Anti-Big Day: Do Nothing At All

Anti-Big Day: Do Nothing At All



“The circle of an empty day is brutal and at night it tightens around your neck like a noose.”

— Elena Ferrante


Today, in a fit of spontaneity, the girls bugged out for a 24-hour getaway to Vancouver Island. Leaving me at home with all the ingredients for a Big Day of my own: tomb-like silence, a gentle drizzle tea-cozying the house and an Aussie shepherd named Camus quietly snoring beside me (we’re dogsitting). I briefly entertain making it a work bee. A to-do list as long as my arm beckons: Mowing it down promises a payoff of feeling productive and virtuous by nightfall.

And then it hits me. Maybe what’s in order here isn’t a Big Day. Maybe what really needed is a kind of Anti-Big Day. Where instead of doing a heroic amount, I set my sights on doing … nothing at all.

And now you’re likely thinking, What? Ya lazy turnip. Clever move there, justifying skiving off instead of getting down to business. Don’t the Finns have a word for this? Yes. It is kalsarikännit. Literally “pantsdrunk.” “That feeling when you decide to just lie about in your underwear with a couple of beers, with no intention of going out.”

The pandemic turned all of us – or at least those of us not pressed into furious service as essential front-line workers —into pantsdrunkards. But now, you have correctly noted, the pandemic is over. So get real.

To which I respond: That’s exactly what I’m trying to do.

The promise is to do nothing, but this day isn’t about doing nothing. Rather, it’s (I’m claiming) about indulging in a high-minded, very personal thought experiment: to stand against our culture’s default state of perfunctory busyness … just to see what that feels like. To give the old stiff-arm to David Allen and Tim Ferriss and their tribe of super-optimized livers. “Make yourself useful”? Today I commit to being useless. On this Big Day, the work isn’t “work” by any reasonable measure. Nor is it leisure, by standard definitions. It’s more like a state of mind. I aspire to savour what Liz Gilbert calls dolce far niente – “the sweetness of doing nothing.”

And “aspire” is exactly the right word. Because this isn’t normal, this dodge, and I don’t expect it to be easy. We humans are verbs. Gotta be goin’, gotta be getting back. We eat the frog, sweat the small stuff, move the needle, ‘git ‘er done.’ Today I will aim to be a noun. I am a sponge, taking the world in through the five (six? seven? eight?) senses.

I brew a coffee and sat in the comfiest chair in the house. Pointedly ignore the to-do list.

Five minutes in, I’m restless.

Experienced meditators know this feeling. They had it in the beginning as well, and they dance with it still. Before they were able to sit retreats for a whole day, or ten, or thirty, it was monkey-mind day at the zoo minute on minute. They trained for years for the kind of day I was coming into cold, like L’il Nas X deciding on a whim to run the NYC half-marathon.

What’s a bit terrifying is that there is no playbook for a day like this, no template for hewing to the ferocious commitment to loaf. Although such a template has been attempted. Tom Hodgkinson, founder of The Idler, spun the idea into a whole book. Here the stations of an empty day (the sleep-in, the nap, tea-time, the ramble, “first drink of the day…” etc.) are laid out in 24 chapters, one for each hour on the clock. How to be Idle didn’t exactly fly off the shelves. Idling sounds great, but it cuts against the way we’re wired. We’re built to restlessly amble across the veldt. We just can’t do nothing.

We can’t even do less. In an experiment that University of Virginia engineering professor Leidy Klotz cooked up, test subjects were offered a free one-day bus tour of Washington, DC. That’s awesome, because there’s a lot to see in that city. But the agenda was way overambitious. The tour had 24 stops. You had, like, 20 minutes at the Air and Space Museum, and then you’d be whisked back on the bus and zoomed to the next thing. Clearly, by trying to see everything, you’d end up basically “seeing” nothing. This was check-it-off tourism.

Having been shown the itinerary, the subjects were then asked: How would you change this if you could? The obvious answer was: Do less. Sacrifice a few activities so that the remaining ones amount to something enjoyable. But people couldn’t. They were reluctant to nix even a single stop from the tour. Nothing seemed sacrificable. They moved things around, but that was it. It was FOMO run amok. No one seemed to have heard novelist Lin Yutang’s observation that “besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone… the wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.”

For most of us, “less is more” only in theory.

This feels like the gluey heart of consumerism: the impulse to keep filling our boots is evidence, maybe, of a sucking lack of Why at the centre of our lives. We run around gathering stuff ballast against the confusion.

I’m getting a little taste of that today. A Do Nothing Day sounds kind of fun as a passing impulse, but when you actually try executing one, you find yourself bumping up against the Why of it. The whole thing feels contrived, an Arbitrary Stupid Goal. When you can’t come up with a good reason for doing something, it’s hard to keep doing it. Clearly, getting through today is going to require a deeper plunge.

The Biblical Sabbath is supposed to be that day of rest given to humans to mimic the day of rest God earned for creating the world. Somehow that mindset fell away – I guess as people gradually stopped going to church. Rabbi Abraham Heschel has said that how folks rest, whether we rest, defines us as moral beings. “What we are,” he said, “depends on what the Sabbath is to us.”

The Hebrew word shabbat means “to cease from.” God ceases from his work because “it is finished.” That may be why a Do Nothing Day is so difficult in this culture. The idea is ingrained in us that our work is never finished, so we kind of never deserve a day off. Until our honeydew list is retired, our inbox brought to zero, we should be working. “To the man of business, there is nothing more offensive than the idea that potentially productive citizens are prone, inactive, staring at the ceiling,” Hodgkinson writes. “Inaction appalls him. He cannot understand it. It frightens him.” If I had a boss, he/she/they would be disgusted by my behaviour. I’m like an underachieving locomotive in those Thomas the Tank Engine books. Sir Tompham Hatt would wave his hand and commission me to the scrap yard.

So be it! I stand against what writer Karen Russell called “the tyranny of the unprofitable moment.” Sir I am not my to-do list sir! Today, like Melville’s beleaguered clerk Bartleby the Scrivener, rising up on his hind legs, my motto is: “I would prefer not to.”

The poets and artists were way ahead of us on a lot of this. They’ve always understand that downing tools needs no justification. “Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for,” said Maya Angelou. “Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.”

“If it’s efficient, you’re doing it wrong,” Jerry Seinfeld once said of creative work, after an interviewer from the Harvard Business Review put it to him that maybe there was a more “efficient” way to produce his TV show than a bunch of writers freestyling in a room.

Creatives have always known it’s not about bearing down. It’s about lightening up.


Noon rolls around. The only thing I’ve demonstrably accomplished is going for a walk. So far, I’m crushing this.

But a niggling admission keeps squeezing in. Doing nothing is … kind of boring.

Here I lean on novelist Ann Enright. “Boredom is a productive state so long as you don’t let it go sour on you.” The mystics say boredom is the starting point. We must sit in boredom until we pass through it into fascination. It all starts with the ability to be bored. The work becomes hanging in there till the adjective falls off, like a leaf from its stem. Then I am bored becomes I am. And now you’ve arrived at someplace new. In his book Man Seeks God, Eric Wiener goes to the Far East to kick the tires of Buddhism. There he meets a mysterious woman who writes a blog called Tao 61. What’s with that title? Couple of things, she says. She likes the Bob Dylan Song “Highway 61 Revisited.” But it’s mostly a reference to the 61st first verse of the Tao te Ching. That’s the one about the female overcoming the male, through stillness.

