How To Be An Optimist

There’s a saying: We make plans; God laughs.

Whether or not you believe in God, truth of the matter is that we’re not in control of our lives. If you think you are, just wait. One day you’ll see what I’m talking about. Certainly we have to make plans and decisions to tackle day-to-day life, but occasionally the gods/stars/planets/marshmallows fall out of line and all goes astray. Marshmallows? Ok, who knows what has to align, but how you respond to unfortunate situations is what really matters.

It is possible that once or twice in mylifetime I might have been accused of being a pessimist. Only in the last few years (under the loving tutelage of my husband) have I learned how to turn limes into margaritas. In the past three years, we have spent about six months in Costa Rica. In the past few weeks, I have had several chances to whip up a pitcher of optimism.

Let me offer you a taste test:

1) If you hate tarantulas, but happen to find a fine example of one in your bathroom when you are home alone, killing it with a broom handle will give you an enormous sense of accomplishment.
2) If you have trouble digesting gluten, you will find that a caveman’s diet (meat and fruits and vegetables) is very healthy. Man lived like this for thousands of years–yes, without pizza or beer.
3) If you create anything (e.g., a novel) on a computer, and said computer gets stolen, you will learn the absolute necessity of backing up your work.
4) If said thieves steal ALL your electronics, but spare your life and limbs, you are one lucky sonofabitch.
5) Once said thieves have fractured your sense of goodness in the world, you will learn to be safer and smarter. In fact, you will learn to hire a security guard with a shotgun.
6) If you love, love, love to sit quietly in the morning, sipping amazingly delicious coffee while over looking the Pacific Ocean, but said security guard wants to tell you all about his life and his country-in Spanish–because he has spent the last 12 hours walking the perimeter of your villa while you watched David Letterman in subtitles and got eight refreshing hours of sleep, then you will learn that your guard might be the best Spanish teacher you will ever have.
7) If you wake up one morning to the smell of smoke from the wildfires approaching your villa, you will learn how the infrastructure of a country such as Costa Rica actually works: Do it yourself, and help your neighbors. What did you think the damn garden hoses were for anyway?
And lastly,
8 ) If you think that The Good Life involves a villa, an ocean, tropical weather, and tequila, you will learn that there’s no place like home. AND, all of the above can be excellent material for your next novel.

Adios, Costa Rica.

Vacationally Challenged

An Essay by Karolyn Sherwood

When my husband asked me, “How would you like to spend two months in paradise?”  I said, “Define ‘paradise.’”

It’s the second time around for both of us, married for six years now, and before I met him I didn’t think true love really existed. It does. However, when it comes to the perfect vacation, he likes to relax on a sandy beach; I like museums and theater and energy. Just the mention of remote villages, hot sun, and high tide makes me start looking around for sunscreen and Free Wireless Internet signs. And sympathy. Few people understand my reluctance to leave our home in the upper-Midwest for two of the coldest months on record for a villa in Costa Rica that overlooks the Pacific Ocean.

My husband is older and wiser and retired. Together we have seven children, ages 19 to 29; now official empty-nesters. With record snowfalls across the country, it is the perfect winter to get away. And, being a writer, I can, theoretically and according to The Dream, write from anywhere. Writers long for the day they can sit perched on a mountain top, overlooking the deep blue sea as I am doing now. So, one might ask, what’s the problem? Go, relax, enjoy!

The problem is I don’t want to relax. I’m a city girl with goals and an agenda. Scratching through each entry on my To Do list makes me happy. And what about family, friends, kids? I will not have access to my omnipresent iPhone, my ancillary brain. Even if we can Skype occasionally, it won’t be the same. Writing, reading, working out, watching the stock market, lunching with friends…. I love my life no matter what the temperature is outside my door. Now I’m supposed to find time to learn Spanish and explore a new country?

My husband has a different perspective on life. He turns sixty this year, a milestone he never thought he’d see. Twenty years ago he was diagnosed with a rare, congenital disease. In 1995, he quit working and eventually sold his company. Now, each day is a gift he opens at sunrise, never to be taken for granted. Not a day goes by that we don’t laugh. Not a day goes by that he doesn’t tell me how much he loves me. Going to a third-world country for two months is the least I can do for him.

I admit I’m a bit high-strung. (Play laugh track from kids here.) It’s not that I want to be high maintenance, I just like what I like. And I don’t know how to say, “Just cover the grays,” in Spanish. So in my extra-large suitcase, I’ve packed a few sundresses, shorts, t-shirts, swimsuits, and flip-flops. No heals, no Prada, no diamonds. Instead, I have a box of hair color, sixty days worth of vitamins, basic pharmaceutical supplies, face products (Please, no wrinkles!), and a full-size Pilates mat with five workout videos. Four thick novels, two Spanish phrasebooks, my iPod, camera, various chargers, and most importantly, my laptop, and I am prepared for paradise.

When we board the plane, it’s two degrees outside, twelve below with wind chill; ninety-five and sunny when we land. My husband stretches his body, soaking in the warmth. I break out in a cold sweat, panicked that I might have forgotten my clinical-strength deodorant. It’s late, I’m tired, and culture shock begins swirling through my body like venom. Just as we find our car, a lizard slithers by my feet, and I jump onto the hood. The look in his eyes says, “Ah, you’ve arrived.”

The first week is a sneak peak into my personal hell: sunburn, heat rash, dripping sweat, three showers a day, dusty winds blowing hot air through the house. Tarantulas, scorpions, geckos, monkeys, and vultures surround our villa, and a few rudely invite themselves inside. Carved into the steep cliffs, the streets are so rough they put the average roller-coaster to shame. My husband thinks it’s heaven.

By the third week, I learn to navigate the potholes and that the geckos that scamper through my bedroom, down the walls, and into our kitchen are really our friends; they eat bugs, I’m told. I try to smile so they don’t realize I am more afraid of them than they are of me, the Giant. I take tree-top tours and natural mud baths and devour juicy ceviche sprinkled with just-picked mango while watching salmon-colored sunsets.

After a month, I finally start to relax. Once, I actually fell asleep on the beach for almost ten minutes. My new challenge is remembering what day of the week it is. (If it weren’t for my pill box, I’d really be lost.) Thankfully, this is the twenty-first century and our villa has Internet access so I’ve been able to keep in touch and even accomplish a few goals. I’ve learned to focus like never before. “Efficient work, efficient relaxation” is my new motto, leaving me more time to spend with my happy husband.

And so we sit on our balcony, enjoying the evening breeze, drinking club soda, suddenly the final week of our stay. My husband is contemplating life. I’m not quite that far down on my To Do list yet, but the good news is, having the perfect marriage means I get to choose the next vacation.  Paris anyone?