Reference Couch: It’s All Relatives

The Reference Couch

In Which A Librarian Tries to Solve Your Personal Problems with Literature

Q: Thanksgiving with the fam has made me a Scrooge. How do I celebrate the rest of the holidays with my relatives without getting into an argument about my living situation/employment status/sexual preference/looking at my phone too much/ dietary restrictions/use of language/how often I wash my hair/political opinions/riding a bike instead of driving?

A: Gol-ly, that’s a lot of conversation topics to successfully avoid. Still, you’re not alone. I’d venture to say that the majority of people crammed on their relatives’ couches for the festivities can’t escape without at least one good choke-on-your-pie-because-you’re-biting-your-tongue moment.

Your query makes me think of this great simple poem by Louis Simpson which you can find in Louis Simpson: Collected Poems or the poetry collection Good Poems, edited by Garrison Keillor:


Ed was in love with a cocktail waitress,
but Ed’s family, and his friends,
didn’t approve. So he broke it off.

He married a respectable woman
who played the piano. She played well enough
to have been a professional.

Ed’s wife left him…
Years later, at a family gathering
Ed got drunk and made a fool of himself.

He said, “I should have married Doreen.”
“Well,” they said, “why didn’t you?”

Great poem, right? So, a short answer to your question would be to just keep that little poem in your pocket or your head or your heart and repeat it to yourself when Uncle Biff taps your full dinner plate and sputters, “Minute on the lips, forever on the hips!” Just try and think of Ed instead.

If you’re looking for help for more specific problems, here a few more recommendations:

Problem: Your aunt keeps tsking, “You kids and your phones/gadgets.” You are 33 years old.

circleAnswer:  You might calmly inform Auntie that the current generation actually reads more books (like, book books) than the older. Although you tend not to use the library as much (passive-aggressive sigh…). Here’s an article about it.  Then, you two can read The Circle by Dave Eggers together and have a great discussion about technology and what it means about privacy and human contact and life as we know it. If you’re anything like my book club, the next eight times you see your aunt there will be less tsk-ing and more holding hands and gasping, “It’s just like The Circle!”

Problem: Everyone in your family drives SUVs and pick-up trucks and you get teased when you come in the front door with your bicycle helmet. An unidentified relative has replaced your stocking with a little girl’s bike basket.

goingAnswer: Uh, biking can be totally BA.  To prove this, check out Going Somewhere: A Bicycle Journey Across America, a travel memoir by Brian Benson. Dude went on a cross-country bike ride with a new girlfriend, so the man knows pain and knows how to write about it with skill and humor. Casually drop the knowledge gleaned from this tale into dinner conversation and mention the gnarly windburn you got last week. Then sneak a “Share the Road” bumper sticker on everyone’s cars on the way out.

Problem: Grams is straight-up angry that you don’t eat animal products. You used to love her cheesy SPAM potatoes!

afroveganAnswer: Behind those pursed lips, Grandma just wants to know you’re getting all your vitamins. I myself am mostly vegetarian and nary a phone call from my Mom ends without her wondering if I’m getting enough protein. But there is a great way you can convince Grams that vegans love cozy delicious stick-to-your-ribs grub just as much as SPAMmers; and that is by bringing a side dish from Bryant Terry’s Afro-Vegan cookbook, a vegan take on African cuisine. Bring a side of Terry’s roasted parsnips in barbecue sauce or slow-braised mustard greens. Or win the whole family over for dessert with a cocoa-spice cake with coconut-chocolate ganache. Yum.

Problem: Your cousin made a sexist comment during the lighting of the hannukkiyah you are now determined to spend the rest of the eight nights at the kids table teaching your nieces and nephews alllllll about feminism.

cover_bad_feministAnswer: Wave after wave, baby. We’ve got all the classics as well as some popular new feminist reads (see below). Before long, those whipper-snappers will be quoting Gloria Steinem and Daniel Radcliffe alike (yes, Harry Potter is a feminist!).

Classics: The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions by Gloria Steinem

New classics: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, How to Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran, Feminism Unfinished: A Short Surprising History of American Women’s Movements by Dorothy Sue Cobble

Problem: You promised your mom you would not get into another Baby Boomers VS. Millennials argument like last year. But you don’t know if you can control yourself.

Boomsday-coverAnswer: Perhaps your best option would be to get your generational woes off of your chest before you’re asked to stand at the head of the table and give a holiday toast. Do this by reading Boomsday. Christopher Buckley was debating about Boomers way back in 2007 when we Millennials were too enamored with the invention of the iPhone to notice. All sides are poked fun at in this political satire. I suggest it on audio because it is read by hilarious Gen-Xer, Janeane Garafolo.

Problem: Your sister isn’t coming this year because her partner doesn’t feel welcome.

youAnswer: The library is a great place to check out temporary coffee table books that can spark productive discussions with their mere presence (and even more so if you actually open them). Try You Can Tell Just By Looking: And 20 Other Myths About LGBT Life and People. If you need more time with it, you can renew it in person, by phone, or online.

Problem: Everybody is angry about what everybody has been posting on Facebook all year long.

Answer: This is the easiest fix of them all. Call a family truce and have the whole gang share a link to Fine Print! It’s that blue button with the “f” right down there.

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