My student told me the other day that he had had a dream about me. Fortunately, the dream wasn’t as creepy as that statement: he was in my classroom, and I was teaching a “lesson” on the Twenty Worst Things to Fail At (Ending a sentence with a preposition? Apparently Dream-Me has a crappy sense of grammar.). He said I went through the list, and #2 was “Life,” and #1 was “THIS CLASS!”
It seems Dream-Me is also one of those teachers who talks about his class like it’s the only thing standing between students and a roaring tsunami of doom and destruction and disappointed parents who don’t love their children quite as much if they go to a state school. Apparently Dream-Me also enjoys a nice soupcon of anti-climactic irony. I mean, really, Dream-Me? Failing at your class is worse than failing at life? Isn’t the idea supposed to be that failing the class leads to failing in life? You blew your own point, pal. Don’t you know anything about rhetoric?
Though I have to add that I often act like a jerk in my wife’s dreams, where I tell her that she’s unattractive and ignore her when she’s scared or in pain. So maybe I have an evil Dream-Twin.
After telling the class about his dream, the student asked me to come up with my own version of the twenty things. I didn’t have a ready answer for him, but I said that I would think about it. Here’s what I thought. I could only come up with nineteen that needed to be on the list. Because I don’t live my life by other people’s rules.
Nineteen Potentially Terrible Failures
19. Starting the coffee in the morning, as I failed to do today. It’s an unforgivable sin.
18. Realizing that not everything is a competition, or that not everything needs a grade. Life is not a game, capitalism and competition do not make people better, sports are not the basis of human culture. There’s little that’s more annoying than when you reach the end of a difficult obstacle and then someone turns to you and says, “Ha! I beat you.” Or asking someone how you did with a difficult task, and having them say, “I give you a C+.” (By the way: no, it isn’t ironic that I said that and I’m a teacher. I know this to be true because I’m a teacher. Because I know it to be true, I hate grades, and tell my students so as often as I can.) One should not try to decide if this one thing is better or worse than this other thing – especially not with people – and one should never use a single and generally insignificant criterion to make that judgment, as in, “My class is more important than the rest of your life because my class has me in it,” or “Sports are better than reading because sports are more exciting to watch on TV.” It is reasonable, within a narrow scope, to consider, “Is this thing/person/event good or bad in this specific way in this specific instance?” because you can choose criteria and then decide if the thing matches them — and if your scope is narrow, you can have enough information to be reasonably sure of a valid appraisal. When trying to decide if I should eat an item of food, for instance, I ask myself two questions: one, Am I hungry? And two, Is it a doughnut? If either of those answers is Yes, then I eat. I don’t ask: Will eating this make me a winner? or, Is this the best thing to eat? or, Which doughnut is better?
Eat all the doughnuts. Then they’re all winners. And so are you.
17. Avoiding the use of memes and Vines. Memes and Vines are two things: they are amusing, and they are fast. But that’s it. They have no practical purpose. And yet, people post memes and Vines all over social media, attempting to lay claim to positions or to express opinions or preferences/allegiances (“Share this meme if you remember what this is!” “This Vine shows what it means to grow up in the 90’s!”) And I don’t mean there are good memes and bad memes, or good Vines and bad Vines; there are, but the point here is that they have no particular use: memes should never be used to argue, and Vines should never be used to communicate. Memes are never the best form of the argument; they are always oversimplified, generally exaggerated, and always mocking if not directly insulting. Vines are too short to have any poetry in them: six seconds is not long enough to set up a punchline, or build up expectation and suspense, or to create irony. Vines are just one big pratfall, everything bang, boff, and wow! It relies on an aesthetic of contempt, of laughing at the fool, of pointing at the freak. Of course there is a millennia-old tradition of this, but any other medium has at least the potential to grow past shock value. What serious thing are you going to say in six seconds? Would you even have time to ask that question?
16. Remembering what you thought of in the shower after you get out of the shower. Godddamnit. I know I had something else that should be on this list. What was it? Too late. It’s gone. I really need to get some waterproof whiteboard or something, so I can take notes in the shower; that’s one of the best places for thinking. It’s one of the only places in the world where there is, usually, nothing but silence: the white noise of the water, and the sound of your own thoughts.
And speaking of silence . . .
15. Silence. Ray Bradbury, in Fahrenheit 451, put this as “leisure” and said it was one of the three critical elements that would keep our society from turning into the dystopia he imagined. He said that we need real information – denied the people in the novel by the burning of all books – and quiet time to think about it. Time without televisions or radios, without people talking, without cars rushing around or sirens blaring. (Just for the sake of completeness: the third thing we need is the right to act on decisions made with the use of the first two.)
