The Stranger at the Table

Before she flew to her native Poland for the holidays, my doctor told me that, on Christmas Eve, Polish families set an empty place for “the stranger,” a person who, symbolically or actually, has nowhere else to go. In the United States, she lamented, Christmas has become so commercialized and gift-focused that Americans have lost focus on the celebration of family and friends that make the holiday meaningful.

Supposedly I can trace some of my ancestry to Poland, but my family is Jewish, not Christian, and so for most of my life, the holidays have had a neither-nor quality. Hanukkah, indifferently promoted in gift catalogs and spread out over eight days that only sometimes intersect with Christmas, doesn’t have a prayer – forgive the pun – of competing with Christmas.

To be honest, I like it better that way. I am one of those people who describe themselves as more spiritual than religious, but I can see how Judaism has shaped my outlook. Some years I light Hanukkah candles, some years not. In most Jewish celebrations, as in Poland, particular objects have symbolic meaning. The menorah, which symbolizes one day’s worth of oil lasting for eight after the rededication of a temple in Jerusalem, celebrates (at least for me) the miracle of enduring spiritual light. The symbolism of a gift-buying blowout does not have meaning I care to celebrate. In that sense, my Polish doctor and I can find common ground despite having very different beliefs.

I am also fortunate to have been welcomed as the stranger at the table many, many times. When I lived in Seattle, I spent most Christmases with close friends. I don’t think I exaggerate when I say that their spectacular cooking was as good a way as any to celebrate our varied beliefs. My friends made crown roasts; I always brought homemade challah. One year, when their family piled into a car for midnight mass at St. Mark’s Cathedral, whose choir is locally renowned, I even joined them. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the moment when, seeing me hover alone near the entryway while my friends took Communion, a priest approached to ask if there was anything he could do for me. I shook my head, smiled, and thanked him, not feeling the need to explain. Even after years of continuing to wander between holidays, his small kindness – his offer of the stranger’s seat at the table – still warms me with gratitude.

Compassion, no matter what its spiritual foundation, is the true miracle.

The Dreams of Others, or Why Pepper Spray Is the New Hot

After Black Friday 2008, Peter S. Goodman wrote his New York Times editorial, “A Shopping Guernica Captures the Moment,” in which he speculates that the trampling death of a Wal-Mart employee is a logical consequence of inequality in the economy. He writes, “It seemed fitting then, in a tragic way, that the holiday season began with violence fueled with desperation; with a mob making a frantic reach for things they wanted badly, knowing they might go home empty-handed.” That same year, one of my students, an employee at Kohl’s, was punched so hard by a Black Friday customer that he fractured his eye socket in several places and was unable to complete the semester. I am not going to forget what his eye looked like any time soon – and he didn’t even make the news because nobody died. I wonder how many other employees were subject to violence, rudeness and worse in the name of holiday shopping.

Three years later, desperation having become a way of life, a woman in Porter Ranch, California now-famously pepper-sprayed her fellow Wal-Mart customers in a bid to get her hands on an X-box without waiting in line. My four year-old niece, hearing my mother and sister-in-law talk about the pepper spraying, began to ask questions. My sister-in-law explained that the woman was very, very bad because she’d hurt people’s bodies just so that she could get what she wanted. “What if she comes here?” my niece asked. Her mother’s answer: Police would catch the woman and put her in jail until she learned her lesson. My niece, however, was still not satisfied: “What if she escapes? What if she gets out of jail but she hasn’t learned her lesson?”

To soothe my niece, we stumbled for reasons that it was not possible for bad people to be let out of jail – a claim that, to my mind, was more or less a necessary lie. The world is full of bad people who aren’t in jail: Lt. John Pike, of unprovoked U.C. Davis pepper-spraying fame; Wall Street types who knowingly defrauded consumers and pocketed the government bailout money; Republicans in Congress, who plan to extend the Bush tax cuts on the country’s wealthiest 1% by eliminating tax cuts for the poor and middle class.

Meanwhile, Alex Epstein, writing for the Fox News website, argued in “Let’s Give Thanks for the One Percent” that we should be grateful to these looters of the national treasury on the grounds that some of them create jobs. Naturally, he praised Steve Jobs as a national economic savior – but, as my father pointed out this Thanksgiving, the jobs Apple has created are mostly at overseas factories. Epstein concedes, “The grain of truth here is that some Americans are rich because of government favoritism, such as bailouts, handouts, and other cushy deals.” The solution, he argues, is to attack favoritism, not income inequality.

I am having trouble distinguishing the two, however. If the type of income inequality that results in CEOs of failing companies making 343 times workers’ median income isn’t favoritism, I don’t know what is – unless Epstein and others of his stripe want to claim that the CEOs are worth 343 times more than the rest of us. When these CEOs lay off workers, raise bank fees, or close companies and happily pocket ever-higher raises, I will even go so far as to call it looting, whether said looting has Congressional support or not. (And notice that I’m strategically not even mentioning this week’s story that showed that Fox News viewers were less informed than those who watched no news at all.)

