October 4, 2007

did you know that road trips have classifications?

Posted in so much for my anonymity at 12:40 am by squishy

Like tattoos and base jumping, road trips are cool in theory. Whether or not you have a destination in mind, it seems so carefree to drive across the country with junk food, dozens of CDs and good company. But being in close confines with friends or a significant other for extended periods of time is bound to be trouble.

My younger brother and I were home for Thanksgiving last year, and we were foolishly ambitious enough to think we could score some deals on Black Friday. He wanted a computer or a digital camera or some other portable electronic appliance, and many stores were opening their doors at midnight, 3am or some other equally inopportune hour. We decided that we would venture out at 11pm and go store-hopping. Long lines wouldn’t stop us from the thrill of bargain shopping.

The first store we hit was a CompUSA, which had a line snaking through the parking lot. We wussed out. I thought we’d fare better at a mega electronics store that would open several hours later, but dozens of people had camped out with sleeping bags. Our resolve was crumbling, and about 10 stores and 1.5 hours later, we decided to screw it. We’d go get some food and drive around in the dark until we felt we had wasted enough gasoline.

We were discussing our parents, and the minor argument my brother had with our father. They never got along particularly well, but have a very good superficial relationship. To be honest, I wasn’t paying too much attention to what he was saying, but soon my brother was crying… out of frustration, and mourning the childhood he felt he was deprived of.

And this is a guy that cries every other leap year.

Our parents conformed to the Spartan school of child-rearing, so we had it tough. They were not ones to smother their children with affection, but show it in more subtle, muted ways. Education was of the most importance, and they falsely believed that negative was more effective than positive reinforcement. I was the ‘good’ kid who brought home the grades, didn’t question authority, and managed to worm my way out of trouble (not to say I was a delinquent who huffed aerosol paint cans and shoplifted CDs). My brother was more naive, prone to blurting out his ideas, and honest much to his detriment. If our parents told us to jump, my Pavolvian reaction was “how high?” so I could please them, and to a lesser degree, so I could shut them up. My brother would question why he had to jump in the first place. “My legs are tired, and there’s no point.”

In retrospect, I was just sneakier than he was. I’d hate to have a kid like me. But I digress.

We couldn’t have traveled more than 30 miles, and we never made the conscious decision to go on a road trip. But it certainly felt like one. This sounds horrible, but I was trapped in a small vehicle and in an uncomfortable conversation, with no means of escape. I was forced to listen, if not confront, what my brother had to say.

He was agitated and very upset, detailing how I had it much better than he did, how in comparison to me, the praise he received was paltry and any punishment more severe. How the lack of open and physical affection, and unrealistically high expectations ultimately destroyed his ego and sense of security. He was damaged because of how he was raised. The heartbreaking part was that he knew they had the best of intentions, so he couldn’t hate them like he wanted to.

And what can you say to that? I had stuck up for him and defended him when I could, but our parents disregarded what I had to say. I’ve felt guilty for not being more powerful in asserting my opinions, and not telling them to lay off, dammit, what the hell do you know. I think it’s a feeling common among children, to want to have enough authority to be taken seriously by grownups. It’s a one-sided power struggle that you seem to forget once you have children of your own.

Our parents have mellowed out significantly, and I get along with them now that I’m an adult. It helps if you think of them not as parents, but people who are fallible and sometimes don’t know what’s best for their children. But my brother has yet to distance himself from what he went through as a kid; he’s still reconciling his feelings. He’s a Wes Anderson movie waiting to be made.

I let him rant until he was raw and emotionally drained. And then I circled the neighborhood a few extra times so he could decompress and let his cherry tomato of a nose return to normal.

Tonight, I got a phone call from my brother. His voice was nasal, and his breathing was ragged with exhaustion and lingering hiccups. And I still didn’t know what to say.

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