Quote of The Week

“I cannot afford the luxury of a closed mind.”

Clara Barton (founder of the Red Cross)

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The Binary Code of Love

Never in human history have there been so many ways for young lovers to find each other. The Internet and its clever offspring have transformed what used to be a long and arduous quest into something more like a rapid-fire video game.

The uncertainties of love have always been a favorite theme of literature. It makes (or used to make) a great plot device simply because anything could happen in the search for love, and the whole process took a long time. Jane Austen, who was more brisk than most, kept Elizabeth and Darcy apart for weeks in Pride and Prejudice, before they even got to hold hands. Those of us who have reached a certain age can relate to these old stories. We can remember writing love letters, buying flowers, visiting parents, and generally tiptoeing up to love.

Nobody has time for that now. The old proverb “Give time to love” is as redundant as “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Love, like everything else, must be grabbed and consumed in a hurry, and preferably on credit, which is where the Internet comes in. Here the process of finding, meeting and courting a mate goes into overdrive. We spend a quarter of a billion dollars a year on meeting and dating sites.

It certainly speeds up the process. Lonely hearts can review dozens or hundreds of prospective partners in a very short time, and use online messages to decide who may be compatible or not. It’s what mothers did in Jane Austen’s time, organizing dinners and dances for their eligible girls and giving the thumbs up or thumbs down to any suitors who came forward. Now the computer does it all for you. You can even buy a love detector that measures your beloved’s sincerity by the sound of his or her voice. This explains why half of all adult American women and men are single.

Flirting on the Internet must be rather like tasting good wines with cotton wool blocking your nose. There are no Pherenomes (the subtle biological smells that send sexual signals) and therefore no real physical attraction or electricity. Nobody believes the carefully selected ancient photographs, or the improbable claims about height and body-mass index. You must fall in love with a self-description. So at least Internet dating promotes literacy, and creativity, but the passage from online to real meetings must doubly perilous, like going from watching a Harry Potter movie to actually sharing a dinner table with Lord Voldemort.

The latest thing in the science of love, as reported in The New York Times, depends on a different kind of personal chemistry. Matchmakers have started using algorithms, the same clever mathematical models that allow search engines to work. They can sort through a huge amount of information to find the ideal, compatible partner for anybody in an instant. This should eliminate the long, tedious process of dating entirely, although the evidence is not yet in on whether it actually works.

It all sounds a bit soulless and unromantic, but at least it’s better than yearning helplessly for romance or sitting by the phone, waiting for someone to call. Love has gone digital, and the computer will find your perfect match in just a few seconds. If you hate computers you are out of luck.

Copyright: David Bouchier

New Brain

We spent part of our winter vacation watching British television. I wouldn’t recommend this to anybody, but the weather was so terrible that there weren’t many alternative forms of entertainment. The only consolation was that we were able to watch one of those antique British programs that has somehow escaped the international dumbing down of television. Back in 1962 I was listening to this same show on the radio. It’s called University Challenge, and it was originally based on an American quiz show called College Bowl.

The British adore quizzes. They have them everywhere, even in pubs, and University Challenge is an absolutely classic example of a general knowledge quiz designed to make everyone in the audience feel like an idiot. Two teams of four students from different universities answer a series of rapid-fire questions, and the winning team goes on to the next round. There are no flashing lights, no glamorous hostesses, no expensive prizes, and no dramatic sound effects, just plain question and answer.

What never fails to astonish me is the breadth of knowledge and the quickness of mind displayed by the young multi-national students, who are mostly in their late teens or early twenties. The questions are a bewildering mixture of science, mathematics, literature, art, music and popular culture, and no hesitation is allowed. Here are some actual examples that I scribbled down during the program. Try slipping these into the family conversation.

• What flower was a symbol of oblivion in the nineteenth century and came to represent the opposite in the twentieth century?

• Which Flemish painter came to England in 1632 and became the royal painter at a salary of two hundred pounds a year?

• What four letter homograph can designate both a unit of measurement and an insectivorous mammal of the family Talpidae?

• What compound with the chemical formula C6H50H was used to treat wounds in hospitals in the nineteenth century and what is its common name?

