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Let’s Give Thanks and Stop Whining This Holiday Season

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The world has never been better

In her classic reinterpretation of Western history, The Legacy of Conquest, Patricia Nelson Limerick writes of an entrepreneurial young man in St. Louis eager to get in on the 1849 Gold Rush. He hands over $200 to a fledgling new carrier called the Pioneer Line that promises comfortable and speedy (60 days, give or take) coach service to the coast, food and drinks included.

Things don’t go as smoothly as advertised. Passengers have to walk part of the way on account of the wagons being overloaded and the ponies being spent. Many travelers die on the voyage, some early on from cholera, others later from scurvy. Once in San Francisco, the young man finds he is too late to the party, struggling to make a living taking menial jobs and distraught that his letters back home take up to six or seven months to arrive.

I can relate. On a recent flight out West, for which I also plopped about $200, we were ordered off the plane after we’d already boarded on account of some mechanical issue, then were forced to wait while United reassigned another aircraft. We made it to Phoenix a full three hours late. I don’t think any of us picked up scurvy along the ways, but things were pretty rough: The onboard Wi-Fi wasn’t working, the flight attendants ran out of Diet Coke, and the guy in front of me reclined his seat so that it nearly touched my knees. Cross-country travel remains ghastly, even when you have a book as good as Limerick’s to entertain you.

You see where I’m going with this, don’t you? That’s right: Let’s stop whining already — at least for this holiday season. We’re so spoiled we can’t really relate to how bad previous generations had it.

The “good old days” are a figment of our imagination. Life — here, there, everywhere — has never been better than it is today. Our lives have certainly never been longer: Life expectancy in the U.S. is now 78.8 years, up from 47.3 years in 1900. We are also healthier by almost any imaginable measure, whether we mean that literally, by looking at health indices, or more expansively, by looking at a range of living- standard and social measures (teen pregnancy rates, smoking, air-conditioning penetration, water and air quality, take your pick).

And in the rest of the world, the news is even better. Despite all the horrors in the headlines, fewer people are dying these days in conflicts, or from natural disasters, than in the past. The world has its obvious geopolitical divides, but a nuclear Armageddon triggered by the reckless hostility of great powers doesn’t loom large as a threat, as it did not long ago. Most impressive of all, the number of people in the world living in dire poverty has been cut in half since 1990, fulfilling a key U.N. development goal that once struck many as unrealistic. With infant mortality rates plummeting and education levels rising all over, people are having fewer kids and taking better care of them. In most of the world, the new normal is to send girls to school along with their brothers, an accomplishment whose significance, development experts will tell you, cannot be overstated.

Even as Americans, we don’t have to compare ourselves to our 19th-century forefathers — or to the Pilgrims — to appreciate how life has become better. Things have improved drastically in our own lifetimes. Remember how unsafe cities were not long ago? How we used to smoke on airplanes? How our urban rivers used to catch fire? Reported violent crimes in the United States are down by half since 1993. And consider how much more humane our society has become. We still suffer from inherited racial, gender, and other biases in our society, but to a far lesser extent than in the past; the bigoted among us are finding less and less acceptance. We’ve adopted a default tolerance of others’ choices and values — think of the revolution in attitudes toward gays over the course of one generation. Americans’ ability to pursue happiness as we see fit has never been greater.

And when it comes to how we communicate, entertain, and learn from one another, we might as well live in an alternate universe to the one we inhabited as recently as the 1980s. Today more than 70 percent of homes have broadband connectivity, and more than 90 percent of American adults have a cellphone. (Remember rotary phones?) If you ever feel bored, your 1980s doppelganger should appear before you in the middle of the night—and just slap you.

And no, growing inequality is not the hallmark of our era. On the contrary, when you look at the human community as a whole, the present time will be remembered for the expansion of the global middle class, and the democratization of living and health standards that once were the privileged birthright in only the wealthiest societies. A few months back I sat through a riveting presentation by Steven Rattner on rising inequality in the U.S., but his most telling slide (arguably undercutting the rest of his talk) was his last, entitled “to end on an optimistic note,” that put the issue in a global context. It showed that most of the world’s workers (as opposed to the middle classes in the most developed countries) have seen their incomes rise in the last 30 years at a rapid clip, much like what’s happened to the super rich.

No one has done more to propagate the notion of a “great convergence” of living standards in the world than the charismatic Swedish development economist Hans Rosling. Go online this holiday season and check out his dynamic graphs that chart countries’ life expectancy and incomes over time since the Middle Ages. They will make you smile, and be thankful. His graphs make humanity look like a flock of birds taking flight, with the U.S. and Europe leading the way, but the others following, tentatively at first, then more assuredly.

So why, if life is better all around, do we whine and complain endlessly as if we live in the worst of times? The answer is: Our success allows us to constantly update our expectations. When my flight is three hours late and the Wi-Fi is busted, I couldn’t care less what it took to cross the country in previous centuries. We are all prima donnas that way. Even in China, young middle-class consumers whine as well, instead of counting their blessings that they didn’t suffer through Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

I’ll concede, very grudgingly, that all this whining can be a good thing. As Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, has written, we’re hard-wired to be disgruntled. It’s the only way we achieve progress. Evolution requires us to demand more and better, all the time.

Otherwise, we would have given each other high-fives when life expectancy reached 50 and a cross-country journey took just two months—and that would have been that. Still, suspend your whining for a moment this holiday season. Let’s appreciate how far we’ve come.

