A few years ago, I came across a column by Henry Rollins, entitled Be Thankful Every Day, Not Just on Thanksgiving. I’m a big Henry Rollins fan, although I’ve noticed true punk rockers seem to bemoan his celebrity status since he left Black Flag in the mid 80’s. I’ve read his books, his columns, watched his videos, heard him speak live (at The Crest, of course), and what I like most about him is that I find him to be a truly authentic individual. I don’t ever want to be anyone but me, warts and all, but there are a handful of people who possess qualities that I loosely aim for. Henry Rollins is one of them.
Rollins is a much darker cat than I am, and our lives are vastly dissimilar, but I admire him just the same. His Thanksgiving column strikes at the heart of me, although where he doesn’t seem to care for the holidays (When people ask him what he’s doing for Thanksgiving, he replies “Putting something frozen in the microwave and cursing the darkness”) I enjoy them just fine. They are a time to be with family. Not long-lost relatives from across the country – I don’t have any of those – but local folks we see several times a year anyway, plus of course my own children. Rollins – to my knowledge – has never been married and has no children, so the holidays can take on a different edge for someone like him. Just the same, his admonition to be thankful every day, not just on Thanksgiving, hits home.
This past Thanksgiving marked my forty-eighth, and Amy’s forty-sixth. In all those years neither of us had hosted Thanksgiving. We didn’t meet until we were in our twenties, but our stories are similar, like many of yours: Thanksgiving starts out when you’re a kid and you just go where your parents take you. Typically grandparents or other relatives. Eventually your parents take over, or there’s a back and forth with hosts some years. Amy and I married in 1998, and since that time we have always gone to some family member’s for Thanksgiving. First to Amy’s grandma and grandpa’s, then to her mom’s, and once in a blue moon to my side of the family’s.
But this year, for the first time in our combined ninety-four years, we decided to host our very own Thanksgiving for ourselves, our three kids, and Vincent’s girlfriend Anya. Amy is the cook in the family, but neither of us had ever cooked a turkey, so we thought why start on a day where there’s so much pressure? So we outsourced to Sellands for a very reasonable price. Amy still had a good amount of cooking and prep to do, and the whole thing ended up beyond delicious. Vincent, who moved with us into this house when he was three years old, is now twenty-two and driving over in his own car, with his girlfriend, from his own place, bringing a dish of sweet potatoes that he cooked. Just a few feet from where we used to tuck him into bed as a toddler and read him Goodnight Moon, he’s a man grown, coming over to his folks’ for Thanksgiving. Henry was up from college at Santa Barbara, and Josie – the last one living at home, for now – was her usual fabulous self. I stumbled through a few words, we ate, drank, and eventually went over to Amy’s mom and stepdad’s house where we got to see lots of other family, some of whom we see a lot, others we rarely see. It was the best of both worlds.
The title of Henry Rollins’s column struck me, because it’s how I’ve tried to live my life. I’ve attempted to be base-level thankful every day since I was a teenager. If you have a roof over your head, food on the table, and your kids are healthy, there’s really no good reason not to live in an underlying state of gratitude. So my thankfulness doesn’t really spike on the fourth Thursday of every November, because in some form or another it’s always there.
But Rollins’s Thanksgiving in 1980 fascinated me. In 1980, I was an eleven year old kid, and we probably had Thanksgiving at my Grandpa Mel’s house in Irvine, making the sixty mile trip from North Hollywood. Mel was my stepgrandfather, and his wife Harriet was my stepfather’s stepmother. A complex family, but family all the same. Rollins would have been nineteen in 1980, and working at Haagen-Daaz ice cream in the Washington D.C. area. In his column he says this about that Thanksgiving:
The best Thanksgiving I ever had was in 1980. I told my boss at the ice cream store I worked at that I wanted to open the store for a few hours on that day, just in case anyone wanted vanilla ice cream for their desserts. This was my big idea; I thought it was a winner. If we were not moving much product, I would clean in hard-to-get-to places, polish the copper piping and prep the freezers for the weekend.
He attempted to convince me to take the day off, but I just wouldn’t do it. So he gave me the green light. I don’t think it was a matter of him being so impressed at my will to work as much as him not finding it worthwhile to argue further.
