The Midlife Protection Program
It was last December and I was checking in at the Roanoke Airport. I was looking forward to a little jaunt to Las Vegas and I was excited because I was planning to absorb a little atmosphere for a novel I was thinking of writing.
As you will see if you go to my category “Am I Sam?,” one of my writing quirks is that I like to place myself in a position of mixing fact with fiction and make myself the subject of dark and self-deprecating humor. I had an idea of writing a book about a character named Sam Krisch and his encounter with his double Sam KIRSCH, a spelling and pronunciation of my last name I have encountered my entire life. I had in mind an entertaining book in the vein of Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock, Jose Saramago’s The Double, or Chuck Paliniuk’s Fight Club, all of which are entertaining, provocative narratives that play with identity and create humor or horror with the confusion and interplay between the “real” person and his “double.”
I took my bag to TSA inspection. The agent placed the bag on the inspection station and looked at it. He paused and checked a list on a clipboard. He looked at the bag again. He put a pair of rubber gloves on and said to me: “Sir, is there anything sharp in the bag? I’m going to have to inspect it.” I shook my head and said no, and I wasn’t worried because I had nothing to hide. He took his time and unzipped the bag and called over another agent. They very gingerly took everything out of my bag and carefully examined the contents. They then took their Stridex pads and wiped them on every seam, every zipper, and both of them nervously placed their hands in each of the exterior pockets. The machine showed no evidence of any problem with the bag.
They gave me a second look and said: “Okay. You can go now.”
I smiled and walked to security to get on the plane. What was all that about?
Two days before the encounter at the airport, I had seen a report on television about John Darwin, a man who had disappeared five years before and turned up with great fanfare, claiming that he had been separated from his family because of amnesia.
The report said an investigation by police had shown that Mr. Darwin faked his own death and then went into hiding for five years. His wife had collected on his life insurance policies and had moved to Panama. The couple ultimately received sentences of 6 1/2 years and both cases are currently under appeal. The reporter talked about a crime called “identicide” in which people simply disappear, assume new identities, and live without detection. Often, loved ones are in collusion and collect on insurance policies. People change identities to escape prosecution, bill collectors, or live a new life with someone other than their spouse. The reporter mentioned several books about how to assume a second identity. I will not mention the titles, but feel free to Google them, if the rest of this paragraph doesn’t faze you. I had ordered the books through Amazon and upon my return I read in one of the books that one of the reasons to keep either a second identity or to simply to leave the old one behind was because of increased surveillance by the government under the Patriot Act.
Could my order through Amazon have placed me on a watch list?
When word came earlier this year about Steve Fossett’s disappearance, my mind started to wander. This was a man who had traveled the world in a hot air balloon and suddenly went missing without a trace. A massive search had revealed nothing. I couldn’t believe that an experienced pilot would simply vanish into thin air. Perhaps he had some crime to conceal. Perhaps he had a second family sequestered under an assumed name. There were mistresses and there was a fortune. Mr. Fossett was a wily trader; perhaps there are laundered offshore accounts.
I fantasized about him flying VFR under radar to the sea. He had survived several water landings during his attempts to fly around the world. He could have flown to a specific coordinate, ditched his plane in the water, met a waiting boat, and reemerged with a new identity elsewhere.
Recently, Mr. Fossett’s identification, enclosed in plastic, and a wad of $100 bills were found off trail by a day hiker. The plane’s wreckage was found at another location nearby. There were some remains found. Case closed?
Times Online contains a recent story: “Facts ruin otherwise good Steve Fossett conspiracy theories”. The article points out the holes in theories like mine, but the article ends with the thought that at the time of publication, the remains have not been positively identified. Maybe reports of Steve Fossett’s death are greatly exaggerated.
Now I am off to Argentina to learn about a foreign culture, a foreign language, and the Tango. I am performing a disappearing act of my own, except I am traveling under my own passport. I am doing that other thing, the escape that almost everyone thinks about in midlife.
My friends are enthusiastic about my trip and they say I will come back a changed man.
Will I meet my double while abroad? Will he assume my identity and travel back using my passport? Has he already assumed my identity and is going in my place? Is the “I” who is writing this actually Sam Krisch, or is it a different writer using a pseudonym? We will find out.
--Gustave Flaubert, DICTIONARY OF RECEIVED IDEAS
Last evening, I received an e-mail from my friend Sarah Hazlegrove, who took the photos in my page Burning My Bridges. She is a photographer who spends about half her time in the U. S. and half her time in France. She spoke of the disconnect one feels when one visits a new culture, or returns to a familiar one after having been away.
She wrote that at first: ”I always have at least two weeks of the major ex-pat blues: Why am I here? Where do I belong?” It was strange timing. The e-mail came just as I was having the same thoughts.
This reminded me of a note I wrote last week about the serious traveler:
–The traveler ventured out to find a new home, feeling out of sync with his old one. Now he was a stranger twice. Estranged from his home and a stranger in his destination.
