Restaurant Movies to Binge Watch

I needed to get my mind off the trash fire known as this election, so I’ve been watching movies.  I’ve recently taken refuge in films that appeal to at least some part of the restaurant milieu and felt, basically, why the hell not?  Have blog, will listicle.  In no particular order, here goes:

1. Dinner Rush is me, was me, and speaks to the dark 1990s pre-fame heavy drinking Anthony Bourdain in all service professionals.  From the perfection of its narrative arc, which covers one chaotic dinner shift at the restaurant (which also happened to be owned by the director – talk about no need for location scouting), the above-the-fray bartender, the crew’s polyamory, and demanding guests, I remember leaving the theater with a warm feeling.  It was similar to the warm feeling I got as a kid watching the Charlie Brown Christmas special, where they sang carols together at the end.  I also wanted a drink, a cigarette, and to call my bookie after I saw the movie, but that’s another story.

2. Big Night boils down to, Team Primo or Team Secondo?  As someone who’s spent most of his career in the front of the house, but who also knows enough about the back to have established bona fides with my chef friends, I’m firmly Team Secondo.  The figurative somersaults both brothers had to execute to save their restaurant spoke to me, particularly as a failed independent restauranteur myself.  But, sadly, without either Isabella Rosellini or Minnie Driver.

Quick story for the Team Primo people, especially those who, like me, loved the risotto scene at the beginning; close second, Chef Udo in Dinner Rush saying sausage and peppers were not on his menu.  I once worked at a seafood restaurant near Union Square, working every station from prep to pantry (cold apps, desserts) to sauté and grill.  We were a small crew, but we worked our asses off and believed in our chef’s vision for the place: namely, be a consistently good upscale fish shack.  Consequently, buerre blanc in its many and depredated forms was verboten.

Enter the Dowager Empress, whom I’ll call D for simplicity’s sake.  D was a Kip’s Bay divorcee in her 60s with a rat dwarf dog in a carrier, thick plastic framed glasses straight out of an episode of Rhoda, and firm ideas about what she did and didn’t like in food.  Among the more PG-rated bets the staff took were what 1970s pseudo-French “classic” D would ask for each Friday, when she dined at a table towards the back with her companion furball.  Our salmon dish had a pistachio crust, was seared on a screaming hot pan then finished in the oven, then served with a schmear of pesto and lemon-rosemary roasted fingerling potatoes.  Nope.  D wanted plainly grilled salmon (okay so far) with mashed potatoes (nope, and she did not like our parsnip puree either, so we had to break out the ricer) and haricots verts (double nope, but we did have Austrian winter peas that would suffice); finally, she wanted it with (gasp, choke) buerre blanc.  I would’ve been proud to serve a dish like this if, let’s say, I worked in a banquet hall serving 100 people at a time.  But an 80-seat neighborhood restaurant?  Thankfully, D and the server couldn’t hear the chef invite them to have carnal relations with themselves, then barrage the crew with orders: “Fire table 31!  Sam, get some grill marks on a salmon, then kill it in the oven.  Dan, you’re on mashed potatoes and veg.  Do any of you remember how to make fuckin’ buerre blanc from culinary school – you do? – awesome, new guy, you just volunteered, get wine from the bar.  Order 3 salmon, 2 filet med-rare, and 1 crab burger after that.”  And so it went.  We didn’t have to like it, but ultimately, like Primo and Secondo, we just had to execute as best we could.

3.The Blues Brothers makes the list for this scene, which distills the risks and rewards of working the front door of any high end restaurant with demanding guests.  Until I joined a company with a strict social media policy, I roasted staff and guests alike on Twitter with the hashtag #restauranting.

4. Eat Drink Man Woman and its American remake, Tortilla Soup, both of which I appreciate far more now as a parent, than I did as a single unattached man.  At first, I just enjoyed watching the loving care these films’ protagonists put into their food.  The quiet tension at the dinner table, things left unsaid, and love shown through food rather than verbally, could have been taken from the home of any old-school chef.  In my recent viewings, I saw Chefs Chu and Martin attempt to reach out to their grown daughters after being absent for most of their lives (an occupational hazard for those of us who work nights, weekends, and most major holidays), the chefs needing to lean on their daughters after being widowed, but not knowing how to ask for help; and so, like many older chefs, they express themselves the only way they know, with food.