The students got all four answers correct before I even had time to think about the questions. Younger brains really do work faster but also, apparently, they have much more knowledge in them. Working as a team at our best speed my wife and I usually get about fifty points in University Challenge, and the student teams get up to two hundred. I don’t think we need to worry too much about the brains of the next generation: we need to worry more about our own.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Just so you don’t lie awake thinking about it, the answers to those four questions are: the poppy, Hans Holbein, the mole, and carbolic acid.
How could we have forgotten?

Democratic Weather

Mark Twain complained that everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it. And indeed we are perpetually fascinated by the weather precisely because we can do absolutely nothing about it. We can’t predict it, and we can’t change it short of moving to a different climate zone, which is a form of cheating. The weather is like illness: we can run, and we can hide, but in the end we have to face it.

The arbitrariness of the weather led our ancestors to assume that it was sent by capricious gods to annoy or punish mere mortals, or perhaps just for celestial entertainment. This theory has persisted for thousands of years, and I’m inclined to believe it. Weather forecasting, in spite of satellites and computers and sophisticated modeling techniques, remains almost as fallible as stock market forecasting. The weather will do what it will do, sending us from sub-zero to springtime warmth in a day or two, and from drought to inundation in a matter of hours.

Winter here in the northeast is full of surprises, mostly nasty ones. It keeps us off balance. The only good thing I can find to say said about our erratic weather is that it protects us against political enthusiasms. If you don’t believe me, watch the television news every night for a week (Public Television of course). You will see a lot of political action all around the world. Most of this action consists of young men rioting, setting fire to things, waving machetes, looting stores firing guns in the air, and generally behaving badly. The scene is so familiar that we tend to glaze over. Where is this particular riot happening? Who can tell? All we can say for sure is that the participants are never wearing overcoats or fur hats or snow boots, never. They are very casually dressed, as if for the beach, and this is because they are warm. They are in the tropic zone, somewhere between latitudes twenty north and twenty south. Riots are no fun in a cold climate unless you can arrange to have them indoors.

Even in more moderate latitudes a period of warm weather can spell trouble. The Paris police, for example, will not go into certain suburban areas on very hot days. But the warmth doesn’t last long, that’s the important thing. Nineteenth century social philosophers took it for granted that climate affected behavior. Because they knew nothing about political correctness they referred to the “Warm blooded races” of the tropics. Now we understand that blood and race have nothing to do with it. It’s warm weather that causes the trouble. Hot weather cultures are different from cold weather cultures, politically speaking, and it seems obvious why. Nobody can sustain political faith, let alone enthusiasm, through a northern winter. These chilly latitudes were settled by dour Germans and Scots and Norwegians who had been miserably uncomfortable at home, and crossed the ocean and the continent to find somewhere even worse. The weather reminded them every day of uncertainty, fate, misery, and death, which is how they liked it. This gives northerners a cranky, negative disposition, a disinclination to believe anything, especially political manifestos, and weather forecasts. The cold, and the anticipation of it, cools our passions all the way down to freezing point. Steady warmth, by contrast, is inflammatory. It promotes outdoor activities like mass protests, and riots, and it releases an enormous amount of energy that we ice people have to waste on scraping windscreens, shoveling snow, and simply avoiding hypothermia.

Even within this nation there is a political thermometer. South of Mason Dixon politics tends to become more extreme, and dirtier (think Florida in 2000 and 2004, not to mention Texas and Louisiana). Between latitudes 30 North and 30 South people don’t seem to have much use for terms like liberal, progressive, tolerant, or broadminded. They are drawn to authoritarianism and rigidity. It is more than unfortunate that the federal capital is in Washington DC and not where it started in Philadelphia. Those long hot summers in DC overheat the blood even of politicians from Maine and North Dakota. They lose perspective. They forget about the uncertainty principle, and they begin to think in terms of absolute truths. Since there is no such thing as an absolute truth this leads to silliness, and finally to madness. We are only saved by the fact that winter eventually descends on Washington and restores politicians to a normal condition of confusion, depression, and helplessness.

