Is the Secret to Success… Faking It?
We met over pancakes, big ones. Not those knockoff flapjacks made from some mix out of a box, either. Real pancakes from the hands of one of the best chefs in our city, in one of the best restaurants in our city, a restored 1913 bungalow where at night the New Zealand elk chop goes for $42. Oprah Winfrey ate here.
On this Saturday morning in December 2015, though, the pancakes were $10 and all proceeds went to a charity that helps feed and clothe poor children. Laura was standing with her back against the wall of an upstairs dining room. I was unattached, six months removed from my most recent breakup, 38 months removed from a divorce, 53 months removed from the start of the state-required pre-divorce separation period, and hoping she wouldn’t notice I hadn’t showered.
Somehow we’d never run into each other before, despite my job as the editor of Charlotte’s city magazine and hers doing public relations for some of the city’s better restaurants. Her eyes, all different shades of coffee, were wide open when she smiled and said hello. I gulped down a tickle in my throat, shook her hand, said some words, then sat down with a couple of friends who’d invited me to join them at the breakfast in the first place. She said goodbye and I watched her walk out the door and into another dining room.
I Googled her before I even put the key in the ignition of my truck. The most complete online summary I could find was a work profile. It told me she’d been a TV producer before switching to public relations, which was a relief to me because it meant she wasn’t born that way. She also liked to take walks and see live music, and her pet peeve was drivers who honk. Car horns happen to be my least favorite sound in the world, too, so I drafted a follow-up note that night. I saved it, not wanting to seem eager. I waited all the way until 9 a.m. the next morning.
The holidays got in the way for a bit and so did the matter of her lingering ex-boyfriend, but we had our first date in mid-January, a concert, and the next thing I knew it was 18 months later and I was sitting on a four-legged stool in a brewpub, looking across a high-top table at Laura’s mom, asking if I could marry her daughter. Laura’s mom is one of the most impressive people I’ve ever met. After her divorce, she raised Laura and Laura’s older brother and still rose to the top of her profession—she’s now president of a news service for one of the major TV networks. She’s attended every political convention and inauguration since the 1980s, coordinated Olympics coverage, and directed teams of reporters after space shuttle explosions. When bombs blew up or wars broke out or hostage situations arose, she sometimes scrambled to find babysitters in the middle of the night. Some of the biggest stars in the television news business look up to her, but she has no interest in receiving praise or attention.
My point is, I needed her approval. I waited until the second beer before asking: “What would you say if I told you I bought a ring for Laura?” She looked at me, then up, back at me, smiled and said, “I’d say that would make me very happy.” We talked for another hour or so about the excitement of the occasion. At one point, she slipped in a question I didn’t expect: “So you have no hesitation getting married… again?”
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Well thanks for bringing it up!
I’m kidding. It was a sensible question from a fellow member of the club of people who’ve been divorced, a club of reasonable doubters. The late great Southern author Pat Conroy once wrote that divorces without children are “minor-league divorces,” and he’s right. My divorce, without kids, was nothing compared to what parents weather. But the minor leagues are still the professional ranks, and in the same way that all athletes go through slumps, all divorced people go through periods of doubt about whether they’re even capable of marriage.
A few weeks later, Laura and I were in wooden rocking chairs on a porch in Pinehurst, North Carolina. It was a Friday night, the first night of a weekend getaway during which I planned to propose. Around 9 p.m., a friend sent me a picture of a matchbook cover he’d found at a Four Seasons hotel. It read: “To be successful, feel successful, said your father. Now you know how wise he was.”
My eyes fixed on those words.
I’m sure my father said something similar at some point, but about six years ago he had a series of strokes that left him without a filter for his mouth. Now he blurts out more practical pieces of advice: “Why don’t you go get drunk and be somebody?” or “Let’s go eat ice cream.”
I looked down at the words on the matchbook cover again: “To be successful, feel successful, said your father.” I looked up at Laura and laughed. It was as if voices, my father’s this time, kept tapping me on the shoulder to say—and yes, this is absolutely something else he’d say—You sure about this, boy?
Where does a love story fit today? Can you even read this, what with your hand trembling against your phone as you see the latest news or social media post from your politically incorrect cousin (hey, Davey)? In an age when video of the next heroin overdose or police shooting or suicide bombing can pop into your world without your request, are we allowed to receive good news?
