As We See It

[Pyramid of Biscuits]

Peaceful gratitude amid the violence of certain holiday traditions

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Festive intensity: From shopping to sports, America’s Thanksgiving rituals can feel a bit scrappy.
Stacy J. Willis

It was Black Friday, early morning, at a Kmart in a small town. Shoppers—aggressive, over-caffeinated, elbow-swinging shoppers—squished into my personal space. I remember wiping sweat from my brow, digging in my wallet for an emergency Xanax and instinctively scanning for exits. But first, before leaving what seemed to be the only store in Big Bear, California, we had to find underwear.

It was a couple of years ago. My girlfriend and I had driven from Las Vegas to the small mountain town on Thanksgiving day, and despite the best planning and packing—we remembered lighter fluid, an extra cord of wood, tire chains, two kinds of cranberry sauce—we realized we hadn’t packed any underwear whatsoever.

I don’t want to debate the necessity of underthings right now, but let me state for the record that in this particular instance, I voted no. No, I would not like to go to any store on Black Friday, much less an astonishingly popular Kmart. But I went with her out of love and a heroic sense of duty. And I abandoned her before she even found the 60-percent-off undies trough out of wisdom and a heroic sense of self-preservation.

While waiting in the car chomping on a sedative, I mentally checked off the bucket-list item “Go Shopping on Black Friday,” which was actually never, ever on my bucket list, and I swore I’d never go again. I examined my ribs for bruises. Then I closed my eyes and remembered the long list of things I was thankful for, as this was, of course, the season for gluttony and gratitude. I was grateful for our health, for the abundance of underwear at home, for Big Pharma, for all of our family and friends we’d slipped away from that year, for both whole cranberries and the sliceable canned variety, and for the peaceful cabin retreat. I took a deep breath and fell asleep, and dreamed of tag-team mixed martial arts fighting in the practical undergarments section.

*****

When UFC fighter Ronda Rousey took a powerful kick to the head and fell flat on the mat last weekend, I was shocked. Yes, she was the undefeated champ and it was a major upset, but also, a thought hit me the way Holly Holm’s foot hit Rousey: Why am I watching this? My adrenaline was rushing and I was thoroughly engaged in an absolutely brutal sport, just like the 56,000 fans that packed the Australian stadium and multiple thousands of others watching on pay-per-view. In fact, just before Rousey was leveled, I might have been yelling, “C’mon, hit her!” or some other weirdly violent, spittle-riddled invective.

To be clear, I’m a pacifist. But the very next day, as Rousey woke up in the hospital, reportedly fine-ish, I was leaping off the sofa cheering as an NFL quarterback got sacked—just moments after another hard-hit player had been taken from the field by ambulance. I say this with a dose of shame, because many of my more socially conscious friends have given up watching the NFL and other head-injury-prone sports, as the notion that watching someone risk brain injury for our entertainment is barbaric.

“It’s an unfortunate part of the game,” NFL commentator Cris Collinsworth said when they loaded into an ambulance an Arizona Cardinals player whose extremities went numb after a helmet strike. UFC President Dana White was quoted as saying of Rousey’s surprising knockout, “These are the moments in fighting that make it so crazy, and so fun.”

*****

I celebrated Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area’s 25th birthday this week with a hike, ever grateful that Congress decided to protect the area. After scrambling up a boulder-filled trail, I stopped to watch some climbers dangling overhead. While my hikes are a relaxing hobby, their sport is an intricate, skilled affair. You don’t hang off of a 60-foot vertical wall without knowing that you risk injury and death. I thought of mountaineer George Mallory’s famous quote about Mount Everest: Why climb the mountain? “Because it’s there.”

The love of challenge draws us in at every turn, inviting strategy and risk into every arena, the American paragon being the free market. One of the biggest retail sellers of climbing equipment, REI, announced that it would not be open Black Friday, offering instead the counter-culture, get-outdoors message, “#OptOut.” It seemed ludicrous from a bottom line point-of-view—the biggest shopping day of the year! But, of course, it was shrewd marketing, as it solidified their brand. Well-played, REI.

Americans are a game-playing bunch. This Thanksgiving I’m thankful that we strive to contain our competitive impulses to a field governed by rules, with an ideal of fair play. I’m super-grateful that on Black Friday, I’ll be taking a morning hike and then watching college football, while competitive shoppers perform flying elbow strikes to get the last 55-inch TV. And of course, I’m grateful for my undies.

Tags: Opinion, Holidays
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