Nothing Special

Tales from a Generation Unfulfilled

Failing Hard

It’s been some time since our last post, but little has changed for we who suffer from “specialness”–except perhaps that the world is catching up.

One such revelation that, like “Specialness,” did not spread instantly–if it did admittedly spread easily.

Many of you have no doubt seen this very late-to-the-game piece from the New York Times about colleges who are finally trying to cushion the blow for those who enter and realize they are not as special as life has led them to believe.  To note, this apt description by Smith student Cai Sherley,

We all came from high schools where we were all the exception to the rule — we were kind of special in some way, or people told us that…So you get here and of course you want to recreate that, but here, everybody’s special. So nobody is special.

To which we at Nothing Special reply, “Duh!”  In truth we are thrilled that the world is catching on to this phenomenon we isolated and named at the beginning of the decade, and that it’s doing so at a faster rate than for other historic revelations, such as the heliocentric model, natural selection, and squeeze cheese.  We are glad that Smith College, during final exam period, created a projected screen of public failures for all to see, including this one from a literature and American studies major,

“I drafted a poem entitled ‘Chocolate Caramels’…[which] has been rejected by 21 journals … so far.”

At the same time we totally understand why this poem has been rejected 21 times, as it’s truly a terrible title for a poem.

by Mark Anderson, from

Smith’s initiative, called “Failing Well” and clearly inspired by OUR VERY FIRST ENTRY, in which we coined the term “Fearless failures,” actually awards its students, upon joining, a “Certificate of Failure,” which declares:

You are hereby authorized to screw up, bomb or fail at one or more relationships, hookups, friendships, texts, exams, extracurriculars or any other choices associated with college … and still be a totally worthy, utterly excellent human.

We at “Nothing Special” are still not sure we entirely agree with this.  We are extremely protective of our status as “non-failers,” especially in areas like extracurriculars which we so carefully accumulated in high school in order to get into college, college in order to continue to impress people, and after college because we are still trying to impress God-knows-who that we are deeply committed to freeing Richard Gere from letter writing campaigns tested on animals.

Still, we can’t fault Smith and other colleges for trying to convince students that there’s more to life than being a stand out, even if we’re still not sure exactly what that is.


The Relive Box

Well it’s almost been a full year since my last post, and it wasn’t even that great a post, so I figured, there’s no time like the present to be a little proactive.

The truth is I hadn’t been challenged as much with my own Specialness of late.  Perhaps I was finally starting to think that I might be coming to grips with being an average member of society–not a stand out, not highly verbal, not impressive for knowing all the state capitals (which is much more impressive when you’re in 4th grade than it is as an adult–it’s amazing how many adults know their freaking state capitals).  I also have had kids–little, actual, non-virtual, children, and there’s nothing like being a parent to realize that you’re not as special as your own parents told you you were.  Because now there’s just no question that you’re taking a back seat to the much more needy, much more exciting, much more full-of-potential and…um..special little people in your house.  Becoming a parent can temporarily offset the inconsolable condition of feeling too special to deal with the mundane problems of life!  Ah, but “temporarily” is the key word.  If there were any permanent cure, do you really think any of us would hesitate to take it?!  Actually we might hesitate, because we’re ambivalent about being special–that is, we kind of DO want to keep the disease– which is part of the problem in the first place.

other-worldly box and back of man looking

The Relive Box. Illustration by Julien Pacaud for the New Yorker

All of this is to say that I was in what we’ll call remission, when I read “The Relive Box” by T. Coraghessan Boyle in the March 17th edition of the New Yorker.  Where was the March 17th edition of the New Yorker?  In the bathroom, of course, where a friend told me all New Yorkers live.  Why did it take me six months to read it?  I was getting to it!  The title caught my eye, though I don’t always read the New Yorker fiction.  Special people like to get considerable mileage out of the time they put into reading, and if it’s the New Yorker, this usually means soaking up lots of information about something not all over the news but still relevant enough to be impressive to use in conversation.  ie.

“Well, Cory Booker is a man on the rise, but did you know that the educational transformation he began in Newark has kind of ground to a halt, particularly when Baraka was elected as his successor, not Shavar Jeffries?”
“How do you know all this?”
“I just do.”

