Does anyone live at 51 Birch Street?

Imagine finding out that your parents, having been married 54 years, were unhappy in almost all of them—and that you had no inkling because they hid it so well.

That’s what happened to Long Island documentarian Doug Block (112 Weddings, The Kids Grow Up) after his mother, Mina, died suddenly in 2002. Equally as sudden was his father’s remarriage three months later to Kitty, who his father had known for 40 years. Seeing the taciturn, 83-year-old Mike Block come alive and lavish affection on Kitty made Doug scratch his head. He sensed a backstory there, so he saw where his camera took him. The result is 51 Birch Street, titled after Doug’s childhood address, a quiet, nuanced, dismal, and riveting documentary about two incompatible people bound by social strictures and a house.

Doug Block delves deep, uncovering his mother’s diaries. Entry by entry, he discovers a Mina he never knew: a vibrant, opinionated woman done with her marriage but resigned to putting on a facade. She had fallen in love with other men and had at least one affair. In one entry, she insightfully writes that husband Mike should have married a woman like Kitty. Compared to the contentment she projects to friends and family, the inner longings in her journals are jarring.

BlockMikeMina
Mina was likely involved with “Ben” when this photo was taken.

Mike Block is cagier about his relationship with his late wife, becoming evasive when Doug asks him if there had been other women. But when Doug finally captures his father’s honesty, it’s breathtakingly raw. The last segment of the documentary shows Mike puttering in the martial abode. “Earlier in life, I would have died for (Mina),” he says. “Later in life, it meant nothing.” Well, damn.

Most of us are on Facebook and/or other social networking sites. We have married friends, and we assume they’re happy given the information they share. We’ve seen their smiling photographs—vacations, anniversaries, holidays—and then one day their status changes. Divorced. It’s come as a bit of a surprise at times, but we rapidly adapt and wish our friends well.

Mina and Mike Block’s terminal impasse status is impossible for us to wrap our thoroughly modern minds around. These were not people hailing from states of ignorance and megachurches; they were intelligent, well read.

The Block family was, however, a by-product of the dysfunctional 1950s, which possibly explains why Doug and his siblings were confounded by their father’s happiness. The Don and Betty Draper saga is improbable fiction; couples of that generation didn’t readily divorce, not even after the kids grew up. Like living in co-ed apartments and wearing white after Labor Day, it “just wasn’t done”.

The notion that it’s noble to be resigned to who you’re stuck with is odd in 2016. We are fortunate. We no longer abide marriages based on obligation, principle, or a variation of the sunk cost fallacy unless we consciously choose to do so. This intolerance isn’t as much of an expression of Rand-ian individualism as it is the imperative to be honest, transparent, and fair. The 1950s were none of these things.

Mike Block has since passed away, too. He spent seven years in sunny Florida with his Kitty, so he got a smidgen of a happy ending. After watching 51 Birch Street, I felt like I knew Mina and Mike Block. I liked them both equally.  It’s hard not to wonder what could have been for them had they been born a decade later.

It’s also hard not to wonder if other couples their age still live at 51 Birch Street—and if perhaps some of them are people we know.

I’m done with gender wars

I recently followed a topic on a Facebook thread. The original poster, a woman, had complained about the unsolicited photos of men’s genitalia that she received on online dating sites (duh!), and predictably, the entire discussion incited a gender war. A few men jumped into the fray to remind the female combatants that there were men who actually did behave appropriately, and some women were all over that #NotAllMen defense like white on rice, and it was just so ugly, people.

I’m so tired of these pointless, ridiculous, counterproductive gender wars. Just plumb tuckered. I don’t care if it makes me a lousy feminist. I’m burning my draft card. Really.

Look, I understand that women have had some crap experiences with yabbos who view them as mindless, emotionless orifices. Just like I am also certain that men have their own issues with women, those involving money, being expected to “provide”. It’s hard not to stereotype when the grains of truth are enough to fill a silo. Male privilege and female privilege do exist; they are simply and typically executed in different but equally nefarious, usurious, and deceitful ways, and I am sorry that happens. Really.