I am happy to report that we actually had a pretty good day, sales-wise. But the best part was when the restaurant across the street brought me over a plate of food on orders from my boss. I ate it alone, standing up.
These three paragraphs hit me. I read them over and over, and eventually printed them out and pinned them above my desk at home. I have a lot of feelings about Rollins’s 1980 Thanksgiving, and it speaks to a lot of things: What I admire about Rollins, how different from him I was at nineteen, and how good the world could be if we all had the right attitude, like the players in Rollins’ tale. Let’s start at the beginning:
The best Thanksgiving I ever had…
This story, from a man in his mid-fifties, describes the BEST Thanksgiving he ever had. Not the worst one, which it well could have been (“Man, when I was nineteen I had to work in this stupid ice cream shop on Thanksgiving.”) Not an average Thanksgiving, or even a good one. But the very BEST one. The sad little tale that follows was the highlight of Rollins’ fifty-something Thanksgivings on earth.
…was in 1980. I told my boss at the ice cream store I worked at that I wanted to open the store for a few hours on that day, just in case anyone wanted vanilla ice cream for their desserts. This was my big idea; I thought it was a winner.
So he’s working a shit-job at an ice cream shop (there’s much more about these formative times in his excellent memoir Get in the Van: On the Road With Black Flag) but he WANTS to work on Thanksgiving. It’s not even so much that he wants to work, he seems to have a sincere desire to serve people vanilla ice cream for their Thanksgiving desserts. (We all know Thanksgiving is not a time for weird ice cream flavors, so he stresses vanilla.) He wanted to help people, after a fashion. Rollins had complicated relationships with his divorced parents, and no siblings. It makes sense that on Thanksgiving, he’d rather be serving others than doing some family bullshit that he didn’t want to do.
It’s also an early example of Rollins’ out-of-the-box ideas. We’ll open the ice cream shop on Thanksgiving. I’ll join Black Flag. I’ll leave Black Flag. I’ll start a new band. I’ll write books. I’ll give spoken word concerts. I’ll start acting in movies and on TV. I’ll travel the world with just a camera and a backpack. I’ll start a podcast. Rollins always has big ideas; he’s always doing something interesting. I admire this youthful big idea of his, and especially the fact that he calls it his “big idea.” He also has the confidence in his big idea to think it was a winner. When I was nineteen and forced to work on Thanksgiving and other holidays (I worked at a hospital that was by definition always open) I was pissed off and decidedly ungrateful. Although I always wound up making the best of it, I was devoid of big ideas.
If we were not moving much product, I would clean in hard-to-get-to places, polish the copper piping and prep the freezers for the weekend.
Here Rollins demonstrates his industriousness. In his book, he describes earlier youthful jobs where he did nothing but mess around (such as with Ian MacKaye at a pet store). But by nineteen, his industrious won’t allow him to clown around on Thanksgiving. If he’s not busy, he’ll not only clean, but he’ll scour the hard-to-reach places. Forty years later, he’s travelling the globe, still looking for hard-to-reach places. Hey kids, the values you learn at nineteen can last a lifetime.
He attempted to convince me to take the day off, but I just wouldn’t do it.
Rollins’s boss is clearly a good guy. “C’mon, Henry, take the day off and be with your family!” But Henry won’t do it. Not can’t do it, not doesn’t want to do it. Won’t take the day off. We all know stubborn assholes like this, who just plain won’t do something. Rollins freely admits he’s like this, but he’s turned his asshole powers to good, at least in this case.
So he gave me the green light. I don’t think it was a matter of him being so impressed at my will to work as much as him not finding it worthwhile to argue further.
In other words, the boss should have been impressed with Rollins’s will to work; anyone would be, Rollins assures us. He has a lot of showboat in him, but he tends to back it up. What follows is an early example of this. But mainly the boss understands that Rollins is a huge pain in the ass, and is not likely to let go of something he wants to do. But, who gets the last laugh? Why, Rollins of course.
I am happy to report…
Rollins is the most disciplined, militaristic entertainer I know. “I’m happy to report, Sergeant, that the southern riverbank has been cleared of enemy combatants.” We are waiting with bated breath for young Rollins, the ice cream boy’s, report.
