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Thursday, November 17, 2016

Thanksgiving Dinner Primer: How to Survive Your Family with Merriment & Aplomb

Because sometimes a turkey is on the table,
and sometimes the turkeys are around it.

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, you may be experiencing a heightened sense of stress and a more acute apprehension about the impending collection of personalities that is about to descend upon your home, or into the melee of which you are about to descend at someone else’s digs.
Studies have shown that the most stressful aspect of spending time with family over the holidays is spending time with family over the holidays.
According to Buddhist philosophy, one alleviates suffering by changing one’s attitude toward it, denying one’s desires and preferences in order to achieve a state of acceptance and peace. You may, therefore, improve your Thanksgiving experience by abandoning or altering your expectations about it.
Have you, for example, always longed for a tranquil celebration, reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting or an episode of Seventh Heaven? Where loving and supportive family members gather around the table with goodwill and charity? Where no one asks you why you aren’t married yet, or when you’re going to have children, or if you ever plan to stop having children?
Good luck with that. Seriously. Very much incredibly outstanding luck is wished for you by me. You might want to dine alone at the local Pho place, because your waiter is unlikely to behave as badly as your relatives. He’s hoping for a good tip, after all.
But if celebrating singly is out of the question, consider changing your aspirations. Don’t mourn the impossibility of the idyllic assemblage that is never going to happen. Instead, embark on an entirely different approach.
This year try entering into the horde of orcs—I mean the family gathering—with an eye toward its entertainment value.
Holiday Drunks and Political Combatants
Why worry about whether Aunt Polly is going to over-imbibe, or if Grandpa and Uncle Phil will spring into fisticuffs over the ever-more-bizarre state of U.S. politics?
Take Polly’s car keys when she arrives and hand her a fifth of Jack. Set her up on the couch with your born-again, evangelical sister-in-law and ask Aunt Polly to tell about the time she woke up on a beach in Phuket wearing nothing but chaps and a pair of pasties.
Tell Grandpa that Uncle Phil called him a right-wing, Breitfart, AK-47-toting, apocalyptic nut job. Tell Uncle Phil that Grandpa said he’s a flaming, liberal LGBTQRSTABC+@ Killary-loving meathead who’s dragging this country to hell in a hand basket by its hair. Then grab a beer, pull up a chair, and click on your smartphone’s video cam.
Trust me, it’ll be wilder than Game of Thrones meets Grimm.
The Anxious Cook and the Superior Guest
I feel enormous compassion for stressed hostesses, because I used to be one. Until I decided I don’t care what anybody thinks of my cooking. Or the state of my housekeeping. Or that a fake plush turkey is riding a fake plush black cat on my porch because I’m too lazy to take down one set of decorations before putting up the other.
But having once been the hyperventilating, good-Lord-I-need-three-more-hands-and-two-more-hoursWHY-DID-I-INVITE-ALL-THESE-PEOPLE-OVER?!?, screaming shrew brandishing an immersion blender, I know exactly which buttons to push to generate the liveliest fireworks.
Say you smell something burning.
Ask the cook if the stuffing is gluten-free.
Reveal that Cousin Lou was recently diagnosed with allergies to poultry, starches, and eggs.
Suggest that there isn’t enough gravy, or cranberry sauce, or wine to go around.
Apologize for neglecting to mention that you invited the entire other side of the family, who should be arriving in fifteen minutes.
The flip side of the good-host coin is the Pharisaical invitee who subtly or not-so-subtly criticizes everything. We once hosted a holiday dinner attended by a stranded college student who compared everything I served to his mother’s cooking. Unfavorably.
Bet he’s still single.
You needn’t confront this sort of person directly, whether you’re the host or another guest. No, no, no. A sideways approach, flanking him like a velociraptor, is the best defense to the offensive.
To the superior cook/host/human being, ask lots of questions to plumb his/her wisdom and expertise:
“If someone dropped a turkey on the floor, what would be the best way to clean that up before serving it? Theoretically.”
“Have you ever tried to get dog poo out of couch cushions? Were you overwhelmed enough to just give up and hope no one notices?”
“Are you familiar with the new trend toward supplementing meals with insects? They say grasshoppers are chock full of protein. Here, try a forkful of this stuffing and tell me what you think. Too crunchy?”
With the clean-freak/germophobe, pull out a bottle of hand sanitizer and ask if he wants some. Whisper, “Believe me, as long as you’re in this house you do. That’s all I can say.”
If faced with a nose-up, high-brow intellectual, there’s all sorts of fun to be had.
Ask for his thoughts on the contributions of V.C. Andrews and Danielle Steele to the American literary landscape.
Mention that you signed a petition to have all history prior to and including the Vietnam War stricken from the public education curriculum as irrelevant.
Utilize they and their for gender-neutral, singular pronouns. ("I think a person should stand by their convictions, even if they are proven wrong by reason and science."), and liberally sprinkle your conversation with the words literally, basically, and like. Extra points for slipping in irregardless and quoting internet memes as reliable sources for your supporting arguments.
On Inappropriate Queries
The most grueling aspect of family get-togethers may be the impolite, cheeky, and borderline abusive questions posed by people who were evidently raised by rabid wolves. Inquiries like:
Why haven’t you had a baby yet?
You’re thirty and unmarried. Have you tried being gay? That would open up a whole new dating pool for you.
Have you thought about Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig?
The key to handling these types of probes is advance preparation. Have some stock answers ready ahead of time.
And if you really want to take your entertainment-promulgation strategy to the next level, give different responses to the same question posed by different people. It may take days or weeks for those family members to compare notes and uncover discrepancies, but the texts and calls you’ll get will provide you months of amusement.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
“My parents had me sterilized at nine, when I was misdiagnosed with congenital sociopathic schizophrenia. Turns out I was just lactose-intolerant. Who knew?”
“I actually am married, sort of. I’m participating in a communal marriage with a wonderful new group I’ve joined. Pastor Lord Heavenstar says physical love should be shared freely among all people. Would you like to meet him sometime? I think he’d really like you.”
“We’re trying to stop getting pregnant. I’ve had my tubes tied and he’s had three vasectomies. We use condoms and birth control pills and the withdrawal method. Last time we never even had sex. I got knocked up when he hugged me after work. It’s a nightmare.”
The above are just plain fun. But if you want to slip in a little vitriol, you can do that too:
“I can’t see wasting my time and money on Jenny Craig. It doesn’t seem to have worked for you.”
“Look at these people. Do you really think it’s wise to pull the handle on the baby slot machine given the selection of DNA floating around this casino?”
“Wow. Thanks. The fact that you dislike my spouse so vehemently goes a long way toward validating my choice.”
Keep in mind, however, that you will not likely be invited back after responses like those above.
Eat, Drink & Be Merry
As we enter Thanksgiving week, I hope this little primer has inspired a new perspective on surviving the holidays. Keep in mind what the Teacher says: “Nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad” (Ecclesiastes 8:15).
So do your best to enjoy the food and the beverages and the company this season. And remember that both the relatives you adore and the ones you abhor are bound for a similar fate, and will eventually be replaced by a new generation of dysfunctional freaks kith and kin.
And I’m always happy to field further questions and quandaries, as well. Email me for more wisdom at
Happy Thanksgiving!


  1. Maria, how dare you give my niece ideas. If Laura starts following your advice at my home on Friday, she's going to time-out. Wait! That would be a reward for most mothers of 4.