It's Sunday night and there's school tomorrow and homework is probably unfinished and not confessed to and likely a quiz unstudied for so Fred isn't in a good mood.
He's sixteen and I have to pay bills tomorrow and I'm not feeling so zipadeedoodah myself.
What's for dinner? Meatloaf. Can I have chicken and bacon risotto? No. Why not? Too much trouble.
The meatloaf is ready. I don't like meatloaf. It's not true, but meatloaf is one of those foods you're allowed to dislike depending on how you feel.
I weaken and think of my friend Jerry whose mother Ida ran a lunch joint on La Cienega in the fifties. Ida cooked at night for her family of six. She went around the table and made them pretty much whatever they wanted for dinner as in two steaks, one chicken, and three noodles with kasha.
Jerry remembers the first time his bride uttered the words "Dinner is ready." He replied, "Aren't you going to ask me what I want?" He learned fast.
But I toughen and repeat meatloaf. Now I know that the family dinner is a ritual well, ritualized, in good parenting magazines, endorsed by everyone from Dr. Phil to Ozzies Nelson and Osbourne but, myself, I think it is overrated. Ours were painful exercises in self restraint as my sister teased me about my crush on Judy Mancuso, my father would discuss politics and browbeat me into admitting that America started the Korean war (try taking that into a sixth grade discussion the next day) and then there would be fights afterwards about who was going to clear the table, do the dishes and not run off to the bathroom.
So Fred and I have a different family dinner ritual - not all the time, but enough to lose joint custody if it happened in the early days of the divorce. We eat in front of the television. We relax (no "how was school today?" crap) in front of The Office, South Park, and for desert the first half of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. We do have some ritual; Fred prepares the tray with silverware, napkins and water. I cook the food and put it on the trays. Then we go to the coffee table and eat. He's Tivo-ed what's worthy and we have dinner.
Back to Sunday: On Sunday we watch 60 Minutes. And to the ticking clock I think, I don't want meatloaf either.
I turn on 60 Minutes and it's Barack and Michelle Obama with Steve Croft. About five minutes in I start paying attention to Fred. He's laughing, he's listening, he is engrossed. He is digging them. So much that I suspect he might even want to trade me and his mother for them if he could. Sort of how I once thought Dale and Roy would be my ideal parents. It's that much love. He's enjoying the way they relate to each other, that they hold hands, that they tease each other. He giggles at the mother-in-law stuff, and the part about the car with the hole in the floor (hey, I had one of those, too) and he is paying rapt attention as Obama discusses the challenges ahead, the energy crisis, the need for affordable health care and his promise to get US troops out of Iraq.
I see in his face something I never saw before - a look of pleasure that he gets he gets when he hears great music, or digs a really good movie or laughs at some inspired comedy from Steven Colbert and I realized that this is a kid who never, even for a moment ever experienced liking the President of the United States. From the time he was eight years old to today he's only known George Bush. Okay, his (or mine) love affair with Obama may not last but it made me remember how I felt when JFK was elected, and what a relief when Carter ended the Nixon years. When there was hope and pride and a feeling that the good guy won and it was okay to be an American. I was happy for him.
You want risotto with chicken and bacon?
I'll give you some bread and olive oil to tide you over until it's ready.
He gets up and goes to his room. Maybe he'll study. Maybe finish the math. He's happy all around. Politics can do that.
--By Michael Elias
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