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Illustration by Jo Rivers

My Bad

Metroland’s tribute to failure

’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Ah, failure. Ancient lore is chock full of trite pronouncements geared to make us feel all warm and fuzzy about falling on our asses.

The bottom line is, failure sucks. (Hell, we’re born-to-win Americans, after all.)

Or does it? Is there perhaps a seed of truth in those ubiquitous adages? Can failure make one a better person? Can failure lead to, well, success?

Those are burning questions, and we here at Metroland could not rest until we found the answers. Hence, our First Annual (unless it fails miserably) Failure Issue.

As these pages will attest, we have failed at everything from becoming writers (uh . . . wait a minute) to passing the Foreign Service Exam. We have failed at securing long-term employment and failed at getting fired. In short, we have failed and failed spectacularly, and have lived to tell—nay, even boast—about it.

So don’t be shy. Follow our lead: Dust off those old failures and proclaim them to the world!

Of special note: We reserved an honored place in our Failure Issue for perhaps the most successful failure of all time, President George W. Bush—a man who has managed to fail gloriously at pretty much everything he has attempted thus far, from politics to oil. Hell, more esteemed souls than us have pointed out that he failed even to win the election.

You Won’t Fire Me, I Won’t Quit

If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. But if it’s not worth doing, there may be some reason—some strategic value—to doing it very, very badly. Or so I thought.

I was 22 years old, working the loading dock of a financially struggling department store, trying desperately not to be working the loading dock of a financially struggling department store—or any loading dock, anywhere.

I had dropped out of college, again, and through some addled mash of Steinbeck and Kerouac gotten this “dignity of the workin’ man” noise in my head. We were too far inland for me to find work at a cannery, and the Merchant Marine seemed a little too dignified, what with all the hoisting and winching and engine-room tinkering and keel-hauling and poorly envisioned maritime whatnot. The idea of working the dock—unloading tractor-trailers full of silk pocket squares, junior misses’ separates, and wispy designer undergarments—had originally sounded both adequately butch and blissfully undemanding. I pictured myself sitting on the corrugated-metal apron beneath the exhaust-streaked overhead door, dusty and only a little weary from a character-building day of honest labor, slugging back a cold beer (yes, I was that deluded) before heading home to bang out all my rough-hewn insights on a manual typewriter.

The manager of the store’s electronics department, a good friend of mine, set me up with an interview every bit as remedial as I had hoped for, and I was under way.

I believe my illusions lasted a good 12 minutes. Here are just a few of my
lightning-strike realizations:

Unloading trucks is hard.

Boxes are always heavier than they look.

The faster you are expected to unload trucks full of surprisingly heavy boxes, the harder it is to do.

Department store managers—even those responsible for wispy designer undergarments—are capable of prodigious displays of anger and impatience.

Conversation typical to loading docks is not often scintillating.

The word “scintillating” probably should not be often uttered on loading docks.

The words “goddamnit,” “longhaired smartass punk,” and “shutyerfuckinmouth,” on the other hand, apparently work just fine.

Unless you have the same mysterious sweetheart deal as the maintenance guy, beer is not allowed on the apron—or, really, anywhere in the store. (Not here? Oh, OK. Not here? Oh, wow. Not here either? Gosh.)

“Postal” is a state of mind not specific to employees of a particular governmental agency.

In an attempt to cut costs, the floundering store was sacking people left and right, and consolidating jobs in inspired and completely haphazard ways, ensuring that everyone on staff was overworked, confused and mostly berserk. In short order, I myself went from lowly dockhand to lowly dockhand and inventory control specialist (don’t ask, because I never figured it out myself), and from there to lowly dockhand/inventory control specialist/gift wrapper.

As ICS, I got my own windowless office off a corridor that ran between the loading area and the gift-wrap booth, which was located in the administrative offices. I think architecture had something to do with the combination of those particular responsibilities: I’d work unloading trucks until I heard a jury-rigged doorbell contraption buzz, indicating someone wanted an item gift wrapped; then, I’d sprint down the corridor into my office, where I’d pull on a blazer over my grimy shirt and pop out into the gift-wrap booth like a hand puppet on crank.

(To this day, I deliver gifts in brown paper grocery bags. Ask my family.)

It was clear that I had to get out, but I had a hovel and a mild drinking problem to maintain. What to do?

