My Mom Was Wrong About Travel (But She Was Right About Cleaning the Kitchen Sink)
I was taught there's a contradiction between being cautious and being curious. But there isn't.
This is a repost of an article from a year and a half ago. But we have so many new subscribers now, we thought we would send it out again!
Let’s get one thing clear right from the start: my mother had many wonderful qualities.
She was a culturally sophisticated woman who loved books, movies, and theater, and was also an incredible cook. She was fiercely intelligent, reading three newspapers a day. After she married my dad, she taught herself how to work the stock market — to the point where her own broker once said to her, not joking, “You know this stuff better than I do.”
She could also be incredibly warm and charming. All my friends were jealous she was my mother.
But she could also be, well, uptight.
Once when I was a young boy, she was landscaping our new house, and she hired someone to build a treehouse in the backyard for me and my older brother.
But she wouldn't allow the construction guy to build it more than five feet off the ground. I remember my brother and I pleaded with her, that our friends would think it was ridiculous, a tree-house so close to the ground, but she was resolute. I think even the builder thought she was nuts.
But this was very typical of my mother.
She died in 2003 from early onset Alzheimer’s, which is an extremely shitty disease. But before she left, she taught me a lot of things:
No one wants to watch you floss your teeth or clip your toenails. They just don't.
You'll feel markedly better in the morning if you clean the kitchen sink the night before.
Err on the side of the thank-you-note. (If she had lived, I think she eventually would’ve come around to the idea of thank-you-emails. But possibly not.)
But my mother also taught me, clearly and in no uncertain terms, that the world is a scary, dangerous place.
Whenever we traveled as a family, she planned the entire route well in advance, and had every reservation booked and confirmed long before we stepped outside the door. As a teenager, if I came home even a few minutes late, she wouldn’t be mad; no, she’d be absolutely breathless — and I mean breathless — with worry.
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Part of me still wonders where her extreme fear of the world came from. Was it simply living as a woman in the 1950s and 60s? That had to drive even the sanest woman a little crazy.
Whatever the reason, my mother's anxiety was simply off-the-charts. And over the course of my childhood, I soaked it all up.
As a result, I've never been an especially adventurous person. I'm cautious by nature. Remember that study a few years back about how people who engage in extreme sports have different brains from the rest of us? They need intense activities, and the possibility of death, in order to feel excitement — to finally feel like they're alive.
You know, like serial killers.
I'm the exact opposite. I know I'm alive, and I feel plenty of excitement as it is, thank you very much. Keep your extreme sports, and your possibility of death, far away from me.
But my mother was only my mother; she didn't have the last word on my life. She taught me to be cautious, yes, but I'm also very curious. This is probably because of my father, who is as calm and thoughtful about the world as my mom was fearful and anxious.
If I soaked up my mother's fear, I also absorbed my father's curiosity. I learned to love smart people and long, intimate conversations where people actually listen and connect, not just take turns talking and competing for the best zinger.
Maybe it’s not surprising that I’ve always been torn between these two extremes — between being cautious like my mother and curious like my father.
In fact, after that treehouse was built in our backyard, some friends and I built our own "secret" platform much higher up in the tree. I loved it up there, lost in the impressionistic painting of those emerald green leaves.
But I knew there would be hell to pay if my mom ever caught me up on that platform. So, in the end, I didn't climb up there very often. Mostly, I needed my more adventurous friends to goad me into it. After a while, I forgot it was even there.
Years later, as an adult, one winter when all the leaves were down, I looked up and saw the little platform was still there, and I was embarrassed by how I'd let the memory of it slip away.
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Six years ago, Michael and I left America to indefinitely travel the world as digital nomads. It was partly because Trump had been elected president, and my fear for America’s future now suddenly exceeded my fear of the rest of the world.
But I was also curious about what I'd find outside of my home country. And as we traveled, my view of the world quickly changed. My mom’s idea that the world is a scary, dangerous place? She couldn’t have been more wrong.
Obviously, whenever an American writes about travel, it’s coming from a place of extreme privilege. Men and women also view the world differently, in part, because the world sometimes treats them differently.
After six years of travel, all of this is more obvious to me than ever.
And it’s true that from time to time, bad or scary stuff has happened to Michael and me. Once our apartment caught on fire — and once our plane over the Atlantic did too.
Plus, there's poverty and injustice and a disturbing amount of sheer hatred on this planet.
But here’s where my mom was wrong: the world still isn't anything to be afraid of.
That treehouse she had built for me that was only five feet off the ground? That really was ridiculous. The whole point of a treehouse is to be in the tree. That secret platform my friends and I built higher up? You could see so much more of the tree up there, and more of the world too. It gave me an entirely different perspective.
Yeah, maybe it was a bit riskier, but it was worth it. I wish I'd climbed up there more.
And here's the real truth: it wasn't that much of a risk. It was a tree. Climbing trees is something kids are supposed to do. It's probably even good that kids fall every now and then. They bounce back.
All my life, I’ve felt torn between being cautious and being curious. But now, after six years of nomading, I see it isn’t nearly the contradiction that I thought.
Yes, bad things happen. But after meeting a zillion other travelers, and hearing all their travel stories, it’s incredibly obvious to me that bad things are far more likely to happen when you do stupid things.
So don't do stupid things!
Take your time climbing the tree. Don't do it alone. Test the branches first, and don't take unnecessary risks.
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And if you fall, well, it's probably not the end of the world. If you've worked hard to be a good friend, you'll have loyal friends to help you through whatever happens next.
The greater point is, you simply can't live your life governed by fear. Most of the time, things work out. And anyway, being anxious all the time makes things worse, not better.
Besides, you really do want to see as much of the tree as possible. This world we live in is an amazing tree.
But in my mom’s defense? She was absolutely right about the clean-the-kitchen-sink-before-you-go-to-bed thing. It’s always so depressing to wake up to a dirty sink.
P.S. These days, it sometimes seems like all of America has become as fearful and anxious as my mother used to be. I sure hope this isn’t true.
Brent Hartinger is a screenwriter and author. For more about Brent, visit him at BrentHartinger.com.
Thanks for this. My husband and I started the path to pursue full time nomad travels in early 2022 for real. We’ve only just begun and this winter has been one of significant health crises and deep personal loss. It has awoken a deep, deep fear in my heart that I had previously not felt as part of the equation. All work to do and it’s good to be reminded that others also work on learning their way through it in different ways.
Mums are hardwired to be cautious, so go easy on us. I had to make deliberate, conscious decisions to allow and, yes, encourage my one and only kiddo to stray from my side: Sending him on a college-run one-month stay in Costa Rica at age 13. Dropping him off in his mid-teens at Heathrow to find his own way to a small town in Bavaria alone and with minimal German. Letting him go to boarding school in a place that was a bit Lord of the Flies. Arranging a place to stay so he could spend a summer living and working in England. It was all terrifying for me, not him. I did it anyway because every kid needs that: I spent a year as a high school exchange student myself. As a professor, I was always frustrated by parents who wouldn't fund study abroad because they thought it was dangerous. Parents who have never gone overseas, and they're legion in America, are scared as hell. We have to work on fixing that, but I have no idea how at the moment, except supporting international exchange programs of all kinds.