In dueling, throwing away one’s shot meant deliberately firing into the ground. Usually both men threw away their first shots to prove they meant business, which I find hilarious. “You think I’m afraid to fire my pistol? Check this out.” BAM! “Hole in the ground.” Macho posturing, on the playground or the dueling ground, is a delicate dance. The seconds would confer (“Shots fired, this shit is real; we calling a truce or what?”) and then the duelers would grab their other pistol (“You seriously still wanna go? You saw what I did to the ground, right?”).
The mortality rate in duels was 20%.
In life, throwing away your shot means failing to take advantage of opportunities. I have done this so many times you can call me Anti-Hamilton. That’s why “My Shot,” the third song from the mighty Hamilton: an American Musical, has haunted me since I first heard it several weeks ago.
Every shot I’ve thrown away, whether the consequences were large or small, created a unique failure memento which I dolefully added to the shameful spectacle pile that is my life.
I’ve assembled my top failures for your enjoyment.
Writing for a newspaper
In high school I had an opinion piece published in the Syracuse Herald-Journal, a third of a page below the fold, front cover of the Local Interest section. They took my picture for a byline photo. They edited my work and made it better. They gave me their business cards and told me to give them a call if I had anything else on my mind.
They never heard from me again.
A Scholarship to the Rochester Institute of Technology
Despite good grades, decent extracurriculars, and excellent test scores, I didn’t have enough money for a college education. After graduation, I figured I’d art around and see what happened.
At my high school’s senior award ceremony – National Honor Roll, that kind of thing – they surprised everyone in attendance by calling me to the stage alone (most of the awards were given to groups of students; the valedictorian and I were the only two people called up solo) to receive a scholarship I’d never heard of and had never put myself up for. It wasn’t a full ride, but it was enough that my savings from working at Leo & Sons Big M Supermarket would have covered the difference, and it was renewable for each semester.
I saw “Institute of Technology,” thought “Ew, tech,” and didn’t claim that scholarship. Yet I kept the paperweight the award came with for a good decade afterwards. Issues? Yeah, I got some.
Fun with Julie B. (according to Keith G. and Rick H.)
One Saturday while I was in seventh grade, I heard a knock on the front door. As the youngest it fell on me to answer, and when I did I saw Keith G. and Rick H. standing there. Keith was in seventh with me, Rick a grade above us.
“You know Julie B______?” Keith asked. She rode the bus with us; sure I did.
“Well, she likes you,” he said.
“Really likes you,” Rick added.
“She wants you to come over right now,” Keith said.
“Come over where?” I asked.
“To her house, dude.”
Julie and I had never spoken. I’d never even heard her speak in class, as she was in eighth grade with Rick. I knew she had curly brown hair and liked button down shirts and cardigan sweaters, but she was a stranger. I declined politely and started to close the door.
Their mouths fell open.
“Dude, you don’t know what you’re giving up here,” Keith said. “She’s at her house right now, waiting for you.”
“She’s waiting for you,” Rick emphasized.
Keith: “You could do anything you want to her.”
You know that scene in Louie, where the guy tries to get Louie to sleep with his sister (“She’s a big fan of you“)? I know the surreal unease Louie felt at that moment. Even now I wonder what the hell that visit was about. Did they want to humiliate me by bringing me to a girl who didn’t like really me? Did they want to take me somewhere private to kick my ass?
Afterwards, Keith befriended me (although “friend” isn’t as accurate as “object of fascination he hung around with and occasionally stole money from”) and every once in a while he’d look at me, shake his head, and say, “Dude could’ve gotten himself a blowjob. He turns it down.” So I think this was a legitimate inquiry, which still makes me wonder.
The three of them were hanging out and Julie said she didn’t like them like that, so they pressed her to confess who she liked like that, and Julie answered with “that gawky, braces-wearing, mullet-sporting, four-eyed halfbreed over on Carson Drive,” so Keith and Rick walked over to my house and recruited me to get Julie hot and bothered, hoping to parlay that excitement into sexual favors for themselves, or at least a front row seat to a live sex show? That’s some circa 1985 suburban central New York game, right there.
Needless to say, many of my ensuing childhood fantasies started out with Keith G. and Rick H. showing up on my doorstep and escorting me to the houses of horny girls from our school.
Looking back, this isn’t so much a shot thrown away as a bullet dodged.
Starting a Relationship with an Editor
About twenty years ago, I decided it was time to share my genius with the world. I sent ten different short stories to ten different magazines and got ten form rejection letters for my efforts. The editor of Fantasy & Science Fiction included the first page of my zombiesque-creature-bites-man story “Final Run” with his rejection letter; he’d circled every “was” on the page, wrote “your narrative voice is too passive,” and signed his name. That page alone had “was” maybe… 1,000 times? To this day I cringe a little every time I need to use it.
I had no idea how rare it is to get feedback, handwritten or otherwise, from an editor. To another fella, this would have been an invitation to edit and resubmit, or send him another piece with more momentum. For me, not so much. I haven’t submitted a story to a magazine since.
Here’s the version of “Final Run” that moves, if you’re curious.
Seeing Leonard Cohen Perform (for Free)
I’d already seen Leonard Cohen in concert once and the experience fed my soul. A friend who’d attended the same concert called me up the following day and we spent forty minutes on a conversation that could have been boiled down to “wow.”
A few years later, I got another invite from a different friend. I drove downtown and got lost looking for the venue. After work, and showering and dressing a second time, and leaving the house a second time, and running low on gas, and getting lost, and driving out of downtown to find a gas station, I was all out of spoons. I thought about looking for parking, navigating the crowds, and hanging out with a bunch of people I didn’t know, and I just could not do it. So I went home.
