Dinner Table Tales

Thanksgiving dinner

Thanksgiving dinner with our foreign exchange student – 2012

Sharing a meal with others is one of life’s great, relational, creative expressions. It goes without saying that mealtimes serve an essential practical purpose – that of nourishing our bodies – but at the same time, sharing a meal is (or can be) a spiritually meaningful and life-enhancing act.

Of course, growing up, I didn’t appreciate this. Our family ate dinner together every evening. This seemed to me to be a routine, mundane part of suburban life. I was more interested in finding a way around eating my helping of canned peas than in relating to my family in a positive way. But I believe the habit of eating together had a lasting and positive effect on me.

There is a proverb of Solomon that says, “Better is a dry morsel and quietness with it than a house full of feasting with strife” (Prov 17:1.) We now know scientifically that stress and strife is bad for the digestion. By contrast, relaxing around a table as a nourishing act of mutual enjoyment, and as an expression of unity, is a God-ordained pleasure. It’s interesting that with the establishment of the New Covenant 2000 years ago, Jesus used a meal as a sign by which to remember the covenant; a covenant that was intended to be characterized by love and unity. This meal is often referred to as “the communion meal.”

On an everyday level, one of the best practices we can share as families is to practice the habit of sharing a meal together around the table, looking into each other’s faces, and seeking to enjoy each other’s company.

Meal sharing is an act of communion.

I read an interview in the late 80’s that for some reason stuck with me. Dweezil Zappa was talking about his then-upcoming TV show, “Normal Life,” co-starring his sister, Moon Unit. He said something like, “Our show is going to be about real families, where everyone eats their food in separate rooms in front of a TV.” As though families eating meals together is a cheesy Ozzie and Harriet thing that cool people don’t do.

Whatever. Being cool is overrated.

Eating with actual human beings
Sure, it takes more effort, but relationship is what life is all about, after all. Even as an unmarried college student in midtown Kansas City, when I lived in a 3-story house sharing rent with 6 other art students, this ethic came through. Enough of us had been raised this way that we determined that we wanted to create a community rather than simply serve as a cheap boarding house. One of the first things we decided toward this end was to share a meal together at least once a week.

When Mollie and I got married, we decided early on as our young family began to grow, that we would try to make it a practice to always eat meals together around the table as a family, with TVs and electronic devices turned off, and earphones pulled out.

A Story About Dinner and Art
Many years later, Mollie and I moved our family to Colorado so that we could pursue careers as fine artists. Some of our old college friends from the 3-story house, now a married couple and living in Loveland, had offered to let us stay with them for a few months until we could get ourselves established. They had 3 kids, and we had 5, and their house was probably too small for this endeavor. But they welcomed us in nonetheless.

One of the first things we did was to fix the situation with the dining room table. We knew we wanted to share meals together, and our host’s dining room table was too small for all 12 of us. So my friend Mike got a nice 4×8 ft board, and, since we were all artists, we decided to turn the table into a community art project involving all the kids.

We thought it would be fun to get everybody’s handprints on the table, as a small monument to our love and friendship. We had all the kids and adults interlace hands and arms around the table, something like this:

Tabletop design ideaThen we spray-painted over everyone’s hands to create a handprint border around the edge of the table. (We first applied lotion to everyone’s hands so that the paint would come off easily.) On the underside of the table, each kid wrote their name under their handprints to identify them. Then, back on top, we helped the kids stencil some primitive animal shapes running through the center of the table to complete the design. I designed the stencils to be suggestive of Native American art imagery.

Below is a shot of the finished tabletop.

colorado animals-tabletopI will always fondly remember that crazy season of starting over in Colorado, made possible because of the friendship of this family.

