Just Tango On

A Midlife Solution, Not a Midlife Crisis

Burning My Bridges at Fifty

I am a fan of Tim Ferris and his blog/book/business The Four-Hour Workweek. Get rid of the distractions in your life! Cut unnecessary e-mail! Don’t answer calls that are too stupid! Outsource your life! Automate your business and your personal life! Become a weightlifter, a Chinese TV star, a World Champion Kick Boxer! The possibilities were endless. The romance of the well-lived alternative to the nine-to-five grind was right at my fingertips, just waiting for my large brain and a high-speed Internet connection. I saw it all within reach. I had been putting my finances online for several years.

I was ready to start doing nothing. I have been a full-time father, a part-time graduate student, a successful investor, and an aspiring writer the last thirteen years. I was in the hotel business with my dad for 15 years before that, and had to shut the business down because of too much debt and not enough customers. Then my dad passed away and I didn’t have to be in his business anymore.

I was a blocked, depressed, chunky little writer wannabe. I finally said to myself: “That’s it, no more hitting your head against the wall. You’ll never write and you are wasting your time. Let it go.”

The late nineties was a great time for the stock market and I was raking it in from the investments I made with my inheritance. My real estate was in the toilet. My wife was sick. My children were little. It was hard to figure out what to do. I liked school and I liked the stock market and my family needed me. I got out of business and became a private investor.

I didn’t go back into business and I was embarrassed. People would see me sitting around coffee shops or going to the gym in the middle of the day. They thought I was far richer than I actually was and I felt unproductive and lost. They would silently chuckle or secretly bristle with envy as they imagined my life of leisure and luxury. They had no idea.

Sure, friends felt a little sorry for me because of my dad’s difficult illness and my wife’s poor health. After a while, though, they got tired of my dark moods and my constant whining. I took suffering, puffed it up with self-pity, and put a scoop of despair on top. Needless to say, I wasn’t the life of the party, and I wasn’t invited to many.

I would try to write and I would work on my graduate studies. I wore black and acquired an air of mystery. Without an easily identifiable job, my children’s friends started to speculate. I must be a CIA assassin or a member of the Jewish Mafia. I intimidated people with my dark powers. Actually, I was just bummed out.

Here I am years later, a little chunkier and a little greyer. My children are grown and out-of-town. I am divorced. I have too little to do and too much time. It is discouraging watching the stock market slide. The support payments for my ex-wife and funding my children’s dependency are draining my accounts.

As I mentioned, there is also the writer’s block. My coach, Bradley Foster, an excellent motivator with a sympathetic ear, had tried everything possible. He asked me to describe what the block felt like. It felt like a large, square, opaque, and heavy concrete block was encasing my head. I felt it had been troweled into a cube. I could picture what it looked liked from the outside and even imagined a Mason with a trowel finishing it off.

Hitting my head against the wall didn’t break the block.

I am turning 50 in December. I don’t like birthdays. It has nothing to do with the advance of age. It has to do, in part, with my father’s attitude when I was young. He would give me my present weeks in advance, tell me its price, and brag to his friends and siblings how spoiled I was. After a while, I didn’t feel like I deserved a birthday present. December was a dark month. Clouds rolled in and the mercury dropped. The Christmas season consumed everyone and my birthday was an afterthought. When I was married, my wife often was too busy or too sick to observe my birthday. I bought my own cake and candles so my children could have ice cream and cake on my birthday.

It got to the point where I would Scrooge on my birthday and told everyone not to give me presents for Christmas. I didn’t deserve them. I didn’t like it. I didn’t want my birthday anymore. I didn’t want to be spoiled.

I was going to take my toys and keep them to myself.

Now my 50th looms. I don’t want any parties. I don’t want cake and I don’t like ice cream. I don’t even want to be in the same hemisphere.

I want to run away from home.


Yes, I know. I am writing about not kvetching by kvetching. I am trying to explain, though, how I started to let go and move forward.

Ferriss was right about the opportunity to structure my life so that I could go anywhere and do anything. Here I was, though, farting around and playing Scrabulous, buying shit on the web, trading jokes by e-mail, and compulsively checking the market. The days floated by. I didn’t have the concentration to read a book. I didn’t even watch movies at home. They seemed like too much effort.

My coach, Bradley Foster, said I had reached what Frederick Perls called “The Point of Creative Indifference.” Doing things the same way didn’t make any sense. I hadn’t found the way to move past that point and find a better way. Albert Einstein said: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” I was drifting through my days, doing the same thing, with virtually no purpose and no results. I wasn’t winning any Kick Boxing championships. I wasn’t forming a Pirate Reenactment Society. I hadn’t received any calls begging my advice for restructuring the mortgage crisis or writing and directing the latest comic book movie.