Andres Martinez is editorial director of Zocalo Public Square, for which he writes the Trade Winds column. He is a professor of journalism at Arizona State University.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME society

5 Great Reasons to Celebrate International Buy Nothing Day Instead of Black Friday

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Staying home on Friday means saving 100%


This story originally appeared on xoJane.com.

The day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday, is also International Buy Nothing Day, a day to take a break from buying to question status quo capitalism and consider how we might participate in a more sustainable economy. There are many reasons to participate in International Buy Nothing Day, but in this modern, short-attention-span era, I’ll give you five, starting with the personal and working my way out.

1) It’s good for your wallet.

When I was a little kid, my grandmother would come home and proudly announce how much she had “saved” while she was out shopping. My grandfather would predictably, jokingly reply, “Vivie, you could have saved 100% by staying home.” It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate her efforts and he wasn’t trying to be a jerk; he was reminding her that he didn’t need a lot of stuff to feel successful. As corny as his humor sounds, it’s true — staying home on Friday means saving 100%.

Evolutionarily speaking, we are hunter/gatherers; it is super hard to fight the primal urge to gather on Black Friday, to source necessary items for our families for a bargain. Finding a great deal can feel like stumbling upon a field of berries, and you have to fight every genetic urge to turn around and walk in the opposite direction. If you need more proof that Black Friday isn’t the most economical way to gather for your family, consider that multiple sources have indicated that “deals” on Black Friday are often no better than what you can find at other times of the year and, in some cases, not as good as those in the last couple weeks before Christmas, or in the days immediately after. Do you really want to brave the traffic and crowds for a mediocre deal?

Economists use the term “opportunity cost” when talking about how we choose what to do with our time. The theory goes that with each chunk of time, the logical choice is to select the activity with the highest financial or personal benefit.

In short, we should choose the activity that makes the most money (or provides the most happiness) with each chunk of time we have. This is a way to evaluate the costs associated with free time. For example, when considering camping out in front of a store for two weeks, you ought to ask yourself if the amount of money saved (on items to be bought) or the happiness accrued (by camping out) will be greater than the amount of money or happiness that could be had doing something else in those two weeks. If the amount saved is not larger, then camping out has a very high opportunity cost.

2) Quantity is not the same thing as quality.

In a tough economy, thoughtful spending is more important than amount of spending.

It’s generally assumed that spending helps the economy. When consumer confidence is up and people are buying, demand for goods goes up. Demand goes up, more production is required, more workers are needed. But in reality, there’s a big difference between raiding the $1 bin at a mega-chain and spending $30 at a local gift shop or restaurant.

Reports show that when you spend $100 locally, $45 stays in the local economy — that’s as compared to about $13 when you spend the same $100 at a big chain store. How, you ask? Good question.

Just like individuals, local businesses also need goods and services. Some of these goods and services include: banking, tax prep, cleaning, maintenance, catering, office supplies, uniforms, etc. — all of which are more likely to come from other local companies in the area than from chain stores (who have centralized these services to save costs and support a national store base). When you shop at a local store you are supporting the owners of the business, the workers at that store, AND all the other local businesses who provide services to that store.

At least one study in San Francisco showed that a spending shift of 10% (putting 10% of spending money toward local businesses rather than chains) could create 1,300 jobs for the Bay area. Keep in mind, that’s a 10% shift — it’s not an all/nothing proposition; that shift still leaves you 90% to spend at big chain stores, while you make a difference locally.

Black Friday encourages a mindless sort of consumerism. The idea is to show up at the mall and buy, buy, buy because everything is on sale. When you heed the hype of Black Friday, you’re less likely to scrutinize prices and recall that they aren’t much better than those Labor Day sales a few weeks back, and you’re also less likely to weigh the impact of the dollars spent at the mall that could be better spent elsewhere.

3) Solidarity with retail workers.

This is perhaps the point getting the most news right now. Black Friday keeps creeping earlier and earlier chronologically, and this year it has finally crept all the way up to the morning of Thanksgiving. We are hearing so much about the poor workers being forced to work ON Thanksgiving, unable to enjoy the holiday with their own families, and that is a valid point; it’s hypocritical for anyone who considers Thanksgiving a “family holiday” to be shopping on Thanksgiving.

However, the issue is much larger than employees being forced to work on Thanksgiving and to give up spending the holiday with their families.

Scheduling is a major issue among retail workers that doesn’t get nearly enough press. In addition to being paid at/near an unlivable minimum wage by exploitative billionaire employers, and often working without employer-paid healthcare or paid sick time, retail workers have little to no control over their schedules. Increasingly, retail workers can expect to be working anytime; schedules are posted with limited notice and changed at the last minute; requests for time off are denied.

Forget Thanksgiving; imagine trying to schedule time with your family to be there for important events (birthdays, school concerts, sports games, parent-teacher meetings, doctor appointments) when your schedule is perpetually subject to change. It is not uncommon for employees to be fired for missing a single scheduled shift no matter the reason.

Boycotting Black Friday is a good first step toward standing in solidarity with workers but it is not the end of the work. For extra credit, consider year-round boycotts of stores that are especially and needlessly stingy with workers – both with wages and benefits.

4) Solidarity with American and international manufacturing workers.

In the U.S., thanks in large part to the historic and ongoing labor movement, workers have some basic protections like: a 40-hour work week (beyond which we are required to receive overtime pay), child labor laws, and workplace safety laws. We take a lot of the basics for granted.