If my theory is correct – that moderate temperatures promote moderate politics and vice versa – we have many things to be thankful for – not least that the southern tip of Florida falls just short of the tropic line, although only just.* Goodness knows what they might get up to down there if they had another couple of degrees of southern latitude. We should also consider the possibility, if my theory is correct, that the effort to plant liberal democracy in the blazingly hot Middle East has less chance than a snowball planted in a similar place.

*Note: Key West lies at 24.55°, and the tropics begin at 23.5°

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Plague

In The Plague, a 1947 novel by Albert Camus, the citizens of Oran in Algeria are decimated by a dreadful infectious disease, which (having no choice) they bear with heroic stoicism and endurance. Clever literary critics say that the plague described in the novel is a subtle metaphor of the German occupation, or of evil in general. But I read it as a much more transparent metaphor of the common cold. If there is one universal plague on the whole human race, this is it.

The common cold knows no boundaries, respects no persons, and ignores the seasons. A summer cold is bad enough, especially when you catch in a place like the south of France. But an start-of-winter cold, as I’ve just discovered, is even more aggravating. I had made it all through last year, for once in my life, without getting a single cold. Just when I thought I was free and clear, an incautious trip in a packed, germ-ridden Long Island Rail Road car reminded me what I had been missing. As I write, and try to speak, the cold is at its height. I’m not happy about it.

The ordinary head cold has been a plague of the human race forever. It’s strange to think that Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Caesar, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Beethoven all knew these symptoms intimately. How many historic disasters have been caused by the common cold? Was the captain of the Titanic perhaps not feeling quite his best that night? At Yorktown in 1781, was General Cornwallis fully alert and in command of his faculties? There has to be some explanation for what happened.

Victims try to dignify their common colds with more impressive names: they say it’s a virus, it’s flu, it’s an upper respiratory infection. But no, it’s just a cold, totally unimpressive and unimportant, except to the sufferer. We get no sympathy, and really deserve none. Friends and family try elaborately to keep their distance, without seeming to.

I’ve always thought that people with colds should just stay home, and stop spreading the germs around. I hate those valiant souls who crawl into the office coughing and sneezing like explosive Typhoid Marys, just to show how dedicated they are. There’s an argument to be made for voluntary or even compulsory quarantine for cold sufferers. It’s estimated that workdays lost through colds cost $17 billion a year. Keep people from infecting their fellow workers, and that figure might drop all the way to zero.

A cold takes about ten days to run its course. There’s no treatment. Antibiotics are worse than useless, building up resistance against the day when you get something really serious. Vitamin C, as recommended by Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling, seems to be largely a mythical defense. The only comfort I know is to stay in bed with radio, DVD, pile of good books, some cats, and a hot toddy made up of whiskey, hot water, lemon and honey. Modern technology has given us some small consolations. Paper tissues are great, and so are those strange green medicines that help us to breathe at night. But on the whole, it’s a rotten medieval kind of disease with no redeeming features.

I can say with a sniff of pride that I once played a very small part in the losing battle against the common cold. Years ago, as an impecunious young writer (the description still applies, except that I’m not young now), I spent weeks at an establishment called The Cold Research Center near Salisbury in England. It was a perfect getaway, the perfect workplace, totally isolated, and the deal was that we were human guinea pigs. The researchers learned some things from their experiments on us: for example that you can’t get a cold by being wet or chilled, or by sitting in a draft. The best way to get a cold from someone is to shake his hand. They also concluded that colds are more or less incurable, because they are not one infection, but about two hundred constantly mutating viruses.

I can’t imagine that such a perverse disease could have evolved by accident. Somehow, as Albert Camus suggested, the plague of the common cold has a deep metaphysical purpose in human affairs. It’s an evil, cunning plot, whatever it is. I’d like to meet the person responsible, and shake his hand.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Romance of Winter

The heating furnace has been giving trouble again, as it does every year. It’s not even the same furnace every year. At various times in different houses we have become intimate with many furnaces: some huge and old, some compact and ultra modern. The only thing they all have in common is that, the moment the temperature drops below forty degrees, they stop working.