Then my manager friend got fired, and the scales fell from my eyes: unemployment, sweet subsidized indolence. All I had to do was get myself fired and I could join my pal, who had joined another of our pals, loafing around the fountain in the park, drinking beer several bucks less expensive than beer we actually liked. Sweet. It was perfect. All I had to do was call attention to how poorly I had been doing my job all along; it wasn’t like I even had to become inept. I was home free.

No dice.

For some reason that has remained obscure to me, my employers absolutely refused to let me go. They weren’t going to fire me; if it meant I grew old in fine furnishings and passed away and rotted behind the fragrance counter, they were not firing me.

I screwed up the paperwork, I ignored the paperwork, I lost the paperwork, I destroyed the paperwork—reams of paperwork just disappeared without a trace, as completely and irrevocably as in an Enron exec’s wet dream. I hid on the freight elevator between floors for hours at a time. I sent trucks out with merchandise “insufficiently secured,” as the shortage/breakage reports would have said had the shortage/breakage reports ever said anything. Toasters were sent to cosmetics, Hawaiian shirts to ladies’ shoes, men’s hosiery to the food court. I took epic, marathon lunches, soothing away the stress of my continuing employment in the demo massage chair at Brookstone. I was getting nowhere, and my friends were getting sunburned.

I decided that mere incompetence, however thoroughgoing, was not going to do it. I’d try pronounced eccentricity suggestive of mental instability.

I stretched out on the conveyor belt that ran between floors of the lamp stockroom, waiting for unsuspecting sales associates to activate it, retrieving not a Stiffel torchiere but a dirty and, I hoped, somehow off-seeming dockhand-ICS-gift-wrap guy. I used the store’s copy machine to make collages with which I decorated my office walls (“Bloated Cow in Opera Helmet” was a favorite). I swore vehemently and incomprehensibly on the sales floor, doing my best to sound like a rum-mad pirate: “You thundering thespian theocrats! Gangrenous, gibbering gibbons grown of garbage ganglia! Vapid visigoths! Pulchritudinous poltroons!”

In one day, I delivered what I thought to be an absolute doozy of a one-two punch—a haymaker of “What the fuck is with that guy?” On my way back to the dock, I leaned forward on the escalator and pressed my forehead hard on the grooved stair until it left a vivid impression. When my boss noticed the reddish ridges and inquired, I said, “Oh, I fell asleep on the escalator.” Later that day, when I heard him trying to relate the story to one of my coworkers, I said I had no idea what he was talking about.

“Then what was that mark on your head?” he asked.

“I bit myself,” I said.

“You can’t bite yourself on the forehead,” he said testily.

“I was standing on a chair.”

A masterpiece of pointless irritation. But, still, nada.

Finally, it came. The call to the office of the general manager. It had come to his attention that my technique for inventory control showed a bit less control than he would have hoped. It was causing trouble for him, and shit rolls downhill as they say.

Sweet. Here it comes. My pass to a summer of PBR sixers and SPF 15.

So they were promoting me to the sales floor.

—John Rodat


Illustration by Jo Rivers

An Idea Whose Time Had Not Come

Around Christmas 1978, my friend Tom Duffy mailed out a small wooden capsule. Approximately the size of a thumb, it was topped off by a wooden capper, held in place with tape, and fastened with a mailing tag by means of a wire. On opening the capsule, the recipient would find a coiled wood shaving that, when unrolled, revealed a brief holiday greeting.

Tom sent these out to friends and family, causing an uncle to convey his certainty that these could be big—very big—in the marketplace. Tom asked me to help him realize the limitless potential of a postal-greeting novelty. Fresh out of art school, with an amassed savings of less than $2,000, I traveled up to Tom’s base of operations in Ogdensburg, N.Y., for the summer. I tossed all my dough into the pot, and we formed a partnership, Spring Tonic Collaborations (Spring Tonic being the name of the early-’70s band we were part of back in Erie, Pa.). Armed with a company name and letterhead, and giddy with dreams of wealth, we got to work.

We dubbed our product the Greeting Capsule Message Mailer and arranged for a sheltered workshop to manufacture it. I had the phone company provide directories for every major metropolitan area, which I scoured for names of greeting-card shops to solicit. We designed the packaging and components: A wooden capsule would be affixed to the cardboard backing, with illustrations explaining how to open it, roll out the wood shaving, write on it, put it back in, replace the wooden top cap, seal with tape (provided) and affix the mailing tag (also provided).

