple of hundred bucks for two bags of organic groceries.
Yes, I’m old; I’ve joined the Old Scouts. I’m working on my Grumpiness Badge. It’ll go next to my Ukelele Achievement pin.
But I couldn’t help but feel for the woman pushing the the tandem baby carriage into line behind me at the checkout counter. It held two identical, pink-cheeked tots of no small weight. I couldn’t tell you what sex they were; to me, at that age, they all look like Hello Kitty.
And the mother wore simple, casual clothing that my Santa Cruz eyes saw had cost a lot of money; her teeth were even and white, her hair glowed, Her skin gleamed with a lifetime of care and good health. Bare delts bulged competently with the strain of pushing 100 pounds of child and gear sideways, so that her carriage would fit into the narrow passage between check stands.
She had a lot going for her. But I looked into those eyes and saw exhaustion, and whelming terror. “BABY!” the eyes shouted “BABY! BABY! BABY! BABY!” Parenthood hit her between the eyes like a ball peen hammer. It was demanding, vast, never-ending, and paid poorly. It blotted out the rest of the world. And all she knew to do right now, it seemed to me, was keep putting one foot in front of the other. Heroes make their reputations on little more than that.
So perhaps at that point I felt more kindly toward the Cult. And when a clerk stepped up to the empty check-out stand next door and called out, “NEXT IN LINE, PUH-LEEZE,” I told the young mother to go in my place. She thanked me and arduously turned the heavy carriage in its own circumference. It was painful to watch: not a three-point turn. More like five or six.
And just as the nose wheel approached the check stand, a pickle-faced man zipped in front of her and dumped a pile of groceries on the counter. He assiduously avoided looking at the young mother. She sighed: all that work, and nothing gained. But she kept silent.
Now, my wife can lecture persuasively on the aberrant behavior of males in supermarkets. She says they grow panicky among the aisles and racks, and aim to escape with their finds as quickly as possible. I see the truth in this; and it’s also possible that, on a bad day, I might do the same as the pickle-faced man.
But the elderly gentleman with his pickle face had taken self-absorption to a high plateau that even the Cult of the Baby, in the desperation of its acolytes, might never approach.
“God,” I prayed fervently to the being who might or might not be there, “let that man never be me. Cult of the Baby notwithstanding.”
You need something to do with emotions like that, when they come. A supreme being’s as good a place to put them as any. Even if not real. Staring at a wall and counting your breaths works, too; but it can be hard to find a good wall when you need one.
As for the Cult of the Baby, I’ll reclass it as a temporary insanity that is necessary for the continuance of the race, at least in this weird and disconnected time when all the aunts and sisters and grandmothers that once helped new mothers are scattered across thousands of expensive miles and immersed in their own troubles. And when you really can’t trust what the multinationals are putting in the baby food, and when husbands still don’t pick up their share of the load, promise though they might.
And when the Cultists cry, “Our children aren’t safe!” I’ll answer silently to myself, no, but they never were and never will be, not beyond all possible risk. But bless you all anyway.