Sex Crimes and Misdemeanors

It’s Thanksgiving week, folks.  For me, that means several things will most definitely happen, as they always do:  I will eat half my body weight in pie.  I will listen to “Alice’s Restaurant” on the radio.  I will go to the TD Garden for a Celtics game (16 in a row, baby!).  And at some point, I will re-watch Hannah and Her Sisters.

In years past, none of those things was the least bit problematic.  (Particularly the pie.)  This year, however, I am faced with a moral dilemma that has hit the country like a tidal wave over the last couple months:  If a movie is made by someone who has committed a mortal sin, am I duty-bound not to watch it ever again?

Hannah and Her Sisters, released in 1986, has ranked at or near the top of my favorite films list from the moment I first saw it in the early 2000s.  A “Thanksgiving movie” of sorts—the holiday is observed at three different junctures in the story—I never miss it during the latter days of November, much like It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve or Jaws on the Fourth of July.

The trouble is, Hannah was directed by (and co-stars) one Woody Allen, the beloved New York and Hollywood institution who, in 1992, allegedly sexually assaulted his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, when she was all of seven years old—a crime for which he has never been punished, either legally or financially.  Despite years of wide public knowledge of his possible—if not probable—predatory behavior toward prepubescent girls, he continues to churn out a film a year—invariably starring A-list actors—most of which turn a healthy profit and occasionally snag a stray Oscar or two.

Prior to the Age of Weinstein, Allen was able to get away with this through benefit of the doubt:  He would deny all accusations of impropriety and it would become his word against Dylan’s.

Then, in 2014, Dylan dispatched an open letter to the New York Times detailing the horrifying—and apparently ongoing—physical and mental trauma she has suffered from the incident in question, and the tide of public opinion began to turn—sort of.  (Allen’s response, also published in the Times, was a master class in condescending bitterness, clarifying nothing except how much he loathes Mia Farrow, his former partner and Dylan’s mother.)

Smash-cut to today—with one predator after another falling by the wayside, from Harvey to Cosby to Spacey to Louie—and it seems only a matter of time before Woody is evicted from polite society once and for all, and I would say good riddance.  Better 25 years late than never.

And yet the movies remain, and with them the question that will continue to plague us until the end of time:  As a consumer, is it possible to separate the art from the artist in one’s daily life?

For me, the answer has always been yes, and the #MeToo movement has done nothing to alter my basic view on this subject, which is that compartmentalization—i.e., the willful disregarding of certain facts at certain moments—is an essential component of one’s appreciation of the arts.

We might agree the world would be a better place if millions of men were not disgusting, power-hungry pigs who systematically treated women like their own personal playthings.  However, it is equally true that great ugliness can occasionally yield great beauty, and it does society no favors to cast out every film, TV show, album, painting and idea that was borne from a morally repugnant source.  Knowing what we know about the Founding Fathers, I would offer America itself as Exhibit A:  Are you prepared to renounce “all men are created equal” just because the man who wrote those words didn’t seem to believe them himself?

Of course you’re not, because great works transcend the context from which they arose and can be considered and appreciated anew with each passing generation.  We can condemn the man without condemning the work, because in the long run, we will forget the man altogether while the work will endure indefinitely.  That’s what art is all about.

As it happens, Hannah and Her Sisters is a perfect illustration of how minimally a film director’s faults extend to the final product—particularly when the former happens to be a prodigy and the latter happens to be a masterpiece.

The great irony of Woody Allen (assuming the assault allegations are true) is how generous his films are toward women—how he so frequently casts first-rate actresses in strong leading roles and draws out some of the finest performances of their careers.  It’s no wonder Hollywood starlets keep knocking at his office door:  Allen’s films have produced more Academy Awards for acting (seven) than those of any other living director, and all but one of those Oscars were won by women.

In short:  If Woody Allen the man believes in treating women like crude sex objects, Woody Allen the writer-director has not received that memo.  Apparently he can compartmentalize even more profoundly than his audience.