BattleofSexes

Look, I like men. I like women. I like people. I think that we’re mostly good; we have indeed summoned up our deep altruism. If this weren’t true, being thought of as human receptacles or ATMs with a pulse would no longer disturb us. We know we are collectively better than that, and thus, we are offended by all things offensive. Good!

This means the default expectation remains common decency. Sadly, there are men and women—falling under the umbrella of “sentient beings”—with renegade rules of engagement. Reach a certain age, and somebody will have tried to break you down, convince you that objectification is the new black, or couch their behavior as “this is just what we do on this planet”.

Solid people get broken all of the time. Mostly, they get broken by other broken people. Broken people are like a contagion, infecting others who in turn infect others, until everyone is raging in fever trying to prove who has it worse, men or women, women or men. The correct answer is that we both have it worse—sometimes.

I’ve either been fortunate or wise enough to pick partners who engaged me as a peer. But there have been a few memorable misogynists who left me quite breathless. That’s not your fault, other guys. You bear none of the blame because some of your brethren drag knuckles. Sort of like it’s not my fault if some of my sisters are sucking thumbs.

I will also tell you this: I believe that this had far, far less to do with them trying to exert “male privilege” (or whatever …) than it did them being really rotten, bratty, entitled people who happened to be born male. Mommy and daddy didn’t love each other, they got a prize just for showing up, there’s always an etiology. Drop them into a woman’s body and they would be just as wretched to the opposite sex, using different M.O.s.

Also, there’s nothing inherently wrong with privilege. Privilege is only wrong when used to further one’s own self-interests.

Divisiveness has engulfed our nation, pitting the 99 percent against the one, white against blacks, and native-borns against immigrants. We don’t really have to take it to the man vs. woman level, do we?

We people don’t always talk about the things that have hurt us and how they have hurt us, but perhaps now we should. To make peace. To secure common decency as a default. If there are just desserts, the people who aren’t engaged in the dialogue—who don’t care to be engaged—will wander away from civilized discourse, pair up, and be miserable in some throw-back Boschian purgatory where everyone’s either yelling or bartering sex for stuff.

Good!

So quite obviously, I do not hate men; I rather like most of them. One of you snagged me a pristine White Mountain ice cream maker for $20 at Goodwill—rock! Another of you dragged me to Cuba to share a wonderful experience. No expectations, and no weirdness. People are good.

Wars start when battles are picked. Let the gender war not be ours.

It’s beginning to feel a lot like you know what.

“I can’t wait for the holidays to be over.”

I’ve started to hear people mutter that—neighbors, friends, the folks next to me in the check out line. When I was a kid, I used to think that this was just something big people said. Now that I’m big people, I know that a lot of them mean it. They cannot wait to shut this party down. Of course, this will suck the joy out of the season, too:

Santa-Spend

Did anyone notice that stores trotted out Christmas decor right after Halloween this year? Yeah, sure. I feel real festive when it’s still 90 degrees in the shade. My holiday shopping is done with the “add to cart” button.

But I digress, as usual. As a highly introverted adult, most of my holidays have ranged from tedious to “I need shock therapy”. This used to be the time of year I asked my doctor to prescribe Xanax, because holidays with my ex’s Duggar-sized family held all the appeal of commune living: 25 people stuffed into a farmhouse out in the sticks. Everyone under 60 slept on a palette on the floor. From morning till lights out, neighbors came and went, upping the count to god knows. Everyone drank a lot of beer. Free bathroom? Good luck with that.

Like a hoe-down version of Burning Man, this protracted kegger “family togetherness” lasted four days, which was three-and-a-half too many.

How introverts perceive big family gatherings
How introverts perceive big family gatherings

At the end of this nerve-obliterating sojourn, I spent the long drive back to Austin dreading the next day, when I went back to work. Work meant more people. Talking people. My ex thought I was being a brat. That’s why he’s an ex. And why, if I marry again, it’ll be to the only child of parents that were also only children.

Just kidding. (I think.)

Movie titles like “Surviving the Holidays” say it all. This time of year put a lot of pressure on us not just to be happy, but to be happier. Life doesn’t work out that way. There’s a lot of depression, suicide, this time of year. A lot of incessant sound and furious consumerism. Of course I can’t wait for the holidays to be over, because I love sanity.