I worked with a chef who never had a kind word for anyone in either the front or back of the house, save the owner.  If Chef questioned your parentage, insulted your intelligence and/or manhood, or threatened to rip out your eyes and skull-fuck you when you messed up an order, that meant he liked you.  Whenever Chef’s wife called the restaurant, his responses were invariably monosyllabic (yeah, no, hmm, oh), the calls seldom lasting more than about thirty seconds.  Then on Christmas Eve, she brought their kids for dinner, and every member of the team nudged each other: did you slip a mickey in Chef’s coffee or something?  This isn’t the same ornery cuss we’ve worked with.  This chef allowed his son to take over the sauté station for a bit, teaching the boy how to flip the contents of a pan and catch them again.  This chef expedited the busy first part of dinner with one infant daughter in his arms, his older daughter next to him and calling orders to the cooks like her old man.  And, because Christmas is for miracles, we saw him smile.  The whole scene would’ve been heart-rending if his smile weren’t so damn scary.

5. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover.  Heyy, Helen Mirren.  How you doin’?  I mean, she’s still striking, and this film was made almost 30 years ago.  It also boasts two of my favorite actors, Michael Gambon and Ciarán Hinds, long before they became Lyndon Johnson and Julius Caesar, respectively.  I worked for an Albert Spica, though not nearly as sadistic or thuggish; his nightly retinue of wannabe Mafiosi, tough guys who’d probably weep at the first sign of blood, and brainless sycophants, reminded me of several scenes from this film.  What gets conveyed in the earlier restaurant scenes, if stylistically, is the pride the staff takes in hospitality.  When any restaurant runs well, there is a buzzing.  That buzzing is hospitality, making sure guests’ needs are fulfilled, hopefully in as seamless a manner as possible and without guests’ noticing many overt acts of service.  As much as I gripe about this business, that buzzing of hospitality is the dopamine that keeps me hooked.

6. Tampopo and The Ramen Girl will jog any restaurant pro’s memory to the time when they underwent some painstaking apprenticeship, whether as a stage or extern in a kitchen, or a busboy hoping to be promoted to waiter.  At this stage of my career, I’ve become Goro or Maezumi, than Tampopo or Abby, training every front-of-house position from busboy to manager, but the sentiment is the same.  You take pleasure, and no small pride, seeing that neophyte succeed.  Tampopo also has a ridiculously young Ken Watanabe as a sidekick, which I hardly appreciated until my last viewing.  Watch for the noodles.  Stay for the sappy ending of the Brittany Murphy film.

7. No list like this could be complete without Ratatouille, the Pixar classic of the cooking rat.  Another film about striving in the restaurant business, with the added benefit of the late, great Peter O’Toole as a restaurant critic.  And Sheriff Cobb Brian Dennehy as Remy’s father.  When a Korean child turns one year old, a doljabi is the main attraction towards the end of the birthday fete.  A number of items are laid out in front of the child, and the first item the child grabs may guide the child’s destiny.  The items vary, but often include a string for long life, a judge’s mallet, a book, money, or a hammer.  When my son turned one, and because I have a warped sense of humor, I borrowed a serving spoon from the banquet hall and added that to the other items.  When it came time for my son’s doljabi, with both grandmothers waving $20 bills at him in the hopes that he’d be rich someday, he proved to be a chip off the old block and took the spoon.  His grandmothers looked crestfallen.  I smiled with quiet pride until my wife smacked me in the arm.  And wouldn’t you know, my son’s favorite pastime – besides Minecraft, duh – is helping me cook dinner on my days off.

And now for some of the least favorite, both in terms of realism and general watchability.  With that said, however, these are also films I’ll readily admit to hate-watching, but like a date with an ex, I’ll feel bad about myself the next day.

1.  Spanglish

2. No Reservations

3. Burnt

4. Simply Irresistible




An Asian American Soldier Reflects on Private Danny Chen

The subtitle to this should be “The Death of the NCO Corps.”  This is a post I didn’t want to write, if only because of certain memories I knew it would stir.  I’ve thought, what could I possibly have in common with two kids half my age, whom I’d never met, and who killed themselves in the place “where empires go to die?”  Quite a lot, actually, and it took another person I’ve never met to help me see the similarities.  Thank you for that, Captain Srinivasan.

Here I’ll concentrate more on Army Private Danny Chen than Marine Lance Corporal Harry Lew, mainly because the allegations of what happened to Lew, while shocking, are far less egregious than what happened to Chen.  This doesn’t make the situation surrounding Lew’s suicide less tragic by any means.  I’m no apologist for the Marines who hazed Lance Corporal Lew, but you just don’t fall asleep on guard duty while you’re in enemy territory, which could potentially jeopardize your unit.  You might deserve some punishment and extra duties or training, but as corrective action, not demeaning like what Lew had to suffer.