This particular episode required three visits by the oil company’s repairman. The first cleaned the furnace, which had been popping intermittently like a distant war. After his visit it roared like a dragon, but no heat emerged. The second repairman bled some air out of the pipes, something I had already tried myself, without much result except a minor flood in the basement. This produced a lot of gurgling, and heat upstairs but not downstairs. The third repairman, who has only just left as I write this, re-set the temperature controls on the furnace, which the first repairman had set wrong.

It’s nice to have some company at home during the day, but I rather resent having to wait for hours for their visits, explain the problem to each successive heating technician, and stand by holding the lamp while they perform their mystical furnace healing rituals. The basement has been like a second home to me for the past couple of days, and I’m seriously thinking of getting a book on Furnace Repair for Dummies so I can tackle the next disaster myself. How complicated can it be?

The men who come to fix the heating are amazingly stoical, in spite of the dirty and subterranean nature of their work. They need psychological as well as mechanical skills. People who lose their heat on a freezing day tend to get hysterical. The repairmen all have the same calm, reassuring demeanor, like doctors who have seen the same symptoms a million times. As soon as they clump through the door, carrying their bag of oily tools, we know that we will survive this crisis, as we have survived before. I respect these men. They are out in the worst of winter weather, and they bring comfort in the most literal way.

Winter must be a good time for heating furnace repairmen. They have plenty of work, especially if every furnace has to be fixed three times, and they have the satisfaction of helping people who are desperate. But, for the rest of us, there is absolutely nothing to be said in favor of winter. Some people try to romanticize it with fantasies about the coziness of life at home in the cold months: the roaring log fires, the savory casseroles, the hot drinks, the warm beds, the winter wonderlands, and the refreshing sting of cold air on rosy cheeks.

But those who claim to love winter are living in a dream world, or possibly in Florida. Roaring log fires are just a way of reducing the heating bills, and they make your bronchitis worse, casseroles are fattening and, in our house at least, the warm beds are only warm because the cats got there first. As for winter wonderlands, the suburban version is usually a snow-choked driveway, an icy windscreen, and a frozen parking lot across which we slither and skid our trolleys like Antarctic explorers with badly designed sleds. The rosy cheeks of winter are merely a warning signal of arthritis, colds, flu, and pneumonia in the immediate future.

Don’t talk to me about the romance of winter. Save it for to the furnace repairman.

Copyright: David Bouchier

New Year, Old Years

Now we begin the eighteenth year of the twenty-first century. It’s no longer a novelty. The twentieth century already seems almost as remote and historic as the nineteenth.

As history moves along, the frontier of memory moves with it. As long as there are people around who remember particular years or events, those things still seem “real” to those of us who came along later. When nobody remembers, those events disappear into the history books. So the first decade of the twentieth century has almost vanished from human memory. It’s a sepia photograph, a flickering silent movie, a scratchy recording of a forgotten tune.

That still leaves a large chunk of the last century that is very much alive in the memories of our more senior citizens, and it’s worth remembering what we remember. Those of us who were born before World War Two have memories of life before television, before penicillin, polio shots, frozen foods, Xerox, contact lenses, videos, and the pill. We were here before radar, credit cards, split atoms, laser beams and ballpoint pens, before dishwashers, tumble dryers, electric blankets, domestic air conditioning, drip-dry clothes, or global positioning systems.

When we arranged a date, computers were not involved. We got married first and then lived together. It’s very difficult to get young people to believe this. We thought Fast Food was what you ate in Lent, and that a Big Mac was an oversized raincoat. We managed our family lives without househusbands or day care. We never heard of FM radios, CDs, disposable cameras, artificial hearts, word processors, or young men wearing earrings. For us a “chip” was a piece of wood, or a fried potato, “hardware” meant nuts and bolts, and “software” wasn’t even a word.

Who would have thought, even twenty years ago, that television would come down the wire and the telephone would be wireless? Who could have predicted students who don’t study, accountants who don’t account, or scientists who cheat on their experiments? Who could ever have predicted that young people would not always be clean, respectful, moral and hard working – the way we were?

