I've tried on several occasions to explain what I feel is a relatively simple concept to my 10-year-old son.
“This,” I explain, waving my hands over my plate of food, “is my air space.”
As we take our assigned seats at the dinner table, he's always sitting on my left. I put one hand on each side of my plate. “During the meal, no part of your body should cross these lines into my air space. Your grubby little paws should not be flapping in my face. Your food should not fly onto my plate. You should not cough in the direction of my area causing germs to invade my air space.”
Wesley rolls his eyes as if this is something that does not have to be said. His mother and little sister, on their assigned sides of the table, giggle.
I quite agree that this should not have to be said, and yet as I'm eating my meal most nights, at some point, a little hand starts waving around in my face, knocking food off my fork.
This is what parenthood really comes down to. If you live with a group of adults, you have not had to sit your roommates down and establish the sovereignty of your patch of table-top territory. Older people whose children have grown up and left them always say to me, “Treasure these moments.” I know what they mean, and I agree, but it's still easier for you to say when you don't have a 10-year-old's thumb in your meatloaf.
I've actually attempted to establish several rules for the dinner table.
Rule number one: “Respect my air space.”
Rule number two: “Please don't touch me while I'm eating.”
I'm generally an affectionate father, but I'm also a fat man and it's been a long day, and I just need to get this forkful of Shake 'n Bake chicken in my mouth without people tugging on my shirt sleeve saying, “Dad? Dad? Dad? Um, Dad? Dad? Dad?”
Because what happens when someone has a forkful of food and you tug on his sleeve? Anyone? That's right! The food falls off, and the fat man becomes frustrated.
For the first time in my life, I understand the feelings expressed by the tiny apricot poodle my parents used to have named Muffin. If Muffin was eating, and you touched her bowl, she would wrinkle her lips back from her pointy little teeth and growl ferociously. She never actually bit anyone, but she wanted you to understand, this was her food and her time. Respect the bowl!
Muffin's not with us anymore, but if she was, I'd have a talk with her. “I feel your pain, little doggie.”
Rule number three: “Do not stand behind me or at my shoulder trying to talk to me while I eat.”
There are two things that go on that drive me absolutely insane. One is not limited to mealtime and that's the flapping. My kids get off to one side of me when I'm eating or watching television and they flap around like alarmed chickens. I'm not actually looking at them directly, but I sense this movement in my peripheral vision. It's now been a decade since I was actually completely relaxed. There's always a certain amount of baseline stress being caused by the constant noise and constant movement.
Part of my problem is that years of playing violent first-person shooter video games has trained me to lock onto any sudden movement. I'm like the T-Rex on “Jurassic Park.”
The second thing is Wesley hanging over my shoulder like a vulture while I eat. I can't see him, I just sense him there, breathing down my neck.
There's something wrong with his chair, because he can't just sit in it. He's up, he's down. He burns more calories during the meal than he takes in.
Rule four: “Once you've been excused, go away.”
Wesley asks to be excused, then either hovers at my shoulder or starts flapping around off to one side. Why?
Christine is no help with all of this. She always defends the children. “He's just trying to get the ketchup.”
“So ask for it!”
“He did, captain oblivious.”
Here's a secret. Old people don't really go deaf and blind for any physical reason. They've just been tuning people out so long that they got a little too good at it.
Rule five: “Don't complain about the food!”
This is what I have to listen to every night: “I don't like meatloaf.” “I don't like chicken with bones.” “I don't like ice cream with chocolate chips in it.” (Yes, that's a real example!!!) “I don't want the sauce.” “My beans are touching my roll and now both are ruined. Can I have a separate plate you'll have to wash for each individual item?”
If my kids had their way, their diet would consist of McDonald's freedom fries, Froot Loops and Goldfish crackers.
I respond with my usual rant. “There are children in other countries in the world who work 14 hours per day in factories to get one bowl of millet.”
“I have no idea, but it doesn't taste very good, and they choke this dry, gritty stuff down just to keep from starving and they're more grateful than you!”
My children calmly wait a few seconds to see if I've got more. Then they push on: “So where did we land on the whole bones in my chicken thing?”
I wonder if there's a family of yetis eating dinner in a cave somewhere in the Himalayas. “Daddy, I don't like my Sherpa with bones in it!”
Eventually, I'm going to be completely insane, off in one corner of the kitchen, growling over my bowl like poor departed Muffin. And when I'm gone, they'll say, "Dad growled, but at least he never bit anybody."
Dan Dunkle is associate editor for the Gazette. He lives in Rockland with two kids, his bride of 14 years, a spastic cat and the ghost of his childhood dog.