…that we actually had a pretty good day, sales-wise.
Well, look at that! It all worked out. There’s no other way this tale could end, although we’re not at the epilogue yet. Rollins backs up his showmanship and bravado. He would tell you he’s the most insecure, under-confident, anxious, stress-filled person on the planet, and he would be right. When I saw him speak at The Crest last year he came out on stage with no introduction. The lights hadn’t even dimmed yet. He wore his trademark black t-shirt (I think he wears gray at home and black on the road), snug against his muscular torso, snatched the microphone from its stand, and proceeded to talk for two straight hours. Never looking away, never sitting down, never pausing, never having a drink of water. The man is intense. Toward the end of the show he told us he does it this way because he’s terrified that if he stops for a moment, turns his back to the audience for a single second, we’ll all go away. And you can tell he means it. There is no part of him that really believes he’s hot shit, but he understands that we want him to be the superhero Henry Rollins, so that’s the part he’s going to play for us, while being honest and authentic at the same time. It’s quite an impressive thing to witness.
So of course the ice cream shop had a good day sales-wise. This was a Henry Rollins idea, and his ideas seem to go pretty well. Although he is free with missteps and self-criticism in his writing and speaking, one can’t help but notice his major moves have also gone pretty well. He joined Black Flag as practically a teenager, that went well. He left Black Flag, that went better. He formed another band, ramped up his spoken word game, acted in Hollywood, wrote books and traveled and took pictures and he seems to be doing pretty darned OK. Without too much braggadocio, he acknowledges that staying true to himself and his beliefs have led him on a pretty decent course in life, and it’s not a bad lesson for the rest of us.
But here’s the epilogue. This is the real kicker that makes the whole piece worthwhile. Without it, it’s a meaningless story from childhood, like bragging that you volunteered to wipe down the chalkboards after school one day, and you did a good job and the teacher gave you a gold star. The story may be true, but it’s boring. But for Rollins, that Thanksgiving at the ice cream shop ended like this:
But the best part was when the restaurant across the street brought me over a plate of food on orders from my boss. I ate it alone, standing up.
Again, the BEST part of the entire day, this day where a nineteen-year-old worked a Washington D.C. Haagen-Daaz by himself, was when the restaurant across the street sent him a plate of food (on orders from his unimpressed boss, by the way) which Rollins ate standing up.
I understand. I’ve found myself extremely happy in weird situations, as I’m sure many of us have. Alone at the baseball field raking the dirt and putting the equipment back in the shed. The kids I coached long done with their snowcones and gone home. Whether we won or lost, it was a good day. These days I run events as an extracurricular activity for communications technology professionals, and often I’m the last one in the room, packing up my rental car with the signage, leftover candy, and other accoutrements, happy and satisfied, suspecting I did a good job. Someone got something out of what I did today (like Rollins’s customers and boss), and here I am alone to reflect on it. If someone sent me a plate of food during one of these moments, damn, I would have thought that was the best part too.
Ultimately we’re on this planet to please ourselves, but I don’t mean that in a selfish way. It’s my face I have to look at in the mirror every morning. It’s my head that hits the pillow every night. It’s my brain jabbering at me as I stumble through both the beautiful and the prosaic parts of my life. What kind of person do I want to be? There are some obvious answers, like I want to be a good husband, and a good father and provider. I want my friends, family, and also those I work for to have a good opinion of me. But it all comes back to “What kind of person am I?” That’s where it starts. We shouldn’t act good to be regarded as good in order to feel good. That’s a losing game. We should just try to be the person we are, to own that, and hopefully that person is a good person. When the foundation is strong, everything else seems to mostly fall into place. If you try to come at this backward, as many do, it backfires.
That’s what Rollins’s Thanksgiving story says to me, and it’s why I have it tacked on the wall next to my coaching photos and other personal mementos. The story says This is the kind of person I am. It’s weird, it’s sometimes lonely, it’s unconventional, but it works. I get ideas. I try them. Although I’m not much similar to Henry Rollins, like him I’m not only OK with who I am, I can’t be any other way. It’s not worthwhile to argue further.