You can NOT get anything you want at Thanksgiving.
Around the time that this edition of the Newsletter lands in your inbox, I will be leaving the office with an overpacked suitcase and setting off for a flight to what LaGuardia’s gate agents seem always to refer to as “Grand Rapid.” It is Thanksgiving, and the midwestern exiles of New York are getting out while the getting is good — that is before the airfare goes up on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Holiday air travel always seemed to me like the stock market — one of those things that they talk about on the news to fill time, but not anything of particular importance to real people — but here I am. For as long as I have lived outside of my parents’ house, a long drive through rural Michigan has heralded the coming of Thanksgiving.
In college, I finished my exams the day before the holiday and, trying to unwind as best I could, would take the two-lane state highway west toward Lake Michigan and drive up the lakeshore. This seemed like a special reward for having survived the recent unpleasantness of exams and gave the trip home for Thanksgiving a sense of great ceremony.
The family spent last weekend recovering from third doses of the COVID vaccine, which — though it caused me to wake up in a pool of my own sweat on Saturday morning — is still preferable to college exams and is, of course, for a good cause. Were it not for the inconvenient fact of Pennsylvania and Ohio’s great length and the sorry state of American rail service, I might have a nice slow drive this week to celebrate the occasion instead of trying to dissociate from reality for ninety minutes in an aluminum tube tonight.
The exact mode of arrival for Thanksgiving, I suppose, does not particularly matter. People move around. Circumstances change. (This is not to suggest that the way to find true happiness in the world is to accept impermanence. This, I hasten to assure you, is not the case. As I have previously explained, happiness does not lie within you.)
It is for this reason that, despite the world’s many changes, Thanksgiving must not change. Thanksgiving in the McKnight home is a series of ceremonial acts as much as anything else. For the most part, the events of the day proceed under their own momentum. I view it as my solemn duty, however, to play the role of a sort of Protestant Tevye or a holiday parliamentarian, working to ensure that nothing goes too far off the rails.
This has proven to be an important role. Most notably, I have defended the family against the de-glutenization of the hors d’oeuvres and protected everyone from the various insufferable dietary fads of the last decade. Several years ago, I narrowly averted a crisis when Certain Ones accidentally purchased Yukon Gold potatoes, which are completely unfit for mashing. Ours is a world of danger and temptation, and at least one of us must bear in mind what a slippery slope it is from silverware modernization to just throwing out all of the cloth napkins and putting a roll of paper towel in the middle of the table like a barbecue restaurant.
Thanksgiving in the McKnight house, then, works something like this:
The day begins with a football game with the neighbors. (This used to take place at a park which was redeveloped into a parking lot. Seeing the threat to Thanksgiving consistency, I attended three City Council meetings on the matter. Now the game is at a different park and it is too muddy.) Despite the widely-held consensus in international law that sleep deprivation is torture, the game begins at nine. I do not understand football, but I try to run in the same direction as the others, as I have always done.
In the days of cable television, those members of the family less inclined toward football would stay at home and watch the Detroit and New York Thanksgiving parades, flipping between the channels during the ad breaks. I do not know what they do now.
The main part of the day consists of three activities: cooking food, arguing, and doing a puzzle. I do not have the attention span to do a puzzle, so I occupy myself with the preparation of mashed potatoes and arguing. Favorite topics include when the turkey will be done (to time the potatoes), what an outrage it is that we should eat dinner at a time that any reasonable observer would call mid-to-late afternoon, and how much salt should go in the potatoes. The salt argument carries on well past the time that the potatoes have all been eaten.
At some point during the afternoon — the timing changes every year — somebody declares, “We’re doing Alice’s Restaurant now!” The word “restaurant” is always pronounced with three syllables in this context — res-tau-rant — which feels unnerving from people who have, for my whole life, referred to the local paper as the Holland Sent-null and who would not be caught dead giving “restaurant” more than two syllables in any other context.
At the risk of further splitting the nation, I offer another way of dividing the country. America, I suggest, is a rich tapestry composed fundamentally of Alice’s Restaurant families on one side and, on the other side, non-Alice’s Restaurant families. The former understands the phrase “to do Alice’s Restaurant” to involve standing around a stereo on Thanksgiving and listening to a nineteen-minute recording of Arlo Guthrie singing “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” a cautionary tale(?) about littering and its consequences for Vietnam draft eligibility. The latter part of the country, I assume, is into football or something.
Doing Alice’s Restaurant requires complete attention from all who are present. Cooking and working on puzzles is permitted, but making unnecessary noise leaving the vicinity is forbidden under penalty of the song being restarted. “You can get anything you want at Alice’s Res-tau-rant,” the chorus goes. This, however, is not Alice’s Restaurant. People will behave in line with tradition whether they like it or not.
When table setting time arrives, the white napkins come out and we observe how clean and fresh they look and talk about what a wonderful job somebody did cleaning them after Christmas to make them look so wonderful after a meal during which beet soup was served. (It was me. I cleaned the napkins.)
Dinner itself kicks off with my grandfather saying grace, which edges out Doing Alice’s Restaurant as the ceremonial height of the day. The blessing is type-written on a few sheets of paper and it has an air of deliberateness. As a child, with the food steaming on the table and the great feast just moments away, the saying of grace seemed to take two or three hours. My sister and I would take advantage of the time to make faces or kick each other under the table. Whether the length of my grandfather’s grace was reduced in the late aughts as an act of mercy for the children or whether this is simply an illusion that comes with getting older remains to be seen.
The day concludes with the great feast. When it came to dinner last year, we really could have — to quote Alice’s Restaurant — anything we wanted. Overcome by the ennui of the pandemic, we got takeout from a restaurant (two syllables on this one) that came in little metal containers. This year and three vaccines apiece later, we are back to the way things ought to be. We can decidedly not get anything we want. The menu was set years ago and has not changed. Rightly so.
Things I have been reading, watching, and listening to this week.
“How the Week Organizes and Tyrannizes Our Lives” by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker.
“The sun makes days, seasons, and years, and the moon makes months, but people invented weeks. What makes a Tuesday a Tuesday, and why does it come, so remorselessly, every seven days?” Lepore asks. It’s a sensible question. The seven-day week is — in the history of humanity — a relatively new institution so ingrained in us that it feels natural.
In mid-winter in college, I remember wearing a certain sweater on Wednesday thinking that it “could be fun” (a testimony to my desperate mental state in the West Michigan winter), only to discover later that I had thought the exact thing about the exact same sweater every Wednesday for four weeks in a row. This is what weeks do to us.
There have been various plans and proposals to change the calendar. A part of my family worked for Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York when George Eastman used the thirteen-month International Fixed Calendar for the company. When lawmakers had a shot at changing things around, though, then-congressman Gerald Ford (for whom the “Grand Rapid” Airport at which I will arrive in a few short hours is named) remarked that “Congress is in no mood to tamper with the calendar.”