Some sad observations from across the pond
I recently read an article by British doctor and psychiatrist, Anthony Daniels, who has worked extensively in some of Britain’s deeply impoverished areas. His duties required him to visit the homes of his patients, and to personally interview them. Daniels recounts some universal patterns he saw in Britain’s underclass:

“Everyone lived in households with a shifting cast of members, rather than in families. If there was an adult male resident, he was generally a bird of passage with a residence of his own somewhere else. He came and went as his fancy took him…

I should mention a rather startling fact: By the time they are 15 or 16, twice as many children in Britain have a television as have a biological father living at home…Few homes were without televisions with screens as large as a cinema – sometimes more than one – and they were never turned off, so that I often felt I was examining someone in a cinema rather than in a house. But what was curious was that these homes often had no means of cooking a meal, or any evidence of a meal ever having been cooked beyond the use of a microwave, and no place at which a meal could be eaten in a family fashion. The pattern of eating in such households was a kind of foraging in the refrigerator, as and when the mood took, with the food to be consumed sitting in front of one of the giant television screens.

Surveys have shown that a fifth of British children do not eat a meal more than once a week with another member of their household, and many homes do not have a dining room table. Needless to say, this pattern is concentrated in the lower reaches of society, where so elementary but fundamental a means of socialization is now unknown. Here I should mention in passing that in my hospital, the illegitimacy rate of the children born in it, except for those of Indian-subcontinental descent, was approaching 100 percent.”
(
Imprimis: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass)

What a sobering glimpse of a government welfare state. The government has essentially become the household provider, the nuclear family has disintegrated, and there consequently isn’t even a table around which to share a meal.

Rise up and share a meal!
My purpose here is not to criticize Dweezil Zappa, or the underclass of Britain, or TV watching. My point is simply to encourage connection and communion within households. Whether you are living with family or friends, if you are currently not connecting with those around you, why not start the adventure now? If you are already committed to meal sharing with those you love, then may these thoughts serve as affirmation that you are doing a good thing. Keep it up, you crazy radicals!

Sometimes we do good things almost by accident, or by inertia, or habit. This is certainly better than not doing those things at all. However, at times I have found that doing those same things with intentionality and purpose reminds me to make the most of the moment. Meal sharing is one of those things. Reinforcing your values by reading stories regularly with your kids or grandkids is another. In this blog I’ll periodically share encouragement on other life-enhancing practices.

May God strengthen you to create a culture of life and love within your own family!
A Happy Thanksgiving to you,

Scott

Animal stencils-detail

(Tabletop detail.) Feel free to share a dinnertime story or memory below…

 

 

 

 

For Father’s Day: My Favorite Dad Story

Recent near-death experiences and other delays have put me behind schedule for releasing the June storybook. So in a good faith effort to post something here, while not taking too much time away from the work that still needs to be done, I’m re-posting my favorite Dad story. This was originally posted last year on my Art & Life Notes blog:

Today I share my all time favorite super-hero-dad story – a true story about my dad. Over 30 years later, I still smile every time I think about it. I hope it makes you smile as well.

First, I must describe my dad because it’s an integral part of the story. Growing up I saw my dad as a pretty impressive figure. More than any other man I knew, his physique most closely resembled the Marvel Comic super-heroes that I followed. My dad was a blue-collar, union guy, working in construction as an iron-worker foreman until the day he retired. This alone impressed me. I knew he spent his days several stories above ground, welding, and carrying heavy bundles of iron across the skeletal I-beams of tall buildings. His job was physically demanding, dangerous, and cool, and I heard him say more than once how much he loved it.

Years of working high up next to the sun had turned his skin dark brown. My sister’s friend once mistook him for a black guy while sitting behind him in church. Viewed from the front, he had blue eyes, and not a hint of the usual construction-worker’s beer gut. In fact, even though my dad was a “man’s man,” I never once heard him swear, or saw him take a drink, or smoke anything. Now that I think of it, I guess I don’t even remember hearing him belch. He was generally soft-spoken, and rarely raised his voice with my mom or us kids. Nobody’s perfect, but my dad at least never gave us reason to think that he doubted his Southern Baptist beliefs.

DAD-blogI think it took my dad a while to grow into being a great dad. I think initially he saw his role as simply being a great provider. My early memories of him are of a large, dark, mostly silent figure either reading the paper, or working around the house. Always on a project and mostly speaking in monosyllables. Or, at the dinner table I would watch in awe, looking up at him as he silently downed vast amounts of food and poured quart sized glasses of white milk down his brown throat. He wasn’t a jerk; he was just mysterious. But mystery is way overrated.