Here’s a little something for the jaded romantics: That fabled stat about half of all marriages ending in divorce hasn’t been true for more than 30 years. It came about during the 1970s and 1980s, during the peak of divorce, but it’s been falling since. Today, depending on the researcher and method, it seems to be somewhere between 25 and 33 percent.
Not that stats should dictate your future. In his 2016 book The End of Average, Harvard University professor Todd Rose asserts that we’ve been duped into weighing our lives against averages. Apparently this started around the early 1800s, when a Belgian social scientist used the average chest circumference of all men in the Scottish Army to determine the size of what he called the ideal soldier. To him, average was optimal, and if a soldier was one inch rounder or skinnier in the chest than the average number, he was one inch away from perfection.
This persists, except our obsession isn’t with being average but beating it. We’re surrounded by numbers, Rose writes—an average person has 8.6 friends or kisses 15 people in her life or gets into three fights per month over money with a spouse. Our first reaction is to weigh our numbers against those numbers. With each comparison, we compile a shape of ourselves as above average over here, below average over there.
“We all strive to be like everyone else,” Rose writes, “only better.”
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If you search enough, you can find any divorce statistic you need to make yourself feel comfortable. The more I searched, the less I cared. Only one stat was true of me: My divorce rate, through one marriage, is 100 percent. Admitting that seems like an important step toward lowering it.
On Sept. 17, 2012, I paced outside of a courthouse in North Carolina and sent a text message to my soon-to-be ex-wife, because evidently that’s what some people do on the day of their divorce. She had moved to Ohio in the time we’d been separated, and we’d already come to an agreement on the financial terms of the split—we each got half of our nothing.
“Don’t know if I can do this,” I texted.
“Be strong,” she replied.
I only know this today because I kept notes on the inside flap of the manila folder that held our divorce paperwork. One benefit of being a professional writer is that you learn ways to distance yourself from the moment; taking notes tricked me into thinking I was on an assignment to write about people whose lives were falling apart, and boy am I glad I wasn’t them.
That manila folder now resides in a larger folder tabbed “Important Documents” in a cabinet in my house. I noticed it this spring when I reached in to store paperwork for Laura’s engagement ring. Surprise.
The notes reveal a melancholy man. We agreed that I’d stand in front of the judge and finalize the whole thing. I was OK with that; she’d endured enough. You don’t get married to get divorced, and the trip from one to the other starts as a carriage ride and ends with a smoking engine on the side of a hopeless highway. Friends choose sides. The dog chooses a side. You lose in-laws. You stop visiting certain places—the entire city of Cleveland, for instance.
This isn’t the space to get into the details of why we failed, but in a quick brushstroke: We started dating in our early 20s and by the time we split up in our early 30s, we’d grown into different adults. One night we committed to going out to a nice dinner to try to work things out, but with plates of tomato pie in front of us, we didn’t have anything left to talk about. Now she has a man who’s far more suitable for her than I could dream of being, and a baby boy. It’s better this way.
We vowed to have a peaceful divorce and remain distant friends, and despite the fact that we’d broken a certain set of other vows, we’ve kept this one. On the steps of the courthouse, though, the future was a faraway land I never imagined inhabiting.
“Take your belt off!” the guard shouted when I set off the metal detector.
The walls of courtroom 2-A were redbrick, shaded slightly purple. An American flag was on one side of the judge’s bench, a North Carolina flag on the other.
There was a sign on the front panel of the judge’s bench, words in all-caps: “KEEP YOUR HANDS OUT OF YOUR POCKET WHILE IN FRONT OF THE JUDGE!”
I immediately worried what position my hands should take when my time came. Should I clasp them in front of me? Behind me? Should I juggle? Shuffle cards? Mime at the judge the whole time? I didn’t know. I prayed someone would go before me.
Thankfully, an older couple a bench over was called first down the aisle. They were “tidy,” I noted in the folder. What a weird word. She wore a dark blue blouse; he had salt-colored hair and a collared shirt. The man slumped in the chair while the judge read the facts that led them there: “You were married on Nov. 22, 1986?” the judge asked. “Yes,” they replied. “And you had three children in the marriage?” “Yes.” “And you’ve been living continuously apart without resuming marital relations since April 15, 2011?” “Yes.”
This went on all day, one wrecking tale after another. I tried to imagine the story behind every couple, from the pair who walked out smiling, to the man who didn’t hold the door for his new ex, to the woman who flipped a hallelujah hand in the air and told the judge, “All right, we’re outta here!”