This society has plenty of information. Too much, in fact. What we don’t have is a quiet moment to sit and think about that information. My students generally don’t like silence: they start feeling awkward, and then they make noise in order to block out the silence. When asked to work quietly, many of them insist on listening to music, saying that it helps them concentrate. It doesn’t: music asks for, and receives, some kind of attention, especially when the other task is not entertaining; the evidence is overwhelming that people cannot actually multitask, and doing two things at once means you pay less attention to both. But music in one’s ears does eliminate that awful, shuddering, heaving beast, Silence; and for them, that’s the goal.
But the thing is, silence allows us to dive deeper into our own minds. Of course this is what teenagers are trying to avoid; they don’t want to think about what’s inside themselves or why, or what it means, and so they build a wall of noise and hide behind it. But that doesn’t make what’s inside us go away, and someday, we must confront it, work through it, and then turn it into strength. We take things in and make them a part of ourselves, turning difficulties and sorrows and any powerful experience into the foundation on which we build the temple of our Self: grief becomes courage, anger becomes determination, heartbreak becomes wisdom. But it’s a process, and it requires thought, and thought requires silence.
Maybe we should all just take a whole lot more showers.
14. Doing your job. We live in a society, and people depend on other people. For me to be a good teacher, I need someone else to produce my food, to build my house, to maintain my car. For the mechanic to do a good job maintaining my car, he needs someone else to make the parts and the tools, and the auto manufacturer to maintain quality standards. For the auto manufacturer to maintain standards, he needs to understand science and math: engineering and physics, and measurement and data management; and for that, he needs a good teacher. When any of us fails to do our job, the others are put at a disadvantage. Now I have to install washer/dryer hookups in my new rental because the property management company failed to inspect the connections properly: and that’s time I can’t spend teaching. “United we stand” is always true, not just when we are at war.
And speaking of war . . .
13. Peace. I should probably make this #1, but I’m not trying to create a hierarchy here (See #18). But in truth, there is no greater travesty, no greater horror than war. War is hell. That doesn’t mean war is uncomfortable, or unfortunate but necessary, or kinda bad but at least it helps the economy. War is hell. War is the worst thing imaginable, the home of all sins and all evil, the farthest point from goodness. It is one of my deepest discomforts to know that my country, my homeland and my family’s for at least three generations back, has failed at peace for nearly its entire existence. This fact puts the lie to all claims of American exceptionalism: we are not the greatest country in the world, everyone else does not envy us, we are not even a good country, because we have built this country on war. War is the source of our economic and scientific advancements, war is the foundation of our international relations. We are war. We are hell.
12. Putting down the phone. This is the other reason for America’s failure to achieve real greatness: because we are so very bad at this. It’s not just the phone, though, and it’s not just this generation; twenty years ago, I would have said “Turning off the TV.” The only difference is that now we can take the TV with us everywhere we go; it’s an increase in quantity, not a change in quality.
Don’t get me wrong: smartphones are wonderful things. The convenience and quantity of available information is staggering. If you added a phaser, it would be every gadget the away team uses on Star Trek: it’s already a communicator and a tricorder. (They should add a phaser. And it should go off automatically if you subscribe to Donald Trump’s Twitter feed.) Smartphones are fine and useful, as were televisions and radios before them.
But the phone, and the TV, are substitutes for real experience. With a phone you never have to look in someone’s eyes when you tell them you love them, or hate them. With a phone you never have to get up and go outside to see how the weather is. With a phone you never have to find something to do to occupy your mind. In other words, a phone allows you to avoid thinking, feeling, and doing. It allows you to avoid life. So the key with a smartphone is to put it down as often as possible, to use it only when it is convenient. One should never need it.
And speaking of Donald Trump . . .
11. Not being Donald Trump. Which means that every single person on Earth is successful in avoiding this failure, with one notable exception. Think of it that way and you almost pity him.
A corollary to this is: not voting for Donald Trump. Our country is already hell. Let’s not put an idiot in charge.
10. Honesty and avoiding hypocrisy. Yeah, telling the truth is hard. Yeah, living up to your own standards and sticking to your own principles is hard. But when you fail to do this, when you fail at honesty, you destroy yourself: when other people know you for a liar, as inevitably follows being a liar, people stop trusting anything that you say. You essentially silence yourself; you make all of your opinions, everything you say, into nothing but hot air and bull puckey. You take away your own ability to contribute to and participate in human society. Which makes it a terrible travesty that we lie so much, and even worse, accept that people lie and say that they should lie. The idea of a “little white lie,” which says that it is better to tell someone they look good in that dress and their hair is pretty and their rear end isn’t at all enormous, is a terrible foundation for a society. It makes us liars. Little white lies are just gateway lies that lead to adultery, embezzlement, and Watergate.