For that consideration alone, Hannah and Her Sisters deserves to retain its place high up on the Mount Olympus of cinema.  Beyond being an absorbing, warm, complex, funny, nuanced, ironic and economical tale of New York sophisticates living at the intersection of ambition, lust and existential dread, Hannah is also the rare male-directed film that repeatedly passes the Bechdel test—the feminist rule of thumb that asks, “Does this movie contain at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man?”

Boy, does it ever.  Indeed, the people in this movie talk to each other about pretty much everything sooner or later—love, sex, death, God, suicide, Bach, Caravaggio, E.E. Cummings, The Marx Brothers, architecture, opera, quail eggs, infidelity, artificial insemination and what Jesus might think about pro wrestling if he came back tomorrow.  (The film’s answer to that question is among Allen’s gut-splitting-est punch lines.)

What is finally so remarkable about Hannah and Her Sisters—alongside Allen’s other top-tier achievements like Crimes and Misdemeanors, Annie Hall and the notorious Manhattan—is how deeply it understands human desire and why we behave the way we do.  Why, for instance, a happily-married accountant would betray his wife by fiddling around with her emotionally vulnerable sister.  Or why a frustrated actress would subject herself to one rejection after another before deciding to try her hand at screenwriting.  Or why a successful TV producer would quit his job to go search for the meaning of life.  Or why a reclusive painter would refuse to sell his work to a man who will pay top dollar for it.

Of course, the answers to these mysteries can take years in therapy to sort out—which, in Allen’s own case, they famously have—but one imagines it has at least something to do with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—another timeless, irreplaceable concept first articulated by America’s most hypocritical founding father.

As a two-hour treatment of this material, Hannah and Her Sisters is on par with Ingmar Bergman in its seriousness of purpose and depth of thought, while somehow incorporating the same riotous, neurotic humor that has characterized virtually every film Allen has made since he began in the late-1960s.  It is a nearly perfect movie that enriches my mind and soul every time it plays—particularly on or around Thanksgiving—and I don’t require Woody Allen himself to uphold high (or, indeed, any) ethical standards for himself in order to enjoy the artistic and intellectual gifts he has bestowed upon the world—past, present and future.

When it comes to cinema, the heart wants what it wants.

Advertisements

At Peace With Passover

Growing up, it never occurred to me that Passover could be enjoyable.

To be fair, it’s not really supposed to be.  And in my childhood, no one made much effort to change that.

For an awfully long time, Passover meant exactly two things:  Enduring a mind-numbingly boring Seder two nights in a row, and eating nothing but matzo for a week.  (Matzo, of course, is the large rectangular cracker that is often said to taste like cardboard—a claim that, as every Jew knows, gives short shrift to cardboard.)

As with every other Jewish holiday, the observance of Passover is awash in symbolism about an event in the Biblical past in which Jews were treated horribly—in this case, the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt.  The traditional Seder, as spelled out in the Haggadah, contains no detail that isn’t a specific reference to some element of the Exodus narrative and its implications.  For instance, we eat horseradish to remind us of the “bitterness” of slavery, and we remove ten drops of wine from our glasses to mark each of the Ten Plagues that wiped out the Egyptians.

When you’re, say, five years old, going through this routine is every bit as much fun as it sounds.  In my family, it didn’t help that we read from a Haggadah written in a form of English that Shakespeare would’ve found arcane, or that we stage-frightened kids were tasked with reciting the “Four Questions” in front of everybody—in Hebrew!

So that was Passover for quite a while.  Not torture, per se, but certainly one of the more dreaded nights on the calendar.  (Not to mention the eight days of not being able to eat bread, cereal or pasta.  The horror.)

Then something funny happened:  I grew up.

Today, I have managed to get over my selfish adolescent hang-ups and appreciate Passover for what it really is:  An opportunity for Jews to enjoy each other’s company and consume ungodly amounts of food.

