Illustration by Jo Rivers
tribute to failure
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
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
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.)
is a state of mind not specific to employees of a particular
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
(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.
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
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!
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.
what was that mark on your head?” he asked.
bit myself,” I said.
can’t bite yourself on the forehead,” he said testily.
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.
Illustration by Jo Rivers
Idea Whose Time Had Not Come
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
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
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.
Is No Law
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
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.
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.
Illustration by Jo Rivers
Am Not the President
would seem to be a special circle in (living) hell reserved
for those who shoot for the biggest job in America—the presidency—and
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.
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
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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
More Easy Answers
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Is Not Spoken Here
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
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
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
On to the next assignment.
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
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.
George, How Does He Do 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
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
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
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
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