A meta-theme is starting to emerge here. Maybe what this day is really about is resistance. How we think about it, how we live with it. How we might evolve to engage with it differently.

When I was working on the Olga book, I came to see effort against resistance as one of her anti-aging secrets, practically the secret of life. Resistance is growth. Growth depends on resistance. A kite rises against the wind. The real gains at the gym happen on rep number, ten, the one you thought you couldn’t do. Etc. Resistance is also what overturns tyranny; it’s the necessary work of standing up to bullies in the name of freedom. But it’s also (in the Steven Pressfield sense), an impediment. It’s the headwind we self-destructively steer right into, the obstacle that kiboshes our best intentions. If the Olga example is the Western way of thinking about resistance, the Pressfield example is the Eastern way. Which is more like learning to build up resistance against resistance itself. Taoism says, resistance is like the current when you’re paddling. The way to move upriver is to follow the backeddy near the shore. Where – whoa, never been going slow enough to notice this before – the irises are beginning to peek out.


By evening I’ve found my rhythm. I think I’m starting to grasp the yin-ish virtues of stillness. The sediment is settling out. I’ve had a couple of “rambles” with Camus the rental dog, made a couple of meals. Otherwise, I have put nothing in the books at all.

“Intentional idleness,” if you please. Not every day, but some days.

This is a skill for the 21st century. The one that will separate us from the machines.

People are either a story or an argument

People are either a story or an argument

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“There are two types of people – those who think you can divide the world into two types of people and those who don’t.”

Oldest joke in the book.

But you’ve gotta admit: even most of us who claim to be above a facile “Mars or Venus” sorting of the entire human race still privately do it. You’re a cat person or a dog person. An ally or a foe. A thinker or a doer.

Some of these A-versus-B constructions are dumb clichés.

But some are more interesting. For example:

You’re either, figuratively speaking, French or German. That is, you’re deeply superficial or superficially deep.

Or you’re either a Prophet or a Wizard. That is, you believe our species’s only hope for survival is to play massive defense (though we’re probably doomed); or you believe that we can science our way out of this mess.

Or you’re either a Hedgehog or a Fox – committed to one grand theory or grazing at the buffet of human knowledge.

Or you’re either a Splitter or a Lumper — you look for distinctions or you look for commonalities.

Or you’re a Weaver or a Ripper — bringing people together or tearing them apart.

Or you’re a Bird or a Frog — surveying the breadth of things from a great height or the fine grain from mud-level.

Or you believe in stones or kisses — the world is made up of solid things or transitory events.

Let me add my own. You can decide whether it’s a dumb cliché or worth chewing on.

People are other a story or an argument.

If you’re a story, you crave questions, mystery, competing possibilities.

But if you’re an argument, you want resolution, answers, rhetorical victory. You treat 51 vs 49 like it’s 100 vs. 0. You fear grey.

The novelist Irish Murdoch was working that seam when she divided the world into philosophers vs. artists. One seeks to clarify the world and make it concrete, the other seeks to mystify the world and expand it.

While I was working on my second book, U-Turn, the story vs. argument paradigm seemed to explain a lot of cases of midlife dissatisfaction. Story people found themselves caught in argument jobs — like lawyer, or economist. Or in argument religions (which is to say, any religion with a rigid dogma). Or in argument families. And they finally couldn’t take it any more.

Argument people say, if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t count. Things that can’t easily be measured – like cultural influences, stories, ethics – are discounted by argument people, if not outright dismissed.

Are scientists argument people? Some are. Maybe most. But occasionally one crosses the floor.

For years Michael Shermer penned the “Skeptic” column for Scientific American magazine. His brief was to debunk paranormal claims. To expose as fraudulent all stories not backed up by physical proof.

That all changed on June 25, 2014. His wedding day.

A couple months earlier his new wife, Jennifer Graf, had shipped some belongings to Shermer’s house. One was a 1978 Philips 070 transistor radio that had belonged to her beloved grandfather, Walter, who was the lone male figure in her life and who died when she was sixteen. The radio didn’t work. Nothing they could do – from replacing the batteries to opening the thing up to see if there were any loose connections to solder – would bring it back from “decades of muteness.” They gave up and stored it in the back of a desk drawer in the bedroom.

On the wedding day the couple returned from the courthouse with their marriage certificates to be feted by friends and family at the house. They said their vows and exchanged rings. Jennifer wished her grandfather were there to give her away.

Then they both how to order tramadol from mexico heard it: music. Coming from the back room. Where just minutes earlier, before the ceremony, all was silent. Michael and Jennifer opened the desk drawer and pulled out Walter’s radio, “out of which a romantic love song wafted.”

The next day the radio stopped working, and it never worked again.

What does this mean?” Shermer asked, in his column. “Had it happened to someone else I might suggest a chance electrical anomaly and the law of large numbers as an explanation—with billions of people having billions of experiences every day, there’s bound to be a handful of extremely unlikely events that stand out in their timing and meaning. In any case, such anecdotes do not constitute scientific evidence that the dead survive or that they can communicate with us via electronic equipment.

“Jennifer is as skeptical as I am when it comes to paranormal and supernatural phenomena. Yet the eerie conjunction of these deeply evocative events gave her the distinct feeling that her grandfather was there and that the music was his gift of approval. I have to admit, it rocked me back on my heels and shook my skepticism to its core as well. I savored the experience more than the explanation.”

(This rings off something writer Frank Herbert once said: “The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve but a reality to experience.”)

If we are to take seriously the scientific credo to keep an open mind and remain agnostic when the evidence is indecisive or the riddle unsolved, we should not shut the doors of perception when they may be opened to us to marvel in the mysterious,” Shermer concluded.

On his wedding day, Michael Shermer became a story as well as as an argument.I don’t think he loses his cred as a skeptic by retelling this anecdote the way he does. I think he gains cred as a human being.

In his book Cents and Sensibility: What Economists can learn from the Humanities, Morton Schapiro recounts his involvement with a team doing research for the World Bank back in the 1980s. One of the things they studied was the treatment in Africa of a deadly parasitic disease called onchocerciasis, or “river blindness.” The disease had been robbing millions of people of their eyesight up until the mid-1970s, That was when seven West African nations got together to fight it. They created the Onchocerciasis Control Program, overseen by the WHO. Hundreds of thousands of people were saved from blindness. But the program was almost scrapped. Why? Because the people who were being helped were so poor “that the benefit of saving their eyesight didn’t have much monetary impact.” So when economists involved deployed the only tool in their kid – a cost-benefit analysis” the results were inconclusive.A traditional cost-benefit analysis could easily have led to the discontinuation of a project widely viewed as being among the most successful health interventions in African history,” Schapiro notes.

Economics is a cold and actuarial and inhuman profession. Also, the neoclassical economics I studied is based on the faulty assumption that people will act rationally to “maximize their utility” — which we now know is patently untrue.

But here’s why I really bailed on economics: It was an argument profession. It didn’t understand story.

