Dan Kempner 
Contributing Writer
Dan Kempner
Contributing Writer

Various self-help gurus, TV ads and a long list of inspirational speakers have said, “You must be willing to fail to succeed.” What’s more, they say it with a straight face. I took this advice to heart and did little but fail for more than 40 years. The promised success, on the other hand, did not follow.

And while I always agreed that “failure builds character,” I also submitted that I’d amassed quite enough character, thank you, and I didn’t need any more. Please, I said, no more character, OK? But no such luck.

Charlie Brown, ever my hero as a kid, once told a depressed Lucy, “Adversity is what makes you mature! The growing soul is watered best by tears of sadness!”

“What?” she asked.

“I said,” he began. ”Oh forget it! I could never say something like that twice in one day.”  

Well and good. This is, after all, the fellow who kicked at – and missed – the football. And again. And again. There was never a soft landing and he never, ever learned. As I said, he was my hero.

So I ground out the past four decades in retail, managing stores or parts of stores. Working early, late and in between. Hiring, training, helping people prepare for Holidays I would not have time or money to celebrate. Working in huge freezers. Skinning fish, or having my vegetarian hands wrist-deep in burger meat and offal.

My career has been a long trail of decent but exhausting jobs ending badly. Losing the buy-in of my team, or philosophical differences, or a raft of other modern jargon meaning, “Dude, it ain’t workin’. Time to hit the streets.”

The same raft of pundits quoted above insisted that hard work and dedication and following my dreams and working for a higher purpose would magically cause doors to open and success to welcome me with arms spread wide. Merde!

I was in the organic food industry, selling stuff that is truly good for people, for their health, their tables, their planet. I was dedicated. I was earnest. I went home exhausted every God damned night having fought the good fight. The good fight? Merde squared!

The crowd who just had lunch with The Universe last Tuesday, who insisted the stars would align and roll out a cosmic red carpet leading to financial health and happiness if I’d but lead a righteous life, subscribed to the magical boomerang theory that the “power of attraction” would stand me in good stead down the road. What did they have to say about my life? I know what I said about it: Merde!3


And yet…

After this string of being shown the door, after a failed first marriage, and after being fired one last time while pushing 60 and with a baby on the way, I’ll be damned if Charlie Brown and the rest of them weren’t on to something after all. After my apparent Waterloo, I find myself, in some impossible way, having succeeded. I backed into it, ran away from it, ducked under it and just plain didn’t believe in it. But apparently, when The Universe was having tea with friends recently it decided, “You know what? We just can’t give him any more character. Time for the ol’ switcheroo.”

This morning, as I looked out the window of my home here in the former Saigon – a Western-style apartment I used the last of my savings to build – I sat down at my desk and laughed. I laughed for a long time.

I laughed because my new daughter was upstairs asleep with her grandmother, and the other little girl was around the corner in school and both were well fed and thriving. I laughed because I was about to start work wearing shorts and a cutoff t-shirt. Because I was sitting at a custom-built desk in my own home looking at a leafy street scene out the picture window, sipping iced cocoa and basking in the cool air conditioning with Sting singing about fields of barley and of gold.

I laughed because I’ve always envied those I met who could work from home, have some toast and putter around while earning money. Or take a morning off and make love to their wife, as I did today, with no repercussions at work. Or if their daughter had a fever, or if there’s something cool for her to do, can stay and do it with her without turning life upside down, finding coverage, fighting with the boss, stressing out.

And mostly I laughed because, having said for years, “God damn it, I don’t want to have a staff or a corporation or a commute or a boss ever again,” while lacing up my retail shoes and heading for the car, I find that is exactly how it is. I sat down to write for a living today, the fulfillment of a dream I didn’t even know I had until I got here.

I have worked incredibly hard for a very long time with damned little to show and, after my “growing soul was watered” very thoroughly by tears of sadness, there’s hope for Charlie Brown yet. The stars have indeed aligned. I have indeed tuned into the proper cosmic station and, in some impossible way and without a clear understanding of how it happened, I have succeeded.

The Universe has had the last laugh. My ideas to the contrary? Merde!