The Nihilist on Vacation – Part 1

Dead in 70 years anyway.

So reads the Instagram tagline of someone I know well, like a self-referential epitaph. This person is a teenager every bit as tormented, apparently, as I was at his age. The difference is that today the world can know your torment, which is not confined between the cardboard covers of a journal. The torment is no less acute for its publicity.

I went on vacation with this person.

Somewhere over Nebraska

Somewhere over Nebraska

The idea of vacation is in many ways as absurd to me as the idea of retirement. I am blessed with the good fortune to live in a part of the world that many consider to be a premier vacation destination. Blessed, too, with satisfying work I cannot see wanting to stop because I pass some arbitrary chronological age. So, just as I feel there will be no need to retire, there is no need for me to vacation. What folly, then, drove me onto an airplane with my family?

We planned the trip because I felt, after several years stuck at home in my routines like a hamster exercising on the same sorry wheel day after day, an almost insuperable need for something to change. What better way to satisfy this need than to yank everyone out of their comfortable routines for two weeks? Plus, as the keeper of the family’s emotional life, it falls to me to curate the future, to make a memory we can all carry with us. (I didn’t say it had to be a pleasant memory.)

Manhattan from Brooklyn

Manhattan from Brooklyn

I’ve learned a lot in the years since our last family vacation. Most importantly, that life unfolds primarily within my own head. This is both frightening and terribly empowering. Ergo: the mildly disappointing AirBNB apartment we check into on the Upper East Side of Manhattan will be of the same proportions whether I am ecstatic or bellicose. The same patina of grime will dim the walls; the same four measly, mismatched bath towels reeking of cigarette smoke will be stacked on the bathroom shelves; the foldout couch where Son #2 is designated to sleep by the chronological superiority of his older brother will still tilt him onto the floor and puncture his back with errant springs. These facts are immune to my emotions.

96th Street Station

96th Street Station

I used to look down my nose at those Pollyannas spouting earnest self-help bullshit about making the world what you want it to be and changing your attitude to change your attitude, but I’m starting to think there may be something to it. The evening we check in to our apartment, I make a conscious decision to be cheerful rather than glum.

Times Square

Times Square

Perhaps because of this, I find my emotional ship much more easily righted on this family trip than the last. Last time, Son #1’s intense turbulence just about sank me, leaving me with such a taste of bitter adolescent animosity that I was unwilling to attempt another getaway with the family for close to five years. This time, the travails—oops, travels?—are colored with the chest-souring ache of knowing this will be the last trip of our nuclear familyhood. I know this getaway is a somewhat selfish paean to my own role as a mother, a constructed experience I can cling to as I dodder into my later years. But then, aren’t all vacations?

Best coffee on the east coast

Best coffee on the east coast

Bagels unreproducible in California.

Bagels unreproducible in California.

And yet—

My family members will have their own experiences. They will feel the hot garbagey breath of Manhattan riffling their hair as we catch the train at 96th Street. They will marvel at the sheer volume of humanity streaming past on every street and avenue. They will develop an affection for Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and praise New York bagels, which, no matter how hard anyone tries, cannot be adequately reproduced in California. They will discover the morally complicated joys of Uber. They will notice the wave of emotion that unexpectedly grips their mother as she stands on a hot gray afternoon staring into the Nihilist’s dream of a memorial at One World Trade Center, black rectangles within the footprints of the fallen towers. They will prick up their ears to the sound of the Charles Mingus Orchestra at the Jazz Standard, where we eat an expensive but much-needed meal while bathed in the club’s reddish glow.

A fitting tribute.

A fitting tribute.

Jazz Standard

Empty stage–no photography allowed during the concert.

And yet—

It occurs to me that the role I simultaneously cherish and resent as keeper of the family’s emotions is not unlike my simultaneously adored and reviled role as chief cook and nutrient dispenser. Perhaps, as in the kitchen, if I relinquish even a tiny bit my death grip on all the feelings of the family, my fellow travelers on this intimate journey will be freer to feel and bear their own experiences.

This, then, is the promise I make on the morning we leave New York City for the second half of our putative vacation in the country, in the house my father built and bequeathed to me on his passing and that of my mother: to let go, just a little bit. Already, Son #1 has asked if he can return home early (impossible, for many logistical reasons) and my emotional ship has spent a few minutes quaking in the wind of his unhappiness. (Or is it my perception of his unhappiness? No, he has stated outright that a stay in the country will engender that most horrendous of feelings, boredom.)

With this promise held close­—let them feel their own damn feelings and occasionally cook their own damn pancakes—I go from bed to bed on this final morning in our now-familiar rented apartment, performing yet another task that seems always to fall exclusively to me: rousing everyone from sleep to start the day.

Where we caught the Metro North to leave the City.

Where we caught the Metro North to leave the City.

And now for something completely different

Check out my latest short story, just published by Sand Hill Review, “Put the Sweater on the Dog.” I’d love to hear what you think!

Dog in Sweater

18 thoughts on “The Nihilist on Vacation – Part 1

  1. “With this promise held close­—let them feel their own damn feelings and occasionally cook their own damn pancakes” Great line to live by.
    While they may be older, you still may find there will be gatherings/trips – and that the kids suddenly discover you were so smart..and it was all fun (even if you recall a bit differently)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Being a mother to teenagers has it’s ups and downs. I have to laugh since I think I was the opposite of the keeper of emotions. I ignored their teenagery angst realizing that hormones controlled them, but indulged both kids. They got to decide what to do. I just had a discussion about it with my husband. The last few years before they moved out, we found surfing locations for my son which still had shopping and adventures for my daughter. Worked for us!

    The best part? They grow up!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sometimes a kid doesn’t realize these are the good times. Beautifully told – I felt like you were taking care of me, too. Here’s to me trying some airbnb stops before 2015 comes to a close.

    Like

    • Thanks. I guess I’m an effective caregiver… just trying to get out from that being my defining role :-). Good luck with airbnb. I would try it again, but stay away from anything that says “cozy” in the description. We should have known better!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Congratulations! Takes courage to write first per narrative from the perspective of the opposite gender and of an earlier generation. Sweet story. Glad I saved it for a quiet time to read.

    Like you, part of me digs in heels in resistance to travel, and rediscover time and again the benefits of temporarily up rooting. Enjoyed your thoughts about life in your head, and the emotional lives outside your head. Cheers —

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  5. I can relate to this on many levels. Though we’ve always had great family vacations, over the last couple years my 18-year-old has shown less interest in the travel. As such, when he said he didn’t want to go to London and Paris with us last March (yes, I know, how is that possible?!), we shipped him off to my mother’s, and the hubs, me, and my youngest went. We had a great time and the oldest was a huge help to my mother who was recovering from surgery. So it worked out for everyone, and once I was able to get over the fact we wouldn’t be together as a complete family, I realized it was for the best.

    Speaking of New York, I’m currently sitting at the airport gate with my 15-year-old waiting to board our flight to New York (I have a conference there). Not my favorite city for the reasons you listed, but he’s a lot of fun, and I’m sure we’ll have a great time.

    As always, it’s a treat to read your brilliant writing. “Hot garbagey breath of Manhattan”—loved that.

    Like

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