A Successful Failure: A Cautionary Tale

I have a lot of free time on my hands these days, and a man would be a fool not to take advantage of these free moments to reflect on his life. Upon reflection, I can precisely pinpoint the three moments in my life where a bad decision set me on the path to ruin.

As I said, I have a lot of free time on my hands. And this is because, although I have made poor decisions in life that have led me down the path to failure, I am still living well as a professor at a foreign university. I am living the easy, laid-back life of the Expat. I cannot stress this enough at the outset: If you are not excessively wealthy, get out of the USA. Life is so much better in any other developed country. I often say this, and people retort with, “Well, I went on vacation in [enter country name] and I didn’t think it was all that much better!” Well, you didn’t actually live there, did you? The system in which you live as a resident is what makes it so much better. Health care, taxes, cost of living, travel… the list goes on.

Too many memories, too many stories, never enough pictures

But I digress. This blog entry is about three key decisions I made in my life that led me to this expat life. Although I do enjoy it, it is not stable. It’s exciting, but I cannot get a dog because I don’t know where I might be living or traveling next. In fact, I am currently using my excess of free time not only for reflection, but to plan my next move. I have opted to leave my current job because it sucks and the location sucks. (If you ever live in Korea, avoid Daegu and the surrounding areas like the plague!)

I digress a lot. Let’s just get started. The Three Key Bad Decisions I have made in my life:

1. I never learned to play the piano. Of all of humanity’s beautiful musical instruments, my two favorites have always been the guitar and the piano. As a young lad growing up in the rural hills surrounding a small college town in Pennsylvania, I had not one but two opportunities to learn to play the piano. The first came as an open invitation from the father of one of my best friends. This friend and I spent our days exploring the hills and riding our bikes all over our neighborhood. I could cover every street, dog-leg turns and all, and never have to touch my handle bars. To this day I am convinced that an experienced rider can enter into a sort of telekinesis with one’s bike. It really did seem as if I could steer with my mind – or at least with the subtlest of shifts in my body weight.

Which seems more attractive to a thirteen-year-old kid?

As it so happens, both of my friend’s parents were talented musicians. His mother had the voice of an angel. She was trained in the operatic arts, I believe. And she hated me. But that’s another tale. His father was a concert pianist and music teacher at the local college. Back in those days, it was still a college as the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education hadn’t yet incorporated all state schools under the ‘university’ umbrella. Being devoted to the higher spiritual calling of music, his parents wanted their son to embrace it as well, and so he was being taught by his father to play the keys. He got quite good at it, too, as I remember him being able to sit down at any keyboard and roll out some very impressive classical numbers as well as our favorite Rock ‘n’ Roll hits, and I envied his talent. He never developed it professionally due to crippling stage fright, but he never talked about it much and so he ended up going down a different path himself, making a successful business in real estate.

However, when we were young lads hiking in the hills and tearing up the streets on our BMXs, his father approached me one day and offered me free piano lessons. He said that his son had begun to lose interest in the lessons, and he felt that if I were to join him in learning to play, his son might find a renewed interest. I was an awkward child, terribly shy, and intimidated by adults. To me, the choice was not one of ‘waste your time doing the same old thing you always do, or learn a very desirable skill for free.’ It was to sit in my friend’s house with him and his father for hours, or go ride my bike. I opted for the latter.


The Universe gave me a second chance to learn the highly desirable skill of tinkling the ol’ ivories. On another day, another friend of mine and I were sitting by the roadside next to a large undeveloped field, across from a row of houses. We were fucking around with grasshoppers and had built an impressive little obstacle course for them to hop around with some oddly-shaped rocks we had foraged from the undeveloped field. As we played, an elderly woman came out of one of the houses across the street to see what we were doing. We figured we were in some sort of trouble, as most young boys do when approached by random adults. But she was very nice, and was just curious as to what we had found so amusing there by the side of the road for the past two hours. We showed her our obstacle course, and she took notice of a couple of the rocks we had used in its construction. She told us they looked like they may have been tools used by Native tribes common to our area over a hundred years ago.

If you have ASMR, you know how relaxing this can be.