Fiction can of course come in handy if it’s impressive-sounding, like a previously unpublished Fitzgerald short story, but this doesn’t hold true for writers you’ve never heard of.  T. Coraghessan Boyle?  I don’t even think he has the chance to become a famous writer unless he changes the name.  But the title…that title.  Could it really be?  Another person has imagined a not-too-distant-future world in which one of our core issues as Special people, living in the past–longing to return to long-ago successes, loving one’s past more than one’s present because it’s easy, contained, unassailable and never-to-be-returned to–could someone else have made that the subject of a short story?  Could someone else…a real author…not a Nabokov or Fitzgerald but still, he was published in “The New Yorker!”…be also fighting this demon, and exploring it via the written word?  The answer was yes.

Since most of you likely did not read–you were too busy trying to get a leg up on others and were reading non fiction or IMPORTANT fiction; I know, I’ve been there–let me give a quick summary.  A father narrates to us a period of a few days in his deeply troubled life.  His wife has left him, and part of his coping is to spend hours each night on his recently-purchased Halcom X1520 Relive Box with In-Flesh Retinal Projection Stream.  Essentially, Memory Porn, this latest gadget (which comes out in generations like any cellphone) is somewhere between an x-box, a computer, a viewmaster, and a movie player.  By stating a date and time, it can run the film of your life back for you–so that you can “Relive” moments of extreme elation, humiliation, and everything in between as many times as you can stand it.  The metaphor of pornography, and the avoidance of reality, runs through the entire piece; if you had any doubt, there are painful moments like the below, when the narrator’s daughter walks in on him using the Relive Box:

…”I can’t believe you,” she said.  “Do you have any idea what time it is?”

Bleary, depleted–and guilty, deeply guilty–I just gawked at her, the light she’d flicked on when she came into the room transfixing me in the chair.  I shook my head.

“It’s 6:45 A.M.  In the morning.  The morning, Dad.”

I started to say something…

“What?” Katie demanded.  “Were you with Mom again?  Is that it?  Like you can be with her and I can’t?”

“No,” I said, “no, that wasn’t it.  It wasn’t your mom at all…”

A tremor ran through her.  “Yeah, right.  So what was it, then?  Some girlfriend, somebody you were gaga over when you were in college?  Or high school?  Or , what, junior high?”

And his daughter is right.  The dad isn’t even going back to the mother, but rather to pivotal scenes from relationships previous in an avoidance even of his recent past.  Is he trying to look for a pattern?  Punishing himself?  Numbing himself?  A combination?  It’s a little later that one of my favorite passages comes:

…She’d come looking for me, dutiful child, motherless child, and found me not up and about and bustling around the kitchen, preparing to fuss over her and see her off to school, the way I used to, but pinned here in this chair, like an exhibit in a museum, blind to anything but the past, my past and nobody else’s, not hers or her mother’s, or the country’s or the world’s, just mine.

I won’t tell you how it ends–though you can probably tell this story is more of a meditation than an O. Henry-style plot thriller.  The important thing to note is how Boyle has developed a literal embodiment of the Specialness curse, exposing our unique mix of narcissism and self-loathing.  We are passionately, obsessively, and sometimes erotically drawn towards our past.  It offers so many comforts.  If we succeeded in something–say had a great comeback, or made a clutch lay-up, or kissed the girl, lost ourselves in the dance, impressed the world with our [fill in blank], then we can get our jollies from reliving that moment.  But what’s more, if we failed in something, if we lost the girl, missed the chance, choked on the shot, let ourselves be humiliated by someone–we can still get our rocks off.  We can relive the failure, breathe a sigh of relief that it’s over, believe that since we failed then, the pressure is off now because all is ruined, and, in general, still get an enormous rush from the reliving.  Remarkably, whether it’s our failed past or our triumphant past we’re reliving doesn’t really matter.  Any form of our past is STILL safer, and often sexier, than our current circumstances, because the present is pregnant with possibility and opportunity to fail and be witnessed failing.  The present is terrifying and often exhausting to Special people.  It’s also, of course, the only place where we can do anything to change our situation–hence it comes filled with pressure and expectation.  If the Relive Box ever comes out–and it’s hard to believe Google isn’t working on it–Special People, led by yours truly, will be the earliest adopters of the technology.