“You’re no better,” I wrote to myself. “You wonder what fights they had. You wonder who threw a book across the room, who said, ‘I wish you were dead.’ Who hollered. Who was hollered at. It raises the question, ‘What happened to you?’ Because there’s always a reason: someone cheated, someone drank too much, someone got a raise, and someone didn’t.”
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“To be successful, feel successful, said your father. Now you know how wise he was.”
I didn’t take notes during my time up front. I don’t remember what I said yes to or what I said no to. I don’t even remember what I did with my hands. But I remember the instant it became official. I closed my eyes for a beat, opened them and saw the clock on the wall.
In the middle of the manila envelope I wrote “3:09 p.m.” and drew a circle around it.
The concrete barrier on the side of the I-95 overpass north of Baltimore is rough against the skin. I remember that.
A little more than three months after the divorce went final, on Jan. 3, the magazine I worked for terminated my writing contract, leaving me without guaranteed income for the first time in my career. When the oil tank that heated my home ran out of fuel that winter, I pulled a blanket over me. I got sick, I wrote stories that paid almost nothing, and landed one assignment that would change all of that.
The story was about an end-of-the-bench player on the University of Maryland’s 2002 national championship men’s basketball team. He rarely played, but when he did fans went wild. They loved him, not for his ability but for his presence. Ten years after he graduated, he committed suicide by jumping off an overpass north of Baltimore. I set out to determine how he went from one place to the other.
I was 32 years old, about a year younger than he was, a few days removed from losing my work contract, and four months removed from the final divorce day, when I traced the path he took to the bridge.
He rammed into two cars on the way; I marked those spots on a notepad. The people he hit followed him. One was a grandmother of three, Janet. Turns out that Janet collects matchbook covers. She had more than 40,000 matchbook covers when I called her, most of them stored in plastic sleeves in three-ring binders. Some were from as far back as the 1940s. Her favorite ones had pictures of shoes on them, followed closely by snow skis. She kept them in her basement, with hopes of collecting 1 million covers.
“Everybody tries to display something that’s unusual,” she told me.
Janet witnessed the former basketball player jump over the wall that day, and she says she’ll never forget it. Following in their tracks, I pulled my truck onto the shoulder, got out, and tried to imagine the moment from her vantage point. Then I walked over to the wall, put my hands on it, looked down and tried to imagine it from his. I wondered about him and what brought him here. And when I imagined the last few seconds of his fall, my hands started shaking and I jumped back.
I wrote a story that, for whatever reason, gained national recognition and helped bring in a couple of job offers. Six months after the divorce, two months after losing my regular income, the story of a man my age committing suicide rescued my career, and me. I owe it to him to find joy.
Not everything in this world is a good sign or a bad sign or a sign at all. Some things are just coincidences.
My ex-wife’s name is Laura, too. I should mention that. People who entered my life after the divorce cock their head sideways when I tell them. They ask if it’s uncomfortable, a question that reveals they have little understanding of what life’s like in the chimney of divorce, the memories of a once-happy relationship floating past you like charred newsprint in the smoke. Names are something we wear; the death of a marriage is something we live with. Not everything in this world is a good sign or a bad sign or a sign at all. Some things are just coincidences.
Not long after I moved to Charlotte, I took a brain training class, which sounds more cult-ish and interesting than it actually is. The theory behind the class is that the brain is a muscle, and in a world of distractions, we should exercise it. The instructor started by giving me a sheet of paper with dozens of arrows printed on it. They faced up, down, right, left. She had a handheld ticker that ticked on a beat. My task was to say the direction of the next arrow on the paper on each beat. I was also supposed to snap my finger each time I spoke. Beginner’s stuff: “Up… up… left… down… down… down… right.”
Then she sped up the ticker. Then she told me not to say the direction of the arrow, but one turn clockwise. Up became right, right became down, down became left, and left became up, and shoot, snap, faster, faster, faster!
When I messed up, we started over and tried to get farther on the sheet the next time.
“To be successful, feel successful,” the matchbook says.
It’s a theory that forms the spine of modern American society, and something millions of fathers have said to their kids. With room to grow, it can help us take a risk that might lead to fortune. Left unchecked, it can become false confidence, or worse, a mask for insecurity. Regardless, we believe in achieving, in being better than average, and we believe that believing in ourselves helps us get there.
But the quote skips an important step. Feeling successful requires that you’ve been successful at least once before, because otherwise how would you recognize the feeling?