As I was rolling one of the rocks over in my hand, she said, “My! You have the fingers of a pianist!” She then took my hands and began to examine them. I didn’t mind this at all as I had strong Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) back then, and this gentle exam set off the brain-tickles like a wildfire. She said, “You know, I used to be a piano teacher. I would love to give you free lessons if your mother would be okay with that.” She said I had natural hands for the instrument, and it would be a shame to waste this trait. Although the brief hand exam had been fun, I again thought of this not as an opportunity, but as a trap that would get me stuck in some strange old woman’s house when I could be outside playing with grasshoppers. So, again I declined. To this day I regret declining not one but two opportunities to learn something that today I really, really wish I knew how to do. I could be making a nice living as a lounge pianist, singing Tom Waits and banging waitresses. But no. Strike one.

But seriously, these li’l fuckers are a hoot!

I’m also a Deadhead, and I spent a lot of time hanging around with my Deadhead buddies, many of whom play the guitar very well and who would have been more than happy to teach me. And I blew that opportunity, too – blew it away in a puff of smoke because I preferred to just tell jokes and watch movies. And I never became a successful stand-up comedian because of my shyness. I lack the charisma for such a role, so that’s not on this list. Let’s move on.

2. I never became a writer. Oh sure, I have this wasteful blog to record my random idiotic thoughts, but I mean a writer that can actually earn a living by writing. And I don’t mean that I would have written the Great American Novel or whatever they may call it. I mean just writing little snippets at a time, like your Dave Barrys or that Prairie Home Companion guy. I once wrote a creative short story for my third-grade English class. The teacher was so impressed that she asked me to read the story in front of the class. I was terrified, but I did it, and they enjoyed it. From that day on, my teachers and professors have always remarked on my writing skills. Believe it or not, they all thought I was quite talented. I was the annoying university student that could go out and party all week while my classmates struggled with a paper, and then bang something out the night before the deadline and get an A+ while the strugglers earned Bs and Cs.

One semester, I took Intro to Theater as an elective. A few of my friends had joined the campus theater group, and I had a crush on one of them, so when she recommended I take the class with her as an elective, I jumped on it. During the course, the professor took the class to New York (state) to see a local theater production of Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound. The assignment was to write a theatrical review of the play. I completed the assignment and handed it in. A week later, the professor pulled me aside, raving about my review. “This is professional-grade work!” he said, and told me the student newspaper needed someone to write reviews of campus performances, including the plays he was directing. This, to me, did not seem like the brilliant professional opportunity it was. Rather, it seemed like more homework that would cut into my drinking time. So, I declined the opportunity. Who knows? Today I could be one of those highly-revered-and-feared critics that gets invited to all the cool plays, premiers, and pervert parties. But no. I wanted to go drink and chase tail – the college-age equivalent of playing with grasshoppers.

Seriously. Hours of fun!

3. I never knuckled under and became a corporate lacky. I never settled down and did the adult thing, completing the life mission of the average human – job, marriage, reproduction. This one seems a bit more complex, but it’s really quite simple. After fucking around at university for years (I took the extended program because I loved living the life of a college kid. We were fuckin’ indestructible!) I finally found myself in a stable and loving relationship with a very bright and beautiful girl. At first, we lived separately. But then she needed to move out of the house that she was sharing with three of her friends because they were all graduating and she, like me, was on the extended plan. The problem was, she had a cat that she loved very much, and she could only find one apartment that would accept pets – and she couldn’t afford it without a roommate. So, she asked me if I would be willing to live with her. I accepted.

The apartment was a basement-level two-bedroom in a nice building a few blocks from campus. As all the windows were at ground-level and looked out on a large park-like yard, it was ideal for the cat to come and go through an open bedroom window as he pleased. My girlfriend had all of her things set up in that room, but we never used it. We both slept in my bedroom, and her bedroom was just a prop for when her parents came to visit. And they loved me – her mother always gave me huge hugs, even the first time she met me. I think she had a sense that I was going to be the son-in-law sooner than later. Her father was a shy man himself, and so I didn’t find him too intimidating. I could make him laugh, and he would often invite us up to his cabin in Cook’s Forest. They were good people, even if her mother was a bit ‘nebbie‘ as we say in Pittsburgh.

Also hours of fun… or until he gets bored and bites you.

