Protestant Work Ethic: A Thanksgiving Tale

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There’s not much in the way of archeological activity in sleepy Greensboro, North Carolina.  The only excavations that are made serve the obscure, back-catalogue purpose of digging up artifacts from a transitional Moravian community that settled in Salem, just thirty miles west of here, around the 1750s. Why the Moravians would have wanted to travel by rickety horse-and-buggy thirty miles east down from the foothills into the wicked Greensboro, which didn’t even exist at the time, I can’t say—but archeologists seem to think that those chaste, smocked Protestants were diddling around in that “dark, unbroken forest with an undergrowth of huckleberry bushes” that would later become my fair city. I feel a strong affinity for the Moravians because I think they intuitively grasped the mental health risk posed by the kind of impenetrable darkness that descends on the Piedmont wilderness, which leaves our skies darker than dark, making the loneliness seem that much more cosmically ordained. Recognizing this, the Moravians chose for the defining symbol of their community a colossal tin coffee pot.  In a logic succinctly thrashed out in the first song of Metallica’s Ride the Lightning, they understood the best way to fend off the oily night was to sip on its own piping hot terrestrial embodiment. There’s just not much to hate about these abolitionist pilgrims who cherished a simple, Puritan lifestyle while championing the spiritual benefits of getting jacked-up on revelation-inducing amounts of coffee. 

For decades, a giant metal coffee pot acted as a border, dividing Moravian Salem from Winston-Salem proper. When the towns merged in the early 1900s, a minor PR makeover transformed the pot into a symbol of their now-united community. In 1920, a drunk driver careened into the pot and knocked it off of its pedestal. Afterwards, it was permanently moved to downtown Winston-Salem, where it stands today as a testimonial to the historical capacity of caffeine. 

Despite digging the Moravians and their utopic ambitions in North Carolina, I have always been undoubtedly creeped out by their 17th century historical recreation theme park, Old Salem. It’s a grim scene—disgruntled college students and rednecks dressed up in austere bonnets and buckle shoes stationed in wooden buildings for eight hours a day, re-enacting the strenuous daily regimen of the Protestants of yore—Blacksmithing, Shoemaking, Sheep-shearing, and Wood-Choppery. It’s no surprise the Moravians focused so hard on the afterlife, surely hoping for some kind of posthumous paradise resembling a modern Florida retirement community complete with a tiki bar where they could finally indulge their long-neglected vices. I respect the Moravians because they seemed to fully grasp the indisputable suckiness of life here on Earth in ways that modern Americans seemingly cannot—like the tragically flawed Dr. Frankenstein, we are being clobbered by our own monster.  I think the Moravians understood that even if they ended up in the permanent vacation afterlife-scenario—complete with fruity drinks and a beachside condo—they would still eventually find themselves anxiety-ridden and restless, wistfully fantasizing about their brutal life back chopping wood and tanning pelts on the frozen Piedmont steppe. This is why these Pilgrims pioneered some of the most brutal, depressing sites for their colonies; their masochistic credo seemed to be—if life gives you lemons, bite one and say: “I like lemons. WHAT ELSE YOU GOT?”  This theological self-flagellation led the Moravians to set up shop in bleak, cursed locales like Indiana, Missouri and the weird, haunted burg of Rural Hall, North Carolina.  The latter was by far a superior choice to the former: in a squishy moral lapse for a people decidedly unconcerned with corporeal existence, the Moravians settled on geography with mercifully mild weather. Without central heating, the temperate deciduous forests of the Carolinas must have been paradisiacal compared to the endless freezer-burn of the windswept Midwest.

