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Second in Command

At some point in the last few decades, the American male sat down at the negotiating table with the American female and -- let us be frank -- got fleeced. The agreement he signed foisted all sorts of new paternal responsibilities on him and gave him nothing of what he might have expected in return. Not the greater love of his wife, who now was encouraged to view him as an unreliable employee. Not the special love from his child, who, no matter how many times he fed and changed and wiped and walked her, would always prefer her mother in a pinch. Not even the admiration of the body politic, who pushed him into signing the deal. Women may smile at a man pushing a baby stroller, but it is with the gentle condescension of a high officer of an army toward a village that surrendered without a fight. Men just look away in shame. The world watches him schlepping and fetching and moaning and thinks: Oh... you... poor... bastard.

But I digress. I came home one night, relieved the babysitter, and found that my 8-month-old daughter, Quinn, had three bright-red spots on her forehead and, for the first time in her life, a fever. The domestic policy handbook clearly states that when anything goes wrong with our child, I am to holler for her mother and then take my place at her elbow and await further instructions. As I say, the American father of a baby is really just a second-string mother. But the first string was nowhere to be found. For the first time, our child badly needed help that, it seemed, only I could provide.

We happened to be living in Paris at the time due to a project I was working on, and a single phone call to a service called SOS Medecins fetched up a smartly dressed French doctor inside five minutes. He arrived in a little white truck with a cross on the side. He was easily the most reassuring doctor I have ever met. Treating a sick baby is more like treating a sick dog than a sick person, as the baby can't tell you where it hurts. To our new French doctor this proved no obstacle at all. He marched into the house, spotted Quinn, smiled knowingly, and said, "Varicelle." Chicken pox. Having diagnosed the disease from a distance of 15 feet, he then examined the howling patient for another three minutes. On top of the chicken pox, he found ear and throat infections, plus the fever I already knew about, plus a couple of unrelated, smaller defects. He was so efficient at finding diseases that I thought he would find she had the plague or something, but his work was so quick and self-assured that it was impossible to question any of it. Afterward, he sat down at our kitchen table and wrote out two long pages of illegible prescriptions. His visit took about 15 minutes and cost less than 40 bucks. Vive la France!

I trundled the prescriptions together with Quinn across the street to the pharmacy -- everything in Paris seems to be just across the street -- and came away with a huge plastic sack of cures. Then, with a truly fantastic display of heretofore unrevealed parental competence, I persuaded my child to swallow several of them.

All this was perfectly thrilling, and not simply because there is an obvious pleasure in curing one's child. Power was in the air. I was in charge here.

Then my wife, Tabitha, walked into the house.

"What's going on?"

Reprinted from Home Game by Michael Lewis. Copyright © 2009 by Michael Lewis. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. This selection may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means without the written permission of the publisher.

I told her everything that had happened, and as I did, tears welled in her eyes. Mistaking their meaning, I could not have been more pleased with myself. I assumed she was moved by my performance. At this difficult moment in our child's life, when she would naturally look to her mother for comfort, her mother was unavailable. Plucked from the end of the bench and sent into the game with just seconds on the clock, I'd been told to take the final shot. I'd hit nothing but net.

I waited for what I was certain would be a curtain call. Instead, there was only silence. I could see from her face that she wasn't merely upset; she was irritated. She walked over to the sink and banged around some dirty dishes. With whom was she irritated? I wondered, neglecting the important truth that if you don't know who your wife is pissed off at, it's you.

"Why are you upset?" I asked. "It's all taken care of."

"I just wish I had been... here."

"But why?"

"If I was here, I could have asked the questions."

All of a sudden, my questions weren't good enough. How would she know? She banged the dishes around a bit more, and then said, "Did you ask the doctor why he was sure all these medicines were the right ones?"

"Uh, no." Of course I hadn't. He was the doctor.

"Did you ask him why, if it is chicken pox, she's had these red spots before?"

"She has?"

"Did you ask why they are only on her face?"

Upon review of the videotape, my three-point shot was nullified, the team went down in defeat, and I was sent back to the end of the bench. I was unable to answer even one of the questions that a genuinely caring parent would have thought to ask. "The doctor said that the spots would spread to the rest of her body by tomorrow," I offered.

"I think we ought to call another doctor," she said, then swept her child up in her arms and took her away to whatever place mothers take their children when they don't want their husbands to follow. Once they'd left, I quickly, and for the first time, read the instructions on the medicine. The first two bottles I selected said, chillingly, "Not for children under six years of age." The bottle I'd believed to contain a chicken pox ointment proved to be a sore-throat spray. The gunk I'd been told to apply to the pox itself was a strange dry powder that was impossible to apply to anything, unless you happened to have Krazy Glue. Left alone with her father, our child stood no chance of survival.

The next day, the red spots refused to spread, and the fever subsided. The day after that, the fever and spots were gone altogether. To me this was a very good sign: I had cured Quinn. To my wife it was a sign that our child must be ailing from some other undiagnosed disease. "I want to take her to the hospital," she said.

The language of parenthood is encoded. When a mother says to a father, "I want to take her to the hospital," she is really saying "We are all going to go to the hospital, and if you whisper even a word of complaint, you will have proved yourself for all time a man incapable of love." Maternal concern is one of those forces of nature not worth fighting.

Off we went to find a hospital. There we were greeted by another smartly dressed doctor, who was even more self-assured than the first. He took one look at Quinn, laughed loudly, and said, "Not chicken pox."

Tabitha looked pleased. "Then what are these?" I asked, pointing to the faded spots on Quinn's forehead.

"Insect bites," he said.

I handed him the spray and asked why the doctor had instructed me to apply it to chicken pox.

"I don't know. This is sore-throat spray. Who told you your daughter had chicken pox?"

I gave him the whole story and handed him the two pages of prescriptions, which, as it happened, had the name of the doctor who had written them on top. This provoked only more laughter. "Dr. D___," he said, "he doesn't know anything about children's medicine."

"You know him?"

"He's my golfing partner." He was still laughing; this was the best joke he'd heard all day.

"Is he a good golfer?"

"Very! He spends very little time working."

On the way home in the car, the family spirits could not have been higher. Quinn was cured -- or as good as cured -- and well, nestling up against her mother. I was back on the end of the bench. And there, with my incompetence in dealing with matters critical to my child's survival fully exposed, I was once again well loved. Some sort of natural order had been restored.

Michael Lewis is a father of three in Berkeley, California. He is also the author of Liar's Poker and Moneyball.

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