“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”
Soon, many of us will head into the cozy crucible that is the extended family Christmas dinner. There will be side-hugs, nuts with the shells on, starchy dishes, small talk, and then (sure as spring turns to summer turns to glowing autumn), it’s time for Opinions on Issues of the Day and also Life Choices You Are Making.
Perhaps in the past, you’ve imagined that facts and well-reasoned arguments would work. Maybe diplomatic re-routing was the way to go. Keeping the same not-smile smile on your face, nodding quickly and answering with one word. How did these stratagems work out for you?
No more. This year, you stop bringing a pleasant, reasonable knife to a gunfight. This year, your responses will completely derail any conversation in progress. This year, your dinner table blather will leave everyone feeling quiet, unsettled, and somehow reminded of that time at summer camp when an allergic kid got stung by a bee and then died.
Your relative says: “Pope Francis is a Communist. End of story!”
You could politely say: “Welllll, it’s difficult to place him on the left-right spectrum as it exists in the U.S. Oh! Is there any more gravy?”
You will instead: Begin gathering nearby plates, dishes, forks and leftovers. Speak authoritatively as you maneuver each item. “So let’s say — just pretend, ok? — let’s say this pile of mashed potatoes is the Pope. And this spoon,” (set it atop the potatoes), “… is the Vatican conclave. And this plate is the Roman Catholic Church. And this wine glass is the Eastern Orthodox Church, but the wine inside it is the faithful who are feeling kind of distant from God lately. And this candle is Joe Biden. And this pepper mill…” Continue in this way until you have named each and every item in the room, including the air itself, which, naturally, is the 2014 Winter Olympics. When someone questions where this is going, smile condescendingly and say, “Actually, this is pretty obscure stuff. Never mind.”
Your relative says: “There is no such thing as free speech or a free country anymore. I mean, that guy from Duck Dynasty opened his mouth and boom—look what happened to his First Amendment rights!”
You could quietly interject: “Actually, that’s not really how the First Amendment works. It protects people against prior restraint from the government, not exile from a cable reality series.”
But at this point you should: Nod vigorously. “Well, I for one agree with Phil that vaginas are beautifuland anuses, men’s in particular, are ghastly. Did you know that men’s anuses are directly responsible for 83 percent of the Syrian civil war?”
Your relative says: “I am so tired of kids whining about student loans. You know, when I was in college, I worked through the summers to pay my tuition.”
One option would be: To quietly note that average college tuition today is $22,000, and if they hear of a summer job that hires 19-year olds and pays $7,333 a month, you’d be very interested indeed.
But it feels so much better to: Blow the whistle you have until now been concealing underneath your cashmere sweater. Blow it loud, and blow it long. Blow it until it feels like there is nothing in your lungs and then blow a little more. 30 seconds should suffice. Pause. “I’m … I’m really sorry, but I don’t feel safe in this conversation anymore.”
Your relative says: “So! How are things going with your boyfriend? Any chance he’ll propose soon? No one’s getting any younger here, you know. Heh.”
You could make: An expression of mild disinterest. “Oh, you know. Good. It’s kind of you to ask,” then change the subject to modern air travel.
But now is your moment to: Make your mouth small and your eyes so big. Gaze around. “Boyfriend,” you whisper to no one in particular. “I had … a boyfriend …” Get up and walk to the window. Gaze out into the darkness. Exhale on the cold pane, then draw a ladybug in the condensation. Chuckle to yourself. Return to the table. “Great! Things are great. So, so great. Oh my gosh. Great.”
Your relative says: “I’m just feeling so frustrated about the problems with Obamacare. They said I could keep my insurance and now I can’t, except maybe I can? The whole thing feels like a fiasco.”
Theoretically, it might be nice to: Murmur quiet agreement, sympathize with your family member and/or try to understand where they’re coming from. Restrain yourself from plotting when and how you’ll shut them down for the mistake of not reading the same internet commentary you do.
Instead, quietly growl: “Get fucked, Aunt Susan,” then pass out in the mashed potatoes.