Saturday, November 24, 2012

Thanksgiving Tradition

We set out, this year for Thanksgiving, just the two of us, Sid and me. Sid was sad that his cousins would not be joining him this year. He was glad to hang out with grandma and grandpa, especially in the kitchen.

We arrived on the holiday eve. Leaving town amid the last remnants of the day’s rush hour, mixed with other holiday travelers, leaving the city for regions closer to Lake Wobegon in geography and spirit. Watching a steady stream of tail lights I wondered if travelers are headed home, to a relative’s, and of the stories of the people inside each vehicle. I cannot keep track. I cannot ponder each set of lights. It is enough to contemplate the stories that put my son and me in our seats that late afternoon.

It’s a matter of perspective. I can look at the faint images of drivers and passengers in the early dusk as we pass. I cannot tell if they are headed someplace happy or a place of annual or daily obligation. I don’t know the nature of the commotion that ensued prior to them getting into the car, if it was wrapping up details before the long weekend, organizing small children and the things they would need to survive four days at a relative’s, fits of loathing that often accompany times with family that are aggravations of the dysfunction and ill health that plagued their developmental years, or the greatest of joys that comes with the prospect of spending time with the most favorite and precious people in the universe.

These trips matter and so do the histories that lead up to them. We all have history that makes the days what they are, the day-to-day reality that created the relationships we encounter most intensely on a holiday as well as what those days looked like in years past.

The story of our preparation was marked by excited anticipation. Sid asked if we could go up to grandma and grandpa’s a bit earlier than I suggested.

This year, Sid spent hours in the kitchen entertaining grandma and grandpa with long discussions about China, school and the finer points of learning grammar and the teachers who were as entertaining as the escapades of pedagogy. I sat in a spare bedroom, listening to quick wits and luscious stories. Mother, who was always a good speller, the kind of smarts that helped her graduate from high school at age 16, traded her knowledge with Sid about the finer points of English–alternating that with her well-remembered math anxiety that made itself known as she entered college. Dad, the great story teller, compared his college French class with Sid’s experience. Even coming from New Orleans and French heritage, we do not maintaining much French language, but dad retains the stories, especially of his professors, as a language no one teaches as well as himself.

As I sat resting, I could hear each of them laugh from at each others’ stories and their own. Teachers are the same from generation to generation and, at the same time, so different today than the days when high school graduation was little more than behaving well enough to convince the teacher to give students a C and then to march them capped and gowned into an arbitrary adulthood. They were full of conversations, most of which I have had over the past years and recent weeks with each of them, in smaller bits and pieces. Sid’s monologues were enough to wrap grandma and grandpa’s attention. He looked forward to this trip as well for the stories he learns, as well as the grandkid attention.

I knew there are more stories. I hear them. As many stories that get shared, there are long, dark afternoons endured with the aid of the second or third drink. Off in a corner with a concocted fetish of a tumbler and melted ice. So much easier to peer slightly over the lip of the glass than directly into the eyes of past shames that the relative does not want to let you forget, the in-law who still dreams of the other woman for their son and the failure after failure to conform to something that is less about virtue or morality than it is a struggle to keep family members corralled in a cage of a family secret.

History, however you define or identify it, means something. Some we carry from our childhood. Some, we carry from generations. Americans have a short history and even shorter memories. Even the short 400 years since English separatists arrived and nearly all perished in the new elements is played out with most of the details mostly forgotten and lived through a fiction of harmony that masks the genocide that makes the losses of the initial losses of the first immigrants look like the loss of one nonagenarian relative whose suffering warranted moving on into the next world.

A friend, thankful in her own rights, shared a piece written by Dennis W. Zotigh in Indian Country Today Media Network, “Do American Indians Celebrate Thanksgiving?“ The present-day follies that dress children in garb to play Pilgrim and Indian mark our history better than we remember it. Was it so necessary to insult Native identity as it is to insult our children’s intelligence? For some purposes, yes.

We are making new traditions. Some fitfully. While some school children’s are led in rituals that still mock native peoples, but more people are interested in accurate and respectful representations of history, story and the people who lived and perished in those stories. New traditions.

I have often said that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It is that day, for me, that has been about getting together with people who I care about. Little obligation other than to enjoy a mean and share it with great people. Okay, there’s more than that, especially if you are making a big meal. I’ve shared a few green bean bakes over the years. It is the day when mom and dad usually invite other company, student strays and need the card table to fit everyone.

In years past, we would always have snow for Thanksgiving. There would be snow on the ground, almost every year. Even if the day before had none, it was sure to snow before dinner was set on the table. Two families in St. Cloud, the Statzs and the Opatzs, would hold a touch football game between the families. It was always held in a field covered in snow. But in recent years, climate has brought us something different. I have gotten used to brown Thanksgivings. Things change.

This year, it was only Sid, me, and mom and dad. Without his cousins, Sid gets more attention from grandma and grandpa, but he said, “It’s not the same without Kamarah and Nyah here.” Mom turns from the counter and says, “What are we missing?”

My impulse was to say, “Your three other children.” I was silent.

My siblings and my nieces are having a great Thanksgiving and we are looking forward to Christmas together. Traditions.

I had mentioned to a friend that I might bring baseball gloves. She was excited to hear this, surely missing her father with whom she shared a love of baseball and the misery of the Cubs. I might be able to give mom and dad’s neighbor Thom Woodward a call: a former baseball coach, he has expressed a desire to join us, having seen Sid and I and often his cousins at the park across from his home. The gloves sat idle as the morning sun became lost behind solid clouds and the wind picked up enough toward the end of our walk. Later, it would snow. A historically accurate Thanksgiving.

