The Things At Which I Have Failed

Life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat, and that the redeeming

Mom wanted me to be piano player. Got me lessons and everything. Failed miserably. (No talent/no coordination was a big issue.) Not having any of her children take to the piano (something she has loved and played her entire life – Chopin, Grieg, Mendelssohn, etc.) probably broke my mom’s heart a little bit. I’m sorry, Mom, but I sucked at piano. Wouldn’t have been any good if my life had depended on it.

Guitar, in my day, was something every 14 year old wanted to learn — the Beatles and all that — but I flamed out there as well (that pesky no talent thing again).

Then it was acting. Caught the acting bug big time in high school. Appeared in a few plays, auditioned, memorized lines, the works. Took the infection with me to college and quickly insinuated myself into the theatre department. Good looks and a big voice couldn’t compensate for other insecurities (and the nagging feeling I was destined to be the fifth most talented actor in any cast), so dreams of a career on stage were quickly dashed.

Before there was piano, guitar, and acting, though, there was baseball.

Baseball broke my heart. Big time. I loved baseball with an unbridled joy that only a little boy can have. Poured over box scores like an Ebbets Field bleacher bum. Bought book (books!?) on how to play, throw, hit, and run the bases. Played Little League insofar as I could throw the ball over the plate with reasonable consistency and once struck out Nelson Burchfield and Grady Cooksey (the Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris of Floridian fifth-graders) in the same inning. (That I can still remember this tells you something.)

I’ve never been a guy’s guy, but the closest I ever got was probably springtime in the early 1960s on a weedy, shitty, sand-spur-plagued ball field field in Central Florida shagging fly balls with a bunch of smelly ten-year olds pretending to be Willie Mays, or, in my case, Roberto Clemente.

But I was terrible at it — small, slow, stiff, afraid of ground balls and barely better on fly ones. Turned out that throwing was the only thing I could do.

Disappointing, right? But you grow up and get over it. Compared to marriage, my failings at baseball look like I went 1-for-4 against Sandy Koufax.

With baseball, at least I got in the game; with marriage, I always had one foot out the door. That is, until recently. At this point in my life I am too old to have one foot out the door. Sucking at marriage is a young man’s game. At this point, I am too old to suck at marriage.

I failed French three times in school. Tried to learn it three more over as many decades. I’m awful at French even though I love the country, the people, the wine and the food. Thankfully, the French have caught up to my sucking at their language and now many of them speak English. Thank you, French.

I tried out for the swimming team in Ninth Grade. They made me the manager so I wouldn’t get in the water.

Didn’t you hear? I was supposed to be a big television star on the Travel Channel eight years ago. That’s okay, no one else did either.

To excel at drug addiction, you have to practice, practice, practice. Drugs are great (after all, they make you feel better right now), but you have to fully commit.

I tried (mostly after my various marriages imploded), but I kept wimping out. Monday morning would roll around after some lost weekend and there I would be: brushing my teeth, shaving and choosing a necktie — a real pansy-ass who didn’t have the right stuff. Ruining your life is a full-time job — shoulder-to-the wheel-stuff and all that — and as with baseball, French, and music, I didn’t have what it takes.

But at least I gave it my best shot.

I’m not ashamed of being a failed lawyer: in fact, I’m pretty proud of it. The law is bullshit codified. Arcana for arcana’s sake in service of a racket — a racket, BTW I was knee-deep in for 33 years.

I got into law thinking it was a noble profession. Four decades later I see it as a system manipulated by the privileged few, far removed from the lofty profession seductively portrayed to me by Benjamin Cardozo and Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Had I remained a criminal lawyer (where I cut my teeth for ten years), I might not have such a jaundiced view. But instead I entered the realm of civil law (thinking it was an upgrade), where you spend your days in the service of one group of rich assholes trying to take advantage of another group of rich anal fissures. As a result, you become a money-obsessed hemorrhoid yourself. Good times.

That’s what I am today: a failed asshole lawyer….because I was never devoted enough to become the worst person I could be.

Finally, there’s politics — something I dipped my toe into after being shown the door by one of those civil law firms I misfit into. My foray was brief (only a five-month campaign for judge), but instructive. You learn a lot about yourself and your community when you run for any office, but mostly you learn how to be polite to idiots. This is a lesson I quickly forgot the second I lost the election.

Head Over Heels GIF by The Go-Go's

The inspiration for writing this came from a documentary I was watching the other night, of all things, the Go-Go’s. (Go-Go figure.)

In speaking about the ups and downs of being a rock star, Jane Wiedlin said she took absolutely nothing from all her successes, but the lessons she did learn, and the person she is today, came about because of her failures.

Failure sucks, but it makes you tough. Picking yourself off the mat so many times teaches one thing: how to get up.

Defeat teaches you tolerance, resilience, and compassion. Victory teaches you nothing. No lessons were ever learned from a cheering crowd. The getting of wisdom does not come from exaltation, but from the struggles (internal and communal) we all endure…just like Scott Fitzgerald said.

In the end, that is all life is: an endurance contest. A game we are destined to lose, no matter how many youthful victories we have.

Once you’ve felt the sting of humiliation — from childish avocations to mature failings of character — an insult hurled your way means nothing. Scar tissue is a fine shield from the vicissitudes of fate and a certain perverse pride comes from having it in abundance.

Who would the person be typing these words if he actually had developed his theatrical chops? How different would he be if he could prattle on en Fran├žais, and had been talented at anything?

The best answer is: He wouldn’t be typing these words, and he would be a far cry from the person who functions in the world these days and lives inside my head — far more boring with a hide far less thick.

Failure isn’t the opposite of success, the saying goes, it is part of success. I had the wrong stuff, and still, here I am, taking mighty cuts at curve-balls and looking forward to my next at bat — a failure at being a failure, because I never let myself think that I was.


5 thoughts on “The Things At Which I Have Failed

  1. Bordering on profundity, John. Also the perspective gained near the end of the spectrum.
    No one ever toughened up with a participation trophy. But lotsa kids tried harder, got better after they failed to make the team the first time.
    I got fired, and found my career in a different field.
    Failure sucks in the short term, but can be a long-term boon.

  2. John, you never really failed. You just succeeded at the wrong things.

  3. Great piece! Investing is the same – you only learn and become better from analyzing the mistakes and losses. More likely to learn things that aren’t actually true from the winners.

    Your cheerful optimism comes through in this piece, and it’s continuing to struggle through the setbacks that makes them the building blocks of success. Thanks for writing this!

  4. So – would you like to go to my high school reunion with me? And relive some of the fun days?

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