The Agony of Self-Defeat

Posted on: October 17, 2009
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By Ash Krafton.

What is the sound that one makes at the exact moment she learns she made a tremendously stupid mistake? And how is it spelled?

I’m not talking serious, life-threatening, world-altering mistakes such as “I just blew my house up” or “I think I released a biochemical toxin that will decimate half the state” or “Whoops! That was my boss driving the car who cut me off and received my middle finger in reply and crap, my review is next week.”

Those kinds of mistakes usually result in no uttered sounds at all—only the gravity-well of despair that opens up somewhere below your stomach, one that sucks up life and hope and peace but never, ironically, our miserable life.

We know them as eerie silences where even the crickets are too afraid to chirp.

No, I’m not talking about those kinds of mistakes. Those are too gloomy. I am not a gloomy person—I’m more the cheerfully-depressed kind. I see dark and shadow and cloud and I giggle because either some emo kid is praying for lightning to strike someone or somebody’s dog is about to get squirrelly. Black is the new funny.

I’m talking those kinds of mistakes that, if someone notices (and many times they don’t, but at the time, that escape clause does little to assuage the situation), you are going to look like a tremendous fool.

Most people are okay with looking like an fool every once in a while. These include the lazy, self-centered hillbillies who don’t give a flannel-shirted damn what people think because hello? they are da bomb, regardless that on any given day any one of them could show up on You Tube and fail to comprehend why the rest of us are laughing.

These people also include the extremely well-balanced folk who take the good, take the bad, take them both and there you have a great big I’M OKAY! kind of recovery from any sort of mishap. A small percentage of this type includes my husband, who would fall under the subheading of WHO CARES? despite being a Catholic whose eternal salvation hinges on each breath.

I’m not either type. There’s no water-rolling-off-a-turtle’s-back or no-big-deal or any other cliché that could save me from wanting to pummel myself for a could-have-been-prevented dumb mistake. If any pain can be harvested from any sort of upset, I farm that bugger until the earth cries to be salted.

I guess it’s karma. I have a critical eye and can get quite vocal about it. I don’t think snarky is a strong enough word. Anyone know the next word up from that? Preferably something that implies my words can peel paint?

At any rate, I tend to expect a lot from the people around me—family, friends, neighbors, and passersby all to equal extent. I don’t believe Mankind should be content to muck on by with a Nobody’s Perfect attitude. Living takes effort. Anyone content to merely exist had better give away all their worldly possessions and find a nice, secluded patch of woods to exist in so that they don’t trip up the rest of civilization with their loads of Don’t Mind Me-ness.

Because I tend to mind them. A lot.

Hence, it’s only fair that I expect tremendous amounts of effort from myself. I might be a lot of things, but I’m not a hypocrite. Naturally, I can kick myself in the head whenever I fall slightly short of my stick-up-the-hind-end expectations.

I remember my first real self-berating. The husband (who was then still the boyfriend) and I had recently turned twenty-one. We lived in Philadelphia at the time, so one day we headed to Atlantic City to play some slots and obtain a sunburn on the caustic, OMG-is-that-a-syringe? yucky beach. Hey, anything to escape city heat.

We played quarter games and nickel slots before sitting down for video poker, somehow managing to break even. As we got down to the last of our playing money, I dealt a one-bet hand and was given four of a kind. Woo-hoo!

You know the rush when you’re handed a win like that? It makes one giddy with elation. Trouble is, giddy is another word for light-headedness, and light-headedness often leads to not being able to think straight. I punched my buttons and clapped, waiting for the sweet sounds of clanking quarters. Which I did hear, I guess, although not from the tray of the machine in front of me.

I’d hit the wrong buttons.

I threw away the four Jacks and kept my fantastic three of diamonds. I responded by making the sound that one makes at the exact moment she learns she made a tremendously stupid mistake, and continued to make that noise at regular intervals over the next several days, every time I thought of that crystalline moment of OH NO I DIDN’T.

There’s been plenty of moments since, although I remember that one the best. Some I let go because there are simply only so many moments one can’t yell at herself for. Some I let go because I went through a period of using prescription anti-anxiety medication. Some just happen because karma or God or the dust on my windowsill insists on reminding me I’m human. I don’t need the help, thanks.

Lately I’ve had a spurt of these moments. Usually they pop up whenever I sit down to query an agent. Querying is stressful work—much more stressful than writing a book. I started with a round of email queries and had to stop because I would hit the send button on a meticulously-crafted submission and then have to get up and walk around the room until the nerves stopped jangling. Once it sends, there’s no pulling it back.

Eventually, I decided to snail mail instead. Less stress. I even got a fancy-smancy laser printer and 24-lb paper to query upon. If I had to open an envelope to double-check everything again, no big. Right?

I did two beautiful queries to the agents of my favorite authors, packaged them up in smart Priority flat-rate envelopes, printed online postage and felt very pleased with the results. Then I thought, why not query two more agents using their online submission forms? It’d be worlds easier than the effort I put into with the snail-mail ones. Copy, paste, print, and send.

Remember the stress of hitting a send button? Kapow. Right between my eyebrows. Added bonus was the OH CRAP moment when I happened to look at the printout afterwards.

See, a few weeks ago my protagonist got tired of being called an elephant in the living room and had her last name changed. Apparently, people in books should not have the same name as anyone on the planet, living, dead, or otherwise. She was smart enough to change her name in all public records but somehow missed my 500-word version of the synopsis.

Seeing her former last name on the sheets resulted in me delivering a sharp slap to my forehead and making the sound that one makes at the exact moment she learns she made a tremendously stupid mistake.

The sound emerged again when I double-checked one of the paper submission files. Sure enough, I ended up ripping open the envelope and salvaging the postal label. (Sigh.)

There will be plenty more of these moments, I’m sure. One day I will pay close attention to the sound that one makes at the exact moment she learns she made a tremendously stupid mistake. I’ve never been able to duplicate it under test conditions, so I must observe a wild one, in which case I’ll be sure to share my findings with the world. It’s a tremendously big and awful feeling, so I’m sure the sound-word-whatever you’d call audible pain is a tremendously awesome thing in and of itself.

For what we go through to make it, it better be.



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