John Lanchester is a writer who, like me, started off in economics. While a part of him kind of admires the honesty of the money guys – the amoral code – they’re like mafia bosses – another part of him is done with it, for good.

“The project of reducing behavior to laws and the project of attending to human beings in all their complexity and specifics are diametrically opposed.

“I think that if I committed any further to economics I would have had to give up writing fiction.”


Ride the Nearest Bone-Rattler

Ride the Nearest Bone-Rattler


Sometimes we all need a good shakeup.

You might argue that life itself does that job quite well on a regular basis, thanks very much. So let’s try that again. Sometimes what we need is a controlled shake-up – one we know is coming, can prepare for, and be certain the whole deal will be over by tomorrow. Think of it as a reboot, the better to return to work Monday morning feeling like you just got unplugged and plugged back in. And, in this case, to get primed for the fast-approaching Winter Olympics in South Korea.

The Whistler Sliding Centre, home of the toboggan-y events at the 2010 Olympics, is the fastest bobsled track in the world. Officials actually tried to make it slower after Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritsashvili tragically flew off, at 144 kpm, and struck a steel beam during a practice run. But it’s still plenty fast.

I can tell you that first-hand.

That’s because the Centre, a mecca for national-team training and international competitions, lets paying customers take a spin down the track. This is a bit like duffers getting to knock a tennis ball around at Wimbledon, but a fair bit scarier. To try bobsledding at WSC, you sit in the back with an experienced driver up front: nothing required of you but to hang on for dear life.

But skeleton, man. Skeleton is another animal.

Skeleton is like luge but for one small detail: you go head-first. And because it’s a solo event, there is some training involved, as I would discover after my first — and let’s be honest, my last — Big Skeleton Day.


9 am

The newbies muster in a room at the Centre. First order of business: acquire the mindset of an Olympian. This means banishing all notions that this is not a serious sport, that it’s some sort of beer-league goof, even for Olympic champions. That it’s just glorified sledding.

In fact, sledding is to skeleton what baseball is to ballistics. In sledding you don’t hit speeds that, if you were caught doing them on the TransCanada Highway, would net you a $135 ticket.

We will spend the morning learning the basics. Blitzing through the core curriculum.

History: skeleton began as a macho race through the iced-over streets of St. Moritz, Switzerland.

Physics: “You will be pulling several g’s and that will have a different effect on the body,” says Skye, one of the instructors. (Wait, several g’s? That sounds … astronautical. How many g’s are we talking here? Professionals starting from the top pull around five, which is actually more than a space-shuttle launch. Starting from curve 10, we beginners might pull two.)

Question in the back: Are we likely to get hurt? Nah, says Graham, the other instructor. Occasionally a slider can bash an elbow, but that’s rare. If it’s going to happen, it’ll probably happen on Curve 11, called “Shiver.” Most of the curves have names. Curves 12 through 15, known as Gold Rush Trail, are the make-or-break part of the course. Curve 13 is known as 50/50, because Night Train captain Stephen Holcolm said that’s your chances of crashing there. Curve 16 is where the Georgian luger flew off. And then the tough stuff’s over. The last straight bit is actually uphill, to bleed speed before you stop and count buy viagra boots your bones.



We practice positioning ourselves on the sled. It’s as simple as lying there, and it isn’t. The trick is to be soft. To sink into the sled like a bag of sand. The pros actually steer by tiny shifts of their shoulders, or even just by turning their head. But we aren’t to try any of that. “The best thing you can do,” says Graham, “is exhale and just slump.”



After a light lunch, we gear up. There’s the option to wear a “speed suit” — one of those sausage-skin full-body coverings, complete with hoodie, that reduce drag. In competition this shaves precious fractions of a second, which could be the difference between a podium finish and a Greyhound ticket home. But few of us can be bothered to girdle-squeeze into the thing. We go with our ski jackets. Old school, baby. The main thing that needs protecting is the noodle, so everyone wears a motorcycle-style helmet with full chin covering.


It’s like doubling the weight of your head. Holding my head up is actually going to be an issue, I realize, as I belly onto the sled and ease into the start position, staring down the half-barrel of the track.

The ice is six inches from my face. It’s pebbled like a curling rink, for maximum speed. You really don’t want to put your head directly on that at highway speed. “Think of trying to grasp a pencil with the back of your neck,” was Skye’s worthwhile advice. A gentleman named Wiley holds me in position by my shins. This is what it must feel like if, having failed to pay your gambling debts, you get escorted to the edge of a bridge.

A traffic light shows red. Red. Red. Then green.


What the next thirty seconds feels like is tricky to sum up. It’s like clinging to the undercarriage of a freight train, facing down. The overall impression isn’t so much speed as vibration and pressure. You don’t see the curves. They announce themselves, with filling-loosening g-forces.


The weirdest thing is the position of your arms, straight back behind. That’s not where they should be at these speeds. The world’s most experienced diver would be spooked by having to plunge from the 10-metre platform with her hands by her side — yet that’s the deal here. You feel unbelievably exposed.


Actual Olympic skeleton competitors are too busy concentrating to be scared. Make a mistake early and it’s reflected in every subsequent turn; the off-kilterness of your line is magnified. (Another way that skeleton is like life.) It’s scarier for us newbies because it’s simpler. Exhale and slump.


On the other hand, who can’t benefit from feeling more intensely? We spend too much time in our heads. On your first skeleton ride, I guarantee you – and this may be the prime benefit of the whole venture — that for 30 seconds you won’t be worried about your credit rating, or the gaffe you made at work, or the scoundrel your daughter is dating, or anything else. This is pure animal in-the-moment aliveness.


I hit 94 kilometres an hour in the final straightaway. Not Olympic speed, but decent.

It took halfway through the drive home to realize I wasn’t shaking any more.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

What a 94-Year-Old Track Star Can Teach Us About Aging

What a 94-Year-Old Track Star Can Teach Us About Aging

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Not long ago, I came across a little list I’d scribbled in a notebook.“Here is what 47 feels like on a bad day”:

• You prepare a little milk, with a dash of vanilla, in a mug, which you go to heat up in the microwave. There is already a mug of milk, with a dash of vanilla, in there.

• You discover in the bathroom drawer a product you remember buying to give hair more “volume and energy.” You have no hair.

• You run into people you know, but can’t remember the level of intimacy you have with them. (Do we hug? You approach fearfully.)

• You worry you have become too unfit to successfully perform CPR on someone like you.

There were more items on the list, including one that started and simply trailed off. I’d either forgotten what it was or grown too depressed to continue.

Aging happens, of course – I just hadn’t expected its sour breath so soon. Isn’t 50 supposed to be the new 30? Apparently not for me. For whatever reason, I’d gotten old the way the way Hemingway said people go broke: slowly and then quickly.

And then came a stroke of amazing fortune. Olga Kotelko dropped into my life.

Read the rest of the article here:

The Break of Don

The Break of Don

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One man decides, in early midlife, to pursue a crazy dream long deferred. And discovers he has bitten off more than he imagined

From Explore Magazine, Apr. 2009


“Here’s the dream,” said Don Montgomery, “Monty” to his friends. “You’re lying in a hammock, looking out past the palms. Your muscles are sore from the day’s surfing. You began your day with a cup of French-pressed coffee. You had an amazing dinner of seafood caught by the local fishermen. And now you roll over in the hammock and pull a lime off the tree and slice it in two, and you notice some pelicans flying by in formation against the sunset. This is what I’m envisioning.” He took a big bite of his club sandwich.