I said, “fuck it” to my dreams of writing. It would be better if I just let them float away. I was upset and embarrassed that I didn’t know what to do next. I let my friends know that the writing was dead. Thirty-five years of trying and failing…it just wasn’t worth it anymore. Self-loathing and darkness descended. The shade had been pulled down and clouds rolled in. The sunshine went to a secure, undisclosed location. I couldn’t stand my apartment anymore and I would hike out to Starbucks, sit in the sunshine, try to read, and end up wasting more time with Google.

I looked at Tim Ferriss’s book again. He explained that this isn’t about sitting under a palm tree.

D’oh! I hadn’t made the connection. I not only had to make time, I had to fill it?

I took a trip to Germany this past summer with my family. My brother-in-law, a native of Germany, speaks five languages. We were touring Germany, using Frankfurt as a base because my nephew and niece worked there. I was trying to say a little German: Goethestrasse…bitte…hunt…kaffe. We spent a day in Strasbourg. Some of the French I learned in college was floating up. I couldn’t really speak, but I could say un table pour cinq, s’il vous plait. My brother-in-law was watching me try, amused, but also supportive. He told me of someone he knew that had taken several six-month sabbaticals in Europe. I should do that and I would learn a language. Maybe I could be a concierge or assist in some other form of trade. The Europeans would like me, maybe.

I filed this under the Great, But Not Going To Happen file, and got back to my post jet-lag grump, riding in the back of the van, feeling like I was part of the family in Little Miss Sunshine.

Now I was back home. The idea of filling the void ricocheted about the unutilized synapses of my unemployed brain. I was still a void, but a less miserable one.

Then it hit me. Foreign Travel. Language Study. Pursue Hobbies. 50th Birthday.

I looked into the French Alps. Learning fluency in French and skiing from December through April seemed to fit the bill. By the time I got a quote for the trip, the school and the airfare, I filed this idea back in theGreat, But Not Going To Happen file.

I was indifferent agai


My son, David, is getting a good education in Economics. He’s a senior at Gettysburg College and has spent the summer as an intern at an insurance company. He’s quite ambitious in business. He networked all summer and spent time with people, discussing confidential personal financial matters.

People were impressed and said he “has a lot of his grandfather in him.” Quite a compliment to him, and the inference is that the acumen skipped a generation.

It made me smile that these people perceived his talent and, with unintentional irony, left me out of his good qualities. However, it also made me think a bit.

My father let me in to his personal financial life when I was Dave’s age. Dave was ethical and trustworthy and he and my daughter were going to end up with whatever crumbs were left of my finances anyway. I rewrote my will and made him executor.

Perhaps I shouldn’t try to do something in which I am not talented. When my father died, he made me a co-trustee of his money and my family had recently made a switch to a new trust company. We made the switch in part because of the enthusiasm and knowledge of the company’s investment manager.

I brought Dave to a meeting with concerning some matters regarding my finances and he instantly made friends with the investment manager. As the meeting went on, I became more and more of a sideshow and I floated away from the conference table and watched the focus change to Dave. I felt amusement, also fatherly pride. I had come a long way. Earlier in my life, I might have felt slighted and abused. Now I was starting to feel as if this was the way it was supposed to work.

I had been trading stocks through a broker that was asleep. He had inherited my late broker’s book and never really paid much attention to it. He never gave me advice and never called except to ask where I got my ideas. The firm was expensive to do business with and was being acquired by a bank with which I had a recent dispute.

I asked Dave’s opinion about taking my portfolio over to the trust company. I felt that the same enthusiasm the manager was bringing to the rest of his accounts he would bring to mine. I wouldn’t end up paying more fees. Plus, I could actually have someone who had ideas and could help me. The manager was someone who enjoyed teaching his discipline and had decided to mentor him. The manager e-mailed reams of material to Dave and the manager was spending hours with him.

I made an appointment with the company so that Dave and I could meet with them. On the morning of the appointment I got a nervous call from Dave. He had cases to work on. Packing for school. He had to write a paper. He didn’t know how he could get it all done and still make the meeting. “No problem,” I said. “I’ve handled a lot of meetings alone. I’m sure I can do this one.”

I arrived promptly at 10:30. The three main officers greeted me and asked: “Where’s David?” I explained about his other commitments and the investment manager looked as if he was blinking back tears. He pointed to a bank of computer screens. “But we’re all set up for him.”

I called Dave and said: “Get your ass down here. They all looked depressed when they found out you weren’t coming.”

I stalled them for a few minutes with some kind of story I found funny and they laughed with studied courtesy.