Essentially, Passover is Thanksgiving dinner preceded by two hours of saying grace and four glasses of wine.  No wonder grown-ups like it more than kids.

As I have discovered in recent years, you do not need to be an especially observant Jew to get something out of this holiday.  Actually, you don’t need to be Jewish at all.

All you need—if we’re gonna get right down to it—is a good host and a good crowd.  This year—not to the exclusion of other years—our family had both.

At both Seders we attended last weekend, there were very few attendees who would describe themselves as devoutly religious on a day-to-day basis.  In addition, we had a number of non-Jews in attendance—folks either with a Jewish spouse or simply good friends with the other guests and happy to be included.  Not to mention people, like me, who think organized religion is generally a bad idea but have nonetheless retained a small piece of their Jewish identity, if only on special occasions like this one.

But you would not necessarily have assumed any of that from our gatherings, which followed the basic structure of the Haggadah from start to finish, albeit with a fair amount of condensing and modernizing.  We covered every facet of the Exodus story and ruminated on why it’s worth retelling, and in a way that even the gentiles could appreciate.

In effect, we split the difference between Passover’s inherent solemnity and our modern, slightly irreverent sensibilities, crafting ceremonies that were simultaneously traditional and accessible.  What with the lively atmosphere and the regularly-scheduled wine-drinking, it didn’t seem like much of a wait before the food came.

And boy, did it ever.

It’s true that Passover tradition prohibits the consumption of chametz, meaning anything containing wheat, rye, barley, oats or spelt (whatever that is).  While this certainly eliminates a significant chunk of the Great American Diet, we so easily forget how much culinary goodness is left.

At our Friday Seder, with a crowd practically spilling out into the hallway, dinner was a cornucopia of roast turkey, beef stew, fried eggplant, marinated beets and an exceptionally fragrant matzo ball soup (according to legend, Marilyn Monroe was fed this dish so often by her Jewish husband, Arthur Miller, that she was compelled to ask, “Isn’t there any other part of the matzo you can eat?”).

On Saturday, we were hosted by a family composed (mostly) of vegetarians, resulting in a meal that included French lentil soup, roasted potatoes, grilled salmon and a tofu stir fry that almost made me forget how much I love meat.

If those all sound like unimaginably delicious entrees that could be served at any old time of the year, it’s because they are.  And they are all perfectly acceptable on Passover.

My point here is that those who complain about the dearth of decent Passover food are either grossly misinformed or simply enjoy complaining about things.  (Not that Jews have ever been known for kvetching.)

There’s a widely-accepted truism that says that non-Jews enjoy matzo much more than Jews, owing to the fact that non-Jews are never forced to eat it.  However, this isn’t quite correct:  Except at the Seder itself, where matzo is introduced as one of the evening’s many symbols, Jews are not compelled to consume the crumbly, unleavened atrocity in order to fulfill the commandment about avoiding chametz.  You can’t eat bread, but you’re perfectly free to avoid matzo as well.  There is more than one aisle in the supermarket.

In fact, the reality is even better than that.  Thanks to the miracle known as matzo meal—a powdery substance that behaves like flour without actually being flour—it is possible to cook and consume various baked goods without technically disobeying God’s dictates.  Admittedly, some of these confections are appalling—bland to the point of offensiveness.  However, others manage to be striking approximations of the real thing.  In our kitchen this week, for instance, we stumbled upon a recipe for Passover apple cake, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t taste almost exactly like real, honest-to-goodness apple cake.  If you like, I’ll send you the recipe.

Is this cheating?  A cheap loophole through which to violate the holiday’s spirit without quite violating its word?

You bet it is.  And if there’s one thing we Jews are good at, it’s finding cheap loopholes.

Except that we aren’t breaking the spirit of Passover when we bake cake substitutes and the like, because doing so requires altering our behavior just enough to reflect on how this week is different from all other weeks (to paraphrase from the Four Questions).  As with Starbucks’ supposedly failed recent campaign to foster conversations about racial inequality, the point is to get our attention—to elevate our consciousness about a subject we might otherwise ignore.

