Sunday, November 20, 2016

10 Things to Talk About This Thanksgiving Other Than the Election

Ah, Thanksgiving. It's that time of year to come together with friends and family to share good food and good company. Or at least that's how popular culture likes to think of it. I can remember enjoying watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade as a child with my own family, and getting to connect with loved ones we hadn't seen in a while, but then there are also those times that live on reminiscently in rolling eyes and head-shaking laughter. There is some charm and value to that mixture of both in the holidays, of course - in many ways it perfectly illustrates the precarious dynamic of familial relationships. Yet it may also be beneficial to remember, as they say, moderation in all things.

Every four years in this country, Thanksgiving winds up happening shortly after an election. No matter who wins, it almost always turns out that someone at the dinner table will be unhappy. If it's not the immediate family, it's the more distant relatives; if it's not the distant relatives, it's the romantic partners of family or relatives; if it's not the romantic partners of family or relatives, it could be the friends invited to join. Inevitably, it seems, there will be those who are thrilled about the outcome and wanting to gloat, those who are frustrated by the outcome and wanting to protest, or those who voted third party (or not at all) and want to rant about the system. Sometimes, if one is lucky, you may have the perfect singularity of all the above.

It's well known that this election in particular has been contentious, and that it has pitted many families against each other. Already some responses have been concerning, whether we're talking about racist reactions to Trump's win, or the nationwide protests that have broken out, sometimes blocking off sections of major highways. For reasons too obvious and omnipresent to be worth mentioning here, a great number of Americans may prefer to steer clear of political talk this Thanksgiving. With that purpose in mind, I have created this list of 10 things to talk about this Thanksgiving other than the election.

Now we all know what questions we can ask the people in our lives to spark conversation. How is so-and-so? Are you still working there? How are the kids liking their new school? Over the years we become trained in the art of acting like we care with our friends and family, so I won't be mentioning that stuff here. What I will give are some contemporary conversation ideas going beyond what you may already know for engaging with the people you already know. And let's face it, there are just those times where you want to minimize that engagement and get through the day. Here are some great time-killers.

10. Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Peace Prize

Back in October it was announced that the famed American musician Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature. Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and Salman Rushdie praised the decision, with the latter referring to Dylan as the "the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition." Others, however, have been more critical, suggesting the choice blurs the lines between artistic mediums a bit too much. Do Dylan's lyrics really serve as poetry, or should we think of them more in terms of songwriting?

It's notable that this win is a somewhat contentious one, too, but it may nonetheless be appealing subject matter, especially if the aim is to soak up some mileage in conversation that isn't election-related. On the other hand, some conservatives may hear "Nobel prize" and try to use this as an opportunity to bash Obama's acceptance of a Nobel prize in 2009. The trick here may be to keep the discussion light and keep it focused on art, or on history. Dylan's music is loved by many Americans, whatever side of the political aisle they sit on, and he has become a staple of Americana, not to mention a significant influence on a wide variety of different bands and musicians to this day.

Another useful strategy behind this topic is that you don't actually need to defend the prize itself. This could be a great chance to just talk about music, about the impact it had on the 1960s, and maybe, if you're sly enough, the importance of peace in our public discourse.

9. Pokemon Go

While the above may be thin ice to skate on in some respects, this one shouldn't be. Pokemon Go was released in July this year and quickly exploded in popularity. The app has crossed boundaries of age, gender, race, and nationality, and has been responsible for vast numbers of people getting outside and getting more active. It has also helped people connect in a social manner that isn't restricted to being online, but brings players together in person, who might otherwise never have met.

You don't have to love or play Pokemon Go to find this a topic worth taking on, though. We've all seen the controversial news reports involving the app, such as Pokemon hunters at a holocaust museum, players getting into accidents while playing the game, and incidents of sexual assault. Whether or not your relatives are Pokemon Go addicts themselves, they have likely heard about the game and some of the stories surrounding it. This is a subject, unlike Dylan's music, that could provoke conversation among possibly everyone at the table, including even the kids.

It's difficult to imagine this turning into a political debate, either. Pokemon Go was referenced by both Trump and Clinton during their campaigns, but this type of very specific pandering is unlikely to be something that stuck out to a lot of people, except perhaps as an amusing sign of the times. If you like to be topical and want to avoid yelling and shouting and arguing over the 2016 election, Pokemon Go would make a great go-to conversation.

8. The deaths of David Bowie, Prince, and Leonard Cohen

Death may not be the cheeriest subject, but a meaningful part of discussing the death of someone is reflecting on the legacy they have left behind. In the case of David Bowie, Prince, and Leonard Cohen, each of these endlessly-talented musicians has left behind an extensive catalogue of exceptional songs and performances. Some at your dinner table may have had the unforgettable privilege of seeing one of these artists live in concert, or they may just be a really big fan. Even if you hit on the improbable scenario that there are no fans of any of these three at Thanksgiving, it can provide a bit of time to talk about the weird rise in celebrity deaths we've been seeing.

