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Hey, Hey, I'm a Loser

[whitespace] A former fast-tracker learns how to succeed at life without even trying

By Richard Camp

HAPPY, SHINY GOLD CARD success eludes me. Just look at my tax return. It's all summed up on line 31 of the 1040. I'm a loser. A few years ago, I wasn't so much of a loser. I worked at the university, had an office, a title, health and life and accidental death and dismemberment insurance. I was hanging from the first few rungs of the ladder of success. I owned a pair of two-toned loafers.

Don't get me wrong. I was a long way from successful. My salary worked out to be about $12.50 an hour, which is not great money, but it sure beat all those years working for minimum wage as "prep cook" or "grunt laborer" or "Bobo the errand boy."

Besides, "assistant editor" had a respectable ring to it. Success was still only a shiny plastic shimmer in the distance, but the numbers proved it plain as day: I was on my way up. I wasn't a loser anymore.

But here I am, a loser again. This will be the first year I will legitimately scribble "writer" under occupation when I sign and date my tax forms. This is important to me. My adjusted gross income (line 31), which I used along with the official table on page 52 to figure out this year's tax damage, clearly shows that my life has taken a turn for the worse, that my life and worth all add up to nothing: loser.

But the fact that I can call myself a writer is my saving grace, my ace in the empty hole. The arithmetic of my success all adds up to nothing--a loser--but at least I'm a colorful loser.

As it is, I work at home out of the bedroom in our little, tiny rented house. Because I use the bedroom for an office, we have to sleep in the living room. Sometimes I work in my underwear. Other times, I'll get all dressed up and wear a shirt and a tie and nice shoes--whatever suits my mood or the work I'm doing that day.

I'm compromising with myself as I write this--I'm wearing a shirt and a tie and my argyle socks, but I'm not wearing any pants. The tie (tight, in a serious full Windsor) makes it difficult to breathe and causes my temples to ache, which makes me feel professional and successful. But the lack of trousers is important because it makes me feel a little like an out-of-work slob. Together, they create a certain balance that does well for me.

Sometimes I don't really work at all--I watch cartoons or the daytime cooking shows on PBS. I often do last night's dishes in the middle of the day. And frequently, between three and four in the afternoon, I take a nap.

The paychecks come staggering in, the novel is growing and half the time the kitchen is clean and there's food in the refrigerator. Almost every day I thank God my wife is patient with me.

Sometimes I wonder if I made the right choice, think maybe I should go out and get another real job, something with a clear view all the way to the top, a clean shot at real money. Often this question strikes me when I unexpectedly find myself around men my own age who wear suits every day and talk about working in large buildings for large financial firms or large computer firms or accounting firms, or working as advertisers or architects or attorneys. Professionals. I look at them and wonder how it might feel to wear a suit every day, to have to wear a suit everyday. I think about promotions and raises and fighting my way to the top.

Money to Burn

THERE IS A CERTAIN warm, pulling-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps nostalgia to the notion of battling all the way up to the pinnacle of success, to the top of the heap. I am not immune to this. Start at the bottom and work my way up from the mail room! I will be eager to please and hard-working. And because of my positive attitude and my familiarity and facility with the English alphabet, someone will notice me and heap praise upon me, and I will be promoted up that ladder of success. Sooner or later, pursuant to much back-stabbing and ass-kissing, I will achieve an office, a "compensation package," a company car.

I'll be the first to admit I crave stuff as much as anyone else. I want things. Big house, Gold Card, fast car, money to burn, a player that shuffles 20 CDs at a time. But I know these things will not make people respect me more or like me better or cause strangers to seek out my friendship, company, advice.

Having more money, more things, might make my life easier: No longer would I have to root around on the floor of my truck or under the cushions of the couch for coffee money.

A great gob of money might very well make my life more fun. If not, surely it would make my fun more expensive.

I know a very successful man in town who after exactly 3 1/2 beers will confide in me that what he absolutely wants most in the world is to quit his job with the big company and leave his wife and kids and mortgage and car payments and disappear down in Mexico. He's got it all figured out. He will fake his own death for the insurance money. That way, he will know that his family will always be OK. Then he will take the money he has secretly been stashing away in his golf bag and buy a hut on the beach somewhere very, very south, where he will fish for his dinner and find himself a plump, statuesque Indian woman, and they will lie together at night in a hammock and at dawn throw the shutters open to expose the early face of the sun to the funk and froth and noise of their lovemaking.

But the next morning, as always, my friend wakes up sober and heads to work to earn his daily allotment of orthodontia, Little League, piano, soccer, cabin-in-the-mountains, Nordstrom, Ford Explorer, and he comforts himself by looking ahead, to seeing the last kid graduate, cashing in his 401(k), IRAs and the equity in his home, perhaps gathering up some inheritance, and together with his wife, heading off to the hills on some Mediterranean coast, where she will paint young male nudes so that he won't feel so guilty about ogling all the pretty young shop girls and waitresses as he wanders around town, learning to relax.

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From the December 24-31, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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