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Just as I have every year on Thanksgiving since 2003, I spent three hours on Thursday seated at the piano in the dining room of the White Mountain Hotel in North Conway, NH.  Directly in my line of forward vision was a couple, I’m guessing in their late sixties, seated in the corner by the window.

I found that I couldn’t take my eyes off of them.

I could see their wedding bands, their well groomed appearance, their hands folded in front of each of them.

What I couldn’t see was love.

They rarely spoke, and only when she would lean forward to say something – then he would simply either nod or shake his head.   I watched them as they stared at their folded hands, their wine glasses, their meals as they ate.

“Why are they here and not with family?” I wondered.  “Why don’t they speak to or even look at each other?”

Maybe I’m reading too much into it.

I’m skeptical.  I’ve been a working musician for a long time – and don’t you know that we’re all professional people watchers?

I’ve seen plenty of retired couples gaze at each other across the table like teenagers in love.  I’ve seen lots of twenty- and thirty-somethings spend more time with their iPhones than with each other.

My gut tells me that this older couple ran out of things to say to each other years ago, and the whole scene just broke my heart.

There’s a song in all this…

Maybe it’s the time of year that brings the sadness out of me.  The closing and turning of the year are always a bit melancholy – both my parents’ birthdays, their wedding anniversary, the holidays, the anniversaries of both their deaths.

And then, there’s Black Friday.

During his first HBO special after completing drug rehab, George Carlin proclaimed that “the new national pastime… is consumption.”  After watching video and reading tweets about Black Friday violence throughout the US this week, his words ring astonishingly true.

Imagine the scene: hundreds of people lined up in the middle of the night – some having camped out for hours – to “spend money they don’t have on things they don’t need,” as George put it.  Barricades in place, many of which are breached by customers who cannot contain themselves in their pursuit of deeply discounted items like tablets, game systems and household appliances.  Police officers on hand to quell any violence.  Men, women, and sometimes young children swept up in the throng, some falling and getting trampled.  Fist fights erupting over things like towels and DVD players.  A sea of strangers pushing and shoving each other to be the first to grab the latest must-have gadget.

All this while their bellies are still full of Thanksgiving feasts – dinners, of course, meant to accompany and to celebrate feelings of gratitude.

Recalling my several year stint working in retail, I can assure you that Christmas shopping, particularly that done on Black Friday, can and does bring the worst out of people, and in large unruly numbers.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that my ex dragged me to Walmart in North Conway on a Black Friday shopping expedition several years ago.  This was the first time I’d ever attended one of these early-bird box-store sales.  To my complete astonishment, at 4 a.m. the parking lot was nearly filled to capacity.  I was in a fluorescent consumerist jungle inhabited by unfriendly, bleary-eyed beasts on the prowl.

Jeans for three bucks.  DVDs for a dollar.  Deep discounts!  Huge savings!

In this small mountain town of less than 10,000 people, the aisles of Walmart were crammed with shoppers clutching coffee cups and the handles of their well-stocked carts.   The cheery Christmas music issuing from the PA system coupled with the frowning faces of both staff and customers actually lent a sinister air to the whole enterprise.

“Why, exactly,” I remember thinking, “are we here again?”

Ah, yes.  Christmas gifts for loved ones.

When is enough enough?

It brings to mind something that happened almost every night at the dinner table when I was young.   Mom or Dad would spoon out whatever it was we were having, accompanying it with the following instruction:

“Say when!”

I loved to watch my favorite foods pile up on my plate, especially mashed potatoes.  Ah, the glorious gravy lake I would soon build…

.. but I almost always took more than I could comfortably eat, and I wasn’t allowed to leave the table until I finished it.  (Seriously, not allowed.  I sat for hours one night staring at a half-eaten bowl of Campbell’s Chicken and Stars until I did finally finish it.)  I always did regret crossing that line into excess.  Still do.

When did shopping and eating and blindly adhering to traditions become more important than genuine human connection and kindness?  Is enduring all that obvious misery really worth it?

If you are bloated and nauseated from eating far more than your digestive tract can handle; if you are standing in a dark, cold parking lot in the middle of the night, muscling your way through a frenzied throng to just buy some stuff; if you are sitting at Thanksgiving dinner with someone with whom you can’t even share a loving glance or barely a single word: you have to know when to say “enough is enough!”  You have to know when to say “when”.