No one who has ever spent any amount of time in the infantry (not the 2 million or so in all ranks in all services, but the roughly 5% of those who fight their enemy in what we euphemistically call “close combat”) will tell you that it’s easy.  Far from it, and we even had a darkly funny motto: life is hard, welcome to the infantry, wear your helmet.  We take pride in marching 12 miles with a rifle, helmet, and rucksack in less than three hours, training unrelentingly during field exercises with live ammunition, hitting 36 out of 40 targets out to 300 meters away with an M4, knowing by heart all nine lines of a  medical evacuation request.  As one of the few all-male specialties in the Army and Marine Corps, this is a place for Type-A personalities who lead either by personal example or “size 11 motivation,” occasionally both, though leadership by screaming is not unheard of.  The infantry is not for the imaginative, physically or mentally weak, or faint-hearted; this sort is usually culled in a pitiless military Darwinism before deploying, and might find gainful employment in a support specialty.  It is an unforgiving environment where strength and physicality are valued and respected, but also remarkably welcoming once you’ve proven yourself.  One of the proudest moments of my infantry career is when I was first called a “mother******,” the ultimate term of endearment and acceptance.

Let the “pogues” (People Other than Grunts) have their sprawling forward operating bases (FOBs) with air conditioning, dining facilities with salad bars and soft-serve ice cream, shuttle buses, even Starbuck’s and Pizza Hut.  The average infantry soldier or Marine lives outside the FOB, sustained by only what he can carry in his assault pack, not even bathing or brushing his teeth because that precious water will be needed for drinking; besides, water is heavy, trust me.  It’s almost a Lord of the Flies existence, but by necessity.  The weak link who can’t meet the unit’s standard for push ups, or falls out of a five-mile run in garrison, might not have the stamina or intestinal fortitude to carry a wounded 200-pound mate out of the line of fire.  That under-performer might not be able to hike over two mountains with a 100-pound pack, plus 60 pounds of body armor and ammo and weaponry, then engage the enemy in a firefight at the end of the march, when he’s so tired that his very bones hurt.  We are not the heroes of a Tom Clancy whiz-bang high-tech thriller, and we will never kill someone with our bare hands like some ninja or super-spy.  We’re the guys with uniforms so nasty they could stand up by themselves, who would fight with our teeth and toenails to keep the boys in our platoon alive, who fight secure in the knowledge that the guy next to us will, if need be, take a bullet for us.

I mention all this because it informs non-infantry people what “grunts” do for a living.  It isn’t all dress green (now blue, alas) uniforms, drill and ceremonies, or even the now-passé tradition of shined boots.  Let’s also not forget, most importantly, that anything deemed out of the ordinary, not “normal” for that unit or in that moment of time, is easy fodder.  This appears to be what happened to Chen in an almost all-white unit.  For Asian American soldiers like me, it could mean getting pummeled by good ol’ boys at the Hidden Door bar at Ft. Benning, GA, because they could, and because I wasn’t one of them, a white Southerner.  It could mean the snide or malicious comments that many of us withstood for years, because we actually exceeded their low expectations of any Asian American soldier.  As much as I hate quoting my father, he was right in that you have to be better than them, for them to see you as an equal.  And when that happens, as it did for me (mostly), I just became Sergeant Kim and that was the end of it.

I see young Chen, and see myself twenty years ago.  Maybe not the best runner, maybe not the most tactically or technically proficient, but certainly not the worst and deserving of the treatment he received.  From all accounts, he was, like me, a kid who tried, and could have only gotten better with time and better mentoring.  Thankfully, I was never hazed because of my race; many of the noncommissioned officers (NCOs, corporal and above) who brought me up were either black or Hispanic, and didn’t have the time to tolerate such stupidity in their units.  This didn’t prevent the odd bar fight here or there, but that was always off-post, never part of any official duties.  What this signified, at least to me then, was that it was just a few knuckleheads – not the US Army as a whole.  Once I became an NCO myself, I hardly ever encountered it, and would come crashing down on anyone who tried to mess with an Asian American “joe,” or junior soldier.

And that brings me (finally) to the point of this post: where were Chen’s NCOs?  Digging deeper, what happened to what we call the NCO Chain of Support, which is supposed to mirror the Chain of Command and be a guiding/calming force for any unit?  The closest civilian analogue I can think of is that of a foreman vs. manager when describing NCO vs. officer roles within a unit.  When I first became an NCO, I had to learn this creed by heart, and I still have that in me as much as the Ranger Creed.  As one of my instructors at “Sergeant School,” or PLDC, said, the first stanza of the NCO Creed differentiates us from any jumble of so-called sergeants as can be found in most of the world’s militaries.  At the risk of sounding like an old fogie retired soldier, NCOs took pride in being NCOs in my day.  We would think nothing of ensuring our words and actions could only be perceived as the standard to which our junior soldiers should aspire.  If I maxed the push ups in the physical fitness test, I expected my joes to match that; if my joes didn’t have the skills or knowledge they needed, then I as their NCO and primary trainer was responsible.  What happened, then, that there are no less than four NCOs among the eight charged in Chen’s death?