We were in Gastown, Vancouver’s downtown heritage district. Don was in town with “his boys”—a team of teenage rugby players he coaches, who were here to compete in the provincial finals. Don, tall and tan and tousle-haired, is a high-school phys. ed. teacher in Kamloops, B.C. Or rather, he was. By the time you read this, that First Act of his life, purview of the Old Don, will be closing, and Act Two will have begun. Even then, on that Gastown day in late spring, 5,800 kilometres away as the pelican flies, the dream was under construction. Guys with trowels and shovels had given way to the guys stringing electrical wire and fitting pipe. At the age of 41, Don was about to become a hotelier in the tropics. A man who spends a considerable amount of his working day in board shorts.

This sort of thing happens to people, sometimes—often when they start crowding age 40. Some vague restlessness begets an “Is this all there is?” moment, which begets a dream which becomes an obsession. But rarely do Second Acts entail quite such a flying leap as Don Montgomery’s. He would build a surf lodge in Nicaragua. That he didn’t speak Spanish, wasn’t much of a surfer and had never been to Nicaragua were minor details. His dream wasn’t a dream born of experience: surveying what you like to do and deciding you’d like to do more of it on a daily basis. It was, rather, a kind of whole-cloth imagining of The Good Life. Dreams don’t always make a lot of logical sense; they just make you want very badly to fall asleep so you can dream them again—and to take everyone you care deeply about down the rabbit hole with you. Don thought of his kids, Fabiana and Ella, who are four and nine, marching to the predictable beat of bountiful North American life right into teenagehood; he wanted to give them a glimpse of another world. (As it turned out, Don’s wife had her own dreams, which did not quite jibe with his, and two-and-a-half years ago the couple separated.) He imagined bringing his rugby players down there to surf; or maybe organizing a little soccer tournament—goals hung with fishing nets wheeled out onto the beach at high tide —for people from his pickup soccer league back home.

Who was his surf lodge for, after all, if not people like that? Folks who, like he himself, need a radical change—not necessarily permanent, just something to tap the barometer and see which way it’s moving. “They fly in and the next morning they’re in the water by noon and all their problems are gone,” Don explains. “And after a week they’re completely recharged and are ready to face the next part of their life”—however they have decided to live it.

“After Deena and I split up I asked myself, Who am I?” Don would tell me, later. “I’ve been a teacher for 14 years. What you have to understand about teachers is, they’re extremely conservative. If you’re a teacher, what do you do? You buy a house, you pay it off, you get your pension; and then, often as not, after retirement, you go back to work. These are the people who are in charge of teaching kids to follow their dreams?” Teachers are cheap and conservative; Don is a teacher; therefore… Clearly this syllogism needed rewriting. Who was Don? Maybe just a guy feeling scissored by two competing imperatives: You must be responsible and You must be free.

The dream, when he first dialled it up, had slightly different coordinates. It was Costa Rica he was thinking of—a place where you could once buy fabulous beachfront, cheap. But Costa Rica stopped being “undiscovered” round about 1985. An oceanfront lot in Tamarindo will now set you back a million bucks.

Nicaragua is the new Costa Rica: everyone says so, in varying degrees of breathlessness.

“Why Nicaragua? Why now?” touts one on-line real-estate site. “Because you may not find another chance like this again in your lifetime.” There are “beachfront property bargains here so cheap you’d be crazy not to snap them up.” It’s the wild west, baby, in a good way. You don’t even need a building permit. In a fairly astonishing twist, the new president Daniel Ortega—the former Marxist, Sandinista leader—has become born again and politically re-invented, and is actually inviting foreign investment as the only way to lift his people out of brute poverty. If you locate your dream here, and bring enough tourist dollars into the country, you’ll pay no commercial taxes for 10 years. The whole package is tantalizing, and within the last year, land prices had already started to spike. Had Don missed this bus, too?

“Act on incomplete information,” urges a recent bestselling book on entrepreneurial risk-taking. Its author, a precocious CEO of a Silicon Valley software company, recounts how General Colin Powell “expected his commanders in the field to make decisions when they had 40 per cent of the potentially available information. In life or death situations. And you think you need more information?”

That’s kind of how Don felt. He wanted to do this; he had no real idea how. People who buy land in the tropics often tell stories of being ambushed by things they hadn’t considered, like the salt content in the air that eventually makes all mechanical devices break down, or land deeds that prove not to be worth the paper they’re printed on. But full due diligence takes time that Don frankly didn’t think he had. If he didn’t lay his chips down RIGHT NOW he was going to be dealt out of the game. One thing he was sure he didn’t want to feel was regret. “I don’t want to die knowing there were things I was too scared to try.”


The city of San Juan del Sur, with its world-class surf breaks of Santa Ana and Papoyo, is the pumping heart of Nicaraguan surfing, and so it was naturally here that Don aimed to stake his claim when he came to Nicaragua in July of 2006. But the prices for beachfront were way higher than he’d expected. A little discouraged, he stopped in for dinner at a Mexican restaurant run by an expat-American named Robert Nott, whom everyone in town knew as Roberto.

Good news, the waiter told him. It was “midget night.” Roberto—in a move typical of his own strange enterprising impulses—had hired a dwarf to face all comers in a jalapeno-eating contest. When the spectacle was over (the dwarf got clobbered), the sound system throbbed to life again with hardcore punk, and Don spotted Roberto dancing with himself, in the back.

Roberto wasn’t just a quirky restaurateur, he was a realtor, and the next day Don found himself in Roberto’s office talking turkey. Other realtors here wear crisp shirts and dress pants. Roberto wore a tank top and flip-flops. He was clearly on his own trajectory—a bit of a blowhard and a big-time flirt—but Don liked him. He had a Vince Vaughn-ish kind of bandit charm, and a disarming way of making people laugh within 10 seconds that, Don says, “I wish I could tap.” Roberto’s life, like Don’s, was in reboot. In his last two stops he had, by his telling, been railroaded by a “squirrel bait” business partner and a conniving wife, and his marriage had followed the money down the drain. (“Every time I get screwed for four or five hundred thousand,” Roberto told me later. “It sets me back a bit”) — and he was now rebuilding. That kind of information would raise a red flag to some potential clients, but Don viewed it as a plus. “I thought, ‘Here’s a guy who’s hungry, he’s got really young kids and he wants to get back what he lost.” Roberto seemed to have an impressive nose for the trendlines: he’d been in early in Oaxaca, Cabo, Costa Rica, San Juan del Sur. When Don told Roberto about his dream and his budget, Roberto was clear. “You gotta go up north.” Indeed, he had the perfect property in mind for Don. “I guarantee that when I show it to you,” Roberto told Don, “we’re not going to have to go any further.”

Jiquilillo (pronounced “Hick-a-LILL-lo) is a fishing village of a hundred or so families. It seems like one of those settlements you find in Greece or Italy, where daily life has repeated itself for ten generations. By day, kids in diapers chase chickens around tiny huts with tarps for doors. In the trapped heat of evening, people rock themselves asleep in hammocks while teleromans play silently on TVs propped up on boxes—giving the scenes the air of sitcom sets: living rooms without walls.

