Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A classic cover from Nature: October 1933

Getting our facts straight about that first Thanksgiving

Years ago, while my wife and I were visiting family in Massachusetts, I got it into my head that Liz and I should kick things off on Thanksgiving morning by zipping over to Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, about 30 miles from where we were staying.

My fevered brain had conjured up a soothing image of a leisurely stroll through what I assumed would be a largely deserted reconstruction of the village originally inhabited by the Pilgrims. I figured everyone else would be hunkered down at home, busily preparing a turkey and fixings, or getting ready to head out to a restaurant with the family.

This seemingly clever scheme was anything but. Plimoth Plantation was mobbed that morning. There were long lines for tickets. You could hardly walk through the village because of the crowds. And a strong wind off the water made an already bitterly cold day even more uncomfortable.

Just as I engaged in a bit of personal mythmaking about what to expect in Plymouth that Thanksgiving, the nation as a whole has cooked up a few fallacies regarding that first Thanksgiving back in 1621, according to Nathaniel Philbrick, the author of a bestseller on the Mayflower.

In an essay he wrote for National Public Radio a few years back, Philbrick noted that all of our information about the first Thanksgiving comes from a letter written by pilgrim Edward Winslow.

According to Philbrick, Winslow describes a celebration that occurred in September or October, not November. He does not call it Thanksgiving, nor does he mention turkeys. The pilgrims shot some ducks and geese for dinner. Massasoit, the Wampanoag leader who brought 90 of his people with him to Plymouth that fall, contributed five freshly killed deer. The feast also included pottages, or stews, made with meat and vegetables.

In fact, the myths surrounding the Pilgrims extend far beyond that first Thanksgiving.

The Pilgrims first landed at Provincetown, Mass., five weeks before they relocated to Plymouth. It was at Provincetown that the Pilgrims celebrated their first birth, learned about corn and signed the Mayflower Compact.

Oh, and that business about Plymouth Rock? It may be true. Or maybe not. The Pilgrims left no written account of stepping onto a rock. That story seems to stem from a town elder who, in 1741, pointed out a rock that his father had identified as the landing spot of the Pilgrims . . . 121 years earlier! Not exactly rock-solid documentation. 

But tomorrow is Thanksgiving, after all, so let's get back to the main event - dinner. In his NPR essay, Philbrick wrote:
Instead of a pious warm-up for a glum Thanksgiving dinner with the in-laws, the Plymouth Harvest Festival of 1621 was more like Woodstock, an outdoor celebration that just sort of happened. It's a legacy of spontaneity, goodwill and hope that is needed today more than ever before.
Amen to that. If your Thanksgiving captures a bit of that “spontaneity, goodwill and hope,” perhaps it will help you deal with squabbling relatives, unruly children and meddlesome guests who wander into the kitchen with unsolicited advice.

And now, a few words from . . . J. K. Rowling

If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.

Editorial cartoonists: keeping the legacy of Thomas Nast alive

by Tom Toles

Monday, November 23, 2015

A classic cover from Scribner's: October 1902

The importance of looking outward

I was preoccupied with my own problems and concerns the other day when I went in for a medical appointment. Then a staffer whom I’d never met before shattered my self-absorption, by sharing troubles of her own.

This woman had checked my blood pressure and consulted my records on a computer screen when we got to talking about her 87-year-old mother, who still lives at home but suffers from dementia.

The woman explained how she and her sister are caring for their mom, with some paid help; how they want to keep her in her home as long as possible; and how that is becoming increasingly difficult as she continues to deteriorate, both mentally and physically. Putting her to bed at night isn’t all that hard, the woman said, but getting her up in the morning is becoming more and more of an ordeal.

The woman explained how she finds herself wondering how much longer her mother will survive in this condition, and how much worse she will get before she dies. She said her mother now fabricates — and believes — stories that the woman and her sister know to be untrue.

I could see the anguish in this woman’s face, which I recognized from having lived through my own mother’s deterioration in the years and months that preceded her death five years ago. I guessed, from my own experience, that this woman dreaded losing her mother, but at the same time she was dismayed to see her mother suffer as her quality of life slipped away.