Certainly, for many Jews, the above is hardly a sufficient level of observance in the eyes of God.  Among the more conservative of the tribe, any diversion from the original script is an abomination, and if anybody is enjoying themselves at the Seder table, you’re doing it wrong.

All I can do is point out that I, a resolute nonbeliever, have been compelled to keep one of Judaism’s holiest festivals, without any external pressure, for no reason except that it gives me pleasure.  After a period of divorcing myself from all expressions of religious faith and observance, I have partially reintegrated myself into the Jewish community, finding it to be not nearly as incompatible with my own values as I thought.

I cannot really account for this, and I don’t doubt it’s a function of being able to pick and choose which parts of Judaism to accept while ignoring the rest of it—including the idea of the Torah being literally true.

Then again, that’s how everybody approaches their religion of choice:  They pluck out the bits they like and pretend the others don’t exist.  There’s nothing dishonorable in this.  Considering the many ways most religions contradict themselves, it would be impossible to do it any other way.

As such, I don’t see why a non-religious person shouldn’t go along with the values and rituals that religions get right—much in the way that believers have adopted secular ideas when it has served their purposes.

That I have made peace with Passover may well indicate, as some like to claim, that believers and non-believers have a lot more in common than they think.

Or maybe it just indicates that the Jewish hankering for gefilte fish is impossible to shake.

Taking Stock

I’m thankful that I haven’t been hungry since 1 o’clock on Thursday.  I’m thankful there were so many leftovers that nobody’s noticed how many cookies I’ve scarfed in the four days since.  I’m thankful I can afford the new pants I’ll need to buy now that my old ones don’t seem to fit.

I’m thankful to have learned to bake numerous desserts from scratch and be complimented for them more than once.  I’m thankful my mom assumed responsibility for cooking all the real food and that everything came out perfect.  I’m thankful no one would’ve uttered a word if it hadn’t.

I’m thankful my family enjoys football, but not so much that we spent Turkey Day actually watching it.

I’m thankful that between my brother and me, at least one of us has the emotional maturity to carry on a steady relationship, and that his girlfriend’s family trekked 200 miles to join us for our Thanksgiving feast.  I’m thankful their late-Wednesday flight was only an hour delayed and that the blizzard we were promised didn’t come to pass.  I’m thankful that when we drove to the airport at 1 a.m. to pick them up, there was barely another car on the road.

I’m thankful for how weirded out we felt that, for possibly the first time ever, one wing of our extended family was not joining us for Thanksgiving dinner, hosting their own instead.  I’m thankful that they still turned up for dessert, hanging around until late into the night, much like every other year.

I’m thankful I didn’t even think about shopping on Black Friday.  I’m thankful there’s nothing in particular that I want.  I’m thankful that instead of barreling through the mall, we all drove into Boston for the day, sharing pints and oversized pretzels at the Harpoon Brewery, followed by chowder and seafood at the No Name Restaurant down the street.  I’m thankful there was free parking and no wait.

I’m thankful there is not yet an official 2016 presidential field for us to argue about.  I’m thankful Barack Obama will be commander-in-chief for two more years.  I’m thankful he’s been in the Oval Office for the last six.

I’m thankful that, through this administration’s efforts, I am no longer barred from joining the armed forces because of who I might fall in love with (not that I could ever summon the courage to sign up in the first place).  I’m thankful for the relaxed standards of English grammar that allowed me to use “who” instead of “whom” in the previous sentence, although I still disdain those who do so unwittingly.

I’m thankful my sexual orientation is equally irrelevant to my prospects for employment or being served at a lunch counter.  I’m thankful I can get married in 35 states.  I’m thankful the marriage movement has been so successful over the past year that I didn’t even know the current figure until I looked it up.

