Of Cooked Geese and Hot Potatoes

So I will be the first to admit that there is already a cornucopia of discussion out there on dealing with politics at Thanksgiving. What is alarmingly less well-known, I’ve learned, is that this hot potato is now known to statistically shorten holiday dinners by as much as 30%. I can’t speak for all, but if we can at least agree that Thanksgiving has historically been about unhurried consumption, perhaps it’s not too late to rescue the biggest meal on the calendar.

This was little more than a fun-fact for me until I encountered one such hasty departure from a Thanksgiving gathering. Midway through the meal a little politics erupted at one end of the table and one guest felt compelled to leave a bit prematurely. (A little too much ‘chewing of the fat’ led to a ‘bone of contention’.) Undeterred by the blockade of cars in my driveway, the exiting guest drove over the lawn and promptly snuffed out a nice little cherry sapling I had planted a few years earlier. In the blink of an eye I had become a Thanksgiving statistic (to say nothing about how this adversely affected our pecan pie and dessert time).

On the brighter side, it now seems that our National Dining Crisis is looming large enough to become a bona fide subject of serious study. Sociologists and the very learned are now officially weighing in with suggestions that might warrant at least a brief surveying.

In one article I read an author suggested designating a “Politics Zone” which sounded like a pretty good idea. The plan, it seems, is to steer partisan rowdies off to another part of the building (like maybe outside) and let them have at it there. (Away from where people are trying to digest dinner.) I am slow to understand these things, but I am told it might be best to think of it as the new “smoking section”.

Another interesting idea (this coming from the Psychology Department at Harvard) suggested that maybe folks could send out a kind of preemptive “ground-rules” group email. One of those “ounce of prevention” maneuvers, to quote Ben Franklin (a big turkey fan, by-the-way).This also didn’t strike me as too strange because I think folks are already doing this for folks with food sensitivities. (Would this not be a natural evolution to accommodate folks with political sensitivities?) I’m no Martha Stewart, but I suppose “Politics Free” might be tactfully woven in with phrases like “gluten free” and “dairy free” in a way that might not seem too obvious a non-sequitur.

Maybe I’m way over my pay grade, but lately I’ve even been wondering if we could even pencil in some “Suggested Topics of Conversation”. I haven’t finished research on the matter, but right now I will say it looks like “clean drinking water” is the most rigorously bipartisan, non-threatening issue we got going. (If any libertarians land at your table, however, looking to make trouble about the whole fluoride-in-the-water issue, I make a full retraction.)

Still others have suggested designating a “wingman”, a “mediator” or perhaps even some kind of “comedic relief guy” skilled at redirecting conversation. All of which suggests to me that I have been vastly underestimating Thanksgiving. (Avoiding the drama of Thanksgiving, apparently, is all about properly casting the right roles — I’m paraphrasing now.)

But if there is an idea that really caught my eye, it was the suggestion that maybe Thanksgiving conversation could be better moderated by allowing people only to talk when they are “holding a specific object….like a ball for instance”, (this from a pondersome article from the University of Kansas). Now I can appreciate the spirit of such a suggestion, but I do think we have to ask ourselves if a conch-like reference to novel “Lord of the Flies” is really such a good idea. I like this book as much as the next guy, but it memory serves, this political cautionary tale did not end all that well.

If I could humbly submit one tactic for the Thanksgiving Play Book, it would be a discovery I chanced upon quite by accident. One year we had a retired pastor who graciously joined us for a rather large extended family gathering — and if that didn’t that make folks behave! Maybe we weren’t a perfect replica of that Norman Rockwell painting, but I will tell you that no cherry trees died that year. I fully understand there are only so many retired pastors to go around, but I am reasonably sure the moderating effects of someone in law enforcement, or the judiciary might work in a pinch.

But short of resorting to a seating plan (Associate Professor — Harvard Medical School) I am inclined to think we shouldn’t minimize the value of those old-school approaches. A well-timed cough. A friendly nudge under the table. And maybe just a reminder that if we’re going to get through to the desserts this year we just might need to “pardon a few turkeys”, so to speak. (Oh, yes: and avoid reckless presidential references.)

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David Praamsma

David Praamsma

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English teacher, father and monthly columnist for the Brandon Reporter, a small Vermont rural newspaper. The following are reprints of my monthly contributions.