Meanwhile, Occupy protesters across the continent are facing evictions and arrests. Apparently, protests against income inequality are unpopular with high-earning looters and their institutions. Also, many Occupiers’ camping clothes have started to look scruffy – and we all know how “scruffy” fares on television. Beyond their appearance and their bad habit of eschewing hierarchy, the Occupiers have been criticized for not adequately representing people of color, using heaters in subfreezing weather, and mixing with homeless people. Honestly, some people talk about class warfare like it’s a bad thing.

Personally, I am in full support of any class warfare that promises fairness rather than blind trust that our most elite earners won’t take advantage of favoritism. When a pepper-spraying woman loots a Wal-Mart, we feel outrage; when the robber barons loot the 99%, we’re supposed to feel grateful for their ingenuity. I am pretty sure that given the choice between being pepper-sprayed and being laid off, priced out of an education, or sentenced to an economic landscape tilted against their interests, most everyone would choose the pepper spray.

In each case, the dreams of the powerful outweigh those of the many – or, to paraphrase my sister-in-law’s words to my niece, a few people are very, very bad because they hurt others just so that they can get everything they want. Their desires, though, seem insatiable, even held against the backdrop of job loss (especially of those jobs that appear to have moved overseas for good), escalating hunger, and declining support for those in need, including students, on whose education our hopes to emerge from the downturn depend.

A couple of days before Thanksgiving, I had the opportunity to visit the high school in Reseda, California where my mother is the college counselor. It was a few days before the application deadline for University of California colleges, and the office was crowded with stressed-out seniors and their admissions essays, several of whom asked me for feedback. I read about a student who sought (and found) his heroes in fantasy novels when he couldn’t find them in life, another who sold handbags on street corners to help his family, another who came home one day to find her mother and sister had narrowly missed being shot in front of their home and promised herself she would work towards a different sort of life for herself, another whose years of frequent moves gave him the strength to come out to his friends and family.

All of these students are far more courageous than I am or ever was. Their vibrant, hopeful voices reminded me of what it was like to be young, eager to learn, and full of determination – and yet it’s not clear that they will all get to attend college, or, once they do, that they will be able to find jobs that use their skills. Why? Because the looters’ dreams are worth 343 times the fragile hopes of the students in Reseda. Call it class warfare if you like, but every 17 year-old willing to wait in line deserves a fair shot at achieving his or her goals. To argue otherwise is to become the hand that wields the pepper spray and uses it to steal people’s futures.

The Season of Make-Believe

Cartoon by Roz Chast of The New Yorker

It’s the time of year when we’re all supposed to be pie-eyed with gratitude and cornbread-stuffed with love of humanity. It is also the time of year when surly shoppers clog the grocery aisles with bloated carts and your normally-civil neighbor snarls over the last size medium red sweater, when the streets sparkle with decorations and explode with honking horns.

Even in the midst of the Deprecession, a good percentage of the 99% will spend most of the holiday season contributing to corporate profits. We may voice the sentiment that it’s not material things that really matter, but – let’s be real here – we also don’t want to show up at Mom’s without decent gifts for everyone, and we don’t want to offend our families by saying we really just don’t need any more of the fruits of capitalism. After all, the gifts we don’t need are just one of the many burdens we carry home with us for the sake of our loved ones.

I doubt a truly authentic holiday experience is really better than our imaginary one. Some people think about the tragic consequences of the Pilgrims’ arrival in the New World, the overseas sweatshop workers manufacturing holiday gifts, and the hundreds of future garage sale items purchased each season, but most people don’t want to be the one who sours an occasion with too much reality. Ultimately, our relationships are worth more to us than our ideals. We may not want to worsen global warming, but we do want to fly across the country to be with our families. Hypocrisy? Maybe. And we want to be ourselves, but usually not so much so that we’re willing to start an argument at the Thanksgiving table. Those “rules” about not talking religion and politics exist for a reason. Most of the year I’m honest to a fault, but once the calendar tips into November, I’m happy to trade the whole truth for a half truth that makes peace, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

If we had perfect families who were perfectly understanding, it might make sense to be perfectly truthful. Unlike the trinkets and tokens we’ll give this season, though, truth can really only be given to those who are open to receiving it. The rest of us whose family lives are somewhere on the continuum of imperfect – which is to say most of us – decide what we want our memories to be like, and then, as best we can, we go about trying to be the people we wish we were, at least for a few days. Our great gift to others is not what we carry in our suitcases, but our willingness to be more accepting, more emotionally generous versions of ourselves.