Don’t believe me? It wasn’t until 1998 that OSHA established rules for bathroom breaks, mandating: “… it is clear that the standard requires employers allow employees prompt access to sanitary facilities. Restrictions on access must be reasonable, and may not cause extended delays.” Yeah, up until 1998, workers had no protected right to use the bathroom. So what constitutes a “reasonable” restriction? In 2013, a plaintiff lost his case against his employer because he left his spot on the line three times in one shift. Ruling against him, the court declared:

While there is a clear public policy in favor of allowing employees access to workplace restrooms, it does not support the proposition that employees may leave their tasks or stations at any time without responsibly making sure that production is not jeopardized. In recognition of an employer’s legitimate interest in avoiding disruptions, there is also a clear public policy in favor of allowing reasonable restrictions on employees’ access to the restrooms.

So yeah, they have to let you go, but not whenever you want (or need) to go.

If you work somewhere that doesn’t track bathroom breaks, think about THAT the next time you duck into the can and sit down to enjoy a secluded game of Candy Crush. We’ve made a lot of strides, but the American factory — from poultry and meat-packing to the Amazon warehouse fulfilling your Cyber Monday order can still be a really tough place to earn a living.

And, while American retail workers don’t have it so great, the folks across the globe making all our stuff have it considerably worse. From preventable factory fires in Bangladesh (the courts ruled that the deaths amounted to culpable homicide), to continued dangerous conditions in factories making all of our beloved Apple gadgets, to virtually every item of mass-produced clothing we buy. “Made in the U.S.A.” is not a guarantee that the person doing the making was treated fairly but any other label is a near-certain guarantee of low wages or even wage theft and indentured servitude, grueling hours,unsafe conditions, sexual harassment, child workers, and other exploitative practices.

Unless you’re planning to live like the Amish, it’s virtually impossible to entirely avoid buying any fruits of exploitation, but you can help by buying less, buying only what you actually need, and shifting to ethical suppliers when you can.

5) You’ll be part of a cultural movement that re-thinks what it means to celebrate, to express love, to reward ourselves.

Last week a photo passed through my Facebook feed. It was a man holding a sign with this text: “Nothing says ‘I love you’ like cheap crap made in China by slave labor. Sold by a company owned by billionaires benefitting from corporate welfare, paying slave wages to employees kept from enjoying Thanksgiving with their families.” And that about sums it up for me.

It’s not that poor labor conditions exist only in China or that people only need time with their families on Thanksgiving. It’s that it matters how we spend money. It’s that it matters that there are real people behind each product we buy and that we have a moral responsibility to consider them when making each purchase.

A few years ago, I suggested to my family that we all stop buying stuff for each other for the holidays. After all, we’re all grown-ups and can buy things for ourselves. (Side note: I also wanted to encourage giving gifts when the moment struck rather than on a cycle of obligation, i.e. holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, etc). I might as well have announced myself as the unreformed version of The Grinch. My family, my liberal, cares-about-the-welfare-of-others, have-all-held-really-crappy-jobs family, couldn’t fathom a holiday without a preponderance of THINGS.

Despite the familial disapproval, I still think that BEING with each other is more important than BUYING for each other. How much time were you planning to spend shopping on Black Friday? Between scouring the flyers, making a shopping list, driving to/from stores, parking, roaming the aisles, waiting to pay, paying the bills when they’re due — how many hours is that? 2? 5? 10? More than 10?

Why not use that time to make dates with family? Go out to lunch together, go to dinner, go to the movies. Invite each other over for dinner. Volunteer to watch each others’ kids. You get to spend time with little ones and you give the grown-ups a date night. If you live far away, make Skype or Facetime dates with each other. Or, if you’re old school, pick up the phone and have a conversation.

I can buy myself all the fancy hand cream, high-end gadgets, and skinny jeans I want. I can’t buy: a long walk with my partner and our dogs, a hug from my mom, an as-yet-untold family story from my Dad’s bottomless memory bank, a Skype date with my cousin and his family in which his daughter wants nothing more than to exchange silly faces with us, a plate of my aunt’s holiday cookies, a thoughtful hand-made card from my little sister, a shared trip to a nerdy con with my step-kid. That’s what’s on my wish list this year. What’s on yours?

P.S. Want to do more? If you want to do more than sit at home and buy nothing, you can do anything! From going to the mall to hand out free hugs, to cutting up your credit card, to bringing snacks and support to striking retail workers, to using everything you’ve learned watching “The Walking Dead” to organize a zombie walk.

Amy Mendosa wrote this story for xoJane.com.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME society

The Most Destructive Gender Binary

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Gary Barker, Ph.D., is founder and International Director of Promundo, an international organization with offices in the United States, Brazil and Portugal and representatives in Rwanda and Burundi, that works to engage men and boys in gender equality and ending violence against women.

We need to show the world just how much each gender depends on the other, and how men, too, benefit from full equality

It was the latest setback for women’s empowerment. But you probably haven’t heard about it.

Part of the gender equality goal set to replace one of the U.N.’s soon-to-expire Millennium Development Goals didn’t make it through. The target left on the cutting room floor? Engaging men and boys around gender equality issues.

Why, exactly, is this is a setback for women’s equality? Because the fates of the two genders are intertwined; for women to thrive, men and boys must be part of the gender equality agenda. Why, then, in 2014, are we still addressing gender issues as a binary, girls vs. boys, women vs. men? And how can we get beyond it?

We asked that big question at a conference last week in Delhi — organized by the global MenEngage alliance ( full disclosure: I’m co-chair and co-founder of the alliance). Our answer – to get beyond the binary, and to achieve the promise of empowering women — we need to show the world just how much each gender depends on the other, and how men, too, benefit from full equality.

