Touching Down

Rule number one: Don’t wake someone up with bad news, especially if the news is that you blew perfectly good money on a raffle ticket that didn’t get you a house in Palos Verdes Peninsula, or one of the lesser prizes.

“Didn’t you even win a car?” My husband’s voice was muffled beneath a mound of pillows and blankets.

The lesser prizes weren’t all that lesser. The Palos Verdes Art Center offered cars, trips to Cuba, and piles of cash — I had thought of them as consolation prizes before May 30th, the date of the drawing.

I drifted downstairs and tried to cheer up as I made breakfast. The five Friedmans were probably extraordinary people and all of them would live happily ever after in their five bedrooms and 5310 square feet. First lesson learned. It had been hubristic to only buy one raffle ticket on the assumption that a winning streak dating back to the ’80s was a long, unbroken line. But did not winning mean that I was actually a loser?

I was wrestling with this concept when my son Chris, aka DJ Bobby French, came by to pick up his car in our driveway after a trip to Atlanta for a Microsoft store opening.

“Still in your bathrobe, huh?”

“I’ve got something to tell you.”

I was sorry I had let him down. He wouldn’t be leaving Hollywood for a tony family enclave near the ocean or even splitting a future inheritance with his sister. As it happened, he didn’t remember my ever entering any contest and, since he hadn’t read my blog about the experience, he didn’t know his mother had ever been a winner. He jiggled some loose change in his pocket, a haunting reminder of what had slipped through my fingers, and asked for his car keys.

My daughter took the news in stride as well. So well, in fact, that I began to worry about the five Friedmans. Were they grown brothers and sisters in the middle of independent lives and, if this were true, how would they take to communal living? It was too much to sort out, so I focused on what was really bugging me — my new status as a failure.

I’d never watched The Biggest Loser, but clearly you’re no failure if you’re cast in a reality show about to enjoy its 16th season. Forget getting on the scales before a national audience at 260 pounds as Rachel Frederickson did. Being selected for the show at all was a victory in itself.

There are a couple of options for those who would like to lose at least 100 pounds. You can submit a video or attend a casting call. I don’t know which option Rachel chose, but if she went the way of the 10 to 20 minute video, she would have been required to describe what exactly made Rachel Rachel by divulging as much personal information as possible. The website emphasized being “big and bold,” adjectives that must have been fraught for a person battling weight issues.

I struggled to retain all the details on the crowded page of instructions, most of them in conflict with each other. How can you boast about yourself, as asked, when you show where you’ve been hiding food? Or strut your stuff as you hold up a pair of tiny jeans you were once able to wear? Even if Rachel skipped the video, opting to endure the indignities of a casting call with her folding chair, water and snacks, she had a will to win that made everything pale by comparison, including me. Did I want to win anything badly enough to do three to four workouts a day, sweat on camera, and come clean about what I nibbled and how much?

By the end of the day, I’d gotten no further in researching failure. I needed a definition tailored to my own experience. Since I hadn’t done much to win, I couldn’t claim to have done much by way of losing. Was there such a thing as passive failure?

I discovered there was later in the day, except by that time it was evening, and my husband was waiting by the door wearing his shoes, a sure sign that I was in trouble.

“I’ll strap these on in the car,” I said, hobbling to the sidewalk.

“We’re already late for the movie.”

“That’s the beauty of reserved seats.”

It wasn’t the moment to mention that when a flight control system fails passive and the landing isn’t completed automatically, it doesn’t mean that all is lost. You can still touch down as long as the pilot assumes control of the aircraft. Passive failure works, but only if the captain takes command.

Critics have not been kind to A Million Ways to Die in the West. Seth McFarlane is a terrible shepherd, but the wisecracking hero does wind up with Charlize Theron and a lot more sheep than he started out with. These plot elements do not a fabulous movie make, but watching stupendous failure pay off gave me as much food for thought as the tub of popcorn I helped my husband polish off. The root of the problem was that my failure hadn’t been big and bold enough, à la Biggest Loser. On the way out of the theater, I considered the ways in which I could have really blown it.

I could have modeled my behavior after the woman taking measurements in the Palos Verdes kitchen the day of our visit to the California Dream House long before anyone had won. The well-worn sofa my husband and I shipped from New York was old before it headed west. The faux leather chair my husband was given by another bachelor back in the day is downright triste and I’m not even going to discuss the fallout from buying bedding in panic mode because it’s on sale. Pre-decorating meant I could have maxed out a couple of credit cards on a perfect piece of furniture from Holly Hunt that would have been ideal for a house I didn’t own. Or say I’d one-upped that woman in the Palos Verdes kitchen and muscled my way into the kitchen with a sample of fish fossil limestone dating from the Eocene period, 50 million years ago. Being bold might at least have gotten me a consolation prize.

“That’s the last thing you’d want,” my husband said after the movie.

“Really? An extra car would have come in handy.”

“You must be kidding. Think about those poor slobs who win the silver medal in the Olympics. To almost win is way worse than not winning at all.”

“Then why’d you ask if I’d won the mini-Cooper?”

“You woke me up. I was in the middle of a great dream.”

It turns out that my husband was really onto something. An article in Scientific American, later reprinted in Salon, outlined the pitfalls of coming in second. Almost winning silver medalists are totally focused on what could have been. In a funny way so are their far happier bronze medalist counterparts, who just missed not bringing home any medal all. Who knew that comparing your outward achievements to what could have happened is called counterfactual thinking? Or that there was such a thing as a non-Duchenne smile, in which only the corners of your mouth are raised? By the time I’d mapped out all the horrendous possibilities and crawled exhausted into bed that night, I was slobbering grateful not to have won anything at all.