Transcript

117:

You Gonna Eat That?
Transcript

Originally aired 12.11.1998

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/117

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Every night, when I was a kid, my family would sit down to dinner together. And every night, as best as I can remember, when the meal was done, my mom would take the ice from her glass, tip it back into her mouth, and chew on it loudly. And every night, all of us would ask her, "Please don't crunch the ice. Please never, ever, ever do that again." And every night, she would ignore this request.

And in retrospect, I have to say, I got to hand it to my mom. She is not somebody to be pushed around. This is just who she is. She is willful. She gets her way. It's something to be admired.

And of course, this story happened at the dinner table. The dinner table is the stage for so many family dramas. Today on our program, we bring you three stories about families at mealtime. From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

Today's program, You Gonna Eat That? Three families, three stories, in three acts. Act one, Breakfast, a story of eating and not eating, and what you learn when you view the world through the prism of a single meal. Act two, Lunch, we hear a father's lament about sippy cups, chewing with your mouth closed, and why it is not good to apply tape to the cat. Act three, Dinner. We have a story from Dave Eggers about what family dinner's like when the parents are suddenly gone, and the kids are left to run things themselves. Stay with us.

Act One. Breakfast.

Ira Glass

Act One, Breakfast. In every family, there are the family legends that everyone in the family repeats over and over. And then there are the stories that are suppressed, disappeared with a kind of Stalinist thoroughness. This next story falls more into that second camp than the first. It lay dormant for a long time before Annie Cheney decided to tell it here. It was produced by Jay Allison.

Woman 1

This morning for breakfast, I had a toasted everything bagel with eggs and cheese and a cup of Earl Gray tea with--

Annie Cheney

A reporter where I used to work taught me to ask people what they had for breakfast at the beginning of an interview. He said it was a good way to set your recording levels.

Annie Cheney

In 1996, Seattle police officers faced a tense situation when they were called out--

That's me on the radio in Seattle. I was a reporter for a public station. They didn't pay me or anything. I was just a volunteer. But I was still a reporter. I had a microphone and a tape recorder, and I went to press conferences.

Annie Cheney

--department, they flooded it with tear gas.

I wasn't very good at it. I couldn't stand being told what to say, and I was too cowardly to figure out the truth for myself.

Annie Cheney

--came out firing his gun, and officers retaliated, shooting him nine times.

A lot of times, the most revealing response I got from people was what they had for breakfast. And it was the most interesting to me.

Annie Cheney

--program is working. I'm Annie Cheney for KUOW, 94.9, public radio.

So I decided to follow my instincts and tell a story about breakfast. I got on a plane to New York, and I looked up my old friend, Vivian.

Annie Cheney

OK, so tell me what you had for breakfast.

Vivian

Oh my god, you don't really want to know. Eight ounces of nonfat, plain Stonyfield yogurt, mixed with one whole 35-calorie, non-sodium rice cake, mixed with a five-ounce cup of Kashi cereal, mixed with a half an ounce, one of those little boxes, of raisins, mixed with a tablespoon of flaxseed powder--

Annie Cheney

Vivian is a friend from my past. I met her when I was 15. She was 36. And sometimes, I think she saved my life.

Vivian

A cup of black coffee, and guilt.

Annie Cheney

When she agreed to meet me, I didn't know what to expect. I hadn't seen her in 10 years. And I didn't know if I'd hug her and just feel bones, or if she'd be strong, the way I remember her. It turns out she's had a hard time. She didn't get better. And she almost died.

Vivian

When I was going down towards 60, I would crawl out of bed, out of the futon. I'd be lying there having a panic attack that I was having heart palpitations. And it was, it was hard to breathe.

And I got to get some food. And I thought about the food I'd get. And I was alone in the house.

And I would crawl to the kitchen. I'm getting dizzy even thinking about now. And I'd crawl up to the fridge, and I'd open it up. And I'd be on my knees. And I'd take out a spoon. And I'd open a yogurt.

And I'd take a spoonful. And I could feel it go down and really feel it go down my chest, the coolness of it, like it was flip-flopping every rib down and dripping off my ribs into my stomach. And suddenly, one heaping teaspoon, and I would got, "Wow, that was just what I needed." And I'd get standing back on my feet, and I'd go, "I'm fine."

Annie Cheney

I met Vivian when I was anorectic. We shared a room in a hospital where there were other anorectics. I'd lost my period then, and my breasts. My bones stuck out, and I wanted to die. Vivian pulled me out of that. She convinced me by example to get better. And so I did. But sitting here, looking at her now, I realized that she never planned on getting better.

Vivian

They had to take out most of my back top teeth because they were deteriorating and there was bone loss. It was the malnutrition that did that. So they took them out. And I thought, "This is really great," because now my cheeks would sink in the back, like the models.

Annie Cheney

You did not.

Vivian

I did. Oh, absolutely. And then, he said he'd have to make me a removable denture. So I said to him, when you make it, make it so that the back of it slants in, so that my cheekbones-- my face will be as sunken as it can be.