We’ve had to absorb a lot of changes, and some of us may agree with James Thurber, who said: “Progress was all right; it just went on too long.” I would add: not just too long but too fast.
What so annoying about the headlong rush to change everything is that we never get to achieve the one and only benefit of age: superior knowledge. Age may bring wisdom to some of us, if we’re paying attention. But who needs wisdom? When your computer screen goes blank you can be as wise as Solomon, and it will stay blank. Knowledge is what we need, and we have less and less of that as we grow older. The instant we learn something it’s already out of date, and any ten-year-old kid knows more. Seniors are eternal freshmen in the fast-moving world of high technology.
The only consolation is that exactly the same thing will happen to today’s smug kids, and even faster. In a very few years they will have to ask their kids how to switch on the three-dimensional holographic home entertainment system – and those of us who remember the crystal set or the 78 record will be history.

Copyright: David Bouchier

I See the Lights!

During the month of December, driving around the suburbs at night can be a profoundly surrealistic experience. Most of the residential streets are dull and dark, as usual. But sometimes you turn a corner and see a multi-colored glow in the sky, as if aliens had landed on the next block. It’s another Christmas light extravaganza.

On the whole, I enjoy the tradition of celebrating the season with a display of lights. It’s a dark time of year. There’s nothing much to look forward to except the dark days of January, then more of the same chilly darkness through February and March. We may as well cheer ourselves up with a few colored lights, just as our ancestors pushed away the winter blues with extravagant displays of candles.

Candles are beautiful, especially in the windows of old houses. However, most people use electric candles, which are a bit of a cheat. They don’t create that lovely wavering effect, as the flame flickers in the draft, and they don’t provide the same employment for the local fire department. When I was a very young child, people still used candles on Christmas trees, and the fire services were busy all night. You don’t get that kind of entertainment with electric candles.

A modest display of Holiday lights is charming. But, when it comes to electrical celebrations, some people don’t know when to stop. Their homes and front yards blaze out with whole galaxies of lights: reindeer with flashing red noses, blinking Santa Clauses, glittering sleighs, and cute little elves, glowing like survivors of a nuclear accident. Some of these displays even have sound effects, which must drive the neighbors very close to homicide. It has become a competitive thing. There are homes, and whole blocks of homes on Long Island that are famous for their annual illuminations. They start working on these projects in August, and some have more than thirteen thousand lights. The impact is stunning, especially when you come on them unexpectedly.

There is a whole Christmas lights sub-culture out here in the subdivisions. There are catalogs full of new and more impressive displays: lighted mobile reindeer sculptures, giant back-lit revolving wreaths, illuminated nativity villages, angels in neon, snowflakes with mini-lights, icicles, falling stars, and rotating trees. The only gesture towards economy I could find was a half-Christmas tree, conveniently flat on one side so that it will fit right up against the wall. I suppose that saves something on the utility bill.

Do these elaborate displays outside people’s homes indicate that a particularly strong religious spirit prevails within? Henry David Thoreau would say that we have to live up to our decorations. But how hard it would be to rise so high.

But my real problem with these over-decorated suburban homes is that they remind me of something else entirely. They remind me of Las Vegas. They remind me of the seaside resorts in England we used to visit as a child, to “see the lights” – hundreds of thousands of colored bulbs strung along the seafront and the pier. They remind me of the circus, the fairground, the carnival. They don’t remind me of Christmas at all. When I pass these glittering houses, I just think about the electricity bills. Such waste would embarrass a Renaissance prince.

When these gaudy displays are switched off (as they should be) on Twelfth Night, when these insubstantial pageants have faded, I will actually miss them. They may have nothing to do with Christmas, but they certainly brighten up our suburban lives for a few weeks. Perhaps, at this time of year, it is better to light a candle, even thirteen thousand electric candles, than to curse the darkness.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Charles Dickens in America

Every December on Long Island the village of Port Jefferson hosts a Dickens Festival. This has evolved into a big event, with dozens of historical and cultural programs and happenings loosely connected to the Dickensian version of Christmas. The sidewalks were made picturesque by actors in period costume: chimney sweeps, bobbies, ragged urchins, characters with names like Thomas Beg Alot, and Lord Dudley Butterworth, Mr. Pip, and of course Ebenezer Scrooge. There was a Dickensian stage set, the sound of bells and carols was in the air, candles glowed in the windows, and there were even real (if rather glum) reindeer to be petted and photographed. If it hadn’t been for the traffic driving on the wrong side of the road, and the lack of air pollution and poverty, it could have been nineteenth century London.