This is the ex-pat’s paradox, never feeling completely at home in either culture, at least at first.
Sarah wrote: “There are people who feel very comfortable living their lives in one place, I can’t imagine that…Welcome to the ever widening circle of part-time ex-pats.”
Indeed, it seems larger all the time. When you are attending a for-profit language school, you meet students, gap-year travelers, dilettantes, retirees, and mission volunteers. For example, Bill is a tall, gregarious 49-year old from California. He stopped practicing law, was a commercial mortgage broker for five years, and then last year “got off the ship before it went over the edge.” Since then he has traveled through Eastern Europe and is now taking a sabattical South America. He plans to return to law practice.
One reason I embarked on this journey is to inquire as to how difficult it is to learn new things at 50. Bill says he finds it no harder to learn Spanish than it was for him in high school, but that “now it’s more enjoyable.”
There are also those who wish to be ex-pats for reasons romantic or financial. The administrator at our school, Milagros, and I had a long conversation the other day about the difficulties of learning language and adapting to a new culture. She spoke about her good friend John, a New Yorker who spent a year in Buenos Aires learning Spanish. He is very confident and articulate at home, but here he complained that for a long time he felt stupid. Milagros (her name means “miracles” in Spanish) speaks flawless English and she is going to visit New York at the end of the year.
It will be her first time. She is practicing Romanian because she wants to speak the language with her boyfriend. He is a Romanian and is currently living in New York. One day, she would like to move there to be with him, but it is complicated because she has a three-year old daughter.
See also: Colonia, Uruguay
My Best Friend
Journeys are the midwives of thought…There is almost a quaint correlation between what is before our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views and new thoughts, new views.
–Alain de Botton, THE ART OF TRAVEL
In the early twentieth-century, probably during the time of Edith Wharton and Henry James, social circles of the great nations agreed on an international etiquette treaty that encouraged travelers to contact mutual friends in distant lands. It comes from the days of steamer ships and grand tours or summer seasons. One pictures a well-tailored gentleman presenting a letter of introduction to a butler who discreetly disappears behind a heavy door and reappears with the happy reply that the lady of the house will receive you or the regretful news that the gentleman of the house is terribly sorry but pressing business will prevent him from seeing you today.
The custom still exists. “Buenos Aires? You must contact my brother while you are there.” Or “I am going to get the contact info for my college roommate’s ex-girlfriend who is an Argentine and whom I am sure will be delighted to introduce you to people.” It is a great courtesy on all sides. The person who makes the introduction is helping the hapless traveler and will receive first-hand knowledge of the resident’s conditions. The traveler now “knows someone” in the distant and exotic city. The resident’s bland life is now flavored with the spice of visitors. Everyone wins.
Now, rather than disappear for the summer, we fly to Singapore for the long weekend. Rather than calling cards, e-mails are now exchanged. The courteous resident affirms that indeed that the person will be received with pleasure. The mutual friend forwards the response to the traveler and part of an agenda develops.
The other great courtesy is between the two travelers who happen to be in town at the same time. Distant cousins who never had much to say to each other at a family wedding now feel obliged to force conversation over a tikki masala or a goulash. Two residents of the same town who wouldn’t bother to say hello at a cocktail party make promises to call each other for brunch.
With the help of these mutual friends, distant relations, other people’s college buddies, city tours, concierge-booked theatrical productions, the dutiful trip to the museum, and the guidebook’s “must see” list, one can easily fill a week in another country and still have time to browse the shopping arcade or at least the duty-free shop.
Most of the time, promises are made and no one follows up. If the contact is made, somehow the local’s week is extremely busy with children, or with a event-planning deadline, and there is polite regret on all sides. No one is seriously put out if contact isn’t possible. Occasionally, people connect and a not unpleasant social occasion occurs.
I have been guilty of not following up on introductions and have experienced mild regret and occasional relief when the residents I have contacted have had other pressing business. This time, though, I made a date for Saturday lunch.
My visit was with my sister’s good friend who was in town for a few days. We arranged to meet at her hotel at one and select from a fine grouping of restaurants near the Recoleta Cemetery. I left my Saturday morning Tango lesson a few minutes late and elected to take a taxi rather than walk.
I had looked up the hotel on Google and knew the general location. I got into the taxi and fumbled the direction in Spanish. The driver attempted to make some conversation and then realized that it was futile. I did understand him say that there were several hotels in the area with “Plaza” in their names and just hopped out of the cab at the first one. Alvear is not a long street and Recoleta not a huge barrio and with ten minutes to spare I paid the driver and started walking down the street since the hotel did not share the same name of the hotel I had in mind.
The second hotel I went to was two blocks down the street and I asked the helpful doorman the directions. He was like the Scarecrow in THE WIZARD OF OZ and first pointed one way and then the other. I was directed to walk two blocks up and four blocks to the right. I did this and realized that I was headed in the wrong direction. As I circled back to the original hotel under the shade of trees, a fine-feathered friend dropped a gift onto my head. I used Kleenex to wipe the bird waste out of my hair. I hustled into the hotel lobby and asked the concierge for directions. He directed me to the correct location, one block past the hotel with the well-informed doorman.