I could learn a lesson from the Moravians, my life currently existing in some kind of celestial freefall—their Amish self-sufficiency, their resolve to play the cards they’d been given. In the dark past, there was little comfort for the afflicted. There were no antibiotics to rectify infections, no psych meds to dull the pain of depression, no telephones to be reassured by far off friends. If that wasn’t bad enough, wild animals like cougars and wolves were more in the saddle back then. Whether these rugged conditions prodded these forebears on to greater heights or just made their lives more woefully miserable, who can say? My feelings on Old Salem were effectively lynch-pinned with my first visit there on an elementary-school field trip. I was sick with the flu, stuck in the only seat left on the bus beside a window that was frozen open. I tossed and turned hopelessly, attempting to find that Zen-position which would shield me from the arctic February breeze that was whistling in through the crack. Once we got off the bus and started walking around in the punishing cold my fever kicked into high gear, and all the butter-churners and milkmaids took on a sinister countenance, as if they were milking and churning in the fires of Hell. Pretty college girls in bonnets stepped out at me with snakes spilling out of their hair, rasping,

“Moravian Tea Cookies?”

“Would you like some tea cookies?” 

After relating remembrances of my experience at Old Salem to several friends and acquaintances, many told of picking up on similar “bad vibes” during their visits—skull-crushing migraines kicking in once they set foot on the settlement, fleeting visions of some kind of ancient evil. Cursed places are hard to nail down, but the wickedness is there somewhere, intuitively tingling in some node of the brain that has slipped into evolutionary disuse.

✖ 

Despite my love of the Moravians I have developed an aversion to their Pilgrim holiday of Thanksgiving. The traumas of my past couple of Thanksgivings can no longer be written off as coincidental. They indisputably point to bad omens, no doubt the result of some ancient Indian curse precipitated upon my family in retribution for some unspeakable atrocity committed by my forefathers. This, of course, begs for the classic Southern response to familial curses—I shouldn’t have to apologize for what my great-granddaddy did! But how can I forget that harrowing Thanksgiving in Houston, Texas two years ago, my Uncle Monk, the successful lawyer, stumbling up to me before Thanksgiving dinner, begging conspiratorially, breath reeking of vodka,

“Where can I get some blow?”

My thirteen-year-old cousins documented the entire debacle on camcorder, following Monk out onto the back patio as he tried to fight my Dad. The whole scene ended badly with uncle Monk staggering around like an eyeless Oedipus with tear-streaked cheeks, screaming

“YOU DON’T KNOW ME!  NONE OF YOU KNOW ME!”

Poor Monk.  His is a sentiment that anyone who’s ever attended a family gathering can relate to, but one that can never, ever be put to words. Aunt Melinda, Monk’s wife, obviously embarrassed by this loudly flapping piece of dirty laundry being aired in front of the family, threw Monk in the Jeep and screeched back around the corner of the subdivision to their house. Five minutes later, my Dad got a panicked call—Its Aunt Melinda! Come quick! It’s MONK! I was recruited into the minivan and we hightailed it around the block busting in the front door to find Uncle Monk passed out face up on the couch, his mouth is encrusted with bile, making the kind of gurgling sounds you might hear after a toddler just swallowed household detergents. Melinda yelped out and cried, “Oh Help us Jesus, Oh Jesus Monk!” until the paramedics arrived to push us out of the way and shove a tube down his throat. We stood by watching helplessly as Uncle Monk was shuffled out the door to E.R. to get his stomach pumped (The doctors said, “We see this a lot with college freshmen…but rarely in forty-year-old men!”) 

Meanwhile back at Aunt Josslyn’s house, Uncle Ernesto from Guatemala, blissfully unaware of the drama unfolding down the street, got drunk and jumped in the swimming pool with all of his clothes on. He lit up a cigar and waded around the pool grinning and taking sips from a plastic cup of scotch. As we pulled up in the driveway, we spotted a blob-like figure writhing on the sidewalk leading up to the front door. As we got closer, I realized that on the front steps of the house was my eighty-year-old grandmother, fallen and unable to get up, after stepping out to get some fresh air from the Monk debacle. Her arm was gnarled back in some ungodly position. “CALL 911!” she squealed. By the end of the day the paramedics knew us all by name but kept a superstitious distance, eager not to catch whatever it was we had. Grandma ended up spending two months in the hospital and Uncle Monk decided to give up drinking completely, offering up the contents of his liquor cabinet to anyone who wanted them. Much to my chagrin, these spirits were immediately called by my Uncle Pete. 