So what do we do when we want to visit the Relive Box (which we all know we have without needing the enabling technology)?  As your humble guide and fellow sufferer, I of course have no answer to this.  The past is too comfortable to think we can really avoid looking at the Box.  We will look.  It’s our comfort food.  When we do, though, can we try to focus on the feeling, and not the event itself?  Why, Oh Guide to the Gifted, I can hear you asking, would we do that?  Isn’t this the same thing–perhaps even worse and more seductive?  It’s not.  To remember a feeling, of success at least–of closeness, or passion, of solving a hard puzzle, of learning something new, of helping someone, to remember the feeling without the specifics is to be hungry to feel it again.  When we go to the Relive Box, let us try to not to get caught up with the past event in our own life.  The event is dead.  The feeling, though, is still alive, and can actually motivate us in the present.

We won’t be able to do this every time.  Still, for every nine times we look at a past glory and think, “Why can’t I have that again?” if we can once think, “How can I feel that way again?” we’ll be making some baby steps towards progress.  Example:  When I painted that pear, I felt accomplished.  What can I do today to feel accomplished?”  It’s a challenge, not a fallback.

Now stop Reliving all alone in a dark room you perve.  Go out and live!




Ultimate Experience Travel

We’ve been quiet for some time now, but needed to end this abstinence when shown this excellent article on the rising popularity of extreme travel.

Of course it was only a matter of time before Specialness spread to take over not only our daily lives, but our leisure life as well.  After all, if you can’t play Jai-alai in a zero-gravity stadium on one of Jupiter’s moons, what the heck is the point of traveling?

Mr. Romney’s very thin veil

Mr. Romney's very thin veil

a Not-that-Special moment for the campaign…

The moment you take the adult side of things–ugh.

When we get down to it, we have to face the fact that much of the realization that we’re not that special coincides with the

Puck.   The ultimate child–read Special Person.  By Jecca Koch.

realization that we’re not kids anymore.  This can happen at any age, and can happen multiple times, but this morning it hit me particularly hard.

The truth is that kids are Special.  They are this way because they think they’re special–they don’t realize that the world is made up of not millions, but billions of people, with problems, challenges, triumphs, intelligence, accomplishment, that is on an exponentially greater scale than their own.  And this is actually something we love about kids.  They live like they own the world, as they should.  Certain exceptions apply: Anne Frank, Steve Jobs, and this kid.  These and others like them not only thought they were special–they were actually that special).

This morning I was listening to Z100 in the morning.  If you’ve never done this, good for you.  If you have, you might know of something called getting “phone tapped,” which in Z100 speak means getting set up to be crank-called by the station.  Here’s an example of one in which a high school senior, Ashley, gets Danielle from the station to pose as a school administrator, call Ashley’s mom, and report that Ashley won’t be graduating.  Trust me; this one, as painful as it is to listen to, is one of the funny ones.

This morning, however, I had my…there’s no other way to put it…adult moment.  Some kid got Danielle (I believe) to call the kid’s dad and pretend to be a girlfriend with whom he’d just crashed the dad’s car on the highway.  [Note how even my language, “Some kid…” reveals my old-man bias]  The father listens in horror as “Monica” tells him how she was fooling around with his son, which led to his son getting into an accident somewhere on ’95, that no one’s hurt but the car is totaled.  She then she starts singing along to the radio.  I tried to find parts, any parts, funny.  I felt a little twitch up in my mouth when Monica started shushing the Dad, who was swearing at her, so she could hear the song that was playing.  In some sick way that was, yes, comedy.  But I had to accept a fact.  Not a single shred of my personality identified with this kid, or this station, or this type of humor.  All I could do was think about the Dad and what he was going through, how his son could put him through that kind of heartache just for a radio prank.

