In praise of failure (1)

Been thinking a long time about what to write on this yellow notepad from Office Depot. My friends have left a while ago, and the fire is dying outside. Fall is in the air. It’s still brutally hot during the day, in the sun, but there’s hints of the cooler days ahead when a north breeze blows, like tonight.

Last few days, I’ve been thinking I could write about the time I spent in Southern Mexico, right around the start of the Zapatista uprising, when the state of Chiapas was on fire and I was there, wandering around by bus, old American school buses as it were, on very bad roads snaking through mountain and jungle, full of Indians carrying sacks of corn and live chickens from village to village. The army was out in force, and would stop the buses at random checkpoints, looking for weapons and revolutionary propaganda. I had no weapons, and just a few Zapatista flyers that I intended to keep as souvenirs. The soldiers would poke me in the ribs with their rifles, demanding explanations for my being there. What could I say? I was no revolutionary. I wasn’t looking to join any movements, I just wanted weed and mushrooms. I was in search of the elusive perfect high, walking around Mayan ruins and country markets. I was no Che Guevara, always lacked that fiery conviction of being right, and of the other guy being wrong. Because sure, it’s wrong to oppress and exploit, but as certain as night follows day, you give the ‘good guys’ a shot at doing things their way, and that’s just what they’ll do: oppress and exploit, only this time for the good cause, whatever that is. Screw that. And fuck that Argie psychopath, Guevara, and all his ilk.

But I’m not really in the mood to write about those times. I don’t even remember if I achieved the highs I was looking for. What am I gonna write about? The excellent quality of Mexican weed? Eating roasted grasshoppers at markets, reading Huxley under slow-moving fans in cantinas and pensiones? Somehow, all that seems boring and trivial tonight, and I’m not in the mood. Some other time.

No, what I want to write about is failure. I live in the US, have become an American, so I’m well aware of how heretical my point of view is – that failure is a richer, deeper, more transcendental experience than success.

I look at it this way: the times I succeeded, I became a whiny, self centered, selfish asshole. The times I failed, on the other hand, made me a better, more complete, more compassionate, smarter, wiser human being.

There. I said it. Now stone me to death, America.

But seriously.

One has lived X number of years, and read, and traveled, and known people from all walks of life, some intimately. But in the end, one only has his own life experience to illustrate his points, because I, Rulo, am the one who has spent the most time with myself, the one who loves and cares for and knows the individual Rulo Deschamps the best. I’ll never love, or loathe, or despise, or admire, or care for, or analyze anyone -anyone- more intensely than myself.

To know this, to admit this, clears the air, and allows me to move forward with my point.

At first, one is happy. Success is all there is, at least if one has a loving family, like I had. A deeply flawed, contradictory, fucked up family in many ways, but one that fulfills the basic principle of parents (and grandparents, and aunts and uncles, and so on) doing their best for their children, providing for them, teaching them as best as they can, the happiness of the young being the happiness of the older members of the family. One learns to take a shit in the toilet, and there is happiness. One learns to swim. One learns to read, and there is joy. You add this nurturing environment to the natural condition of childhood, which I believe is happiness, and every step forward, every success – learning to shit in the can, etc – reinforces a virtuous circle, the happy childhood that one wants for his own offspring later in life. I know I want my kids to be as happy as I was as a child, which doesn’t mean I had perfect circumstances then, or that I am without fault as a parent now.

Of course, there’s cases of neglect and abuse, horrible situations that would alter this reasoning. Thank fuck, this wasn’t the case with me, so I won’t go there.

I said that happiness is the natural state of childhood. Alas, it doesn’t last. By age 12 or 13, one is ready to shed this blissful state like a snake sheds its old skin, and plunge into years of misery.

I need to be careful here and stick to my own story. There may be cases of people having happy, successful teenage years. Being good at school, well-adjusted at home, popular with their peers, in a word: happy with their lot. Not my case. And as a side note, I’ll mention that everyone I knew who was that kind of a teenager ended up either being a complete jerk, someone you can’t stand for more than a minute in his adult years for being full of him or herself -and of shit- or a basket case of depression, paranoia, social awkwardness, belligerent ignorance, bigotry, or behaviour unbecoming of a thinking adult. I’ve known of not a few jocks and prom queens offing themselves later in life, often for mysterious reasons: losing his hair? Sagging tits? Friends that don’t call? The acute, torturing certainty that the good days are behind and it’s all downhill now? Who knows. I don’t. That’s just my observation, and I’ll get back to my experience, and to my long relationship with failure.

It started with the onset of pubic hair, and acne. I had had the best of times during my elementary education years. I went to a very good school, where I had some great teachers and made some good friends. At the end of it, I had the choice to remain in that school for my secondary education, or try to get into a different school, a school run by the local university, which had a difficult, demanding admittance exam. Foolishly (and nudged on by my father, who had attended that school), I opted to prepare for the exam. Every year, maybe 600 applied, to try and get one of the 80 available spots. I did well, but not well enough: I was number 85 or so.

So, failure. It didn’t feel great, obviously. I couldn’t go back to my old, beloved school, as I had resigned my spot there in order to apply to this other high school. My parents found me a place at a third, mediocre, run of the mill, low standards school. I hated it. I didn’t fit in. My two best friends from the old school were going through their own, hardcore encounters with the amazing harshness of life. One had veered into drugs and senseless violence, the other had gone to live in Baghdad with his mother for a while, had missed a school year as he experienced the lunacy of the Iran-Iraq war, and upon his return to Argentina, had also gotten interested in violence and drugs, only not so much the recreational kind, but steroids and things that make you big and strong.

The following 4 or 5 years were miserable for the three of us. We got kicked out of a succession of schools. We would smoke, swallow, drink, inhale or inject anything we could get our hands on. We took turns running away from our homes and crashing at the other guys’. We saw the inside of police station jails at a young age. At that ‘plan C’ school I was attending, I ran into trouble right from the start, and it could have ended very badly, as I pushed someone there, and he fell on the hard, tiled floor, knocking his head hard, losing consiousness. He was sent to the hospital with severe head trauma, and the poor fellow was in a coma for a while, and could have died. I was expelled on the spot, of course. Why did the whole episode happen? What was I trying to prove? What was I thinking? I don’t know, but I suppose my intention was to impress that vague entity, ‘the crowd’. The crowd was egging me on, and pushing me to do it, to be a bully and entertain them.

Well, that taught me something. As I started my time in an even worse, ‘plan D’ school, I pondered what had happened, and decided I really hated ‘the crowd’ and I would never act to please it in any way again. Yes, that would make me an oddball, it would put me on the side of the freaks, and the unpopular, and the weird. Yes, I would be bullied by the pack leaders. Girls would not pay any attention to me. I wouldn’t get picked for the soccer team or called for the surprise party. That’s the price to be paid – understand!

But I fucking well have stayed with that principle for 20 years now: don’t do things for others, do them for yourself, do what you really want to do. I shouldn’t have applied to the top notch school, as I was happy in the other, very good, old school. I didn’t really want it, it was others that wanted it for me (my dad, whatever). I shouldn’t have pushed that kid, I had nothing against him. Push him for what? So the other idiots would be impressed? What’s that to me? Nothing. But I didn’t know it then, and I had to learn it the hard way.

Teacher Failure had gone to work on me, I had learned something I didn’t know before, one of the guiding principles and hard-earned truths that have made me who I am, for better or worse: do what you do because you want to, not because others want you to do it. There will be a price to pay for being yourself; pay it, shut the fuck up, and move on.

(to be continued)

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