Monday, November 19, 2007

Thanks, But Not Really, at Thanksgiving

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

The season of guilt kicks off now with Thanksgiving, that celebration of turkey, and family and the tortures we Americans inflict on each other when there are no Iraqi's handy.

Not that I'll pass up dinner. Or any meal, especially in France where it'll come with great wine. So what if I'll blanch a little when some bright soul opens her mouth to say, "Let's go around the table and say what we're thankful for."

It's something we're almost too out of practice to do. I am, anyway. As a kid, what was usually demanded of me was to be grateful.

The females of my species specialized in putting their hands to their hearts and enumerating their many and horrible sacrifices, announcing finally with a tear in their eye, and a catch in their voice, "All I want is a little gratitude. Is that too much to ask?"

We had to be grateful for having shoes. Grateful for having a roof over our heads. And grateful for the horrible haircut on it.

We had to be grateful when my father's nouveau riche side of the family invited us over for Thanksgiving and served creamed vegetables which none of us kids had ever eaten before, especially the mysterious pearl onion which sounded like something you should loop around your neck to keep off vampires.

We were grateful for the teensy-weensy check stuffed reluctantly in the Christmas card and spent so much time on our vacations expressing that heartfelt gratitude, we were grateful to go back to school.

Then there were the TV shows, where there was always some cranky neighborhood cop saying, "You should be grateful I didn't haul you down to the station," his hand around some squirming kid's collar. "Just don't do it again." If it wasn't some kid, it was a Mexican or black teenager trying to repress a seething rage as some cracker told them, "You should be grateful."

What a word. I use it sometimes in emails, usually with a twist of irony. "I'd be grateful if you'd have a look at this." "I'd be grateful if you could get back to me as soon as possible" -- this usually in regards to a matter for which I have been demanding an answer for months.

It's a throwaway phrase of politesse, but I always feel my mouth pucker up as I type it in.

I've been needy too often. I've had to hold out my hand and ask for help and pretend I didn't mind, even as that word "grateful" floated in the background with its implication of benevolence and debt and scorekeeping.

Grateful means a constant erosion of equality on the one hand, and an inflation of self-regard on the other. The more you need, the better some people like it, as long as you're willing to lick their boots.

As for thanksgiving, I'd have to say we understand thanks -- it's what we demand from the victims of our benevolence -- but we don't understand how to make giving a virtue and not one more American vice.

One of the most extreme cesspools of it is manifested in Southern hospitality, where they work so hard to put you at your ease it's clear that they're the host and you're trapped as the guest eating unwanted food, exclaiming over the accommodations. The more they give, the more you're forced to squeal your praise, and declare the awesome wonder of their generous spirit.

"Take the last piece of pie." "I couldn't." "You must." "I'm stuffed." "You don't want me to think you don't like my cooking." "In that case." "And after supper I'll show you to my bedroom where you'll sleep while I find a damp, drafty little, disease-ridden nook in the cellar." "Why, you're an absolute saint."

Make no mistake, by the end of it, they own you. Giving's all about control.

At bottom, America's an old Testament country, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. For every number inscribed in red ink in the debit column, there must be another in the right column written in black.

It's the assumption underlying any of our debates about welfare and soup kitchens, or for that matter our dues to the United Nations, foreign aid, and lately, and especially, the liberation of countries from evil dictators. Why is no one grateful? Why shouldn't we put in our own guys?

For every gift, there must be obligation, some strategic positioning, control of a resource, or endless political concessions. When our protectorates betray our generosity, we're vicious in return.

The truth is, our gifts are not gifts at all; they're down payments for something we'll claim in the future, grabbing at it with our deceptively open, American hands.

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