A few years ago, I read a couple of books about the importance of family dinner. This is a tad ironic, because I can barely scramble eggs, which is one of many facts that handicapped me as a stay-at-home mom. Nevertheless, I read The Cleaner Plate Club and The Family Dinner and dutifully took notes. The Cleaner Plate Club was a down-to-earth read that recognized parents’ limitations while pointing out statistical correlations between children’s health, academic success, and family meal times. The Family Dinner, with its poetry samples and conversations starters, was more high concept (Laurie David doesn’t cook her own meals either). It emphasized the importance of breaking bread together in building cohesion as a family unit. I lapped it up.
But in practice, conversations over the dinner table never lived up to my Norman Rockwell vision of family dinners. One child forgot to eat while monologueing at full volume, while the other refused to touch anything on her plate because eating it was someone else’s idea.
I’ve mentioned before that I have no experience writing dialogue, but if the following is painful, it is only because it is an accurate representation of the last three years at my kitchen table.
“Please sit on your bottom. Your feet don’t go on the furniture, especially at the table.”
“Your fingers stay out of your mouth; your tongue stays inside your mouth.”
“That’s gross. Stop it.”
“Hey, did you know today at recess…”
“You’re shouting again, and don’t talk with your mouth full. And you, please eat three bites. Okay, just taste it.”
“Ha! I farted!”
“Ha! She farted!”
Once I went back to work, it got even harder. Most days, by the time I got home from work, the kids were climbing the walls like cats at 5 am. Often, the Daddy gave in and fed them early. I often came home to a table of dirty dishes and a plate in the microwave – better than coming home to a hungry household and having to cook, but hardly a vision of family togetherness.
Then one day, when everyone was running in circles trying to keep on schedule and the Daddy – usually a gourmet – could barely manage a pot of spaghetti, my oldest piped up, “Remember at Bumbershoot last year, that machine that was building a city?”
She was referring to Jonathan Schipper’s salt sculpture. One of many artworks at Bumbershoot 2013 that evolved over time, the girls and I had visited this piece on the first day of the festival. The artist stood by and answered my oldest daughter’s questions. We returned each day of the festival to see how the work had progressed.
The Daddy noted that Schipper had basically built a 3D printer, and continued with news of the Pebble Steel, a watch that will be releasing the design specs in a 3D-printable format, for third-party manufacturers who want to make a wider variety of options; it’s kind of a big deal for geeks.
After listening politely to this bit they couldn’t understand, the girls launched into a remarkably accurate recollection of the artworks on display at Fisher Pavilion back in August. When the five-year-old reminded us of the Rube Goldberg-type video that captivated her big sister (the classic film Der Lauf Der Dinge by Peter Fischli and David Weiss), out came the tablet.
We propped it on the end of the kitchen table and finished our noodles while we watched this:
Then, because it was also by OK Go and also awesome, we watched this video that has embedding disabled:
We talked about how they used a single shot instead of editing, which led to a bit of history; videos used to be made on long strips of plastic-like stuff called film.
Then, using the excuse that it included some math, we watched this:
The oldest expressed great consternation at the band’s poor money management skills.
“That was ridiculous!” she pronounced at the end. Then threw out a thumbs up, “But awesome.”
Next up, Genki Sudo’s “Machine World”:
We talked about how people used to manipulate film to create some of the effects that One World was physically recreating. We talked about Genki Sudo’s background in martial arts, and wondered if Americans would have been able to accomplish such precise uniformity. I marveled at how uplifting and hopeful “Machine World” felt compared to the creepy synchronized bouncing balls on the dark planet in Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time (my oldest read the book last year and the whole family watched the film version together).
Because the youngest begged, we watched “Permanent Revolution.” We tried to explain that the video showed Japanese people traveling in Korea, not China, but my daughter proudly declared that China, Korea, and Japan were uniting. This led to a very broad lesson in 20th century Asian history, to which she responded, “What about America?”
Just then, the white guy walked off with the paper, answering for us. “Yeah, that’s pretty much how it works,” we said, adding, “Now go brush your teeth. It’s time for bed.”
I don’t know if this unique to Gen X parents, or a particular symptom of adoptive families, or an aspect of economic class, but we make so many self-conscious attempts at intentional parenting that end up filed on social media under #momfail. Even worse are the attempts at “cultural exposure” that resemble hipster aspirationalism in hindsight. But every now and then, your kid blurts out, “Remember that art exhibit a year ago?” or an awkward manufactured family tradition evolves into a natural expression of shared interests. In those moments, a bunch of YouTube videos at the kitchen table can start to feel like My Dinner with Andre.
In between writing this post and posting it, I read this article from Free Range mother Lenore Skenazy. I guess I’m not unique after all.