Charles Dickens more or less invented our modern Christmas, with all its charms and excesses. When the Puritans were in power in England back in the 1600s, Christmas festivities were banned, along with plum puddings. Even up to the 1840s, Christmas was not much more than a date on the church calendar. Then along came Dickens and his book A Christmas Carol, and December was never the same again. He published it as quick moneymaker in 1844 to cover the expenses of his wife’s pregnancy. As everyone knows, A Christmas Carol became a mega best seller. On his second American tour in 1867 Dickens read his sentimental story to enthusiastic audiences.

It has to be said that Dickens didn’t much enjoy his times in America, although he made a lot of money here. On his first tour in 1842 he was angered by slavery and oppressed by his own popularity. In a letter he wrote: “I can do nothing that I want to do, and see nothing that I want to see. If I turn into the street, I am followed by a multitude.” Celebrity worship was a new phenomenon, and Dickens wanted nothing to do with it. You can read his colorful observations on the tour in his American Notes, and in fictional form in Martin Chuzzlewit. His second visit was in winter, the weather was foul, and Dickens was in poor health. He died two years after returning to England.

It is impossible though intriguing to try to guess what Dickens, who like Mr. Pickwick was a keen observer of human nature, would make of the Port Jefferson Dickens Festival, and of the extraordinary popularity of A Christmas Carol a hundred and seventy years after it was published. He would be pleased and flattered I’m sure, but without a doubt very puzzled, and probably amused that his Victorian moral tale has survived so well into the twenty-first century.

It’s a wonderful story, A Christmas Carol, although completely wrong for these uncertain times. To be a moral example today Scrooge would have to change in the opposite direction, beginning as a wild spendthrift with all his credit cards maxed out, and ending as the bitter miser he was at the beginning of Dickens’s tale. This is the time for us all to find our inner Scrooge, and say “Bah! Humbug!” to the artificial extravagance of Christmas. It’s not going to happen, of course. We are all “consumers” now, and just as sailors must sail and lawyers must litigate, consumers must consume. Don’t even think about the ghost of Christmas yet to come.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Husband Pen

It’s no use pretending that feminism has made us all equal. The male half of the population still lacks many essential life skills, and the one that shows up most conspicuously as The Holidays loom ahead is our utter failure to grasp even the first principles of retail consumption. Men are useless at shopping.

The rudiments of the skill are there. Just as chimpanzees can learn a few basic words and linguistic signals in a laboratory environment, so most men can manage some basic shopping if we are guided to the right place. This means a hardware store, an auto parts store, or a computer store. There we will putter about happily, and perhaps even buy something. So it’s not as if we can’t shop at all. But, just as the chimps fail to make the leap from primitive signals to full language, so men find it hard to achieve the heights of consumer expertise and relentless foraging that distinguish the fully-developed professional shopper. Take us into a big box store and our brains turn to jelly. Any woman who has been bought gifts by a man, or has tried to shop with one, can attest to this.

So at the festive, high-spending time of year, in the cruel month of December when life becomes shopping and shopping becomes life, what can be done with these useless men? A chain of British clothing stores had a brilliant idea a couple of years ago, when they opened up what were essentially day care centers for men who had been required or persuaded to accompany their loved ones on shopping expeditions. The surplus males can be dropped off in a safe area away from the sales floor – I call it the “husband pen” – where they are kept entertained with sports television, video games, and free drinks. For the intellectuals there are even newspapers. So the men are perfectly happy for hours, and may not even want to go home at the end of it. I don’t know if they are given tags or numbers, so the ladies can be sure to collect the right one. But you know how men are, they would probably swap tags.

It is a step in the right direction, and another sign that civilization is progressing. In spite of all our problems we are more compassionate as a society than we have ever been. We try to protect vulnerable populations – the homeless, the disabled, the mentally handicapped, and now men. It’s good to see men getting a bit of consideration at last, and I would very much like to see this humane institution, the husband pen, introduced into stores in our area.

