Thursday, January 19, 2012

Because I Said So: Dinner table plays host to cycle of life on school days

I tend to write my column about larger themes - the importance of family and friends, memories of childhood, time travel. I don't think there is any right or wrong way, this just happens to be what is more comfortable for me, to begin with something small and simple with my kids and shine a brighter light on it. It works most weeks. This week, though, I decided to find something small and stay small. That small thing is actually quite large - our dining room table, a massive piece of oak that seats nine most nights - but I found it to be piled high with metaphors, memories and, yes, themes.

Please enjoy this week's "Because I Said So" column.

There is a floating island of marine trash in the northern Pacific Ocean. Have you heard of this? It's called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or the Pacific Trash Vortex, and it's a swirling mass of plastics and chemical sludge collected from around the world that some reports claim is twice the size of Hawaii.

Our dining room table is a lot like that.

We're a family that eats meals together. We have dinner every night in our dining room at a massive 4-by-8 solid oak piece of furniture my wife got me for Father's Day years ago. Can't see it? That's because all 32 square feet of it is covered in backpacks, jackets, folders, papers, novels, textbooks, mail and other paraphernalia.

You know that giant magnet Wile E. Coyote uses to try to pull Roadrunner into his clutches from across the desert? Or the tractor beam Darth Vader's henchmen use to pull the Millennium Falcon into the Death Star?

Our table is also a lot like these.

When the front door opens in the afternoons, a strong wind blows in and carries with it hungry and energetic kids with their conversation, laughter, shouts of complaint and the rumpled husk of a school day that is pulled along in their wake. The dining room attracts it all and looks like a side-of-the-road ditch, like one of those weedy patches where people seem to know to dump old sofas, bags of garbage and lonely, single shoes.

The only difference is that my kids don't bring old sofas home from school.

No sofa, and there are no environmental groups clamoring for volunteers and grant money to clean up my dining room. Perhaps a chain gang of prisoners could come in every day with their orange safety vests to spear last week's graded homework, lunch boxes and my daughter's socks.

The kids somehow find their way through the detritus to the surface where they are able to carve out a nook for homework and snacks. It must be like descending through atmospheric dust clouds to land on a strange, heretofore-unseen planet, or hacking through a dense jungle with machetes to gaze upon a remote Incan pyramid littered with juice boxes, mittens, crayons and pencil shavings.

By dinnertime, it's all cleared away again. I don't know how it happens, but they manage to leave their video games and texting long enough to scrape it all onto the floor and shove it into neutral corners, rendering the table surprisingly clean enough to eat from.

Somehow, though, early the next morning, it's all back as they prepare for school once again. The dining table becomes a staging area, a conference table where important documents -- permission slips, graded homework, progress reports -- await signatures. Lunch boxes sit lined up and ready to be stuffed into already overstuffed backpacks.

It's the cycle of school-day life, a messy microcosm that sees the clutter of a workday metamorphose into suppertime conversation.

This scene must be played out everywhere by those with school-age children, whether it's an entry hall, kitchen table, mud room or back porch. Every house has such a place, a low spot where things collect like rainwater, a Bermuda Triangle of shoes and coats, spiral notebooks and last week's quizzes.

This table has developed character through its marked and nicked surface garnered from gatherings of friends and family, and piled high with meals and math. It is a family phenomenon, a geologic anomaly in an otherwise (mostly) clean house, brought about not by earthquake or hurricane, but by children -- a force of nature the likes of which I never reckoned I'd reckon with on a daily basis.

Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook:

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