Basic Instincts: A Glorious Failure

By Michael Willard

I’m a half-assed guitar player and will never be a threat to the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, but, even as a septuagenarian, I’m a couple of years younger than Keith and have a better haircut.

As to painting, I’ve ripped off Van Gogh and Matisse in more than 300 canvases, and the legacy of neither is in danger. Their work will live forever while my slapping of paint will have the half-life of a fruit fly.

I’m a writer with 17 book titles behind me, but I’m no Faulkner or Hemingway, and my literary endeavors, compared to theirs, rises to the level of an elementary primer, perhaps “Our Friends on Cherry Street.”

As a songwriter, I can string a few verses together, but Leonard Cohen — if he were still around — would write a hallelujah benediction to my sudsy creations of iambic pentameter put to song, now at probably several hundred compositions.

Of these thoughts, I am fairly certain, and content in the thought that there are worst things than being in the twilight of a mediocre career and still striving. Trying at any age, I believe, is the fuel of continuance. Besides, I still have young daughters in college.

In other words, I’m a glorious failure. This makes me sort of happy. It is the reason I get up in the morning and challenge my personal conventions which, as they should, haunt and challenge me.

Failure is — misappropriating a Stephen Crane title about the Civil War — my personal badge of semi-courage against the mounting odds of aging, a condition — however undesirable — I understand is inevitable.

Yes, I am, without a doubt, the everyday failure of the everyman; we who strive in often quiet desperation to hear a murmur of praise or a round of applause from the faceless crowd that populates our Peanut Gallery.

And yes, this is — in a way — a self-deprecatory exercise and a pseudo literary device that hinges on trickery and manipulation. So what? The fact is, my ego soars with the eagles, or at least with the slower, older ones.

There is a point to all this.

There was the book I wrote that brought in a quarter-million dollars not because it was a brilliant tome and moved off the shelves like a Black Friday discount sale. It didn’t.

It was simply a practical guide on how to handle a crisis in risky markets, incidents of which I was and am intimately familiar having advised clients in Russia, Ukraine, and Turkey. We were hired to give advice after the book ended in the hands of various corporations. It also was a calling card when I sought business door-to-door in opening a Moscow office.

Willie Nelson will probably never record my soulful ballads, but my son and friend, Robert DiCapo, did, and his smooth as silk voice I listen to often and smile. They occasionally get a listen on SoundCloud.

As to my paintings, I get more pleasure out of giving them away to people who will possibly cherish them, though a few have sold for a couple of thousand bucks. Damn, they are as good as those velvet Elvis renditions or the artwork series of dogs playing poker.

I think.

The purpose offered here is — forgive me please — moralistic lessons that often appear on plaques sold at Cracker Barrel restaurants, or sometimes end up on T-shirts worn and tossed away by tourists who forget why they bought them.

Plainly stated: It’s okay to be a failure. The “try” is the important mountain to climb, whether standing in front of a canvas with a brush in hand or launching out on a new business adventure.

Ask yourself a question: Is the man now serving as our president a success or a failure? Keep your vote to yourself. I don’t need to know your politics, and you, no doubt, already know mine.

Now, the second query: Am I a failure because I haven’t heard the roar of the crowd, and because my name is not in gold atop the entrance to a New York building?

Finally, the penultimate — if not the ultimate — question: Do my kids sort of like me, at least most of the time.

If the answer is “yes,” relax. Life is good, and success without fame or fortune is yours. If the answer is “no,” I hope you can figure it out, and then, one day, you too can be a glorious failure.

It’s not a bad place to land.



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J. Michael Willard

I am a novelist but my day job is utilizing my years as a business consultant, journalist, and public service in the field of international development.