Just for defecation and sniggers, let’s pretend that you and I are not as successful as we intended to be. (Okay? Go along with it. It won’t hurt.)

I know you have always wanted to know why you have not won an Oscar or rated a Pulitzer or a Nobel or been elected President of something nobody thought you ought to be president of. I think I may have the answer for why. It is not our fault.

It is the nuisance ability.

Hunh? How can an ability be a nuisance?

Back in the mid 1960’s I was a teacher at a very good prep school for young men. One of these guys under my watchful eye was having some problems with his math grades and his parents ordered up a two-day series of tests designed to measure his academic and psychological strengths and weaknesses to gather suggestions for long-term education and career goals. For example, if you hate food and don’t eat much and can’t stand being precise with things, maybe being a chef would be a waste of your lack of skills.

Well, this young student shared his results with me and that is where I read a most peculiar term: “Nuisance Abilities”. Wow, I thought to myself. I would have said WTF if that had been invented by then. I asked young (let’s call him) Scott what on earth they were. Was that some crazy invention designed to snag cash from eager middleclass parents with disposable income?

Nope. Not at all. They really exist. And the odds are (if you have the time and inclination to read this rambling) you have a whole bunch of them.

Let’s take Pseudonymous Scott’s case for an example. He scored very high in the area of computational skills. (I never did…ever. But Scott was way up there.) In other words there was no logical reason for Scott crashing and burning on his math quizzes—all things being equal…like he wasn’t trying to get thrown out because he hated the school.

But that is where the examiner/consultant/shrink declared that Scott had a very strong “nuisance ability” which kept interfering with his process while doing the math thing he was supposed to be so good at. (Remember that adolescent brains are not completely formed so do not expect them to be able to note these skills alone and tell them not to bother them while they find the square root of a hyponoid.)

Scott’s finely tuned ear and musical sensibilities were about 10 or 20% weaker than his math skills. They were his significant nuisances. Not good enough to make him famous, but bothersome enough to keep him from being able to concentrate on a lengthy math proof. (That was the theory and I still like it. I have no idea if it has now been declared bullshit.) There Scott would be, working like Paul Bunyan in a forest, swacking fractions and strangling logarithms. When to his sensitive ear would appear, but the tinkling and ringing of eight tiny birdsongs, dear. Just when he needed to invert the decimal, he multiplied it by itself.

What has Scott’s life got to do with you, dear readers? (You know who the 3 of you are and so do I.) Well, the reason you and I are not on the “A” List anywhere is that we probably have these like incredibly potent other skills besides being great lovemakers, poets, writers or singers—like just when we are on the cusp, the lip, the thin edge of greatness, we are distracted by the remembered scent of a boyfriend from last summer, a girlfriend from 5th grade, a Shakespearean pun instead of a color wheel, the taste of fried Spam from 1944.

BOOM! As always happens, that great chord, idea, note, landscape, theorem, cancer pill, flies like a Hummingbird protecting a feeder against a persistent female.

I don’t know about you, but my life is drowning in “Look, a squirrel!” cries.

I have an excuse. I used to be a nuisance. Now I have one.

Be well. Are you wearing Chanel#5? Ooops.


The great and hugely original Jonathan Winters used to do a bit he called his vest pocket Broadway musical. It was a deliciously loving one man send-up of musicals of the 40’s and 50’s with a male lead who sounded like John Raitt on steroids. This All-American butch leading man was a farm boy who dreamed (musically) of going to the big city where he’d get a job at an aircraft factory. “Why, I’ll work on a plane that’s already finished,” Winters cooed. His aria promised he’d have a stamp pad and put a stamp on the aluminum and send the bird up into the sky.

Something in my crazy adolescent brain loved the idea of working on a project that was already finished. As a result, much of my adult life was spent learning over and over again that nobody would ever pay me to pretend to work on something other people had already made.

The big writers, millionaires, entrepreneurs and movie stars of my youth were all grownups, most of whom had spent years as apprentices, working their way up the stairway to career heaven. Very few of them worked on planes that were already finished.

Sad to say, the last 20 years or so have seen the old system turned on its head. Evidently the youth market has gobbled up movies, music, electronics, and publishing to the point where it appears that some kings and queens of stardom are making Jonathan Winters’ dream come true. Heaven forefend that I resent the apparently foreshortened path Lindsay Lohan took in a Jetstream-fueled version of Judy Garland’s sad trajectory….

But, as I scan the culture at large, I sense a widespread youth assumption that stardom and billionaireness is one 8×10 glossy or one improvised hip-hop poem or IPhone app away from anyone. (Shades of the old myth that any child can grow up to be President.) Law school grads want six figures to start, tall high-schoolers go to sleep dreaming of multi million dollar graduation presents from the NBA, and anyone who doesn’t run a major TV network by age 30 is a failure.

In some ways I guess my childhood friend Peter Fonda was in on the ground floor of the revolution with his pal Dennis Hopper and Easy Rider– an indie smash that heralded phase one of the grownups asking (instead of telling) the kids what was going to be a hit….

I wish these early bloomers, as my late mom would have called them, would stop making it look so easy, giving their peers and younger fans the mistaken impression that learning the craft (whatever it might be), making loads of mistakes, working like a mad demon, failing in public, and internalizing a host of unknowables, can be skipped.

But, then, I was told many years ago that any sentence that begins with the words “I wish” was the height of immaturity.

I still have a lot of growing up to do.