Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: 2015: The Year's Best Tech for Work and Play

David's guide to surviving Thanksgiving

Learn about dark meat turkey, Jedi family management skills, and a little tech. Plus some tips about how to have and enjoy a non-traditional holiday and giving Mom a break.

It's been more than a decade now since I wrote the first edition of "David's guide to surviving Thanksgiving" as an article for my web site. It deals with the mix of dark meat turkey, Jedi family management skills, and a little tech. It was one of my most popular articles ever. A few years later, I updated it and ran a version of it on CNN.com, and it was again quite popular.

Since then, I've evolved and refined the techniques each year and published it here on ZDNet. We normally don't run previously-published content (even in earlier, beta form), but this is an evolving work of such societal importance that it can transform lives and transcend barriers amongst eaters and cooks, mothers and sons, and those who love dark meat and those other people.


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This year, I talk about setting aside the electronics and giving yourself and your family a break from tiny screens.

Bits of tradition. Words of advice.

Those of you outside the US might not be aware of a little tradition we have here: Thanksgiving. According to our grade school classes, Thanksgiving is a holiday that came about when those wacky Pilgrims finally had a bountiful harvest, held a celebration, and gave thanks.

The historical reality is far more unclear, and very definitely subject to interpretation. A quick Google search of "thanksgiving" and "meaning" turns up more stuff than you'd believe.

Besides, nobody cares. Thanksgiving isn't about Pilgrims. The whole Pilgrim/Mayflower/Indian story serves merely as the MacGuffin that gives us our day of glorious gluttony.

In America, Thanksgiving means parades, football, families, and food. The last two, of course, are the challenge, and here's where my life-changing survival guide comes in.

I, like most folks, have fond memories of family Thanksgiving celebrations. But for years, they somewhat overwhelmed me. Often, we'd be joined by far-flung relatives whose names I couldn't remember. There'd be hugs from old people who shouldn't be allowed to hug without first getting a safety certification. And while there was plenty of food, there was never pizza.

It took me well into my 30s to develop techniques that, when used together, never fail to make Thanksgiving enjoyable to me and those around me. The key, however, is to use these techniques together. Either, used alone, will often result in disappointment, or -- worse -- more chicken soup than your freezer can possibly hold.

Technique #1: It's all about the dark meat

You may or may not like turkey (what are you, a socialist?) and you may or may not like dark meat. I love dark meat turkey and I'm not really a fan of white meat. The first half of David's Patent-Pending Thanksgiving Survival Program is to make the day all about dark meat turkey.

Nothing else and no one else matters.

Your mission, above all, is to get to the celebration and to get the dark meat before anyone else can. If you have to hockey check your great aunt to get that haunch, do it. If you have to blockade the kitchen door, do it. Whatever it takes, get yourself that plate full of dark meat (and maybe some gravy).

Here's how this part works. First, getting the dark meat means you'll enjoy your meal. But having that as your mission means you'll know what to do and what to say to every family member in attendance. Every action on your part is measured by whether it gets you closer to acquiring or consuming the dark meat.

Once you've finished the meal, of course, it's perfectly reasonable (and even accepted) to take a nap, watch a game, or fire up that Xbox you've been praying your cousin still has. But stay away from the Kinect. Trust me on this. Safety tip.

The dark meat quest is extremely satisfying, but it'll backfire without the second technique.

Technique #2: Effusively complimenting the cook

Nothing reclassifies you from "rude, gluttonous pig" to "extremely polite, nice man" than complimenting the cook. A lot. In every way you can think of. You may have just practiced your body block technique on Uncle Bob, but if you turn to Aunt Alice and tell her how much you love her turkey, you'll get that welcome smile.

I'm serious about this. You can get away with nearly any marginally reprehensible behavior at a family gathering if you make sure to effusively say nice things to the cook.

I'm talking Jedi-level powerful stuff here. It's amazing. Use these techniques together and it's like you can walk through walls, turn lead into gold, and get all the dark meat you want.