But the truth is: you can’t live a lie. You can keep piling more lies on top of it, but eventually, the weight grows too great, and your lie-pile collapses in on itself. And then you find yourself in court.
9. Keeping your dreams alive. This is something, I think, that we often lie to ourselves about: we tell ourselves we are happy with things the way they are, when really, things the way they are are okay for now – but we want something different. We want more. We want to achieve, to accomplish, to become. And that thing we want, that dream, is difficult and scary and risky, and so we tell ourselves that we really don’t want that, really don’t need that; this is enough. We say it enough that we let that dream die.
(A secondary point: if people tell us little white lies about our ability, tell us that we’re really good singers when in truth we’re not, it holds us back from accomplishing our dreams and makes those dreams more frustrating: because the truth may push us to work harder, or to change dreams – an acceptable choice, and one that shouldn’t be construed as failure; the point is to have a dream, not only one dream – where the lie makes us just keep trying to make it work, and not know why it isn’t working. If I wanted to be a professional singer, I would hope that someone would tell me that I need to work on my singing more, so that I could get good enough, instead of giving me false confidence which will lead to failure because I’m genuinely not good enough. Tell me again that little white lies are a good thing.)
It does take courage and fortitude to hold onto hope, to keep working towards something without realizing success in it, or even worse, to keep waiting for your moment to come when you can try, or try again. But this is who we are: fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, and humans aspire. My dreams are me: I am who I am, and I do what I do, because it will lead me to accomplishing my dreams, to becoming the me I want to become. Giving up your dreams is giving up humanity, identity, self. If you do that, if you fail at hope, what’s left?
8. Naming your children. I cannot, for the life of me, understand why people name their children the way they do. I don’t understand why people want their children to have unique and different names. It doesn’t make the child unique and different: it makes the person who named the child unique and different, because that’s who came up with the name. It’s a selfish, narcissistic act. How do we not see this? The child may like its name, but how could you possibly know at birth what the child will like? You can’t.
Your child’s name is not the appropriate place to show your creativity.
So here are the rules. A person’s name should be a name. You shouldn’t name a child after an object – Apple Paltrow – nor after a profession – Pilot Lee – nor after a character trait – Moxie Jillette. Some of these sorts of names have a long enough history that they have become acceptable, have become names, like Prudence or Hunter; but it takes history and tradition to make that happen. You cannot start a new one just because you want your child named Upholsterer. (Upholstery Jones has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?)
Most important of all: a person’s name should be spelled correctly. If you like the way a name sounds, then focus on the sound, and give the child that name. If you want your child to have a different name, THEN GIVE IT A DIFFERENT NAME. This is not hard: there are millions of names out there. Millions. Many of them are lovely and unique: in all my years of teaching and meeting people, I have only met one Ambrose. I am the only Theoden I know. I have never met a Gwendolyn, or a Marguerite. And despite knowing dozens of them, I still think the name Sarah is beautiful. I still like the names Jacob, and Thomas. A good name is a good name, even if there are five of them in the class; and if there are five Dylans in the class, it doesn’t help that one of them is Dillon, and one is Dylin, and one is Dillan, and one is Dyl’lyn. If I call out “Dylan,” they all look up at once. If you want your child to have an uncommon name, then give it an uncommon name. But for the love of all that’s good and pure, give your child a name worthy of the human being it will be attached to.
Speaking of children . . .
7. Raising children / Raising pets. First, let’s be clear: neither of these is more important, or more fulfilling, than the other. Either or both are, in my opinion, necessary elements of life, because everyone should know what it is to experience unconditional love and absolute dependence. Everyone should know that another being exists because you provide that existence. Everyone should have the chance to know that you gave a being the opportunity to live and love and have fun and be strong and be sad and give joy and give comfort. Everyone should be part of a family, and at some point, everyone should have their own family, should take care of their own family. What that family looks like is entirely up to each individual: I wouldn’t necessarily tell people they should have pets instead of children, or children instead of pets, or both, or neither. Everyone should have a family. That’s it.
