November 23, 2004
OVER THE RIVER AND THROUGH THE WOODS
As you are struggling through traffic jams and wading through tidal waves of humanity at the airports during this, the busiest travel week of the year, you might pause to reflect that getting home for the holidays wouldn't be such a pain if you hadn't left in the first place.
You know, in other countries, holidays don't lead to total gridlock in their transportation systems, because people elsewhere stay put a lot more than we do. In America, 18% of the population picks up and moves every single year, but in England, only 11% do, and in Ireland, fewer than 5%. Americans move about 13 times in their lifetimes, on average, whereas the French move 6 or 7 times, the Irish 3 or 4.
This isn't surprising, since most Americans are descended from people who left home, many of them never to see their families again. Our ancestors left for as many reasons as there are ethnic groups. Many Germans fled to America in 1848 to escape Bismarck's newly-instituted draft. Many Irish came to avoid starvation during the Famine. Some of our Scots ancestors, my own included, were transported as prisoners to the colonies after the rebellion of 1745, while others were driven off clan land in the highland clearances of the 1800s. Many Jews came to escape pogroms (thus saving their descendants from Hitler's ultimate pogrom).
Except for native Americans and Africans, our ancestors were voluntary migrants, a habit they continued even after they got here. Our ancestors left home to strike it rich in California and Colorado and Alaska. They left to farm the rich black soil of the midwest, and the less promising land of the plains that the government gave them for free. When that soil dried up and blew away, they moved to California where it still was green and lush. Even now when our local economy goes bust, we move to where the jobs are.
And we have moved for adventure, to explore the wilderness, and test ourselves against it. "Be all that you can be" is a notion we embraced long before the military discovered its possibilities as a recruiting slogan.
These days, Americans look for more than just money when we move -- we're looking for quality of life. We want good schools, clean air and water, spacious homes, and room for kids to play. But we also want to have first-class restaurants and entertainment readily available, and we'd love it if we never had to shovel snow again.
Aided by air-conditioning, and the elaborate system of dams that brought water to uninhabitable deserts, we have moved south and west. We've moved from crowded cities to the suburbs. When those suburbs became too crowded, we built even further into the countryside.
Traditionally, it was the young and adventurous who moved, from college to job, from apartment to house as they married and had babies, from house to apartment as they divorced. But with the built-up wealth of savings, investments, pensions and social security, our elders have started moving as well, to retirement communities in Florida and Arizona and California. If you're going over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house this week, it may well be because Granny's now living in a condo in Arizona.
Still, jobs, schools and weather are just the GOOD reasons for moving. The REAL reasons may have much more to do with our sense of infinite possibility, our belief that "changes in latitudes [produce] changes in attitudes." Americans have always embraced the idea of starting fresh. In a new place, where our history is not known, we can re-make ourselves infinitely. The striving young man on the make can retool himself as Jay Gatsby, and a young Catholic girl from Detroit can alter our entire understanding of the word "Madonna."
The real reasons may have to do with Americans' indomitable optimism, our belief that to remain where we are is to settle for being ONLY what we are. Like Huck Finn we figure that if we want to control our own futures, we have to "light out for the territory."
Whatever the reasons for our wandering ways, they explain why family has become the scarcest and most prized of all our commodities, and why going home for the holidays has become the most sacred of all American rituals.
This is a revised version of a column I wrote for Fox News Online, November 26, 1998.
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