Chapter XIX: What I learned on my summer vacation

of Travels with Samantha by Philip Greenspun
"If you are so smart, why aren't you rich?" New Yorkers like to say. "If you are so smart, how come you spent 14 weeks on the road and don't have some brilliant aphorism about the American people to offer?" seemed appropriate in my case.

Hunter S. Thompson stumbled through a drug-induced mist to come up with "America... just a nation of two hundred million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable." I know that Georges Clemenceau never had a laptop computer, yet he gave us "America is the only nation in history which miraculously has gone directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of Civilization." I couldn't even summon enough ennui and nihilism to agree with Walter Holland: "Most towns are the same."

My overwhelming posttrip impression was that I had barely scratched the surface of an unknowably rich society. Every person had an interesting story; every person had learned something valuable in coming to grips with his or her circumstances. Compared to the variety of folks and lifestyles I encountered on the road, my Boston activities and social circle are but a teaspoonful of ocean water.

Most of the people I know in Boston live for professional recognition, to add initials to their name (e.g., "Ph.D.", "S.M.", "J.D.", "M.D."), for career success, and/or for social prestige and fame. In my weeks on the road, I met quite a few North Americans who would not be out of place among my usual associates. However, I met hundreds more who lived for their families, for physical and materialistic pleasures of the day, or for religion. Many of these people were much happier than my friends. They derived satisfaction from things that have made people happy for thousands of years, e.g., children, money, religion. The typical Harvard/MIT lifestyle looked very high risk by comparison.

Professors would spend 10 years in school, then 7 years working feverishly, then get crushed when denied tenure. Scientists would spend 30 years trying to really accomplish something, but end up with only a stack of obscure papers in unread journals. Women clawed their way to moderately lucrative middle-management positions but found their career flattening out just as their child-bearing years drew to a close. Some of these aspirants would get the Nobel prize, and the rest said that they enjoyed the process and didn't need anything else. Nonetheless, I knew precious few "academic and professional strivers" who seemed as happy as Laurel and Eric (the bed and breakfast workers in Wisconsin), Ali and Michelle (Australians traveling in Montana), Shelly (young mother in Grande Prairie, Alberta), Kelly (trucker on the Alaska Highway), Lloyd (heavy equipment operator in Whitehorse), Woody (philosopher in Denali), Walter and Karin (Swiss dairy farmer and his wife, a saleswoman), Hans and Rey (bike shop owners in Juneau), Tom and Lisa (chucked it all to see America by motor home), Marty (schoolteacher in Seattle), or John (insurance agent in Monticello, Utah).

It struck me that I'd heard a lot of engineers say they wished they hadn't worked so hard on a start-up company, a lot of professors say it was a shame that they'd put their research ahead of their marriage, a lot of lawyers question their value to society, but I'd never heard anyone say he or she regretted time spent raising children. What would happen to my friends if they didn't realize their goals? Even worse, what would happen if they did realize those goals, then came to see them as not sufficient?

Thinking about all these friends growing older, unmarried, and childless, I shuddered the way I would watching a family stake their whole fortune on double-zero at a Vegas roulette table.

I started the trip timorous, lonely, and desperate to cling to old friends and family via email and telephone. I ended it confident, comfortable with being alone or with new friends, and happy to go weeks without contact from home. One of the principal reasons for this change was the fine hospitality I received all over the continent. It is very comforting to know that, should your friends and family prove wanting, you can always get what you need from strangers.

The End.

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