Annie Cheney

When was this?

Vivian

Well, I've had it maybe for a year and a half. I don't know. Or less.

Annie Cheney

Would you still say that today?

Vivian

Probably.

Annie Cheney

Vivian's wrist bones could easily fit in a child's fist. She wears a little T-shirt, and you can see the way her stomach sticks out, hard as bone, as if someone had inflated her like a balloon. I still think she's beautiful because I hold on to the way she was when I first met her. But listening to her talk scares me. It makes me worry that change is impossible, and that we're stuck with who we are.

Anorectics are good at PR. They can make you believe anything. I should know. My whole family's good at Public Relations. My father was even a PR man. They still issue press releases for my illness. My father says, "You made us a better family." My mother says, "It showed how sensitive and artistic you are." My brother says, "It was a testament to your strength that you got better." But I don't know how it turned out, or if it's over, or if any of the things they are true.

Annie Cheney's Mother

I had half a croissant, toasted, with peach jam, Dad's peach jam that he makes, the non-cook method.

Annie Cheney

That's my mother. Her recording levels are too hot. She's distorting.

Annie Cheney's Mother

Well, I buy these calendars for every year, and they show a month at a time on a page. And I've saved them back to the '60s. It's very interesting. I can see in here when Mrs. Boyle is picking you up from school and who's coming to play, and dentist appointments.

Annie Cheney

As a reporter, I was taught to get the hard facts first. So I start with a written record.

Annie Cheney's Mother

And I see here that all I have on the day that you went in the hospital is that we had a dinner with the Anthonys. And I also had an appointment at your high school, which I gather I didn't keep. But I did put a red star on there, which meant that was the date that you went in the hospital.

Annie Cheney

There's no written record after all, just a red star and a calendar full of details. It's as though that day never happened.

Annie Cheney's Mother

I think it was sort of a denial. I just couldn't believe it.

Annie Cheney

Even though it's not on the calendar, it turns out she remembers everything from that day.

Annie Cheney's Mother

Well, it was the middle of January. It was bitterly cold. I think there was something like an ice storm. There had been terrible ice.

There were no cabs, and we had this very early morning appointment. You refused to put on enough clothing to confront that kind of cold. And so that was horrible enough as it was. And you had no socks, as I recall.

So we had the terrible difficulty that those situations entailed of struggling with you, trying to convince you, and finally deciding we just had to get out of there. And so I think I took some extra things with me, just in case we could persuade you to put them on. And we went outside.

And people were rushing off to offices, and parents were taking their children to school. And we couldn't get a cab anywhere. So we finally went down to the corner and got on the crosstown bus. I think all three of us were standing up in the bus, holding on. It was very crowded. All three of us were standing up, but we were not standing together.

But now that I think about it, it was remarkable that you actually stayed with us. In the past, you'd walk away. You'd leave. You wouldn't come.

We got off the bus, and I remember somehow walking those last six blocks. And it was so bitter. And we tried to cross the street, and it was a sheet of ice.

And Dad was slipping, and you were, I think, slipping. And it was extreme discomfort and despair. And of course, the situation was the same way.

Annie Cheney

My mother's story fits my memory of that whole period, me in the middle of my two parents, slipping in my leopard skin high heel shoes. My mother doesn't mention what got us there, though. In fact, no matter how hard I try to remind her, she won't remember.

Annie Cheney

Do you remember when I took all those pills?

Annie Cheney's Mother

Was that before you went in the hospital? Oh yes, I do remember that, but not too clearly. I remember you were in your room, and you were in your bed. And you were-- what had happened? What kind of pills were they that you took?

Annie Cheney

They were antihistamines.

Annie Cheney's Mother

And what was that supposed to do for you?

Annie Cheney

Sleep forever.

Annie Cheney's Mother

Forever? Oh my god. I guess I must have focused on that. But that's just a terrible memory. Was that in the fall? and what happened? Did you vomit them, and then somehow you woke up? Or did you not take enough, or what? We didn't have to get any emergency service.

Annie Cheney

I didn't take enough.

Annie Cheney's Mother

Oh, that was wonderful.

Annie Cheney

Now, just like then, sometimes the most obvious things go unrecognized.

Annie Cheney's Mother

I almost was wishing that this wasn't happening in what I otherwise thought was a really ideal life. I though, "Ah, everything is so wonderful now. It's so much fun, and I'm enjoying everything. I can't believe this. How could this be happening when everything is going so well?"

Annie Cheney

Starvation gets people's attention when nothing else will. Anorectics know that. I knew that.

I learned it when I was 14. I, at one time, could play all of the movements, which were four movements, I think. And the reason why I played the piece in the first place was that I used to listen to the version that Horowitz played. When I was sick, I would play it over and over and over again in the living room on my father phonograph.

And I remember sitting in this big chair by the window. And I would drink this tea that I always drank when I was sick, because I was freezing all the time. And I would eat a carrot because carrots are the vegetables that are the lowest in calories. And then I would eat the carrot like a corncob because carrots have many layers. So you nibble around the outside level, and then you come to another carrot inside.

