Today has felt portentous.
There is something about the arrival of cold. Cold and dark. I have always liked winter, as long as I can remember, and there are few places in the world when it isn’t finally cold(er) and dark(er) by late November. Richard Adams’ caveat about winter still stands – humans like it because they can resist it, not because colder and darker really feels better. That’s part of it. But there’s something deeper, closer to the core of winter. Maybe it’s that this time, more than any other, forces us to band together. Rabbits could feel that as much as humans, as much as those on the streets of the Tenderloin. Summer is a time for isolation and a casual attitude. If you’re not huddled together in winter, it’s over.
So winter is finally here, and for some reason I’ve been quite reflective on the passage of this Thanksgiving. I’d posit it’s a larger feeling than just my own – this particular holiday seems charged with something larger than itself. And it’s making me contemplate this, perhaps the best conceived of all traditionally celebrated American holidays.
I don’t mean conceived as in created for birthing. I mean the concept. Because the birthing process for Thanksgiving, as I’ve discussed in Introspection and probably elsewhere, is a flaming scar on the American landscape. It’s hard to imagine a German holiday celebrating a hearty Seder with Jewish immigrants, perhaps commemorating a date in the 1920’s. Harder still to picture it being the centerpiece of the secular German calendar.
But the concept, once we get past the actual creation of Thanksgiving and the subsequent destruction of the culture who inspired it, is a good one. Giving thanks. Appreciating what you have. Not taking things for granted. Not working yourself to death. It’s all very unAmerican. No wonder we slaughtered the folks who helped us think of it.
But the tradition remains. And in thinking how my tradition has changed over the years, it’s interesting to note that most everything that stands out is from college. The high-school years all blend together in a sea of similarity. There was one particular Thanksgiving in Oregon spent with a friend’s family and much Scattergories and basketball that sticks out. But mostly, it’s college.
Sometimes I wonder about high-school and college, which tend to stand out in an irradiated hue as opposed to the rest of one’s life. The glow (warm or creepy) that these 8 years cast across one’s life seems to reverberate through most everyone’s experience. I didn’t expect this to be the case for me, but of course it’s proven mostly so, especially in light of holidays and other annual instances. The cascading highs and lows, the sheer breadth of variety and emotion, this surely must be at the heart of the elevation of the power of these years. It’s not that any were the best years of my life. Nor were most of them particularly formative (with perhaps 2 notable exceptions – junior year in high school and senior year in college). But life stabilizes so much after college (or at least mine did – after all, I’ve been engaged or married since college) that sometimes the patterns meld into a similarity. This is not a bad thing – it’s very comforting that life is less of a struggle. But the big Thanksgivings that stick out were from the days before…
In 1998, I was invited down to Philadelphia by good friend Kate Myers, who was still in high-school at the time. It was bizarre and wonderful in many ways, both in the way Kate and I related in her hometown, in the participation in a glorious Thanksgiving Day Parade, and in the relating to a family – anyone’s family – who was not my own. Kate and I had good times and bad times before and since, yet it often seems like that trip encapsulated what was and is best about our friendship. It was also crazy, less than three months deep into college, to be home for someone else’s Thanksgiving on the East Coast, having spent precisely the prior 18 Thanksgivings with my own parents.
The next year, though, was different. Kate had gone to college herself and there may have been a repeat invitation, but I didn’t want to crash her homecoming. I seem to recall at least three or four invitations from various sources, but it was nothing doing. I was struggling through one of the lowest points in my life, a sophomore slump that was both profound and pervasive. On the verge of leaving Brandeis (for a semester or perhaps for good), feeling utterly isolated, I checked into a Chinese restaurant in Harvard Square for dinner and then proceeded to a downtown mall (Copley, maybe?) for several movies. I remember just making the train to get me to just make the last commuter rail back to Waltham by mere seconds. On the ride back, under heavily labored breathing, it occurred to me that missing the train might have been a more fitting end to my solo Thanksgiving. Finding a cheap hotel or huddling in a subway station as the rest of the world dozed on too much dead animal.
I didn’t even feel that way about it at the time, that it was an emblem of loneliness. Loneliness can be different than isolation. I had plenty of both that semester, but that Thanksgiving almost felt like a reprieve from loneliness. I was voluntarily embracing being alone, taking it in, putting both arms around myself. It seemed far preferable to trying to find a way to communicate across an abyss with families of various classmates who’d invited me to their festivities. So much pressure, so much East Coast/Catholic school feeling of inadvertent wrongdoing and misstepping. That Chinese restaurant and those movies felt like freedom. “Anywhere But Here”. “The Insider”. I still remember the films I saw that night, and their titles were my anthem.
