We are standing in line at McDonald's when it occurs to me that I feel no sense of happiness ordering the Happy Meals.
The Happy Meal, of course, is corporate McSpeak for the combination of hamburger, small fries, soft drink and little toy that small children would commit homicide for.
It is also the centerpiece of an enormous propaganda campaign designed to communicate a triple-pronged message to parents: This is the place to bring your kids. This is where they're happy. Look! Look how much fun they're having!
The toy is the key to the whole Happy Meal philosophy, of course.
Generally it is a cheap piece of plastic made in Taiwan by some 16-year-old who's no doubt shackled to an assembly line for 60 hours a week, a small ceiling fan circling listlessly overhead.
(I have visions of the factory loudspeaker system crackling to life every other week, with the company president exhorting his work force to increase its production so that "the children of America will be happy.")
In the past, Happy Meal toys have included Berenstain Bears figures, miniature soccer balls, jump ropes, Michael Jordan stop watches, Batman cars and so on.
It frightens me that I know all this. This is not the sort of knowledge a man my age should be carrying around in his head.
Certainly, it has no practical value. At dinner parties, when the discussion turns to the Bush-Clinton campaigns or the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I am reluctant to turn to someone and say: "The Happy Meals this month have a Barbie theme, you know . . . "
The main problem with the Happy Meals is that they sometimes lead to unhappiness on the part of the children, too.
In fact, once the whole family is seated at a table and the Happy Meals are opened, a conversation such as the following is likely ++ to take place:
"I want the Papa Bear!"
"Sweetie, Jason got the Papa Bear and . . ."
"But I hate Sister Bear!"
"Jason, honey, would you trade your . . ."
"I'm not trading anything!'
Soon the table takes on all the calm of a European soccer riot, with children bickering and snatching at each other's toys and sobbing loudly.
By this time, of course, the parent is ready to quietly excuse himself, sprint out to the highway and throw himself in front of a bus.
I look around at all the other parents of young children who have ordered Happy Meals, and none of them seem happy, either.
Most seem tired, edgy, sullen -- exactly like me. This is the only thing that keeps me going some days, the fact that there are other parents at McDonald's who are every bit as miserable as I am.
As if to ratchet up the misery level even further, the McDonald's near my house recently completed a project that still has me shaking my head.
What they did was -- this is unbelievable -- they built a brand new playground in the restaurant called McPlace, or something clever like that.
Say, there's the ideal way to ensure a nice calm meal with young children, huh? Build a playground right next to their table!
Sure, I'll bet they'll really concentrate on their meals with 60 other kids whooping it up on the slide and screaming in the plastic maze.
I'm surprised the McDonald's people don't hand out chocolate bars with every Happy Meal, too. That way the kids'll really be bouncing off the walls when they leave.
Sometimes you wonder who's making the marketing and promotional decisions for McDonald's.
That reminds me of the time Ronald McDonald almost started a riot when I took our two oldest kids, then 6 and 2, out to lunch.
It was a Saturday and naturally the place was packed. All of a sudden this stupid clown walks in with a security detail bigger than Dan Quayle's.
Well, you would have thought it was Madonna or Michael Jackson. All of a sudden, 200 wild-eyed kids jacked up on cola and french fries began to surge forward, trying to get near Ronald.
Ronald's eyes got as big as saucers as he realized there was a good chance he was about to be trampled.
The security people finally hustled Ronald out of the joint, probably saving his life in the process. He was pretty shaken up. I think I saw him puffing on a Marlboro a few minutes later in the parking lot.
My kids were eating Happy Meals that day, too, as I recall.