I chose Bowie, Prince, and Cohen, but you could substitute others here, too. Why I selected these guys in particular has to do with their popularity and impact, yet also with the fact that they are musicians. There is something we can appreciate about music that often transcends divisions of politics, religion, and the like. It can be easy to miss the movies of a talented actor, or to miss the books of a skilled author, but music is everywhere, bleeding into our daily lives in coffee shops, in retail stores, at movie theaters, in the dentist's office, on the internet, etc., etc.

The death of a celebrity gives us pause to think about the fragility of life, and it simultaneously reminds us of how a life can touch so many around us. Rather than a morbid topic for family time at Thanksgiving, this kind of discussion can be a powerful encouragement during a time of year when some are already contemplating their lives, the future, those who have passed on, and the end of another season. We value the humility, honesty, and vulnerability that come from these things much more than we sometimes realize.

7. Zootopia

Alright, so if you're uncomfortable bringing up heavy topics during the holidays, what could be lighter than a Disney kids' movie that's fun for the whole family? Zootopia is a computer-animated buddy-cop mystery-comedy that takes place in a city run by animals, and has a starring cast that includes Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Tommy Chong, and many more. The film currently has first place on Rotten Tomatoes' list of the top 100 movies of 2016, with an average critics score of 98% and an average viewer score of 93%.

Having seen Zootopia myself, I have to agree that this was one of the best flicks of the year, partly because of its creative and well-handled social commentary, but also because it was funny and fairly original. Most of what else came out in 2016 tends to call the word "disaster" to mind (Zoolander 2, Suicide Squad, Batman v. Superman, Warcraft, Independence Day: Resurgence... shall I keep going?) But Zootopia is a genuinely good film that can be enjoyable for adults as well as kids.

Of course, the movie scoring topic is a common one around the holidays, so other things could be substituted here, too. You could even prosper from raving about the worst movies of the year, but this one is at least not a violent, vulgar, or obscure movie, so it would be a decent bet for viable conversation material.

6. SpaceX and its trouble with rockets

Technological developments are often a topic of discussion at holidays. With the growing talk about traveling to, and eventually colonizing, other planets, developments with Elon Musk's SpaceX company may make good fodder for conversation. Back in April, SpaceX successfully landed its Falcon 9 rocket on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean, after delivering a cargo capsule to the International Space Station. Though previous attempts at landing had failed, this achievement could mark the first step towards bigger things for SpaceX.

That is, if incidents like the explosion of a Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad in September are easily-addressed accidents. The explosion occurred during a static fire test, and has raised questions about the damage to the launch pad, as well as the possible delay of future launches. Later it was revealed that a breached helium system is the suspected cause of the problem. By October, rumors of sabotage had begun to spread, with Musk calling the September incident the "most difficult and complex failure we have ever had in 14 years."

It remains to be seen how this will affect SpaceX in the long term, particularly with its plans to send NASA astronauts into space by 2017/2018. Even if you wouldn't consider yourself the most technologically literate, tackling the interesting subject of space travel and its privatization in businesses like SpaceX and Blue Origin could certainly provide for some thought-provoking conversation. After all, who isn't fascinated by explosions?

5. Self-driving cars

Many have declared that driverless cars are the future of travel here on planet Earth. It is often argued that they will end up being significantly safer than the manually-driven vehicles we use now. However, this year we have already witnessed a couple of fatal accidents involving the Tesla Model S that occurred while in its Autopilot mode, as well as numerous non-fatal accidents. 2016 hasn't been particularly kind to Elon Musk, it seems, who is also the CEO and product architect of Tesla Motors.

Even so, these incidents, tragic as they are, are fairly isolated among the estimated 25,000 Model S cars in use. Tesla has alleged that some drivers have neglected to follow the safety procedures and warnings as instructed during the engagement of Autopilot. On the other hand, though, the Model S has only had the Autopilot feature since December 2014, and statisticians have pointed out flaws in safety estimates made by the company. Tom Simonite quotes a report from RAND Corporation explaining that it could take "as many as hundreds of billions of miles before [the vehicle's] performance could be fairly compared with statistics from the much larger population of human drivers."

Are self-driving cars dangerous? Are they the answer to automobile accidents that we've been waiting for? This topic would be sure to spark some debate over the holidays, especially among those with an interest in cars and technology.