And many of my readers will agree with me, which is as it should be.  But I don’t wholly agree with myself.  We can feel superior as adults for having empathy, compassion, common sense, decency, whatever Jeffersonian term of our choosing (who was more adult than the Founding Fathers?).  But we’re also losing something when we cross this threshold.  We lose the feeling that we’re the most important people in the world, that the world is placed here for us to enjoy, to love, to twist and mangle and then put back together.  We lose our Puck and take on Oberon, and while that is natural and good, it is also, in another real sense extremely upsetting and sad.  A door is closing behind us and we can never, ever go back to the room we left.  It’s aroom where we were the center of it all, where laughter ruled, where a fall night could mean a meal up in a tree with a neighborhood friend, or a summer could mean dirt, sun and friends, instead of work, e-reservations, childcare, self-improvement, and all the great things that come with being an adult.  It’s going, going, gone, and we have to deal with that.  But we can still shout to the rooftops that we’re not happy about it!

I’m wondering if any FOOS (Fellow Occupiers Of Special land) would like to share a moment when they felt utterly, hopelessly, bitter-sweetly but undeniably…adult.

A short film named for us!

still from "Nothing Special"

Presenting my son Jesus

Rarely has an artist captured the pain of “Specialness” so eloquently as does Helena Brooks in her Cannes-featured short film, “Nothing Special.”  In it, Billy’s mother literally believes him to be Jesus.

FOOS (Fellow Occupiers of SpecialLand), like Woody Allen is to neurotic narcissism, and Spielberg is to stories about lost children meeting aliens and/or robots, so Brooks is the modern-day chronicler of Specialness.

This film is for us! (and the title’s not too shabby)

Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn

We have to give a big shout out to our friends at OTBKB.  Being aware that “Specialness” is a syndrome that affects Brooklynites at a particularly high level, they featured us last week and helped spread the gospel of mediocrity.


The newest from the author of “Prospect Park West,” noted on OTBKB

OTBKB is a blog that covers “hyper-local” Brooklyn–the arts, politics, urban planning, parenting and on-the-spot news, edited with pizazz by Louise Crawford.  While its focus is the local, there are pieces that take on the broader world too; for example, this excellent write up of Reverend Daniel Meeter’s new ebook “Why Be a Christian (If No One Goes to Hell?).  I first met Rev. Meeter during the heady Howard Dean campaign days.  He talks about religion in terms of compassion, mutual respect, and the increase of civil/human rights.  Imagine that Mr. Ralph Reed!

We strongly recommend a trip to this great and diverse blog.  Then, once you’ve learned about all the amazing, cultural, active things going on in Brooklyn, and you feel completely overwhelmed that you should’ve created/planned/or at least attended them–hence decide to crawl back into bed, come back and see us!

Getting Fired from Johnny Rockets

You…are firing me??

Not everyone can say they’ve been “let go” from Johnny Rockets.

Your Nothing Special editor was in the Summer between his Sophomore and Junior years of college.  I was working as an intern/indentured servant while living at home in Maryland and needed some actual money to do anything.  They hired me at Johnny Rockets, Bethesda, which you may remember for its art-deco diner architecture and pull-out straw containers.  My managers were 1) Dawn, maternal and tender, 2) Cora, filled with utmost loathing for my guts.
It’s not exactly clear what set her off.  She would steal my tables.  She would glare at me.  One time, while I was mixing a malted, she yelled from the back room, “Daniel!”  I turned around to reply “What?”  There was silence in the restaurant.  Cora beckoned.

“First of all, don’t you EVER respond ‘what’ when I call your name!”

“What should I say?  I don’t understand.”

(Cora is off to take a table)

Smile of Death

In addition to having some problems at home, Cora may have had other reasons to resent the new employee.  I was sometimes slow.  I was headed back to college (Yale:() in the Fall.  Worst of all, I didn’t do every requirement of the Johnny Rockets handbook.  I didn’t like to pour the ketchup smiley face, figuring as a client I’d rather pour my own ketchup.  I didn’t like to automatically lift the circular straw dispenser for customers either.  If they wanted a straw, they’d take it.  I didn’t always have my white paper hat on straight.  I did, for the record, willingly agree to sing the select songs when they were played on the jukebox, and all in all I was not the worst waiter in the world (though my own mother and brother were kept waiting for a LONG time when dining and have never forgotten).
One day, about a month and a half after starting the job, I came into the back hallway to see that my name was not on the schedule for the next week.  Dawn was on duty.  I went to her matter-of-factly.