At 5:00 in the morning, when it was still dark, the night nurse would come by to check on us. I can remember the sound of her keys clanging. She had a face like an owl and short dark hair that was always a little bit greasy. At night, she gave out medications and extra Tylenol for anyone who couldn't sleep. We would line up like fluttering, bony birds, hunched over in hospital gowns, waiting patiently for a dose of peace.

Then it was snack time, a can or two of chocolate Sustacal for the skinniest and least compliant of us. 10:30, to bed. There's nothing worse when you're sick than to have to lie down with a full stomach. I can remember shaking my legs under the covers, flexing my feet, tightening every muscle to burn up my snack.

When I first moved in, I shared a room with a tall, blonde flight attendant. She was also a nurse. Before she moved into the anorectic ward, she took turns at both jobs, a 12-hour shift at the hospital, and then off on a plane somewhere. She worked 24 hours a day, she said, just to wear herself out. She was the one who taught me how to do aerobics in the closet. We would get up at 5:00 together, turn on our radio just barely enough to hear it, and then we'd jump up and down in our socks.

At 7:00, the day nurse arrived and herded us into the bathroom, where we were supposed to get rid of as much as possible before we got weighed. I remember Vivian standing at the sink, drinking cup after cup of water to throw off the scales and convince the doctor she was eating. But this was in the beginning, when I still wanted to starve and expected everyone else to want to, too.

Weigh-in was sometime after the bathroom visit. We'd go down to the room that had a scale and line up outside, one person at a time only. I'd stand with my back to the scale because I didn't want to watch the numbers. Afterwards, I'd ask how much.

There was always some commotion at weigh-in. Someone would start wailing or shaking or screaming. They didn't want to get on the scale. They didn't want to eat. Go to hell.

There we all were, in a frenzy about our bodies and about facing the truth of the scale. Women with children and husbands, young girls and 20-somethings who looked, at times, 80, and at times, like infants. And then, it was time for breakfast.

Annie Cheney's Father

Well, I had a blueberry muffin, fresh mint tea, fresh raspberries, fresh black raspberries, and a half a bagel and strawberry jam.

Annie Cheney

That's my father in a lounge chair in his favorite spot.

Annie Cheney's Father

We're in historic Columbia County, in the back yard of our home, in what we call "the oasis," looking out over the pool, with a huge tree over our head, rock wall around, and tables and chairs here, so we could eat out here if we ever want to.

Annie Cheney

The thing you have to understand about my father is that he grew up poor, and then he got rich. There are times he remembers when he didn't have enough to eat. Sometimes, he even stole food for his dinner. Now, he's known for his brilliant gourmet cooking.

Annie Cheney's Father

The thing that, of course, absolutely destroyed me, came close to destroying me, was when you suddenly decided you weren't going to eat. And I couldn't believe that I'd worked all that time and tried to provide food and undergone a lot of humiliation in work, where somebody's your boss, and you have things you don't like about it, and everything else. You work to bring home money to help everybody have a good living and eat.

When somebody decides not to eat, that really does throw it back in your face. What the hell have I've been living for? I've been trying to help this family and self-sacrificing and a lot of other stuff. And all of the sudden, somebody's trying to kill themselves by not eating. And you ask yourself, did I have anything to do with this?

Annie Cheney

Anorexia is embarrassing. It embarrassed my father, humiliated him.

Annie Cheney's Father

The thing that still strikes me in my memory, the height of the defiance, was we had gone out to dinner at some restaurant along Columbus. And you got angry at dinner, for a reason I didn't fully understand, because you wouldn't eat, and I was trying to get you to eat, because I thought, this girl, if she keeps this up, she's going to starve to death. I suppose she'd also disgrace me by starving herself to death.

Annie Cheney

And then what? Everyone would just think--

Annie Cheney's Father

Well, no. Everybody would say something was wrong in that household. The parents had something wrong with them, because their child starved herself to death. And it must have been terrible, that she'd want to starve herself to death to get out of that family. So anyway, and I felt like I had an obligation to get you to eat. You're supposed to keep your children alive.

So I followed you down the block there, behind the museum. And I was saying, "Come back. Come back. You have to eat." And you bit me in the arm. I was trying to take a-- And then this man ran up to you and me. And he turned to you, and he said, "What's going on here? Are you all right?" he said to you. I could see he thought I was an abusive parent.

And he was asking you if he should do anything. It was totally humiliating to have a total stranger say, "Should I be helping you," meaning you, not me, "take this brute away," beating him up or getting him out of here so you won't be abused by this guy. I'll tell you, that was very humiliating.

Annie Cheney

What I wanted by whittling myself down to the core was to get my father to see me more clearly, to realize that I was separate from him, and that he should love me anyway, maybe even because we were different. That's what I wanted then, although I never told him.

Annie Cheney's Brother

Today, I had scrambled eggs, toast, raspberries, orange juice, and coffee.