Roberto squired Don through the town and then pulled the car onto an overgrown little washboard road, toward the sound of the surf. “As we pulled up I got chills,” Don said. “I knew. I knew. I couldn’t get out of the car.”

Could it be? All this—a slice of paradise right out of Central Casting—for $15,000? Back home in B.C. that much would get him…a deck. True, it wasn’t land he could have clear title to; almost all beachfront land in Nicaragua is “concession” land: government-leased. And in theory the leased status means that at any time a hotel chain could buy the land for the amount the owner originally paid for it plus improvements. But “Roberto figures there’s basically zero per cent chance of that ever happening in our lifetimes,” Don told me. Back in town, Roberto’s lawyer traced the provenance of the land—looking for telltale trouble-signs like a lot of different owners in quick succession—and pronounced it clean. As soon as the paperwork was done, they could start building the lodge.

They shook on the deal. Roberto scribbled out a note about where to wire the money. Back home in Kamloops, on his lunchbreak from school, Don slipped out to the Royal Bank, took out that piece of paper, and released the funds.

Then he went back to the school and promptly got a very bad feeling about everything. Roberto’s big selling point was that he wore every hat. He was the man who found the land that sparked the sale and knew the lawyer and would hire the guys to clear the land and plant the trees and lay the bricks to build the house that Monty dreamed. Which made it easy. And problematic. To depend so much on one guy was like researching your entire school report from one source—and it wasn’t the Encyclopedia Britannica; it was The Boys’ Big Book of Things to Know. But Don had felt he had no choice. If you don’t speak the local tongue, you’re stuck. “You just have to find someone you can trust,” Don said. “I went with my gut.”

Don is an inveterate optimist: it’s an appealing trait. But now the thought occurred to him: I just sent my investment to a guy I’ll never see again. Worse, he hadn’t just bought one lot: he’d bought five: four in Jiquilillo and one in nearby Santa Maria. He kept checking the phone for messages that everything was okay. A week went by. “It’s gone,” he thought of his money. He grew furious. He imagined going back to Nicaragua to hunt Roberto down, vigilante-style, and, well (retribution, Canadian-style) maybe smash his patio furniture. Then the phone rang. It was Roberto. He’d been up-country, out of reach. The money? Oh yeah, got it, no problem, thanks, it was all a go. Alone in the house, Don let out a shout that shook the windows.

Don returned to Nicaragua in December. He had a surf lodge to build. In San Juan del Sur, Don and Roberto started blue-skying ideas of what it might look like. Roberto grabbed a napkin and drew a picture. An architect would charge at least $500 to create real plans. But “my neighbour’s kid is in architecture school,” Roberto said, “and I’m sure he’d do it for a hundred bucks.” They walked the napkin over. The next day the kid came back with blueprints.


The beach at Jiquilillo is fine white sand that stretches unbroken for nine kilometres—and much farther at low tide, when you can walk all the way to Santa Maria, a little thumb that juts into the pacific like a new Key West in the making. The pounding surf sends up a mist that hovers over the foreshore, so that looking back down the beach from the nearby estuary is like looking down the barrel of a gun through the smoke of the discharge.

Don is of the view that he got the best spot on the whole beach, and it’s a hard claim to dispute. A grove of palm trees shades the lodge and right out front is a tidy beach break. The swells march in, one hard by another—shoulder-height and consistent. The most surprising thing about the beach is that it’s empty. Earlier in the week a young couple from the surfing hotspot of San Juan del Sur had visited to check out the scene here in the north. The guy had recently been nearly decapitated by the fin of the board of another surfer who’d dropped in on his wave. On hot surf days those southern beaches, it seemed, were becoming almost unsurfable.

The distinction of Don’s first-ever lodge-guest has fallen to his gym-teaching colleague, Stephane, who has come to beta-test the lodge before the first paying customers arrive in December (and who, by the second day, was already out scouting for land around here himself). Don has aggravated an old gymnastics injury, and his stiff neck prevents him from joining his pal in the saltchuck. He stands watching as Stephane paddles out on the longboard, duck-diving through the first rank of waves toward the more uniform breakers beyond. It’s donkey work, the hard front-end load of surfing. In Stephane’s case, it helps that he has shoulders the size of mature pineapples. Further to the south, because of the way the currents run, the water temperature is more variable; at Christmastime the water in San Juan del Sur is often quite cool. But here the water is an unchanging 25 or so degrees Celsius—which means you can stay in surfing all day, or at least until your muscles gas out.

Two more fellow teachers from Kamloops—Tracy and Stephanie—arrive a few days later. They’re both newbie surfers, so they are getting the “Full Monty”—dryland training and then a little hands-on guidance in the low surf. Don is eventually going to have to hire an actual surf instructor (perhaps Roberto’s neighbour’s son, who is, according to Roberto, one of the top surfers in the country). But in the meantime, for surfers of this level, he’s actually pretty good at explaining things, in the manner of gym teachers who confidently teach sports they may not excel at. He has Tracy “popping up” like a champion, albeit on land.

It’s somehow fitting that one man’s search for the good life—to the extent that the search for the good life is also about the search for meaning—should somehow involve surfing. Not long ago, David Milch, who created NYPD Blue and Deadwood, appeared on a talk-show to discuss his new series John From Cincinnati, a dark and quasi-mystical surfing drama set in a gritty Southern California town. What drew him to the subject of surfing? “The wave is the only visible embodiment of what physicists tell us all matter is composed of,” Milch said. Okay, but what’s the show actually about? “If God were trying to reach out to us, and if he felt a certain urgency about it,” Milch said. “That’s what it’s about.” Milch had been a drug addict in early life, and when he discovered surfing he found himself chasing the dragon all over again. “The essence of surfing is so compelling,” he said, “that it makes all other parts of life pale by comparison.”

Don is surely onto something here, zeitgeistwise, for surfing seems a perfect sport for boomers clinging to the illusion that they can somehow forestall infirmity. Yet at the same time it’s hard to imagine another sport that so squarely confronts you with your own physical decline. Kids make it look as easy as it theoretically is: you just “pop up” while you still have the stable power of the breaking wave under the board. The sad truth for most boomers is, by the time you pop up, it’s all over. Still, just being out there is its own kind of high. Your worries aren’t gone, exactly: you just can’t hear them for the drumbeat of the sea.

“We need to name this surf break,” Don said. “That’s how you get your place mentioned in the guidebooks, I think. All the beaches down south, the breaks have their own names. But nobody has named this one.”

“Monty’s Crack?” Stephane offers.

Don prefers the coinage someone came up with the other day, and in the absence of a strong veto, it becomes the winning candidate. Behold, he thinks, with no small satisfaction, looking out from his land: “The Break of Don.”

There is no book that tells you how to run a surf lodge in Nicaragua. There are guides to visiting Nicaragua, and to living in Nicaragua, but to start a business here requires a certain amount of extrapolation, and intuition, and luck.

