Success Is in the Eye of the Beholder

What did Mrs. Attila the Hun say when Attila came in from work?

“Hi, hon.”

I tell you this not to make you laugh. (You didn’t, did you?) I am not in the make-you-laugh biz. I am in the make-you-take-a-good-long-look-at-your-wretched-existence biz. But that’s an easy job.

We are all clearly aware of our wretched existences. That’s why we have always needed glamorous people to make our lives bearable . . . people like Attila, Jack Kennedy and Demi Moore. We have always needed the fantasy that if we really wanted to, we could be king of the Huns, have the Secret Service arrange our love affairs or wear bicycle pants to the Academy Awards.


But behind every People magazine cover is a woman in plastic surgery and a man lifting weights. There is someone being told to say she cleans house in the nude and someone being told to look earnest. Someone being told to walk around with “A Brief History of Time” and someone being told to attend a Workout for the Homeless. Someone being advised to “act straight” and someone being advised to “think Jewish, look Gentile.”

Behind every conqueror and celebrity is someone who still has to come home and face the wife or the husband or the personal trainer.

Because I write in a newspaper, some people think I’m some kind of beautiful person living some kind of charmed life. Like being a writer will get the dishes done or stop my daughter from saying, “You are such a dork,” or get me the respect I deserve. “Hey, Wolfgang Puck, I’m a writer. Have you got a table for eight?”

I frequently meet people who tell me they are writers just like me. They sent in a story or a joke or a screenplay or a recipe once and got rejected. So they’re just like me, except they would prefer not to get rejected. I, of course, thrive on rejection and criticism.


What really drives me nuts--short trip though it may be--is when I see an old friend who says, “How does it feel to be a success?”

I have to stop and think: Is she talking to me? I don’t feel like a success. I feel like each day is an effort to fight that avalanche called failure that keeps racing toward me. I feel it most when something goes wrong for someone in my family that I can’t fix. But I also feel it when I just write something stupid.

And then I realize that the fantasy that I’m successful represents someone else’s dream that one day she’ll get it together. One day she’ll learn to love rejection like Alice Kahn, and then she’ll be a writer. Just like one day I’ll learn to wear bicycle pants like Demi Moore and be a movie star.

Or I’ll do something unforgettable like Attila. But what exactly did Attila do? I look him up. “Attila was called the Scourge of God,” it says.

That’s not an act. It’s a life style.

Before she leaves for school, I ask my daughter, “Do you know who Attila was?”

She thinks for a moment. “Wasn’t he King of the Hunchbacks?”

I call my husband at work. It’s 9 a.m. He’s been gone only an hour.


“What?” he says impatiently.

“What did Attila the Hun do?” I ask.

“Drugs? The Dirty Boogie? I don’t know,” he says.

“No, I mean what was he famous for?” I ask, letting him know that this is a serious inquiry and not a riddle.

“I believe his Hun-ness was most famous for the sack of Rome,” he says.

“Sack of Rome. That’s it? That’s what I thought. You think that if I keep grinding these things out, they’ll remember Alice the Babe in 1,536 years?”

“Actually, I always felt it was Attila’s contribution to linguistic pleasure that made him famous,” he says. He was on a roll now. “That’s why I always call him Attila the pun.”

“Bye, hon.”