Let’s start with violence. If you want to combat violence against women, you’ve got to understand, and address, violence against boys. Let me explain. Global data confirms that about one-third of the world’s women have experienced violence from a male partner. We have little evidence — with the possible exception of the U.S. and Norway — that any country has been able to reduce its overall rates of men’s violence against women. There are challenges with measuring violence, to be sure, but it’s far too early to claim that we have made real progress in reducing the daily threat to women and girls.

Why haven’t we moved the needle? Partly because we’ve been coming up with solutions for only half of the affected population. We know that men who witness violence growing up are nearly three times more likely to go on to use violence against female partners. Data also show that men who witness violence growing up are more likely to be depressed, contemplate suicide, and more likely to binge drink. In other words, men’s lives, too, are harmed by the violence of men. Ending violence against women must also mean ending violence against boys and men.

Unpaid care work is another area where we can see the same intertwined narrative playing out. Women do the majority of the unpaid care work in the world. And yet, studies show that when men take on those responsibilities, they’re happier, less likely to be depressed (and have better sex lives). According to one study in the U.S., we even live longer as men when we’re involved fathers. A study in Sweden finds that involved fathers are less likely to miss work, and are healthier. Not to mention all the data showing that children benefit when fathers are involved in caring for them.

Or consider this: a recent World Health Organization report confirmed that there are 800,000 deaths from suicides each year, about two-thirds of those are men. We know something about which men commit suicide: men who are socially isolated, who feel they can’t reach out for help, whose sense of identity was lost when they lost their livelihoods. Men who, in part at least, are stuck in outdated notions of manhood.

What’s more, entire economies benefit when women can devote more time to the paid workforce. If women’s participation in the workforce were equal to men’s, the U.S. GDP would be nine percent larger and India’s GDP would be 1.2 trillion U.S. dollars bigger. Yet right now, that disparity is arguably the single largest driver of women’s lower wages compared to men. Globally, 77 percent of men participate in the paid workforce, compared to just 50 percent of women—a proportion that has remained virtually unchanged for 25 years.

Even when women are in the workplace, they earn on average 18 percent less than men for the same work. Few countries outside of Scandinavia have created policy incentives to encourage men to do a near-equal share of unpaid care work. We know what it has taken in Scandinavia to push us closer toward equality in terms of care work: paid paternity leave. In other words, encouraging men to do a greater share of the care work.

Guess what? A little encouragement goes a long way. Today, with paid leave and “use-it-or-lose-it” leave for fathers only, the majority of men in Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Quebec (which has policies similar to the Nordic countries) are taking leave of six weeks or more. Iceland is the global leader: fathers there take an average of 103 days of paid paternity leave.

We’re stuck in a similar gender box when it comes to empowering women to control how many children they have. In 2005, women represented 75 percent of global contraceptive users and men 25 percent. In 2014, women represent 73 percent. Hardly numbers to celebrate and proclaim equality; indeed, that change does not even pass the confidence interval. Why does it matter? Well, last time I checked, reproduction involves both women and men. Anything less than 50-50 in terms of contraceptive use cannot be called equality. By not engaging men as equal partners in contraceptive use, we hold women back. This doesn’t mean giving men control over women’s bodies; it means engaging men to assume their share of reproduction as respectful, aware and supportive partners.

In terms of HIV/AIDS, the story is similar. We have made amazing strides in rolling out HIV testing and treatment. Treatment as prevention is working in many countries. One of the key remaining obstacles in reducing HIV rates and AIDS-related mortality rates even more is the fact that in much of the world, men are far less likely than women to seek HIV testing and treatment. The result is increased risk for women and higher AIDS-related mortality among men.

The arguments could go on. From economic empowerment for women to violence prevention, the evidence consistently affirms that engaging men as partners in gender equality is more effective than only tapping women. And the data is clear that men who support gender equality, are more supportive, democratic partners and get involved in their share of the care work are happier men.

Twenty years after one of the largest events to promote women’s equality in Beijing — where Hillary Clinton made her famous proclamation that “women’s rights are human rights” — the conclusion is this: we won’t achieve full equality for women until we move beyond binary us-versus-them, women-versus-men thinking. We must commit to ending patriarchy in the lives of women and in the lives of men. As men, we must acknowledge that we have an equal stake in gender equality. In fact, let’s acknowledge this: our lives get better when we embrace it.

Gary Barker, Ph.D., is founder and International Director of Promundo, an international organization with offices in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Washington, DC, and Kigali, Rwanda, that works to engage men and boys in gender equality and ending violence against women. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME society

5 Famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Scenes in Film and TV

From Miracle on 34th Street to Seinfeld

Over the years, various film and television directors have made the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade part of a plot, which usually involves shooting the parade live.

Anyone who wants to film the parade for commercial use must work with the company to obtain permissions, Macy’s tells TIME. Upon securing a permit, sections aren’t roped off for filming, and production crews can’t interrupt the line of the march.

Here are some notable examples of films and TV shows that have featured the iconic American tradition:

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

'Miracle on 34th Street'
‘Miracle on 34th Street’ 20th Century Fox

It’s perhaps one of the most iconic representations of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in film, and arguably helped put the event on the map, for few knew of the parade outside of New York prior to the film, according to Turner Classic Movies. And although it started in 1924, the event wasn’t nationally broadcasted until 1947, concurrent with the movie’s release. Twentieth Century Fox positioned cameras throughout the parade route and from a third-floor apartment.

Tower Heist (2011)

'Tower Heist'
‘Tower Heist’ Wilson Webb—Universal

Film crews shot during the parade itself — which included an actual cameo of Joan Rivers on a float. Although the crew also had to recreate part of the parade for additional footage.

