Bears, the biologists tell us, are solitary animals. Excepting for a mother whelping her cubs, or for a pair doing the bear mating dance, and then only for the bare minimum of time required, they keep to themselves. They are not, sociologists tell us, like we humans, who are social creatures. Yet bears congregate around freshwater streams and rivers during salmon season, and if the salmon stream happens to be located in an area of unbroken wilderness as a great many inevitably are, there is likely some human hermit living closer to the bears and their feeding nook than he is to any other humans (particularly if the stream happens to be in Alaska, if reality survivalist shows are any indication). The biologists are as wrong about the bears as the sociologists are about the humans. Bears and humans are neither solitary nor social.
No creature is either solitary or social. All sexually reproducing organisms have got to occasionally be social, if just for the act of copulation, else they wouldn’t long exist. But the necessity to socialize extends no further than what is required for survival. And the only innate characteristic shared by sexually reproducing creatures is that they’d like to continue to exist. If they didn’t, there would be none of them around to wonder about their sociability or solitariness.
But what does this have to do with the economics of Thanksgiving, such that the whole thing is so miserable for so many of us? It’s quite simple, really. Imagine if there weren’t any salmon in that stream the bears visit each year in the summer to gorge themselves so that they might get fat enough to survive the winter. Would the already cantankerous bears still only be cantankerous?
There is a reason bears tolerate each other’s company at the salmon runs. It aids in their survival. Chasing a competitor away from a salmon stream so brimming with fish that an extra mouth could not possibly impair the chance of getting as much salmon as could be ingested is a waste of effort. Besides, the more bears in the river, the more the salmon get concentrated along particular pathways, making them easier prey. And the more salmon a bear can ingest, the more fat the bear will accumulate, and the more likely the bear will survive the winter.
Without the pull of salmon, necessary in the economy of a bear if it is to survive several long months of winters so harsh that hibernation is imperative, there would be no reason for any individual bear to countenance the company of another. If a gaggle of bears as is likely to be seen at a salmon stream during the spawning run somehow formed in the woods by accident, it would likely prove severely deleterious to a great many of the bears so gathered. And that’s pretty much what happens at Thanksgiving dinners for humans, if not quite completely by accident, unless you count the randomness of genetic mutability.
Thanksgiving gatherings are hardly a necessity for human survival, and not just because there is nothing that a bunch of already fat people could possibly be thankful for when confronting a plate of food piled to the ceiling. Thanksgiving is not like bears gathering at the salmon stream. It is not a matter of tolerating people who you don’t really like because of the economic promise it affords. It is more like an unfortunate accidental gathering in the woods. There’s gonna be some heartache. Fangs will bare, claws will slash, because there is no economic reason to tolerate the company of distant cousin free-loaders, drunk uncles, chatterbox nieces and nephews, and gossipy aunts. The Industrial Revolution, and the follow on development of the social welfare state, very nearly wiped out the family organization as an economic unit. Thanksgiving, or any other family gathering, is all but economically irrelevant for survival. The whole affair is primed to be only a bit more civil than a bunch of bears who accidentally stumbled upon each other in the woods.
I remember well the last Thanksgiving I endured with my natal family. It was the late nineties, maybe 1998 or 1999. My kids were young, pre-school age, but both walking (my son would have been four in 1998, and my daughter, two). I had a pair of nephews who were a good deal older, about fifteen for one and maybe eleven or twelve for the other. After dinner, my dad and brother-in-law (the dad of the fifteen year old) decided it would be a good idea to go outside and turn the driveway into a firing range so that they could practice shooting their deer rifles for the upcoming hunting season.
This wasn’t quite as absurd as it sounds. My parents had built the house in the middle of forty heavily wooded acres in a rural area of the county. Once we kids were gone, they had moved from the suburbs to the country, building a house out there that looked every bit like a suburban McMansion, eerily out of place, as if the architects and builders had gotten lost on the way to the job site.
