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Cecil (on success)


Success is not being recognized as an absolute failure by too many people you’re not married to.  —Cecil D. Elliott


One of the wisest people I know died on June 16th, 2003.

At least fifteen years before that day, Cecil and I enjoyied a cocktail at the old Northern Exposure. Before 8 p.m. it was a simple dive bar, but after 8 it turned into a genuine biker bar where kookie academics like us were barely tolerated; the sort of bar where you didn’t risk ordering a manhattan for obvious reasons. I was probably drinking gin-and-tonics; straight bourbon for Professor Elliott. Incidentally, those were days when you could barely find a bar in Fargo or Moorhead where there weren’t architecture students as bar tenders. I suppose that’s one reason for choosing the Northern.

The other draw at the corner of Fourth Avenue North and Tenth Street was directly to the north: a terrific Chinese restaurant—notice I didn’t say buffet—called The Pearl. Elliott and I were such regular fixtures that the owner would call us when favorite menu items were in fresh supply. That night we’d received an alert that a particularly good batch of green beans had arrived, so the 8 o’clock witching hour entailed a simple shuffle across the street. In the meantime, however, I was distressed over something or other—rejection of a conference paper, a grant proposal, etc. I frankly don’t recall.

What I do recall, however, was Elliott’s pish-tush response to expressions of failure. “Failure?” he intoned between cigarette puffs (yes, smoking was still possible then), “Success is not being recognized as an absolute failure by too many people you’re not married to.” Read that sentence again to understand how many qualifications stand between you and failure. By that definition, ninety-eight percent of the planet is successful. Maybe more.

Those of you with origins in the Methodist tradition will recognize something Elliott called “the Epworth League Effect.” You’ve seen it: the stained glass window representing Jesus kneeling at the rock, praying to be relieved of his burden, as a heavenly shaft of light penetrates the night, bringing the answer he’d hoped to avoid. That night at a sleezy Fargo bar I experienced the Epworth League Effect: the acoustic ceiling tiles parted allowing a beam of light to illuminate Cecil. The words issuing from his mouth might just as well have come directly from God. It was a revelation. I understood this as a Moment for the Ages.

Grasping a napkin, scrambling for a pen, I scribbled Cecil’s quote, signed, dated it and put is safely in my wallet. After our Chinese repast and safely home (though still a bit tipsy), I saved the napkin in a file folder for posterity, to whit: “Success? Success is not being recognized as an absolute failure by too many people you’re not married to.”

Those moments—those Elliott moments—happened more often than you might imagine. We all had them now and then; in hindsight, too few and far between.

Oh, and not incidentally, June 16th also happens to be my grandmother’s birthday, another of the wiser people in my experience.

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