When I arrived in June, Don picked me up at the airport in Managua, in Roberto’s Kia. The city smelled like a steam room in which big men had been burning diesel to cook meat. He was navigating with the map from the car-rental place, which wasn’t much help since there are no street signs in the city—and anyway, a lot of the streets have the same name. He had been beetling around non-stop here for two weeks. The neck strain was worsening. His posture was cadaverously stiff, which gave him the air of a poker-faced president, in diplomatic talks, about to cancel a billion-dollar defence contract, and the only thing preventing him is that he can’t shake his head.

He was exhausted, but quietly pumped. “Less than a year ago today was when I first came to Nicaragua,” he said. “I was searching for something, and I knew it was out there, and I found it. Maybe when you want something badly enough, it comes.” He had now made three trips here: to buy the land, to make plans, and finally, this time, to host his first trial customers at a hotel he had taken on faith was being built.

We drove through the night, past roadside billboards of Ortega with an upraised fist (“Rise up, poor of the world!), and spavined horses pulling buggies, and young men dangling iguanas by their tails, selling them for soup. Managua was never properly rebuilt after the 1972 earthquake that collapsed it; instead it just spread out into a sea of low-rises and markets: the ecstatic catastrophe of urban Central America. Which makes driving challenging. The car carried no insurance—you can’t always collect if you have insurance, so why bother?—and in lieu Roberto had affixed a little “Jesus” decal on the back, near where the licence plate would be, if there were one. (Later in the week we would be pulled over. The officer looked at me sternly and demanded three dollars. “Por que?” asked Don. “Coca-Cola,” the cop replied.) “You’ll notice that people are honking all the time,” Don said, honking indiscriminately himself. “But they’re not mad. They’re just talking. See, the people here have more fun than we have. They’ve figured out how to be happy.”

On the roads, as in the stores, no one appeared to be in any hurry. “Manana” and “Tranquilo” are the unofficial national mottoes, and it seemed an ethic to aspire to unless you were, say, trying to set up a hotel before leaving the country in three weeks, and actually had to get some stuff done.

For Don, it had been a month of surprises, not all of them pleasant.

Progress had been slower than expected. Back in June, Roberto had called to say that work had been temporarily suspended while everyone “waited out the typhoon.” (This did not bode well: the rainy season had not even officially started by then.) It was also Roberto’s sad duty to report that the first builder he’d hired had absconded with a pile of building materials—which he was using to start another project. Don’s costs were nosing toward double the original estimate.

The lodge itself—a four-room cabana with a raised thatch palapa out front—was in place. But there were signs Roberto hadn’t fully grasped the design aesthetic Don was after—which you might call Gilligan’s Island Modern. He had installed fluorescent lighting, which is cheap but which, in Don’s estimation, “sucks your will to live.”

The bar was in place, but kind of in the wrong place: right in the middle of the floor, splitting it up. “Hm.” Don furrowed his brow. “On the napkin it looked perfect.”

There was plumbing, but for a while no water flowed because someone had spilled cement inside the pipes.

There was electricity, but the tradesman hadn’t properly insulated the wiring, and one day a piece of sheet-metal roofing touched an exposed wire and fire shot out of the fuse box and the guest rooms went dark—and they would stay dark until one of the builders showed up to fix it. The main builders, a gentleman named Veintiuno (Twenty-One) and his son, Veintidos (Twenty-Two), seemed to come to work when it damn well pleased them. “It’s like anywhere,” Don said. “When the boss is away, the mice will play.”

Don had heard one too many stories of people who start surf lodges in Central America and to staff them transplant folks from back home who are more interested in surfing than working. “I can’t tell you how many friends have said, ‘I want to work for you. But I want to hire locals. This is really, really important to me.” Don conveyed that wish to Roberto, who dutifully hired on Don’s behalf a local woman named Juana to be the cleaner and cook. Juana oversaw the building of the lodge, and then promptly moved her family in: not all of them, just two of her 15 kids, including a young son Ramon who was soon eating Don out of house and home. (Also part of the package was a white-faced monkey named Charlie, which used to belong to Roberto but lives in the surf lodge now, like a firehouse Dalmation, and has already generously shared his fleas.)

The actual provisioning of the lodge was proceeding haphazardly. Don had nailed some details, like seashells lining the path to the surf, but forgotten some basics, like towels. There was a garlic press, but no cereal bowls. He sometimes seemed like an orphaned kid who suddenly finds himself in charge of both parents’ responsibilities: running the household and running the business.

“I’m going to be fluent in Spanish within a year,” Don announced confidently, not long ago. A couple of months in to that pledge, we’re a little…behind sched. The language barrier is a problem. It’s hard, for example, to find a tire-repair shop when you don’t know the word for tire. Simple questions morph into deeply mysterious riddles that occupy just way too much RAM. Why do the Stop signs say Alto when alto means up? Why do they sell milk in bags but not the little plastic pitchers the bags sit in? One day it took close to 10 minutes to figure out what supplies the workmen were asking for—“two libra de clabo, four pugabo.” Ramon was recruited to write it out, his note was deciphered via Spanish/English dictionaries, and the answer eventually emerged: two pounds of four-inch nails.

One afternoon Don popped into a notary’s office in nearby Chinendega to wrap up some paperwork on the land sale. It occurred to him to ask whether he needed a business licence.

“Licence commercial?” he said.


He pantomimed someone eating, sleeping and surfing Chez Don. “Clients de Canada, payer money aqui.” He pointed at his chest. “That’s a business, eh?”


“A licence importante?”

“Si. Muy importante.”

“Mi payer Juana. No bueno?”

“No, no.”

“Okay,” Don said. “So what do I do?”

It wasn’t entirely clear. It seemed to involve going to immigration in Managua and filling out paperwork. He made a mental note to investigate this further, adding the matter to the list of things that needed to be done before paying guests arrive en masse at Christmastime.

Many times a day Don and Juana peered at each other across a gulf: he unable to tell her, for instance, to please not use half a bottle of oil in her cooking each night. Don celebrated his own breakthroughs. “I’m no longer speaking Spanish like a one-year-old!” he said triumphantly one afternoon. “I’m Speaking Spanish like a two-year-old!” Once I caught him practising his Spanish on the monkey. He was, often and unaccountably, brimming with good cheer. “It seems complicated now—the language barrier and all,” he said. But give me a month. It’s going to be a piece of cake.”

“What makes a place like this great?” Don asks, beer in hand, in a rocking chair on the patio one evening. The night seems almost to answer the question itself. It is an orchestra scored for crickets and waves. Overhead, the sky looks like a painter’s dropsheet, it is so staggeringly full of stars.

“Well, good food’ll take you a long way,” says Stephanie, who has engineered tonight’s meal of fried snapper. “The first thing you need to do is hire a real cook.” True enough, Juana is not going to knock Mario Batali off Iron Chef anytime soon. The food, at least until the guests took over the kitchen, was dire. But it’s going to be extraordinarily tough to fire Juana: maybe he can reassign her to other jobs that play to her strengths, such as keeping pigs off the property with the slingshot.

Everyone agrees, too, that there need to be other things for guests to do besides surf when they wake up on Day Two unable to lift their arms above their waists. Sunset horseback rides? Barracuda fishing in the estuary? For sure a brisk hike is in order—and not far away a fairly awesome one presents itself. On a little peninsula northwest of Jiquilillo lies the dormant volcano Cosiguina that, before it blew in 1835, sending ash as far as Jamaica and Mexico City, was one of the largest volcanoes in Central America. Nicaraguans themselves virtually never climb it—indeed, the whole concept of going on a strenuous “hike” for “pleasure” makes the faces of local Nicas cloud with confusion—but guides will take groups of visitors into the dry coastal rainforest around the volcano that is now a national park.

