Thanksgiving 2017

Family will fill the dining room Wednesday evening for Thanksgiving Dinner 2017. We’ve divvied up side dishes so everyone will be carrying something to the feast. It will be a grand gathering.

No holiday has morphed as often in our home as Thanksgiving dinner. Loved ones who shared the day have passed. Friends who joined us at various times left stories we share. Korean students we hosted carry memories of our pecan pie. Babies grew up. Family dogs endured ribbons or costumes with rewards of bits of our meal.

Turkey always appears but side dishes reflect the times. My father’s sausage dressing gave way for my mother-in-law’s oyster stuffing. A former son-in-law only liked a five-minute version made out of a box. For years I rehydrated and doctored up packaged stuffing mixes. Now it is made from scratch. Green bean casserole has given way to Brussels sprouts. Homemade applesauce and cranberry relish still claim menu priority.

Tears accompanied some transition years. Significant tears cried about an empty chair. Exhausted red eyes when traditions overwhelmed my ability to deliver. A parent’s sadness as children are absent a first time. Happy wet eyes when the stories begin flowing among those who are present and it is no longer important that we are gathering on Wednesday night for the whole deal or on Friday for turkey tetrazzini and leftovers.

Wishing all of you a moment of comfort however you spend the coming holiday.

Advertisements

Living in the Wisconsin Woods

The nearest stoplight is about 20 miles south. McDonalds and Target are another ten minutes away. Spend a few weeks in a small town 75 miles from the nearest Best Buy or a hundred miles from Macys and a whole lot of the advertising during prime time is meaningless.

This is life for many United States residents. Here fast food means leftovers warmed in the microwave. There isn’t much to buy unless you are a tourist looking for art and jewelry. Local wages don’t leave a lot for casual spending. A pair of good jeans, two pairs of everyday jeans, and old work jeans plus a good pair of black pants satisfy most women. When the local stores have sales there are nice enough shirts and sweaters for Sundays or socializing. A seasonal dress rounds out the wardrobe.

Contrary to Madison Avenue’s wish most people don’t work to buy fancy lattes on the morning commute, fill a closet with the new season’s clothes or decorate their homes in the latest trends. The average American appreciates those who do well and share it with the community, and thinks poorly of people in houses with gold desks and lamps and feathery things in vases who don’t share.

I grew up like this. Shopping became a pastime after we moved to a city and walking through stores grew into weekend entertainment. It’s not like FedEx and UPS trucks don’t stop in our Northern neighborhood, but the boxes are frequently from Amazon and contain things like a book the local store doesn’t carry, special dog food that can’t be found locally, light bulbs, or rubberized boots for working outside. More replacement focused than acquisition.

Returning to the city requires adjustment back to the importance of outward appearance, busy lives and a different sort of community life. I’ve spent my adult life in the city and know comfort there. But the peace of being 20 miles north of the last stoplight is precious.

Cynthia Kraack is an award-winning Twin Cities author, whose novels include The High Cost of Flowers, which won the 2014 Midwest Book Award in Literary Fiction. Her blogs will appear regularly in WordSisters.

 

 

 

 

 

6-pound Lament

I wonder what combination of tricks will help me lose weight this time?

I know Weight Watchers works if I just do it. In the morning I have good intentions and I’m determined to succeed, to once and for all lose the 6 pounds that stand between my clothes fitting comfortably and not. Disappear my Buddha belly. By evening, I am ready to sabotage the die-ette and eat some crackers (1 point), a piece of cheese (2 points) or a Dove ice cream mini (3 points).

Whenever I diet, I am setting myself outside my normal eating patterns and entering the Land of Crave and Denial, a place I’m sure to sneak out of or completely bust out of eventually.

Because I know I’m going to want what I can’t have, I’ve ruled out other diets like Atkins, Paleo, etc. There’s no way I’ll succeed by banishing whole categories of food – bread, pasta, sugar, fat, which in my mind equal toast with butter, pasta with anything, sugar in my coffee, ice cream, dark chocolate, salty nuts, potato chips, and anything fried.

I don’t want to diet, and yet . . . there’s this shelf of a belly, the same six pounds I’ve gained and lost for 30 years. Which is stupid. Why do six pounds or a piece of cheese matter?

