How Visiting Family is Ruining America

Visiting your grandma is making you dumb and ruining the United States. I just realized this while reading Smile While You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer.

The author, Chuck Thompson, briefly mentions that most Americans travel to visit family members across the country. That, and the meager piece of vacation time doled out to Americans by those cutting their paychecks, are the roots of the problem.

Americans get the shaft when it come to vacation time.

I get 120 hours per year, and this is considered a king’s ransom of vacation time in the United States. Meanwhile, I get snickered at by part-time baristas from Holland for that measly chunk of paid time off (and for my health benefits, which to them is the equivalent of being cared for by faith healers, witch doctors and veterinarians).

So there’s problem one. We have a limited chunk of time.

And grandma and the rest of the family are hungry for you to spend your tiny sliver of time off on them.

Maybe it’s residual Puritanism and the continuing effects of Catholicism, but Americans are really good at succumbing to guilt. We’re happy to surrender our own interests and goals to keep grandmama happy. So you keep shuttling to Dubuque for family reunions so you and your cousins can belly up to the Cheesecake Factory, which is to food what Dan Brown is to literature.

So that trip to Australia or France or Tuscany? Next year. Or the year after. And so on. The next thing you know, you’re grandma.

And that’s if you have some curiosity about the rest of the world, which not all Americans do: A meager 28 percent of us, as of FY08, had passports. And I’d bet even fewer use them – and that the only reason it’s so high is that we now need passports to visit Mexico and Canada.

Some people raise the argument that Americans also don’t have the money to travel. Bullshit.

We obviously have enough money for the latest mobile phones, enormous plasma screens and all the high-fructose corn syrup we can get down our gullets.

America is great at entertaining itself. It’s a lot easier to plop in front of a TV or to play a fake guitar (the act of which is a perversion against true creativity) than it is to travel. There’s no shortage of people who will snivel about small airline seats – but how many people exult in the awesomeness of being able to board a plane in Los Angeles and get off in Melbourne? Seriously, you’ve just cruised a major part of the globe in a mere 14 hours, and you want to whine about turbulence and security lines?

So we also hate being uncomfortable, even if the reward is emerging someplace new and cool and different. I’ll admit, TSA security lines are a drag. Flying can be expensive. Travel can be stressful. But you’ve gotta swing a pick to mine some gold. It’s that simple.

Now here’s how this is turning the United States into a shadow of its former self.

Americans don’t expose themselves to new sights, new places, new people or new ideas. They don’t stop to consider that there are places where people don’t accept post-college torpor, getting lazy and sheepishly watching their waistlines expand.

Picture these two cities: One has a public building that houses a full weight room, a swimming pool with ample lap lanes and outdoor hot tubs heated by geothermal energy. The other has three public pools, only one of which has a full weight room and a generous amount of lap lanes. None have any sort of hot tub.

The first of these cities is Reykjahlith, Iceland. Population? 300. The second is Scottsdale, Ariz., an affluent suburb of Phoenix with more than 200,000 residents. Reykjahlith’s people gather at their gym. They exercise. They socialize. They get away from their TVs. Scottsdale should be embarrassed to have its city services hung out to dry by a village in north Iceland. But the mayor and council there likely wouldn’t care or notice enough to change things. Meanwhile, they find plenty of money to provide tax breaks to lure businesses into Scottsdale.

Now, Australia and New Zealand would fit in right with Iceland: public pools, public gyms, sports leagues for adults. Moving around and sweating aren’t just for kids.

This is a concept that just isn’t ingrained in the United States. And I’d never have realized that it’s not that way everywhere unless I’d left the country.

Every time you fly to Cedar Rapids to visit your family, you’re depriving yourself. And your country.

Every trip you don’t take abroad robs you of a chance to see something new, and to bring something new back to the United States. It doesn’t have to be something game-changing. It can be a small idea you apply to your own life. It can be a business concept. It can be a tiny bit of foreign slang to liven up your speech.

So the next time, make a stand. Apply for a passport, and use the damn thing to visit a nation that isn’t a NAFTA member.

Meet someone new. Learn something different. And don’t forget any of it when you clear customs. Share it with your friends – and watch things change slowly, bit by bit, for the better.

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Writer. Traveler. Gastronomic daredevil. Fitness fan. Homebrewer. Metal dude \m/. Cat and dog lover.

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