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January 24, 2006

Chicken Charge

Posted by Phil on January 24, 2006 8:39 AM

I took Max and Tommy to Chick-fil-A for dinner last night so Cindy could do some work. Chick-fil-A has a playland, which is why we go there. I'm not really a fan of the chicken.

We didn't used to have Chick-fil-A in this area. I started noticing it when we moved to New York, and I guess it had the exotic aura of fast-food chains you don't have at home--like Roy Rogers, or Jack-In-The-Box. I probably only went there once, though, and when we moved back I didn't much care that it was here (except this one used to be a Boston Market, which I like better) until Max and I were out last month and it finally registered that they have a playland. In the winter, fast-food playlands are like an oasis sighted across burning sands, and the McDonald's ones are too far away.

Anyway, apparently Chick-fil-A is, like, very Christian. I never picked up on it the one or two times I got a sandwich there in New York (which makes sense, being it was New York). This one, though, has big signs stating, half defensively, half proudly, that they're CLOSED SUNDAYS, because you know where you're supposed to be on Sundays, and it's not at Chick-fil-A. Even the Chairman of Chick-fil-A knows that!

Everybody's very scrubbed and nice, and they give away Veggie Tales CDs with their kids meals, which two years ago I wouldn't have thought was any different from Spongebob Squarepants, but now I know differently. ("Sunday morning VALUES, Saturday morning FUN.") The printed matter on the sacks and table cards is heavy on the themes of family and learning and parenting. The most pervasive thing is that they play Contemporary Christian music in the dining area. It dawns on you slowly, because you can't hear the words, and it has the same aural presence as regular pop music--hippity beats, kooshy guitars, melodramatic singing with lots of that vocal effect that sounds like gargling--but after awhile you realize you haven't heard a single song you know, and every now and then words like "glory" and "praise" and "mountain" bubble up. It cloaks the air like a sweet, heavy fog.

The clientele, too, seems self-selected, different from McDonald's or Burger King. For one thing, the other families all seem to have, like, two or three more kids than you're used to seeing. Five kids--what is the deal? Did they just have the extras because they could? They don't need 'em to work the farm! A couple of the families had the woolly, insular look of home-schoolers. At first I thought they were Europeans, or maybe just deep-rural types, their hair and clothes a half-step off what you're used to in style and fit. They communicate with each other in a clipped, efficient shorthand, yet the children are strangely slow with social cues from outsiders. They're clearly intelligent, but the behavior and body carriage of apparent 10- or 12-year-olds seems stuck at about age 6, and you get delayed reactions and probing, discomfiting looks negotiating the door to the playland, the queue in the bathroom, or throwing trash away. "In or out, kid, for crying out loud." There's always a babe-in-arms and a toddler whom nobody's ever watching as closely as it seems like they should, because between Mom, Dad, and the two or three older kids, they all think someone else is watching--and it's a good thing I was, or little Jonah would've gotten his fingers pinched in the playland door at least twice.

Anyway, these people obviously know what Chick-fil-A "is," and that is why they're here. Me, I had no idea. It's weird to go to a place for sandwiches and a playland, and realize you've stumbled into some sort of sanctum. There's a sense that they are at ease here--welcomed, and comfortable in a way that they are not in other places. They're glad to know that, come Sunday, employees of Chick-fil-A will be home with their own families (or working second jobs to support them). There are friendly glances among the parents, delighted and exasperated by their children. The children, the children--it is so clearly all about the children.

I am welcome, too, with my adorable blue-eyed boys and my wedding-ringed finger. And it's nice--safe and clean. I don't have to worry about mean kids who smell like cigarettes teaching my son cusswords and homophobic slurs. No--now I have to worry about my kid infecting playland with the viral bacilli of movie or superhero talk, or blurting out one of the more scarlet euphemisms we toss around at our house.

So I'm alternately tense, amused, and creeped out. I know I'm not one of them here at Chick-fil-A. But, other than the fact that the corporation probably donates to Republicans (which is surely bad enough), what exactly is my problem with these people? American culture is coarse and cruel. I've got an open mind in terms of lifestyle and behavior, but I understand and share the impulse to keep my kids safe and sheltered and "nice." It's nice that Chick-fil-A and the people in it are spreading niceness.

I don't know what level of Christian fundamentalism Chick-fil-A rises to, and maybe I wouldn't have a problem with the messages, programs, and politicians they support. But whether or not these other customers actually are exemplars of the Christian home-schooling movement, there is something that they've reminded me to be bothered by. Quite apart from notions of religious bigotry or what I think they think God thinks about what I think, I can't relate to this growing trend towards self-stratification: breeding closed-circuit clans to be educated and isolated away from the rest of us.

All families have their own weird language, and I want our family to be my boys' most important social unit for years to come, but I also want them to be able to move and converse in the culture at large. I'd like to be surrounded by persons with minds like my own (unfortunately, we don't have the numbers, especially not here in the heartland), but such isolation only dooms your worldview to invalidity and oblivion. (Unless you think like this guy. When did Saruman the Wise abandon reason for madness?)

Growing up is hard, and kids are mean, and growing up without becoming mean yourself is probably the primary challenge of being human. If their kids can't manage it out here with the rest of us, then they have failed them as parents in a fundamental way. And they're no help to us, either.

Chick-fil-A makes a pretty mediocre chicken sandwich, although I kind of like those waffle fries, and their fruit cup is pretty good. We go there because they have a playland, and because those people need to hear Max sing his song about how if your butt was in the front, it'd be easier to see.