Don has arranged a little scouting tour for tomorrow, to see whether the volcano trip is worth offering. The outing is being brokered by Nate Yue, who comes round to collect everybody’s money.

Nate, a 24-year-old Asian-American who runs a nearby backpacker’s hostel called Rancho Esperanza, is a quiet fixture in Jiquilillo. He first came to Nicaragua in 2001 with a small American NGO to help clean up the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch. Rebuilding efforts stalled when the NGO pulled out, but Nate had established roots in the community, and had seen the ongoing need, and he came back again.

Rancho Esperanza is the kind of place that, had he cut loose for a short surf vacation before the Salt March, Gandhi might have chosen to stay. For one thing, visitors here volunteer their time in any number of community projects, such as helping children to read. And the place barely leaves a footprint. Grey water from dishes irrigates the trees and the organic vegetable garden. The pump that sends well water to the shower tank is a bicycle that you sit on and pedal (it takes 20 minutes to fill the tank). Also, the rates Nate charges guests are so modest they barely cover costs—which is okay, because he’s not in it to make a profit.

Nate is the conscience of Jiquilillo, and therefore the conscience of everyone in it, including Don. In the Indie movie about this place, the hero would be Nate. The villain would be the shrimp farmers, denuding the foreshore and pumping the larvae full of antibiotics that may change the ecology of the whole surrounding area.

Don would be the guy in the middle, running between the raindrops. Trying to do the right thing (10 per cent of his surf lodge’s profits he’ll return to the village) without bankrupting himself. Trying to negotiate the modern capitalist predicament, to find a place somewhere between impossible idealism and rank opportunism. To promise fun without quite making the Jet-Ski crowd feel welcome. To keep it real—to remind people what real is (and real includes fruit shakes with seven-year-old Flore de Cano rum in them: why not?) without instituting forced marches through the slums of Managua, and mandatory mea culpas every night at nine.

Nate gathers $35 from everybody. He moves slowly, and there’s a heaviness about him, the vaguely hangdog mien that comes from living a whole life at that extreme end of the ethical spectrum, where an imagined paradise ultimately, inevitably becomes a burden. He reminds everybody to be at his place tomorrow at 4:30 a.m., sharp. He’ll supply the water.

The hike up Cosiguina is no mere stroll. Everyone is slickered in sweat as we approach the crater rim. Black vultures gyre overhead, singling out the old and weak among the hikers by scanning for baldspots. Lime-green macaws dart in the warm winds sweeping up the cone.

By 11 a.m. we’re standing on top, with a view of three countries, two oceans and a gulf. Scanning wide, you can see Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast shading up into Honduras—the Mosquito Coast (where, as Theroux’s character Allie Fox put it in the novel of that name, “if what you want isn’t washed up on the beach, you probably don’t need it.”). And, westward, the pencil line of blond beach in El Salvador that some surfers have already deemed the new, new thing.

And you can see the peninsula of Jiqualillo. The little pinch of land that’s preventing it from being an island is perilously thin. From here the full extent of the network of estuary veins that runs all through the land is clear.

Earlier in the week, a local man named Nicolas, in a gimme cap and flip-flops, wandered in to Don’s surf camp. He had some beachfront he was looking to sell, and wanted an honourable buyer who wouldn’t just flip it for profit. Don and Stephane went to check it out, walking the beach at low tide to get there, past the shrimp farm, which was guarded by a sombre-looking young guy with a machine gun.

The land happened to sit beside a fabulous surf break that Don had paid a boatman to run him out to the previous week: an ideal spot, in other words, for a surf lodge. But it was no accident that Nicolas had insisted on coming here at low tide. It wasn’t clear how you’d get here otherwise; at high tide a lot of this land would be underwater. Right next to the property Nicolas was selling, mangrove trees spidered out of the water of the estuary, which bloomed into a big lagoon where the shrimp farmers grew their larvae. It could have been the Everglades. It was impossible to avoid the thought that what’s on offer here, in the beachfront real-estate market of northern Nicaragua, is like the proverbial swampland in Florida.

The sea is reclaiming the land at a truly startling clip. A glance down the beach reveals the recent history. At intervals, 30 or 60 or 90 feet offshore, nosing out of the seabed like reefs, are the concrete foundations of homes and hotels that used to dot this coast back when Jiquilillo was a holiday playground of wealthy Nicaraguans—as recently as 15 years ago.

“In the tsunami of 1992, everything was wiped out,” Nate told me. The few who tried to rebuild were punished six years later when Hurricane Mitch pounded ashore and wiped everything out again. After that, all bets were off. It’s no great surprise that beachfront land is vulnerable, and therefore a gamble—the story’s the same now all over the world. But the speed of the erosion here, thanks to the land being entirely cleared for commercial development, is truly breathtaking. No obvious solutions present themselves. The Southern California strategy of continuously trucking in sand is hardly feasible. And the government isn’t going to spend millions on a big breakwater.

It’s one of the reasons Nate sees his own Nicaraguan venture as coming to a natural close. Not long ago, a winter storm sent ocean water over his own property, which is about 600 feet inland.

“If you ask any Nicaraguan,” he says, “they’ll tell you: Jiquilillo: It’s a beautiful place, but it’s perdito. It’s lost.”

Don has started keeping a detailed list of what he needs. A real clothesline, not barbed wire that rips the sheets. A safe for people’s passports. A reliable stereo and a place to lock it up so it won’t get ripped off. Pots that actually distribute heat.

The to-do list grows. Build that fence and seal those rafters, fix the upstairs railings and visit the local school. Make compost bins and move the bar. Buy stools and surfboards and tiki torches and a BB gun and flycovers and plants and towels and a coffee press and a machete and a bicycle and wall hooks and lobster pliers and a guest book and bug zappers and binoculars and self-repair tire gel and a new double burner stove. String up another hammock. Get that business licence. Make a sign. Start building the breakwater. Round up an antenna so the phone works. Expand the kitchen. Find a mate for the monkey. Find a caretaker for the lodge in the off-season. Get the other cabanas going. And NAIL this Spanish language.

Returning from Cosiguina—after three hours of rattling around in a broiling pickup bed with nine watermelons, a spare tire, a barrel of water and a chicken—he discovers that the workers have finished his back and front fence. You can tell by their expression they are pleased with their work, and they are hanging around, eager to see Don’s reaction. (Plus which, they have yet to be paid for yesterday’s materials.) Don frowns. The workers have successfully captured the Gilligan’s Island aesthetic he was after, but “that,” he declares, jabbing a finger at the fence, “is not going to hold a cow out.” They haven’t followed his plans. It was supposed to be a two-part gate, and way more skookum. “Muy…masculino!” he explains to them, pantomiming a fatter gauge of log. “Tell them, Steph.” The guys are going to have to re-do it, that’s for sure, and they’re going to have to be okay with that, because he is the boss. Having to be a hard-ass is, frankly, making the whole enterprise a little less fun.