From the available sources, it seems as if the NCOs in Chen’s unit either turned a blind eye or took an active part in what might have started as hazing, but became infinitely more sinister and crushing.  Indeed, Chen’s entire platoon chain of command, from team leader to squad leader to platoon leader, has been charged in his death.  If the charges prove true, that begs a deeper question.  Above the platoon, which is roughly 30 soldiers led by a lieutenant and a midlevel NCO, comes the company.  The company can have three or four platoons, is led by a captain and a senior NCO, and if a platoon can be likened to a family, then the company is your extended family and the battalion is your clan.  And nothing happens in 2nd Platoon that you don’t eventually hear about in 1st or 3rd, even if the platoons are separated by up to ten kilometers and live on separate FOBs.

Since this is the case more often than not, I would like to see if the company’s commander and first sergeant are or are not being held accountable along with the 8 men who’ve been charged.  If a platoon leader and platoon sergeant, the two most senior men in that subunit, are charged, then wouldn’t it be fair to assume that their superiors, the commander and first sergeant, had some inkling of what was happening?  They are, after all, responsible for the company as a whole, which included Private Chen’s platoon.  Above even them are the battalion’s commander and command sergeant major, each with up to twenty years’ service and supposedly old enough to remember what goes on at the platoon level.  Who are they and will there be any kind of accounting for their actions or inaction?

Soldiers and former soldiers talk about a “failure of leadership” all the time.  I’d heard of such failures, but had never seen one or read about one until now.  If my boy were to follow in my footsteps and join the Army, what should I tell him about the leadership of the service I still cherish?  What should I tell him about the service I love, which allowed this utter failure of leadership that leaves me sad and disappointed?  Should I, twenty years hence, tell him to be twice as good to be seen as a white soldier’s equal?  Should I tell him to become an officer so that he won’t have to experience anything like Chen or Lew as a junior enlisted man, and in doing so perpetuate the endless Asian American class discrimination against enlisted folks?  Or will he, as I did, not worry about all that, and serve his country anyway?

We’re having a girl!

Wow, it’s been how long since my last post?  Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.  In my defense, though, I’ve had quite an eventful month and a half, full of wedding preparations for my brother in law, hit-and-miss potty training, increasingly frequent tantrums (his, not mine), and of course, work.  I’ve been like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest, and I’m afraid that 4am starts and 12 hour days, coupled with an annoying commute, haven’t allowed for much writing, either here or for my book.  After finally getting a chance to read older posts on this blog, and some fiction I wrote several years back, it’s like visiting an old friend and having a cup of coffee with him.

To make a long story short, Ryan is going to be a big brother next March.  We found out back in early July, but didn’t want to jinx anything by announcing it to the world before my wife’s second trimester began in earnest.  What we didn’t count on, even though it’s essentially a 50% shot, was that we’re going to have a girl.  I found out via a photo message from my wife when she left her doctor’s office, and the telltale was the smiley face of the ultrasound done in pink marker.  While I regret not being there in person, as I was when we found out Ryan’s gender, I felt the same wonder and shock, a helpless smile for the rest of the day.  And a mental note to buy several guns, preferably of different calibers, before she starts dating; this way I can use the assault rifle out to 300 meters away, and a shotgun and pistol for close-in work.

Now, of course, comes the hard part, having him understand the idea of having a sister.  We’ve brought the subject up, but even the notion of a sibling is understandably not real for him yet.  I doubt it will be, until we have a crying little one in the house, and he wonders why Omma and Appa are tired all the time.   What horrifies him, I think, is the possibility that he’ll have to share the people he depends on most.  Share Omma and Appa with little sister?  No sweat, sis, you can have ’em.  But share his grandfather and his grandmothers, though?  I asked him about this, and he gave me a long pause, followed by a very loud, very authoritative “No!”  I got a look like “what are you smoking for even suggesting such a ludicrous thing?”  He’s gotten used to the pregnancy, we think, and there’s no getting around the fact that Omma’s belly is growing.  He knows that something called little sister is in Omma’s belly, and he might suspect that his hold on top-dog status in the family is in jeopardy, but that’s about it.