I was telling my work friend Pete Lee about this Thanksgiving of 1999 and he said it sounded dismal and stereotypical. He aped several pop culture scenes of me as the despicable lonely wretch, who can’t even find someone to be with on Thanksgiving. I wasn’t ready to fire back with a dissertation on loneliness in crowds and the nature of true isolation. I meekly went with “It was kinda fun.” And it was.
The next year, however, stands out as perhaps the best Thanksgiving of my life. It seems cruel and even crazy to say that about a holiday spent without my parents, my wife, or my wife’s family, but there was something magical about that weekend. My friend Ben Brandzel (no webpage to link) had secured an invitation to “Haystack Mountain Farm”, a trumped-up name for a fall retreat that a professor friend of his had in New Hampshire. He was able to bring three fellow stranded Westerners up to the Farm, and thus Brandzy, his then girlfriend Michelle, Gris, and I embarked for a truly wacky adventure. I feel like a tremendous portion of Brandzel’s and my inside dialect was derived from that trip. (Or maybe just the one joke about the fish and the water… yes, our dinner gift for the host family was the “Big Mouth Billy Bass” talking fish from Cracker Barrel that sings “Take Me to the River”.) We played Clue with a full six people. I had countless talks with Gris and with Brandzy & Michelle, and I think even with just Michelle, though we’d just met. When everyone else had finally gone to bed, I plucked a book off the shelf of the utterly spectacularly cozy library that was my bedroom for the night, which proved to be Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods, one of the 25 best books I’ve ever read. I finished almost half of it before drifting off to peace.
That weekend was simply magic. Maybe it’s something about finding family in people who aren’t your family. Maybe it’s something about connecting with a range of people. In that set of four, each of us had at least one person we’d been incredibly close friends with for years and years, and at least one person we’d just met. And I couldn’t have been much more grateful for the whole thing.
The Thanksgiving to follow, though my life was in infinitely better circumstances overall, could not have been more diametric. On my way to meet Emily’s family, which was to be a surprise to them (not my idea), I had as close as I can think I’ve come to a panic attack in the Phoenix airport. By no means was I prepared to meet her family then or under those circumstances. I already knew that I was in love with her, that I was almost certainly going to marry her. And yet she had this gargantuan family that I’d never encountered, who I had to care about what they thought of me, which is a position I tend to be in with approximately no one. The feeling of other people being able to hold that kind of control over me was enough to make me sick. Almost literally. And it was nothing against them personally, it was just the circumstances.
Emily’s mom did not take the surprise well. She looked pale and on the edge of fainting. I knew how she was feeling. In an effort to make me feel less awkward, she likened the surprise to “Y’know, expecting an orange life-saver and you get, uh, cherry instead! It’s not bad, exactly, just different!” I wanted to drill myself into the asphalt of the parking lot where we were standing in a very warm November.
The family was huge and boisterous and all knew each other really well. It was like my first day at the Academy again. Except the Academy hadn’t had a veritable photographic shrine to Emily’s ex-boyfriend in the main thoroughfare hallway. No one had thought to taken the pictures down because, right, it had been a surprise. And because some people left their exes on that wall forever. At least two siblings still have them there.
I remember a panicked call to my parents where they offered to come pick me up from Albuquerque. I remember starting the tradition of holing up in an upstairs room with a book and feigning sleep. Some day I will write a memoir entitled Pretending to Sleep in Other People’s Houses. The title has rattled in my brain for nearly a decade. I think it has to do with the loneliness in crowds vs. freedom in isolation thing again.
This probably sounds terrible and Emily’s probably going to be mortified at me writing this. But it’s real and true and it’s been 5 years. Each year has been better than the last. The pictures have come down, and I’ve come downstairs more and more. The family has developed a penchant for board games, which brings everyone together in a most positive light. There has been a cascade of kids, getting older and thus more interesting by the annum. I’ve gotten to actually know this wonderful family, rather than seeing them as surprised strangers who are hosting an alien for dinner. The alien who made their daughter/sister a vegetarian. Even on Thanksgiving.
This year, we’re not making a big deal of Thursday. Some of the Garin Clan is assembling on Friday in Tracy for a limited version of the usual affair. Even the 10 people present will dwarf my family’s traditional trifecta Thanksgiving, but it’s not the full 15. And this is looking, in a couple ways, like possibly the last year of 15 being the full number. If nothing else, it is good for Emily and I to have the full experience of each other’s completely different families.
I will get to rest, to take time, to take stock. To give thanks. There may never have been a year when I have so much to be thankful for. Nor never a year prior when I actually had to worry about how much I was eating. But there are always changes. I’m actually excited to be giving Gris & Anna a ride at 3:45 this morning, just for the difference of it. It might make this year a little more memorable.
As the years start to recede, it’s the highs and lows that stand out where the water used to be. And I can be glad not to be in them, but to appreciate their depth and gravity. And thank God I got here in one piece.