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Technique #3: Speak actual words to your family

I know how compelling the portable electronic gadgets we have can be, especially when Aunt Martha is going on and on about her bursitis. We have now reached a point in our world where it's considered common place for everyone at an event to spend more time staring into their phones than at the other guests.

But recently, we've seen a new trend now that more of us have smartwatches and Google Now is available on most phones (and, of course, Siri and Cortana). I was with a group of people the other day, and everyone was looking down at their phones and saying "OK Google" to give commands. It was a chorus of "OK Google" that just seemed quite odd. It was even wierder because the watch on one guy's wrist responded to the "OK Google" invoked by the woman on his left.

No matter. The point of this tip is simple. If you find yourself talking more to "OK Google" than your family, it's time to turn off the devices and ask your aunt what bursitis is, anyway. Then make nice, sympathetic noises, say "awww" and "I hope it gets better" a few times and then snag some more food.

The inevitable discussion of family illnesses, the shameful children poorly raised by the neighbors, and whether or not Uncle Jack will be denied parole again are all part of what makes Thanksgiving the holiday it is. And, besides, if you listen to your family, on the way home, you'll be able to turn to your partner and exclaim, "Can you believe that Martha and her bursitis, bursitis, bursitis?"

Then, take a deep breath, look at your watch, and say "OK Google, how long until we're finally home?"

Technique #4: Put away all your tiny screens

This year, I'm recommending something completely radical. Even though we just discussed spending more time talking to actual people than Siri, I'm going to take it a step further. Make it a new tradition that entering the Thanksgiving feast means turning off your phones, tablets, smart watches, and computers.

We're all tethered to these small devices that somehow seem to suck in all our attention. During the work week, and even during normal weekends, we often need to keep the channels of communication open. After all, if someone Likes your Facebook post, you need to know right away, right?

But there is nothing else going on while you're eating your Thanksgiving dinner. Every other family in America is doing the same thing. Your co-workers are with their families, your friends are with theirs. Even customers and clients are busy scooping mashed potatoes into their faces.

Take this incredibly rare opportunity to turn off the blinkenlights. Shut down your screens. Want a way to bump it up a notch? Before you sit down together, stand around the table as a family and all of you, together, turn off your phones. Make it a ceremony of togetherness and peace from technology.

We all need a break, don't we? Just few short hours without boinks and beeps and flashes and tiny little text would be nice, wouldn't it?

Technique #5: Traditional Thanksgiving doesn't have to be traditional

Now, you all know I love me some dark meat turkey. It might surprise you, then, to learn that some years, I didn't have any dark meat (and I'm okay with it). In fact, there have been many Thanksgivings where I didn't even have turkey.

I can think of one year that was kind of special. Prior to Thanksgiving, we had already had my Thanksgiving celebration with my family. Because of certain scheduling issues, we couldn't get together on the traditional day, so we picked the preceding Sunday and decided to meet at a completely non-traditional choice: an awesome BBQ ribs place. And yes, for you folks south of the Mason-Dixon line, who know the difference between grilling and barbeque, this was barbeque. Oh, my frickin' gosh, was this barbeque. Whooowah!

It rocked! See, although Thanksgiving often seems about the trappings of the holiday, it's also about getting together with loved ones and feeling thankful. That Sunday's gathering was great and even though there were ribs (do not ask me to judge between ribs and dark meat turkey -- I can't do it) -- even though there were ribs instead of turkey, it was, absolutely, a family Thanksgiving.

After college, I moved to California and my family was still back East. For a while, I couldn't afford to fly home for Thanksgiving and neither could many of my other recent college graduate-age friends. Instead of big turkey fests, we all went out to Chinese food. Let me tell you, if you want awesome Chinese food, the Bay Area is definitely the place to go. As a result, I often conflate Chinese food with Thanksgiving, because of all those wonderful holidays with the best of friends.

So, as you move towards your Thanksgiving, remember that it's not only about traditional foods, and it's not even about the traditional day, it's about friends and family and feeling thankful.

Oh, and in case you have a hankering for turkey, you can always pick up a nice meal. My wife and I ordered a take-out feast from a local restaurant. We had a wonderful, quiet Thursday Thanksgiving that year, and that, too, gave us something to be thankful for.