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Sunday, November 4, 2012

Obama’s Hand of Cooperation

In the week before the election, much of the eastern seaboard was hit by Hurricane Sandy.  Republican New Jersey Chris Christie was faced with the devastation left by Sandy and millions of people suffering in pretty harsh conditions.  He responded to his constituents’ emergency swiftly.  He also worked with FEMA and President Obama, setting into motion the pieces of our national infrastructure that was designed to enhance safety during such disasters and provide a backstop when the critical means for survival have been wiped out.

There is a photo that has circulated widely of the President, getting off a helicopter and being greeted by Gov. Christie.  They are shaking hands as they walk to their task of responding to the disaster.  Gov. Christie is quoted as saying much in praise of the President including, “The president was great last night.  He said he would get it done. At 2 a.m., I got a call from FEMA to answer a couple of final questions and then he signed the declaration this morning. So I have to give the president great credit. He’s been on the phone with me three times in the last 24 hours. He’s been very attentive, and anything that I’ve asked for, he’s gotten to me. So, I thank the president publicly for that. He’s done — as far as I’m concerned — a great job for New Jersey.”

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie greeting President Barack Obama to lead the storm response effort in the wake of Sandy.

This is not just refreshing because it is an act of bipartisanship that everyone talks about.  At this point, I am not so concerned about bipartisanship as much as I am impressed with this act of non-partisanship that President Obama marks the extended hand of cooperation that Obama has been extending for over four years. Too many Republican partisans have been terrorized into ignoring it or vociferously opposing, not Obama’s policies but the mere act of coming together at a “Team of Rivals,” as Dorise Kearns Goodwin phrased it.

It took Sandy to get one to honorably accept the invitation to make our county better.
This response to dire need is an example that Obama has tried to share with Republicans and show to Democrats.   It has been especially disappointing that Democrats at least didn’t pick up on it. It could have quelled the crass opposition. The message of cooperation over compromise is a winning one.  Still, it is even less rare than the partisanship of half a generation ago.

I don’t know anyone else who could have a chance at really has the vision that gives anyone a chance of pulling this off, besides Barack Obama.  Like Lincoln, his team of rivals is key and goes deeper than his appointment of Hillary Rodham Clinton (who grew up in a Republican household) and gaining the confidence of a statesman of the integrity and character of Colin Powell.  When Obama appointed Republican Ray LaHood to the cabinet, it was one smartest appointments that could carry this cause. LaHood is a very good guy and well respected. There are some good men and women in Congress, but there are still too many in DC for whom it is not a life-altering tragedy if stuff does not get done. When it’s staring them in the face, they can lend a hand to each other.

Today, Gov. Christie has the real lives of real people staring them in the face.  I did not like to dwell on the chorus of arm-chair pundits who’s clamor sang of politicians at the Capitol who are out of touch with “regular people.”  I still believe, basically, that politicians are not much different from the rest of us and their shortcomings are triggered by the same things that trigger ours.  But there is a privilege that got most of them there that is accentuated by their “honored” status.  It sometimes makes most of us invisible.  And like any of us, when we act in arenas where others or invisible or the day-to-day realities of existence for a lot of people.

This is especially apparent with the current Congress.  The Republican leadership and loyal minions decided early on that they could sacrifice the lives of a public desperately in need of economic recovery, community and personal health and acknowledged civil rights and the political and electoral gain would be justified.  They are far enough to not feel the pain that comes from not blocking Obama’s policies but the invitation for unprecedented cooperation.  Democrats showed their distance by not even having the words or message to respond.

This brings me back to Doris Kearns Goodwin and a story I related a couple of years ago. (See “Celebrity Crush” from November, 2010.) AT a booksellers convention, I had the honor of sitting next to her at the convention dinner.  She said something that shocked me.  She said, You know who I think should be the next President of the United States?  Paul Wellstone.

I smiled to myself.  Two thoughts crossed my mind.  The first was that she was just saying this because she was in Minnesota amongst a crowd that almost certainly loved Paul—unconditionally.  This may have been true, but I did not quiz her on this.

The second thought was, Oh, here we go again.  A well-off, out-of-touch elite who is going to go on about how wonderful and liberal Paul is and “don’t you just love him?”  But what she said surprised me.  It was smarter than a knee jerk and was what I now see as a distinction that, today, is fading: that distinction between liberal and progressive.

She said something like this:  You know, Paul and Sheila (Wellstone) are just about the only people on Capitol Hill and maybe the only ones in the Senate, who, when they go out, have to pay attention to how much they spend.  She reminded/pointed out that the Senate was a club of the very wealthy.  As such, most of them had little perspective on what it meant for most Americans to live day to day, make their way through the mine field of common economic and social realities.

I think it is why Obama and Bill Clinton make much better presidents than Republicans Bush, McCain, or Romney or Democrats Kerry or Gore.  Being a fortunate son is not what it takes to understand when to cooperate, compromise and build consensus.  The value the lessons of having a tough life growing up are showing, and there are many, not just politicians, who do not get those realities.

But Gov. Christie cannot ignore the reality of Sandy, nor the fact that much of the media if focused on neighboring New York and not his state–his people who where hit much harder.  News reports say that when Christie was asked if Romney would be joining him to tour the storm damage, he responded, “I have no idea, nor am I the least bit concerned or interested.”  He added, “I have a job to do. I’ve got 2.4 million people out of power, I’ve got devastation on the shore, I’ve got floods in the northern part of my state. If you think right now I give a damn about Presidential politics then you don’t know me.”

Well, I think he is concerned about Presidential politics, now.  I am.  He was interested enough to consider running for the office, or at least bathe in the attention amid such speculations–and we were interested enough to give him that attention.  But maybe this is that place where Christie can swallow Romney’s pride and Obama the Democrats’ and get a chance to show America what real pride is made of.  And maybe the next four years will look more like the shining example streaming through the storm clouds.