Then I’ll take out a gem of a memory to remind me: this can be a magical time. I remember me and my bestie, Tonya, driving back to Austin together after the requisite family gig. We convened at her digs with another gal pal, whipped up frozen margaritas, and talked till the wee hours.

There was the Christmas Eve I drove ‘round the city handing out sack lunches to the homeless. The impromptu “Christmas With Friends” brunches at the Driskill, and one pristine day of sun and cloudless skies, when some of my writerly pals and I went out for Chinese and a movie. The morning I woke up next to my significant other to the sound of the cat getting into the tree. All is calm, all is bright.

Those moments were pure magic.

How do you find magic in the holidays? Is it by design? I submit for your consideration, that magic cannot be scheduled or planned. You can’t make it, bake it, buy it, or charge it. Magic is not obligated to be where you go. In fact, the further you go to find it, the less likely it’ll be there.

The magic is in those rare, unpredictable moments when you lower your guard, along with those impossible expectations, and let it find you.

Happy holly-daze, friends. Survive them.

 

 

Anger Games

I wish I were one of those people who feels comfortable with their own anger. Seriously, if you can do this? Kudos. I am not one of you.

Of all emotions, anger is the least civilized, to my mind. It would be described as “feral” and “animalic” if it were a perfume note. Once you see someone in a rage, the mental video your mind captures of that person—red-faced, swearing, often incoherent—is a stain on the memory. Cold anger is equally memorable, and just as devastating. You can’t scrub anger out of your head.

Psychologist Steven Stosny states that anger stems from being devalued or rejected, or when someone renders you unimportant, powerless, unloved, or anything umbrellaed under “made to feel shitty”. Now that I’ve just made myself sound like a total pedant, don’t you just love how Psychology Today articles contain so much “nonobvious” information?

I think most of us have one or two emotions that make us pull a quick U-turn when we see them headed our direction. Anger is my bête noire. My family of origin was as amicable as the Amish, and yet anger’s address was printed on my driver’s license for eight years, my life’s soundtrack with its variations on a theme. On good days, there was manageable tension; on bad ones, open hostility. Then there were the Hiroshimas, when his anger went off like the A-bomb, leaving a dead, toxic landscape in its wake.

Some of his anger was justifiable, some was petty. A lot of it was borne from the malfunctional us. I eventually stopped classifying it. When you’re around a habitually pissed off person, you get pissed off, too—pissed off because you have to deal with this shit.

Anger is cannibalistic and competitive; it hungers for and poaches itself. It leaves behind poison meat. The worst thing about living in sustained anger was always having to watch my back. It made me feel physically ill, feverish and hypervigilant, as though a mixture of methamphetamine and sulphuric acid were coursing through my blood. It was difficult to sleep, to concentrate.

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I look back on that time, and I don’t recognize the trainwreck person I became.

That experience made me cautious about how I feel and express anger, which errs on the side of being overly judicious.

How does one manage an unwieldy feeling like anger, anyway? Psychologists say that you should immediately tell the person who made you feel shitty, “Hey, you made me feel shitty. Uncool!” Or something like that—I guess. That can lead to rapid escalation, though, when those ties are knotted by hostility.

Sometimes you must remove yourself from the situation that fosters anger, realizing that it will never change. After I changed the address on my license, friends asked me how I felt, and I told them, “I’m not angry anymore.”

I’ve yet to find a solution for addressing anger, and if you have one, I hope you’ll share. Some anger is unavoidable. But too much of it turns a person ugly, no matter how brilliant, enigmatic, or attractive they are on the outside.

Technology: sucking the mystery right out of life

When I was a child, riding around in the backseat of the car as my parents drove, I used to look at passing houses. I wondered what the backyards of those houses looked like. Did they have pretty flower gardens? Swimming pools? Swing-sets? I imagined families gathered around the grill. Teenaged girls sunbathing. I relished the mystery of not knowing what went on behind those houses.

Not knowing gave me chills of delight.