Annie Cheney

When I got sick, my older brother was away at college. Even though he wasn't around that much, he knew something was wrong with me, even before I started to lose weight. And it bothered him because of what it meant about me and what it could mean for him, and because it wasn't supposed to happen.

Annie Cheney's Brother

It was a little strange because you don't really understand why it just pops up, like a mushroom on your lawn one day. Suddenly, it's there. And you're like, "Oh. What is this?" But I just didn't understand how we could be so closely related and have such different interpretations of things and experiences of things.

Annie Cheney

So you felt everything was fine?

Annie Cheney's Brother

Well, I think I didn't want to think that things weren't fine.

Annie Cheney

What do you mean?

Annie Cheney's Brother

Well, I think there was always an emphasis on being perfect in the family. Everything had to be perfect. I liked that idea. I still feel that way in many ways.

I get upset when there's evidence to the contrary that I'm perfect, which is often. I don't like to admit that. Maybe you provided evidence that things might not be perfect by the way you were acting. And I was very upset that you were shattering the glass on this nice window, you know?

Annie Cheney

One way our family was perfect, I mean really perfect, was at the breakfast table.

Annie Cheney's Brother

In our family, there's a lot of dishes. And there's a lot of dishes for different types of courses, and cutlery and silverware. Our table, sometimes I'd look, and there'd be so many plates on the table, you could barely see the table, even for a simple breakfast. So no meal was simple. Everything was very elaborate and formalized and ceremonial, and had a lot of different-- it was very complicated. You could never have a simple breakfast.

Annie Cheney

Like a bowl of cereal or something?

Annie Cheney's Brother

No, no, that could never happen.

Annie Cheney's Mother

A lot of people like to cut corners and not have a full breakfast. But I've always felt it was nice. It was a pleasant experience. And it's one that stays with one. Four glass plates.

Annie Cheney

What are those for?

Annie Cheney's Mother

Well, that goes under the fruit, or whatever else somebody might have, poached eggs, or it depends. I suppose the whole basis of it is that I just like it to look nice. And I think gives you a lift, even if you're just passing through, and you're called to breakfast. And you sit down, and ugh, you think. Oh god, another day. But somehow, it registers.

Or at least, it registers with me. If I have a nice breakfast, and I'm not feeling just great, it helps to improve my mood. So I think it's a nice thing to do.

And I don't like the plates just thrown on the table. I like them to look organized and neat and thoughtfully placed. So sometimes people help me, and they just scatter it on the table. Would you like some raspberries?

Annie Cheney

We ate in the day room, which was always full of stale smoke from the night before. Someone from the kitchen would come up with a contraption on wheels full of trays, each one with a name on it. We'd take our places. Everyone had a special table. One woman had her own, where no one else could sit. No one could touch her tray, either, or talk to her during meals.

Our trays came laden with various pre-measured parcels, Melba toast in packets of four, plastic containers of raisins and peanut butter, all things that we had gone over with the nutritionist the day before. I remember sitting in her office in the afternoon. She'd take out a calculator and the next day's menu and say, "What do you want to eat tomorrow?" "I don't know. I don't want to eat tomorrow."

Every day, there was a schedule, mostly meals interspersed with activities like dance therapy and art therapy, with some snacks in between. At night, after dinner, we'd sit around in a circle next to the television, holding hands and listening to music. A few of us would cry. Some people would smoke cigarettes. And then we'd go to bed.

It went on like that for a while, until one morning, the doctor said he'd put me on the tube if I didn't start eating. I remember leaving his office and turning down the hall and seeing some girls there, who were taking turns walking up and down, judging each other's thighs. Each one said hers were bigger, but none of them were. And it dawned on me then that if I kept going, I might never come back.

And so at lunch that day, I asked the girl next to me if she'd dare me to finish what was on my plate. She did. And from that day on, I ate. And they finally let me out on April Fool's Day, 1988.

Annie Cheney's Mother

I think I had some flowers in your room, where I'd put your favorite sheets on the bed. And you seemed pleased by that. But I very quickly realized how fragile you were. But the helpful thing was that while you were fragile, you also seemed so appreciative of my help.

And there were times when it was so overwhelming that you would just collapse in sobs on your bed. And I remember the nice thing was that I actually felt that I could be helpful to you. And so sometimes I'd just sit and talk to you.

And afterwards, you'd say, "Well, you know, I really appreciate your support." And so that made me feel much better because it was so different than it had been six months before, when it was impossible to reach you. Well anyway, that was a wonderful turning point.

Annie Cheney

When I came home, I ate my breakfast somewhere else until eventually, it got easier, and I started to sit at the table across from my brother again. There were still a lot of plates. And we didn't talk about what had happened. In fact, we haven't really talked about it until now, 10 years later.

Annie Cheney's Mother

Oh, why didn't I keep some kind of journal about this? This was just astounding. Because after a while, your memory's so selective, you don't remember the worst things.