I’m thankful I have health care coverage provided by the state government.  I’m thankful the bare-bones nature of that coverage is counterbalanced by my propensity for never getting sick.  I’m thankful I was still on my parents’ dental plan when I accidentally slammed my face into the pavement and required multiple root canals and crowns.  I’m thankful for novocaine.

I’m thankful I finally left my drafty tree house of an apartment and no longer need to sleep in a sweater and wool socks.  I’m thankful Mom and Dad’s condo has a guestroom and central heating.  I’m thankful for Mom and Dad.

I’m thankful I have two arms, two legs, two ears and two eyes.  I’m thankful that, should this ever change, none of those is required to live a normal and happy life.

I’m thankful there is no conclusive evidence that God really exists.  I’m thankful there is no conclusive evidence that he doesn’t.  I’m thankful to live in a country where disagreement on this question doesn’t usually result in mass murder.  Not even on Thanksgiving.

I’m thankful for the First Amendment.  I’m thankful that, in the absence of any practical life skills, at least I know how to write.  And I’m thankful for the folks who, without any coercion on my part, actually read this silly blog.

Thanks.

Two For One

Today is Thanksgiving, and also the first day of Chanukah.

This is the first time such an odd phenomenon has occurred since 1888, and it won’t happen again until the year 81056.

Owing to the “man bites dog” nature of this cosmic convergence, the American media have been steadily covering it since before the turning of the leaves.

Unfortunately, nearly all of the copy on the subject has centered upon the unbearably stupid and lazy neologism “Thanksgivukkah” and essentially left it at that.  We have merged the two events linguistically, but given nary a thought to what they have in common thematically.  That’s a shame, because the answer is, “More than you might think.”

Typically, of course, the Jewish festival of lights is tethered to Christmas on the cultural calendar, a tradition that has been the bane of Jewish children’s existence since time immemorial.

The Christmas-Chanukah conflation has always been problematic, insomuch as the two holidays are related in no way beyond their temporal proximity.  That the latter would come to be nearly as commercially visible in America as the former is entirely a function of culture:  Jewish kids would see their Christian friends getting presents and chocolate at the end of every December and wonder to their parents, “Why not us?”  And so we established Chanukah as the “Jewish Christmas” and that was that.

The quandary in assuming cultural parity between the two, as we have, lies in their relative significance to their respective faiths.  In point of fact, Chanukah is not half as important to Judaism as Christmas is to Christianity, and was never intended to be observed as such.

(In Israel, where Christmas is no big deal, Chanukah is no big deal, either.)

On its own terms, Chanukah makes for a perfectly lovely and agreeable time, but its small charms have never really been given a chance to breathe amidst our society’s outsized seasonal hubbub.  Alongside Christmas, it’s a whimsical pink bicycle leaning up against a Sherman tank.

But connecting Chanukah to Thanksgiving?  Now you’ve got something.

As much as anything else, what both events signify is the paramount importance of religious liberty in the history of mankind.  Both celebrate a small group of renegades who succeeded in securing such freedoms for themselves, each in the face of overwhelming adversity.

The basis of the Chanukah story, as any Rugrats viewer well knows, is the successful rebellion by a Jewish rabble called the Maccabees against the Seleucid Empire between 167 and 160 BC.  Under the reign of Antiochus IV, Judaism and its practices suddenly became outlawed in the kingdom after a long period of tolerance.

Not prepared to take this repressive state of affairs sitting down, the Maccabees proceeded to launch a brutal guerilla war against the empire that, despite their small numbers, they ultimately won:  At the struggle’s end, Jewish rituals were again allowed to be performed and the Second Temple in Jerusalem, which had fallen into disrepair, was rededicated as a symbol of the resilience of the Jewish people.

Thanksgiving, in its traditional telling here in the states, similarly concerns the exploits of a put-upon minority that desired to worship its own god in its own way and went to enormous lengths to ensure that it could.  The men and women we call the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts from Europe in 1620 in order to practice their particular form of Separatism that was frowned upon in their native land.