Sometime during my early teenage years, I realized he had undergone a transformation.

He had become totally engaged. He played Saturday morning tennis and Tuesday night volleyball with my siblings and me. He coached my sister’s softball team. But more importantly he began talking and joking around with us. He could be pretty funny. He became a warmer and closer human being.  I could relate to him in ways that I wouldn’t have dreamed of before.

For example, he was impossible to buy gifts for. What do you buy for a guy like this? Nails? Knives? Ammo? A spittoon? Lava soap? A heavy-duty razor? Meat? Well, unless he was at church he always wore a baseball cap, so one year for Father’s Day I bought him a dark blue hat with bright red plush wings on the side. Like something the Greek god Hermes might wear. I got it as a joke, assuming he would never wear it in public. But, indicative of his astounding midlife personality transformation, he did wear it. And this is also part of my story.

DAD hat blgOne summer, my dad, my brother, and I were all playing on the church softball team together. (Slow-pitch softball would be a sacrament in the Southern Baptist Church, if the SBC had sacraments.) We had a big, night game at a large, lit-up field surrounded by woods. My dad was one of the team’s best players, but on this particular night he was out of uniform, sitting in the stands because he had injured his hamstrings at work. He was wearing the blue hat with the red wings.

It so happened that our team was a couple of guys short that night. The coach went into the stands to try to persuade my dad to play, because otherwise we would have to forfeit the game. But my dad could hardly walk. He agreed though. The plan was to have a pinch-runner for him, and to put him in the bottom of the batting order, so we could at least play the game out.

Eventually it came time for my dad to bat. As he hobbled out to the plate, I heard the crowd murmuring, and I saw someone pointing at dad’s legs. My dad was wearing mid-thigh-length shorts. (This was the 1980’s, after all.) He didn’t realize this, but everyone could clearly see large black and blue bruises on the back of his legs. I have already mentioned how dark my dad was, but I failed to mention that this only applied to his upper body. His legs were as white as the wind-driven snow. He must’ve been in his early 50’s at this point. He was wearing a button down plaid shirt. I’ll just say that with his dark brown arms, plaid shirt, shorts and white bruised legs, and that dorky hat, this was probably not Dad’s most intimidating look.

The manly, uniformed pitcher turned to the outfield and waved the outfielders to move in closer. The manly, uniformed outfielders all moved in closer. I thought to myself, “Hmmm.” My dad took the first pitch. Strike one. On the second pitch my dad beat the snot out of the ball, sending it over the center fielder’s head and into the freaking woods. The whole place erupted. The other team was so hacked, throwing their hats down in the dirt and walking around in little circles with their hands on their hips. Our team was all shouting and cracking up, and the coach, laughing, just waved at my dad to walk the bases himself, since a ball hit into the woods is considered an automatic homer.

I will never forget the sight of my dad literally baby-step-hobbling around the bases, taking F-O-R…E-V-E-RRRRR, which just prolonged the opposing team’s agony. And all with that goofy winged hat on, unintentionally mocking them. As this cartoonish base-rounding formality dragged on, people in the stands were whooping it up and shouting out comments to my dad, it was all so endearingly pathetic. It was like watching a hurried, plaid penguin making its way across dry land.

Then, suddenly, just as we all thought the utter goofiness had reached its climax, the opposing team erupted again, crazily shouting, “THROW IT! THROW IT!!!” The dazed center fielder had emerged from the woods holding the ball. Waking, as if from a dream, eventually he realized that my dad still hadn’t made it around the bases! In fact he had just rounded third. These young bucks were actually going to try to throw the cripple out at home!

The center fielder sprang into action and hit the cut-off man. The cut-off man threw to home, (a bit high.) My dad and the ball arrived at home plate at the same time. But Dad had one more little trick up his plaid sleeve. He executed a perfect hook slide into home, falling away from the catcher as only his toe crossed the plate. The catcher missed the tag. The umpire cried, “SAFE!” Utter pandemonium broke loose. But at this point, even the other team had to start laughing and shaking their heads, and shaking my dad’s hand.

Sometimes you just have to submit to awesomeness.

Happy Father’s Day to my awesome dad!

father and son

My dad and me.