It was probably like this at your Fourth of July family gathering, too. You talk at first of pleasantries. The job? Fine. The cat? Her bald spot is less noticeable. The drive? Lovely, really lovely.
You take a cautious glance around the picnic table because you're painfully aware of the excruciating efforts under way to avoid "it." Because you know what will happen when you discuss "it." Don't touch "it." Don't go near "it."
But the tension is as tight as a hypercoil in a Formula One race car. Someone might say something entirely benign, like, "Boy, gas prices are getting insane again, huh?" And that's all it will take. "Oh, and I suppose it's still all George Bush's fault!" your sister-in-law will say, flashing snake eyes. It's all over but the shouting.
At this point, you must gather the children and keep them safe in a soundproof room in the basement, because with a combination of both shock and awe, the family gathering -- hitherto held together stiffly with the mortar of coleslaw -- erupts into a WWF-style smackdown. Family member against family member. And once the insults start flying, an attempt to change the subject would be senseless, like trying to introduce a group art project involving construction paper and sparkle glue at a biker bar in Truckee.
Soon, women will be crying, men will be shamefaced, the wine will be drained, and the dog and cat -- cowering and confused -- will have formed a historic alliance.
Or maybe it's not fuel prices that are mentioned. Maybe it's a topic less loaded. It could be anything. You could mention the dietary habits of a certain species of South American tree frog, and someone will misconstrue it as a diatribe against global warming. "It's a cute little bugger, too," is all you were saying. "It looks like Marty Feldman in that movie -- what's that movie?"
And you look over at your uncle who, in a silent rage, has bent his salad fork back upon itself. The backyard becomes combustible. Introduce a spark -- maybe just use the word "mission" or "accomplished," or even something that only remotely rhymes with it, like, if you want someone to pass the potato salad and you say you are "wishin' for an accomplice" -- and the whole place will blow. At that point, only a third-party arbiter in the form of a deity lowered on a gold-plated dumbwaiter could bring healing to your family.
Someone gets accused of wanting the terrorists to win. Someone gets accused of supporting a 10-gallon hat for a president. Pretty soon, Mitch McConnell is a cross-dresser, Nancy Pelosi worked with Mother Teresa, millions of dollars in economic stimulus money have gone toward the upkeep of Fidel Castro's beard, and Al Gore is secretly draining the power grid in Tennessee to watch reruns of his Oscar acceptance speech on his Jumbotron plasma TV whose glow can be seen from space.
"How did 9/11 happen? I'll tell you how 9/11 happened," your brother-in-law will say.
Half the people on the patio roll their eyes. "We know, we know," your grandmother moans. "It was Jimmy Carter's fault. And Katie Couric's."
It's your brother-in-law's one speech. You all know it by heart. (His other speech, titled, "Hans Blix Should Be Executed for War Crimes," was mothballed in 2003.)
"I want you to know that your unilateralist attacks on Katie Couric will only cause more Matt Lauers to rise up in anger against you," your youngest brother says.
Pretty soon your oldest brother, his napkin still tucked into his collar, is hastily packing up the twins and shouting from the driveway about who Jesus would vote for. As he peals out on the front lawn, your uncle runs after him waving an empty beer bottle. "Oh yeah?" your uncle is shouting, "Christ was history's greatest radical, buddy! He embraced the disenfranchised! Go tell that to your boys at the country club and they'll nail you to the 18th pin!"
He comes back, plops down on the lawn chair and passes out as your sister calmly enumerates horrifying scenarios of universal health care -- something about how in Canada when you go to have a mole removed, they accidentally amputate your leg.
Eventually, everything turns quiet. Eerily so. Everyone surveys the rubble. Your brother pries his teeth with a toothpick. Then your sister-in-law leans toward you. "Tell me," she says, "aren't you ashamed of yourself?"
All eyes are trained on you. You stand there dumbfounded, holding a plate of ginger cake.
Your sister-in-law leans in farther. "Really," she hisses, "are you proud of yourself for having your 2-year-old professionally photographed wearing a 'Bush is a tush' pin!?"
Then, you hear a knock that comes from the basement bulkhead doors. It's the children. You've forgotten the children! They've painted stars and stripes on each other's faces and they want to know when you're lighting the fireworks.