Annie Cheney

To tell you the truth, I'm pretty hard on my parents and the part they played in my illness. But looking back on those times, I also think about my mother and how she kept trying, no matter how often I retreated into my body and refused her help. She sat with me and waited until I was ready to face up to my feelings, I mean, any feelings.

[MUSIC PLAYING - ANNIE CHENEY PLAYING A SCHUMANN PIANO PIECE]

Annie Cheney

I'll try it again. The same area where I made the mistakes before, I can't remember how to get out of the mistakes. I mean there's a certain chord, and then if I play that chord, then I can get out of the mistake I'm going to make. But I can never remember which chord it is.

[MUSIC PLAYING - ANNIE CHENEY PLAYING A SCHUMANN PIANO PIECE]

I still don't know if I'm completely better. There are times even now when I prefer hard bones over softness and sorrow, when I don't want to know the truth. For instance, I never asked my brother if I could interview him for this story. I thought he might embarrass me or tell me something I didn't want to hear. It was my mother who told me later that he felt left out and that I should talk to him.

Annie Cheney's Brother

Yeah, I think that just played into a lot of the feelings I had at the time, when I was like, "Well, why haven't I been asked?" I'm not going to go over and ask you, "Why haven't you interviewed me?" Because I had assumed there was--

Annie Cheney

Well, why not?

Annie Cheney's Brother

Well, because I don't feel it's my place to come and like, "Oh, can I please be interviewed?" Because I feel like if you have to ask, it would be very demeaning. It felt demeaning to me. And I feel like you should have, as a reporter, looked for all the sides of the story. You want some selective version of what happened. And you were afraid I was going to bring up something--

Annie Cheney

I have to admit, I did want my brother to come to me.

Annie Cheney's Brother

You're not doing your job as a reporter.

Annie Cheney

In some ways, anorexia was about having other people come to me.

Annie Cheney's Brother

--avoiding the landmines and just sticking--

Annie Cheney

I wanted relationships on my terms. My father's like that, too. When I was still in the hospital, and I was starting to get better, I called him up and asked him if he'd take me to the movies. He said he'd take me if I gained half a pound. And so we didn't go.

Annie Cheney's Father

We were trying to coerce each other and defy each other. We were locked in some kind of a grip of anger and defiance. It was as if one of the Greek gods had decided to punish us for hubris.

Annie Cheney

Where'd that come from?

Annie Cheney's Father

The hubris came from our presumably thinking we were doing all the right things, going to a private school, being able to afford what we were able to afford, and buying things and having a materially successful life and whatever set of-- having some kind of reverence for each other. What did I tell you? Sometimes I think the only thing that makes a difference is the passage of time.

You make all kinds of mistakes. But time passes, and then somehow, things get cured a little bit. And life goes on in a new way. Yup. Well, I'll take you to the movies sometime.

Annie Cheney

OK.

Tell me what you had for breakfast.

Vivian

I had anxiety laden with a very thin coating of agitation. And it was coupled with a cup of very lukewarm pseudo-comfort, in the form of an anti-depressant.

Annie Cheney

After I finished interviewing my parents, I went back to talk to Vivian again. And I asked her how she felt, and if she thought she'd ever get better. She said she realized, finally, what she'd done, and how her body would never be the same again.

Vivian

I realized I've lost all my back teeth due to my illness. I'm getting old. I've hurt myself. I'm falling apart. And I started crying.

Annie Cheney

Ten seconds later, she told me this.

Vivian

I desperately want to lose weight. I am desperate to lose weight.

Annie Cheney

I could tell you she's going to find a way out, and I could tell you she's never going to change, and both things would be true. And she'd tell you the same thing.

As for me, I've started going out with my microphone looking for stories that I want to tell. I talked to one woman named Louise who started making hats out of carpet scraps when she was diagnosed with skin cancer.

Louise

And they really do a good job. They healed my cancer.

Annie Cheney

She told me she's really excited about the rest of her life because she finally feels like she can be herself.

Louise

I'm past 90 now.

Annie Cheney

You are?

Louise

Mm-hmm. And someday, I'll die, whether I want to or not.

Annie Cheney

She played the piano for me, a song she learned when she was 12 and still remembers.

Vivian

Here's the Chopin prelude.

[MUSIC PLAYING - A CHOPIN PRELUDE PLAYED BY LOUISE]

Annie Cheney

I went out and got the sheet music for the Schumann piece.

[MUSIC PLAYING - ANNIE CHENEY PLAYING A SCHUMANN PIANO PIECE]

I've even played it and gotten past that chord.

[MUSIC PLAYING - ANNIE CHENEY PLAYING A SCHUMANN PIANO PIECE]

Ira Glass

Annie Cheney's story was produced by Jay Allison as part of his Life Stories series, with help from Tina Egloff and funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Coming up, Lord of the Flies enacted with tacos, baby carrots, and a gallon of 1% milk. That's in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two. Lunch.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of stories on that theme. Today's program, You Gonna Eat That? Three stories of three families at three meals. Act One was about breakfast. We have arrived at Act Two, Lunch. In this act, we hear things strictly from the parent's point of view. We have this story from Ian Frazier, "Laws Concerning Food and Drink; Household Principles; Lamentations of the Father."