As with the Maccabees and their descendents, it is the Pilgrims’ religious and cultural (not to mention literal) survival that we commemorate on the fourth Thursday of every November.  Their fight for freedom served as a forerunner for all those that followed.

By no means is the analogizing between today’s twin occurrences airtight.  There is much that differentiates Thanksgiving from Chanukah—far more, indeed, than that which joins them together—and there is more that characterizes each than what I outlined above.

But the United States does not have an official day of recognition for the first amendment to our constitution, as it arguably should, considering that the amendment’s stipulations for free expression—including the freedom to worship unmolested—are so fundamental to our way of life.

Among our secular holidays, Thanksgiving probably comes closest to essaying this most noble role.  And of the major non-secular festivals that occupy the American calendar, Chanukah fits the bill as fittingly as any other.

That the two should fall (finally) on precisely the same day is a nice coincidence, and a marked improvement over the usual way of things during the holiday season.  It’s a shame it won’t happen again for another 79,043 years.

Gobble Away

In recent days, the Boston Globe’s website, Boston.com, posted its annual slide slow of an advice column, “How to Cut 1,000 Calories from Thanksgiving.”

The Globe has included this feature in its virtual Turkey Day section for many years, hoping to assure those watching their weight that fully enjoying the fourth Thursday of November and blowing a giant hole in one’s diet are not mutually dependent phenomena.

Allow me to save you a few precious seconds and reveal this magical waistline-preserving secret right here and now:  If you wish to eat less food on Thanksgiving, eat less food on Thanksgiving.

I jest not.  To quote directly from one of the slides:  “Instead of piling on a full cup of mashed potatoes on your plate, consider scooping only half as much.”  From another:  “Instead of covering your plate with 6 ounces of a combo of white and dark [turkey] meat with skin, consider taking only 3 ounces of meat and leaving the fatty skin in the roasting pan with the rest of the grease.”

Smaller portions?  Less fat?  Genius!  Why didn’t I think of that?

In fairness, the Globe also offers slightly more sophisticated tips for reigning yourself in, such as stir-frying the veggie casserole instead of dousing it with fried onion rings.  But the takeaway message is the same:  The trick to eating well is eating well.

If this insight comes as breaking news to a significant portion of America’s weight loss community, then it’s no wonder our country is so irretrievably fat.

However, I suspect this is not the case.  The truth is that all who are serious about scaling themselves down know exactly how to do it:  Eat less, exercise more.  Period, full stop.  It works every time and never lets you down.

The only mystery involves summoning the willpower to do so, and then to keep it up for the rest of your life.

Accordingly, Thanksgiving indeed presents as a singular conundrum.  Apart from its more noble components, the whole point of this most American of holidays is to gorge ourselves into a blissful stupor simply because we can.

Yes, pretty much all of our annual national festivals involve an unholy assortment of culinary treats of one kind of another.  But Thanksgiving is unique in its insistence on gobbling up every last bit of it and licking the plate when you’re done.  The feast isn’t a mere side show; it’s the main event.

And that makes a real difference for those who make a point of avoiding exactly that.

It’s bad enough for a dieter to be overwhelmed by a bottomless buffet of hearty holiday helpings.  But to be all but ordered by one’s culture—and by relatives across the table—to dive in until it’s all gone?  Well, the psychological odds are not in your favor.

Your humble servant is certainly no exception.  I walked into last year’s family gathering determined, as ever, to keep my cravings under control.  Then out came the chips, the ale, the stuffing, the casseroles, the fruit salads—each new dish more impossibly sumptuous than the last—and all my defenses vaporized on contact.  At dessert, one whiff of my cousin’s homemade sweet potato pie and all hell broke loose.

In short, the effort at moderation was futile.  The fact is, Thanksgiving is not the time for restraint or self control.  Thanksgiving is about gluttony and excess and that’s just the way it is.

