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Plenty to be thankful for


Life is full of empty thank yous, as when a recorded voice from the cable company says, "Thank you for holding," or an airline cancels a flight and says, "Thank you for your understanding," or when that fascinating account of your gall bladder surgery is met with silence, followed by "Thanks for sharing."

These aren't expressions of gratitude. They're Ty Webb in Caddyshack saying "Thank you very little." They're my children conceding a "Thank you" in exchange for M & Ms -- the way a seal claps in exchange for herring. Hank Williams Jr. wasn't really grateful when he sang "Thanks, thanks a lot, I've got a broken heart, that's all I got." But then "thank you" has a thousand shades of meaning, from grateful to hateful.

Which brings us to Thanksgiving, a wonderful holiday that sometimes resembles the tip jar on a coffee shop counter. Tip jars solicit gratuities even when the customer isn't grateful. If you throw in a couple of bucks, it's not the worker who is filled with gratitude, it's the tip jar, on which has been scrawled a pre-emptive "Thank you!" This is a remarkable act of ventriloquy -- a cup speaking on behalf of a person -- but it's not really an expression of thanks. For the person receiving the gratuity, and the person giving it, gratitude never enters the equation. What you have is an act of mutual indifference.

If you write a weekly sports column, Thanksgiving demands that you commit to print a list of sports-world wonders for which you are grateful. This tradition doesn't require actual gratitude, merely a pantomiming of it. Like the tip jar that beckons even when the coffee is cold, the Thanksgiving column says: Sports may be the backdrop for many sins, but we still love a full-count fastball with the bases loaded.

And I do. I love the sound of a grade-school gym, bass-heavy with bouncing basketballs, just before you open the door. I love the wisp of water vapor that escapes an $8 beer bottle the moment it's cap has been twisted off. It looks like smoke curling from a gun barrel in some ancient Western, or a ghost levitating from a cartoon corpse.

But I'm not really grateful for any of these, because none -- not the full-count fastball, not the school gym with its beating heart of basketballs, not even the ballpark beer -- knows I exist. They're not doing what they do for my benefit. They cannot hear, much less appreciate, my gratitude.

As I sat down to write this Thanksgiving column -- as I prepared to stuff the tip jar with gratuitous gratitude -- it occurred to me that I was adding more empty thank-yous to a world that doesn't need them. And so I amended my list. Am I really grateful to Larry Bird for having stolen the ball from Isiah Thomas in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference finals? It's taken 24 years to realize that I'm actually grateful to my little brother for sitting in our basement, watching the game with me on a 12-inch set, and talking me out from under the ping-pong table when I thought the game had been lost.

Am I grateful to U.S. broadcast outlets for airing live English soccer on Saturday mornings? On reflection, no: I'm grateful that my kids still pile onto the bed every Saturday morning like it's the last lifeboat in a stormy sea, and don't realize for five minutes that we're watching the Premier League instead of cartoons, until the six-year-old says with a sigh: "Do we have to watch Swansea again?"

According to my list, I'm drawn to sport's shiny surfaces -- a varnished basketball court, football helmets under the lights, silver trophies, rain-slick tarps -- but am I grateful for them? More than clean sheet of ice, I'm grateful that my big brother coveted, as a kid in Palatine, Ill., an ice-skating doll called Clancy the Great, whose TV commercial went, "Clancy the Great, look at him skate, fun for a girl or boy!" Clancy hooked my brother on hockey, and he hooked the rest of us on sports, and sports have been a kind of all-purpose putty, binding us together in some way.

I'm grateful for a mother who built a house of books around me and let me read my way out, for a brother who texts trivia questions from Twins games as if I'm in the next seat, not time zone, and for the sister who complains -- quite rightly, I now realize -- that she's never mentioned in my sports stories.

More than NFL Red Zone, or that first glimpse of green when you walk into Wrigley, or 100 other items on a defunct list, I'm grateful to my father for telling me, over 24 years and 10,000 bylines, that he liked whatever I'd written, even when he concedes -- under light interrogation -- that he had only the foggiest idea what it was about, a scene that will replay itself sometime this afternoon.

I'm still grateful for snow days and songs on the radio and backdoor sliders, but I'm not going to praise any inanimate objects of abstract concepts today. Instead of dropping my thank-you notes in a dead-letter box, I'll send them -- just this once -- to real human beings with a capacity to care.