Suffice it to say, success was not at hand. The package boasted, “Send your message on a real wood shaving.” Looking back after more than a quarter-century, that now strikes me as a rather dubious lure. We sold approximately one box (20 to a box) wholesale and, because Tom was a good customer, a local Ogdensburg hardware store took another box, along with one of our countertop displays. We garnered outstanding coverage in the local paper. While this didn’t seem to affect sales, we did come off as nice guys in the story.

The enterprise didn’t roll over and die in a way we could recognize as lifeless, so it became a hole in which to throw more money. Tom’s father stepped up and offered to pay the licensing fee for the Lake Placid Winter Olympics logo to be emblazoned onto the capsule and packaging. We now boasted the Official Greeting Capsule Message Mailer of the 1980 Winter Olympics! However, the Olympics came and went, and our sales did not rise above those sold by the hardware store. Finally, we recognized that our dream had ended. Over the next few years, Tom used the remaining stock as kindling; I still have some of the backing boards, which make dandy postcards.

I consider my money well-spent. I learned as much as I did in any year in college. Plus, I got to write one of my finest letters. Tom had recently gone through a divorce; when we formed the partnership, a collection agency wrote to the new company name, seeking payment for some dental bill for his ex-wife (a bill for which he
wasn’t responsible). Since it came addressed to Spring Tonic Collaborations, which was 50-percent me, I took care of the matter. Settling for surrealism in my approach, I told the agency that we didn’t have a Rosalie currently in our employ, and suggested that perhaps they actually meant Rose Marie (of the Dick Van Dyke Show). I went on to point out that we didn’t think it was fair that we should be charged for watching TV shows that were on more than a dozen years prior and for which we weren’t told we’d be charged at the time. I’m proud to say they never wrote to Tom again. A success like that really makes me rethink whether the Greeting Capsule Message Mailer was a failure after all.

—David Greenberger

There Is No Law

I’ll probably never know what prompted me to devote most of my 20s to law school. I do know that getting into law school proved to be far easier than getting out of it—both times.

Certainly, the national mood during my college years inspired me to think competitively. In the late 1970s, women were beginning to enter careers long barred to them, in law enforcement, finance, politics and big business. The Vietnam War had just ended, activism was still in the air, and I possessed what passed for a social conscience. Competitive by nature—OK, driven—and imbued with a fledgling sense of feminism and empowerment, I set my sights on the Law School Admissions Test with the goal of becoming a Legal Aid lawyer or a public defender.

In high school, I’d been an editor for an award-winning student-run newspaper that had editorialized in favor of abortion rights and had once published a cartoon depicting the superintendent in a Nazi uniform after he announced a plan to issue mandatory student ID cards. But I shrugged off my lifelong love of writing, convinced that in heading to law school, I was pursuing something serious, not just something fun.

A month after graduating from college, I was a paralegal in a New York City law firm, studying for the LSAT and reassuring myself that being a law student could not possibly be as boring as being a paralegal.

It was.

Getting into law school was the easy part. I had my pick of respectable schools: Emory in Atlanta, American University in D.C. and Washington and Lee in Lexington, Va., to name a few. I ended up at Washington and Lee, which was in Appalachia and a mismatch from the get-go for a city girl without a car. A week later, I was sitting in my torts class, gazing at the panoramic mountain view and plotting my escape.

My family was baffled when I returned to New York City, because I was the overachieving kid who had never deviated from a course once I set my mind to it. (And maybe that was part of the problem, although at age 24, I lacked the insight to figure that out.) It was unimaginable that I would quit law school without explanation, skulk home and grab the first job I could find (working at the customer-service counter of a department store).

I dreaded telling people that I’d quit law school. My sister got married two weeks after I returned to New York, and most of the wedding guests didn’t realize I was home to stay. I cringed through four hours of lawyer jokes at the reception and enough congratulatory slaps on the back for getting into law school to last a lifetime. It was hell.

A year later, I did it to myself all over again.

The second time around, I convinced myself that the problem had been the bucolic, isolated Washington and Lee. I stayed in New York City, got into the night program at Fordham . . . and once again bailed out in the first week.

Three months later, my best friend suggested that I consider a move to Boston. Clearly, I needed a change of scenery, she tactfully noted. I could get a job, get away from my family, and figure out what I wanted to do.

