Food, Drink, Character Assassination

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Spring is here, and that can only mean one thing: It’s time to prepare for another Family Reunion.

And, while I can’t speak for other families, I know that our gatherings are not for the halt and the timid. You come prepared to feast robustly, drink valiantly, and weather a storm of jovial scorn.

I don’t know why my family excels at insult, but theirs is a wit that revels in verbal jousting and savors the personal put-down. It begins the minute you arrive at the event. Grab a drink, head for the shrimp cocktail, and brace yourself. Everyone’s a target.

Lost some scalp hair but gained more ear hair over the year? You’ll get a query: “Hey… is it migration season again?”

Put on a few pounds? Observation: “I see you got a new chin collar.”

Fashion faux pas? Request: “I’m sorry, Uncle, could you repeat what you said…your shirt’s a little loud.”

That’s the mild stuff over the hors d’oeuvres. The high humor comes at dinner and draws on insightful analyses of how present conditions link to lifelong shortcomings.

Don’t ask.

Ours is a large brood, mostly boys, so that may account for a lot of the verbal jock snapping. But some of the wives join in like pros and often come away with the best lines of the evening. We must appeal to the ironic streak in potential mates. Could this be evolutionary?

The odd thing is that the snark-fest has continued unabated from childhood into middle age and beyond. All come steeled for criticism knowing that it earns them the coveted pleasure of dishing it all out right back. And when one scores a solid hit over another, the quarry quickly offers congratulations and respect, much like the honor code among WWI flying aces.

This never goes outside the family, and I assure you, dear reader, that, should you join any of us for dinner, you would be treated with every kindness and warm welcome. Apart, we’re nothing but polite and compassionate citizens.

But together, we make merry by sharpening our barbs on each other’s imperfections and, in the process, provide lots of laughter. It’s a dynamic that exists only through a clan synergy that took root a long time ago.

Already a new generation has picked up the torch. Some of my young adult nephews and nieces have a droll bite that I would have envied at their ages.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder if the “humor” keeps things on a safe, neutral footing. If we venture off into talk about arts, current events, personal problems, or politics the mood can turn dull or, worse, explosive.

The last category, especially, is a declaration of war. We’ve got left, right, center, and moon-howling fringes among the family ranks, and everyone takes his and her politics seriously. So, rather than open up a hostile front, it’s better to stay within the confines of congenial calumny.

There is, of course, real shared enjoyment in happy events. Travels, new jobs, marriages, births—no one could ask for better or more sincere family good wishes than we shower on each other.

But we like to rag on each other, too, and seem renewed by it. Perhaps it’s a safety valve that keeps us from acting out badly in the real world.

Tolstoy famously observed that all happy families are alike, while every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

But what about a family that makes itself happy by being offensive? Maybe it would have saved Anna Karenina.

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