If, like me, you are simultaneously preoccupied with maintaining a slim figure yet utterly powerless in the face of fragrant culinary temptations, my Thanksgiving Day prescription is to give up.  To abandon any possibility of awakening on Black Friday without a rounded tummy and a splitting headache.  To relax and roll with the tide.  Some traditions simply cannot be fought.

And if, like the Globe’s target audience, you truly wish to deduct 1,000 calories from your Thanksgiving budget, might I suggest plucking out five days on either side of November 28, and consuming 200 fewer calories on each.

Then on Thanksgiving itself, you may proceed exactly as you were going to all along, without a moment of hesitation or guilt.

That’s what the holidays are all about.  You can have your turkey and eat it, too.

Oh My Gourd

This year, I think I am going to pass on pumpkin.

Sunday marks the official start of autumn, that most fertile of seasons for commercial exploitation.  Fall has been made to mean a million different things for any interested party, not least as the opening round of Christmas.

In recent years, arguably the most ubiquitous autumnal tent pole of all is that most alluring of vegetables, the pumpkin—and, to be precise, the myriad uses thereof.

It has become the great national challenge:  Is there anything we cannot create from a pumpkin?  While the answer is most assuredly “yes,” we have made it our mission to turn that “yes” into a “no.”  We get closer with each passing year.

I need not expend all that much time to explain what I mean, as anyone who has ever left his or her apartment during the months of September, October or November surely already knows.

Nothing more than a passing glance at Dunkin’ Donuts’ current window art will give one a fair impression of just how deep this harvest time fruit cuts in the American culinary culture.  You have your pumpkin-flavored coffee, muffins, lattes, donuts, bagels, cream cheese.  You want it, they’ve got it.

It gets worse in the supermarket aisles, where one can now find pumpkin Pringles, pumpkin Pop-Tarts and pumpkin M&Ms, among a billion other items whose identities have been co-opted by seasonal considerations in ways their creators could not possibly have foreseen.

Pumpkin beer?  Let’s not even start.

For a time, I was completely on board with this mass gourd worship, sampling every cinnamon and nutmeg-infused delicacy I could get my hands on.  I have yet to be convinced there is any confection more impossibly delicious than pumpkin pie, and so I figured it couldn’t hurt to transplant the sugar and spices from that classic treat into every other product on God’s green (and orange) earth.

As it turns out, it could.

While I have not yet had a pumpkin-centric experience that was wholly and irretrievably unpleasant, I have nonetheless been stricken by the disheartening epiphany that not everything can be improved through pumpkinization.  We do it because we can, but that does not mean that we should.

One test for the worthiness of any annual tradition is to ask yourself whether you would partake in said custom at any other time of the year.

For instance, I never miss NBC’s annual Christmas Eve broadcast of It’s a Wonderful Life.  Like so many Americans, I find the ritual of watching Frank Capra’s classic film at 8 o’clock on December 24 to be among the most enchanting in all of moviedom.

However, I am equally content to view the film on any of the 364 other days on the calendar as well.  No, the effect is not quite as magical in the middle of summer as in the middle of winter, but it’s bloody good enough.  A great movie transcends the environment in which one watches it.

On the other hand, I cannot quite say the same for A Christmas Story, the 1983 comedy that TBS broadcasts on a 24-hour loop throughout Christmas Day.  As entertaining as that movie is, at no other point in the year does it occur to me to pop it into the old VCR.  The film is particular to its season, and eternally tethered to it.

One reason Thanksgiving, not Christmas, is the greatest American holiday is that nearly every one of its defining characteristics is not confined to the fourth Thursday of each November.  Turkey, football, apple pie, family quarrels, indiscriminate drinking—is there ever a bad time for any of these?

With pumpkin products, this is simply not the case.  Some are excellent, while others are merely the result of festive capitalism run amok.  However much we might enjoy them in the heat of the moment—albeit a moment that lasts for one-quarter of the year—they are not of the inherent quality that would enable them to become year-round staples, as evidenced by the fact that they aren’t.