And as part of that, everyone should do a good job taking care of and raising their family. Pets should be raised to be loving and polite, and so should children. All needs should be provided for, and neither expense nor inconvenience should keep a need from being met. Not all wants should be given, because kids should not be spoiled – the idea that all children should be spoiled is simply an outgrowth of our obsession with youth, and the absurd idea that childhood is the best time in life, and therefore children should be given everything they want and prevented from ever experiencing anything sad or painful. Let’s be clear: childhood is life, and life sometimes sucks. Life never gives you everything you want, and the same should be true for childhood. A good childhood is one where all the necessities are provided, and there is love. The same goes for a good puppyhood, or cathood, or birdhood, fishhood, iguanahood. The adult’s job is to create that life: all necessities, and love. Do that, and you’ve succeeded.
And speaking of love . . .
6. Love and compassion. I don’t think I need to explain this. Again, if I was making a hierarchy, this one would vie with “Peace” for the top spot. If you don’t understand what these are, and you don’t understand why they’re important, then you probably wouldn’t have made it this far in my list anyway. So all I’ll say is this:
5. Cleaning, specifically washing dishes. Why is this on the list, and why did it come directly after love? Because this is the key to a happy marriage. Of course you don’t want to clean everything. Nobody wants to clean everything. Even people that love cleaning want someone else to help, because they want someone to share in the joy of cleaning. Most people that insist on cleaning everything do so because other people do a crappy job. But everyone wants help cleaning. So learn how to do it, and then do it. And doing the dishes is most important because A, even if you have a housekeeper/cleaning person, you’re going to make an occasional dish late at night, and it’s uncouth and/or unsanitary to leave it until the next day, and B, the worst thing to find unclean is a dish. Nothing worse than coming across a fork that still has dried egg yolk between the tines. So wash your own dishes, people.
Speaking of doing things yourself . . .
4. Local TV and radio advertising. It is possible to do this right. What you do is show scenes of your place of business, if it’s TV, and in either case, have some pleasant, non-offensive background music and hire a professional to speak over the background music and describe your business and what makes your business special.
Here’s how to fail at this:
3. Tattoos. First, don’t get one unless you mean it. There are very few things that are forever. One of them is tattoos. This means that the subject matter of the tattoo should be forever, as well. Tattoos that represent unchanging values, or aspects of your personality? Fine. Tattoos that represent loved ones, or things you wish never to forget? Excellent choice. Spongebob? No. Even if he was your favorite cartoon character, he won’t always be. Believe me: I used to love the Gummi Bears cartoon. (Still do, actually.) But if I had a Gummi Bears character tattooed on me, it would lead to sheepish explanations every time someone saw it. Sheepish explanations should not be forever.
And second: location, location, location. Don’t tattoo your face. There’s just no reason for it. The same goes for your neck. There is not, and never has been, a neck tattoo that doesn’t tell the world “I look like a neo-Nazi meth head.” I don’t care if it’s your child’s name in Old English script, if it’s on your neck it looks like it says “More Meth, Please.” There’s lots of skin on the body. Pick somewhere else. And if there is no other blank skin on your body, STOP GETTING TATTOOS. Find a new hobby. Knit a scarf that says “More Meth, Please!”
2. Sunglasses. There are only two rules, and they are very simple: first, no white frames. Ever. Second, sunglasses belong on your face or on top of your head. If they are not on your face or on top of your head, TAKE THEM OFF. Hold them in your hand, put them in your pocket, hang them from a handy clothes-hole – neckline, pocket, belt, whatever. Do not put them on the back of your head. Do not hang them under your chin, like a plastic Lincoln beard. Do not put them around your neck. Do not hang them from a string unless you are a lifeguard.
Just take them off.
Like you can never do with that tattoo of Rick Astley saying “Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down.” Someday, even Rick-Rolling someone with your bare biceps will lose its charm. Even Rick Astley isn’t forever.
1. Trying again. Here’s a quotation that would actually be worthy of a tattoo somewhere.
Success [is] never final and failure never fatal. It [is] courage that [counts].
(The quote, amusingly enough, doesn’t come from Winston Churchill or Joe Paterno or John Wooden, as the Interwebs and The Almighty Google would have you think. It’s from a 1938 Budweiser advertisement. Quote Investigator )
To be honest, this list should be one item long, and this is it. The only thing that makes you a failure is giving up. That is not to say that giving up is always failure: sometimes it’s the right thing to do, and then it is a success, as it allows you to put your time and energy where they belong, rather than in the wrong place. But if it’s a thing that you want to do, that you should do, the only way to fail is to stop trying. Be brave. Try one more time.
And then once more again.