Thanksgiving -- which is all about gratitude -- provides what we in the newspaper business call the news hook of a story, the excuse for running the piece.
Because newspapers are meant to appeal to a wide range of readers across the demographic spectrum, we sometimes sentimentalize things, adding extra sugar and writing around any problematic areas. We tend to default to popular myths ingrained in our tradition. We are told a kind of fairy story about the first Thanksgiving, about how the natives shared their bounty with Pilgrims who wore buckles on their hats.
Few accounts of the first Thanksgiving mention the "Great Dying" of the indigenous population that happened just before the the arrival of the Mayflower and its 102 Pilgrim settlers at Plymouth in 1620.
From 1616 to 1619, thousands of Indians living in what we now know as New England died after being inadvertently introduced to a host of diseases -- smallpox, bubonic plague, chickenpox, cholera, influenza, diphtheria, malaria, measles, scarlet fever, sexually transmitted diseases, typhoid, typhus, tuberculosis, yellow fever, pertussis and the common cold -- by European tradesmen. Some estimates hold that up to 90% of the native population of what the Indians called "the Dawn Land" died in those three years; most of them, researchers believe, from the bacterial infection known as leptospirosis.
Without the Great Dying, the Pilgrims would probably never have tried to settle in the New World. If they had, they likely would have been repelled by the Wampanoag tribe, which was happy to trade with the white folks but didn't want them in their backyard. Now there were a lot fewer Wampanoag to complain about colonization.
Some of the English were remarkably callous about these events; they saw the plague as God's way of preparing the way for the righteous by wiping out the heathens. King James I called it "a wonderful plague."
When the people we call the Pilgrims arrived (they were separatist Puritans who had obtained a patent from King James to establish a colony in the New World) they built their New Plymouth settlement on the ruins of a Wampanoag village called Patuxet whose residents had been wiped out. In March 1621, after suffering through a winter in which 44 of the settlers had died, a Wampanoag named Samoset walked into New Plymouth and greeted the Pilgrims in English.
Samoset had been sent by Massasoit, the Wampanoag Sachem (chief), who had been observing the Pilgrims' progress and decided that an alliance with them might suit his political goals. Massasoit realized that his people were vulnerable to subjugation by the rival
Narraganset tribe, which had mostly escaped the plagues. Massasoit didn't want his people subsumed and thought the English might be a strong ally. But Massasoit was also suspicious of the English.
So -- and now we're back to the traditional Thanksgiving for Dummies story we know from grade school -- Massasoit's envoy Tisquantum (who we know as Squanto) went to New Plymouth and impressed the settlers with his "perfect English," and Edward Winslow volunteered to be Massasoit's hostage while a treaty was hammered out. Governor John Carver and Massasoit made a political alliance. Squanto became a kind of adviser to the colonists, teaching them how to plant and grow crops and serving as a translator.
How did Squanto learn his perfect English? He had been a resident of Patuxet until 1614, when he was kidnapped and sold into slavery by an English explorer. He ended up in London where he served English merchant and shipbuilder John Slany and learned English.
By 1618, Squanto had returned to the Americas, to Newfoundland. He made his way back to the Dawn Land, found his village devastated and was taken in by Massasoit, who, while he didn't quite trust Squanto -- he sent another Wampanoag brave to live with the settlers and spy on Squanto -- recognized his potential value as a translator.
Plymouth's harvest was bountiful, and sometime in the fall, probably October 1621, they held a three-day feast. Massasoit and 90 of his people attended; according to Winslow they brought five deer and joined 53 Pilgrims. We don't know that they ate turkey. They didn't have butter or flour, so no pies. They probably ate lobsters and mussels.
To look at it in a cynical way, the first Thanksgiving was a political occasion, a kind of state banquet. Massasoit probably didn't want to be there any more than the Pilgrims wanted him there. He would have preferred that the English stayed in England (or in the Netherlands, the first place they looked to practice their gloomy gray religion). Massasoit would have driven them off the land or let them starve had he not perceived a threat from the Narraganset.
How weird must it have been for Squanto, who must have felt like a man without a culture, mistrusted by his chief (and you know that filtered down to the rank and file, who must have thought of pretty-talking Squanto as corrupted by his contact with the Europeans) and an outsider in New Plymouth, which was built on the bones of the family and friends he knew in his life before slavery. The cartoon Squanto we received as children had to have been a lie -- he had to have been a complicated and conflicted individual.
We are all complicated and conflicted individuals. We might be grateful for that.
Newspapers often handle holidays gingerly because one person's holy day of obligation is another person's shopping opportunity and yet another person's painful reminder of past disappointments and future futility. On Thanksgiving, we tend to ask each other what reasons we have to be thankful and report the banal along with the cloying, the witty and the beautiful notion tenderly expressed.
We should be grateful for the things that make us safe and help us thrive, even if upon examination we might find some of these things problematic.
But we should be grateful for our bad times too. We have to have them for anything to be worthwhile. We are carved and etched by our pain.
The stars need the darkness.
Warren Zevon didn't know he was going to die in 1999.
Or rather, he did understand that he was going to die, in the same way that most of us understand our mortality, as a vague and perpetually deferable eventuality. What I mean is he hadn't yet been hit with his diagnosis. He wouldn't know about the inoperable mesothelioma until August 2002.
But something was up in 1999, as he was recording Life'll Kill Ya, his second album on Artemis records and a bid to validate a minor midcareer comeback. While it's hardly unusual for a middle-aged artist to engage with themes of mortality, the record is remarkable in its clean-eyed balance of yearning and resignation.
