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Thanksgiving 2020: The pandemic revives our desire to gather just as we’re told not to | COMMENTARY

"I think each family is going to have to make a risk assessment about the risk and benefit of what we all feel is such an important tradition that we've had since the beginning of our nation — Thanksgiving," says Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert.
"I think each family is going to have to make a risk assessment about the risk and benefit of what we all feel is such an important tradition that we've had since the beginning of our nation — Thanksgiving," says Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert. (Graeme Jennings/AP)

I recently had dreams about gatherings. I found myself among lots of people — movie stars in one dream, cousins in another — and the time was either before or after the pandemic, because no one wore a mask or kept distance.

First, there was a big, hobnobby Hollywood party at a McMansion somewhere outside Baltimore, maybe Howard County. Most of the guests were entertainers — Jeff Goldblum, Julia Roberts, Chris Rock, Keegan-Michael Key, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tim Robbins in a splendid yellow suit. Mambo Combo provided music. The political commentator Robert Reich held court with a cocktail on the crowded deck overlooking the sloping backyard. At first I thought I was a party crasher, but when Rachel McAdams called my name and handed me a drink, I relaxed.

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In the second dream, I was at some kind of culinary awards event to receive a medal. All my cousins were seated in rows behind me, and they gave up a cheer when a French guy in a suit presented the medal. This was followed by an exuberant group hug.

So, yeah, I’ve had dreams about gatherings, and they came to me in the time of the coronavirus.

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I must be longing for get-togethers, from the occasional Saturday night supper with friends to our annual summer soiree. (I once served spaghetti, meatballs and Italian sausage for 65, though only 50 guests had been expected; we had to bring the dining room table outside to accommodate the second seating.)

Last New Year’s Eve, I set up a table in my driveway with an electric griddle and made crepes for friends, neighbors and anyone who walked by. The latter category included a young couple looking to buy a house in Baltimore. I can’t say for sure — there are several factors working against it — but I like to think the warm crepes sold them on city life.

It must be the approach of Thanksgiving and the grim surge in coronavirus infections that has me dreaming and thinking about gatherings.

We’re all trying to figure out what to do this year. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan says he and his wife, Yumi, have canceled their plans for a big family dinner. “Family gatherings are the most dangerous thing that we have, according to our contact tracing,” Hogan said Thursday. “We’re taking it to heart.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci told Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC that his three daughters will be staying home. There will be no Fauci family gathering for turkey this year.

When I heard the governor and our leading infectious disease expert say that, I had to rethink my family’s already circumscribed plans for the holiday. Inviting relatives or friends into your house as infections and hospitalizations rise is not advised, particularly if you live with someone at increased risk of developing a severe illness from the virus.

So, to get through this, we are asked to set aside the desire for a Thanksgiving gathering and, while cases are on the rise, probably gatherings of all kinds.

Some people are fine with this. They’re not much for gatherings, anyway. They prefer dogs and good books. They relish privacy.

But, for the rest of us — people who like occasional dinner parties, bull roasts, football tailgates, crab feasts and library lectures — what I find most interesting about the social consequences of the pandemic is that it might have revived the very human longing to gather.

It had started to wane. Had you noticed?

The digital age and social media — Facebook, in particular — have established communities, so to speak; people feel connected to friends and relatives there. We’ve sorted ourselves into digital echo chambers, the online gatherings of the like-minded. We generally avoid “barroom conversations,” where clashing opinions might come alive and turn raucous.

“It’s hard to hate up close,” I heard a wise man say, and he was speaking of the way Americans have taken sides along extreme political, cultural and racial fault lines. Social media allows us to keep our distance from disagreement and remain comfortable with our prejudices. That’s not good for the democracy, but that’s where we are.

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I’m no troglodyte; our digital devices provide great conveniences. But they can seduce us into a false sense of belonging and create a mirage of community.

The sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote about the decline of gatherings in his book, “The Great Good Place.” (The book was published in 1989, a few years before the internet was widely available.) He mourned the loss of conversation in coffee shops, saloons and hair salons. He concluded that, with the growth of suburbia, millions of Americans had slipped into a two-stop model of existence: work and home, with no regular stop in between. For all its perceived benefits, including privacy, suburban life could not provide easy, daily contact with people who are not co-workers and not family, but friends and acquaintances who tell us stories and keep our spirits up.

Now, in the pandemic, all of us — city, suburban and rural — are so deprived. Text messages, Instagram and Facebook posts do not satisfy the need for real human contact. They didn’t before the pandemic, and our physical isolation due to the virus compounds the frustration.

This Thanksgiving we’re deprived of the great American gathering. But we’ll get through it, and we might come out of this mess more eager than ever to gather — in real life, not in cyberspace and not in dreams.

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