But how much consideration is too much? Children for example are wildly overprotected today – pumped up with self-esteem, driven everywhere, forbidden any even remotely risky activity, and even followed by GPS monitors sewn into their coats. Sooner or later they will have to face the harsh realities of the world. The same is true for men. It’s all very well for them to loll about in the husband pen, swapping stories and tags, but they are learning nothing about the harsh realities of shopping. One day they too may have to venture into the real world, and face those endless racks of identical clothing and vast displays of unidentifiable household objects, not to mention mountains of entirely useless gifts.

Perhaps it’s best to face the music, bite the bullet, grasp the nettle, and go to the Mall right now, admit our ignorance, throw ourselves on the mercy of the sales staff, and just shop, however badly. Or then again, perhaps next year will be soon enough.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Wild Turkey

Most Americans believe that Thanksgiving celebrates the first harvest gathered by the Pilgrims in the autumn of 1621. The story goes that they feasted for three days on turkeys and fruit given to them by the Indians. This doesn’t sound very plausible to me. The Pilgrims, after all, were English, and the English only eat turkey at Christmas. If the Pilgrims had wanted to celebrate they would have feasted on chicken, or roast beef, or fish and chips, or possibly sausages. But not turkey – not in November.

Americans are naturally fond of the Indians-and-turkeys myth, because it presents such a charmingly innocent image of the first encounter between Native Americans and colonists. But the truth is that Thanksgiving was not established as an annual national event until a much later date, 1863 in fact, when President Lincoln proclaimed it a day of celebration for the turning of the tide against the southern rebels in the Civil War.

This didn’t make for a very happy national festival. The Civil War wasn’t something to be memorialized year after year, reminding everybody of that terrible episode. So the origin of Thanksgiving was pushed steadily back in time until it reached the safely mythical territory of 1621, and the much more pleasing image of the Indians happily sharing their food with the Pilgrims.

Like all such ritualistic events, Thanksgiving has changed as society has changed. The harvest doesn’t seem important to most people, unless they hold shares in agribusiness. The Civil War is ancient history. So Thanksgiving has come to be a family thing – a celebration not so much of national unity, but of ourselves.

Nothing is more heartwarming than the idea of the family – the family in Florida, the family in North Dakota, the family in a photo album, or on videotape. But the traditional Thanksgiving celebration shows that we suffer from some confusion about the pleasures of family life. From year to year, people forget that, while families are wonderful at a distance, the family right in front of your eyes across the dining table can be difficult, critical, crotchety, argumentative, and bring up all kinds of memories best forgotten.

So, as psychologists and counselors have often observed, Thanksgiving is a stressful time for families, because they feel they have to be together whether they want to be or not. Later this week stupendous traffic jams will appear at the George Washington Bridge, the airports will be transformed into the third circle of Hades, more tranquilizers will be consumed, much more alcohol will be consumed, and there will be a sharp spike in the suicide rate.

Family get-togethers aren’t so simple any more, because families are so much more complicated than they were in 1621, and not bound together by such strong religious ties. The Pilgrims based their family lives on the strict precepts they found in the Bible. Today’s role models, as seen on television, look more like warring tribes than loving relatives, but that’s show business.

So how do we get through this festival of family togetherness without committing mass murder? We do it by reverting to very old-fashioned sex roles, and acting out Thanksgiving like a charade from the 1950s. The men lounge about and watch sports; the women stay in the kitchen and cook enough food to put everybody into an after-dinner coma. And thus Thanksgiving has been safely accomplished.

It is a stressful time for families, and most of them face it bravely. It’s a tribute to the strength of family ties, or to the awesome power of guilt, that they go through it every year. But family stress is nothing compared to turkey stress. Consider how the turkeys must feel when they look at the calendar and see that it’s November. Forty five million turkeys will be stuffed, baked and eaten on Thursday without so much as a single defense counsel to speak on their behalf. They aren’t even the same kind of turkeys that the Pilgrims might or might not have consumed in 1621. Those were wild turkeys, much smaller and presumably harder to catch. Our modern turkeys are huge, flightless, domesticated caricatures of those wild, free founding birds. They are the true victims of the Thanksgiving story.

Copyright: David Bouchier