I did just that, staying first with my friend (she later confessed that she never really expected me to show up at her door) and then moving to a residential YWCA in Boston’s South End. I lived at the Y for five months in a cramped, bleak room, swatting cockroaches and sharing a bathroom with a dozen other women while I saved money for an apartment. I got a job as a secretary and began to think about my first, spurned love: writing. Maybe there was something to be said for having fun after all.

I started writing freelance newspaper stories, working on them during lunch hours, weekends and evenings. I sold my first story—about the 10th anniversary of the Boston Police Department admitting female officers—to a neighborhood weekly, and soon aimed higher.

Less than a year after moving to Boston, I hit the jackpot, publishing a section-front feature story on Cambodian refugee children in the Boston public schools in the Sunday Boston Globe. A co-worker at my secretarial job walked into the office that Monday morning, looked at me incredulously, and said, “Was that you in the Globe yesterday?” (I had kept my double life as a fledging journalist a secret.)

Two years after I moved to Boston, I headed back to New York City to launch my journalism career in earnest. And I never looked back at law school again.

—Darryl McGrath


Illustration by Jo Rivers

I Am Not the President

There would seem to be a special circle in (living) hell reserved for those who shoot for the biggest job in America—the presidency—and fail.

While Michael Dukakis, Adlai Stevenson, Bob Dole, Walter Mondale, George McGovern, Hubert Humphrey, Alf Landon and Barry Goldwater (just to name a few relatively recent examples) all carved exceptional careers in the service of their nation, each of their legacies carries the hard-to-shake whiff of loser, based on the varying degrees of stomping that they received at the hands of their opponents.

When these statesmen’s biographies are written and the historians synopsize them for popular consumption, undoubtedly it will be their failed presidential campaigns that top their lists of “accomplishments.” But despite their dubious lack of achievement in the most scrutinized contest in America, these recent presidential losers are actually in pretty good company, when one takes the long view of electoral history.

Consider the era between Presidents Jefferson and Lincoln, a period when the most casual students of history would be hard-pressed to name many of the largely undistinguished (with the possible exceptions of Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk) presidents who led their nation on its inexorable march first to the Pacific, then to the War Between the States. Meanwhile, the three greatest political minds and forces of that era—Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay—managed to pull together precisely zero successful presidential campaigns between them, with Webster losing to Martin Van Buren in 1836, and Clay falling to John Quincy Adams (in 1824), Jackson (1832) and Polk (1844).

Calhoun, for his part, managed to be elected vice president during Jackson’s first term, and should have been King Andrew’s heir apparent—except that he was unceremoniously dumped as veep before Jackson’s second term and replaced by Van Buren, who rode his boss’ coattails to his own victory over Webster four years later. Nevertheless, the legacy of their age was, in large part, shaped more in Congress by these three presidential failures than by the men who defeated them for the biggest prize in the land. History has certainly been kinder to the three “losers” than to Presidents Fillmore, Buchanan, Taylor and Pierce. And history could have been kinder to Van Buren too, who also could be listed as one of the most influential power brokers and policymakers of that same era, except for the fact this his presidency was the most marginal part of his career—and that’s what tends to be remembered, his other accomplishments paling in hindsight into insignificance.

In the 20th century, we have been graced with a series of habitual presidential losers, largely from outside of the traditional two-party system. Socialist Norman Thomas ran (and lost) six times, in each campaign from 1928 to 1948. He never captured the big prize, but he did get to watch Franklin D. Roosevelt implement many of the policies for which he had advocated during his early campaigns. And his insightful thoughts, writings and speeches against the Cold War arms race, poverty, racism, the war in Vietnam and the military-industrial complex in general were often prescient, and frequently pilfered by major-party opponents.

Thomas followed in the oft-defeated footsteps of Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party’s candidate from 1900 through 1912, and again in 1920—when he ran his campaign from his prison cell in Moundsville, W.Va., where he was incarcerated for speaking out against American involvement in the Great War in Europe, in violation of the wartime espionage law. While Debs never slept in the White House, he was the lightning rod of the labor movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and is still regarded as one of the most eloquent and passionate orators of his era.