Another Thanksgiving.  I batten down the hatches and nail boards over the windows in preparation for the approaching storm.  This year my Mom has invited over her “friend” Lyle to eat with our family.  I use the word friend in the loosest, most evasive sense because my mom and Lyle have been seeing each other in some nebulous romantic way for some time, while refusing to admit it. My mom plans to dump Lyle after the holiday—he won’t shower her with the kind of crooning adoration that she, like so many other women, desires. But my mom is a model of Southern propriety and Lyle is a man who has no car and no one else to spend Thanksgiving with, so she makes the executive decision to postpone the dumping until after we have had him over for an intimate holiday meal.

Lyle regales us with stories from his glory years with the CIA, hunting down Soviet missile silos during the Cold War. He’s retired now—but instead of getting a part-time job like other retirees, he spends his time doing crossword puzzles and sending out Internet petitions. Lyle values his time too highly to get a job and doesn’t mind living on nothing but as a result finds himself cripplingly depressed at the times when it dawns on him that he’s completely alienated himself from the rest of society. It becomes apparent that Lyle subsists primarily off of his memories, and knows how to weave a tall tale from fact and fiction. I find his self-mythologizing admirable. Hey Lyle, did the CIA really hire an army of psychics in the seventies trying to telepathically locate Soviet military bases? He shrugs the question off dismissively—“Of course they hired psychics, but they were hacks! It was ME! All me! I found those Soviet launch sites!”

My mom rolls her eyes at him, already well familiar with his typically male brand of legacy-building. In my brother and I, though, Lyle finds an attentive audience to lecture about anything from Bobby Kennedy to Baader-Meinhof. He seems to know a little bit about everything. How to properly spice carrots to emphasize the three parts of their natural flavors (just add orange juice, honey, and dill seed).  How to properly shoot a Luger (he learned in the naval academy). The proper wine to go with pan-seared whitefish (from his time on the Continent).

We sit at the dining room table, and my mom sets the table with the nice silverware, the kind we keep tucked away in a cabinet. The table is set and the candles are lit; my brother leads us in a Thanksgiving prayer.

Dear God, Thank you for this wonderful meal that we are about to receive. Please keep this family safe and bless Grandma, Grandpa, Dad up in Heaven, Aunt Jean, Uncle James, Jesse, Patrick, Brother…

Staring at me from the center of the symmetrical table are two smiling acrylic Pilgrim candles, plasticized caricatures of our brutish, rugged ancestors. The Pilgrim man’s head has fallen off in some kind of morbid accident and I can clearly make out the fissure where it had been glued back on. The flame licks his head, and little rivulets of wax drip down and cover his gleeful face. What would the Pilgrim think of all this—our Harris Teeter brand stuffings, cheap canned cranberry sauce, microwavable rolls and plump, vacuum-sealed turkeys?  Transported into present-day America, would our forbearers really go all Encino Man on us, putting on hypercolor t-shirts and a pair of sunglasses, embracing this mechanized cocoon we’ve built for ourselves?  Or seeing a vision of Hell, would they draw their muskets and start firing?

I shift uncomfortably in my chair, half-expecting one of the candles to catch a preternatural breeze and fall over, engulfing the tablecloth in flames. I’m struck by my own longstanding complacency with this festival of gluttony—every year wheedled into some painful family gathering. Every year goaded into celebrating Thanksgiving by gorging myself. The siren call of the couch is always there, silently beckoning with its apoplectic song. Family and friends are the Trojan horse, slipping past our defenses and applying varying degrees of pressure to buy in, to participate. I can only straddle worldviews for so long before the rift becomes too wide and I have to jump to one side or another to avoid falling into the chasm. After spending so many years passively celebrating a holiday that glorifies the plunderer that the plunderer himself wouldn’t approve of, I can honestly say I want out. I politely excuse myself from the table.