4. Have you seen ______ yet?

A popular tactic for generating dialogue at family dinners is talking about the latest TV shows and seasons. This is used a lot with movies, too, but with the ubiquity of Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu, and television in general, you're more likely these days to command attention by reference to TV shows than to movies. The best part about the "Have you seen" lead-in is that it doesn't require that anyone actually did see whatever it is you choose to mention. If no one has seen it, you still get to give a taste to those around, and describe what you like/love/hate/would-like-to-see in the show.

Obviously, specific examples here are endless. The Walking Dead is extremely well known, but perhaps a bit on the gory side for Thanksgiving. Orange is the New Black is another popular one, though it also has some graphic moments. Then there's Game of Thrones, The People v. O.J. Simpson, Better Call Saul, Bojack Horseman, Black Mirror, and on and on. Most of these are more adult than family-friendly, yet if you don't mind censoring yourself somewhat (or don't have young kids coming to dinner), any of these may be perfect for discussion.

If you tire of hearing the boring life stories of your relatives, introduce the exciting life stories of some fictional TV characters into the mix. It can be a great way to talk about a variety of issues, depending on the show, without delving too deeply into things that are personal or aggravating. Probably just try and avoid any shows that deliberately incorporate a lot of politics into their stories.

3. Black Friday

This one really should be a given. You either love Black Friday or you hate it, and although I'd venture to guess that by this point most Americans likely hate the holiday, there are still those who dare to go out shopping. Except this year, some companies like Walmart are planning on digitizing their deals. Black Friday conversation need not involve an itinerary, just some remarks on a range of related fronts, including deals you've seen, what you hate about the rush, what you like about getting gifts on sale, or your past excursions into the wastes of Retail-land.

Businesses like JCPenney, Macy's, and Kmart have been extending their Black Friday hours to almost absurd lengths. When the sales start on Thanksgiving evening, it may spare us from some of the mayhem of going out at 5 AM on Black Friday, but then doesn't it make the whole tradition just seem kind of pointless? Frankly, a lot of what we assume about big holiday sales are myths, like when it comes to getting the cheapest prices on Black Friday, or about extended hours increasing sales. So maybe save yourself and your loved ones some of the madness of Black Friday this year by staying home and ordering online.

Alternatively, if you disagree, and you just adore the experience of surviving Black Friday, make your case at the dinner table. The dreaded day after Thanksgiving is always prime material for ranting and raving about the day before, whether you're a shopper or an anti-shopper.

2. How 'bout this weather?

Discussing the weather is a favorite past-time of the unenthusiastic participant in conversation. It feels like something safe and simple to talk about, and it's a universally familiar subject. Especially during the holidays, when a lot of folks have to do some traveling, the weather can be a good icebreaker or a good tool for switching topics. Hell, I remember my grandparents leaving the Weather Channel on the television half the time we would be over to visit, so you know it won't be dead air if you bring it up.

The weather has been in the news a lot this year, too. There has been substantial talk about how hot 2016 has been, and how we've seen a gradual warming trend in recent history. This may stir up arguments over climate change, but keeping things localized and personal might help navigate around that contentious issue, as could some mention of diverse weather phenomena, like the major floods that have hit Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Arkansas over the last year to two years. Knowing friends or relatives who live in places that have been under severe weather can also help make this topic a lively one.

"Do you mind if we don't invite your cousin to Thanksgiving this year?"

Weather conversation reminds us all how Nature doesn't really give a damn about us and our problems. This may be worth remembering when everyone at your house starts trying to piss off everyone else. Suddenly our little family conflicts can seem small and unimportant. Save that rage for Nature!

1. Scientology

I know what you're thinking, but this one is and isn't a joke. If people at your table are looking for something to rail against this Thanksgiving, Scientology is one subject everyone loves to hate. There have been many exposés, news stories, and so forth, so it's likely your friends and family will have learned some things about it. They may say you're not supposed to discuss religion in polite company, but unless you have Scientologists coming to celebrate with you (or scholars of new religions), it's probably a good bet that everyone will pretty much be on the same page.

Scientology is topical as well, with Ron Miscavige, the father of current Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige, having published a controversial book back in the Summer that purports to give some insight into not just the modern church, but the man behind it. Actress and ex-Scientologist Leah Remini has also developed a documentary series that is set to begin airing on A&E on November 29th. Many in the West have such a fascination with Scientology, and enough objections to it, that this could make for just the kind of heated discussion that might channel frustrations into a less destructive avenue than arguing over the election would.

Coming together for Thanksgiving isn't only about being thankful, after all, it's about bonding, too. And sometimes bonding is accomplished in the oddest of environments, over the most unusual sorts of things. So if push comes to shove, you can give those subversive persons something to rant about that won't ruin the holiday for the whole family.

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