The headline directed me to a story about how to prepare for a stress-free Thanksgiving, and I foolishly thought it would tell me how to avoid the pitfalls at the table with all the brothers and sisters and cousins and aunts. All I learned was how to make the sweet potato casserole ahead of time. All that and the cranberry relish.
That sounds about right. There's no such thing as a "stress free" Thanksgiving. Each generation projects its own attitude, from the demanding toddler through the tweens, teens, sophomores, young adults, parents and grandparents. They enrich and divide the generations as the conversations expose a variety of political, psychological and sociological conventions of the times. It can't hurt to anticipate some of the more contentious issues. The fact that the family gets together at all tells us something good about contemporary culture.
Many of the arguments between generations actually begin before the family is called to the feast -- as in, what to wear. Thanksgiving was dreamed up by the Puritans, but there's nothing Puritanical about the way the kids dress today. Is it OK to expose tattoos and piercings? That depends, but there's very little skin left that's still regarded as unexposable. (Keep an eye on the sly old uncle, and seat him well away from the exposed belly buttons.) Can the young mother breast-feed at the table? Is there a children's table? (Remember how pleased you were when you finally graduated to the big table?) Is there tofu turkey for the vegans?
It's easier to plan for the table arrangements than for the controversial conversations bubbling up from the pop culture. For starters it might help to brush up on the controversy surrounding the new movie of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." The old fogies and other purists at the table are likely to express outrage at the ending in the American version, when Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy kiss passionately in post-coital ecstasy and he murmurs, "Mrs. Darcy, Mrs. Darcy," with sentimentality as soupy as the first course. Jane would never have written such vulgar voyeurism into a novel, and the ending ought to render the movie an X-rating, not for vulgarity but for ignorant revisionism. Jane Austen was so fastidious about the reality of experience as she understood it that she wouldn't describe a conversation between two men if a woman had not been in the room to overhear it. The new ending for American viewers differs from the British version. The father of the Bennets in England says he's quite willing to see suitors for his other two daughters: "If any young men come for Mary or Kitty, send them in, for I am quite at leisure." That's the old Austen spirit.
This year, Madonna is less controversial than Jane Austen since she has been more than a little chastened by the experience of parenthood. (Wait until the daughter gets to junior high.) The pop star's new album is more moralistic than wicked, following her latest incarnation as a student of Jewish mysticism and stern mother who writes books and won't let her children watch television for fear of corruption. Now that her money is made, the blonde ambition that forever pushed the envelope of siren sexiness is gone, gone, gone. Here's Madonna with spiritual longings. In her new CD, "Confessions on a Dance Floor," she reflects on her quest for fame in a celebrity culture, asking plaintively, if somewhat disingenuously, "Will any of this matter?" There's something for almost everybody in her retro sound as it indulges in the nostalgia of disco, pop and electronic music. In fact, the old and the young may want to dance to it after the feast. Or they may not.
No matter the conversations around the table, family talk is filtered through the lens of emotional history. What's said is not always the same as what's heard. Linguist Deborah Tannen, in her book "I Only Say This Because I Love You," tells of a mother who attends the first Thanksgiving in her daughter's home. In the kitchen the mother says, "Oh, you put onions in the stuffing?" The daughter, who suddenly turns into a teenage version of herself, snaps angrily: "Why do you have to criticize everything I do?" Mom, looking shocked, says, "I just asked a question." (Sound familiar?)
We'll consume calories by the truckload on Thanksgiving, but it's the wiser parent who refrains from suggesting that a child not take a second helping of pumpkin pie. More than one teenage daughter has fled the table, crying, "So you think I'm fat?" Better to take another serving for yourself, along with this wish for a Happy Thanksgiving.