So what? I hear you saying, I blow off plans all the time. Only if you’ve seen Leonard Cohen in concert can you understand what a huge shot it was to miss. Also, that friend with the free ticket? Our relationship hasn’t been the same since.
When life got challenging I didn’t rise to the occasion, which is a shame because I could’ve really used some soul food that night.
Making $2,500 for a Week of Work
When arting around didn’t make me the next Picasso I wound up in college part-time. I had my job at Leo & Sons and work-study as an usher at Syracuse Stage, I delivered for Cosmo’s Pizza, I worked for Bonwit-Teller in shipping and at the jewelry counter, and I gave massages to fellow students for extra cash. Six months rent for a week of “testing” sounded sweet.
But when I called the number in the back of the New Times, it turned out “testing” meant being a human guinea pig for pharmaceutical companies. Having both read and watched Firestarter, I hung up the phone right quick.
Again, maybe more of a bullet dodged than a shot thrown.
Getting an Agent
A ghost writer who used to work at Books & Books put me touch with her literary agency. I had every intention of taking this shot, and I sent the agent a completed manuscript. We went back and forth for the better part of a month, making changes to the manuscript and outlining the next two chapters of the proposed trilogy. After I’d made the final round of changes, polished the cover letter and outline, I got… sidetracked somehow.
Some time passed before I thought, oh, yeah… I was supposed to send in those changes. I drafted an email, attached the work, and saw that the date of our last email exchange was thirteen months earlier.
My email became apologetic, but even though she’d always answered within a day, I didn’t hear back. I read some blogs by agents and editors and learned what my long period of silence looked like from her end: writers often use one agent’s ideas to improve their work and try to find another (more high profile ) agent, and when that attempt doesn’t work they crawl back to the original agent who showed interest.
I tried again, reassuring her I was not deceitful but only self-defeating. Oddly enough, this strategy did not work.
Helping My Wife Rescue a Kayak
One summer my wife’s amazing flair for vacation planning brought us to Old Florida and a cracker house on the Withlacoochee River. Everything about that trip was amazing, even the argument Becky and I had over who was the better canoer (Her: “I grew up on summer vacations with my father. He taught me everything he knows, and my canoe skills can’t be topped.” Me: “I’m Mohawk; canoeing is in my blood.”). Once we rowed ashore, stopped sharing a canoe, and each got our own kayaks, we learned who deserved the title of Oar Master.
We both rowed confidently from the pond beside our rental and out to the majestic Withlacoochee. The second I turned the corner a stowaway cockroach scuttled across my legs. I panicked, flipped the kayak, and promptly began to drown.
In my mind. It’s worth noting that I had a life jacket on and the current of the Withlacoochee is brisk but not rapid. I was fine.
Still, when Becky asked if I was okay, I reasonably screamed, “No I am not okay, I am FREAKING THE FUCK OUT!” I like to think I was modeling a different version of masculinity for my son. There are many ways to be a man, my boy, many ways to be a man.
After watching me flail for a bit, my wife ordered me out of the water. I ripped skin off my foot on barnacles climbing the dock of our neighbor’s house, where the current had taken me. The scar smiles up at me every time I shower.
I watched uselessly from the dock as my wife tried to paddle against the current one-handed while holding a water-logged kayak in the other hand. I grabbed a long pole and tried to follow her downstream, but every turn led me further into the woods, farther away from her. I ran back to the dock and watched her slowly, inexorably, carried around the river bend and out of sight.
I exchanged a look with my eight-year-old (at the time) who was allowed to have that look on his face because he was eight. I felt profoundly jealous. How was this incident that I’d caused all my fault?
Becky’s reappearance saved me from having to answer my son’s look. She clawed her way back around the bend, grabbing bushes along the riverbank.
“Help?” she said. I could tell by her tone it was rhetorical.
After catching her breath, Becky rowed like hell across the river, against the current, to the farthest dock before the river bend. Again, one-handed; don’t forget the death-grip she had on the kayak I’d turned into a water barrel. She tied her kayak to the dock (one-handed) while keeping my water-filled failure from floating away. She bailed some of the water out with her hands and then said to herself, “fuck it, this is taking too long” (presumably; I was still way too far upstream to hear) and dragged the kayak from the river and onto the dock. She flipped it, drained it, put it back in the water, and tied it end-to-end to her kayak.
When she returned to her kayak my wife was pretty winded, but at least she could paddle with two hands. She fought the current and got both kayaks back to the pond.
“I’m sorry I laughed at you,” she called. As soon as she didn’t have to contend with the current, she used the extra breath to explain it was just a defense mechanism, not an attempt to kick me while I drown. Best of wives and best of women.
When Becky reached the shore, my son and I helpfully took over and got the kayaks out of the water for her. We’re not heroes, just a couple of guys doing what was in our power to do.
“I am Manny Quiroga’s daughter, and I am exhausted,” she said, and collapsed into a lounge chair. My son and I manfully brought her lemonade.
Last week it occurred to me that instead of running around in the woods with a pole, I should have eased into the water, laid back, and let the Withlacoochee current carry me to her. That’s how long it took for me to get over my panic of being in the water against my will and have a coherent thought about the experience; four years.
“Yeah, you should have,” Becky said, her tone a little too enthusiastic. But to her credit, she has never ridiculed me for missing this shot (except to invite me kayaking from time to time). For whatever reason, she relishes being my wife.
Cuba meets Akwesasne? There’s a shot I didn’t miss.
And I’m the luckiest fucker alive.