Sweet Charity (1969)
Shirley McClaine created her own parade marching band.

Seinfeld (1994)

Elaine gets her boss a gig as a coveted “balloon handler” for the parade.

Friends (1994)

The gang gets locked out of Monica’s and Rachel’s apartment after watching the parade on the terrace. Watch a clip from the episode above.

TIME Culture

Thanksgiving: Grandma and the Baby Would Forget—But Mom and I Would Remember

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During this get-together of four generations speaking three languages, we all take turns playing caretaker and taken-care-of

I think back to the first Thanksgiving I spent with my infant daughter three years ago, which was also the last one I spent with my grandmother. The multigenerational gathering at my childhood home in Alhambra, mixing Chinese, Vietnamese, and American traditions, is not only etched in my memory, it’s immortalized in a digital photograph.

In the photo, my mom is holding my nearly four-month-old daughter in her arms, while my arms rest by my 84-year-old grandma, whom we all called Popo (the Chinese word for grandmother).

The entire family doesn’t get together like this often — but Thanksgiving is a holiday when 20 or more relatives cram into my mom’s modest townhouse to eat, drink, laugh — and annoy each other. For an evening, our lives touch and intertwine, and like an infinity mirror, we can see the past and future stretched out around us. In our lives, we have alternated between the roles of caretaker and taken-care-of, sometimes a bit of both.

A few months before that Thanksgiving, Popo had moved to an assisted living facility in San Gabriel. She had deteriorating kidneys and Alzheimer’s. When she was in better health, she had cooked a full Thanksgiving dinner that included slow-roasted, soy sauce-basted turkey, and hearty fish maw with shark fin soup.

Once, I pointed out that perhaps we ought to forgo the shark fin because of cruel commercial harvesting practices, and that the low heat she used to cook the turkey might not comply with modern health codes. But Popo was going to cook her turkey as she saw fit. In Vietnam, she had supported a husband and six kids by running her own stall at the market selling fabrics, and she had escaped communist Vietnam with her family by paying in gold bars for their exit as boat people.

But that Thanksgiving, Popo was no longer feeding us. Instead, my uncle tried his hand at the soy sauce-basted turkey; my mom made turkey curry with lemongrass and bay leaf.

As we sat down at the table, Popo had already eaten. She was on a liquid diet, fed directly into her stomach via a feeding tube. When Popo did manage a few spoonfuls of food, mom gently wiped her lips and cheeks.

This was something Mom did all the time. Mom was retired, but she always woke early, cooked meals for her sister and herself, and was off to Popo’s assisted living facility before 9 a.m. She washed Popo’s face in the morning, combed her hair to cover the bald patch, and rallied aides to help Popo to the bathroom so she could avoid sitting in excrement. Mom knew a mountain of dignity could be granted with a wipe of a napkin, comfort given with socks that she continually put back on Popo’s feet.

At Thanksgiving dinner, my daughter Hazel looked around her at all the new faces. She stared at the food we put it in our mouths. At the moment, she was relying on me for her milk and gaining critical pounds.

As Hazel drank, milk drops flowed down her cheeks and settled into the folds of her double chin. I grabbed a burp cloth and wiped her lips and cheeks.

Someone else was taking care of my baby while I worked during the day, and I fretted. I worried that she was sitting in excrement. That she wasn’t being adequately stimulated. I wondered if her blankets were kicked off, whether her socks had stayed on.

On that Thanksgiving evening, though, there was no assisted living, no daycare. Just time and those growing into life sharing an evening with those growing out of it. By the next day, Popo would have forgotten and so would have Hazel. But Mom and I would remember that moment, as would the camera.

Kim Luu is an environmental sustainability professional and lives in Alhambra, California, with her husband and two kids. She wrote this for Thinking L.A., a project of UCLA and Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME society

Ferguson’s Emotional Aftermath

Vanessa DeLuca
Vanessa DeLuca Courtesy of Essence

Vanessa DeLuca is the Editor in Chief of ESSENCE.

As a Black mother, it frightens me that I have come to expect this verdict, writes the editor of ESSENCE

I am tired of sighing. And crying. And “why oh why-ing” to anyone who will listen.

We know why this decision in Ferguson happened. The hurt is so deep, and the pain has gone on for so long.

And so we mothers of Black sons wake up to another injustice hangover, our heads heavy with the weight of absorbing too many messages that tell us, SHOW us, daily, that our loved ones have no worth in the eyes of those who are supposed to protect us. We understand the pain. We understand the anger. But we know that violence only reinforces what many already believe about us.

As a Black mother, it frightens me that I have come to expect this verdict. Because it means that I have allowed myself to give up the ability to feel hope when unarmed young Black men are murdered by police officers.

But like you, I will not allow this hurt to destroy me. And I will not allow it to erase the hope I still see in my son’s eyes.

Oppression is fueled by helplessness. We can’t stay in that space. None of us can afford to hibernate there.

So I will try to summon up the energy to fight back in ways that matter. Because yesterday I was able to sit across the table from my son, over lunch, and spend some time bonding. And this next fight has to be for the mothers who can no longer say that.

I hope you will join with me in fighting for legislation to protect our children’s rights.

This article originally appeared on Essence.com.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Culture

Celebrating Thanksgiving With America’s First Rock Star

Massachusetts. Sign At Plymouth Rock
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Plymouth Rock has been the subject of history lessons, songs, and speeches for 400 years. Why do we love it?