Third-party losing candidates Theodore Roosevelt (1912), Robert LaFollette (1924), Strom Thurmond (1948) and George Wallace (1968) all merit mention for actually having managed to win electoral votes, a feat that Debs and Thomas never managed. Roosevelt (already a former president at the time), the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party candidate in 1912, actually managed to win more electoral votes than incumbent William Howard Taft, who rebounded from his humiliation at the hands of his former mentor (Roosevelt) and Woodrow Wilson (who actually won the election, in part because of Roosevelt’s maverick campaign) to ultimately become Chief Justice of the United States—the only man ever to hold both positions. All things considered, Taft would have been happier to be a failure in his first campaign as well: “I don’t remember that I was ever president,” he remarked late in his life.

Ross Perot didn’t manage any electoral votes, but he did pull enough popular votes to materially impact the outcome of the 1992 election, when Bill Clinton unseated George H.W. Bush. Eight years later, Ralph Nader’s less-successful Green campaign sucked enough votes out of the Democratic side to help throw a squeaker of an election toward Republican George W. Bush, leaving Al Gore to bear perhaps the heaviest tang of failure in recent electoral memory, since he actually managed to go home empty-handed despite getting more popular votes than his foe—making his failure seem more his own fault than the fault of a superior opponent. Perot and Nader lost like gangbusters, sure, but they made a difference in tight campaigns, and that difference has helped spark additional interest in third-party candidates and causes—and the impacts (intended and unintended, good and bad) that they can have on the nation’s discourse and governance.

Our current president appears to have studied past failed presidential candidates as well, and taken to heart some of their policy proposals. One such failed candidate once proposed an amendment to the Constitution that read: “All bills for raising revenue shall originate in the office of the President. He shall have power to lay and collect taxes to provide for the common defense and general welfare of his family and friends. If the country is in peril for the lack of essential minerals, oil and land necessary for its citizens, he may encourage incursions into other lands not belonging to the United States for the procurement of these valuables.”

The candidate in question? The late sad-sack actor/comedian and Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour writer Patrick L. Paulsen, a fringe candidate of the furriest variety from 1968 to 1996, proving that even the biggest losers sometime manage to influence the biggest winners—even if no one knows (or wants to admit) that they’re doing it.

—J. Eric Smith

Solitary Confinement

I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but have often wondered how to get there. One of the routes I tried was to spend a summer in Rome as an expatriate.

That dream came to me through an odd set of circumstances: I won a poetry contest sponsored by a used-guitar shop, and the grand prize was a round-trip ticket to Rome. A lifetime supply of guitar strings was also part of the prize, but since I didn’t play guitar, I cashed them in and earmarked the amount to pay for a month’s rent.

I was operating under the assumption that isolation makes good writing. Removed from my own country, and immersed in one where I couldn’t speak the language. Once I was in Rome, my landlords offered to help find English-speaking friends for me, but I rejected their help, thinking that for the sake of my journey, I had to keep myself quiet and out of harm’s reach. In this instance, harm’s reach was a social life.

Had I looked at the way the famous ex-pats lived in France—how Hemingway knew Stein and Stein knew everyone, and how everyone moved in circles that mingled frequently at private salons and in public cafes—I might have done things differently. I might have sought, rather than rejected, company. I might not have slipped further and further into my own concerns: that I wasn’t a good writer and would never be one; that I was getting fat on the gelato I couldn’t stop eating two or three times a day; that I didn’t belong in a building on a street made of cobblestones; that I, in fact, didn’t belong anywhere, since I had been so determined to divorce myself from my life at home for the sake of this one, the one that wasn’t working.

I spent my days wandering in circles around my apartment, which was fairly close to the Vatican. I walked to historic sites, past people sitting in cafés, in groups or alone, perhaps waiting for someone (maybe waiting for people). If I sat, I wasn’t waiting for anything, except perhaps for time to deliver me to the other end of my trip. I wrote in notebooks, and I wrote letters and postcards. I tried to write fiction, but the novel I was working on had nothing to do with my surroundings. I could have been anywhere. I couldn’t attach myself to Rome or its ruins, or to simply being a fun-seeking tourist. Worst of all, I couldn’t see that the loneliness I cultivated was bothering me. I thought my torture was normal to the writing life.

I am eight years away from that summer and its isolation. In that time, I have had to learn, over and over again, that I cannot be a hermit. I have had to learn that to write, I have to live, and that living doesn’t happen in my head or on the pages of my notebooks. Living happens out there, in cities and in landscapes I have to observe and embrace with my senses, in people I have to embrace with my love and time.

