rss search

Want

line

Shania Twain ruined my Thanksgiving.

I don’t mean she did it in some entertaining, memorable way. She didn’t eat all the cranberry sauce, for instance, or bring a dog that wolfed down the entire turkey before regurgitating it back onto the pumpkin pie. No, it was much worse, precisely because it wasn’t entertaining—so non-entertaining and non-memorable, in fact, that it perversely has settled in to become my first memory (not the oldest, but the first that comes to mind) about Thanksgiving.

It had to do with football, of course. It’s been well known since the Pilgrims that nothing goes so well with a harvest celebration as tooth-loosening violence and crippling injury. It took the modern mind, though, to add the most sinister element: the halftime show.

I wish I could attribute what followed to the workings of some nefarious plot. After all, Shania has long been a secret Canadian, and we all know how Canadians hate our freedom. With barbaric customs like universal healthcare and a 12th man on their so-called “football” teams, Canadians could have been using Shania as part of some insidious long-term plan to high-kick until we also measured the football field in “metres” and replaced our “Super Bowl” (a name befitting a superpower) with their “Grey Cup” (a name befitting a light snack). But it was worse.

On Thanksgiving that year—probably the ‘90s, and probably involving the Dallas Cowboys—Shania Twain performed a halftime show. I remember little of what followed, but there was a microphone and much tight clothing, frequent tosses of a thick mane of dark hair, a number of suggestive winks directed toward multiple cameras, and more than a few (suspicious) high kicks. She radiated an energy that bordered on mania—a boundless desire to be desired. And there were commercials. Between. Every. Single. Song.

I was powerless to look away. On television, people watching football games always look happy: laughter, exchanges of high fives, team jerseys. Groups of people are surrounded by snacks covering the four food groups of football watching: salt, fat, alcohol and sugar. They leap into the air after exciting plays, in super slow-mo just like the players on screen. This is not how we looked.

The couches and chairs in the living room were filled with strangers and relatives who see each other only on the most major of holidays. My wife and I had joined her sister’s brother’s sister’s family for Thanksgiving that year because some random events had placed us all in loose geographical proximity. There was some small talk, but it was hard to sustain in the absence of the television’s ersatz camaraderie. There was nothing wrong with my sister-in-law’s sister-in-law’s family—they were all quite nice, actually—but there was just something off about the day.

The holiday seemed to hold everything that Thanksgiving seems to require: turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce, green beans, rolls, pies, Canadians—everything we all expect. It looked a lot like that Norman Rockwell painting of Thanksgiving, with the ginormous turkey being lowered to the table by the apron-clad family matriarch, her husband just beyond her shoulder with the carving knife ready by his hand, the smiling faces of the family leaning in with eager anticipation.

Except that each part of our meal had come via one school fundraiser or another—pies for the senior trip, turkey for band uniforms, rolls for the musical, that sort of thing. School fundraising is a large industry now, so these weren’t pies from the Caitlyn’s mom’s kitchen two streets over, but from the quadruple rows of ovens of some corporation like Sara Lee. Everything looked, felt and tasted exactly how most people would expect, nothing too firm or too spicy, difficult to overcook but reasonably safe to undercook, nothing that you’d find objectionable now, or memorable later.

The blandness of it all, the way all of it—from the food to Shania Twain—built upon itself into a sort of furious beige, deeply disturbed my wife. She missed the attempt to make the day distinct—what the style mags might call “the personal touch.” Most people at least aspire to want to add something like an “old family recipe,” although often its pedigree is no deeper than, as the saying goes, “doing something twice makes it a tradition.”

But here’s the thing: it was perfectly fine for me. I admit that I sort of like Stove Top stuffing and jellied cranberry sauce served with the rings from the can still visible. In fact, for me the totally-expected is the traditional. There just weren’t any old family Thanksgiving recipes when I was growing up, because there was really nowhere for those recipes to come from.

My mother is from Korea. When she was growing up there was not only no American Thanksgiving, of course, but little in the way of any food culture at all, there being so little food. She wasn’t part of any real Korean-American community here, either, any place where she could pick up some real hybrid where kimchi can replace the green beans. She did make an enormous Thanksgiving meal, but she actually made enormous meals all the time; it’s just that this one had a turkey and dressing, rather than chicken sweet ‘n sour.

"Mother Tucking Children into Bed"

“Mother Tucking Children into Bed”

My father’s side of the family, though Americans for many generations, also had little to add to the holiday traditions. My father’s father had died young. His mother, for some mysterious combination of reasons related to fire-and-brimstone religion and a glum general disposition that came from what seemed a lifetime of frustrated expectations, celebrated holidays only grudgingly. I can still see the tiny, silver-colored metal Christmas tree she erected with visible reluctance each year.

So in my family, “our” Thanksgiving traditions all arrived second-hand, direct from popular culture. And there is something amiss about what we picked up. Popular culture is, almost by definition, so on-point that it always feels off-center and shallow.

