It’s been many, many years since I have had to deal with The Failure Brigade. But last night, more specifically early this morning, they made a surprise return.
As a teen, I would stay up too late in my room and watch Arts and Entertainment TV. It was the 80’s and they actually had arts and entertainment. One of my favorite shows was “An Evening At The Improv.” My memory is hazy, but I want to credit this routine to Marc Price known as “Skippy” from “Family Ties.” Some great amount of net search rendered no such proof. So whoever it was, they introduced me to the Failure Brigade.
The Failure Brigade dances across your conscious mind at night when you are trying to sleep. As I remember the routine;
“Why do you want to go to sleep?
You’ve got no reason to get up!”
Then the musical number…
“You’re doing nothing!
You’re going nowhere!
Nobody loves you!
You sleep alone!”
Yes, it’s a funny bit, but The Failure Brigade is real. They are bastards, cowards. They sneak into your subconscious and feed on your failures. It doesn’t even have to be a real failure, just a perceived failure. Then it begins to affect your real life. Before they had a name, I knew The Failure Brigade.
As a pre-teen, I ran track. I wasn’t amazing, but I was pretty good. I would actually go to the state, then the regional championship. The next year I started the season confident I would do well. I found myself in a much more aggressive age group for the 1600 meters. The kid next to me had to be 15 if he was a day, he stood a full foot over me and his stride was incredible. The gun went off and I tried my best to stay on his tail, a few steps behind. He was so fast, my only hope was he would tire and I could outstep him on the final lap. I knew this would never happen.
Behind me, I could hear the steps of the group pursuing us. Every time their footsteps became too loud, I ran harder. It was an unsustainable pace but I kept it up, for three laps.
As we came around for the final 400 meters, the leader just took off and there was nothing I could do. I am sure I had known them before, but this was the first time the Failure Brigade asserted their presence with authority.
“…you can’t win…” they whispered.
It got louder as I rounded into the back 100.
“…they will catch you…” The mob’s footsteps loomed behind me.
So I took a fall.
1/2 lap from what would have been my personal best, what would have honestly been a David v Goliath performance; I passed on the idea of finishing a solid second, I wimped out of punching above my weight. I had a shot at real internal victory and all I had to do was run. But The Failure Brigade goaded me into throwing the race. So I deliberately took a spill. No second for me, only a DNF.
Once the Brigade had me, they had me. Insomnia, crippling self-doubt and a string of failures would haunt me for the next decade. I would fail every grade in high school. I graduated because the summer school teacher felt sorry for me. I failed at a dozen pathetic jobs from skip tracer to car sales. Each was a bigger disaster than the previous. I fell into the military almost out of desperation and a year later left for basic training. I barely graduated technical training after being “washed back” twice. One more failure and the Air Force would have found me a new job.
My first duty assignment in Germany, I was literally the worst Airman my shop. I know this because several bosses told me so. One night during a drunken bender, a dear friend literally grabbed me by the collar and told me to quit screwing around. “Shit or get off the pot!” It was a rare moment of clarity in an era I mildly remember as a “Fight Club” string of insomnia-esque days that merged together. To this day I have trouble organizing that time period.
But I discovered my 1st weapon against The Failure Brigade is a friend. Good friends, the ones you can call when your car breaks down at 3 AM. The Failure Brigade’s only tactic against a good buddy is endurance. They will simply tell you “no” more times that a buddy can say “yes.”
But the unexpected nature of the outburst prompted a real change. So I spent money I didn’t have on new uniforms, started showing up on time and was greeted with…
Real Change. Suddenly I was treated like a grown-up, rather than a toddler acting out. I found I liked it. So I worked harder and was greeted with more success. One of my favorite cinematic moments is from “Better Off Dead” a Savage Steve Holland classic starring John Cusack.
This was my last 6 months in Europe, ultimately my boss would come to me and remark, “I don’t know what you did, and I don’t care. But you have gone from the worst Airman in this office, to the best.”
