Thinking Of Thanksgiving Traditions

For many of us, Thanksgiving is rich with family traditions.  Whether it is food, decorations, or the timing of the big meal, the traditions connect us to earlier times and people who are no longer with us but whose spirits live on, undiminished, in our memories.  The traditions are a big part of why, for many people, Thanksgiving is our favorite holiday.

Recently Mom and the five Webner kids had dinner and reminisced about Thanksgivings of days gone by and some of the traditions that prevailed during our childhoods.

Mom putting little wax candles of pilgrims and turkeys at every place setting at the Thanksgiving table.  A large cardboard representation of a big-breasted tom turkey with deep red wattles on the front door to greet our guests.  Native American headdresses made at school from construction paper, each ersatz feather a different bright color, and from the younger kids drawings of turkeys made from the outlines of their hands.  A cornucopia centerpiece surrounded by riotously colored, warty gourds.

My father, as much of a turkey fiend as the Dad in A Christmas Story, carefully carving the bird and happily munching on pieces as he went along.  Uncle Tony lecturing us that we were really missing something by not eating the heart and liver.  A heartfelt prayer for the year’s blessings and the food we were about to enjoy.  Gramma Webner announcing the turkey was too dry.

A tube of cranberry dressing, still bearing the corrugated impressions of the can from whence it came, lying on its side on a plate and sliced to form perfect wine-colored circles.  A huge bowl of Mom’s hand-mashed potatoes, doused liberally with her thick, homemade gravy.  A mincemeat pie.  Football throws outside on a crisp autumn afternoon to help stimulate the appetite for the feast to come, and sprawling on the couch watching football on TV, groaning at the amount of food consumed but still somehow finding room for a late-night turkey sandwich and a final piece of pumpkin pie and whipped cream.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Woody Week

Ohio State has viewed Michigan as its great opponent for more than a century, but the modern rivalry really took its shape when Wayne Woodrow Hayes became the head football coach at Ohio State in 1951.  It was Woody Hayes who schemed all year for the game against That Team Up North, Woody Hayes who purportedly pushed his car back to Ohio rather than buying a tank of gas in Michigan, Woody Hayes who attempted a two-point conversion rather than an extra point in a beat-down of the Wolverines and, when asked why he went for two, responded “Because I couldn’t go for three.”

That’s why, for members of Buckeye Nation who are my generation or older, Michigan Week really is Woody Week.  From the Ohio State side, Coach Hayes is the inescapable colossus who helped to define what the ultimate rivalry in sports was really all about.  You can’t help but think about him as The Game draws near.

But there is more to the story than that.  Woody Hayes was always a complex figure — professorial and intellectual, a student of military history who was likely to quote Emerson, yet possessed of a volcanic temper that propelled him into embarrassing sideline outbursts, including the furious punch that cost him his job.  A man who was the iconic face of Ohio State football but didn’t insist on large contracts and happily lived in the same tidy Upper Arlington house for years, who was gracious to the timid students who knocked on the door of his office and asked if the Coach might sign a football for their father or uncle, who mentored his players and hectored them into getting their degrees and pursuing post-football careers as doctors, politicians, and lawyers.  Living in Columbus, you inevitably encounter people who were touched by the generosity and decency of Woody Hayes, whether it involved an unpublicized hospital visit to a sick child or an encouraging word to a struggling young person.

Over the years, my perception of Coach Hayes changed, and I think I’m not alone in that.  For me he began as a too-conservative football coach whose temper-fueled antics often made Ohio State the butt of jokes, then became the modern Greek dramatic hero whose passion led inexorably to his downfall.  Now, as the stories of what he did are told and retold, he has become a venerated figure whose failings are forgiven, if not forgotten, because his strength of character and good deeds vastly outweighed them.

For those of us who have made mistakes in our lives — a population that includes me and most of the billions of people on planet Earth — the story of Woody Hayes is a warming and ultimately encouraging human story of the possibility of redemption and how good deeds can live on as blunders fade away.  It’s a good story to remember each year during Michigan Week.

Eroding Trust On Both Sides Now

There was rioting in Ferguson, Missouri last night after a prosecuting attorney announced that a grand jury had declined to indict white police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager.

