The Holiday as Performance Art

November 23, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- This is when I began to think about faxing Thanksgiving dinner.

I am in San Francisco sharing a radio show with Penn, wishing it were Teller. Penn is praising the electronic ties that now bind people. I am praising the interface that requires faces. He is expounding eagerly on the brave new intimacy of Internet. I am saying that it's hard to bring dinner to Mom by modem. He is raving about the worldwide community created by computers. I am explaining how awkward it is to actually touch anyone with a keyboard.

Halfway through this act, I begin to wonder if I am playing the part of nostalgia, lost in the role of technological troglodyte. The truth is that I am thinking about Thanksgiving. I'm far from home and behind the curve, counting down the days before my kitchen is scheduled to turn into Thanksgiving Central.

Penn is speeding down the information highway. My mind is going back over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house. Why not just fax 19 copies of a perfect feast -- one for every family member -- and be done with it?

This is of course the momentary mad flash of a woman in what I like to think of as the pre-Thanksgiving mode -- something approximating holiday meltdown.

I belong to a generation of women who have broken all sorts of traditions. Women who have mastered the art of one-minute managing. Our defining myth is that it isn't the quantity but the quality of time that matters. We do not have enough time to attend a stress workshop.

We are dressed for success as long as you don't notice the nail polish holding back the run in the pantyhose. We are all-business except for the bit of baby food on the blouse under the jacket. Every hour is rush and most of our food is fast.

But every time a holiday comes around, many of us are struck by an almost lethal compulsion to go forward to the past. We share the wistful desire to reproduce a labor-intensive, full-scale Norman Rockwell event for our postmodern family.

Our microwave generation confronts a 25-pound turkey. Our daughters raised on pizza find us poring over two-column recipes for onions, cabbage and apples en croute. Our sons, raised on Formica tables, find us ironing (!) linen.

For most of the year it is quite enough to fail to live up to Hillary Clinton. At holidays, we get a second chance to fail to live up to Martha Stewart. Martha Stewart's tablecloth does not have stains from last year's cranberry sauce. Martha Stewart has never in her wildest imaginings used a spoon that was mangled in the garbage disposal. Martha Stewart has never served a store-bought dessert.

And Martha Stewart has never, ever, gone out on Thanksgiving morning scouring the 7-Eleven stores for their last can of gravy.

Why precisely do we get this tradition-attack, along with its side dish of inadequacy? Why am I sitting here stringing words on a computer thinking that I should have planted paperwhite narcissus so they would bloom in the living room on cue?

It may be the curse of the Puritans who started this Thanksgiving tradition. But I suspect that the more life speeds up, the more we daydream about the kind of life lived in the slow lane. The more megabytes we use up, the more we want to download. The less time spent at home, the more vulnerable we are to binge homemaking.

The holidays become overloaded with what's missing the rest of the year. A take-out generation springs for a whole turkey and never mind the leftovers. A printout world looks for what is handmade and hands-on. A scattered family pushes home through airports and highways to sit on folding chairs.

Holidays have become our performance art. For women in particular, who still see themselves as the producers and directors of family life, a great deal is riding on the performance. And on the reviews.

So it's a low-tech and high-tradition time of year. It's over the river and through the woods and spare me the electronic community. I'll greet the tribe around the table. It's just too hard to get the mincemeat pie through E-Mail.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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