Dave walked in the door and you could feel a collective sigh of relief. The computers were fired up and the manager started showing me his charts of what he would “reduce”—meaning sell—and what he would hold. The discussion got intense and detailed. The people in the room were pitching the information to Dave and I started to get the feeling that they didn’t think I could understand. I threw in a few comments here and there to let them know I had a little knowledge of business, but after a while the manager and Dave were deep in discussion, occasionally directing a comment my way just to make sure I understood that they understood.

The company got the business. The manager was going to start managing the portfolio, only making adjustments or trades with my permission. “Do you mind if I run the ideas past David first?”

“No,” I said, “that sounds like a good idea.”


Now I had retired from full-time parenting, writing, and running my investments. There was only one part left if I wanted to go abroad, an increasingly likely scenario if I could find a place, unlike Europe, that I could afford.

I had to find a way to handle the few pieces of mail and the few bills that wouldn’t be forwarded on to me by the Internet.

I thought about following Tim’s advice about outsourcing personal assistants to India. That wouldn’t solve the problem. I needed someone to look at all the shit that comes in and sort it.

The first thing I did is start thinking about the mail that comes in. So much of it is catalogues, announcements, newsletters, pitches, and fundraising. To the extent I could, I e-mailed or wrote people and told me to get them off of their lists. I had my landlord and my banker start sending notices by e-mail. I got in touch with www.stopthejunkmail.com and had them go to work taking me off all the lists. I could have done this myself, but I didn’t feel like taking too much time.

This was all leading to a major purchase, an Apple MacBook Air, which gave me a reduction in weight, a good feeling, and I have to admit, a new toy to enjoy. What won me over was the MobileMe service and the ability to use another computer’s optical drive as a remote drive. One can rent movies from the iTunes store and back up files wirelessly. The large files, though, overwhelm the Wi-Fi gods, so I bought a little250 GB drive that only weighs seven ounces, has its own retractable USB cord and comes with a nice little protective storage bag.

I spent about two days trying to figure out how to back up my files by using Apple’s MobileMe service. It doesn’t work well with large files, so I just figured out how to back up some vital Word documents. My calendar and contacts were already backed up using MobileMe with my laptop and iPhone.

I spent an inordinate time backing up 2000 e-mails on AOL’s AOL Desk Top. This was a pain, but some of my most creative writing during the last couple of years was crafted in this temporary medium. Now I can keep my important 1600 e-mails concerning bill notices, old travel itineraries, forwarded jokes, Viagra, and refinancing along with the 400 more important messages with friends.

I admit that the computer is expensive, but I asked for it as an early birthday present, and the Birthday Bunny left it under my pillow.

I geared up in other ways. I bought a new rolling bag. I bought a travel towel, a rain jacket, a keychain backpack in part because of this post Tim’s post on traveling light and thought about all the things that I could eliminate.

Unlike Tim Ferriss, I have accumulated all the detritus of middle-aged hypochondriasis and several intractable medical conditions. I have sleep apnea and have to carry a CPAP machine with me. I found one that is one-third the size and half the weight. This fits better and saves me from having to carry two bags. I also have a bunch of meds, a night splint, a tendency to get cold at night, which requires pajamas, various gadget requirements such as cords and so forth, and the almost constant schlepping of large volumes that I promise myself I will read. Pens, notebooks, toiletries, over-the-counter medicines, contact lenses and three pairs of glasses—reading, sunglasses, and progressive prescription glasses—are necessities and luxuries that make it very hard for me to strip down quite as Tim, but I am doing a little better.

All of these gadgets can work on 110-240v power which means that I only need a multi-country adapter with no transformer such as the one sold at Hammacher Schlemmer (I know, this is a ridiculously expensive store, but they take anything back that doesn’t work and this particular gadget isn’t badly priced.)

My day-to-day life was outsourced, my bag was packed, my files were backed up, and my financial life had been benignly hijacked. I was ready to go. Where?


I was once again reading Tim Ferriss’s posts and discovered one about Buenos Aires. The country is beautiful, the dollar buys a lot, and there is great culture and beautiful avenues. He gave tips about ways to party and the way to rent an apartment. I searched Google and found lots of temporary apartments for what seemed to be bargain prices.

The city has language schools and I found one on Google that sounded comprehensive and affordable. Tango lessons were available for $5 an hour. I had known a lot of people who had enjoyed Buenos Aires. I had one sister who fell in love with it last year and my other sister gave it good reviews this year.

Food was inexpensive. The place would cost half as much as Europe and was more of a departure. I had never been to South America.

After a day or two, I decided to take the plunge. I booked nine weeks, from October 15th through December 21st.

The issue I have with Tim Ferriss is that he always seems to work everything out to a high degree of success. We mortals don’t always have the same skill or luck. Plus, it is easier to imagine his life when you are thirty and single than when you are middle-aged, arthritic and have enough baggage for a Victorian safari.