The dinner prayer had reminded Lyle of a story he had wanted to tell me:

“When I was about your age, maybe a little younger when I had my own personal epiphany. I grew up in a strong Southern Baptist family and really resented it when I first went off to college. I didn’t have any religion in my life at all for maybe oh, a year or so. Well, I went to this church for this service. I stepped into the Parish and had this distinct feeling that somebody was missing. It was like someone was supposed to be there, someone I hadn’t thought of. It nagged at me the entire service, and afterwards I went up and talked to the layman. I mentioned to him the sense of absence, and he about turned about as white as a sheet. He looked at me and said, ‘You don’t know what day it is?’

‘Well, no’ I said. 

‘It’s Good Friday’, he said to me. Good Friday is the day when Jesus was crucified. The Episcopal Church removes all the Stations of the Cross, representing the body of Jesus, from the church.  When he told me this every hair on my body must have stood straight up. From then on I knew I didn’t have to look around and choose a church.  A church had chosen me.”

I liked Lyle’s fatalistic logic, his knavish submission at the hands of fate. Why fight it? I remember stopping for gas in Henderson, North Carolina when I was moving all my stuff up to live in Washington, DC, for reasons I can’t now comprehend. Under the gas prices, spelled out in those big gas price letters someone had written out:

THE DECISIONS YOU MAKE ARE YOUR DESTINY 

At the time I thought it was very poignant, a reassuring sign that I was on the right track; Like a Billy Crystal movie—Yeah, I’m just driving up to Washington, DC to meet my destiny. In the harsh glare of hindsight though, it was one of the top three worst decisions I ever made—the fork in my life that set off a chain reaction of anxiety-fueled moves that would have eventually become tolerable had I stuck them out. 

History is funny like that—even if fate appears to be on your side, you can never tell whether it’s leading to crushing failure or blazing, righteous triumph. We’re flying blind into the future, trying to pick the right path, but there’s no one there to provide historical perspective for us in real time.  Our tragic flaws become glaringly obvious over time. I’ve made myself into a geographic guinea pig, trying to peek my head into each door to see where it might lead if I followed it to its logical end. Alas, fate has safeguards against cheaters! A door won’t open until you abandon all hope that there’s something better out there and surrender yourself to it completely. You can’t just make a hypothesis, test it and observe its effects—this is life, not Groundhog Day. All my decisions have been utterly circumstantial, sweaty, how-do-I-feel-right-now judgments based on chance rides, cheap places to live, and tolerable jobs. I find myself haunted by the mistakes of others. I have a memory of my friend Lew shaking his head despondently on a Brooklyn rooftop after he’d crashed his girlfriend’s car, saying,

“Man—I’ve realized that I can’t just float through life anymore.”

If the decisions I’ve made are my destiny, my destiny has been a completely random selection of events, chances and specious coincidences.

Lyle and my mom sit out in our front yard in lawn chairs, enjoying the unseasonably warm suburban fall afternoon. It’s strange, seeing my mom out there in the yard, laughing and talking with another man—the last real memory I have of her in the front yard was her sitting out there crying, beside the crumpled, flimsy form of my father slumped in a flimsy plastic lawn chair.  That was our last real afternoon as a family—the cancer had gotten its tendrils in him so deep that he could barely talk.  He had become some kind of hybrid—half-cancer, half-father.  That’s the picture of our family two years ago—my mom and I sobbing and gasping over my pale, mute Dad.  The paroxysm of our grief pounded out like a gavel across the empty neighborhood, sentencing him to death. 

My dad’s stuff has been gathering dust in his office for the past two years he’s been dead.  On this particular afternoon I decide to pull out the guns that I’ve inherited from him and show them to Lyle. I pass the box of six decorative mini-urns containing his distributed ashes and plunge deep into his untouched suit-filled wardrobe to pull out a .22 rifle and a 12-gauge shotgun.  Holding the barrels straight up, I carry them out into the front yard, much to the delight of my mother and Lyle. Lyle and I fiddle with the guns, cocking and uncocking them, pointing them all over the cul-de-sac. My mom squeals in mock fear, thrilled. We love smoking cigarettes, riding rollercoasters, and guns—any flirtation with mortality. Lyle and I wave to the next door neighbors and they smile and wave back. Just two early Americans with their muskets in the front yard on a crisp fall afternoon. There’s a recessive knowledge of how this will end. The big finale is genetically-woven into the cells of every suburban family. Like a hand-grenade gathering dust in a cabinet patiently waiting to fulfill its purpose, we fantasize about our own annihilation. There is a secret wish for death.