I was twenty minutes late and stumbled through the lobby door bathed in sweat and topped with poop. I apologized to the young woman for not shaking her hand, found a nearby baño and washed up. Then we walked to a nice outdoor restaurant.
We talked a bit about travel, about Buenos Aires, about our families, our jobs and public personal histories. I attempted to tell her about this blog, but realized that I had rattled on a little too long about my post “The Midlife Protection Program.” Her eyes were beginning to glaze over. I made it a point to listen and ask pertinent questions and we had a very pleasant conversation about her home and some travels of her childhood.
We talked about politics and about the financial crisis. My ADD wouldn’t let me completely focus, however. There was an accordion player made up like a clown who played competently, but I noticed that he repeated the two best-known Tango songs, “La Cumparsita” and “Por Una Cabeza,” in an endless loop. Behind my lunch partner, a group of good looking Argentines gestured and talked rapidly as they sat down. A woman took her hair, swept it over her left shoulder, and began twirling it with her hands. This is a tic that I had noticed many times since arriving in Buenos Aires. I began to think about washing my own hair.
I knew I had a stupid smirk on my face and I apologized. “I am simply smiling because I spend every day not understanding anything that is going on or anything anyone says.” I realized that I observe more and communicate mostly by gestures and grunts. I have had to become more visual. That could be the reason that for the first time in twenty years I am taking photographs that please me.
Sitting at an outdoor restaurant next to a cemetery with a clown playing an accordion and hair moussed with bird droppings, I realized that I had to come to a place where I didn’t understand anything and didn’t know anyone, to begin to understand and know myself.
“I was a free man in Paris, I felt unfetterred and alive, no one calling me up for favors, and no one’s future to decide.”
–Joni Mitchell, “Free Man in Paris”
Buenos Aires, December 3
Today is my fiftieth birthday. It is a good feeling to be here and a very good time to look back at what I have accomplished during the past four months.
I have broken my writer’s block. I have become the main character in my own non-fiction novel. Some of the posts have written themselves. Living in the moment, each day becomes a new short story or a new piece of ironic humor.
As an outsider who couldn’t communicate verbally, I have found a whole new connection with the visual aspects of life and this has changed my writing and photography. (I believe for the better.)
I have developed a new respect for the value of taking risks. Not only was this project conceived quickly, it is set in a place I’ve never been, where I know no one, and I don’t speak the language. In some ways I am disappointed that I couldn’t learn to speak better and that I didn’t make more local friends during this trip. However, it took bold action to sweep away the heavy blocks that have kept me from my authentic self. I conceived and worked out the logistics for this entire project in about a month. I had no idea whether I would be able to do it or be able to write about it. With the severe downturn in the economy, I didn’t know if I should move forward at all.
Seeing the project through on this first leg has been the greatest lesson. I have been tangled up more times that I can count and I have just just tangoed on. Despite overwhelming doubts, occasional loneliness, almost daily confusion, frustrations, and mistakes, I continue to look forward. I haven’t had the encouragement or the will to do enough of this in my life, and I am happy that I have been able to break not only my writer’s block, but also my hesitancy about taking risks and trying new things.
I have also found through interaction with my readers and lots of thinking about identity, that I am living a number of interconnected lives:
1.) The life of my imagination.
2.) The life people imagine I have.
3.) The life I actually lead.
4.) The life I would like to lead.
5.) The life I report.
I celebrated my birthday by giving myself two-months of self-improvement, self-confidence, self-reliance and self-knowledge. I have been very gratified that I have had smart and perceptive readers who understand what I am doing and who have enjoyed the ride so far.
From 5,000 miles away, the struggles that seemed to dominate my life at home now have their proper place. I have been out of the country for Halloween, Election Day, Thanksgiving and my birthday. One friend wrote that “I’ve noticed a shift in the way you view the world. It seems much bigger and brighter with less cause for negativity.”
I will return to Buenos Aires early next year and I will continue my study of Tango and Spanish. I hope to use some of the lessons I’ve learned to make my next journey better.
I am taking a pause from blogging. I hope to spend a bit more time looking around Buenos Aires, and then I will go home where friends and family await. When I get home, I will determine what my next step will be. I have a couple of other creative projects I am going to work on and I will begin to plan my next journey back to Buenos Aires. In January, I will redesign this web page and redirect it to its own “justtangoon.com” address.
Chapter Two will begin soon, both for the second half of my life as well as the second part of this story.
What a privilege it has been to take the events of the day, fold in a couple of jokes, mix well and create a soufflé that sometimes does not fall flat.
To Buenos Aires, I say CHAU and GRACIAS.
To you, I say TANGO ON and THANKS.
Oh, and I wish myself a Happy Birthday.