There’s a body positivity movement afoot to accept your weight and quit worrying about a perfect shape. I admire the young women who feel sexy and at ease in their own bodies and proudly disregard their muffin tops and big thighs. But I am of a different generation, one that was taught from a tiny age to aspire to a perfect figure. Anything less than that and you are made to feel like a less valuable person. Which is also stupid. But I can’t get it out of my head, can’t stop mentally shaving off the extra pounds to see my perfect shape, or more realistically, my pretty good shape.

It’s not that I’m huge. I weight 20 pounds more than when I married and looked good objectively (or is that as an object . . . something set on this earth for other people to look at?)

I’m trim, but not thin. My extra weight isn’t a health issue. For now. But I dislike how I look. I wish I looked different. I’m not aspiring to lose 20 pounds. Just six so my clothes fit better. So far, I’ve avoided buying larger sizes. That’s the line I won’t cross. But if I gain any more weight, I’ll have to.

Besides eating a lot of fish, salad, fresh fruit, chicken breasts, veggies and walking for at least 45 minutes every day, I have all kinds of tricks like—

  • Every day, I can have a planned cheat, like one sweet thing a day—a cookie or a Dove ice cream mini.
  • I don’t eat low-cal chocolate or cheese. They’re a waste of calories and I’m only going to eat more of them until I have the real thing. Instead, I eat small amounts of the good stuff—like one Dove dark chocolate Promise, not five. It really does satisfy my chocolate crave.
  • Have a 4 o’clock snack – a little hummus or a small piece of cheese and 2 or 3 crackers to tide me over until dinner.
  • Drink some ice water or herbal tea at night instead of a mojito, a beer, or a glass of rioja.
  • When the chip crave overwhelms me, I eat and enjoy a 1 oz. bag of chips fromSuperAmerica. A setback, yes, but better than a big bag of chips.

All of that works until it doesn’t. Until I don’t want to do it anymore. Until I crave more salt and sweet. Until abstinence sounds too pathetic and silly. Really? I can’t have a cookie? I really have to feel bad about caprese salad with creamy fresh mozzarella, ripe tomatoes, basil, and good olive oil?

Which is why I have those six pounds to lose. Again. Which is stupid.

An excellent article, “Losing It in the Anti-Dieting Age” by Taffy Brodesser-Akner inspired me to reflect on my uneasy relationship with my weight. I highly recommend it.

Resisting Assumptions

The last time I gave blood, a tech named Dakota took care of me. When she introduced herself, I didn’t expect we’d have much in common. She was in her 20’s and had full sleeves of tattoos and several facial piercings, while I look like the middle-aged, mom-ish person I am. However, she surprised me.

She made a real effort to talk to me, which I appreciated because giving a pint of blood takes about half an hour and you’re tethered to a gurney the whole time. You can stare into space, listen to music and daydream or play with your phone, which is what I was doing when she tried for a second time to start a conversation. I apologized and set my phone aside. She sympathized and said she’d recently read an article about how involvement with cell phones can put a damper on actual conversations. Her comments sounded like something I would say, not something I expected of someone her age. It was a minor moment, but it reminded me how difficult it is to resist making assumptions.

Making assumptions is natural and necessary.

Every day we receive such an onslaught of information—online, at work, and during casual personal encounters at a coffee shop, gas station, or wherever—that our brains simplify and categorize it. We have to. Otherwise, we’d be paralyzed by making sense of the input. The downside of this tendency is stereotyping.

It’s a wonder people ever make genuine connections! And yet, I’m committed to trying.

Resisting stereotypes about age, race, gender, politics and so forth, takes a lot of energy. The situation is made doubly difficult because whomever I’m encountering has his or her own set of biases to overcome. But in a culture that’s rife with hateful stereotypes, I’m trying harder to see each person I meet as the individual she or he is.

At its most basic level, my efforts consist of looking strangers in the eyes and smiling. Just seeing them and looking friendly. Some people don’t return my smile, but a lot of them do. It occurs to me that I may look like a smiling idiot—a dotty lady on the loose—but I’m willing to take the risk.

In Dakota, I found an interesting woman who wants to be a nurse, while I’ve worked for hospitals off and on throughout my career. We’d both lived in Morris, Minnesota, although decades apart. As she described what her tattoos meant to her, it was clear her body is her canvas. I mentioned an ironic tattoo I like that’s in the shape of a tombstone and reads, “Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt,” a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Turns out we both like Vonnegut.

