Starting From Zero: Why Now?

In a few days my family and I will fly to zero — zero latitude, that is. How strange it must be to live on the equator, to live at zero. Like living in zip code 00000.

From zero, our plan is to travel to the southernmost point in the Americas, also known as latitude 55. It’ll take us around six months to go from 0 to 55. But we really don’t know. Six months is what we’re allowing ourselves, but that time could be spent in all different kinds of ways. Except for the first month, when we’re doing a tour of the Galapagos and traveling with our cousins, we don’t have an itinerary.

When I tell people about this trip, a frequent response I get is, “Why now?” The short answer is that my kids are young enough (8 and 11) to be excited about spending six months with their parents, but old enough to remember it. I’m also old enough to be able to (kind of) afford it, but young enough to withstand the rigors and uncertainties of international travel. (This last point is debatable — I nearly had a nervous breakdown after we missed a connecting flight in Mexico City last year. My kids still do a disturbing impression of me yelling “NOOOOOOOOOO!” at the gate agent.)

Travel for me has always been an opportunity to experience life in a super-distilled form: Higher highs, lower lows, and when you come home, you’re like the opposite of the space traveler in the Einstein equation — you’ve experienced so much in such a short time compared to those who never left, it feels like lifetimes have past. We’ve always enjoyed traveling as a family but have longed for a larger canvas of time to work with. And now we have it – that is, until we realize it’s November and we’re still in Peru.

This is as good a time as any to recognize how incredibly fortunate I am to be able to do this, to even think about leaving work for six months, let alone leaving work in order to take a trip like this. I mean, who do I think I am, Norwegian?

Leaving work is something I’m used to as a freelancer – I’m a comedy writer for TV and movies. But this is the first time I’ve taken an extended absence from it, and there’s some pretty obnoxious voices in my head telling me that there won’t be any jobs for me when I return. I have to stop listening to them.

Those voices, and others like it (like the one telling me that as soon as I get on the plane, Steven Spielberg will try to contact me regarding his new project) are partly why this is a good time for me to take off. Lately I’ve grown uncertain about my definition of success, and what success through work means. Until the last decade, I spent my adult life living the hand-to-mouth existence of a freelancer. Only recently have I been able to muster the courage (and the savings) to turn down gigs I don’t want to do. And even under these circumstances, I hear those damn voices. I need some time away from this business to separate what I’m good at doing — or what people will pay me to do — from what I want to do.

Since I can remember, a chunk of my self-worth has come through material success, as was the case with my father, my grandfather, and so on. Money is our metric here in the USA – just as seconds tell a runner how fast he’s going, money tells us how we’re doing. I assume this is why people possessing billions of dollars are driven to make even more. I have to assume, because I will never know. (“Especially after you take this looong trip.” “Shut up, voices!”)

When I married and had children, this drive initially increased. Some primordial part of my brain was activated – I needed to acquire more to be able to take care of my family. At the same time, I began to question the carrot I had been chasing all my life. Work, while seemingly necessary for the well-being of my family, took me away from my family. My father once apologized for his absence during my childhood by telling me how much he had struggled financially. Now I too found myself on the edge of this quintessentially American dilemma, the one so operatically dramatized in the Godfather movies: The things you have to do for your family to succeed will ultimately destroy your family.

My children have brought about two revolutions in my life. With their births, they swiftly separated me from all that came before, including adequate sleep. But when they grew up and became articulate beings, I underwent an even larger transformation. I realized that everything they experience has an impact on them, and that I have an inordinately large amount of power to control what those experiences are. Being away from them for work has become more and more difficult. They’re growing up with me or without me, and I want it to be as with me as possible. As much as I’ve always loved my work, it seems somewhat ridiculous compared to time with my family. Not that time with them is easy – it isn’t at all. In fact, in some ways it’s harder than work. It just seems more like life than work does.

So that really wasn’t a short answer. How about: My son wants to see the water in a toilet swirl in the opposite direction. (Also true.)