Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Walking Bird Day Lesson 3: How to Make It through Your Family’s Thanksgiving Dinner without Making Enemies, an Ultimatum or a Complete Ass of Yourself
It’s hard to find fault with the Thanksgiving workweek. Barring any Dickensian employment practices at your office, you can count on spending three days at work and two days far, far away from your cubicle. Not too shabby…until you take into account that most of us will spending those supposed two days of rest and relaxation with our families. But before you break into a nervous rash or deliberately try to ground every U.S. airline to prevent your homecoming, just sit down, take a deep breath and memorize the following tips to help you make the best of Turkey Day.
• Sit at the children’s table: The kids’ dinnertime conversations may be less than engaging, their food will constantly be in mid-air and, let’s face it, children are never in a position to float you a crucial sum of cash. But when was the last time a five-year-old turned to you and said, “Well, well, well. Hung over and a vegetarian to boot on what may very well be your grandmother’s last Thanksgiving meal. My, isn’t that so…now.”
• Bring a friend: Many people invite a friend to their family’s Thanksgiving meal with the belief that their parents are far less likely to critique you in front of someone they don’t readily have dirt on. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, cutting comments once phrased directly to you will now be delivered as an series of endless Trivial Pursuit questions to your unsuspecting, uncomfortable guest. Questions such as “What do you think of a daughter who never calls?” “How come he can’t come on weekends and help his 72-year-old father with the leaves?” “Did you know when he was little he was terrified of the color yellow and would burst into tears upon seeing a lemon?” While such an interrogation may seem initially mortifying (and ultimately scarring), just keep focusing on the big picture. After all, the next time you find yourself ranting on and on to friends about your meshugenah parents—like the Friday immediately following Thanksgiving—your invited pal will be right behind you the whole time, saying, “Believe me, everything he said is the God’s honest truth.” Of course, the downside is that while you’re looking at all the relatives gathered around the holiday feast thinking, “Jesus, how on earth could I be related to all these nut jobs?” your guest is looking around thinking, “Ah, now it all makes sense.”
• Show up sporting at least one radical cosmetic change: In military camps and NRA-supporter households this is known as the “draw away the line of fire” approach. Rather than leave yourself open to the usual round of family remarks—knocking your career direction, love life, weight loss or gain, lackluster demeanor, questionable social habits, unique attire, poor posture, political leanings, religious doubts, nervous habits, choice of car, skin condition, inability to call, intolerance of racial jokes, inadvertent sighing, indefinite time spent watching the TV rather than talking to family, indefinite time spent in the bathroom rather than talking to family, indefinite time spent puttering around in the garage/yard/crawl space behind the living room wall rather than talking to family, refusal to offer any personal information about yourself, refusal to offer any personal information about your siblings, acute and indefensible sensitivity to questions concerning your self-worth, mistaking “guilt trip” for “caring for one’s child”—immediately draw your parents’ attention to one specific, wholly inescapable topic of conversation on your part…and your body. Like a face tattoo. Or pierced chin. Sure a new hair color may raise eyebrows and breast implants may provoke the most awkward stares in the family’s history but if you really want to avoid talking about anything else in your life this Thanksgiving, you’re going to have to go for broke. You may not necessarily want to spend the rest of your life sporting the word “Sex Toy” spelled out in rhinestone studs on the back of your neck, but do you honestly want to talk to your mom about your bowel movements? In short, sometimes the end—no matter how excessive or unresponsive to corrective surgery—does indeed justify the means.
• Go easy on your folks: Truth is, your parents are just as uncomfortable around you as you are around them. Let’s look at it from a business perspective: Imagine you're walking down the street (or, if you live in the suburbs, walking out of Dunkin Donuts) when you suddenly bump into your boss from a previous job. After exchanging initial pleasantries and professional updates, you both find yourselves with absolutely nothing to say. Why? Because your relationship was never based on the easy conversational give-and-take of an actual friendship. Rather, it was built upon an understanding of a given authoritarian hierarchy that dictated your daily exchanges and interactions. But with no set rules to now guide your conversation, you'd now have better luck chatting up a lilac bush or Bengal tiger. At least the talking points would be crystal clear (“Nice bloom you got there” and “Don’t puncture the aorta! For the love of God, don’t puncture the aorta!!!”). So it goes with parents and their grown children. With no one the obvious leader and no one the follower, no one knows how to act when they get together. So while you hope this year your parents finally give you a break, make sure to cut them a little slack, too. If your folks want to say grace before dinner, close your eyes, clasp your hands and quietly recall “The Simpsons” episode in which Homer gets out of work by saying he’s celebrating “The Feast of Maximum Occupancy.” If they want to go around the table and have each person say what they are thankful for this holiday season, kindly respond with something innocuous such as “Times like these” (rather than just blurt out “Paxil!”). But remember, just because you’re in a giving mood doesn’t mean you should hand over a blank check for your parents to cash in on any insane request they see fit. To put it another way, don’t feel obliged to close out the Thanksgiving feast by entertaining relatives with your once-annual childhood performance of “Turkey in the Straw.” After all, seeking your folks’ attention and/or approval at age five is perfectly normal. Doing so at age 35 is textbook pathological. Keep in mind the difference and you’ll do just fine.
• Don’t overstay your welcome: Each one of us has found ourselves on the phone with a friend or business associate only to hear them say, “Well, I better let you go,” knowing full well that what they actually mean is “Well, I’ve had enough of this. Bye.” The same logic applies here. When we say, “Don’t overstay your welcome” what we clearly mean is “Leave before it’s a murder-suicide and you’re the one reloading.” In other words, phrase your desperate escape to freedom as a thoughtful concern regarding your parents’ valuable time. For example, “Mom, Dad, this has been terrific. But surely you two want to spend some time alone together.” However, as with all selfish desires disguised as acts of civility, timing is paramount. Don’t blurt out your farewells the moment it comes time to clear the table. Don’t say it immediately after a quick perusal of the desserts finds the selection wanting. And don’t say your good-byes from the cell phone in the car as the rest of the family is still sitting at the table, wondering why it’s taking you so long you to find a second gravy ladle in the kitchen. Be patient. The right moment will present itself, usually in the form of a question like “So, do you want to spend the night on the couch in the basement or on a cot in the room with Grandma? Either way, remember, we’re all up at six tomorrow morning to go shopping!” That’s when you take the coat you had draped over your dinner chair the whole time, bid your fond farewells to parents and relatives alike and quickly run to a waiting taxi, making sure to grab a “to go” turkey leg on the way out. It may not be the most thoughtful exit, but what it lacks in sentiment it will more than make up for in conversational fodder for your parents’ next Thanksgiving—and trust me, that’s the best present you could ever hope to give them this holiday season.