On being a failure

I don’t quite know why, but I want to spend a little time today writing about my past. There won’t really be any politics, and not much economics either, in this story. I’m not sure that will make it any more readable than the last few posts, but here it goes.

From the end of high school till the time I turned 30, my life was basically a rolling disaster. My parents, I think, have not all that much to do with this. Obviously they must have something to do with it, but I believe they always did their best, and I was just a particularly tough kid to turn into an adult. I grew up comfortably in an affluent suburb, and had all sorts of advantages. I was a pretty bright kid, although there were plenty of other kids who were smarter and better students besides. I was a lousy competitor, a sore loser, jealous, angry and sometimes vengeful. Somehow I still had some really great friends who loved me all the same.

I was one of the few kids at my high school who managed to fail their senior project. All the other kids went off and did neat projects, but I mostly just hung around, drank coffee and smoked cigarettes instead of writing music, which was what I said I wanted to do. I was (and in many ways still am) impossibly lazy. My negligence nearly caused me not to graduate, but I managed to make arrangements, and spent the first couple months after high school doing community service in order to complete my educational requirements. By then I had basically lost all interest in school. I just wanted to hang out in coffee shops and talk to punk rock girls. And I wanted money – I didn’t really care about working much. But I definitely wanted to not be broke all the time. Which was too bad, because I would spend most of the following dozen years essentially broke.

One of my good friends decided to go to Akron University that fall, and since it was easy to get in, I figured I would go too. So I went, and lost all interest about half way through. I’m not sure I even went to my finals. It was really pathetic. I wanted to go off on wild adventures,  but I was basically just a shy kid with no clue. So I moved back home and started working at a movie theater. I was pretty lousy at that too. Then I got a second job at an iconic hippie restaurant in Coventry, where all the cool kids hung out. I started to spend a lot of my time there, and met a whole heap of characters, many of whom I still think about. That summer I moved into my first apartment with some other miscreants. Stupidity ensued.

My parents had been good enough to provide me with music lessons from the age of 7, so I’ve always had some facility picking up instruments. I played bass guitar in a blues band for awhile when I was 19, and started going to this really wild open mic on Mondays. Thinking back on that scene, it’s astonishing the stuff that would go on. I’m not going to go into any kind of details here – you’ll have to use your imagination – but it was nuts.

Anyways, while everyone else was going to college and figuring out how to be an adult, I was pretty much just frittering away the days. I didn’t take care of myself at all. I slept too much, didn’t eat enough. I felt desperate most of the time. I dated a girl who was still in high school and took it way, way too seriously. At one point I went back to college, and managed to keep it together enough to play viola in the orchestra, and pass my classes one semester, but then my relationship with said girl ended and I just lost it. Dropped out of school, drank heavily, and generally wallowed in my own despair.

My mother suggested that I move out to Berkeley to live with my grandmother, and I eagerly embraced the solution to my misery. The move changed my life, but again, I was still basically just lonely and desperate and sad, and still not all that interested in being productive. I took classes at San Francisco City College, which I failed due to not paying attention and not doing my homework. I still feel pangs of regret over this – the school was actually quite good, and had I applied myself….but better not to dwell too much on that.

I really discovered punk rock out in Berkeley, and even sang in a band (with three local high school kids, despite being 21 at the time). I hung out at 924 Gilman, and found a job with Americorps as a literacy tutor in an Oakland grade school, which was actually quite a lot of fun. I wanted to be all cool and philosophical and well read, but mostly I just screwed around looking at the internet and listening to pop punk albums. A girl I knew invited me one night to see the Queers at a club in the City, and she had a friend with her that night who asked if I liked open mics, as there was an excellent one at the Brainwash Cafe on Wednesdays.

The first night I was there I didn’t play, I just went to hang out. I remember Robin Williams was there to see his teenage son perform, which was pretty nuts. The following week I returned, and played a song that I had written with the punk band. The host came running up to me afterwards to invite me to play at a party at his apartment a couple of nights later. It was through this encounter that I found my way into the scene that would define the next three or four years of my life.