Apparently, now we can all know what’s everywhere and what exactly it looks like. To further suck that mystery right out of life, technology brings us this … thing:

"Hi! I'm here to make it everyone's business!"
“Hi! I’m here to make it everyone’s business!”

It’s a drone. With a video camera on it. Some of these things also record sound. People just like you and me can buy these online with a credit card. WTF—?

You know, until recently, I didn’t know that private individuals could purchase drones. Yeah, I’m seriously that out of the loop. I thought that drones were used by the military, FBI, local law enforcement, and, wishfully thinking, Amazon.com. Cabela’s sells drones. They’re on the spendy side—$3,500, excluding tax and shipping.

I don’t like the idea of private individuals owning their own drones. It creeps me out more than Google Streets.

Didn’t get tickets to the SXSW or ACL show you wanted to see? Easy-peasy! Dispatch your drone, you lazy person, and see your favorite musical acts—you can say that you were (practically) there. I hope your drone crashes into another drone and tumbles gently from the sky.

Will that package you ordered come on Monday or later in the week? When will the UPS truck roll up the driveway? Heck, no more mystery to that. In 30 minutes or less, this m.f. thing will arrive, hover, drop, and hopefully not take out a human eye:

Civilian drones have a great potential for privacy abuse. From what I have been told, legally, one cannot dispatch them into the backyard of one’s ex or secret crush to “spy”. Yeah, right. Like that’s never gonna happen.

Tell you what: if I ever walk outside and see a drone right above me, innocently whistling like it has any business being there, I’m grabbing my Hoyt bow and taking that sucker down, even if I have to burn a $25 arrow to do it.

Bill me.

We already see enough of other people’s lives—their friends, yards, cars, the events they go to. That’s what social media is for. Do we really need a full aerial view?

I want to continue imagining what goes on behind those houses—and in parks, on streets, in football stadiums—without ever really knowing. Mystery is a wonderful thing.

Mystery is the stuff of life.

Please read the letter

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss released a duet called “Please Read The Letter” in 2007. Haunting, poignant stuff, the lyrics to this song—and so open to interpretation:

Please read my letter
and promise you’ll keep
the secrets and the memories and
cherish in the deep…

My imagination creates a scenario of a man and woman that cannot be together; their love is sacrosanct, a secret that only the two of them share. Maybe one is married? It makes you wonder. What was in that letter? It had to have been important.

Anyway, I digress.

Everyone seems short on time these days. People communicate through email, texts, emoticons, and photographic attachments. I’m not sure “communicate” is the apt word. A couple of hazards about instantaneous communication facilitated by computers and cell phones is that it’s too easy to dash something off in the heat of the moment or send an unthinking reply just to get someone off your back.

Letters, on the other hand, connote thoughtful intent.

I miss paper. I miss writing letters, and I miss getting them. When someone writes you a letter, they’ve devoted a small but significant portion of their time to express their inner thoughts and feelings. They’ve sat down at their desk, having selected stationery and stamp; they know where you live—imagine that, in this day and age. There’s a small hesitation before words go down on paper; a mindfulness absent in electronic communication. That hesitation—that forethought—is what gives letters their honesty.

There are many types of letters, when you think about it. There are “This is how much I love you”, “I’m so very sorry for having wronged you”, and “Thank you, oh awesome one!” letters. The “I’m really pissed off at you”, “I have a confession to make …” and “Farewell forever, my darling” letters are interesting breeds—those are missives you wish you didn’t have to send. That you sometimes regret sending.

You can’t know how much you’ll miss getting letters from someone until you no longer do. My Aunt Dorothy used to send me a card and letter each birthday, even after her health began to fail. Clockwork. After a while, I started taking this gesture of kindness for granted. Last week, I opened my mailbox expecting to find an envelope with her spidery handwriting on the front. It wasn’t there. Then I remembered that she was lost to me on this earthly plane, and my heart hurt.

I would have traded my last day for just one more birthday letter …

The art of letter writing isn’t dead, nor is letter appreciation. I have a 91-year-old friend who lives in the same neighborhood. We email and chat on the phone, but we also send each other cards with short letters tucked inside. She loves getting those from me. Her generation places high value on written correspondence. It’s always great fun to wander around Book People in search of the perfect card for her.