“Excuse me, Dawn? There must be some mistake.  I am available to work next week.”

“Daniel.  Why don’t you come into my office.”

And the tears started.  Just faintly at first–the nose twitch.  Then unhideable.  Dawn was very nice about it.  She said it was predominantly that I was the most recent hire. But there was no way to really soften the blow.  For a Special person, there’s only one thing worse than being fired.  It’s being fired from Johnny Rockets.

This is not “I lost my job at J.P. Morgan during the financial downturn,” or “I got busted because of an accounting scheme I came up with as CFO but really I’m pretty smart to have even been able to even understand what it is I did.”  This is not being let go from a school because of Mayor Bloomberg’s budget cuts or getting beaten out for a medical residency at Mass General.  This is being let go from a burger joint where they pour ketchup smiley faces.

As a small final remark, you’ll notice that Johnny Rockets Bethesda no longer exists, whereas Barnes and Noble, Bethesda, which did not fire Daniel but which he left on his own volition, is still going strong.  My dad has always said this is karma.  I don’t know if firing me was the sole reason Johnny Rockets Bethesda’s had to fold, but let’s just say it didn’t help.  As for Cora, wherever she may be, I thank her for teaching me the lesson that sometimes people dislike you for no clear identifiable reason.  And also that you’re not that special.

I invite my Fellow Occupiers of SpecialLand (FOOS) to use this sacred space and share with us any experiences you’ve had of being fired from a place you never thought you’d want to work in the first place.  Let the healing begin.

Next week in Nothing Special:  Wanting at some point in your life to have an email with disclosure/privacy warnings at the bottom.

Disruption: Where Specialness meets the Business World

Clayton Christensen–pioneer of the Unspecial

In reading an article on business guru Clayton Christensen from the May 14th Issue of the New Yorker (oh don’t pretend that you’re current with your New Yorkers–one and a half months ago isn’t so bad!), it became clear to us how prevalent the idea of “Specialness” had become in our culture.  Yes there are the outward signs, such as David McCullough Jr. proclaiming “You’re not special.  You are not exceptional” to graduating seniors which we’ve discussed here, but there are also more subtle signs, such as those that appear in Larissa MacFarquhar’s article.

Utah’s Emblem

What do you think a master of commerce like Christensen, famous for the 1997 book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma” which became a bible for organizations from Intel, to Microsoft, to the Pentagon, would have to do with our humble blog?  A hard-working Mormon who grew up poor in Salt Lake City and chose Brigham Young over Harvard, the Biz Wiz doesn’t seem to have any of the tell-tale signs of specialness.  (Remember that the emblem of Utah is the beehive, a colony where all workers are equal and must work for the good of the whole).  But that is exactly what helped Christensen come up with the key insight that would make him famous: disruption.

It goes like this.  At some point, no matter the industry, a cheaper, low-end product will come along that disrupts the high end (think cell-phone cameras and how they disrupted better quality digital cameras).  The disruptive technology product is always technically inferior than the market leader (VHS, Hyundai, or Christensen’s favorite example, rebar produced by mini steal mills) and sells for a lower profit margin.  Almost always, the higher-end product is happy to concede low-end business to these scrappy disruptors, as the giant integrated mills did to the mini mills; only later do the high-end companies realize that the disruptors have climbed up market and swallowed them up.  It might not seem like a revolutionary concept, but laying the argument out in print was enough to convince hundreds of top companies to set up scrappy, autonomous sub-shops on separate continents to “disrupt” themselves, rather than letting a competitor do so.

Christensen’s ideas extend to our personal lives as well.  He compares today’s companies’ tendency to outsource and forget the basics, to the way some of his students are being raised today.  While Christensen and his wife bought “two wrecks of houses” where his children learned to sheetrock, plaster and paint, he understands that may of his current (read Special!) Harvard Business School students would consider these skills unnecessary.

“Wanting their children to spend their extracurricular hours in the most profitable way, [parents] would pay for lessons and smart, enriching activities, and they would outsource the low-end, dumb tasks like mowing the lawn and mending clothes, and the children would grow up without knowing how to solve practical problems by themselves, or do something they didn’t enjoy or thought they weren’t going to be good at.”