If I had passed this woman on a sidewalk before I met her, or found myself behind her in a supermarket line, I never would have stopped to ask myself what burdens she was carrying, what her life was like, what troubles kept her up at night. She simply would have been another middle-aged stranger who didn’t merit a second thought.

It’s a cliché to say that we all have our crosses to bear, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Perhaps there would be less conflict in our lives, less anger and hostility and impatience, if we spent a bit less time gazing inward, and a bit more time wondering about the heavy weights that saddle the strangers in our midst.

And now, a few words from . . . Oscar Wilde

Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.

Editorial cartoonists: keeping the legacy of Thomas Nast alive

by Joe Heller

Sunday, November 22, 2015

A classic cover from Esquire: July 1953

November 22, 1963, was a birthday like no other

JFK in my hometown, Southbridge, Mass., probably during his U.S. Senate race in 1952 or 1958

Birthdays come and go. When you’ve had 65 of them, you realize that some are far more memorable than others.

My most unforgettable birthday was my 13th, on Nov. 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It etched itself all the more clearly in my mind because I grew up in a Catholic family in a Democratic town in the state that was home to the Kennedy clan: Massachusetts.

Interestingly, I don’t remember everything about that day. It’s not as if my brain can screen recollections of what happened in a seamless, minute-by-minute chronology, akin to a movie playing itself out in my mind’s eye. But I do have very distinct memories of specific scenes. Some are mundane, as you might expect from a kid. Others, less so.

It was a Friday. I remember a nun bursting into my 8th-grade classroom at St. Joan of Arc School in Southbridge, Mass., and announcing, as she clung to the doorway, that the president had been shot. We immediately dropped to our knees beside our desks as another nun led us in prayer.

I remember being amazed that we were not sent home early. Instead, we stuck to the regular schedule for what was left of the school day, which, for me, included gym class. Of course, we did not know, initially, that Kennedy was dead. My wide-eyed classmates and I, confused and frightened, speculated that Russia, as we called the Soviet Union, would attack us if Kennedy died, to take advantage of what we assumed was our national vulnerability.

I remember walking home from school by myself. It was an unseasonably warm day for New England in late November. Normally busy Worcester Street, where I lived, was virtually deserted. All along my mile-long route, the sounds of radio and television newscasts spilled out from the open windows and doors of homes and businesses, but there was no traffic to speak of. It seemed as if all movement had stopped in our little corner of Massachusetts.

Whatever birthday festivities my parents had planned evaporated before I walked through the front door of our home that afternoon. There was nothing to celebrate. If I received any gifts, I have no recollection of them. I do have a hazy memory of my parents tucking away my unopened presents for another week or so.

Much of that weekend is a blur. Our family, like all of Massachusetts and most of the nation, was in shock. I distinctly remember sitting on the couch in our living room, watching TV with my father on Nov. 24, when Jack Ruby fatally wounded Lee Harvey Oswald on live television. My mother was in the kitchen, and Dad and I shouted out in unison: "Oswald's been shot!"

We were glued to our TV on Nov. 25, the day of the funeral. Some semblance of normalcy returned in the days and weeks that followed. But my life had been changed forever, just as my parents’ generation was transformed when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. No doubt the impact, back then, was especially transformative for those who "celebrated" their birthdays on Dec. 7 and were old enough in 1941 to understand what had happened.

Countless Americans lost their innocence on Nov. 22, 1963, including a freshly minted 13 year old.

We learned, in the ensuing years, that Kennedy was no saint. He was a womanizer. His tenure in office was short. His potential was not fulfilled, and he made his share of missteps. The Bay of Pigs was an unmitigated disaster. His record on civil rights was mixed. His legislative accomplishments were limited.

Yet I choose to remember JFK as the youngest man ever elected president; a gifted orator from my home state; and a dashing and inspiring leader with a dry sense of humor. He saw us through the terror of the Cuban missile crisis, when we truly believed the end might be near. He was a Catholic president at a time when anti-Catholicism remained a potent and, for my family and friends, disquieting force in America.

You can write me off as sentimental and hopelessly nostalgic. But like so many others of my generation, I associate the all-too-short presidency that ended in Dallas on my 13th birthday with a few lines sung by Richard Harris, as King Arthur, in the 1967 film version of Camelot.
Don't let it be forgot 
That once there was a spot 
For one brief shining moment
That was known as Camelot.