That made me wonder: What if I used my fiftieth to try to do some of the same things and see how they worked with my limitations. I was sensitive and moody. I wasn’t very athletic. I was short and a little chubby. I seemed to have lost my nerve long ago.

This made me think of some conditions for this project. I would attempt things that I was a complete beginner, or at least had failed at before. I would do things that people thought very difficult or impossible to learn at mid-age. I would attempt things that would potentially lead to failure or humiliation.

This would certainly suit my sense of humor and irony.

I started to research packing and tools. Traveling light was important. Having gadgets was also desirable. This would allow me experience with both.

I would write about this topic on a blog and I hoped to build a website that might attract some revenue to fund these missions. If you build it they will come, and I hope that at last I had found a mission and a potential audience.

I guess I picked the wrong week to give up writing.

I found a quote that summed up my mission. Al Pacino spoke these lines in SCENT OF A WOMAN:

No mistakes in the tango,

not like life.

It’s simple. That’s what makes

the tango so great.

If you make a mistake,

get all tangled up, just tango on.

I had found the new project.


  1. I’ve been reading your blog for the past hour. Now I know you and your past. Many people would like to be where you are today. Congratulations for moving forward.

    Comment by jantango | November 21, 2008

  2. Hi Sam!!!

    Congrats to you…………….
    I feel you have made a HUGE transformation from reading your blog!

    This is fantastic!
    AND you sound happy & at peace!
    This LIFE is so precious & short!
    We ALL must enjoy the ride eventhough we may get a few curve balls!
    Best of luck in 2009!

    Comment by Marnie | December 19, 2008

  3. Inspiring story… there are few people willing to actually DO.
    One of my favorite quotes:

    ” touch your world up with some color, dream your swinging on a star, taste it… first, then add some flavor… now you know just who you are”
    ~Van Morrison~

    Keep on playing,


    Comment by Allison Clark | January 3, 2009

  4. Much to my delight I heard about your blog and story, Sam, on public radio this afternoon, Monday.

    Having seen you at Fresh Market in December and at Metro yesterday, I had no idea of what you’ve been up to for a long time. Now I know. And am enjoying reading/learning your story.

    I remember so well attending your Bar Mitzvah way back when! And your wedding as well. Of course I knew and was quite fond of your Dad, Uncle and Aunt (whom I visited recently at the nursing home). She did not know who I was.

    Fret not over 50. I made it and you will, too! And if you don’t mind being “chunky” then celebrate your body for what it is.

    Fabian Werbin is the new, COOL, Rabbi at Beth Israel. He is a trip!! He’s from Argentina as was Kogan who preceded him.

    I shall visit your site frequently, Uncle Sam!!


    Comment by Jan Wilkins | January 5, 2009

  5. Hello Sam, I just met you at the plane and after talking with you I have become a fan of your project. Now I’ve read all the story again here and let me say it: you are great at writing. I really like it. Humor, irony, real important things, real bad things, we all share somehow a bit of your story.
    Congratulations again for your courage, and for those lovely pictures you take.
    All the best,

    Comment by Joaquin Gomez Borruat | January 18, 2009

  6. 🙂

    Comment by Dave Piper | July 19, 2010

  7. Sam, Sam, Sam….

    What a delight to find this and catch up with you and it’s brilliant. I hope you won’t bash me over the metaphorical head with something but your journey reminds me of two of my favorite books, one being the more recent Eat, Pray, Love, and the other Under The Tuscan Sun. A physical, mental, emotional, spiritual journey and yours will have that delightful curmudgeonly touch. Of course we used to write in hotels together, but if you think you’re not a writer, think again. I’ve always known you were.

    I’d love to hear from you. I used to have another name. I used to be married. I used to be a lot of things. I’m now 56 so you’re barely a toddler. I live in a zoo and never stop writing. Be nice if we could meet at Starbucks and write together but I’ll be pulling for you and watching you Tango forward to fame, fortune and all the things I always knew you were headed for. We all take the long way round, it’s just that most people don’t bother to tell us that this is going to happen. And early successes often burn out quickly. When you come into your own at 50 it will last the rest of your life. Grandma Moses didn’t start painting until she was in her 70’s and look what happened to her! She once said, “If I hadn’t started painting I would have raised chickens.” So never worry Sam, if Buenos Aires and the Tango don’t work out, you can always raise chickens!

    Blessings to you on your journey…

    Maitri (who you used to know as Marcia…)

    Comment by Maitri Libellule | November 16, 2010

  8. What you have written here is wuite interesting.I’ll come to check your posts more often. Interesting info. I wish I could write in that interesting way. 🙂
    Tapety na pulpit

    Comment by MarianneXX | November 17, 2010

  9. You’ve hit the ball out the park! Icneridble!

    Comment by Dragon | April 13, 2011

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