Next time I have a chance to make a casual acquaintance, I’ll try to be the one who initiates conversation.

Finding Common Ground in the Essence of the Holidays

Thanksgiving in Ohio a few years ago - Table set for 16 - before the  carnage

Thanksgiving in Ohio a few years ago – Table set for 16 – before the dinner carnage

In the class where I assist, explaining the customs surrounding Halloween and Thanksgiving to adult immigrants who are learning English is challenging. Understanding American customs helps immigrants fit in, even if they aren’t likely to celebrate the holidays the exact same way long-time Americans do. However, Halloween and Thanksgiving have evolved so much from their original meanings that often it’s hard to make sense of our current practices.

When I try to explain Halloween, it sounds absurd.

In class, I hear myself say, “Halloween” comes from “All Hallowed’s Eve.” “Hallowed” refers to people who have died—their souls are “hallowed” or “holy,” and Christians believe good souls go to heaven after they die . . . .”

I write the words on the board and think, How can I possibly explain the history? I try this, “Hundreds of years ago the Celts—people who lived in Great Britain and northern Europe—believed that October 31st was the end of one year and November 1st was the start of a new year. At that time of year, dead souls could visit earth. People dressed in costumes to trick the returning spirits, so the spirits or ghosts couldn’t harm them.” Wow. That sounds completely bizarre. Why is this still a holiday?

I say, “Most people don’t really worry about ghosts, but people still enjoy dressing in costumes.” I pause after that semi-lame comment. Moving along, I start to describe how trick or treating works, but falter when explaining the reasons why that custom is acceptable. Give me a treat or else I’ll play a trick on you? On the face of it, that custom sounds like blackmail. Umm, in America, that how we do things??

Given the language barrier, I’m not sure how much the students understand.

cemetary

Photo from traditionscustoms.com

The students from Mexico and Central America see the connection between American Halloween and Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) in which families visit cemeteries with food and mementoes, and they picnic at the gravesites. At best, the students from Africa and Asia look baffled by Halloween and Dia de Muertos, and at worst, they look repelled.

Photo by Subharnab Majumdar - originally posted to Flickr as The Rangoli of Lights

Photo by Subharnab Majumdar – originally posted to Flickr as The Rangoli of Lights (Diwali)

I extend our discussion to describe Diwali (also called Deepavali). It’s a Hindu festival of lights that’s celebrated in late autumn in parts of India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Malaysia, and other countries in the region. People light candles and lamps, create intricate decorations called “rangoli” using colored powder, and families exchange small gifts to celebrate the triumph of light over darkness and knowledge over ignorance.

The Muslim Africans and Buddhists from Asia and begin to nod. They see that in countries across the world, celebrations take place in late autumn when the days grow shorter and darker. They understand that people need light, to gather together, and to celebrate with special food.

When we discuss Thanksgiving, I feel a different sort of disconnect.

The official story of Thanksgiving is that Native Americans selflessly rescued starving Pilgrims by teaching them about North American foods—how to grow corn and squash and how to hunt local game and fish. To show gratitude after the first harvest, the Pilgrims prepared a feast and shared it with the local tribe. That’s the version I learned years ago in school, and it’s still favored today in many public schools.

Fairy tale version of the first Thanksgiving

Fairy tale version of the first Thanksgiving Historical postcard c. 1910 from Plimoth Plantation collection

But, I think, it’s only half of the story. European settlers also introduced smallpox and other diseases to Native Americans, who had no resistance to them. Thousands died. Often the Pilgrims’ interactions with local Indian tribes were disrespectful. Native Americans were seen as “savages” who had no religion of their own. For a long while after the Pilgrims claimed New England for their own, the invading European settlers and Native Americans engaged in raids and massacres. Millions were killed.

How far do I delve into the historical details? After the trouble explaining Halloween customs, I decide to mention, but only summarize, the difficulties between the Native Americans and the Pilgrims. Perhaps it’s wrong to round off history’s sharp edges, but I decide to focus on what connects people of different cultures. I describe the current meaning of Thanksgiving—to be grateful for what you have and to share a good meal (of whatever cuisine) with family and friends. When put in the simplest terms, the students understand the point of Thanksgiving.

By focusing on the essence of these customs—remembering the dead, pushing back darkness, being grateful for a plentiful harvest, and sharing a good meal with family and friends—students who come from Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Russia, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Vietnam find common ground with each other and with Americans.