You are what you eat, but so's the panther

Welcome to a special series of articles on winning, losing, succeeding, failing, ascending, descending and living to tell the tales.

By Douglas Cruickshank
Published April 23, 2001 6:25PM (EDT)

I don't care when you were a kid, if you're old enough to read this, you can remember a time when the word "downturn" wasn't in the headlines every five minutes. Most of those headlines announce stories about business or the economy, but downturns and "upturns" (a word that hasn't had as much play lately) occur all across our lives, though we civilians simply think of those times as periods of success and failure -- if we think of them at all. In the case of failure, generally we try not to, with varying degrees of success.

One of the most popular poster boys for life's upturns and downturns, Oscar Wilde, had an aphorism for every occasion, all of which have now lived more than twice as long as he did. He coined a particularly wicked one on the subject of success and failure: "In this world there are only two tragedies," he said. "One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it." He got both -- in spades. It's a wicked remark because the more you think about it, the truer it becomes, and not in a comfortable way.

When you drill down into the ideas of success and failure it's hard to say which is better, which is the more desirable, which one we truly want the most. There are situations, of course, where the choice is clear. For example, if one's about to be eaten by an enraged panther, it's safe to say that all of us would very, very much want to succeed at not being eaten by said panther, or even nibbled. We would want that snappish, out-of-sorts panther to fail completely, in an unquestionable, decisive failure.

But once you wander into murkier situations, such as friendship, sex, career, child rearing or gauging the arc of our lives against those of our parents, things get complicated. Murky situations, though, are what keep life interesting, which is why you'll want to read the stories we're publishing in Salon People this week on the subject of life's upturns and downturns, successes and failures. On Monday, Jennifer Sweeney looks at parenting through that lens. On Tuesday, Cary Tennis considers the upturns and downturns of his own life, his father's and his mother's and how the three intersect. Jose Klein's and King Kaufman's pieces on the two tragedies as played out in sports appear on Wednesday. Thursday, Chris Colin takes it into space with his article on Mir. And the series wraps up on Friday with Karen Croft's essay on sex and Carina Chocano's article on friendship.

Visit Salon People every day this week to be brought up, brought down and turned all around. And if the whole idea of success and failure already has your head swimming, remember that there are still myriad situations (hint: panther) where the choice between the two is simplicity itself. Or perhaps you'll find comfort in another aphorism, this one from Logan Pearsall Smith: "How can they say my life isn't a success?" he asked. "Have I not for more than sixty years got enough to eat and escaped being eaten?"

Douglas Cruickshank

Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon. For more articles by Cruickshank, visit his archive.

MORE FROM Douglas Cruickshank

Related Topics ------------------------------------------