Zevon sketches the fat Elvis near the end in "Porcelain Monkey" (Left behind by the latest trends/Eating fried chicken with his regicidal friends) then a few tracks later unleashes an earnest, yearning cover of Steve Winwood's "Back in the High Life Again" that makes you believe the former one-hit wonder is returning to the top.
The album's third act kicks off with a blues song with an unprintable title and an unforgettable verse before winding up with a prayerful and stoic hymn about the inevitable fate of all living things, "Don't Let Us Get Sick." It starts with the chorus:
Don't let us get sick
Don't let us get old
Don't let us get stupid, all right?
Just make us be brave
And make us play nice
And let us be together tonight
The words are simple -- direct, almost childish -- the antithesis of what we might expect from a singer-songwriter who made his bones as a pop-music amalgam of Raymond Chandler and Hunter S. Thompson. There's no snark, no alternating current of irony to undermine the earnestness of the plea. This is a man trying to make a deal, asking for the forbearance of the cosmos.
Now the verse reveals a character:
The moon was on fire when I walked to the mill
To take up the slack in the line
And I thought about my friends
And the troubles that they've had
To keep me from thinking of mine
A moon on fire could be taken as a terrible image, the blazing eye of a watchful and jealous God, but here it's a beautiful one, lighting the way for a common enough guy doing his common enough bit, clocking in to pull a night shift. The sense is that it's not just a job; he has a duty to his comrades to hold up his end, "to take up the slack in the line." Zevon is talking about community, about the way we gang together to process and complain about our dull aches and disappointments.
And he's thinking about the setbacks, the pain and losses of his friends. He understands that these bullets that he's so far dodged are coming his way sooner or later.
Then it's back to the chorus, which with the added context feels more poignant and less wheedling. He's not asking for that much, is he? But this prayer won't be answered -- we will get sick, we will get old(er), all this is going to pass. Another verse:
The moon has a face and it shines on the lake
And it causes the ripples in time
I'm lucky to be here
With someone I like
Who maketh my spirit to shine
The moon again, this time it has a face -- an implied benevolence as it beams on the lake tonight, as it has for hundreds and maybe thousands of years. As it did before any of us were here; as it will after we are gone and all our industry forgotten. But that's not important. What's important is the now he's experiencing, with (he understates) someone whom he likes, who "maketh" his "spirit to shine."
That last line could read as awkward in another context, but here it's both startlingly funny and apt, an offhand allusion to the high-toned scripture this song plainly isn't in form and plainly is in intent. This is an invocation, even if the singer isn't sure what or whom he might be invoking, and borrowing biblical syntax is a way of relieving some of the heaviness in the same way the line in the chorus Don't let us get stupid, all right? lightens the plea. He's resigned, the whole song is in the key of "I know you're not going to go for this, boss, but ...."
But that's all we complicated and conflicted individuals can do: recognize our lot and accept it, but with our little protests. We have to absorb the pain and sustain the damage in order to find out who's going to win the Super Bowl or how the next James Bond movie will turn out, and that's not fair, because none of us voluntarily signed up for this vale of tears.
Still, we tell ourselves life is sweet, and better than the alternative, even if the alternative is a sort of unimaginable non-existence. Find someone you like and be grateful to be here, in this place where complicated and conflicted individuals like Squanto and Warren Zevon have dwelt.
It's important to do something, even if in the end your calculus tells you it doesn't amount to anything. Even if you're one of those unconquerable souls who quotes Nietzsche and Vulcan-splains Ayn Rand to us silly sentimentalists.
"I don't think on why I'm here where it hurts," Jason Isbell sings in "Something More Than Free," "I'm just lucky to have the work."
Me too. I'm grateful for the work.
There are a lot of people who think people are lazy and stupid. Sometimes it is hard to argue with them. We are surrounded by people -- Zevon's prayer notwithstanding -- being stupid and reveling in it. Alexis De Tocqueville probably wasn't the first to notice the American tendency for anti-intellectualism; it's not hard to believe it has gotten worse in the past 200 years or so.
Yet, if the herd is dull, individuals are always complicated and conflicted, and therefore irreducible to broad generalizations. People do amazing things and if you are looking to be entertained and engaged in intellectually meaningful ways, you're living in the best of times.
For all the negative things that digitalization has wrought, it has democratized and made viable literally thousands of avenues that might be exploited by artists (and charlatans). If you are willing to take charge of your own media diet you can find all manner of interesting and provocative content.
(You can also find porn and exploitative junk.)
One of the side effects of this explosion of content is that no one person can master it; we can't watch all the good shows. We can't listen to all the good music. We can't eat all the good food. We can fear missing out all we want to, but in the end we will miss out.
So forgive me if I'm late to this party, but The Good Place is an extraordinary television show.
It's about becoming a good person that probably makes everyone who watches it a better person. It's a 22-minute situation comedy about ethical investigation that is made for NBC, the old school network of Johnny Carson, Seinfeld and standards and practices. It's philosophy, boiled down but not simplified. It is -- like "Don't Let Us Get Sick" -- remarkable in its economy and depth. It is a deeply moral show that stars Kristin Bell and Ted Danson.
The show is about a group of people who die and go to a hell (the Bad Place) disguised as a type of heaven (the Good Place) but where they will be tortured in subtle ways for all eternity. It's about how these complicated and conflicted individuals grow and learn and develop deep affinities and eventually even recruit the demon assigned to torture them to their side. Then they strike out together across the cosmos to make their way to the Good Place -- a reward they have earned by becoming better people post-mortem.
It's only out of a sense of decorum that I wouldn't stand on John Milton's crypt and say, "The Good Place is forking amazing." It doesn't think we're stupid.
Let's be grateful for that too.
Style on 11/24/2019
Print Headline: CRITICAL MASS: It's a complicated celebration