Emails can be archived, deleted and misrouted to “spam”; texts can easily go missing. There’s something magical about finding something hand-addressed to you in the mailbox and holding that piece of paper in your hand. It’s like cracking open a novel by one of your favorite novelists, only in the case of the letter, the novelist has written solely to you. Every word is precious.

MelissaNotecards

There are letters I’ll keep for a lifetime. I used to tuck one particular letter under my pillow at night; it migrated to my bookshelf, where I displayed it with my photographs and keepsakes for a while. I’ve picked it up and re-read it so many times, I know it by heart.

Is there someone in your life you’d like to acknowledge? Someone whose friendship with you is drifting? Something you’ve always wanted to say? Use your words; lend them permanence. Please write the letter.

(I’ve got plenty of stamps, if you need one.)

It’s a great time to not be married

Is anyone else tired of hearing about the Ashley Madison kerfuffle? Like, bored? So bored it took them ten minutes to hammer out a blog about it intuitively, with little forethought?

It intrigued me for a couple of days because the savvy of the hackers and the sheer volume and sensitivity of the breach was unlike anything I had ever seen make headlines. It made me wish I worked PR for the government official that cried in front of the cameras. On my watch, he would have looked the press right in the eye and said, “Yeah, I was on Ashley Madison. You can all shove off now.” Full stop.

Instead, there are millions of men out there, begging Internet Security professional Troy Hunt to make their names disappear.

They literally want to get kicked off the Internet!

Everyone has an opinion, and these opinions tend to fall in one of two camps: 1) The cheaters were scum and deserved it. Hail the Impact Group! — or — 2) Damned puritanical hackers had no business exposing what goes on in anyone’s private life!

Then there are the outlying opinions, like mine, which are 3) This is black comedy at its finest, an unscripted reality show unfolding in real time; and 4) Not my monkeys, not my circus.

I should be biased. I’ve had the hurtin’ kind. Being cheated on sucked, but no one died. Obviously, there were either big problems in my relationship/marriage that could never be rectified or I chose the kind of person so imbued with entitlement that he … could never be rectified. There’s this remedy called “See ya”, and it’s perfectly legal in all 50 states.

I have no strong opinions. So what are my underlying feelings about this whole debacle and the people who made “The List”?

Damn, I’m happy. I’m happy I’m not married right now, in August 2015. Oh Em Gee, this is the best time ever. I’m extra-glad I’m not married to someone who’s having an affair or even toying with the notion. And I’m super-duper-really-splendiferously happy I’m not married to one of the privacy challenged putzs that got Uber-doxxed on Pastebin.

I really hate to pack.

I’m relieved I’m not one of the cheaters or betrayed still skulking around on Tor—if they even know how to use it without infecting their computers with malware* and crashing the whole she-bang**—scouring lines of names, email addresses and physical addresses. Tip to skulkers: if your spouse is of average intelligence or above, he/she probably joined a singles’ dating site and put up a picture of a headless torso, like normal unhappily married people do. Finding hidden profiles on these things is child’s play. Ask me, if you like. I have more time than Troy.

Otherwise, the Ashley Madison debacle is so blissfully out of the orbit of my concern, it’s like I’m seeing it unfold on earth from the International Space Station.

I think I’ll have another freeze-dried ice cream. They really don’t taste that bad.

There are actually people in this world who feel sorry for those of us who aren’t hitched. To them, I say: oh, please don’t. Really, there’s no need. That’s sort of like telling us, “It’s a pity cancer doesn’t run in your family.” Apply that pity where it’s needed, to lonely elders, abandoned kittens, and technologically challenged, suspicious spouses that try to access the “dark web” by turning off all the houselights

If we single people have learned one thing from this, it’s that there are far worse things that not being married. There’s being married to someone with an account on Ashley Madison.

Because everything else is an understatement.
Because everything else is an understatement.

*Some dipshit on Reddit did this, and now he has to explain that to his wife.