It’s not enough by itself, but a second solid weapon against The Failure Brigade is success. But you have to believe it. I was transferred to Offutt Air Force Base just outside of Omaha Nebraska. Within a few months, I was nominated for the Airman of the Quarter. This required a board performance. I had never done a board.
A board is a group of Non-Commissioned Officers that line a table. You officially report in wearing your service dress and answer a barrage of questions from military history, to hypotheticals to current events. You are scored on your recommendation, answers, and appearance. I was giving myself a once over in the bathroom beforehand when The Failure Brigade made a rare daylight appearance.
“You are going to lose.”
There, in a wide bathroom mirror on the 1st floor of STRATCOM Headquarters, I stared my reflection down.
“I am going to win.”
I did win. I won that one and many more. A third and very blunt weapon against The Failure Brigade is you. Your own eyes in a mirror. But beware, the eyes that stare back are just as powerful and their message of doubt is just as strong as yours of confidence. Those eyes know your weakness, they know your fears and they know what to say.
But if you manage to club The Failure Brigade down, stand victorious over their bloody carcasses then the Brigade will take some time to regroup. They are still there, but unorganized. Even when you fall, you have that one victory. The Brigade knows it.
Stare yourself down, win and The Failure Brigade suddenly knows fear. This showdown would be the end of the Brigade for quite some time. Awards stacked on awards. I became a leader in my section and on the base Honor Guard. I finished an Associates degree, the Air Force Offered me a chance to finish my Bachelors at their expense, and would even make me an Lt after I finished.
Then I got divorced. This was nitrous oxide to The Failure Brigade engine and they mocked me with endless joy. Every night I would stare at my ceiling wishing for sleep while The Failure Brigade danced with renewed joy and vigor across my bedroom ceiling. During the day, I was the cocksure master of my universe. At night the best I could hope for was a draw.
That’s when I discovered the way to nuke The Failure Brigade to silence. She was a tan, voluptuous Mexican with a devastating smile. The moment she flashed that smile at me, everything I thought I wanted vaporized in an instant and I fell deeply in love.
The Brigade has nothing when a truly beautiful soul loves you. The slightest raising of The Brigade’s chant is vanquished by a soft rub on your back. The sound of their mocking that wakes you up is quieted by the warm soul sleeping next to you.
For the next 16 years, any attacks by The Failure Brigade were held off until I was deployed and by myself. One on one I could hold them off. At least long enough to get home and unleash my greatest weapon.
But last night, it was a new attack. A sneak attack in the wee hours, and I gave them the ammunition. Over the last 2 years I have wasted a small fortune, failed at 4 careers and find myself walking away from a 5th. After a good bit of reading into a Steve McQueen biography I was awakened hours before my alarm by a New And Improved Failure Brigade.
Armed with dozens of new shortcomings, missed opportunities and the fact that I am sleeping alone they were fueled by the unfortunate, if not arrogant, comparisons I drew between the good Mr. McQueen and my own mistakes.
They did a substantial amount of damage and this morning was an unpleasant haze. Those old sensations of nagging self-doubt and uncertainty were now regaining lost ground I had long ago claimed.
Then I got a text. It was a young man wearing fresh gold bars at his Officer Training School commissioning ceremony. “Thank you for all the mentoring.”
Impact. Not as powerful as the comforting touch of a loved one, but still pretty authoritative.
This young man will continue on to great things. He will defend freedom. He will make this land better, and he credits me with helping. This brought my mind to those I have met and helped (I hope). The Failure Brigade can never take that from me.
Next month I start my new job as a teacher. I will fail, I will flounder and I will fall. But somewhere in there I will help a young person, and years later they will thank me for it.
Fuck you Failure Brigade. It’s not just you attacking me now. I am coming for you. I will find you in the hearts and minds of young people. I will give them the weapons to battle you and I will crush you at every opportunity. I will stomp you into the ground, every victory is a new weapon in my arsenal and I will pass that on to others. You have a name. You have a home and thus, you have a weakness.
I can find you.
I can beat you.