If ever in doubt about the artificial nature of the nuclear family one need do little more than subject it to that other modernist nightmare, the family vacation. I’m stuck in Hawai’i right now and I’m sorry if I sound like a spoiled child but I’m doing my best here, people. The car my sister and brother-in-law have rented is stuck in traffic, they’re sniping at each other and my mom is speaking in falsetto as she manically tries to impose a desperate saccharine harmony on the situation. It’s a minor conflict in a series of minor conflicts but, like all conflicts on the family vacation, it has the potential to explode into accusations, tears and recriminations that reach back to childhood. We all can feel that, even brother-in-law who, bizarrely, reminds me more and more of long-divorced dad; it appears they’ve both memorized the same book of lame jokes. I start to wonder if the individual exists at all or do people simply adopt certain energetic functions according to particular situations. Somebody has to be dad, why not him? I certainly have no faculty for such a maneuver; my role is to be the sullen teenager.
We finally escape the gridlock of the city and everybody gets giddy with relief, pointing out the window and declaring everything in sight beautiful.
“Oh my God, there’s moss growing on the trees!”
“Look at that mountain range!”
“I love that peak!”
“The white line in the centre of the highway is so straight!”
When we finally arrive at the Buddhist monastery – the first in a series of at least six destinations planned for the day – a temporary calm descends. I think about family, wondering why I bother; if any other situation felt this bad I would calmly walk away with no apologies and no regrets. I think about the role of Mom and conclude that her function as a binding agent is one she performs at a great disservice to herself. Her sanity is the fulcrum upon which this whole monstrosity hinges – we all must get along or she goes bonkers. That’s the threat and it’s a real one.
As the family’s firstborn, I was conceived early on New Year’s day, 1965, my parents and America losing their innocence together as a late-breaking modernism crashed into Kennedy, Vietnam and anticolonialism everywhere. Mom’s cheerful desperation seems linked to this era, to this whole manic America as it idiotically revisits its ugly past in the Sunni Triangle. It’s impossible for me not to conflate the pathology and desperation of tourism and its corollary, war, with the desperation and delusion of family. In the day’s highlight, my brother-in-law gets into a scrap with a couple of young guys caught breaking into the car and I exercise an Herculean effort, restraining myself from declaring that all tourists are thieves and we deserve what we get.
Later, my siblings off snorkeling, I sit with my Mom. I respond to her pleasantly studied observations with little more than a few syllables here and there. I wonder if I’m a terrible person but I can’t deny how exhausted I feel in her presence. This bone-deep fatigue after not even an hour alone with her must have a biological explanation. I think about vampirism, folding in my thoughts about America, and speculate that this country’s manic insistence on being in a good mood, on being in control of the situation, on being in control of the world is fueled by individual cells of motherhood forced to, in turn, sneak energy away from their children, inducing a soul-crushing weariness. I combine the words “Mom” and “ennui” to come up with a new term for this feeling: “momnui”. Bogged down by momnui in this warm American paradise I long for the crisp streets of Toronto, not quite managing to keep at bay the thought that I am, in fact, a terrible person, a terrible son, a terrible tourist.