The cat loved me, too. He and I would often play hide and seek together around the apartment when it was too cold and snowy for him to go outside and play. And my girlfriend and I were very compatible, and we settled into a very comfortable domestic life together. After classes, we’d come home, decide what to do for dinner – cooking something together or going out to one of our favorite restaurants – then smoke some weed and watch our favorite TV shows, or rent a movie from the local Blockbuster. These were the Salad Days of the late 1990s. I remember when we attended the wedding of a mutual friend. After the wedding, we were all supposed to follow the couple’s limo to the wedding reception, but they took off like a pair of wedded bats out of hell, and we lost them. We couldn’t raise them on our cell phones (they were obviously busy) and we got tired of driving around looking for them, so my girlfriend said, “Fuck this. You wanna go home, get out of these costumes and get high?” God, did I! I knew then that we were a solid match ourselves.

Then we graduated. We moved into a place near Oakland in Pittsburgh, right off Baum Boulevard. I got a job through a temp agency doing data entry for UPMC HealthPlan. She got a job with some company, I still have no idea what they did. Marketing? Beats the hell out of me. But it took up all of her attention. When I got home from my data entry job, I would start cooking dinner and she would get home about an hour later, but she was always on her laptop or her cell phone. I just wanted to relax, smoke some weed, and watch a movie, but she’d get angry if I got high without her, and she never had time. Meanwhile, at my job, things were a death walk. Yet I was good at it as I could just turn off my mind and enter data with barely a thought in my head. I’m a fast typist, and I was tearing through medical form stacks like a stoner through a bag of potato chips. Yet I wasn’t happy. It was stressful, no longer being in the coddled world of the eternal college student, living with what was essentially a marriage, stressing about money and never having enough of it or the time to do things I enjoyed. In hindsight, I just hadn’t matured to that point yet. I still wanted to go out bar-hopping with my friends or sit home and get baked – not sit home and wait to go into work the next day while my girlfriend obsessed about her office dramas and deadlines.

To me, it seemed she saw herself on the cover of one of these types of publications, in a smart pantsuit with her laptop in one hand and cell phone pressed to her ear in the other. And for some immature reason, that bothered me.

Eventually, UPMC HealthPlan offered me the opportunity to enter their managerial training program. It seemed like an easy job – the manager of my department was an idiot, and he seemed to be doing OK. I remember one day, he called a staff meeting and said, “What we have here is a real Catcher in the Rye situation…” No one else seemed to notice it, but being an avid reader, I knew he had meant to say, “Catch-22,” but he was an idiot and was confused by books, you see. So when they offered to fast-track me into a promotion in the insurance business, I thought to myself, “Is this what I want to do with my life?” I could very easily have signed on, stayed with my girlfriend, gotten married as everyone expected us to, and then just settled down to whatever that life offered. Would she cheat on me with some co-worker and I’d end up divorced, middle-aged, and stuck in a dead-end insurance job? It sure seemed like it. So, I ran. I ran back to grad school to get my master’s and to date a gorgeous nursing student who was literally the best sex of my life. I was only with her for a year and we never lived together, but man, it was fun while it lasted. And my former girlfriend actually did get married. And she cheated on him with a co-worker and they got divorced.

So, maybe that last one wasn’t such a bad decision. But I did give up on that stable career/quiet domestic life for which everyone seems to settle. Is my life better or worse today due to my decision to run? I really can’t say, but I did have three more years of grad school fun with a hot nurse before lighting out and seeing the world – something most people dream of but never actually do. I’ve lived in three countries and visited 28. I’ve traveled Europe, Oceania, and all over Asia. But I’m old now, and I’m still out here, and I’m still alone.

I’ll leave that up to the reader.

So there you have it – three decisions, three turning points, and at least two very bad decisions. Decisions that have led me down a path of failure, but I consider myself a successful failure, so I guess that’s not all bad. What I lack in money I make up for in experience, and when I die, I will die with a lifetime of memories. And in the end, that’s all you can keep. I never learned to play the piano or the guitar, I never became a successful writer, and I’m going to die alone, but… um… changing the subject, How’re YOU doing? Drop a note and let me know. We’ll compare life plans.

(Late Entry: Bad Decision No. 1 – being born. Incarnating into this crazy world in the first damn place!)


Published by pookabazooka

I am an ape living abroad, writing to stay focused and to remember the things I think about. I post them here in case you'd like to spend a bit of time thinking about them, too.

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