A Bite of Tradition

At this time of gratitude, I am perhaps most thankful that I don’t have to write a Turkeybiter.

Unless you have friends or family around the area of Emporia, Kansas, you probably haven’t heard the word before. Like lightsabers in “Star Wars,” Turkeybiters are a vestige of a more civilized time – short, simple notes in the local paper about how local families were spending their Thanksgiving. Usually, it’d be something along the lines of:

“Sally Johnson is gathering family from seven states for the Thanksgiving feast, which includes turkey, cornbread and Aunt Willie’s Buffalo-Squid Surprise that she’s made for 37 years. Annual traditions include board games, bad football and keeping Uncle Matthew from talking politics again.”

You get the idea.

Some people would mail them in. Sometimes teachers would assign them for homework. But mostly, the newspaper staff had to go out and hunt down a certain quota themselves. Our regular sources learned to quickly duck for cover when they saw an intrepid reporter approaching with a Turkeybiter gleam in their eye. After all, even the most damaging investigative piece would eventually come and go, but chatting even once in November would mark you as a potential Turkeybiter every single Thanksgiving.

Which, of course, made them a perfect celebration of the holiday. Like the Thanksgiving feast itself, they were:

  1. A lot of work
  2. Grumbled about constantly as the work went on
  3. Seriously appreciated as a special tradition once everything was ready to serve

And they were. People would thank us for carrying on the old-time hometown tradition. Some readers would get a glow from seeing the news of their neighbors. Some reporters would get a glow from seeing column inches that they didn’t have to worry about filling when everyone was out of town. Everybody got a win.

Odd? Sure. But somehow it worked.

And that’s also a perfect description of Thanksgiving.

It’s a strange little holiday, isn’t it? It sits tucked away in a corner like a guest at the kids’ table, apart from the gaudier Halloween and Christmas festivities. Oh, long ago in the early 20th century, it used to be a time for masks and costumes as well (seriously!). But these days, the weirdest things associated with the holiday are “Alice’s Restaurant,” the WKRP turkey drop, and the fact that Detroit Lions football is actually considered worth watching.

It’s quiet. Respectable, even. No decor on the house or giant pilgrims in the yard, just  a lot of work that’s mostly seen by close friends and family. (Unless you’re one of the many who reaches out to the forgotten on Thanksgiving, of course.)

It doesn’t shout. And that’s OK.

In a country that’s so often extroverted, it’s OK to have a time about turning inward and considering gratitude.

At a time of year when the very landscape seems to become a little quieter, it’s OK to have a time that doesn’t need its own  Mariah Carey anthem.

It’s an unheralded celebration that can feel exhausting, even burdensome in the days leading up to it. But oh-so-special when the moment finally arrives.

I hope you get to touch that quiet appreciation this year. To lift someone up or be lifted in turn. To share in a spirit of thankfulness that deserves to last beyond a November afternoon.

Celebrate. Enjoy. Remember.

And if you feel like sharing those memories in a Turkeybiter, I know just the editor to talk to.

Doing It “My Way”

“If I had my way …”

Just writing those five words takes me back to my second hometown of Emporia, Kansas. It’s a nine-hour drive by car, but an instant flight in imagination. It just takes one thought to walk the acres of Peter Pan Park, or to race to my (cluttered) desk at The Emporia Gazette, or to taste a Braum’s sundae yet again.

And somewhere in that weave of images lives John Peterson.

Mr. Peterson, who died recently at the age of 96, was a man of many parts: professor and dean at Emporia State University, world traveler and biologist, passionate about conservation and the arts. But the open door through which most of Emporia knew him was his regular column in the Gazette, called “If I Had My Way.”

The title sounds didactic. It wasn’t. This was not a command, but an invitation. John’s column walked through his thoughts and his beloved community like a man on an evening stroll – noticing, commenting, passing the time. It was rarely earth-shaking. It never had to be. It was a chance to visit with a neighbor, to listen and muse and ponder.

His readers often mused right back. More then once, a passerby would greet him with his perennial catchphrase. He remembered one who would call out “If I had my way, the weather would be lots better today,” or another mentioning “If I had my way, you would keep writing those columns.”

“See how my title works for me?” he teased in print once. “Makes me feel good. That is fun.”

Those five words could have been the grumbling of a cranky old man. In John’s hands, they were closer to the late Andy Rooney’s “Did you ever wonder …?” It was a chance to consider what life could be, or at least a small corner of it. Like Hawaii’s “aloha,” it was a greeting, a farewell, and an expression of love.

We could use a little more of these days.

Oh, we’re good at expressing what we want the world to be like. Boy, are we! Whether it’s a sharp-tongued Facebook commenter or a president who finds it “disgusting” that the press can write what it wants, it’s easy to take offense, take a stand, and take on all comers. Right or wrong matters less than “My way or the highway.”

I don’t mean taking a principled stand. There are times to fight for something you believe in strongly, or against a wrong that will not let you remain silent. This isn’t that. This is taking umbrage that someone dare disagree with the rightness that lives in your own head. Other voices become threats to be walled out, lest they undermine you.

After all, what if they were right?

During the latest First Amendment brouhaha, my mind went to another president. Thomas Jefferson was no stranger to the partisan press. He often turned it loose on his enemies from behind the scenes as a rising politician, and often caught holy hell from it in return.

It’s said that when Alexander von Humboldt visited the White House, he found a copy of a newspaper that viciously attacked Jefferson. Shocked, he had to ask: Why are these libels permitted? Why isn’t the newspaper closed or the editor fined or jailed?

Jefferson asked Humboldt to take the newspaper with him. “Should you hear the reality of our liberty, the freedom of the press, questioned,” he said, “show this paper and tell him where you found it.”

Other voices matter. Listening matters. Seeing the visions of others matters, even as we ask them to share our own. Even if we don’t always like what’s shared in return.

Conversations make communities. That’s true in a great nation, or a small town. Remembering that can make life better for everyone.

And you would remember that … if I had my way.