The prosecutor, Bob McCulloch, said that the racially mixed grand jury had met on more than two dozen occasions over three months to hear the testimony of more than 60 witnesses.  He said the members of the grand jury were the only people to have heard all of the evidence and to have weighed the credibility of every witness, and added that they took their job seriously and “poured their hearts and soul into this process.” 

Shortly after the verdict was announced the police officer’s grand jury testimony was released.  According to the Associated Press report, Wilson said he had seen Brown walking with a handful of cigars, which he connected to an earlier report of a convenience store robbery.  Wilson testified to an escalating confrontation in which Brown punched Wilson while Wilson sat in his patrol car, Wilson drew his gun, the two struggled, Brown ran away, Wilson gave chase, Brown turned to face the policeman, and ultimately Wilson fired the fatal shots.

Rioting began almost immediately after the no-indictment decision was announced, with crowds setting fire to vehicles and buildings and looting local businesses.  Police fired tear gas and made numerous arrests.  President Obama quite properly appealed for calm and noted that the United States is a nation of laws and the grand jury was the institution charged with deciding whether the officer should be charged with a state-law crime.

Of course, both the prosecutor and the President are right:  only the members of the grand jury heard all of the evidence and its decision must inevitably be accepted.  Similarly, no rational person doubts that serving as a police officer is a difficult, dangerous job that requires split-second decision-making in moments of great stress.  Still, we can fairly question why so many deadly police shootings happen in our country — in Cleveland, for example, on this past Saturday afternoon, a rookie police officer fatally shot a 12-year-old African-American boy who was holding a pellet gun — and whether officers are too quick to use deadly force.  In too many of our communities, there seems to be an us versus them mentality on both sides of the police-civilian divide that makes these fatal confrontations much, much too likely to occur.

The Rapper Defense

Should the standards of what constitutes an actionable threat of physical violence be changed in the era of the internet and social media?  Next week the Supreme Court will consider that question, which probes the tender intersection of the First Amendment, criminal law, and society’s interest in protecting people from impending harm.

For years the prevailing standard has been that “true threats” to harm another person are not protected free speech and can be punished under the criminal law.  The issue raised by the Supreme Court case is whether prosecutors should be required to prove that the speaker had a “subjective intent” to threaten, as opposed to showing that an objective person would consider the statements to be threatening.  A requirement of subjective intent obviously would be harder to prove.

In the Supreme Court case, the defendant created Facebook posts about his estranged wife, writing about “a thousand ways to kill you” and asking whether the protection from abuse order she received was “thick enough to stop a bullet.”  His lawyers contend that the statements are simply “therapeutic efforts to address traumatic events” and references to the violent, misogynistic imagery of the defendant’s favorite rappers.  The defendant also argues that other actions like the placement of an emoticon — a face with its tongue sticking out, purportedly to indicate “jest” — must be considered in assessing whether the speaker truly intends menacing behavior or is just blowing off steam.

I’m a big supporter of free speech, and exercises in line-drawing are always difficult, but I don’t see any need to revisit long-time legal standards just because the internet has been developed.  Domestic abuse is a huge problem, and we need to protect the abused.  If prosecutors are required to prove “subjective intent,” and the placement of emoticons or the couching of unambiguous threats of violence in the context of rap lyrics become viable defenses, the ability to protect the abused will be diminished.  I don’t know of any real “therapy” that encourages disturbed people to make specific threats of violence, and I don’t buy the argument that standards of lawful behavior should be reduced simply because some anonymous people treat the internet as a kind of free-for-all zone.

Standards exist for a reason, and we shouldn’t be in a hurry to lower them.  It’s not unfair to hold people whose behavior already has given rise to legitimate concern — like the defendant in the Supreme Court case who was the subject of a protection from abuse order — accountable for specific violent statements, on social media or otherwise.

Lucky Seven

I’m sure readers of our blog get sick of postings about the Cleveland Browns.  I ask for forgiveness.  The Browns have been so wretched for so long that I just can’t help myself.  And when the Browns reach 7 wins, as they did today with a lucky victory over Atlanta on the road, I feel that I need to acknowledge the occasion.

The Browns’ success this year demonstrates the wisdom of the NFL statistical gurus who take a team’s record into account and try to design schedules that will result in every team ending up 8-8.  Teams that stank last year play considerably easier schedules than the tough teams that made the playoffs.  That’s the sole reason the Browns have reached 7 wins this year.  Still, hitting 7 wins feels good — if only because the Browns have been terrible and gotten the benefit of the cupcake schedule in past years and still laid egg after colossal egg.