**He was running Windows, duh.

Maslow never mentioned coffee

Really bad news, everybody: statistically speaking, you’re probably an addict.

No, no, not that kind of addict — you’re not addicted to alcohol, heroin or a substance that threatens your life. But there’s a 9:10 chance that you’re addicted to something that needlessly robs you of your time and money and decreases the quality of your relationships, says Judith Sewell Wright, an American author and life coach who came up with the term “soft addictions”. Wright is no Abraham Maslow, but she knows a little something about something. And lest that life coach bit worry you, she has an actual master’s degree in counseling.

Even the American Society of Addiction Medicine agrees: addictions are not solely substance-based, but can be relatively harmless behaviors gone pathologically awry. Like buying stuff you don’t need. Eating when you’re not hungry. Watching too much TV. Watching too much porn. Even travel, exercise, and drinking coffee (too much of any of this) can turn into addictions. You can blame the ol’ gray matter for not over-compensating the addictive personality. For example, a woman whose brain isn’t wired for addiction feels adequately rewarded having sneakers, semi-casual sandals, boots, and dressy pumps in the closet; an addict wants ALL THE SHOES and … NORDSTROM NOW!

Most of the time, soft addictions are OMG! obvious: one couple in my extended social circle was always in the process of remodeling and refurbishing their new luxury home. Each time I visited, another wall was being knocked out, new flooring was being laid, or the swimming pool was getting expanded. New furniture, new electronics. Years of this. You may know a couple like this. Whatever they’re (pointlessly and compulsively) doing just never seems to end, and honestly? They both seem a little … well, disconnected.

Whenever I’m asked why my first marriage failed, I say that my ex-husband was addicted to prescription drugs, and I didn’t know this when I married him. But is that the truth? Long before his need for substances kicked in, his compulsions made my antennae twitch. He was addicted to doing stuff that cost masses of money — he had a penchant for rock concerts, music festivals, travel, and, because he liked to boulder, duplicates of small but spendy technical gadgets with weird names. When I showed him a ledger to prove that we couldn’t afford a third international trip in the same year, he melted down, people. Seriously, I worried that he’d pull a Leanne Hecht Bearden. I thought we were arguing about money. We weren’t. We were arguing over his abnormal response to being told, “No.”

Yeah, yeah, I'm the bad guy ...
Yeah, yeah, I’m the bad guy …

Wright points out, quite aptly, that many couples base their relationships on soft addictions they have in common; in the midst of all of this distraction, they don’t form an emotional connection, or if they had one, it falls by the wayside. And I think she’s (w)right. I couldn’t tell you about one meaningful conversation I had with this ex-husband. I couldn’t tell you what he hoped to achieve in life. I couldn’t tell you how he felt about his scarily angry mother or his father, the functional “gentleman” drunk. I can tell you, however, about the inordinate amount of effort I devoted to solving his #firstworldproblems at the expense of my own peace of mind — and sense of gratitude for what we did have.

I think that practicing gratitude is the answer. Maybe some of us are wired for this more than others. I’m pretty sure that I am, thanks to Maslow. You don’t get out of Communication Theory 301 without having the importance of his hierarchy of needs pounded into your brain. Maslow kept it really simple, stupid. To achieve self-actualization — to know that you merit the space you inhabit on planet earth — you must first have your physiological needs (shelter, food, water) met. Next comes security (i.e., health care, job stability), then love/relationships (spouse, friends and family), then esteem — the knowledge that you’ve mastered something that 1) you’re really good at, and 2) can be shared with others.

Maslow never said anything about coffee, shoes, or South-by-Southwest badges. He did assert, however, that only one out of 100 people will reach self-actualization because society emphasizes rewarding crap like … well, SXSW badges. That’s pretty bleak.

I’m human, and therefore foolish and fallible. Hey, I’ve bought the Jimmy Choos I never wore. Perfume that I was on the fence about. I’ve also consumed waaaay too much coffee, and I prefer the nice stuff from Stumptown, not Starbucks. The difference in a soft addiction and harmlessly treating yourself, Wright says, is that one is an escape; the other is an enhancement. Your enhancements might increase the basic quality of your life, such as buying healthier food or a mattress that doesn’t hurt your back, or fill a cerebral desire to learn a new skill. You know, stuff that would get Maslow’s nod of approval.