For instance, think about that Norman Rockwell painting, probably the most famous image of the holiday. It turns out that it’s not called “A Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving.” It’s called “Freedom from Want.” Rockwell painted it as part of a four-part series of Saturday Evening Post covers in 1943, celebrating Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms.” We were fighting a world war, FDR said, to spread four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

Rockwell’s painting series came at the end of more than a decade of depression and in the midst of a second World War. These were years when people planted gardens not because they enjoyed it or because they found fresh vegetables more flavorful; they planted gardens so they would have something to eat. Commercial fishermen couldn’t always find a market to sell their catch, but at the end of the day their families would still have the fish. Calories were hard to come by, and thinness was no mark of admirable self-discipline, just of poverty. When FDR proclaimed the goals of what he called the “united nations” fighting against fascism, he naturally chose freedom from not-having.

It’s odd how we have so forgotten the freedoms from in the decades since then. As our nation grew in strength and spread its power across the globe after the war, we paid more attention to the more aggressive kinds of freedoms, the “rights” we asserted—rights to do what we wanted, unconstrained by other people or other governments: the right to speak, the right to worship, the right to grow. The rights of individuals.

We forgot that our freedoms are also important collectively. The freedom from having too little, and the freedom from having to be afraid—these are about not the individual, but what the philosophers call the commonweal, the welfare of the public. These are the freedoms necessary to a healthy community.

We’ve come, over the last generation, to celebrate the individual achiever, proud that we have a country where people are able to find and make success. But as our cherished social mobility has slowed over the past generation, many Americans have somehow come to celebrate the dark side of the vision that we get what we deserve. That our neighbors are suffering soul-crushing defeats—jobs vanished, homes gone, hope lost—some see as a perverse vindication of the dream, rather than a destruction of the sense that we are a community joined by more than our common use of the dollar.

Thanksgiving is no longer a harvest celebration. Few of us play any real role in growing the food harvested for this meal. Instead, we buy turkeys slaughtered and frozen half a year before, using money from the paychecks we get twice a month. It has become a celebration not of the production of food but only of its consumption, after which, more sedated than sated, we watch commercials on television and, before midnight, gather our wallets before heading to the stores to inaugurate the buying binge we call the “Christmas season.” It’s the most curious kind of liberation from want.

I think Norman Rockwell fully understood the mix of irony and yearning behind his iconic images. We tend to deride Rockwell for being saccharin, syrupy or just hokey, but he never thought that his paintings depicted anything like a real or “genuine” America. Rockwell was above all a hard-working commercial artist who needed to please his clients, the illustrated magazines trying to reassure Americans about the endurance of sentimentalized small-town values even as America ceased to be a nation of small towns.

Rockwell knew the difference between ideal and real. Rockwell’s wife, Irene, was the model for the well-known 1921 Saturday Evening Post cover “Mother Tucking Children into Bed,” but she divorced him in 1930. He painted some of his best-known paintings while living, often depressed, in an old friend’s guest house. He did remarry and had three children in New York, but in 1953 moved his family to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, so that his wife might seek treatment at a psychiatric hospital. A few years later, she died suddenly of a heart attack. As Rockwell’s own psychiatrist told him, he painted happiness, but did not live it.

When Rockwell, a notable perfectionist, painted his “Four Freedoms” series, he took seven months and lost fifteen pounds. However, the effort was well spent. On tour, the four paintings helped raise more than $132 million in war bonds. With four million poster copies printed during the war, the series was for decades displayed in schools, post offices, train stations and all manner of public and semi-public spaces. Some claim these are the most widely distributed paintings ever produced.

In his long career Rockwell produced more than 4,000 original works. What made his work so popular is that, although exquisitely detailed, the paintings allow us to see in them exactly what we want to see. His work was critically panned during his lifetime, with many critics dismissing his work as “not art,” but Rockwell didn’t describe himself as an artist; he was, he said, a “commercial illustrator.”

"Freedom from Want"

“Freedom from Want”

I find Rockwell’s Thanksgiving portrait more interesting as his ideal than if I thought he was trying to show real life. Every American family did not have a fat turkey for Thanksgiving, any more than every American family was white and middle-class (or happy). What’s real in the image, painted in the depths of a global war, is the yearning for that hoped-for world where, as FDR said, every nation might have “a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants.”

It seems to me that Norman Rockwell’s America—the place he actually lived, with its hard work and success, and with its sadness and tragedy, too—is a place not of unearned sentiment or innocence; it’s a place of hard-earned, honestly-won hope. After all, we can’t create a better world if we have no idea what that world might look like. Rockwell wasn’t trying to show the world as it actually was, or as it would look. I think he was trying to show us how that world, when we got there, would feel. As he said, “I paint life as I would like it to be.”

So remember that this Thanksgiving. And if you see Shania Twain, tell her, nicely but firmly, that Canada celebrated its own Thanksgiving in October.