The day I sold my first novel I was playing golf with three middle-aged Chinese women somewhere near the Throgs Neck Bridge. Over the past two months my book had gone up the chain from my agent to an editor to her boss to her boss’s boss and now, that morning the President of the company was supposed to call with the final verdict. I was sure it would be ‘no’.
The only thing worse than getting bad news alone is getting it around other people, so I’d gone to play golf, where at least the scenery would be pleasant and if the other golfers heard me cursing and weeping, they’d chalk it up to a bad slice.
Only when I arrived at the Clearview Park Golf Course, it was too crowded for me to play alone, so I was sent to the three Chinese women to round out their foursome. Only one of them spoke English, at least enough to scold me when I tried to putt from the fringe. They ignored me mostly, but soon I began to pick up a note of annoyance in their chatter. I was slowing them down, because, well, I really suck at golf.
Thing is, I don’t mind sucking at golf. I’d only began playing a year earlier, after my former roommate bought some clubs at a yard sale. Our first day out we walked off the course with scores around triple par, but neither of us cared. Later I played a few rounds with my father and brother and managed to get down to only double par. Then my wife signed me up for a lesson at Chelsea Piers, where I discovered I was not standing, swinging, or holding the club correctly. But none of this made it any less enjoyable.
Golf was peaceful, the courses were beautiful. My father used to tell me that if he could have done anything, he’d have been a professional golfer. Between jobs as a computer programmer, he’d played a lot and apparently gotten pretty good. He’d go out with my grandfather when he was in town. I wanted, badly, to join them, but my grandmother was dead set against it, always quick to tell me about my cousin Buddy, who as a kid had gotten hit in the head with a golf club and was still severely brain-damaged.
I’d never even met Buddy, but he lived large in my imagination. He was my first inkling that a life could be ruined in a split-second. I had used this story in the first chapter of my novel, transposing the accident onto a small-town Homecoming King. I’d thought of the idea during my first day out golfing with my old roommate, which is why I thought it only appropriate that I be out golfing on the day the novel got shot down.
As I waited for the call to come, I thought about Buddy, but something else, a number, kept running through my head. Twenty nine feet, eight and a quarter inches.
The TV drama Sports Night aired in the late 90s on ABC, giving a backstage view of a nightly live sports show. Written by Aaron Sorkin, it got cancelled after its second season and it had an odd meta-awareness of its own impending failure. The characters are hard-working and idealistic just like those who would later inhabit The West Wing and The Newsroom, and many episodes revolve around their struggle to keep their show (also called Sports Night) on the air while maintaining their integrity. They have so-so ratings and are forever third in their market, but darn it, they’ve got heart! The show ends as greedy network executives sell the company to the highest bidder, a billionaire who turns out to be an idealist dreamer just like them, intent on saving Sports Night. Ironically, the real life Sports Night has no such luck.
The episode I was thinking about that day, “The Local Weather” was also about failure. One of the anchors, Dan, is sick of being in his co-anchor’s shadow and has begun to see a therapist. She asks him for the time and he blurts out “Twenty-nine feet, eight and a quarter inches.” Slowly, this slip’s meaning emerges.
The broadcast they’d done the night before focused on a long jumper named Oscar Parrish who’d had “a decade’s worth of bad luck”—tearing his ACL, then losing his father on the eve of the Olympics. But finally he was expected to break the world record by a few quarters of an inch, which Dan explains is “a hundred miles in track and field.”
Oscar admits that at 33 years old, his legs aren’t getting any stronger. “All I’ve done since I was 14 years old is try to jump a quarter inch farther.” He knows that this is his last chance.
But then the moment comes and… he breaks the world record! Everyone at Sports Night cheers except for Dan. He is the only one watching five minutes later when an unknown Austrian steps up to the line. This 19-year-old jumps and effortlessly shatters Oscar’s new record, by an astounding three inches. His distance? Twenty-nine feet, eight and a quarter inches.
What do you do when your best is not good enough? Dan’s therapist points out that, hey, a world record is still a world record, even if you only hold it for five minutes. Oscar did just what he set out to do. Dan argues that anyone good enough to be second place is good enough to be disappointed in not being first.
That day, as I walked behind the three Chinese ladies in their cart, I anticipated returning home just a quarter inch short. I’d gotten used to rejections over the years: from colleges, grad schools, magazines, agents, editors. Maybe eventually there comes a point where, like Dan, you have to accept being number two. Logically, there must be far more people in the world who work incredibly hard, come very, very close, and don’t succeed. It just doesn’t make for very good television.
But then the call came in, and my agent told me that the publisher wanted to make me an offer.
This was a mistake—surely. They were going to call back in a few minutes and change their minds. But no. I’d made the jump. What if I was the 19-year-old Austrian, not the 33-year-old runner-up? I had no script for this. I wanted to tell everyone, although I’d been urged to keep quiet until we’d finished the negotiations. But I took out my phone and changed my Facebook status to, “Twenty Nine Feet, Eight and a Quarter Inches.”
Though my golfing companions couldn’t understand what I was saying on the phone, the look on my face spoke in every language. “Good news?” the first lady asked me.
“My book. I wrote a book. Someone’s going to publish it.”
She smiled and jabbed a thumb up into the air. We let the group behind us play through while I called my wife, my mother, a few close friends… The ladies were happy to take a breather and clean their clubs. The woman I’d spoken to appeared to be telling her friends why I was so happy. Only as they smiled over at me, I realized that while I was very happy—was also having trouble breathing and seeing straight. I’d expected to feel vindicated, confident, assured. Instead I was having some kind of panic attack. How could this be what it felt like to win?
They say that the only real failure in life is to fail to try. But what if you’ve thrown nearly everything else aside, practiced night and day, and pushed your mind and body to the absolute limit—only to come up a quarter of an inch short—isn’t that worse than failing to try?
Twenty-nine feet, eight and a quarter inches. For the first time I thought about what that really meant. The long jumper, my Cousin Buddy—these weren’t just dreams but lives that hadn’t worked out. And I knew that even before that phone call, writing hadn’t just been my dream; it had been my life. For years now I had been running towards the board, but I hadn’t landed yet… The mix of excitement and panic I felt was exactly like finding myself suddenly in mid-air. Momentum pushing me forward; gravity tugging me down. How far would I go?
Soon it was time to move on to the next hole. As we packed up and I tried to remember how to breathe, I noticed for the first time that one of the other two women was moving awkwardly. Her face was partially paralyzed and her arm and leg on that same side were stiff. Though I’d been playing a dozen yards away from her all morning, I hadn’t paid any attention. I asked the first woman if her friend was all right.
“That’s my sister-in-law. She had a stroke,” she explained, almost apologetically. “She doesn’t play too well, but the doctor says she needs the exercise. She likes to get outside.” This was followed by a chummy laugh, as if to say, hey—it could be worse.
Surely, it could have been. She’d adapted her swing to make up for the fact that her limbs were not co-operating. Everything appeared to exhaust her, and a few times she seemed to be in actual pain, but she kept going. Certainly it made me think of how small my own problems were, and how lucky I was for the health, love, and luck that had gotten me that far. But mostly it made me think that the old saying was right. As long we are still trying, we have not failed.