We’re going to have a little girl, though.  Holy crap!  Years ago I was at a barbecue, whose host had twin daughters who were maybe 3 or 4 at the time.  My host said that those little girls were God’s revenge on him for being a man.  His other pearl of wisdom was that he lived in perpetual fear that, one of these days, his girls would bring home teenaged knuckleheads who reminded him of himself – and were therefore worthy of a double-ought buckshot shell to the face.  We all laughed at him, this badass Army Ranger and veteran of Panama, who was such a pushover for his daughters.  But now, as the prospective father of a future young lady, I understand Sergeant M.  I know that’s jumping too far ahead, but it’ll always be in the back of my mind, reminding me when I least expect.

As an only child, I can readily identify with Ryan as prince of the house.  With that said, I have exactly zero experience with a brother.  Sure, there are a handful of men with whom I feel as close as a brother, if not closer; by and large I met them as an adult, we didn’t give each other shiners over toys or perceived slights.  I sincerely hope I’ll be a good father to more than one.  I don’t want to allow even the perception of preference of one child over the other, though before #2 shows up there’s no way to be certain.  I hope that he won’t be too jealous, or do what some friends’ toddlers have done to their little siblings: throw toys into the bassinet, make loud noises RIGHT HERE next to the baby’s ear, try to tip the bassinet over, or become more cantankerous because he feels left out in some way.

The other side of all this is the girly aspect, which I also don’t have any experience with, but which my wife and both grandmothers can’t wait for.  Especially the clothes part, which guarantees that everyone will bankrupt themselves on cute little-girl outfits that she might wear once or twice before outgrowing.  I’m all for that, and she could be a calming influence on her “oppa” or big brother.  Among my paternal duties (at least, as I see it) are a responsibility to teach my daughter how to throw a solid punch, that boys with face piercings are not to be trusted.  And if a boy hits you, it doesn’t mean he likes you, you hit him back harder, make him cry.

I also hope that I don’t get wrapped around my daughter’s little finger, like what happened with Sergeant M long ago.  I hope that she doesn’t bring home a boy with multiple body piercings who will deserve a long, gruesome death.

Helpless Fear

I was at work when my wife called me.  She doesn’t do that often, usually it’s just text messages to see how my day (or night) is going, and checking to make sure I ate (which I don’t do often enough, odd considering I run restaurants for a living).  She sounded surprisingly calm, but Ryan was crying really loud in the background.  She explained that Ryan had been dancing around the living room, then lost his footing and fell on his right arm.  When he stood back up, he was holding his arm funny, and every time she tried to touch it, or if he tried to move it, he screamed.

Ryan was still screaming, the kind with long pauses for breath that tell a parent a child is in excruciating pain.  I told her to take him to the ER, and I’d meet them there.  I also told my wife to take him to the hospital where he was born, not the two public hospitals closest to us.  We’d dealt with those two other hospitals and their chancre mechanics often enough during her dads’s illnesses, that I was willing to have her drive an extra 15 minutes to get better care for Ryan.

I didn’t do anything stupid like speed or drive recklessly, even though I was sorely tempted to; other drivers on the Cross Island and the LIE make my normal commute an exercise in defensive driving anyway, so why beard the lion?  When I got there, I could hear him before I made the two left turns from the elevator into the pediatric ER.  Two other children were crying, but I’ve heard that a man knows the sound of his kid’s cries.  It’s true, and I didn’t even ask the nurse where my son was.

My mother in-law was lying on a gurney, holding him against her chest, with his blankie covering his back.  His hair was wet and matted down with sweat, and little trails of tears ran down his cheeks.  He was holding on to Hami with his left arm, but his right was bent and tight against his torso.  I wish I could say that he saw me, heard me tell him “Omma is here, Appa is here, Hami is here, everything’s okay,” and calmed down.  I did say that, but to no effect.  He kept looking at me, or at my wife, or my mother in-law, and saying “please” between gasps and cries.  A nurse had already given him liquid Tylenol, but it wasn’t working yet.  What really broke my heart, though, was when he started saying, “Appa, we go home now!”

I’m a combat veteran and have been in countless situations that, suffice it to say, left me wondering how I’m still breathing and relatively whole.  I was scared then, but that was always a kind of healthy fear.  This healthy fear raised my adrenaline level and kept me in a state of hyper-alertness through whatever crisis might have been happening.  As much as I tried to reassure my screaming son that everything would be all right, as much as we tried to put on brave faces for him, we were all scared.  This was a helpless fear I’m not used to, one where I’m absolutely powerless to affect the outcome, like shooting back at the enemy.  Here my enemy was whatever was causing Ryan pain, and like anyone else in an emergency room, we had to wait our turn.