Peter Sagal

Of the beasts of the field and of the fishes of the sea and of all foods that are acceptable in my sight, you may eat, but not in the living room. Of the hoofed animals, broiled and ground into burgers, you may eat, but not in the living room. Of the cloven-hoofed animal, plain or with cheese, you may eat, but not in the living room.

Of the cereal grains, of the corn and of the wheat and of the oats, and of all the cereals that are of bright color and unknown provenance, you may eat, but not in the living room. Of the quiescently frozen dessert, and of all frozen after-meal treats, you make eat, but absolutely not in the living room. Of the juices and other beverages, yes, even of those in sippy cups, you may drink, but not in the living room. Neither may you carry such therein.

Indeed, when you reach the place where the living room carpet begins, of any food or beverage, there you may not eat. Neither may you drink. But if you are sick and are lying down and watching something, then you may eat in the living room.

And if you are seated in your high chair, or in a chair such as a greater person might use, keep your legs and feet below you, as they were. Neither raise up your knees, nor place your feet upon the table, for that is an abomination to me. Yes, even when you have an interesting bandage to show, your feet upon the table are an abomination, and worthy of rebuke.

Drink your milk as it is given to you. Neither use on it any utensils, nor fork, nor knife, nor spoon, for that is not what they are for. If you will dip your blocks in the milk and lick it off, you will be sent away. When you have drunk, let the empty cup then remain upon the table and do not by bite it upon its edge and by your teeth, hold it to your face in order to make noises in it, sounding like a duck, for you will be sent away.

When you chew your food, keep your mouth closed until you have swallowed and do not open it to show your brother or your sister what is within. I say to you, do not so, even if your brother or your sister has done the same to you.

Eat your food only. Do not eat that which is not food. Neither seize the table between your jaws, nor use the raiment or the table to wipe your lips. I say again to you, do not touch it, but leave it as it is.

And though your stick of carrot does indeed resemble a marker, draw not with it upon the table, even in pretend, for we do not do that, that is why. And though the pieces of broccoli are very like small trees, do not stand them upright to make a forest, because we do not do that, that is why. Sit just as I have told you and do not lean to one side or the other, nor slide down until you are nearly slid away. Heed me, for if you sit like that, your hair will go into the syrup. And now behold, even as I have said, it has come to pass.

For we judge between the plate that is unclean and the plate that is clean, saying first, if the plate is clean, than you shall have dessert. But of the unclean plate, the laws are these. If you have eaten most of your meat and two bites of your peas, with each bite consisting of not less than three peas each, or in total, six peas, eaten where I can see, and you have also eaten enough of your potatoes to fill two forks, both forkfuls eaten where I can see, then you shall have dessert.

But if you eat a lesser number of peas and yet you eat the potatoes, still, you shall not have dessert. And if you eat the peas, yet leave the potatoes uneaten, you shall not have dessert, no, not even a small portion thereof. And if you try to deceive by moving the potatoes or peas around with a fork, that it may appear you have eaten what you have not, you will fall into iniquity. And I will know. And you shall have no dessert.

Do not scream, for it is as if you scream all the time. If you are given a plate on which two foods you do not wish to touch each other are touching each other, your voice rises up even to the ceiling, while you point to the offense with the finger of your right hand. But I say to you, scream not. Only remonstrate gently with the server that the server may correct the fault.

Likewise, if you receive a portion of fish from which every piece of herbal seasoning has not been scraped off, and the herbal seasoning is loathsome to you and steeped in vileness, again I say, refrain from screaming. Though the vileness overwhelm you and cause you a faint unto death, make not that sound from within your throat. Neither cover your face nor press your fingers to your nose, for even now, I have made the fish as it should be. Behold, I eat of it myself, yet do not die.

Cast your countenance upward to the light and lift your eyes to the hills, that I may more easily wash you off. For the stains are upon you, even to the very back of your head there is rice thereon. And in your breast pocket of your garment, and upon the tie of your shoe, rice and other fragments are distributed in a manner wonderful to see. Only hold yourself still, hold still, I say.

Give each finger in its turn for my examination thereof, and also each thumb. Lo, how iniquitous they appear. What I do is as it must be, and you shall not go hence until I have done.

Bite not, lest you be cast into quiet time. Neither drink of your own bath water, nor of bath water of any kind, nor rub your feet on bread, even if it be in the package, nor rub yourself against cars, nor against any building, nor eat sand. Leave the cat alone, for what has the cat done that you should so afflict it with tape? And hum not that humming in your nose as I read, nor stand between the light and the book. Indeed, you will drive me to madness. Nor forget what I said about the tape.

O my children, you are disobedient. For when I tell you what you must do, you argue and dispute hotly, even to the littlest detail. And when I do not accede, you cry out and hit and kick. Yes, and even sometimes do you spit and shout "stupid-head" and other blasphemies, and hit and kick the wall in the molding thereof when you are sent to the corner.