I have been lucky enough to enjoy the luxury of a month to write at Edna St. Vincent Millay’s farm in Austerlitz. There, I began to learn what I didn’t notice in Rome: that artists are people and need to interact with others. I worked during the days, and ate dinner with five other artists every night. At first, I was unwilling to engage with the others; then, over our stay, my barriers dissolved.

I still confuse cultivating isolation with making room in my life for the contemplation necessary to writing, but now I have examples to study—that summer in Rome, my month at Millay’s farm—when I wonder what route I need to travel as a writer. I no longer think the road to creativity should be through an unpopulated wood, but perhaps along a river, with chances to stop, ponder, see old friends and meet new ones.

—Amy Halloran

No More Easy Answers

Once upon a time, I was the King of Tests.

I was a marginal student at best, and would generally spend more time and effort trying to get out of studying or doing schoolwork than it would have taken to actually do the work. However, anytime anyone put a standardized test in front of me, the vast, seething library (of arcana and noise) that’s rattled around in my head since childhood would suddenly click to order (files and data organizing themselves for the dump), and the test would be mine.

Lest you have any doubts about how test-driven our society is, let me assure you that a marginal work ethic and high test scores carried me further than most of
my hard-working, low-testing peers.
Elementary-school standardized tests placed me in a variety of classes for the gifted and talented, where we spent all sorts of quality creative-thinking and processing and analyzing time that masked the fact that we really were working far less and goofing off far more than the kids in the regular classes. Junior-high aptitude tests indicated to guidance counselors that I was college-track material, and advanced-placement tests later ensured that when I got to college, I would be able to skip all sorts of standard first- and second-year courses.

And the SATs? Oh, the SATs! My SAT scores, with no advance effort to prepare whatsoever, overcame tepid grades and a marginal extracurricular record to get me admitted to one of the most prestigious colleges in America, where I spent four years as the King of Cram, leading a posse of like-minded slugs in the “Late Night Study Club,” packing just enough information into our heads to barf it onto the test forms the following morning. And then we slept.

After college, I spent a year in a postgraduate program, drinking and sleeping and drinking and sleeping, only occasionally coming up for air to take the tests that would get me selected for a prestigious position in a government organization in Washington, D.C.

When that gig was winding down, my girlfriend and I decided that we would take the Federal Foreign Service Examination together and, once we passed it with flying colors, jet off for an exciting, cosmopolitan life abroad, doing our best royal waves at the natives, eating in the world’s finest restaurants on expense accounts, hobnobbing with royalty, and sleeping really, really often and well. My girlfriend—a serious academic sort—did all sorts of research into the Foreign Service Exam, took sample tests, boned up on political science and economics and history, and talked to people who had taken and passed the test. I, on the other hand, slept really, really well the night before the exam—figuring that if all-night cram sessions had worked well for me all those years, then a “well-rested, well-tested” approach should really reap spectacular dividends.

The test itself seemed no harder or easier than any other standardized test that I’d ever taken, and I was one of the first in the room to finish. I didn’t bother to go back and check my work, since, hey, I never went back and checked my work. My girlfriend, on the other hand, worked diligently through the entire testing period, while I sat thinking patronizing thoughts about how cute it was when she worked so hard on things.

Six weeks or so passed, and my girlfriend called me at my office to tell me that she had gotten the results of the examination, and (yay!) she had passed. I congratulated her, and congratulated myself, since (to my mind) the only thing that could have caused us to not spend our lives jetting around the world together was for her to have failed the test. I was so glad that her hard work and preparation had paid off, and that our lives would now unfold the way we’d planned them—and I told her that.

But I’d spoken too soon, since when I got home that night and opened my own test results, I discovered to my shock, horror and dismay that I had not passed the Foreign Service Exam. In fact, I had not even gotten close to passing the Foreign Service Exam. I had failed in a fairly spectacular fashion, and now I had to call my girlfriend and eat crow of a variety that I’d never tasted, with a healthy slab of humble pie for dessert.

Further, I had to reassess two basic personal premises in my life. First, I could no longer waltz into a standardized-exam setting without preparation and have it carry me forward to whatever next step I had in mind. And second (and perhaps more profound), I had to accept the fact that I wasn’t the smartest person that I knew anymore. A lifetime of tests telling me that I was in the 99th percentile of this or the top decile of that had imbued me with an arrogance about my own intellectual capabilities that made me certain that I was always right.