There was a kind nurse who gave Ryan a Smurf toy and a Matchbox car from the peds ER’s stash, but that only distracted him for a minute or two.  I took over from my mother in-law, and tried rocking him from side to side like I used to at bedtime, but he was still crying.  Then it was time for x-rays, and I knew this wouldn’t be fun.  The radiologist asked Ryan if he wanted to go into the other room and take pictures, and of course he stopped crying long enough to nod and say yes.

Only one of us was allowed in, and it was me because I was the only one who could hold him down if necessary.  The radiologist had me lie him down on a platform, but allowed him to have his blankie over everything but his arms.  The room was dark, and the platform was metal and cold, so he cried out of fear this time, not pain.  The room was unfamiliar, and no matter how nice the x-ray techs were, they were still strangers to him.  The screaming really started, though, when they made me hold his right elbow flush against the platform, so they could take the x-rays.  Now it was pain.  “No, Appa, please!  I can’t do it!”  No amount of reassuring would do, and I felt like a horrible father for being a party to my son’s suffering.  Four on the injured side, then two on his uninjured left side for good measure, and thank God we were done.

He was tired, and back in the exam room, I was holding him and rocking him while he laid his cheek against my shoulder.  In the center of the ER we saw a doctor and some nurses looking at films of a small elbow, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out whose it was.  I slowly scooted closer but didn’t see what I feared, which was a fracture.  The doctor led me back inside, and told us that Ryan had nursemaid’s elbow, a minor elbow dislocation that is common in small active children, and easily fixed.  He said a nurse would grab Ryan’s elbow with one hand, his wrist in the other, then twist until they felt a pop when everything returned to where it belonged.  Sounded like when I dislocated my shoulder in Ranger School, and that had been neither fun nor painless, so I steeled myself.

They had me sit on the gurney facing the nurse, and Ryan, who’d been about to fall asleep, didn’t like that at all.  Ryan was now on my lap, with my left arm against his belly and right arm over his legs.  A nurse came over, said something soothing either for Ryan or us, I still don’t know which, then did his thing.  Of course, he screamed.  Pain again, big pain, but it was over more quickly than it takes to read this sentence, then the screaming stopped.  The doctor and nurse said we had to stay until Ryan could touch the top of his head with his right arm, which I didn’t think was likely — I mean, the little guy had just dislocated his elbow, you don’t bounce back that quick…

Or maybe you do if you’re two and a half.  Ryan almost immediately started using his right arm to reach for his mother and grandmother.  He even gave the nurse a tentative high-five.  In less than five minutes, with my knees starting to wobble from the adrenaline crash, my little man was jumping around the pediatric ER, high-fiving the staff, looking into other exam rooms, his natural and wonderful curiosity on full display.  “Appa,” he would say, pointing to something, “what’s that for?” They released us less than half an hour later.  It was a deluge outside, but who cared?  My little man was better and wouldn’t have to wear a cast for God knows how long.

If you ask him now, a few days later, why he went to the hospital, he’ll tell you “I had ay-ya [Korean kid-speak for boo-boo] in my arm.  All better now.”


Dylan on the left, Ryan on the right, mommies in the background to make sure they don't get into trouble

Our friends brought their son Dylan, Ryan’s erstwhile buddy, over for a visit.  I say “visit” because they weren’t over for a playdate, necessarily – they were in the neighborhood and probably wanted what any other parent of a toddler (and now an additional newborn) want: adult interaction.  The fact that our sons are relatively close in age and could play together was a bonus.

Since Ryan has proven allergic to both cleaning up and sharing, my wife had to sit him down for a serious one-on-one before Dylan and family came over.  My wife tried to explain it like this: “Ryan, Omma isn’t cleaning up.  Omma is just putting toys in a different place, so all your Thomas trains go here, your fire trucks and hundreds [not really, but there are a heck of a lot] of Matchbox cars go there…”  By the time my wife was done with that spiel, he was a wee bit confused, but willing to go along.

Next, she started on a lecture about the joys of sharing toys, how good boys share their toys with their friends, and by now he was completely befuddled.  Share?  Not Mr. Ryan, ruler of our house (appropriately and ironically, that really is the meaning of his name).  Only children, I’ve found, don’t share, at least at this age.  In the rare instances that I’ve seen Ryan “share,” he allowed another kid to play with one toy only, for an arbitrary amount of time that only Ryan knew; once the allotted time was up, he snatched the toy back, yelled at the other kid “don’t touch, my train/car/airplane/Elmo” and ran off into his bedroom.