I had a terrible time with drinking in those days. I would just get wrecked, and into all sorts of trouble. I was desperately lonely, and always obsessing over the need for a girlfriend, but in retrospect it doesn’t seem like I wanted a relationship. I didn’t know what I wanted. Money, sex, a neverending buzz? It was a confusing time. I made friends here and there, and once in awhile had some real fun. But I had no direction, and very little sense of purpose. I couldn’t commit to anything. Around this time I did my first stint in AA, where I met the comedian Will Franken (he was my sponsor! honestly, as crazy as that guy is, he’s absolutely one of the kindest, sweetest, most genuine people I’ve ever met).

At any rate, I began going to the Brainwash every week, and it became the center of my life. I tried (but not very hard) to write songs, and some of them weren’t awful. I wrote one called “Cheap Red Wine” that became quite popular with the regulars. By the summer of 2003, the scene had begun to coalesce, and some of us started to put together a show. This was the beginning of the Collaborative Arts Insurgency, or CAI for short. The group would eventually become a weekly open mic at the 16th and Mission BART station in San Francisco, which continues to this day. At some point I want to devote a proper blog post (or maybe series) about that experience, so I won’t go into what all that was about here. The important thing was that, despite talking about it all the time, I didn’t really do much with it. Mostly I was still focused on getting laid, getting wasted, and trying to make enough money to make the first two possible on a regular basis.

I moved into an apartment in the city, which was pretty great, and managed to get a job in a coffee shop, and then spent most of my time fighting with my girlfriend and getting hammered. I think there was some music and poetry in there somewhere. But mostly I was just screwing around. Some of my friends did some great work around the CAI, and I was jealous and bitter that I couldn’t get it together to do great work. Meanwhile I started working as a cook, which was both a blessing and a curse.

My experience working in kitchens was…well, that’s another blog post series I suppose. The long and the short of it is this: despite the constant self-destructive behavior on my part, cooking gave me just enough structure to survive for awhile. I got a job in a pretty nice restaurant where the chef was serious business – and for the first time in my life I got a sense of real discipline. That place got sold to some other folks, and pretty much everyone left – I ended up finding work in another restaurant in the Ferry Building, which was a really great experience too. But again, I was drinking a lot. I was depressed a lot. I was capricious with women, and complained of loneliness while spurning the affections of a series of girlfriends. This is a very shameful period of my life in some ways.

For a little while I was in a band with a woman who wanted to play jazz, and I learned some basic jazz guitar. I have never been a dedicated guitarist, and I can’t play lead or solo or anything like that. I wasn’t in the band for all that long before I decided that I ought to move to Brooklyn, since that seemed to be the hip place to move. My mother found me a summer job as a nanny for a friend of hers from work who had three kids. So I left the Bay Area, and headed for Cleveland.

At this point I was 26 years old. I hadn’t really even started college. My relationships had failed. I had a burgeoning alcoholism that periodically threatened to destroy me. I thought that I wanted to move to New York, but at some point decided that I didn’t have the wherewithal to make it there, and that Chicago was a sensible alternative. I didn’t really know anyone there, except for one friend, who was at the time busy developing her career as a writer (she is, after years of hard work, quite successful today). But I thought, what the heck, I’ve got some money saved, I’ll go, I’ll find a job, I’ll figure it out.

So I moved to Chicago, into an apartment with a really nice lady who I met from Craigslist, in a building close to the lake, and almost at the far northern edge of the city. I started a band, and had the unbelievably good fortune of meeting a fabulous, ridiculously talented French violinist who agreed to join my gypsy jazz group. I worked earnestly at writing songs for awhile. I found a job at a restaurant, where I met the future singer of the band, and she arranged for us to play the bar above the restaurant. Life seemed to move forward for awhile. But I was drinking steadily, and depression loomed.

The summer of 2007 I moved into a ninth floor studio apartment in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago. I would stay there for a year and half, during which time my life turned into a black hole of drinking and depression. I managed to keep it together enough to attend classes at the local community college, actually doing homework and getting (mostly) passing grades this time. But the depression was intense. Sometimes on my days off I would just get a fifth of vodka and spend 36 hours in a drunken haze. My friends dwindled. The band stagnated. I felt lost.

