Holidays in Heck

Family vacations are ripe for comedy. The very notion of dragging your children along for an extended trip, far from home, to go visit places you would not otherwise normally go to, is a recipe for humorous absurdity. Given the higher costs and potential feelings of abandonment the children might experience had you not taken them along, I guess it should be no surprise that there are whiny brats in airplanes, restaurants, and museums.



The author, as a former war correspondent during the ’80s and ’90s, gets to experience the thrill of having to try and survive the shelling bombardment of persnickety young children and his sometimes overbearing, but always shopping-happy, wife. Not only do they go skiing at Alpine Valley, Ohio, but also Hong Kong, where apparently his eldest daughter seems to fit right in with the locals:


“Everything that makes for a terrible pre-teen – the attitude, the talking back, the eye-rolling, the exasperated sighs – makes for an excellent Hong Kong shopper. That’s how shopping is done in Hong Kong. Poppet couldn’t quite get the knack of it. But Muffin would flounce into a shop, examine a few items without evident interest, and loudly announce, ‘Ho gwai!’ (‘Too expensive!’). More than one shopkeeper came out from behind the cash register to embrace her [saying,] ‘You real Hong Kong girl!’”


Needless to say, Muffin seemed to have be emulating a certain stereotype, if you know what I mean. Six months later, they visited the House of the Future at Disneyland (or tried to, anyway). Gauging from the lack of improvements to the exhibit, O’Rourke asks his family what they think should have been added:


“I polled the family, to get their ideas of how a domicile could be inventive…Muffin wants to install hot air dyers in our shower ‘to save the earth’s towels’ … Poppet, our eight-year-old, envisions a system of pneumatic tubes that would deliver the stuffed animal of her choosing to the place of her choice, worldwide…Buster, who’s four, said, ‘Dogs on the potty.’ A serious challenge to the plumbing industry, not to mention the dogs, but it’s a worthy goal.”


Perhaps this is the reason that children are not particularly adept at applying the scientific method. During this same time, O’Rourke was given some bad news:


“I looked death in the face. All right, I didn’t. I glimpsed him in a crowd. I was diagnosed with cancer, of a very treatable kind. I’m told I have a 95 percent chance of survival. Come to think of it – as a drinking, smoking, saturated-fat-hound of a reporter – my chance of survival has been improved by cancer…my diagnosis came just weeks after Teddy Kennedy’s. That he should have cancer of the brain, and I should have cancer of the ass… Well, I said a rosary for him and hoped he had a laugh at me. After all, what would I do, ask God for a more dignified cancer? Pancreas? Liver? Lung?”


Obviously, he pulled through (at least long enough to finish this damn book). Two years later, the O’Rourkes returned to Washington, D.C. to visit (among other places within the District of Criminals) the National Museum of American History. After observing the First Ladies’ ball gowns, Mrs. O. scrutinizes that:


“There’s no such thing as progress. If I were to take a stylish Martian woman through the exhibit backward, starting with Michelle Obama’s off-the-shoulder bedsheet and winding up with Abigail Adams, the Martian woman would be convinced that I was showing her the story of a society’s gradual development of sophistication and good taste.”


Harsh words coming from a woman who “emerged confirmed in her philosophical conservatism,” as her husband put it. Is it possible Mrs. O did not know that corsets were commonly worn at formal social events in the late 18th century, or worse, that she simply doesn’t care because she values appearance over comfort?

P.J. O’Rourke’s Holidays in Heck: A Former War Correspondent Experiences Frightening Vacation Fun is a rollicking good laugh at the entire notion of vacationing. I appreciated the pathos he evoked in me that, while children can be a total pain in the neck at times (such as when they are causing a ruckus at the local grocery store), raising them is still worthwhile (but in a “they are my own flesh and blood” sense, not the Hillaryesque “it takes a village” mantra). All the jokes about “my mother spanked me with a Dr. Spock book” aside, I think it should be kept in mind that children, by and large, are not adults, so to treat them as such when they are not ready for it, is a bit premature; at the same time, though, they should be given at least the same dignity as that of the family dog, not yelled at because someone else was unsuccessful at flushing all the crap down the toilet.

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