juvenile napoleonic tyrant - Thursday November 27 2002
Today was Thanksgiving and Gretchen's parents had insisted that we come visit, so we did as directed, driving south to Silver Spring, Maryland in Gretchen's ruby red Honda Civic. We also brought Sally with us. Gretchen had the idea that if we did our driving on Thanksgiving itself, we'd miss out on the holiday traffic (which she thought would be at an ebb, sort of like the calm in the eye of a hurricane). Unfortunately, though, this wasn't entirely the case, and we ran into various forms of gridlock both on the New Jersey Turnpike and on I-95 east of Baltimore.
It had been sort of a mystery why Gretchen's parents had been so insistent on our coming for Thanksgiving, but once we were actually at their house, it became clear what this was all about. Last Thanksgiving had happened at Brian and Jen's place in Pittsburgh and had exploded in the most volatile way possible, sheering away all the superficial layers of familial geniality and pleasantness. Now, one year later, all the people present for that last Thanksgiving (excluding Jen's sister her husband) were together again, and hopefully familial tranquility and even Thanksgiving itself could be redeemed.
This was the first time I'd ever gone out to a restaurant for a Thanksgiving meal. We all went to a Greek place in Bethesda which featured an elaborate buffet featuring traditional American Thanksgiving dishes as well as such Greek staples as grape leaves, lamb dishes, and at least one vat of delectably-seasoned pork. We only found out about that last one after Gretchen's mother asked the waiter what it was she'd eaten that had tasted so good. I don't remember how the exchange went, but suddenly Gretchen was exclaiming, "Mommy ate pork!" (she still calls her mother "Mommy"). Actually, it turned out that both Mommy and Daddy had been eating (and enjoying) the pork. But this was regarded more as a comedy than a tragedy, and it provided the basis for a geeky-rabbinical debate on whether or not the pork had constituted at least a 60th of their entire meals, the rabbinical threshold for inadvertently-devoured traif to be considered a serious affront to Jewish dietary law.
In addition to the Thanksgiving crew from last year (Gretchen's parents, Brian and Jen, and Jen's parents), there was also this other couple there with their little seven year old kid. The kid was, suffice it to say, not exactly the best advertisement for the collective mass of unborn souls awaiting enfleshment. He had a very unfriendly face, constantly squeezed up into a completely unjustified sneer. Unlike most kids, his actions were devoid of hellos, smiles, or other friendly overtures. Also, judging from the obsequious behavior of his mother, he seemed to be presenting the constant threat of a tantrum. Gretchen whispered in my ear that even Sally had the brat figured out; during an earlier meeting Sally had her fill of his attitude and barked at him, causing him to cry.
Throughout the meal, the lad ate nothing but a small piece of bread, and I figured perhaps he'd already eaten his Thanksgiving dinner. But some time later I witnessed him picking through several plates of chocolate mousse (which he mixed revoltingly with some sort of white creamy substance on his plate). There were a few maraschino cherries scattered in the mousse, and, having some resemblance to natural fruit, they horrified him. But he refused to pluck them out himself and instead demanded that his mother do it, which she obediently did. It turned out that soupy chocolate desserts are the only sort of food the kid eats at all. In a discussion of this later (once he and his parents had gone), I learned that his bizarre diet was probably a direct result of two familial pathologies: his parents' strange food hangups (his dad is a macrobiotic freak and his mother is one of those juicer-obsessed crazies) and the permissive parenting that has allowed him to become the Napoleonic tyrant in his family. I mean, come on, have you ever heard of a kid who is allowed to eat nothing but dessert?
Since this was the first time I'd ever eaten out on Thanksgiving, I looked around to see what sort of people actually go to a restaurant on this, the biggest home cooking day of the year. For Gretchen's family, it was all about avoiding the work of preparation and cleanup. For the others, it seemed to be more about romance, loneliness, or old age. I saw several couples who looked to be elderly people freshly in love with one another, but I also saw at least one older person who appeared to be eating alone.
Back at Gretchen's parents house, we all sat around talking about this and that until well into the evening. Notable for its absence was any sort of alcohol, which would have made the effort of genial family interaction considerably easier on my hopelessly jaded social skills. Nonetheless, everyone seemed to be getting along very well, agreeing on just about every subject from politics to, well, politics. It's not often that so many people can be put together in one room and be in such agreement about, well, anything.
Towards the end there, Gretchen was talking with her parents about the nuts and bolts of European travel (they just spent the last five weeks driving around Italy). Coming from such interesting people, it was a remarkably dull conversation, restricted almost entirely to matters of Logistics, for me the most completely uninteresting topic phylum in the world.