I spent the holidays in Hawaii. Yes, that’s right: palm trees, white sand beaches, drinks with umbrellas. Paradise, right? Now, add a nagging mother, a forgetful father, an obnoxious brother and a teeny-bopper sister and you have my vacation.

When most people travel to Hawaii, they do nothing but lay on the sand for seven days. But my family is way too anal (they prefer “active”) to do a thing like that. Whitesell Family Vacations typically are like boot camp — 7:30 a.m. wake-up call, 10-15 mile hikes per day. If we’re lucky, we don’t have to do push-ups. Vacation with my family isn’t exactly relaxing so much as it is an adventure. One that will eventually turn into yet another installment of National Lampoon’s Family Vacation.

But really, my family is great. Just not in public places, where they can be seen with me. Restaurants, for example, should be avoided.

My brother enjoys being completely tasteless in front of the waiter solely to embarrass my parents. Right as the waiter comes by to pick up our plates and ask, “Did everything taste all right?” my brother normally responds with something like, “Yeah, it tasted great on the way down. The question is, how’s it going to feel on the way out?” Did I mention he’s 23? But I think emotionally, he never made it to puberty.

My sister and brother seem to think restaurants are the most appropriate locations for an argument. As neighboring tables of people glance our way, I start looking around for the easiest way to just end it all. I think to myself: if I fall forward onto my blunt dinner knife, will that be enough to puncture my heart? Doubtful. What about if I use my cloth napkin to strangle myself? Too difficult. I resort to downing several glasses of water and excusing myself to go to the restroom.

To give credit to my family, they don’t always cause the misadventures we encounter. But they seem to attract them like a fur coat attracts PETA.

One night we had the joy of being served by “Ripper the waiter,” who was obviously more interested in “ripping the waves” than being “the waiter.” We figured that out when he splashed all over our table while pouring our water. Our second clue was when he threw our bread plates at us like they were Frisbees. Unfortunately he was fired before we could not give him a tip.

On Christmas Day, we decided to go snorkeling at the southern most tip of the island. If you’ve ever gone snorkeling before, you know that it is a very humbling experience. I don’t mean that you suddenly feel small in comparison to the vast underwater ecosystem, I mean that as soon you put on flippers and a mask attached to a tube, you will look way more dorky than you ever imagined.

When we emerged from the water, my dad realized that the car keys had fallen out of his swim trunks. He, deciding that a needle in a haystack is quite possible to find, suggested we all started looking “under the sea.” Had there been calypso music and a dancing lobster there, maybe I wouldn’t have minded. Searching for the car keys was like a really, really terrible game of “I Spy,” where you played while wet, cold and hungry, and if you lost, you were stranded in the middle of nowhere. We ended up spending about two hours underwater. We did not find the car keys, but at least we found Nemo, in case anyone was looking.

Luckily, I, like Blanche DuBois, have always relied on the kindness of strangers. Some random people took pity on us when my family blocked the road and gave us a ride back to the hotel. “Wait,” you’re saying, “you hitchhiked?! Nobody in her right mind hitchhikes anymore.” You’re right. But most families don’t tell their daughter to flash traffic in order to slow cars down either.

I found hitchhiking to be like a one-night stand. You get the pleasure of spending time with a stranger, and you get the thrill of not knowing what you’re going to get. Like gonorrhea. Or getting killed by an ax murderer. It’s one of those activities that even though you know you’re not supposed to do it, you just can’t resist — especially when you’re desperate. The main attraction being there’s no fear of a long-term commitment.

The commitment to your family and its “idiosyncrasies,” on the other hand, may seem like a life sentence. And when the five of you are cooped up in a hotel room, it can remind you of the last time you were in prison. But at a certain point you realize that even if someone took off your chains, you probably wouldn’t want to leave them anyway.

As I sat, shivering and famished, in a stranger’s car, I realized the Christmas song playing on the radio was all wrong. The holidays aren’t about “Christmas trees” or “Santa” or the “overcommercialization of a Christian holiday that drastically increases our appetite for consumption”; it’s about being with your family and pretending everything’s OK when you’re wet, cold, freezing and disgraced. It’s about not naming names when Dad loses the car keys. It’s about finding a ride back to civilization for all of your family members, except for your whiny younger sister. It’s about sticking together as a family even when you want to tear them apart.

Julie Whitesell can now hold her breath underwater longer than a manatee. Thanks Dad.