A geriatric portrait of myself at twenty-four—I wake up early and take walks. I fend off Alzheimer’s with an ulcer-inducing amount of coffee and crossword puzzles. I go to the post-office. I check out old movies from the library and watch them in chronological order. I pet happy dogs and attempt to attract the fickle attention of cats. After all that I sit at the kitchen table silently contemplating my fate, wondering what I should do with the rest of the day, with the rest of my life—it’s only 11 AM. Like a baby-boomer being played in reverse, I am living the life of a retiree. Maybe I should read a book? Maybe I should take up a hobby or do some volunteer work?  More than anything I question whether or not it was a good idea to retire. Sure, I’m not greasing the cogs of the capitalist apparatus, but all this free time is a killer. I can only imagine the kind of emotional problems that emerge after years of having this kind of decadent leisure time to contemplate the ills of society and feel too paralyzed to address a solution. It would result in the kind of blow-up mid-life crisis that can’t be cured by buying a Porsche.  

I stare out on the blank canvas of North Carolina and North Carolina stares back—the empty streets and ghosts of possibilities always seem to be lurking around in the ether but never materialize. Look—there’s the computer workstation at the college library where I sit and pretend to write. There’s the jazz band playing at the back of the kitschy college coffee-shop, the hours I’ve clocked-in trudging through leaves down the sidewalk of streets that I used to live on what seems like eons ago—it’s all souring. The repetition is in no way comforting; instead it’s like a movie reel someone forgot to change, flapping around wildly unnoticed in an unattended projection booth. A flickering picture of purgatory. 

While walking around, for once I find myself really digging the bland, Soviet-Bloc aesthetic of downtown Greensboro after now having done some time in the darker hearts of American commerce. It’s as if the tropical fruits of hyper-capitalism that have blossomed so vibrantly elsewhere just haven’t been able to take root in our tough, red soil. The austere, institutional businesses here seem almost state-owned, peppering the streets with modest signs stating their social function—Greensboro Soap Company, Greensboro Educational Supply, Greensboro Auto Repair, Greensboro Brick and Mortar. It’s as if Greensboro is a skeletal structure of a city with all the necessary products and services to survive, but with none of the decorative flair. It’s like a city built by IKEA, dedicated to stark, Scandinavian simplicity. The moderate-sized cities of the Piedmont are white-walled rooms—great incubators for getting stuff done, but life just isn’t seeping in through all the cracks. If you chose your route carefully, you could walk around all day without seeing another person. Things are at such a standstill here that it offers the perfect environment for putting life on the autopsy table and taxidermying its remains. 

This is the process of making art—reflection-tinged taxidermy, stuffing and sewing life, and then standing it up in funny positions. Unlike other places I have lived, the plot doesn’t seem to thicken in the Piedmont as time goes on. On the contrary—it unravels, getting easier as old memories are distilled out in the emptiness. Experiences are slowly catalogued into their proper places. This museum of death, these looming cadavers of the past. Who in their right mind would be stupid enough to move back to their hometown?

I’ve taken again to compulsively browsing Craigslist for cheap rooms in other towns, with hopes that yet another geographic shift will put an end to my current vacuous life-scenario. It’s a quick fix, like sucking nitrous from a can of whipped cream, providing only ten seconds of bliss before being reeled back in by reality with a migraine headache. I’ve been obsessively tweaking the EQ, “riding the knobs” they call it in recording engineer’s slang. Constantly resetting and adjusting work, living situation, and relationship status so as to avoid confronting the big questions: Why am I making this recording anyway? And who’s going to listen to it?