Dylan and family came by, but I had to work, which was a huge bummer because I was looking forward to seeing them and holding the newborn – something about that new-baby smell, it beats new-car smell by far.

Ryan shared some, but not all, of his toys with Dylan.  The world did not end as a result, and there was much rejoicing.  I know they had fun, because toys had been scattered hither, yon, and between couch cushions.  My beautiful son, my progeny, my heir, proved to be more devious than I thought.  Instead of making a huge fuss, this time he quietly sidled up to Dylan, said something low (maybe even menacing, he is quite protective of what he thinks is “his” property, even my iPhone – I hope this doesn’t become a trend), then simply took the toy out of Dylan’s hand.  What was Dylan supposed to do?  Big boy rules, and Ryan at 30 months is almost as tall as a 4-year-old.  Dylan would pick up another toy, and the process would repeat.

Ryan is also developing a bit of a jealous streak.  Lord help us if we have another child, because my wife said he looked angry when he saw her holding Dylan’s little brother.  If you ask Ryan why he wants a little brother, he’ll say “little brother beat up” with his fists in the air like a prize fighter.  When it was time for them to leave, my wife asked Dylan for a hug.  Good boy that Dylan is, he hugged her leg.  Not to be outdone, Ryan ran over with potato-chip crusties all over the bottom half of his face, and hugged her other leg.  He even ventured a kiss, which he’s loathe to do unless it’s payment for ice cream.

When I got home from work, I asked Ryan if he had fun with Dylan ching-gu [Korean for friend].  I got a long half-coherent, half-gibberish discourse on how much fun they had together (even though I knew better), the chasing around the apartment, and chips and cookies were involved somehow.  He’s far too young to be this disingenuous, but apparently he had a blast and wants to do it again.

Here’s Your Sign

We’ve been going to (usually) one park and playground since before he could walk, mainly so he knows what it’s like to run and fall on grass, learn how to shove smaller kids out of his way to the slide, and not grow up with the chemical imbalance that NYC residents are supposed to have.

I work odd hours, so I’m able (and mostly willing) to take Ryan during the day, even if he’s developed every toddler’s Pavlovian response (i.e., freak out, jump for joy, drag unwilling parent to the side of a moving vehicle) to the ice cream truck’s bell.  One of that ice cream truck’s cousins does a circuit around our neighborhood, and since we live on an upper floor, I’ve long had a fantasy about taking it out with an RPG, but that’s for another post after I refill my Zoloft scrip…

At Bowne Park it isn’t uncommon to see other fathers, many of whom don’t do the traditional 9-to-5 thing either.  If anything, we’re worse than the mothers and grandmothers in that we don’t really socialize with each other except for a “hey” nod like back in high school, if we recognize each other from previous visits.  We also tend to indulge the kids’ penchant for rough play, or borderline-dangerous climbing, that would probably get us in hot water with the wives – c’est la guerre, ladies.

Is Bowne Park perfect?  No, it’s maintained by the city, with predictably inconsistent results, and there’s way too much concrete around the playground area.  Still and all, it’s barely a five-minute drive from home, there’s a manmade pond with geese and ducks that he terrorizes chases hither and yon, there’s a sprinkler that runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and he starts yelling “Park!  Park!” when he starts recognizing landmarks on our way there.

I’m not Superdad but I’m above average (cue Garrison Keillor from Prairie Home Companion), which leads me to the whole point of this post.  Part of comedian Bill Engvall’s act is his insistence that stupid people wear a sign, so that the rest of humanity knows to avoid them – well, there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of candidates here.

The other day, pushing their grandchildren on the kiddie swings, were two old men, sucking on cigs in defiance of the city’s new (but alas, unenforceable) law against smoking in city parks.  Full disclosure: I’ve been smoking since the Reagan Administration, but never around the kid, and I’ve cut back from two packs of unfiltered Lucky Strikes a day, years back, to one or two Marlboro Lights a day now.  The two geezers were taking great care to not exhale the smoke in their grandchildren’s direction, like that was going to keep the second-hand smoke away.  Funny how none of the other parents allowed their kids to ride the swings as long as those two old men were there.  Here’s your sign.

Today, a man who should be banned by the OSIA for perpetuating faux-mafioso stereotypes (slick hair, gold chains plural, shirt unbuttoned halfway over a pot belly, Adidas track pants) climbed up to the slide after his granddaughter with a lit cigar in his mouth.  Probably wondered why the rest of us evacuated our children like people on the Gulf Coast before a hurricane.  Here’s your sign.

