Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Rethink Thanksgiving

Maybe this will be my new Thanksgiving tradition — trying to change it.

Maybe I'll trot this turkey to the fore each  year to urge people to rethink the holiday. It'll take time before change gonna come.

After all, Jon Carroll doesn't expect to transform holiday charity in one go. That's why each year the San Francisco Chronicle columnist writes an entertaining variation on the same idea, which he calls the Untied Way. He proposes a charity of purest efficiency, calling on people simply to withdraw money from their ATM accounts (as much as is comfortable) and amble down the street, distributing the $20s to those who ask. Givers, Carroll says, should give without favor or fear whether recipients might misspend the gift. Here's Carroll's 2012 appeal. Slowly, slowly, I think, he's winning converts.

So it will be, I suppose, with my Rethink Thankgiving™® campaign.

My proposal is simple: Thanksgiving is for giving thanks; it is not for eating turkey.

We think it's for turkey. All our media perpetuates this conclusion. Lord knows National Public Radio, my daily companion, talks turkey. And talks and talks and talks. Radio doesn't do food very well, but NPR is undeterred, betraying its patrician sensibilities on all its various and sundry shows (hell, Science Friday!) for the Haute Cuisine that should be Thanksgiving. Heaven forfend your turkey come out dry! Worse than scabs and boils!

Tomorrow, I'm sure, I'll have to hear Susan Stamberg's goddamn family cranberry relish recipe (sounds awful! tastes terrific!) on Morning Edition. Again. But I digress.

Executing Rethink Thanksgiving©™ will be difficult but also daring adventure for all willing to try it. It'll take a month of Thanksgivings — maybe a year of them — to change any minds, and once changed, what will they do with Thanksgiving?

Give thanks, of course! Which can — and should — take many forms.

Now, though, it takes one form, and it's often not for the giving of thanks.
Editor's note: Please, for god's sake, don't get me wrong. I am not saying, "Don't eat turkey!" If turkey and trimmings and tradition are the way you give and share thanks, then give it, by all means. Enjoy!

A lot of people this time of year hanker for Thanksgiving — conditioned to it, perhaps — and the smells and crisp air spur memories and longing, and some people play touch football with old friends home from break, etc. etc. etc. I get it.

What I'm saying is that if Thanksgiving means solely the construction and deconstruction of a meal based around a turkey, do something else to give thanks.

I'm not anti-turkey. I'm pro thanks.
Many times I watched my mom go through the Six Stages of Thanksgiving. You're probably familiar with them.

First came Hope, the buoyant deliverance that This Year Will be Different Though All its Parts Will Be the Same, that the bosom of family would resemble the ideal in Technicolor™© on the TV.

Stage 2: Resolve, as the wave of work involved for The Day rose to its crest, the weight of it become a vertical wall leaning forward. Loud sighs issued and kitchen drawers opened and closed in quick succession.

Industry was Stage 3, the surfing of said wave, in various bowls of cold and wet and steaming and whipped foods going through their own stages of being cooked and prepared.

Next came Anxiety, as the wave of work finally crested to crash into ruins and too-cold, not-enough, burned-through substances, and no amount of help or getting out of the way would usher success.

Stage Five was Recrimination for the expectation of others to have this feast on the table in the first place. Asking why Thanksgiving dinner was to be eaten at 3 p.m. anyway was ill-advised at this stage. Nor did helping help.

The final stage was Detente, as mom burned slowly at the table  and we all made every attempt to show appreciation for the dinner and defuse any chance that dad might say something to reignite a volcano. In all the meal, so much turkey and creamed beans with bacon and glorified rice and stuffing and cranberry relish in the shape of the can it came in and potatoes and gravy and crescent rolls, got eaten in 22 minutes, mostly in silence.

That's not Thanksgiving. That's what many families and friends do, but that doesn't make it Thanksgiving. And so tense. So tense. 

Thanksgiving needn't even be a meal, though meals make it a good reason to gather whom you should thank. Thanksgiving need be time and space.

My model for Rethink Thanksgiving is a walk in the park with sandwiches for the meal. Homemade, from the sandwich shop — cheese and crackers! Soup! — it doesn't matter. Just time together.

But that's just an example. Thanksgiving can take a multitude of forms.

The keys are (1) gathering or being gathered, and (2) having a shared expectation of Giving Thanks.

When I was in fifth or sixth grade I composed a prayer that I read at the Thanksgiving table for grace. It was appreciated, but we are not a people given to do such things. I think we secretly wanted to be such people but did not know the first thing about how to give or receive thanks in that way. I felt embarrassed, not by anything anyone did or didn't do, because I know my family loved and supported me, even for trying a homemade heartfelt grace. Mostly I felt embarrassed because it wasn't something we did.

Thanks should be the high point of Rethink Thanksgiving®™. No one has to make a gesture of thanks, but everyone should know he or she can, and it will be returned in kind.

My point: Give thanks. Be thankful for what you have, for the people who make your life what it is. Gather those people around if you can. If you can't, give thanks in other ways: A phone call, a donation, an act of generosity to those who could use one. Maybe that act, that donation, is a turkey, but it doesn't have to be.

Our expectation for a high feast and more food than we can justify only intensifies our divisions: The haves have in abundance, the have-nots want for this one day what the haves have. Food lockers around the country struggle mightily to fulfill that want, and we donate if we can to assuage our separateness, but the other days go on, the divisions remain, just less visible.


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