When the lease was finally up, I moved into a place a couple of blocks away with some folks I knew through a friend at work. I was a mess, and they told me I had to move out a couple of months later. Meanwhile, I had taken a job at another restaurant, where I proceeded to act the fool at virtually every opportunity. In an incredible stroke of luck, I found a better place to live with some really nice people in Wicker Park (which turned into something of fiasco when we all had to move out a month later as the landlord had decided to upgrade the building, and in yet another stroke of amazing luck, we all moved together into a small coach house where I would live for the next three years). But meanwhile, I was beginning to fall apart at the seams. I was an emotional wreck, and I had become a full time alcoholic. I drank to go to sleep. Sometimes also when I woke up. I would arrive for work not entirely sober. It was all I could do just to get to work – social life was basically impossible by then. I was terribly unhappy with my life. In the end I got fired from my job, at which point I finally sobered up. I went through an outpatient program at the YMCA, and slowly got myself together.

I am always blown away by the generosity of my friends. I do not deserve all the kindness I have received from others. On my 30th birthday, a group of friends sang to me over a cake, with candles, in San Francisco, while I was out visiting my Grandmother for her 90th. I managed to get myself together afterwards, went back to school, and met the woman who I would eventually marry. I was really, really, really lucky though. Most folks in that situation would have been swallowed up by the world.

The dozen years between high school and turning 30 were in many ways wasted. It wasn’t all bad, of course. But when many of my peers were developing themselves, I was just screwing around. All the work my parents had put into raising me, and I was just blowing it. Endlessly. And it’s hard to let go of all the shame I have from that period. Which is why I’m writing all of this down. I want to let all of it go, and just try to be a good person from here on out.

A couple of years ago I went back to church. I was brought up Catholic, so I figured I would just go back to that. I have lots of disagreements with mainstream Catholicism, but its familiar anyways. And the thing is that all those years of being an unfeeling jerk, drinking and screwing and so on, now they just make me think that I really do need Christ’s mercy. Not that I’ve gone out and helped anyone, which is the basic message of Christianity I think. So again, I’m a failure. A narcissist. I mean, I keep hoping that at some point I’ll redeem myself somehow. Although its hard to see how from the vantage point of my laptop.

I used to have big dreams about being a famous musician or a writer or a philosopher or something. I’m an economist, but I don’t have a PhD, and I don’t really think I am going to get one. For one thing, my partner is a farmer, and there isn’t any big university in Ottawa, Illinois where I can study. I don’t really want to live somewhere else. So I’m qualified to teach community college, and maybe work in a bank or something, although I have not a clue how to get from where I am right now to actually having a full time job. I’ve thought about applying to the University of Chicago, but I don’t have any hope of getting in there. It’s alright though. I am happy where I am. I don’t need to be rich or famous.

When I look around at the folks I grew up with though, it’s hard not to think of myself as a failure. Most of them aren’t rich or famous (although a woman I went to high school with is now a best selling author, and another was a big deal football player). But they are largely accomplished folks with vibrant, interesting lives. They travel broadly, they have fulfilling, engaging careers.

There isn’t any big conclusion here, I think. I squandered my youth. I failed at being a musician, at being a writer, at being a cook. Heck, I failed even at being a drunk. I did succeed in the marriage department somehow, and also with having friends I think. I was very lucky that way. And I did manage to earn an MA, so that was pretty cool. But mostly I’ve been a failure. My sense of self is built on that now, it’s inescapable. I wouldn’t recognize myself as anything else. I’ve been a failure most of my life. I don’t think anybody has been made better off by knowing me really. I haven’t been inspiring, or even interesting. I’ve been a pretty convincing fraud from time to time. But mostly I’ve been a failure. Christ have mercy.


Published by samuelbarbour

Besides writing a blog, I also teach, farm, cook, and play music. I live in the Illinois River Valley with my partner, Molly Breslin, who sometimes posts stuff at breslinfarms.com

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