Last month I saw a mother spending more time tapping on her phone than paying attention to her shrieking kid.  Said kid, maybe four or five years old, ran headlong into the path of the big-kid swings, with the inevitable crash.  While many of the other parents including me looked on in a kind of playground schadenfreude, she calmly finished typing her message before walking – not running – over to her now-crying son.  Here’s your sign.

Recently, I saw one of my own: Korean American, late 30s/early 40s, Ralph Lauren outfit, the kind of skinny guy with no muscle tone who looked like he’s never worked hard in life. I know, that’s harsh – sorry.  His clearly uncomfortable daughter looked like she was ready to jump out of her skin, wanted to play with the rest of the kids, some of whom were probably her friends, but he insisted on doing multiplication tables with her on a park bench.  What was she, maybe five years old?  Will this really increase your daughter’s chances of getting into a selective private school, followed by shoo-in status when she applies to Yale or Stanford?  Do you really want to inflict another bookwormish, socially inept Asian American cliché on the Tri-State Area?  Or are you so insecure in yourself that you need to feel validated by ensuring your daughter’s future therapist will be able to buy a yacht?  Here’s your sign.

Once in a while, we take him to the playground near my mother in-law’s store in Long Island.  It’s your typical upper-crust suburb: husband commutes on the Long Island Railroad because wife needs the Lexus or Beamer SUV during the day, borderline-illegal nanny working for cash under the table subversively teaches the children Spanish/Tagalog/Cantonese/Swahili while wife has her hair or nails done, children attend elementary schools that reflect well on Ivy League applications.  This isn’t a blanket indictment of all this town’s residents, but most.  In any event, I usually get odd looks from the mothers when we go to this playground.  For some it’s because of our race, but they’re far too genteel to say that; for others, it’s the questioning look of “why are you here instead of slaving 15 hours a day as a senior VP of something-or-other in the city?”  I remember a line from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: take away their money, and all that’s left is their impeccable manners.  One of them, and I wasn’t there for this, actually asked my wife if she was the nanny.  Sorry, I can’t top that with anything besides “wow.”  And these are supposedly the area’s more well educated people?  Here’s your sign.

Finally, to you, Mr. I-feel-the-need-to-hurl-loud-F-bombs-on-my-cell-phone-near-children-in-Bowne-Park.  Yes, you, the guy gesturing like you were conducting the Boston Pops while cursing over the phone within earshot of a dozen toddlers, my son among them.  Here’s your sign.

San Toki

I’ve been singing this to him nonstop for almost an hour… quick pause to catch my breath, drink water because I’m not used to singing so much, and curse at myself for not speaking Korean better, and for not being as good a singer as my son would probably expect from his old man.

Still, he knows the words and hand movements thanks to my mother in law, and he likes the song.  While we were singing, and I was hoping/praying that he’d start the inexorable process of naptime, I couldn’t help think back 12 years.

In DC at the time, two Iranian brothers who owned the sandwich shop next to the Guards, opened a fine dining restaurant called Tahoga, after the Native American name for the swamp that eventually became DC.  Jimmy Reppuhn, originally from Detroit with the requisite flat-vowel accent, late of the Ritz-Carlton Shanghai, was the executive chef.  I only mention Shanghai because Chef Jimmy liked to curse at us servers in whatever gutter Cantonese his former employees there had taught him, and it made for some interesting Socratic dialogue between him and our primarily Tunisian bussers and runners.  They, in turn, of course, taught him how to say “your mother likes to mate (come on, this is a PG blog… okay, maybe PG-13) with donkeys with big male appendages” in both Berber and Arabic, but that’s a story for another time…

One of Jimmy’s summer-of-’99 menu staples was his roasted rabbit loin.  It was a beautiful dish, so good that when we lowly employees were allowed to taste it for the first time, it was like Night of the Living Dead, servers scrambling for bread to sop up the jus.  The loin was wrapped in maple wood-smoked bacon, then roasted for almost a full hour to let the bacon infuse into the loin.  It was cut on the bias, the much-coveted (by both cooks and servers) ends also cut off so the two loin halves stood up in a shallow bowl, then surrounded by a fresh corn-lima succotash.  The roasting pan was deglazed with a little chicken stock and white wine, mounted with butter, then spooned around the succotash.d

Like I said, pretty dang tasty, and I would sell more than most during my brief stint there.  Which brings me back to the original premise of this post, which is… does thinking about Jimmy’s old rabbit dish while singing to my son about frolicking mountain rabbits make me somehow… evil?

Still not naptime, so time to stop typing and put the little booger to bed.