Call it the Seinfeldization of America, if you want. Somewhere in the last 20 years, a great mass of our fellow citizens decided that transforming every quotidian obligation of their existence into a Sisyphean fucking ordeal was an acceptable substitute for having something to say.
Thanksgiving—a holiday usually preceded and sometimes followed by a workday—is their holiest of festivals. If it could be held inside a DMV and officiated by their dentist, it would be the apex of snotty get-a-load-of-this-observation sarcasm incanting the unforgivably mild inconveniences of the first world.
Here's the thing. They are wrong, and you are probably already having—or about to start to have—a pretty decent Thanksgiving anyway.
Now, obviously some people will have a shitty holiday. Some are poor and trapped at work, unable to be with friends or family. Some have neither. Some have become estranged from one or both through no fault of their own. These are not the people whose snide lamentations about flying Delta Business Class to Pittsburgh echo off the pitilessly unweeping walls of a Cinnabon at 8:50 a.m.
You would not recognize Thanksgiving from glancing at popular websites over the last week, with stories like "Dealing with Thanksgiving," "My Thanksgiving Miseries," "How to Get Over Thanksgiving," "Getting Past Thanksgiving," and, "Why Having to Use a Rental Car and Go to a Suburb of 80,000 People to Eat 12 Pounds of Food with My Mom Is Basically a Trail of Tears."
In fact, the hysteria over the day fuels so much of a nightmarish imaginary culture-clash that it's easy to get the sense that every American is a vegan lesbian atheist socialist New Yorker* dating a black woman and forced to go home to Hattiesburg, Mississippi to be put into a Pray The Gay Away deprogramming camp where they shoot lambs to bathe in their blood, then get sodomized by the local GOP County Chairman and Imperial Kleagle of the local Klavern, then finally sit down to a dinner of turkey stuffed with every possible SEC animal mascot and basted with whatever beer is advertised on Ricky Stenhouse's #17 car. ("Sorry, y'all, this year it's Budweiser Clamato. Go figgur.")
* Note: These op-eds, personal comments and blog posts almost never involve someone living in a hip part of Cleveland and resenting having to go back to New York to deal with a racist Long Island mom who cooks everything to death. Tales begin in New York and express the fear at leaving The Natural Center of the Universe for some beshitted map quadrant stamped HERE BE DRAGONS AND CARBOHYDRATES and drip with worry that leaving the Five Boroughs will be like opening "Flowers for Algernon" in the middle and then racing toward its conclusion. At least at the end of that story nobody thought, "Good. EAT SHIT, Algernon."
That kind of panic pushes pageloads, but it's hardly representative of most people's experiences. Moreover, it relies on complaints so unimaginatively one-dimensional that, if you are old enough, you were rolling your eyes to clips of them on Short Attention Span Theater when people like Robert Wuhl or Paul Reiser delivered them while wearing rolled-up sportcoat sleeves in front of the brick wall at The Improv.
Let's look at the dimensions of your sorrow and your pity this holiday.
Thirty years ago, there was a lot more dignity to boarding a plane. You had a definite seat assignment; you could check the Duke of Wellington's entire baggage train for free; provided they were quiet and didn't sneeze, you could carry on at least three small children inside duffel bags, and the waitress in the sky gave you a free snack (small sandwich, apple, nuts, drink) AND a full meal. Nobody thought they were great, but these meals were perfectly fine.
Checking a bag now demands additional money. Everyone thinks he's the first clever person to subvert the carry-on rules. There is no food. The airplane is a steel seating device optimized for cash extraction. Then, as now, flights over a short, high-demand weekend are exorbitant.
On the other hand, thirty years ago, long flights were exercises in tedium for non-readers who couldn't get to sleep. Now many airlines provide individual TVs with a selection of movies and TV shows, and broadband and a laptop opens up a world of media. You can do work on a plane. You can listen to podcasts or, hell, record and upload one.
Sure, you rumple your clothes and feel cramped and get sweaty. People are rude. Babies cry. You're trapped. None of this is new. To paraphrase a sublime Louis CK routine, however, YOU ARE IN A CHAIR IN THE SKY. There is nothing about the fundamental idea of commercial air travel that is anything short of wondrous. And if it terrifies you, do you have any idea how AMAZING drugs are?
