The Thanksgiving roundtable, full of hot plates and hot-button issues

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 25, 2010; 12:00 AM

Celebrants of the sagging table of Thanksgiving, let us wish.

Grasp that forked wishbone tight (toward the top is best for leverage) - and while hoping that the knobby knuckly part breaks off on your end, you may wish for economic salvation, or the renewal of "Covert Affairs," or for the office vending machine to start stocking Diet Dr Pepper.

Or you may hold tight, yank and wish with all your goodly might that you retain grace and self-possession when your semi-estranged uncle turns to the rest of the table and says, in a pleasant, quizzical tone: "Well, why doesn't the president just show everyone his birth certificate?"

Wish long and hard when your sister's weird roommate says casually, "I don't see why I couldn't marry my toaster."

Wish deep when you hear a sentence begin with "Those people," because that sentence never goes anywhere good, no matter if those people are gay, or immigrants, or Republicans, or the contingent that genuinely thought Bristol Palin was a fine dancer.

Once a year for the holidays you come back to your place of origin or, as a plus-one, to someone else's place of origin, where they get the stuffing recipe all wrong.

Today, the country feels redder and bluer than ever. The hot-button issues are the size of hot plates.

"I'm flooded" with complaints from beleaguered family members, says Judith Martin, better known to the world as Miss Manners. "They always say they don't want to see their family, that they'd rather be with friends. But I hear from their friends, and they don't want them there, either."

Still you come back, navigating the feeling of being the Other or accepting the Other. You gird your plate with marshmallow yams, smile at the other guy at the buffet - the new neighbor your mother invited because he was alone - and listen benignly when he says, "I would have voted to legalize marijuana, but I'm waiting for the legislation that also legalizes crack."

The defining moment of Thanksgiving is the one where you must decide whether to break bread with this guy or throw it at his head.

Meghan McCain, the sassy blogger, gay rights supporter and daughter of John, recently told the Christian Science Monitor that certain issues would be taken off the menu on Thursday. "I'm going home for Thanksgiving tomorrow," she said. "When we sit around Thanksgiving dinner, I'm not going to be talking about 'don't ask, don't tell.' "

It's all not asking and not telling at Thanksgiving, balancing how much you love your principles with how much you love the people at that table.

"Thanksgiving 2003," says Kori Schake, a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution and big sister to Kristina, Michelle Obama's new communications director. The Schake family is so political that Kori's mother once gave her, as a birthday present, three months where she promised not to mention the Israel-Hezbollah war. In 2003, Kori went home to her liberal sister and liberal parents. "I was exhausted. And everyone wanted to talk about Iraq."

Finally Kristina ran interference, saying, "Listen, if you all want Kori to feel like she's at work, then you're achieving that. If you want her to feel like she's among people who love her, then we need to talk about something else."

At Christmas there are busywork distractions to alleviate the pressure valve: the cookie baking, the tree trimming, the church pageants and mass present wrappage. On Thanksgiving there is only the food and the added dictum not merely to put up with family but to be thankful for them.

Thankful through the turkey. Through the multi-pies. Through - and this is partly because it's tradition and partly because the elastic on your pants is shot - whatever football game is playing or sitcom NBC is super-sizing. You are stuck. You and your fat pants.

"These kinds of holidays are a minefield," says Roz Chast, the New Yorker cartoonist who specializes in the chaos of the domestic. "It's the combination of boredom and alcohol. The tactical question is, do you want to goad this person? Throw gasoline on the fire? Because presumably you do want to see something exciting happen."

Of course, before taking that course of action, one must assess the audience. "It all depends," Chast says thoughtfully, "on whether you're with people who will actually get physically violent."

Melissa Moore, a communications executive who specializes in communication strategy, describes the way her family communicated their individual items of gratefulness last year.

One relative said she was thankful that an ailing uncle was still alive. "Then a liberal relative said she was thankful that Barack Obama was president so that the health insurance companies hadn't killed him." Then the third relative pointed out that the uncle was over 65 and on Medicare,"so if a health insurance company had killed him, it would have been the government's."

"There has been more than once," Moore says, "that I have excused myself for seconds while my plate was still full."

That vision of Thanksgiving as a harmonious, Folgers-commercial occasion, where the oven opens and love itself pours out, wafting through the house on a nutmeg-scented cloud? That doesn't exist so much anymore, does it? The modern Thanksgiving trope is the gristly, exasperated one, where you hate green bean casserole but eat it anyway, and your family exhausts you but you go there anyway. "Anyway" is an incredibly useful word of Thanksgiving - for the way it conveys brushing aside personal preferences and for its powers as an immediate topic changer:

"Has anyone ever seen Nancy Pelosi and Kim Jong Il in the same room? That's all I'm saying."

"Aaanyway . . . "

It's better this way. Why pretend everyone gets along when they don't? They don't, and they are still there anyway, awkwardly welcoming the nephew's new boyfriend, gently fact-checking the craziest of the crazy remarks.

The tofurkey is overcooked, the Detroit Lions are losing, the conversation has been flogged to death, and everyone has come to some version of home anyway, even if they're getting through it all on a turkey wing and a prayer.

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