“Plymouth Rock is a glacial erratic at rest in exotic terrane.” So begins John McPhee’s classic 1990 New Yorker article, the best short piece ever written about the great American relic, pointing out how geological forces carried this rock far from its original home — Africa. It is an iconic mass of granite geologically formed by fire, but it certainly also qualifies as a sedimentary and metamorphic chunk of American political culture. Plymouth Rock has long been a symbol of America’s beginnings, the country’s bedrock, its very foundation. And in the Rock’s surprising travels, during its original journey to Plymouth Harbor and its subsequent wanderings and memorialization, it has embodied authentic Americanism, on the move.

As a historian of early America, I’ve long been fascinated by how the people, places, and things of the colonial era have been remembered in American popular culture — that is, in the sort of history that “we carry around in our heads,” not the history that history professors profess. And the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock do feature prominently in our collective heads, particularly as November arrives each year and we turn our attention to Thanksgiving. Why make such a big deal of a small band of Puritan separatists who were not the first European colonists of America, and not even the most prominent Puritan colonists of Massachusetts? And did they actually ever step on Plymouth Rock, or treat it as anything other than an erratic? All this seems not to matter; I long ago resolved that history is and should be much more than mere debunking.

In the early 1990s, while on a ferry in New York Harbor, I overheard a conversation that demonstrated the ongoing significance of those Plymouth “forefathers.” Anticipating their visit to the historic Ellis Island and eyeing the Statue of Liberty in the distance, one passenger said to another, “These immigrants were just doing what the very first Americans, the Pilgrims, were doing.” Her companion nodded toward the island and agreed: “That was their Plymouth Rock.” Fractured history, yet rock-solid nonetheless.

McPhee reconstructed the Rock’s migration, via the mechanisms of plate tectonics, as part of a large slice of the earth’s crust called Atlantica, which joined North America some 580 million years ago from a distant locale — Africa, mostly likely. Then, approximately 20,000 years ago, the boulder was scooped up by moving ice and ultimately deposited at Plymouth Harbor when glaciers retreated at the end of the Ice Age. After the Pilgrims showed up in 1620, the Rock’s migrations only accelerated, as people circulated its shards as relics, just as believers disseminated the bones of saints and pieces of the true cross in medieval Europe to help sanctify a holy narrative. In this case, they were shoring up a New World narrative about the glorious rise of the American republic.

Until late in the 18th century, the Puritan Separatists who founded Plymouth colony in 1620 were but one marginal group of predecessors, not yet Capital-P “Pilgrims,” not yet the nation’s forefathers. Plymouth Rock belatedly received its first public recognition as the Pilgrims’ alleged landing place when church elder Thomas Faunce assembled his children and grandchildren on the spot and recited the tale in 1742, a legend later fossilized in print by Dr. James Thacher, who provided no corroborating evidence. The Separatists’ narrative and their Rock acquired symbolic power during the American Revolution, as the new United States sought independence.

By the late 1700s, Thanksgiving had become a well-established regional festival in New England, tracing its roots to a feast in the autumn of 1621. Plymouth Rock, however, was at first more directly tied to a different occasion: Forefathers’ Day, or Landing Day, on December 22, commemorating the debarkation of the Mayflower passengers in 1620. Popular among fraternal ancestor organizations, Landing Day was a civic event that expressed exclusivity, expansionism, and stubborn mission, while Thanksgiving was a domestic and community fete celebrating bounty, charity, and inclusion, And while both holidays spread beyond New England, carried by migrating Yankees who shared the Rock as a touchstone, only Thanksgiving’s spirit overtook the hearts and festive calendars of Americans.

Toasting the Pilgrims at a New England Society fete near the end of the 19th century, Frederic Taylor of New York proclaimed:

It is our habit to think of Plymouth Rock always as being at Plymouth, and nowhere else. Well it was there once [but] when the Pilgrims’ feet pressed that boulder at Plymouth it became instinct with life and began to broaden at its base; and its base has ever since been spreading out, till now Plymouth Rock underlies the continent.

Using the Rock as potent metaphor, Taylor imagined it as a stepping-stone and foundation for Union generals Grant and Sherman, as ballast for the Monitor as it defeated the Merrimac, and as Abraham Lincoln’s hammer of freedom.

Given the seismic tumult of American history, it’s perhaps no surprise that the gravitas surrounding the Pilgrims would be shaken. The 19th-century New York lawyer and politico Chauncey Depew, a frequent after-dinner speaker at New England Society banquets, once tweaked his patrician audience with this cheeky comment: “What a pity instead of the Pilgrim Fathers landing on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock had not landed on the Pilgrim Fathers,” which set off a chain of similar jokes over the years, including in the opening lines of the Cole Porter standard “Anything Goes.”

Few relished deflating the puffery of Pilgrim celebrations as much as Mark Twain. He once facetiously urged attendees at a New England Society dinner to sell their chief asset: “Opulent New England [is] overflowing with rocks,” and “this one isn’t worth at the outside, more than 35 cents.” As Twain knew, this was no ordinary rock, not even merely a brand name, but a priceless relic, providing a more visceral link to the past, what one scholar has called a “zero-hand” account. Relics — including Plymouth Rock —are “things that speak.”

But the Rock could sometimes speak in controversial and unpredictable ways. In the bicentenary celebration at Plymouth in 1820, for example, the orator Daniel Webster linked it (somewhat creatively) not only to religious freedom but also to the anti-slavery cause. (Many Southerners initially resisted the celebration of Thanksgiving itself because it seemed to carry the taint of abolitionism.) One fragment later helped raise money for the Union effort in the Civil War at a Boston Sanitary Fair in 1863.