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hey from your old friend phylo...with FOUR kids, who lives in insular Iowa...there's something profoundly disturbing about your take on christian family values, I'll have to come out of my fog of Christian background music to articulate it. I know some homeschooling families come across with a we are better than thou attitude as do many Christians, but can you really make such sweeping judgments on the basis of what you see while eating a chicken sandwich? I could write an equally stinging essay about the liberal couples I see sipping cafe au lait on Saturday morning at Barnes & Noble while their 2 kids run around unattended, but like any family with any values, they are probably pretty decent folks doing the best they can to raise kids that will be good human beings.

You need to get to know our friends the Murrays who homeschool their 9 kids and they are some of the most creative highly social kids I know. Some homeschooling families are probably too insulated, but I've known some that have some pretty awesome kids.

Posted by: phyllis at January 24, 2006 8:40 PM

Great to hear from you, Phylo; sorry I got you riled up. I thought I might hear from the Peters on this--otherwise, my generalizations would have been even more crass and sweeping. I certainly could have provided more caveats, but what do you expect? I'm a polemicist!

I don't disparage Christian family values--I have Christian family values. What I disparage are Christian Family Values[TM], and the intolerance, paranoia, and authoritarianism they represent to me. As I said, I don't know what brand of Christianity Chick-fil-A represents. I'm just saying it was weird to realize I was in a place very different than what I thought it was.

Of course there are many wonderful Christians and many excellent homeschoolers. You know them, I know them--I'm not being at all smirky or snide when I say that. I was talking about the extremes of that philosophy (and, yes, there are extreme leftist homeschoolers, too). The extremists were what I thought of, sitting in that carefully crafted atmosphere.

I'll stand by what I said about the people--and they're out there--who are consciously separating their families and communities from society to shelter and indoctrinate their children with righteous intolerance. I'm sorry I left the impression that I thought all homeschoolers do that. I'm sure your friends aren't doing that: I wasn't talking about them.

Perhaps such extremists are so few and inconsequential that it's foolish to let thoughts of them trouble me. But when there are new battles over gay rights, reproductive rights, end-of-life rights, and even the teaching of evolution, you'll have to forgive me if I'm feeling more besieged by religious fundamentalists than by liberal extremists these days.

What makes me saddest is that I live in a city that should have a thriving public school system, but it doesn't, because people on all sides are segregating themselves into private enclaves of wealth and religion, and demanding tax rebates to subsidize it. I can't think of anything more patriotic than sending my kids to public school, and I desperately want to do it--but I'm not going to, either, if it means they have to endure poor facilities, kids who aren't there to learn, and indifferent, overworked teachers. To the extent that homeschooling is a part of this anti-democratic trend, it bothers me.

And I'm not backing off what I said about the music in there, either.

Posted by: pk at January 25, 2006 8:52 AM

Other than God and factory farming, it is difficult to figure out what Truett Cathy believes in. He does make a mean waffle fry, though.

I recall a couple friends in Georgia working there in high school and receiving substantial college scholarships from the chain's scholarship fund. I believe they have a program that any high school employee can qualify for after two years of work. I've always had a soft spot for the chain for that reason.

(And while I usually agree with you, being the 2nd in a family of 5, I did take offense to your comment about the "extras.")

Posted by: Cristina at January 25, 2006 4:48 PM

I've written many thousands of words over many hundreds of days, most of it to little apparent notice, but I've sure drawn fire with this one. Whatever combination of flip and self-deprecating I was going for apparently just did not come off. The whole thing was supposed to be kind of Twilight Zone-y, like, "Here I am at Chick-fil-A," and then I'm all, "Whoa, what is this place?" I was "riffing," you see, but I guess it was more conceptual than funny, then I got sort of serious and a little personal.

So I'll gladly retract and apologize for the line about the "extra" kids. It may be surprising to learn that I actually do cut words from my posts, and sometimes things are left standing without the explainers and qualifiers that once padded them. That line came both from a mock finger-wagging rooted in the modern societal "norm" of 2.3 children, and from my own experience as a parent of two, which makes me wonder if anyone who has more than three is actually insane. But it was all getting a little Bombeck-ian, so I cut it down to just the "farm" line, which I thought was a real zinger. Guess not.

Look, all of my grandparents came from big farm families of six or more children, and both I and my sister and my parents benefitted richly from having all those great aunts and uncles. Affectionate old people! Dozens of them! All of them wishing me nothing but goodwill!

Big families are great! Also, I really do like people, including many Americans and Christians!

Posted by: pk at January 25, 2006 5:41 PM

it was excellent writing, that's why you got us riled up, because it was great descriptive writing. And yes, we are slightly insane to have more than 2 children, but it is a good craziness, nothing sweeter than having a surly 15 year old wrestling with his little brother, a family dynamic we wouldn't experience if we had quit at two. I just don't understand why homeschool families sometimes evoke such anger from the liberal front. I actually know a liberal family who homeschools though, they didn't want their children's creative, non-conformist outlook on life squelched.
I guess I admire a business who puts their values into play- Ben & Jerry's does their thing, why shouldn't Chick-fil-a close on Sundays?
I do understand the music criticism though, most of it is awful, I get the same sickly sweet feeling when I go into a Christian bookstore. One of our seminary friends called the stuff in such stores "Jesus junk".

Posted by: phyllis at January 25, 2006 8:28 PM

I was going to write a lengthy reply, but I am kind of worn out from our Wednesday evening "Bible Explorers". It's a weekday Bible education program our church offers for children pre-k through 5th grade. Tonight we looked up just the right Bible verses to put on the placards we are making for our Brokeback Mountain protest.

ok, I am lying.

Posted by: thp at January 25, 2006 9:19 PM