There was no danger from the target practice to others in the neighborhood, as there were no neighbors. But there were 39 or so uninhabited acres available for them to do as they wished (the house and its grounds took up only about an acre). My kids were outside playing in the yard and on the driveway around the house when, without warning, my dad, brother-in-law and nephews started blasting away at a target they had put on the edge of the woods lining the driveway, about a hundred yards away. If you have never been near a high-powered rifle when it is fired, let me just say that hearing protection isn’t worn because hunters and shooting fanatics think it makes them look cool. It is not like a cyclist’s spandex pants that are part of the kit that is required for acceptance among the fraternity of cyclists. And shooters don’t wear hearing protection because they have a fetish for safety, though most of them are quite sincerely careful about how they handle their guns. They wear it because the blast of a high-powered rifle or pistol close by is painful to unprotected ears. Pain isn’t the only reason to wear hearing protection, as real hearing loss can accrue. But hearing protection is de rigeur becase the blast is so painfully loud. Up close, a 30.06 sounds like a cannon going off.
I heard them shooting and turned to see my kids running towards me screaming. No, I didn’t think anyone was shooting at them (but there might have been someone shooting the other way had I been armed). It’s a family of rednecks, to be sure, but it’s not a family where I’d expect a gunfight to break out on Thanksgiving. But I simply could not believe how inconsiderate the jerks were.
Now let me make clear, I’ve been around guns all my life. I grew up loving to hunt and shoot, until I figured out that I didn’t much care to clean and eat my kills (if you’d ever tried to make tasty squirrel dumplings, or a chewable venison flank steak, you’d know how futile the effort is likely to be. The Duck Dynasty guys are lying—wild game tastes like crap.), so I quit killing, and now go “hunting” just for what I might see, and I shoot only at targets. And I spent six years in the Army, so have been around all sorts of noisy mechanisms for launching hot lead. But this just bumfuzzled me. How did they think this was a good idea?
The reality is that the show of callous disregard for my children’s welfare was exactly the intent of the exercise, but that was something I didn’t realize until much later, and for reasons not worth exploring here. My response was to gather everyone up, get in the family SUV, a long, green Chevy Suburban, and go home. Because the Suburban was parked facing into the house, and the driveway was too narrow and choked with cars to turn around, I simply backed down the winding, quarter-mile, chert driveway all the way to just before it ended. My grandfather, who had been there, asked me about it later—why I had left in such a huff. And he observed that it was a pretty piece of driving. I appreciated that.
I tallied things up a few days later, taking a little while for my anger to subside, and decided that we were never going back for Thanksgiving again. The calculus was pretty simple. I didn’t need my natal family for anything, except perhaps companionship, and I had my own family for that now, and my natal family had never provided much companionship anyway, even when I was young. I’d been pretty much making my own way my whole life. What did I need to put up with their shit for now? There were no salmon in the stream compelling me to suffer indignities, like having them intentionally blast their high-powered deer rifles close by my children’s unprotected ear drums. Yes, my dad had a pile of money he’d selfishly accumulated as the most tight-fisted doctor in medicine, but who cared? I didn’t want nor need his money. Thanksgiving with them, for me, was like going to the river where all the bears were congregated but finding no salmon and only grief. That would be my last trip to that stream over Thanksgiving. I later quit going to Christmas, too, but that’s another story.
Human beings are not social animals. We aren’t quite bears, but we aren’t much different. The glue that binds us socially is the economic identity of our interests. Without compelling economic interests to bring us together (commuting to work for traffic jams; lines at the supermarket for groceries; the rearing of children in marriages), we are likely as not to prefer to be apart. Sometimes we can find enjoyment in the company of others. I actually liked my brother-in-law, the one who decided that a firing range in the driveway would be a good idea for Thanksgiving, but the overwhelming imbalance of costs exceeding benefits forced me to say goodbye to that relationship. Even when we like someone, the cost-benefit ratio of the relationship as it pertains to our survival and propagation impulses eventually wins.
I suspect not many folks would agree with this assessment of why Thanksgiving is so miserable. But those are people who are so immersed in the misery they can’t hope to understand its source. I’ve been fortunate to have not had Thanksgiving with my natal family for almost two decades, and now that my mother has passed, will assuredly never do so again. More often than not, Thanksgiving is all bears and no salmon. And it just ain’t no fun being around all those bared fangs and bloodied claws for nothing.