He stalks around a little bit with a shovel, almost losing his temper.

“I’m sorry, I’m just a bit stressed right now because I need to get gas for the generator because we won’t have power for dinner on Monday when the schedule changes. The roof needs fumigating. We’re almost out of food. Veintiuno never showed up and the lights don’t work. And that’s just scratching the surface: a lot of little things weren’t done or were done wrong while I was away.” The sound of spinning tires gets everyone’s attention. Two people who were borrowing the car to get groceries have tried an eccentric route out of the driveway and marooned it in the sand. The car needs to be ready in the morning to drive to the airport. Efforts to free it only manage to crater the wheels more deeply. It’s getting dark. It’s starting to rain. Don’s temple begins to throb.

And then something happens. It’s a big thing, though not a tangible thing. It has something to do with the dream, the idea of the “life well-lived”: What we ought to do, what we might do, what we can do.

Why Nicaragua? Because it’s paradise? Because it’s cheap? Or because it has something to teach nose-to-the-stone Westerners? In a country of woeful poverty and clockwork devastation by natural disasters you can see, in the faces of people, a simple, humble fatalism. It is a kind of happiness. It’s what he wants so badly for his girls to witness. And maybe, here, it’s all you really need to keep in mind.

Don lets go of the car bumper. The tension leaves his face. He smiles. “Forget it,” he says, brushing sand off his legs. “We’ll get up early and do it in the light.”

“Manana,” says Donald Montgomery of Jiquilillo, “Monty” to his friends. “Tranquilo.”Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Forty is the new Sixty

Forty is the new Sixty

Featured Uncategorized

Think pulling an all-nighter would damn near kill you? Welcome to Middle Age

From TORO, March 2004

There was a moment a year or two ago when the world suddenly belonged to forty-year-olds. Forty-year-old actors—Hanks, Cruise, Cage—commanded the Hollywood A-List. Forty-year-old writers—Michael Chabon, Yann Martel—were bagging the big book prizes; Billy Collins wrote his first real poems at 40, en route to becoming U.S. Poet Laureate (succeeded this year by the 40-year-old Louise Gluck). George W. Bush had skived off until he was forty before jogging right into the White House, And you could make a legitimate case that a guy pushing forty was the best player in each of the four major professional sports (Barry Bonds, Mario Lemieux, Rich Gannon, Michael Jordan). It looked as if Gen-X bellwether Doug Coupland had nailed the zeitgeist again when he said, a few months before turning forty himself, “Forty is the new thirty. The remark seemed less epigrammatic than somehow affirming. Buck up, my thinning-haired brethren: you are just now reaching cruising altitude.

Was this just some kind of weird historical hiccup? The only ones who didn’t believe so were forty-year-olds. And sure enough, the cultural ecosystem soon returned to its natural state. Forty-year-old athletes such as Gannon, Randy Johnson, who looked dominant about a year ago, came apart like clocks. In the movies, Nic and Hugh and The Toms were punk’d by a platoon of younger leading men. The world went back to reading twentysomething authors (Nell Freudenberger) for their buzz, or sixtysomething authors (J.M. Coetzee) for their gravitas. And as the last forty-year-old entrepreneurs, refusing to succumb to the tech bust, finally went under, old guys reassumed their rightful control of global finance. (A year ago, a 40-year-old Russian oligarch Mikael Khordorkovsky was one of the world’s most powerful businessmen; but he was recently brought to heel by President Putin, an old KGB guy.)

The Illusion that forty-year-olds matter seems transparent once again. For every forty-year-old who is really cooking, there are two who are resigned to the leftovers from someone else’s plate—or licking yesterday’s gravy from their own.

At forty, there is the unmistakable stench of denoument. If we’re writers, we have hit the Graham Greene Barrier. You are a young writer until you hit forty, Greene said, and thereafter you are a writer who failed to fulfill your early promise. At the press conference following his last great game as a pro ballplayer last year, the just-turned-forty Michael Jordan wanted to make one thing perfectly clear: “I don’t feel forty,” he said. “I feel good.”

That’s the thing. For most of us, most of the time, forty does not feel good. Forty isn’t the new Thirty. Forty is the new Sixty. At forty, life consists of the continuous and never-ending arrival of crews of guys in reflective jackets, shutting down roads. There’s more you can’t do now than you can do, and anyone not preparing for a new later-life role is in denial. You are not who you once were. Consumer culture no longer cares what you drink, watch or do. You will never have “buzz”; the best you can hope for is a sort of low tinnitus.

These people are forty: Emilio Estevez, M.C. Hammer, Leif Garrett.

Conan O’Brien is forty. Writer Frank DiGiacomo recently described his face as “half adolescent, half middle-aged,” as though frozen in the turn. O’Brien was once an angry young satirist, a Harvard Lampoon grad bound for The Simpsons. The rebel’s anger peaks in one’s twenties, and may carry into the thirties. But if you’re still angry at forty,” Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter said recently, “you need to see a shrink.”

The fire diminishes, the dishes pile up.

The midlife crisis of the forty-year-old ought not to be confused with what used to strike guys around fifty, a time when they had legitimate reasons to feel old because actual body parts were quite obviously breaking down. At forty the decline is more acutely psychological, a sort of desperate reckoning. The deadline that loomed when you were twenty and still fishing for a career (“I don’t want to be doing this when I’m forty,” you said, whatever lucrative-enough but untaxing job you happened to be doing) has arrived. So the goal is to reinvent yourself, to get out of the arena that would showcase your decline and switch to another area in which, starting aging, you will be judged on a beginner’s terms. (Forty is when actors, losing their looks, decide to direct.)

If you are a forty-year-old man, these are the sorts of things that start happening to you:

You openly speculate about what the neighbours are up to.

You sleep in flannel.

You occasionally eat in restaurants on the top floor of department stores.

You are sexually playful with your wife in a way you imagine your grandparents might have been, passing each other in the hall, grabbing an erogenous zone with a Harpo Marx toot.

You start to prefer baked potatoes to fries.

You have your eye on James Taylor’s October Road.

You stop totally discounting the idea of taking a cruise.

You think a little dog wouldn’t be too bad.

You think it might profit you to play Scrabble in the evenings, to “stay sharp.”

You worry that someone is going to smash your glasses.

People ask to borrow your pen, and then you see them absentmindedly cleaning their ear with the cap—and you do not get angry at this. You think: I’m glad I’m not the only one who does that.”

You think: ‘It would damn near kill me to pull an all-nighter.’

You consider subscribing to a couple of magazines for the sun hat or the clock radio.

You find wide-wale cords sufficiently dressy for most occasions.

If figure skating is on TV when you surf the channels, you sometimes stop there.

You sometimes catch yourself saying, “Here’s an interesting anecdote…”

Kids tire of you.

You keep hearing a joke about two senior citizens. They meet weekly on a bench in the park. They are fast (if situational) friends, and one day, mortally embarrassed, one says to the other, “Please don’t be angry with me, dear, but after all these years, what is your name? I’m trying to remember but I can’t.” And the other looks a little horrified, and stares deeply into the first one’s eyes, and lets about two minutes of increasingly uncomfortable silence pass. And then says: “How soon do you have to know?”

You don’t find this joke funny—because it reaches down your throat and gives your heart a squeeze.