And though the law teaches that no one shall be sent to the corner for more minutes than he has years of age, yet I would leave you there all day, so mighty am I in anger. But upon being sent to the corner, you ask straight away, "Can I come out?" And I reply, "No, you may not come out." And again you ask, and again I give the same reply. But when you ask again a third time, then you may come out.

Hear me, O my children, for the bills, they kill me. I pay and pay again, even to the 12th time in a year, and yet again, they mount higher than before. For our health, that we may be covered, I give 620 talents 12 times in a year, but even this covers not the 1,500 deductible for each member of the family within a calendar year. And yet for ordinary visits, we still are not covered, nor for many medicines, nor for the teeth within our mouths. Guess not at what rage is in my mind, for surely, you cannot know.

For I will come to you at the first of the month and at the 15th of the month with the bills and a great whining, and moan. And when the month of taxes comes, I will decry the wrongs and unfairness of it and mourn with wine and ashtrays and rend my receipts. And you shall remember that I am that I am, before, after, and until you are 21. Hear me, then, and avoid me in my wrath, O children of me.

Ira Glass

Ian Frazier is a humor writer, essayist, and nonfiction writer. His collection of humor pieces is called Coyote v. Acme, from Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux. This story was read for us by Peter Sagal, a new father himself, and host of NPR's news quiz program, Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me.

[MUSIC PLAYING - "MEAT MAN" BY JERRY LEE LEWIS]

Act Three. Dinner.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Dinner. Well, all this hour, we've been hearing stories of parents and children. Now, a story of when the children have to become the parents, and what happens. When Dave Eggers's parents died, he was 21. His sister, Beth, was 23. And his brother, Toph, was 8. Dave took custody of Toph, and the two of them moved from Illinois to Berkeley. His sister lived nearby. This story takes place about a year into his sudden and unexpected turn at parenthood, parenting his brother.

Dave Eggers

Dinner is really the only meal we treat in any remotely formal way. Our days work like this-- first, Toph wakes up at 4:00, 4:30 in the morning, so as to allow 10 minutes to shower, 10 minutes to dress, half an hour to make and eat breakfast, finish his homework, and pack his launch, and at least three and a half hours for cartoons.

At 8:45, he wakes me up. At 8:50, he wakes me up again. At 8:55, he wakes me up one more time. And, while yelling at him because he's late, I drive him to school.

I park our little red car next to the school on the east side, where I've been told in four separate flyers and one personal note, is not to used for the loading or unloading of children. Then I grab a piece of paper from his backpack and compose a note. "Dear Mrs. Richardson, I am sorry Toph is late this morning. I could make up something about an appointment or a sickness, but the fact is that we woke up late. Sincerely, Dave Eggers." He reads the note. "We woke up late?" I give him the look. "Fine," he says.

Then, depending on whether or not we like each other that day, I try to do the across the bucket seats hug. I reach over, pull him near, and say, "Your hat smells like urine," because it does. "No, it doesn't," he says. It does.

"Smell it," I say. "I'm not going to smell it," he says. "You should wash it," I say. "It doesn't smell," he says. "Whatever," I say. "Whatever," he mimics. "That's good," I say. "I like that." Then I go to work.

After school, my sister, Beth, picks him up, and she stays at our house until I get home, at which point, Beth and I try to fight about something extremely important and lasting. "Can you not make such a mess when you come over here?" "Mess? Look at this place? Mess?" And once we have done this, she leaves. Then Toph and I cook.

The menu from which we choose consists of seven items and seven items only, which we rotate with mathematical precision. Here are the highlights. One, stir-fried beef. Sirloin strips, sliced and sauteed in Kikkoman brand soy sauce, cooked until black, served with tortillas, and eaten by hand. On the side, we have potatoes, served in the French manner, and sliced oranges and apples, in a bowl.

Two, tacos en fuego. Ground beef sauteed in Prego spaghetti sauce, traditional style, served with tortillas and without additional embellishment. Pillsbury crescent rolls and iceberg salad served on the side. Three, pizza pronto, served with pepperoni, courtesy of Pizza Hut. Served with a small salad.

Four, grilled cheese quesadilla dinner. Grilled cheese served with one slice of Kraft American cheese set in the middle of two pieces of seeded Jewish rye, toasted in pan and cut diagonally. Quesadillas prepared in skillet with tortillas and American cheese.

Note-- no spices are available. There is no salt, no pepper, no parsley, sage, rosemary, or thyme. No vegetables are available, except baby carrots, pre-cut celery, cucumbers, green beans, and iceberg lettuce, all served raw and only raw. Pasta is not available because it smells funny and is too slithery.

All meals are served with a tall glass of 1% milk with the gallon jug resting on the floor next to the table for convenient refills. Alternative beverages are not available. Anything not on the menu is not available. Any complaints will be handled quickly and with severity.

We cook about four times a week. "Hey, I need your help," I say when I need his help cooking. "OK," he says, and then he helps out with the cooking.