Me? Well, this year, I decided to purge myself of unhealthy soft addictions and question if what I want is absolutely essential. I think that this is making me a happier person, overall. Part of the purging is stopping the pointless Internet surfing — if I learn something sharable, I’ll share it with you, giving a point to this blog.

But cutting down on the coffee? That’s going to be a real bitch!

NoCoffee

Vacation, staycation

A few months ago, xoJane published a rather interesting article about travel — namely, most people can’t. The comments are quite interesting. Most people agree with the writer. Travel is a privilege, not a right, and it’s prohibitively expensive for most Americans. You don’t go into debt for a plane ticket to Majorca. You don’t just quit your job. Like, ever.

However, our economy functions as long as people are spending money that they don’t really have on something. Amazingly, CNN.com has an entire luxury travel section. During a recession. I suspect that unwieldy travel debt, along with other debt incurred through experiential self-care — gym memberships, yoga classes, and ACL passes — will make up the bulk of debt that Americans will acquire in lieu of tangible stuff like houses, cars and clothes.

Or, if they’re not racking up travel debt, they’re supplanting those “really should haves” with “want its”. Because anyone who can afford supplemental unemployment and long-term care insurance and neglects to buy these policies is pretty irresponsible. So yeah, travel is reserved for the most privileged of us all.

I personally prefer traveling for free, and in fact, I’m taking off to Florida on Friday. I scored a ticket on Southwest Airlines using my air miles, and I didn’t buy a single thing I didn’t need. I didn’t charge it. No, my business didn’t pay for it. I attached my debit card number to Southwest’s online and brick and mortar partners, so each roll of paper towels I bought out of necessity took me a few air miles closer to that free fare. I even got points for making charitable donations, which doubled as tax deductions, and for getting my hair cut at a local salon. I’ve got more air miles where that came from, too.

Destination: sand
Destination: sand

But how do you take a vacation when you’re fresh out of bread? “I’m taking a staycation this year.” Ugh. I hate that word. What do you do on a staycation, anyway? Watch Netflix? Go to Barton Springs? Do laundry? So basically, a staycation is just a weekend that lasts an extra week. Gotcha.

If I hadn’t scored the airplane ticket, I would have liked to go camping again. Not the Stuff White People Like kind of camping where people have a lot of stuff from REI and Whole Earth Provision amassed in the closet. Home style. The kind of camping you did when you were a young ‘un, maybe when you were in college. Your parents threw everything in the back of the trunk on a Friday afternoon, and off you went to … twenty miles down the road, into the country. Destination: nearest stock pond.

There was this one camping trip, tail end of summer. My then-boyfriend and I needed a break from our hectic collegiate lives. The two of us and his big, noisy Portuguese family rounded up everyone with a flat-bed pick-up truck and gathered up the tarps, the blankets, and coolers filled with cheap beer. We splurged: we drove to the coast rather than hanging out at Lake Travis. This was back when the cost of gas didn’t make you break out in shingles.

The first day, it rained like Seattle, and every mosquito within a 50-mile radius swarmed in for a feast. Someone made Cajun-style shrimp that was too spicy to eat, and after a long day in the surf, I starved, man. Everyone quibbled, combed the sand, and then fell asleep. Ever slept on a flat-bed on the beach? The next day, it was still raining, so we checked into a shady motel frequented by longshoremen and their ladies of the night. It was unglamorous as all get out, and the mattress sagged to the ground, but hot damn, it was so much fun.

I run into this old boyfriend occasionally, and we still laugh about that trip: “OMG, and the shower only ran cold. Remember that?” “OMG, remember the crappy diner we went to the next morning?” “OMG, your brother’s shrimp.” “OMG, it was a shit show.” “OMG!”

Travel is a privilege. I’m privileged. Today, 50 percent of the Western World has ridden in an airplane. That’s up from 30 percent in 1972. So yeah, this is nice. And much nicer when it’s free.