I don’t think the Browns are one of the best teams in the NFL by a long shot, but their defense is improving and they have some weapons on offense with the return of Josh Gordon, the development of their two young running backs, and the fact that they finally have some reliable possession receivers.  If Jordan Cameron gets healthy, the Browns could pose a challenge to opposing defenses — if they had a quarterback who didn’t make stupid decisions.  Unfortunately, Brian Hoyer is regressing in that category, and his bonehead plays today produced three interceptions that almost gave the game away.

It was lucky for the Browns that they overcame three bad interceptions and won — but the main thing is they won.  They remain in the hunt for a playoff spot, and it’s the latest in the season that they’ve been in contention for a long, long time.  It feels good to write that.

Hotel Room Horrors

Last night Kish and I went out for a nice dinner with the Cleanliness Queen and her husband, the Dessert Dude — so-called because he somehow is able to eat two large desserts at every dinner we have without putting on a frigging pound.  At the midpoint of the meal the CQ mentioned, with a grim shudder, that she had watched a disturbing hidden camera show about hotel rooms.

IMG_3452If cleanliness is next to godliness, then one day the CQ inevitably will replace St. Peter.  She’s the kind of person who takes Lysol and other cleaning supplies when she travels to wipe down her hotel room, just to be on the safe side.  I suspect she’s got a secret compartment in her luggage for a toilet brush, and it would not surprise me if she carries an ultraviolet scanner to identify any stray unclean areas.  She’s probably sufficiently fluent in other languages to grill hotel maids in every country in the world about precisely what they did in cleaning her designated room.

The CQ explained that the hidden camera show revealed that some maids were using the same dirty towel to wipe down — in this precise order — the toilet bowl, the toilet lid, the sink top, and the shower stall.  Ugh!  And, rather than running them through a scalding water device, used glasses were just put in the sink run under warm water, dried with a towel, and then the little white cap signifying germ-free status was misleadingly put back on top.  No!  This then led to a discussion about bad hotel hygiene incidents, including people on a beachfront vacation who found sand from a prior occupant in bedding that supposedly had been changed.  Arrgh!  By the end of the discussion, the CQ was profoundly troubled.

Let’s face it — if you use hotels regularly, you just have to acquire a willing suspension of concern about the fact that your room has been used only hours earlier by complete strangers, much less what they did when they were in it.  I’d like to think that the room has been completely sanitized with some powerful cleaning agents, whether that’s actually been done or not.  I’ll cling to that illusion because it helps — which means I just need the room to be clean enough that there is no visible evidence of predecessor guests, and I’ll gladly avoid any TV shows that expose an inconvenient truth to the contrary.

A Schizoid Beginning To Michigan Week

Thanks to being a fan of both the Ohio State and Cleveland football teams, I have a split gridiron personality.  The Dr. Buckeye part expects perfection and routine drubbings; the Mr. Brown side knows that disaster and doom will inevitably rear their ugly heads.

IMG_3501Today’s Ohio State win over Indiana fed both halves of my schizoid football fan persona.  The Buckeye Nation part nods approvingly at the fact that Ohio State is undefeated in the Big Ten and has clinched a spot in the conference title game.  The Browns Backer saw a sloppy game in which Ohio State had three first-half turnovers and actually trailed an overmatched team in the second half.  The Buckeyes fan saw Jalin Marshall score four second-half touchdowns and show some of the lightning-in-a-bottle capabilities of the OSU offense.  The Browns fan saw the defense gashed for more than 200 yards and two appallingly long runs by a good running back as well as a ridiculous rumbling, stumbling, fumbling run by a freshman QB that set up Indiana’s first score.

The commentators say that Ohio State needs style points if it hopes to make the college football playoffs.  Maybe, but the Browns fan in me says that I should be happy with a win that followed on the heels of two high-intensity, on-the-road wins and just be pleased that the college kids on the team finally righted the ship in the second half and prevailed.  And the Buckeyes fan says that Ohio State had better have worked all of the turnovers, penalties, and blunders out of their system, because now things begin to get really serious.

It’s Michigan Week!