Sometimes we sing while we're cooking. We sing regular words, words about pouring the milk or getting the spaghetti sauce or microwaving the tortillas, but we sing them in opera style. We can sing lots of different ways, but the opera style is pretty impressive. People have said so. Sometimes while cooking, we have sword fights with wooden spoons, or with the dowels that used to hold up the drapes.

It's an unsaid mission of mine, the source of which is sometimes clear and sometimes not, to keep things moving, to entertain the boy, to keep him on his toes. For a while, we would chase each other around the house, from bathroom to kitchen to bathroom, mouths full of water, threatening to spit. Of course, neither of us would have ever thought of actually spitting a mouthful of water at the other inside the house. Until one night, when I had him cornered in the kitchen, I just went ahead and did it. Things have been devolving ever since. I've stuck a half cantaloupe into his face. I've rubbed a handful of banana into his chest, poured a glassful of apple juice on his head. It's all part of an effort, I'm guessing, to let him know, if it weren't already pretty obvious, that we're not in Kansas anymore, or Illinois.

There's a voice inside me, a very excited, chirpy voice, that urges me to keep things merry, madcap even, the mood buoyant. Because Beth is always pulling out old photo albums, crying, and asking Toph how he feels, I feel like I have to overcompensate, keep us occupied. I'm making our lives a music video, a game show on Nickelodeon, with quick cuts, crazy camera angles, lots of fun, fun, fun. It's a campaign of distraction and disinformation, leaflets dropped behind enemy lines, flares and fireworks, funny dances, shell games, magic tricks. What's that? Lookie there. Where'd it go?

In the kitchen, when the inspiration strikes, I take out the family's 17-inch turkey knife, plant my legs square to him, squat a little, and hold the knife over my head samurai style. "Hiiiii!" I yell. "Don't," Toph says, backing away. "Huaa!" I yell, stepping toward him, because threatening children with 17-inch knives is funny. "Not funny," he says, halfway up the stairs. I put the knife away.

"Dad used to do that all the time," I say. "Out of the blue, he'd get this look on his face, this bug-eyed sort of look, and act like you he was going to split our heads open with the knife." "Sounds funny," says Toph. "Yeah," I say. "It was real funny."

Sometimes while we cook, he tells me about things that happened at school. "What happened today?" I ask. He gives me the full rundown, who's a dork and who's OK, what everyone wrote their papers on, the whole thing. One time, he said this. "Today, Carl told me that he hopes you and Beth are in a plane, and that the plane crashes, and that you both die, just like Mom and Dad." "They didn't die in a plane crash," I say. "I told him that," he says.

Sometimes I call the parents of Toph's classmates. "Yeah, that's what he said," I say. "It's hard enough, you know," I say, pouring it on. "No, he's OK. He's fine. I just don't know why Carl would say that. I mean, why do you suppose your son wants me and Beth to die in a plane crash? I just couldn't help wondering," I say. "No, no, he's fine. Don't worry about us. You should worry about young Carl there. I just wanted to let you know," I say. They'll let anyone be parents.

During dinner, when there's basketball on, we watch the Bulls on cable. Otherwise, between bites, we play gin or crazy eights. If the dining room table is in ping pong mode, we eat on the coffee table. If the coffee table is in homework mode, we eat on the family room floor. If the family room floor is covered with plates from the night before, we eat in Toph's room on the carpet, watching his portable TV, which sits next to his bed. I know, I know.

The kitchen table, which is usually clean and has chairs around, and has room for plates and glasses and silverware, is out of the question. I mean, where's the fun in that? And where's the challenge?

After dinner, we play games for our own amusement and the edification of the neighbors. One game involves the cracking of the leather belt to simulate some well-deserved corporal punishment. Most involve Toph pretending that he's a kid, while I pretend I'm a parent.

"Dad, can I drive the car?" he asks as I sit reading the paper. "No, son, you can't," I say, without looking up. "But why?" "Because I said so." "But Dad." "I said no." "I hate you I hate you, I hate you, I hate you," he shrieks. Then he runs to his room and slams the door.

After a second, he opens the door. "Was that good?" He asks. "Yeah," I say. "That was pretty good."

Ira Glass

Dave Eggers edits the journal Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern and is finishing a book about raising Toph, from which this story was taken. Toph is now in high school, doing just fine.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and myself with Alix Spiegel and Julie Snyder, contributing editors Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and Consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from [? Emmie Takehara, ?] Todd Bachmann, and Sylvia Lemus. Music help today from John Connors.

[ACKNOWLEDGMENTS]

If you'd like to buy a cassette of this program or any of our programs, they make perfect Christmas presents. Call us here at WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380. 312-832-3380. Our email address, radio@well.com Or you can listen to most of our programs for free on the internet at our website, www.thislife.org. Thanks to Elizabeth Meister, who runs the site. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who warns you, if you do not pledge to your public radio station--

Peter Sagal

You will fall into iniquity, and I will know. And you shall have no dessert.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Peter Sagal

And now behold, even as I have said, it has come to pass.

Announcer

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