I guess I’m saying, maybe a matchbook cover is just a matchbook cover.
The morning after the night in those rocking chairs, I had a ring buried in my suitcase and the matchbook on my mind and an 8:30 a.m. tee time on Pinehurst No. 2, the revered course that’s hosted multiple U.S. Opens and a Ryder Cup. I hadn’t played in months, but the upside to being a bad golfer is that par is a such a distant dream that you’re always below average, so you’re really competing only against yourself.
Laura spent the morning walking from little shop to little shop, texting me occasionally to check on the progress of the round. There’s a peacefulness in the way we exist together that’s hard to explain. She wanted to be there at the end of the round. I hit a surprisingly strong drive on the 18th hole and strolled up the fairway. I took a picture. Just beyond the green, people filled the porch at lunchtime. I picked Laura out of the crowd from 150 yards away without squinting.
It’s kind of like that.
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If Laura and I had a profile, it would read something like this: We like the same music. She got on a plane within three weeks of our first date and flew to Austin, Texas, with me to see a concert. We like ice cream and drinks on the porch. We still hate car horns. She doesn’t just know what I’m going to say before I do, she often interrupts to play my character. And we’re honest with each other: She won’t read this essay before it’s published, but nothing in it will surprise her.
We have an agreement that we’ll make each other laugh at least once a day, no matter how bad the day, and most mornings we have a dozen laughs before the end of breakfast. Her laugh could cure colds. She helps with my dad. She knows that when I can’t sleep at night, it’s because I’m thinking about him. She knows exactly how much coffee to make each morning and how many days I can go without pizza before getting cranky (seven). She thinks the “back scratch,” which I made up in our living room while listening to an old Bob Seger record and will never share with another person, is the funniest dance in America.
For big occasions, I make her a new edition of a little startup magazine I founded titled Laura. It has one subscriber. It’s all handwritten and hand-drawn, maybe six or seven pages. In the area of illustration, I’m somewhat of a novice, and by that I mean the art that goes on the cover of Laura is just a stick figure of her. For her birthday, she was there with her arms raised. For Christmas, she was carrying shopping bags. When she was sick, I published the special-edition Laura magazine health issue, with cover art of her with a thermometer in her mouth and tips on how to feel better, one of which was “5 Ways to Be Nice to Your Boyfriend When You Have a Cold.”
Just off the fairway on the 18th hole, my caddie handed me a 6-iron for a 150-yard shot, Typically I’d use a 7-iron here. “Lotta wind up there,” he said. “Trust me.”
Somehow I caught the ball clean off the pine needles. As it went up I hoped the caddie was right, that there really was a “lotta wind up there.” If not, the shot would land in someone’s French dip on the clubhouse porch. A gust came, and the ball shot up and hovered there, just for a beat. When it came down, it landed just beyond the flag, in the center of the green, 20 feet away from the cup on one of the most famous holes in golf. People clapped! The shot of a lifetime! “Birdie putt time!” the caddie hollered and gave me a high-five. The matchbook was right!
I walked toward the green and waved at Laura. Then, feeling pretty darn successful, I knocked that 20-foot birdie putt about 15 feet past the hole. I missed the par putt, too, before finishing with a three-putt for bogey.
Ah, well. Sometimes golf is just golf.
Laura and I ate a steak and fish dinner at the resort that night, then went back to the rocking chairs before bed.
The next morning, I ordered room service. I answered the door, grabbed the tray, and put it on the dresser. I took the lids off of our plates and placed the small jewelry box between them. I lifted the tray with quivering hands, turned around, and delivered pancakes and a ring. Her eyes, all different shades of coffee, sprang open when she smiled. She said yes, yes, and then we ate breakfast.
A little while later, I went out to the porch with the rocking chairs to call my family and share the news. It was raining, and in the quiet of that Sunday morning, the drops slapped hard against the pine needles.
“Aw, that’s wonderful!” my mom said. “Here, tell your dad.”
He fumbled with the phone before getting it to his ear. When I told him, the son of a gun laughed.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“Nothin’, son. Just hope you’re sure,” said my father. And then I knew why he said it.
“I am,” I told him. “Not even a question.”
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This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Michael Graff is the editor-in-chief of Charlotte Agenda. His work has appeared in publications around the country, and he's been a notable selection in Best American Essays and Best American Sports Writing. Reach him at [email protected].
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