Bottom line: you will get to be with people you love with far less time and effort spent and very little chance of being trapped in a blizzard-stricken gorge, watching your horses freeze to death and being forced to eat your traveling companions to stay alive. Which was often the case even 40 years ago.
Most Americans nurse some quasi-Kerouacian Route 66-ish romance with cars and the road, just getting in some engine with a seat attached and going somewhere. It's freeing; it's every rock and roll song; it's quintessentially American; it's a journey of discovery; it's something everyone wishes they could do. Using a car to go to the place where most of the people in the world who love you are at the time, though, is somehow inseparable from getting your breasts or genitals clamped for an unnecessary mammogram. That makes sense.
Look, if you live close enough to home to drive there in a day, you've probably done it enough that you can make the trip on brain autopilot while catching up on all the This American Life you keep sleeping through on hungover weekends. You can stop when and where you want. You can bring shitloads of laundry. You can take cool stuff back with you.
I know, I know, there are a lot of people on the road on Thanksgiving weekend, and sometimes you don't get to go 70mph, and sometimes the roads can be congested and dangerous, and blah blah blah. Every other year or so, I have to spend an entire day in the car to evacuate 400 miles up America's Wang in the advance of natural disasters that may obliterate my home. You're commuting for dinner. Fuck you.
Speaking of dinner... there's no finer American tradition than feeling mistreated when eating part of a meal whose excess leftovers will later be shoved down a garbage disposal in amounts that would outweigh a Family Fun-Size coffin full of North Koreans. It's like a plateful of 9/11s at every place setting.
Anyway, there are some family autocrats who insist on preparing everything themselves, because no one else can possibly get it right. Let them. This is the only thing that makes them happy, because they are miserable people. It's more fun when families rotate hosting duties and appeal to members to bring signature dishes, and even when duds appear, it can actually be satisfying to make someone feel good by pretending that canned green beans, Campbell's Cream of Mushroom and a can of fried onion topping is pretty okay.
While your evening will be sweet and filled with carbs, there is a reason why people have been cooking staples like potatoes and breads long after middle class material prosperity, and that's because they are tasty. And anyone who wants to cry about how American(!) how provincial(!) the affair is because everyone's sitting around a big dead bird ignores the fact that turkey is a delicious and versatile meat that goes in basically every third sandwich in the nation—even at restaurants where food items appear in long italicized Garamond font in the dead middle of heavy embossed paper menus that would delight Paul Allen.
There are three great religious holidays in America: Christmas, Easter and the Fourth of July. The first two are Christian, and the second involves obeisance to the perfection of the American experiment. (USA! Our infant mortality is better than Romania's!) Sure, your family might be devoutly weird and offensive, but the consequences of that are far more significant on another, earlier day in November. Meanwhile, Thanksgiving is our most secular and innocuous national ceremony. The only real constant is the turkey, and you don't have to eat it.
Still, op-ed writers shit on Thanksgiving with a lust that far outpaces the day's particular sins. These people are generally gutless wanks who lack the stomach or the editorial latitude to risk subscription losses by going after America's historical legacy or the millennia of suffering engendered by establishment religion. Thanksgiving is a punching bag for well-fed cowards who challenge a secular ritual because they haven't the stomach or stamina for actual iconoclasm. Have a drumstick.
Chances are, you are going to spend one night or most of the weekend with the sorts of aunts and older cousins who smiled politely as you farted up an earlier teenage holiday by buttonholing them and explaining that Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was REAL jazz and would usher in a new and more dynamic era of rap/jazz that made their copy of Kind of Blue look so fucking played. They're probably going to be nice enough not to remind you of this while your face loses at least two shades of pigment as a younger cousin tells you some stupid shit about how The Pogues and Ray Davies are dinosaurs compared to Mumford and Sons, who have all those songs sound virtually identical FOR ARTISTIC REASONS YOU JUST DON'T GET IT.
Smile and nod and wink at your aunt, and maybe overeat and come home overweight, because at least those things are your own damn fault and worth complaining about.