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This Thanksgiving, my son is showing me how to be thankful despite the world's hypocrisies

We can't see family for their own safety amid the pandemic, or share our holiday traditions with him. But he doesn't know that; he's just happy we're here.
My wife and I both miss our families terribly and our preschool-age son misses his grandparents, but there are too many people close to us -- or close to people who are close to us -- whose lives we would risk by traveling and being in close contact for hours on end.
My wife and I both miss our families terribly and our preschool-age son misses his grandparents, but there are too many people close to us -- or close to people who are close to us -- whose lives we would risk by traveling and being in close contact for hours on end.Courtesy Sam Thielman

There is a problem in childrearing that I think of as the jaywalker’s dilemma: It’s ridiculously inconvenient to wait for the light to change at every intersection in New York City before crossing the street if there is no oncoming traffic. But once you have a little person watching you, you either accept that inconvenience gracefully (which is to say without even acknowledging that jaywalking is an option), or you teach your kid to break a rule that is designed to keep him alive and hope he understands the nuances of the caveat about oncoming traffic.

A small child isn't equipped to understand oncoming traffic. They either walk when they want to walk and risk significant harm, or they learn to obey the rules. That's why every parent at a crosswalk in New York City stands there and either looks longingly at the empty street or glares at jaywalkers.

Right now, the world feels full of jaywalkers.

We are not going to see family for Thanksgiving or, in several weeks, for Christmas; I wish we were. My wife and I both miss our families terribly and our preschool-age son misses his grandparents, but there are too many people close to us — or close to people who are close to us — whose lives we would risk by traveling and being in close contact for hours on end.

But the hypocrisy of leaders like President Donald Trump, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and California Gov. Gavin Newsom has made our little sacrifice that much more bitter a pill to swallow. Trump has lied and minimized the virus in a bid to avoid the blame he so richly deserves; Newsom violated his own coronavirus guidelines to fête a megadonor at a raucous party at the exclusive Napa Valley restaurant French Laundry; and Cuomo, after declaring last week that he would not have Thanksgiving with his family and insultingly lecturing the public about virus guidelines, predictably admitted on Monday that his family would travel to see him for the holiday after all. (He then backtracked and canceled those plans.)

There are too many people close to us — or close to people who are close to us — whose lives we would risk by traveling and being in close contact for hours on end.

In the end, their bumbling hypocrisies don't really matter to our decision; if 50 million people do a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing. The right decision, for us and for our loved ones and for any number of other unknown people with whom any of us might come into contact thereafter, is to stay home and keep everyone safe. The selfishness of people like Trump, Cuomo and Newsom — and a worryingly large number of conservative influencers who seem determined to catch the virus to own the libs — has little to do with what we're going to do for ourselves.

We'll stand quietly at the crosswalk, hold our son's hand and wait for the light to turn green. We don't even really want him to catch us glaring.

So we’re making pie, and we’re trying to decide how much effort we want to put into cooking the enormous turkey breast we got for two and a half people. Eventually, we’ll break out every Christmas decoration we own and start playing Christmas carols and bad holiday pop music nonstop until Valentine’s Day — just the three of us. We will call family members on Zoom, put presents under our little plastic tree, try to shut out as much of the worst of the world as we can, and reassure ourselves and each other that this isn’t a permanent state of affairs — even if it feels eternal because of the weird time dilation feeling that began with lockdowns in March and worsens as the days shorten.

Meanwhile, I will try very hard not to think about how much like a very specific passage in David Foster Wallace’s dystopian doorstop "Infinite Jest" our lives are now. It’s been observed with tiresome regularity that yesterday’s outrageous satire is today’s literary realism, but nobody seems to know what to do about that problem beyond complain about it.

Sam Thielman with his son.Courtesy Sam Thielman

This is where small children come in handy: The corollary to the jaywalker’s dilemma is that you don’t have to tell a kid about the good things he’s missing, and you don’t have to play to his hopes for the future. Preschoolers can’t really imagine the future beyond maybe the end of the week and, if that period has a new toy car or some Pocky in it, well, that’s as good as it gets.

I don’t want to say I aspire to reduce my expectations of this day, or this week, or this holiday season so dramatically that I completely share his tiny view of the world — I’m the adult, after all — but there’s a lot to be said for the happiness he derives from direct physical sensation, which takes up most of his attention. Good food, a happy song, a hug; that’s pretty much all he needs to make any given moment a good one.

As a parent, one of the things that makes you happiest is the vicarious experience of your kid’s pleasures — few of us will, outside caring for a child, see someone taste a strawberry for the first time, or absorb the absolute shock of that maiden voyage on a swing at the park. Pay close enough attention, and you can almost re-experience things you’d forgotten you’d ever done for a first time, whether it’s eating canned cranberry sauce or hanging Christmas ornaments or hearing a great song.

For those experiences, and for my son’s insistence that I participate in them — whether it’s by chasing him around an empty park or spending an afternoon dancing to Weezer and the Scissor Sisters — I am so thankful.