Lessons at Dinner

My dad was great for using time around the dinner table to teach to a captive audience. Sometimes his lessons were simple, like how to count change. Usually however, he would either ask us questions that had no ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, or make a statement. He’d give us time to think, come up with our answer, and be prepared to debate our response. Because there was a lot of debate. Or arguments, depending on which side of semantics you stood. 

He was equally good at lessons on other types of semantics. For instance, if you said ‘So can I!’ he’d invariably respond, ‘Which eye do you want soaked?’ That old chestnut still irritates me. But not as much as when I had a story to tell and his other common line came into play.

I’d rush home from school with a very important, very good story to share. Especially after I’d embellished it some and made it an even better story. Somewhere in the middle of the telling I’d say, ‘It was exactly like…except that…’

Can you hear the response?

He’d interrupt to say that whatever I talked about wasn’t, after all, exactly like something because I’d just pointed out a difference.

I’d stumble to a halt, the flow of my really good story blocked. There’d be a moment of silence while I gathered the threads of the tale together.

‘Well, okay, but see, it really was exactly like…except for…’

And here would come the interruption again.

Today I heard someone say, ‘He never talked! And when he did…’

Wow. Dad’s voice rang so loud and clear. 

Now, thinking about it, I believe the true lesson I learned during those dinner table debates and the early story telling was this. 

How to edit.

And with that, here’s one of his famous statements. He took a glass of milk, put it in front of us kids and told us we couldn’t touch it. Because to touch it we’d have to go half way. And then half way again. And again. And because there was always another ‘half way’ to go, we would never be able to touch the glass. I can remember saying ‘I’m touching it right now!’ Nope. There was still an infinitesimal half way to go. Someone once told me that he was actually teaching us some law of physics. 

Sorry, but no. I felt that darn glass under my finger. And I’m still prepared to defend that with some rude semantics if need be.

He's really not touching that glass. He may think he is, but he's only half way there.

The nephew’s really not touching that glass. He may think he is, but he’s only half way there.


2 thoughts on “Lessons at Dinner

  1. The halfway thing makes me think of something Erik and I will sometimes do with the last bite of dessert: he’ll cut it in half and then eat only that half, and then I’ll cut the half in half and eat only the quarter, and then he’ll follow with half the quarter, and so on, until someone finally gives in and just eats the whole (by now miniscule) thing.

    Your dad’s story-blocking questioning sounds maddening in the moment, but a useful dynamic to get used to. Whether this is my parents’ and teachers’ doing or just my own personality, I grew up thinking that anyone who questioned my actions/choices was also questioning my character, and it still makes me touchier than I should be when someone disagrees with me. Sometimes when Erik is asking me totally neutral questions, he has to stop and reassure me, “I’m not attacking you.” Maybe it’s because I was always so “good” that I never got used to people telling me to do things differently. If I’d been telling a story at the dinner table and an adult interrupted me enough times, I think I’d probably have just cried. Would I have toughened up over time, and learned to see this as teaching, not criticizing? I often wonder.


    • I’d forgotten that one of my sisters would take a tiny piece of a dessert because she didn’t want to eat the whole thing, then she’d take another tiny piece, and then another, and then my father would say ‘why don’t you just take the whole thing since you’re eating it anyway’. Your comment about you and Erik doing that reminded me and made me laugh.
      You have a good point about how it’s hard to separate what we do from who we are. As you say, if someone questioned your action, you felt they questioned who you were. It’s why I hate the question, ‘So, what do you do?” As if that defines who I am. I don’t know if you would have toughened with time. I don’t think I did.


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