Technique #6: Give Mom a break

I know that Mom's not the only one who toils in the kitchen all week to masterfully create a Thanksgiving dinner experience. This is about giving a break to anyone who takes on this important chore.

Sometimes, creating a Thanksgiving feast is just too much, especially as our parents age. For years, my mom would insist on doing all the work, although it became clear it was harder and harder for her. She identified with making a nice table for her family and couldn't be talked out of it.

These past few years, though, it really was too much. Somehow, the feast-making gene didn't pass down to either my wife or I, but the ordering food gene is almost a superpower. So instead of my Mom putting in all the hard work, we've pre-ordered Thanksgiving meals from one of our favorite local restaurants, and we'll be bringing the entire feast down to Mom and Dad.

No, it won't be just like Mom used to make, and no, there won't even be any dark meat. But it's okay. Thanksgiving is about being with the people we love. What we eat is just what we eat.

However, here's a tip within a tip: a few weeks ago, we found dark meat turkey drumsticks (already cooked) at the local WalMart. They were a little dry, but still. Turkey drumsticks. Ask around. You might be able to get your dark meat fix without anyone in your family having to break a sweat.

Technique #7: Remote support software

Thanksgiving has taken on another role in American society, that of the "Great American Fix My Computer Day." That's right, for most Moms in America, Thanksgiving is the culmination of a week of food preparation. And for most of us geeks, it's the day we spend fixing all our relatives' stuff.

Most geeks don't mind spending their day off essentially working. Many of us are often more comfortable fiddling with wires than conversing with Aunt Harriet about her recent surgery.

And while us good techies are ready and willing to fix anything our families throw at us, we do find one thing hard to manage: the coordination between eating and fixing.

See also: Thanksgiving tech support survival kit

Most non-geeks rightly think of us as technical gods, able to fix anything instantly with a mere wave of our mouse hand. This, of course, is true. Except for the instantly part.

Reinstalling an operating system, removing viruses, or upgrading software takes time. In between typing in codes, clicking on annoying reminders, and selecting the time zone, we're able to come to the table and chow down. But most civilians don't fully understand that we're going to have to spend a lot of time with their gadgets to make them work.

Before you embark for your Thanksgiving adventure, you have a big decision to make. Would you prefer to spend more time fixing computers (and thereby avoiding your family) or would you prefer to spend more time eating (but having to endure endless chat about doctors)?

If you choose to hide, bring your full repair kit. But if you prefer to eat, then don't.

Although there's always the inevitable hardware problem, one way to enjoy more time at the dinner table and less time under your aunt's roll-top desk is to leave the tools, parts, and install disks at home. If you don't have the gear, you can't spend as much time making the fix.

Remember that you can always connect back in using the relatively mediocre system built into Windows, the free and functional TeamViewer, or the powerful, but expensive GoToAssist. A good way to make your family feel better about this is to promise to connect back in when you're home -- and this way you can often enjoy your dinner in peace.

If you're not a geek and you're reading this, please, don't give your geeks a hard time if they can't be at the dinner table for the entire event. It's not that we disrespect the family time. It's just that we love you so much, we're willing to give up together time to make your stuff work.

Technique #8: Do Black Friday online

Edible gluttony on Thursday eventually leads to commercial gluttony on Friday. My last Thanksgiving survival tip for 2014 is this: chill out.

There is nothing human about people who get up at 5am after a ginormous Thanksgiving dinner, just to stand in line for a few bargains. We all have too much stuff, anyway.

Instead, feel free to shop on Friday, but do it from your couch. Shop online. There are going to be great bargains online and, beside, bargains will be around for weeks.

There's no need to be at the store at 12:01am on Friday, pressing so hard on the crowd that the guy in the front is squished as flat as a playing card. Haven't you had enough people contact on Thanksgiving, anyway?

Stay home. Use the Internet. Eat leftovers. Skip the PS4 for one more day.

Seriously, be smart and be safe. Have a great Thanksgiving. And remember, save all the dark meat for me!


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