What I belatedly realized is how easily and enduringly I fell for it.  How I managed to deceive myself into thinking, as America’s PR department hoped I would, that a pumpkiny presence axiomatically makes everything better.  That these patently mediocre products I kept returning to every fall were somehow compulsory indulgences and, what is more, that they were worth returning to in the first place.

This year I am determined to resist and to scale back, discriminating between the trinkets I truly enjoy and the unnatural pretenders the culture is attempting to jam, ever-so-temptingly, down my throat.

Secular Sabbath

This weekend marks four years since my grandfather, Jack, died.  As he had served as an Army clerk in World War II, it seemed fitting enough that he shuffled off on Memorial Day.  If nothing else, it means that we, his survivors, get to remember him twice.

For Zady (Yiddish for “Grandpa,” as he was known), the solemn day of remembrance we observe on Monday was an integral part of his life long before becoming an integral part of his death.

Every year we accompanied him to the local Memorial Day parade (before a rendezvous back to the house to grill hot dogs and toast marshmallows), and as we plopped down in his stuffy living room in front of the TV, he would bemoan, with abject disgust, the unholy proliferation of advertisements for Memorial Day sales.  “Get a great deal on a used car!”  “Fifty percent off all mattresses!”  “Three days only!”  “Hurry hurry hurry!”

For a member of the Greatest Generation, as Zady was, to exploit the day on which we remember those who died in order that the rest of us could live was not merely annoying; it was downright profane.

In recent years, of course, the practice of conducting all manner of commerce on national holidays, by businesses large and small, has grown by both leaps and bounds.  Today, there are very few product-peddlers in the United States that do not promise amazing holiday deals, no matter how somber the holiday.

Any notion of tasteful restraint on this front was ceremoniously laid to waste last November, when Walmart stores took the “Black Friday” madness to new heights (or is it lows?) by opening on Thanksgiving itself, rather than waiting until the traditional, rational hour of 12 o’clock midnight to fling their doors athwart and allow the throngs of shameless, thrifty sociopaths to barrel through.

With this state of affairs now firmly accepted in our culture as the not-so-new normal, it is all the more essential to ask and to wonder, in the spirit of Grandpa Jack:  Is nothing sacred?

As a general principle, I try to resist flights of nostalgia for our country’s supposed “good old days,” when things were simpler and everyone had a white picket fence, and America’s youth respected its elders and had not yet been corrupted by birth control and MTV.

As we know, very little that is said about the so-called wholesomeness and moral superiority of the mid-20th century is actually true.  To study the past is to be extraordinarily relieved to reside in the present.

And yet I wonder whether, by all but abandoning the ritual of taking a day off to reflect upon the nobler aspects of the American story, we have indeed managed to hollow out a chunk of our national soul.

My charge, I suppose, is that the primacy of commerce in our daily lives has ballooned so violently, and irreversibly, out of proportion that it is inflicting genuine harm upon the American civic character.

To wit:  It really used to be true that you would walk into town on a Sunday morning and everything would be closed.  There was no question to this.  Of course none of the shops were open—the owners and employees were all at church, along with everyone else.  If you weren’t at church, you were sleeping in or travelling or doing whatever your heart desired.

In any case, the point was that you were effectively forced to spend the day removed from your usual routine to relax, recharge and reflect.  To remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.

For all the economic and Constitutional objections one might raise against any effort to resurrect such traditions in today’s world (outside the towns that have never quite abandoned them, that is), we might nonetheless regard an occasion such as Memorial Day as a kind of secular Sabbath, treating it with the reverence and undivided attention that it deserves.

Of course, this could all be a sentimental overreaction.  After all, we still have our parades and memorial services, and those who wish to participate still do.  (Unless they are called in to work.)  In a free country, why should we compel those who are busy or uninterested to tag along?

Because every so often, it is worth reminding ourselves that the United States is still one big community, with a shared history and shared values.  That for every vacuous, artificial holiday we have cooked up over the years, there are also those with real meat, meaning and purpose.

That some things are more important than shopping.