Disturbingly for some descendants of “First Comers,” the Rock could sometimes be claimed by other latter-day “pilgrims” — from Ireland or Italy, Poland or Puerto Rico. Its message has been pluralism as well as nationalism and chauvinism. And if the Rock powerfully symbolizes the United States as a nation of immigrants, ironically this granite boulder from Africa might better represent those immigrants who came against their will, in chains, in the largest forced migration in history. For non-immigrants — Native Americans — it sometimes served as a potent prop in their struggle for recognition and rights.

Sometimes relics fall mute. In the 1920s, the Plymouth Antiquarian Society (and later the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History) acquired a large piece that had been cut from the doorstep of a house in Plymouth. A fragment of another rock at the Smithsonian — a craggy nugget chipped from the Mother Rock by Lewis Bradford in 1830, inscribed with the precise details of its collection and transformation into a circulating talisman — sat silently for years among a collection that had been donated in 1911. It only regained a “speaking part” in the museum’s displays and publications in the late 20th century.

Plymouth Rock is an emblem defined by its solidity. And yet it’s been anything but solid, in form or meaning. It’s been split, carted about, fragmented, broken and rejoined, reinstalled at the Plymouth waterfront, canopied, repaired. It has endured the changing forces of nature and American political culture. Its precious pieces have spread far and wide, across the Atlantic and to the shores of the Pacific, and they’ve been further disseminated through print and pixels, extending the Mother Rock’s power and reach. It’s clear that Plymouth Rock and its mobile relics still speak to us, in a voice that is both constant and changing.

Matthew Dennis is professor of history and environmental studies at the University of Oregon. He is the author or editor of five books, including Red, White, and Blue Letter Days: An American Calendar, and is currently at work on American Relics and the Politics of Public Memory. He wrote this article for Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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The Long American Tradition of Not Feeling Particularly Thankful for Thanksgiving

Clay model of Pilgrim figure with turkey and axe on a white background
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If you’re someone who feels a sense of angst, foreboding, or misery about this time of year, take heart: American history is on your side

Do you have complicated feelings about Thanksgiving? Maybe your ancestors were among this continent’s indigenous peoples, and you have good reason to be rankled by thoughts of newly arrived English colonists feasting on Wamapanoag-procured venison, roasted wild turkey, and stores of indigenous corn. Or maybe Thanksgiving marks the beginning of a holiday season that brings with it the intricate emotional challenges of memory, home, and family.

If you’re someone who feels a sense of angst, foreboding, or misery about this time of year, take heart: American history is on your side.

The truth of our history is that only a small minority of the early English emigrants to this country would have been celebrating as the New England Puritans did at the first Thanksgiving feast in 1621.

A thousand miles south, in Virginia and the Carolinas, the mood and the menu would have been drastically different — had there ever been a Thanksgiving there. Richard Frethorne, an indentured servant in the Virginia colony during the 1620s, wrote in a letter: “Since I came out of the ship, I never ate anything but peas, and loblollie (that is, water gruel).”

And don’t imagine for a second that those peas Frethorne was gobbling down were of the lovely, tender green garden variety dotted with butter. No, in the 1620s, Frethorne and his friends would have subsisted on a grey field pea resembling a lentil.

“As for deer or venison,” Frethorne wrote , “I never saw any since I came into this land. There is indeed some fowl, but we are not allowed to go and get it, but must work hard both early and late for a mess of water gruel and a mouthful of bread and beef.”

Frethorne’s letter is a rare surviving document reflecting the circumstances of the majority of English colonists who came to North America in the 17th century. The New England Puritans, after all, comprised only 15 to 20 percent of early English colonial migration.

Not only did the majority of English colonial migrants eat worse than the Puritans, but also their prayers (had they said any) would have sounded decidedly less thankful.

“People cry out day and night,” Frethorne wrote, “Oh! That they were in England without their limbs — and would not care to lose any limb to be in England again, yea though they beg from door to door.”

English migrants in Virginia had good reason not to feel grateful. Most came unfree, pushed out of England by big economic forces that privatized shared pastures and farmlands and pushed up the prices of basic necessities. By the 17th century, more than half of the English peasantry was landless. The price of food shot up 600 percent, and firewood by 1,500 percent.

Many peasants who were pushed off their homelands built makeshift settlements in the forests, earning reputations as criminals and thieves. Others moved to the cities, and when the cities proved no kinder, they signed contracts promising seven years of hard labor in exchange for the price of passage to the Americas, and were boarded onto boats.

A trip to Virginia cost Frethorne and others like him six months salary and took about 10 weeks. One quarter to one half of new arrivals to Virginia and the Carolinas died within one year due to diseases like dysentery, typhoid, and malaria. Others succumbed to the strain of hard labor in a new climate and a strange place — an adjustment process the English described as “seasoning.” Only 7% of indentures claimed the land that they had been promised.

Most of these common English migrants did not read or write, so vivid and revealing letters like Frethorne’s are rare. But in the research for my book Why We Left: Songs and Stories from America’s First Immigrants, I learned how English migrants viewed their situation through the songs they sang about the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. Those songs survived hundreds of years by word of mouth before they were written down in the twentieth century.

These were not songs of thankfulness — not by a long shot. They were ballads full of ghastly scenes of the rejection, betrayal, cruelty, murder, and environmental ruin that had driven them out of England — and of the seductive but false promises that drew them to America. These 17th century songs planted the seeds for a new American genre of murder and hard luck ballads that was later picked up and advanced by singers like Johnny Cash, whose ancestors, like mine, were among those early hard luck migrants from England to America.