So there I was, hoisted on my own hubris, planning a life that wasn’t possible because the King of Tests had struck out. The logical reaction, perhaps, would have been to take the test again and redeem myself as Lord of All That I Multiple Guessed, but my reaction instead was to turn my back on tests entirely, to let my failure be the victor, and to let that moment stand as a benchmark for a different approach to life.

I haven’t taken a standardized test or a college exam since that day, and have instead focused my energies on actually doing and learning things in a practical, hands-on fashion, trying to earn tangible kudos rather than bluffing my way into paper victories.

And the girlfriend in the story? I figured that the only way to deal with someone who was smarter than me was to stay very, very close to her, just to see what might rub off. We’ve been married for some 15 years now, and I’m still learning.


Success Is Not Spoken Here

I graduated college without a thought in my head. I didn’t get accepted to grad school. As job hunters go, I was one of the more thoroughly clueless.

It was the mid-’80s. Having moved to Albany on, essentially, a flip of the coin (Buffalo lost—or won, depending on how you look at it), my “job network” was nonexistent. Having graduated from college the year before, my résumé was distressingly thin. Having failed miserably in my first Albany job, pasta maker, I had no favorable local references.

Also, it was a fact that I was absolutely horrible in interviews. Paroled murderers regularly made better impressions than I did. Never mind the jobs I really wanted and had gone to school to get; numerous mall stores, factory outlets and dry cleaners declined to avail themselves of my services. I faced the fact that I would have to sign up with a temp service.

I had worked for a temp service, briefly, before moving to Albany. If you couldn’t type—and I had managed, in those pre-computer days, to get through high school and college without learning to type—then the temp service would send you to the least desirable jobs imaginable. (Example: I spent the fall of 1985 raking leaves for a village street department.)

So I chose a temp service from the phone book and went in for an interview. It was amazing to note, as I filled out the application, the many things I could not do, and the many job locations I couldn’t reach because I didn’t own a car. A manager took my application, asked a couple of questions, and said she would be in touch.

She called the next day: “Do you want to do filing work?”

You bet. She sent me to an Albany address, on the busline. Yes, it was a filing job. But it was in an office located within a factory. They printed real estate listings, and the stink of photochemicals was pervasive. While the permanent employees were friendly—not always the case for temps, by the way—the work for temps was numbingly tedious, and no one lasted very long. I stayed six weeks before I became convinced the chemicals were making me ill and quit. (“Oh yeah, I’m sick all the time, too,” a permanent employee told me.)

On to the next assignment.

“Do you want to work in a furniture warehouse?”

Oh sure. Who wouldn’t?

They gave me an address in North Albany. Same old story—take the bus to as close to the location as possible, then walk. Arriving at the address, I discovered that the agency had sent three of us. And this, it turns out, was not the job site. The warehouse was across the river, somewhere in Rensselaer. So we were herded into the back of a windowless panel truck, and off we went. Sitting there in the dark—the light went out when the back door was closed and latched—the three of us killed time talking about the other places we had worked for the agency. (It made more sense than complaining about being smuggled like illegal aliens across the Hudson into Rensselaer County.) And, lo and behold, they had both worked at the job I had just left. The other guys discovered they shared a few more mutual former workplaces. And, lo and behold, none of us had lasted any longer than either of the others at them.

A light went on in my dim brain. This setup was like vaudeville for day laborers. The temp service was shuffling us around a loser’s circuit of shitty jobs. There was no expectation that we would stay at any of them for very long. We were expected to fail, and it didn’t matter because there was always another temp to fill the slot.

It didn’t take me long to fail at this assignment. My thumb got jammed between desks, and I spent most of the day in an emergency room waiting to get it stitched up.

I went on to a few more assignments, occasionally running into temps from previous jobs. There was a brief stint at a well-known bakery, loading “product”—as the permanent workers referred to the bread and donuts—onto trucks. Unfortunately, I tended to dump a lot of product on the floor. There was a longer term at a hospital, working out of the receiving department.

Eventually, I found a job I wanted and bade farewell to the temp service. Of course, I found the job on my own—otherwise, I might still be dumping orange donuts by the boxload.

