The other night there was a significant development at the supper table. The 7-year-old announced that he had finished eating, but wanted to stay at the table and talk.
This interest in conversation was noteworthy for several reasons. First of all, it was a reversal of form. Until recently, getting any amount of information from the kids during supper had been like prying the lid off the tin of Nestle's Quik. It required calm determination.
Usually the "conversation" at the supper table sounded something like this.
Dad: "How was school today?"
Dad, undaunted: "Did anything unusual happen?"
Kid, uninterested: "What is this stupid stuff on my plate?"
Dad: "Just take one bite. If you don't like it, you don't have to eat it."
Kid: "I already know I don't like it."
Brother: "Don't be such a baby."
Kid: "Don't call me a baby, you $%
Dad: " All right you two, leave the table!"
But the other night the routine was different. I arrived home late, about 8 o'clock . All the homework had been done. Vast quantities of old newspapers, once known as trash, now called recyclables, had been hauled out to the alley for pickup. Along the way the 11-year-old had fixed himself a burrito in the microwave, and the 7-year-old had made himself two peanut butter sandwiches. But the "formal" act of eating, of the family sitting down together at the same table for the evening meal, had not occurred.
Faster than I could say, "Would you help me set the table," the 11-year-old slipped upstairs and planted himself in front of the television to watch "The Wonder Years."
Since the 11-year-old was upstairs, only three of the four family members sat at the table. That was OK with me. I have grown accustomed to playing the percentages at supper time.
If, for instance, there is peace and quiet during even a small percentage of the meal, I am delighted. If everyone stays seated for only 70 percent of the time, I am thrilled.
And if the kids eat a mere 50 percent of the food put in front of them, I am elated. So the fact that attendance at supper was down 25 percent didn't bother me.
Since we were down one child at the table, my wife and I were able to talk to each other in normal tones. She was in the middle of telling me that some scientists now think vitamin A and vitamin E were the keys to lowering blood cholesterol, when the 7-year-old spoke up.
He wanted to know what we were talking about. I explained to him, as best I could, about the relationship between food and health.
He announced that he had a few thoughts on the subject. First, carrots were good for you because they gave you "sharp eyes." Secondly, Dad ate "too much fat." And thirdly, his cousin, who didn't eat hamburgers when he was at Grandma's house this summer, probably was a vegetarian.
The kid was taken with his new-found conversational skills. So much so that a few minutes later when I asked him if he wanted to be excused, he said "No." He was finished eating, he reported, but he wasn't finished talking.
He lingered at the table for several minutes until, at my request, he delivered the following threat to his big brother. "Dad says if you don't get to the kitchen right away, he is going to eat your supper."
Soon after the threat was delivered, the 11-year-old came and joined the rest of us at the supper table. The conversation shortly took on its usual competitive tone. Second-grade math was declared much harder than fifth-grade math. Fifth-grade geography, with its insistent demands for correct capitalization, was proclaimed too difficult for any second-grader to even comprehend.
I blocked this banter out, and thought about other talks I had had with the kids.
A few days earlier, for instance, the 11-year-old had told me about his idea of compressing an entire meal into one pill. That way, he explained, you could just swallow supper and be done with it.
I objected, saying that for me part of the enjoyment of a meal was lingering over food, talking.
The 11-year-old shook his head in mock disgust. The pill, with its feature of limiting the amount of time you spent with your family at the supper table, was "too cool."
So, while I am grateful for the flicker of interest in dinner-table conversation that was shown the other night, I recognize that, as a family, we are a long way from maintaining a roaring intellectual dialogue.