Abraham Lincoln, Black Friday and pumpkin pie

21:37, Nov 25 2012

It has been a big, long, fun weekend.

Sometimes it seems as if America is too big, too broad and too weird for definition, but then it surprises you and you catch just the glimmer of an outline of a national personality.

Outside of a Walmart in Tallahassee on Black Friday two cars duelled for a parking space. When this argument could not be resolved, one driver shot the two occupants of the second car and fled.

Two men waited outside a Sears in San Antonio for several hours on Thanksgiving. One felt that the other had cut the queue. In time this disagreement descended into fisticuffs. One of the men displayed a gun under his jacket to the other man, panicking the whole line in the process and causing a stampede that injured a bystander.

Inside a Walmart in Georgia a crush for discounted smartphones turned ugly. The video was posted on YouTube (I really do encourage you to watch it). The following description of part of the video, written up in the Los Angeles Times, tickled me so: "At one point, a man shoves his hand over a woman's mouth as she begins to back away from the area and the woman appears to bite his hand in response."

At another Walmart in Southern California 27 security guards were hired this year, after a woman had pepper-sprayed her fellow shoppers last year. Back then police struggled to prove that this act wasn't done in self-defence, because several witnesses spoke of a riot-like atmosphere in the store. 


It's all a bit mad, really. But it is a common madness.

The phrase "like pigs at a trough" comes to mind...

A few hours before this national mania descended on the good peoples of the American nation: 15 people, I among them, sat down for a Thanksgiving meal in northern California.

This was not a Black Friday receptive crowd. But we were guilty of our own indulgences. We ate our Thanksgiving meal at dinnertime and spent most of the afternoon and evening picking at a few appetisers and imbibing beverages, becoming a little merry in each other's company.

The dinner-spread was declared open for business and all 15 of us lined up in orderly fashion in wait for the food (no pushing, no cross words, I'm not sure anyone present had ever fired a gun in their life).      

The getting, as they say, was good: delicious, creamy mashed potato, a pile of turkey more bountiful than I have ever seen, two types of stuffing, fresh green beans, cranberry sauce, yams, dinner rolls, a fruit salad to serve as palate cleanser... 

I filled the entire area of my plate and then proceeded to build upwards. I wasn't alone. I ate too quickly initially and indigestion hit. I paused to let it pass before finishing off my plate. After a few minutes of quiet appreciation and a few hearty expressions of physical discomfort, I returned for a second plate. If my first plate was a 10, the second plate was a six. I almost finished it. But I didn't.

Sometimes when I'm really full, I like to sleep on my back. On Thanksgiving evening, I was so full that it was physically uncomfortable not to sleep on my back. I had the meat sweats, bad.

I'm not totally equating the Black Friday and Thanksgiving manias with each other but they're not dissimilar: each is self-repeating, an enthusiastic embrace of excess and over-indulgence for the sake of it.   

One year ago, $52.4 billion was spent on Black Friday by an estimated 226 million shoppers taking advantage of discounts both in person and online... and I also ate turkey to the point where I was physically hurting.

I get frustrated sometimes when I think about Black Friday. Don't these people know that only a very small proportion of them can come out of this ahead? That it's all just a slightly more veiled con than a casino, no more than a colossal bait and switch (in that they come for the deal, but end up leaving with a whole bunch of stuff they have secretly overpaid for and don't need)?

But then I get annoyed at myself too in a small way, for isn't there something a little ridiculous about my own Thanksgiving eating, caught up in a similar idea that excessive consumption is the only way to show an appreciation for something?


Such meditative considerations of the American psyche continued throughout the long weekend. 

On Friday a few of LP's gathered family members embarked on an outing to a nearby cinema for a matinee screening of Spielberg's Lincoln.

It's a special movie, I thought. It has a few overly Spielberg-ish moments, but it manages to wring interesting tensions and bring to light the philosophical struggles of the time from within what is essentially a dry political procedural. And yes, Daniel Day Lewis is insanely good.

There was something about watching Lincoln, in a packed, holiday weekend cinema, which I was slightly taken aback by. There is such a universal reverence toward Abraham Lincoln that while being understandable (he ended the national shame that was slavery) is also so very American.

Americans choose to view their presidents as great men, men-apart, destined for the history books.

Lincoln, the movie, was extremely reverent and adoring. Whether it was overly so depends on your own personal take on history. But a movie like it couldn't be made about a New Zealand leader. We're too good at tearing ourselves down.

Americans may be prone to mania, but they are in general proud of their collective legacy, keepers of tradition, respectful of history...

This extends, I guess, from someone like Abraham Lincoln to the institution of Thanksgiving, to something as small as the humble pumpkin pie, about which I've been horrifying Americans everywhere by taking the stance that it should technically be regarded as pumpkin-based pie, due to its final (delicious, delicious) taste having nothing to do with pumpkin.

And surrounded by all of this when I tested myself, I just couldn't think of a corresponding sacred cow, or revered national tradition, in New Zealand.

I don't think we stand for such carry-on. But surely we need more than just the All Blacks? 

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