—Shawn Stone

By George, How Does He Do It?

It seems like everybody knows somebody who fits the bill, or has at least heard of the sort: a lucky fuck-up, that special variety of human born under an alignment of the cosmos that makes every error somehow beneficial. They are the upwardly mobile failures who, much like Parker Lewis, can’t lose. In fact, one of these fluky flunkies is running our country right now.

It’s quite amazing to look at the life and times of George Walker Bush, considering where he receives his mail these days. From his solid Cs at the Harvard School of Business through his shaky—yet somehow profitable—years in the private sector, to his bumbling tenure as a politician, our 43rd president has proven time and again that no matter how much you seem to screw up, you just might become leader of the world’s most powerful nation one day, if you can turn on the charm.

But before Bush set his sights on the White House, he aimed for another Washington target—the House of Representatives. His first foray into politics was an attempt to fill a vacating congressional seat in Texas in 1978. But Bush was soundly outpoliticked by Democratic candidate Kent Hance. A Texan born and raised, Hance convinced voters that Bush was nothing more than an opportunistic carpetbagger riding his daddy’s coattails to a career in politics. Good point, but surely Bush had a campaign. What was his platform? The Midland, Texas, Chamber of Commerce’s biography of our current president quotes then-congressional-candidate Bush as saying that what made him a better candidate was the fact that he had more hair.

After losing to the less-hirsute Hance, Bush retreated to the private sector. When Bush returned to politics years later as a gubernatorial candidate, Hance had inexplicably changed his tune. He contributed $20,000 to each of Bush’s gubernatorial campaigns, and signed on as a Bush Pioneer during the presidential campaign—pledging to raise $100,000 for the cause. Maybe Hance was hedging bets on George W.’s political future, thanks to the Bush pedigree. But then again, maybe he was envious of the hair.

Before Bush ran for president, he tried his hand at the family business, oil. Not wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps, Bush decided to open up his own drilling and exploration firms and go it alone—just George and his trust fund. At any rate, Bush took off in the oil business with a start, then fell fantastically on his face—finding nothing but dry wells and barely breaking even. Yet with each failed venture, Bush was offered more and more money to merge his nonprofiting oil companies with larger firms.

Eventually, Bush ended up with Harken Energy, where his initial investment in the oil business would be recouped when he sold his stock and left the company in the early 1990s. Two months later, Harken’s stock collapsed. Six months after that, Bush reported his stock sale to the Securities and Exchange Commission. This should have garnered Bush at least a slap on the wrist, but investigators found no wrongdoing, and W. was off to baseball.

During his stint as managing partner of the Texas Rangers, Bush helped convince the citizens of Arlington, Texas, to chip in $135 million in tax dollars to build a new stadium for the team. Thanks in large part to the new stadium, the initial $500,000 investment Bush borrowed to invest in the team brought him $15 million eight years later when the team was bought out.

Bush’s time with the Rangers helped his public image immensely, countering the criticism that he’d done nothing more than be born his father’s son, and eventually helped him get elected governor in Texas. To become
governor, Bush defeated single-term incumbent Ann Richards, whose four years in office had yielded a lower crime rate and a number of sound environmental policy decisions that seemed to have Texas heading in the right direction.

When Bush left Texas after two terms, the Environmental Protection Agency reported that his state ranked first in the number of overall toxins released into the environment, and first in the numbers of suspected and identified carcinogens in the air. In 1998 and 1999, Houston eclipsed Los Angeles as the nation’s most polluted city. Its citizens currently live under a constant state of alert during summer’s hazy, humid days, as Houston meteorologists report the day’s projected ozone levels, and instruct whether it is safe to go outside and breathe.

How Bush didn’t quite get elected is a story of failure in and of itself, but he’s here now and there isn’t much we can do about it until 2004, and even then . . .

Now Bush is trying to take us off to war, and I’m hoping his past proves a good indicator of what the future could hold. All of his cowboy, go-it-alone “diplomacy” may ruin our relations with a good chunk of the world for years to come. A unilateral U.S. invasion of Iraq may turn the entire Middle East into a war zone and justify anti-American sentiment throughout the region for generations. And our troop buildup in the region, a show of military might, may lead other nations onto our list of rogues to proliferate their nuclear weapons. But then again, maybe Saddam will have a heart attack.

—Travis Durfee

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