My wife and I believe that a good parent should spend a certain amount of "quality time" with a child, which is why at least once a week we take our son to the pediatrician to get an ear infection looked at.

Our son gets ear infections almost as often as the Democrats lose major presidential contenders, so we know, from experience, exactly the course of medical treatment that will be required to make him better:

1. He needs to stay home from school and watch rental cartoons on the VCR.

2. He needs to take antibiotics that, to judge from their cost, are made by grinding up emeralds.

Obtaining the antibiotics is the hard part, because of course we are not permitted simply to go to the drugstore and buy them. When we die and go to Parent Heaven, we will be permitted to do this. We will stride into the drugstore and say, "I would like to purchase exactly the same antibiotic that I purchased each of the previous 657 times my child had an ear infection," and the druggist will say, "Of COURSE! Here you go!" And 10 minutes later we will be back at our house, which in Parent Heaven will have a knot of cheerful retired nurses lounging on the doorstep 24 hours a day in case we ever need a baby sitter.

But in the real world, to get the antibiotics, we must first go to our son's pediatrics group ("Eighteen Random Pediatric Professionals Inc."), which puts us through a ritual ordeal, similar to the way certain primitive tribes require that a young warrior, to prove his manhood, must fight a giant snake naked. Although the warrior probably doesn't have to sit in a waiting room first. "Go right on in!" he is probably told. "The snake will see you now!"

This never happens at my son's pediatric group. For one thing, for insurance reasons, there are no snakes there. For another thing, there are always several hundred children ahead of us, milling around the waiting room, coughing on each other and ripping pages from books with titles like "Earl the Eel Has a Big Surprise." The reason the waiting room is always so crowded is that at least seven-eighths of the children -- all the sick ones -- are being "fitted in" at the last minute. This is a strange thing about pediatricians: They spend their lives wallowing in childhood disease, yet when they set up their office schedules, it apparently never occurs to them that children are going to get sick. This is why the receptionist always sounds so INCONVENIENCED when you call. "You don't have an appointment?" she says, disapprovingly, clearly wondering what kind of bozo parent would let a child get sick without an appointment. "Okay," she says. "We'll try to Fit You In at 4:30."

Meaning, "Guam Standard Time."

After we pass the Ordeal of Sitting for a Long Time in the Waiting Room, we move on to the Ordeal of Sitting for a Long Time in the Little Examination Room With Nothing to Do Except Listen to Children Shrieking in the Rooms All Around Us. They have good reason to shriek: The Needle Nurse is on the prowl. The Needle Nurse is a person who lurks in the halls of pediatrics groups, like the person with the chainsaw in "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre"; just when the doctor leaves the examination room and the child thinks the nightmare is finally over, suddenly the Needle Nurse lunges in and stabs the child with a sterilized implement. As we watch her stalk past our doorway, I tell our son there's nothing to worry about, but deep inside I know that if there were the slightest chance that she was going to come after ME, I would be sprinting across the parking lot.

Eventually the actual doctor arrives, and of course he is a stranger, because it is a violation of group pediatric ethics for a child to see the same doctor twice in any given five-year period. So the doctor must spend a large percentage of the examination time reading Robert's medical history, which consists of the words "Ear infection" written in 657 different handwritings. Then he frowns a medical frown into my son's ears, after which he turns to me and announces that our son has an ear infection, and I get ready to clap my hand over my son's mouth in case he starts to make some smart remark like, "We already KNOW that," which might anger the doctor and cause him to schedule some blood tests. Then, finally, we leave, clutching a prescription form that says, in Latin, "These people have passed the Ordeal."

I try to look on the lighter side. At least we don't need a prescription to rent the cartoons.

ANGRY EDITORIAL REPLY FROM THE MEDICAL PROFESSION: "Mr. Barry's incredibly irresponsible diatribe fails to point out that blah blah blah side effects blah blah blah malpractice insurance blah blah blah 17 years of medical training blah blah blah potential interaction of broad-spectrum antibiotics with certain animated features such as the 'Road Runner' blah blah blah we'll want to see him again in 10 days."