I think you’ll agree that Halloween this year was decidedly unscary, mostly because it seemed redundant. At one point I told friends that 2020 brought pestilence, plague, war, fires, flooding, and Wheel of Fortune reruns. “How many more disasters could we possibly endure?” I asked. It was just then that NASA announced that a meteor was heading toward the Earth, to possibly collide with us on Nov. 2.
Because I started writing this on Nov. 1, I had two thoughts: Could I get this essay done in time? And could we nudge the meteor so that we could determine where it hits?
As you might guess, I was also worried about what might happen on Nov. 3, but regardless of the election, we still must get through the next scary event facing America: the holiday season. Beginning with Thanksgiving, we will have to meet, virtually at least, with family members including those you might consider politically challenged and/or from another planet. Even on a Zoom call, you may find yourself chatting with Aunt Thelma and nervously waiting for the next foot to drop on the powder keg that is sitting on the last straw. One false move and you’ll be torn apart by a verbal IED. To help deal with this, I present here a list of “safe” discussion topics designed to get you through the holidays with only superficial injuries.
Important Note: For the sake of public welfare, we have been asked to stay home and not visit with others in person. Some of you will ignore that, thinking you are not creating a problem because you aren’t sick. Remember that denial is an early symptom of every contagious disease, on both the giving and receiving ends.
Second Important Note: Having a safe discussion topic does not guarantee anything. It’s all about how it is used, just like it’s all about how bleach is used in your laundry. If your husband thinks that more is better and uses a cup to get out the stain in his blue jeans… Well, you get my point. With that in mind, here are the topics I think you can raise with the least worry, hopefully in a virtual meeting:
- The Weather. For thousands of years, people have talked about the weather and never gotten into arguments. You still can do this provided you avoid these words: climate, global warming, and anthropogenic anything. It is not likely that many of your relatives will know what “anthropogenic” means, but they will have strongly held opinions nonetheless, all while having little understanding of what they are talking about. This essentially defines a topic to avoid. If someone mentions climate, quickly shift to:
- Pets. By pets, I mean “dogs” because although nearly everyone loves dogs, only about 38.624% of Americans prefer cats (I have studied this extensively). We all have gotten stuck in a cats-are-better-than-dogs (or vice versa) conversation, which is to be avoided like the COVID. If that is not possible, try the next topic:
- Your kids. When talking about your children, you are automatically forgiven a great deal. You can brag about them incessantly or you can complain about their choices of music, and people just smile and never disagree. After a few minutes, they also tend to mute themselves and stop their video feed (the Zoom equivalent of stepping back), which is a side benefit. If you are too young to have kids, complaining about your parents is not a safe substitution, as it certainly will result in stern reprimands and/or crying on the part of someone. When that happens, shift back to your pets. Eventually, the kids topic will not work anyway and you’ll be forced into trying the last “safe” topic, which is:
- Your favorite color. This one seems like a stretch but our artistic choices are often readily tolerated. Clever relatives will keep track of your favorite color so that they can be better at choosing gifts. In addition, you may find that your favorite relatives share your choices, just as they may also share your Zodiac sign. If were to predict, I’d say that you will find the very best people to be Virgos who like blue and were born in the Year of the Dragon. But that’s just me.
If these topics are not enough to get you through the standard family Zoom/Skype call, you can always fake sickness or take a fictional phone call. But let’s be honest, it’s not about you surviving another holiday. It’s about all of us being able to speak to each other without demonizing those who don’t think entirely as we do. Note I said “entirely” because you should already know that we all have a lot in common. That fact has been forgotten during the last four years, but it’s critical that we start working together toward common goals, if not for our sake then for our children and grandchildren.
So, make the holidays an opportunity to find common ground with Aunt Thelma. Just before you leave the virtual meeting, ask her what kind of world she’d like her grandchildren to inherit. My guess is it will be very much like the one you want.
Greg Wessel is an island geologist.