From Sun Magazine: Greetings from Misery, U.S.A.

Sun magazine editor Catherine Mallette
Sun magazine editor Catherine Mallette (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun photo)

This year, as summer inevitably roared in, I realized I had made no real vacation plans.

Maybe I'd been a little busy. My husband, David, and I had moved from Texas to Maryland in March, and adjusting to my job at The Sun, lining up new doctors and finding the olives in the Gucci Giant in Pikesville were as much as I could handle.

It's true that we'd taken a long weekend for Memorial Day, as we had two kids graduating from schools in two different states. But David noted that we could hardly call the experience a vacation, as it involved a tremendous amount of packing and hauling off books, dirty linens and J. Crew. I could see his point. Maybe having to dash to the Ithaca airport to rent the biggest SUV on hand and then hitting the highway in separate, box-laden cars wasn't very, shall we say, relaxing. I admit that my drive, in which my son's red-eared slider constantly clawed at the sides of its precariously perched turtle tub, perhaps didn't qualify as a fabulous vacation experience.

Or did it?

What makes a great vacation? I thought about some of my best memories, and pretty quickly, I realized that many of them involved collective misery.

There was the week-long Disney cruise that I took with the kids when Jack was 12 and Hadley 8. Seven days of tropical storms had translated into no swimming with dolphins and a harrowing excursion on a small boat. We'd developed cabin fever, and on our last day, as the ship tried to dock at Disney's own island, Hadley looked up at the foreboding clouds and asked, "So this is the famous Castaway Cay? Could somebody put a light bulb over it?"

There was the ballroom dancing camp vacation in Vermont two years ago with David, where I had the sobbing meltdown that perhaps was the inevitable result of dancing in heels for 12 hours a day and trying to remember a parallel break from a back-spot turn.

And who could forget the lakeside cabin in Maine the summer before, which we rented partly out of curiosity to see just what you could get for only $700 a week, and the answer was a saggy couch, a muddy shower and a July cold front that sent me to bed in flannel pajamas and a down vest. We still talk about our last morning there, when we were kayaking on the lake and the couple who rented us the place screamed across the water, "When are you people leaving?"

At one of the graduations this spring, another vacation memory came back. Someone asked my parents, who live in Connecticut, if they'd been to Baltimore to visit us yet.

No, but we've been there before, they said, and then regaled us with the tale of how, long ago, they locked their keys out of the car while visiting Fort McHenry and a policeman had solved the problem in about two seconds flat with a wire coat hanger he happened to have on hand.

Sitting under the tent, listening to the story, I suddenly remembered that day, too. I was just a kid at the time, and I have no memory of visiting Fort McHenry or Baltimore. But the locked car incident had been seared into my brain. I'd remembered only a slice of that day, and now my parents were filling in details, adding volumes to that memory — and prompting an epiphany:

• Scientists say that if you want to feel like your life is longer, you should do new things. New experiences take longer for your brain to process, and time seems to slow down.

• Comedians say that misery plus time equals comedy.

• So here at last is the formula for a great vacation: Shared miserable experiences that have the power to make us laugh and keep us connected in each other's minds, suspended in time.

I suspect that at some point, the afternoon that found eight people — my son Jack, my ex-husband and his wife, their two kids, my former mother-in-law and David and me — staring at knee-deep piles of laundry in a beery apartment will become an oft-told story, and we'll laugh, remembering our time together.

So maybe I didn't need to plan another summer vacation. After all, we'll always have Ithaca.

And it's the miserable stuff that great vacations are made of.

Catherine Mallette is a senior content editor in The Sun's features department and is the editor of Chesapeake Home + Living magazine. Contact her at cmallette@baltsun.com.

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