So if you find yourself a little blue this holiday season, take your marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes with a liberal dose of the Man In Black, and reassure yourself that you are a part of a long, long American tradition.

Joanna Brooks is Associate Dean of Graduate and Research Affairs at San Diego State University and author of Why We Left: Untold Stories and Songs of America’s First Immigrants (Minnesota, 2013). She wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Culture

This is What Intersex Means

A brief introduction to the word

A longer version of LGBT is LGBTQQIA, which stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and allies. The last few letters tend to get far less attention than the first, but a woman who claimed she was dating the Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps at the time of his DUI recently has raised interest in the “I.”

“The truth is I have been living with secrets my whole life,” Taylor Lianne Chandler wrote on Facebook on Nov. 13. “I was born intersex and named David Roy Fitch at birth.”

Intersex is a term that refers to someone whose anatomy or genetics at birth—the X and Y chromosomes that are usually XX for women and XY for men—do not correspond to the typical expectations for either sex. The “I” is distinct from the “T” for transgender people, who are typically born with a biological sex that fits the norm for male or female and then grow up to identify with the opposite gender. Intersex babies are not obviously male or female to begin with, according to society’s general rules about what one’s physical characteristics and chromosomal makeup are supposed to signify.

As University of Oregon professor and intersex expert Elizabeth Reis writes in her book Bodies in Doubt, “In the United States and most other places, humans are men or they are women; they may not be neither or both. Yet not all bodies are clearly male or female.” That may mean a child has typical female chromosomes and ovaries but external bodies parts of a male. Or it could mean the body parts that a doctor typically looks to when declaring a baby to be a girl or boy are incompletely formed, or ambiguous. Sometimes it’s clear in the delivery room, sometimes intersex people don’t become aware of their status until they are teenagers and puberty doesn’t happen as expected.

Performing surgery on an intersex baby is controversial. In South Carolina, the parents of an adopted intersex child are suing a hospital and its employees for surgically assigning “M.C.’s” sex as female at 16-months-old. Now around 10 years old, the child identifies as a boy. “Genital ‘normalizing’ surgery does not create or cement a gender identity; it just takes tissue away that the patient may want later,” writes the Intersex Society of North America in their position statement. Some in the intersex community choose not to have any medically unnecessary surgeries to change how they were born, even after they are old enough to identify their own gender and sexual orientation.

Though it’s hard to say exactly how common being intersex is (since it’s debatable which people belong under that umbrella term), medical experts say that genital anomalies occur in about 1 in 2,000 babies.

It’s worth noting that the word hermaphrodite is considered insensitive and stigmatizing by many who see it as “vague, demeaning, and sensationalistic, conjuring mythic images of monsters and freaks,” as Reis writes. Some parents have also balked at the word intersex, pushed by activists in the 1990s, feeling it suggests their child has a third gender and can not be a girl or a boy. In the medical establishment, the wide variety of conditions that might be referred to as intersex are typically referred to as disorders of sex development. Reis has advocated shifting that to divergence of sex development, to avoid the connotations of disorder, much as gender identity disorder was rebranded gender dysphoria by medical professionals addressing transgender people.

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Mattel Apologizes for Making Barbie Look Incompetent in Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer


The sexist picture book has been slammed online

One of Barbie’s future careers should be in damage control.

Mattel and Random House found themselves at the center of an online firestorm this week when the Internet lampooned a book called Barbie: I Can be a Computer Engineer. A more accurate title would be Barbie: I Can be a Computer Engineer… If the Boys Do All the Work For Me.

Although Amazon lists the book as being published in July 2013, VP of Barbie’s Global Brand Marketing Lori Pantel told TIME that it came was published in 2010 and that “since that time we have reworked our Barbie books.”

On Monday, comedian Pamela Ribbon found the book at a friends house and ripped it to shreds on her blog, inspiring major backlash.

So what did the Twitterverse get in a tizzy about? Although the book’s title would indicate that its fights stereotypes against the tech industry’s gender gap, readers only need only get it to the second page to find out that Barbie is completely incompetent. While she’s capable of conceptualizing a game about a cute robot puppy (gender cliche, but we were ready to go with it — who doesn’t like robot puppies?), Barbie needs boys to actually do the computer programing for her. When Skipper asks if she can see the program, “Barbie says, laughing, ‘I’ll need Steven’s and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!'” Silly Skipper and your high expectations!

The rest of the book involves Barbie crashing her computer (duh), passing a virus to Skipper (a pillow fight ensues… I mean, really), ignoring her female computer teacher’s advice on how to fix the virus (because if we’ve learned one thing, it’s that ladies should not be trusted with such things), and finally letting brogrammers come to her rescue. While Steve and Brian seem like nice enough guys, they don’t even teach Barbie what to do on her hot pink laptop.

“The portrayal of Barbie in this specific story doesn’t reflect the Brand’s vision for what Barbie stands for,” says Pantel. “We believe girls should be empowered to understand that anything is possible and believe they live in a world without limits. We apologize that this book didn’t reflect that belief. All Barbie titles moving forward will be written to inspire girls imaginations and portray an empowered Barbie character.”

In case they were in need of inspiration, people have been tweeting funny rewrites of the text so that it actually empowers women.

Barbie has been derided for a lot of things — her anatomically impossible figure, for example — but her career goals seemed on track if not admirable. She has been to space and business school But success involves more than just dressing the part. If you pair a doll with a hot pink laptop, she better know how to use it.

Maybe we should all just stick to GoldieBlox, a toy that teaches and encourages girls to do engineering themselves.

Read next: Watch Little Kids React to a Realistic-Looking Barbie Alternative

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