Raise your hand if you don’t know how to sew on a button!  Or if you remember one of our most terrifying and gut-wrenching posts ever on this blog, Putting up a Shelf Using Winged Anchors!! (psycho music plays).

Of course none of this means that every parent must put his kid through shop class (that will come in a later post).  It does mean that as parents and teachers, we must encourage our kids to be disruptors: to not be precious about what they create: to value work done by the electrician as much as by the movie star, even though the electrician’s paid less.  If we raise our kids to know how a shoe is made, not only how to draw it and write poems about it, we remove so much fear of being incompetent, inadequate, or unspecial later in life.  Kids learn to be comfortable thinking outside the box when they understand what’s inside the box.  They will dare to disrupt their own thoughts of Specialness with seemingly “dumb” ideas that actually come from a practical place.  They will be like the tiny, independent company Apple sets up in Finland to take all the knowledge Apple has and create something simpler, easier, more practical and eventually market dominant.

Even in Christensen’s mistakes lie the proof of his theory of disruptions.  According to MacFarquhar, he was laughed at for thinking that the i-phone was doomed–too fancy for the cellphone market.  What he didn’t understand was that the i-phone wasn’t going to be disruptive to the cellphone market.  It was going to be disruptive to laptop computers.

“You Are Not Special” commencement speech


Higher Authority on Specialness

This high school teacher, David McCullough Jr., has truly been reading our blog.

On June 7th, McCullough Jr., a Wellesley High English teacher, proclaimed to students:

“You are not special. You are not exceptional…
Contrary to what your u9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special.”

He even took our blog title!

Despite the fact, though, that he’s clearly been influenced by us, and the fact that he drags our dear Baltimore Orioles into a discussion on marriage  (“statistics tell us half of you will get divorced. A winning percentage like that’ll get you last place in the American League East (The Baltimore Orioles do better than weddings)” he none the less has given a remarkable speech.  He has taken the moment expected to be a high point of self-confidence and achievement, and stuck a needle in the balloon.  Among my favorite lines of McCullough’s, “Even if you’re “one in a million,” on a planet of 6.8 billion, that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you.”  These kids would be very wise to listen.  If only he had spoken at my graduation.  Wait a second–I spoke at my graduation!  And I told everyone we could be special so long as we stayed in the Zone…  I might have contributed to making us feel more special.

From Editor’s high school graduation speech, “The Zone”:

The zone is the state of mind where nothing else matters except the present.  You are completely alive in the zone, stripped of what [GDS improv/mime teacher] Andrea Oram would call the “coulda woulda shoulda.”  There is no “I should never have worn these socks,” or “If I had only stuck with my first  impression and gone to Harvey Mudd, everything would have been different,” or “I shoulda written about something else—this speech is really  lame.”  It is, in its purest form, an incredible natural rush, a feeling of success, confidence and satisfaction with the way life is.  Do you know that a baboon lives its whole life in the zone?  Sure—it can’t doubt what it did yesterday, or worry about how awkward its conversation is going, or think back to when it was in is prime—it’s far too “unintelligent.”….

We are all Hamlet, beating at the doors of the zone, but pushing ourselves farther away with each knock.  None of us knows exactly how to obtain the zone, but that doesn’t mean we won’t get there.  As I get older it becomes so much harder to get in the zone[1] but when you’re there, what a rush!  You are pitching, or playing the violin, or holding hands, or watching “Evita” or doing math, and you slip through the bounds of time into [James] Joyce’s horizontal universe.

[1] Wait till you’re past 30.

Ignoring the pretentious James Joyce reference for the moment, look at how I told everyone that as long as you can stay in the moment, you will live in that special Zone, and you will be joyous.  What about all the time when you’re not in the moment?  When you’re not feeling great about yourself?  When you can’t take a step without thinking, “Why did I choose that?”  “Why didn’t I go for that?” Why don’t I come through?” “Why is everyone else better than I am at this or at least more organized?” What do we do then?  David McCullough Jr., in his high school commencement address, takes on this issue.  David McCullough Jr., I bow to a higher authority.  I humble myself before thee!  Just as you say, I am not speeeeciallllll!

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