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Oops: 20 Life Lessons from the Fiascoes That Shaped America
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Oops: 20 Life Lessons from the Fiascoes That Shaped America

by Martin J. Smith, Patrick J. Kiger

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Americans' failures are as spectacular as their successes: bridges that collapse; flying cars that crash; sports promotions run amok; deodorant that nearly destroyed the earth; and even failures that failed to happen!

Veteran journalists Martin J. Smith and Patrick J. Kiger select twenty miscues, goofs, complications, and failures that shaped modern America


Americans' failures are as spectacular as their successes: bridges that collapse; flying cars that crash; sports promotions run amok; deodorant that nearly destroyed the earth; and even failures that failed to happen!

Veteran journalists Martin J. Smith and Patrick J. Kiger select twenty miscues, goofs, complications, and failures that shaped modern America and reveal the life lessons these gaffes teach, including:

  • Accentuate the Positive: How Thomas Edison Invented Trash Talk
  • Understand the Market: The 1967 Monkees–Jimi Hendrix Concert Tour
  • Desperation Is the Cradle of Bad Ideas: Cleveland Indians' Ten-Cent Beer Night
  • Sweat the Details: The Sixty-Story John Hancock Guillotine

Enriched by handy clip-'n'-save "Recipes for Disaster," Oops proves that when it comes to failure, truth is stranger than fiction!

Editorial Reviews

Los Angeles Times
“Informative, entertaining, and. . .educational”
Daily Breeze
“A playful look at 20 gargantuan gaffes in American history”
Sacramento Bee
“Life is full of bad ideas, and Oops explores the best of the worst.”
Publishers Weekly
Although its composition seems occasionally arbitrary, this addition to the weird history subgenre is as informative as it is entertaining. Smith and Kiger (Poplorica) take 20 of American history's biggest "flops, goofs, misjudgments, and fiascoes" (mainly from the 20th century) and attempt to extract a "meaningful lesson" from each, the latter more difficult than simply telling an embarrassing story. For instance, "Beware Solutions That Create New Problems" profiles Thomas Midgeley, the innovator who added poisonous lead to gasoline and invented ozone-killing CFCs, which made him responsible for more atmospheric damage than any other man in history. Most enjoyable are the chapters on jaw-droppingly ridiculous decisions, such as Jimi Hendrix opening for the Monkees in 1967 or the 1974 Cleveland Indians' 10-cent beer night that turned into one of pro sports' ugliest riots. Some subjects seem more like misguided incidents than fiascoes (e.g., inventors' unending quest for a flying car, the Y2K scare), but there are plenty of corkers, like the hubristic flameout that was the football-wrestling hybrid XFL. A "bonus" chapter crams in other goodies for a nice finish, from the well known (e.g., the CIA's Castro assassination plots) to the obscure (e.g., equine sushi ice cream). (Mar.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.68(d)

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20 Life Lessons from the Fiascoes That Shaped America
By Martin Smith

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Martin Smith
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060780835

Chapter One

Lesson # One
Read The Fine Print

the eroto-utopians of upstate new york

John Humphrey Noyes's sexually adventurous Perfectionist commune was one of the most successful utopian religious groups in 19th-century America. Alas, the devil was in the details.

If you found yourself living near Putney, Vermont, in 1847, it would have been hard to ignore the gossip that was rampant in local sewing circles, and harder still to resist the temptation to ask a few curious questions. For the past six years, John Humphrey Noyes, a local boy and renegade former licensee of the Yale Theological School, had been leading a rather unorthodox Christian community in that orthodox New England town. Utopian experiments weren't unusual during that period; similar groups such as the Shakers and the Mormons were just getting started as well. But Noyes's "Perfectionist" gospel had a particularly interesting twist -- its enthusiastic embrace of sex as a means of spiritual enlightenment.

In marketing terms, this is what later became known as a unique selling proposition. The Shakers had one, too, but they were pushing celibacy, a tough sell even inVictorian America, and certainly a deterrent to recruiting and a hindrance to longrange viability. The Mormons allowed men to take more than one wife, but not everyone saw that as a win-win. Noyes and the Perfectionists, on the other hand, were suggesting that the way to godliness was by doing the nasty -- early, often, and with a smorgasbord of willing and like-minded partners. Their approach to spirituality was built around a marginal theological concept that, in more ways than one, promised heaven on earth. By the end of 1846 at least four couples among Noyes's approximately forty followers were actually practicing the "complex marriage" system that they preached (including Noyes, his wife, two of his sisters, and their husbands), and in doing so they embarked on one of the most remarkable -- and controversial -- social experiments in American history.

But to the pious citizens of Putney in those fledgling days of Noyes's grand plan, the defrocked preacher appeared to be hosting a kinky Victorianera swingers' club under the convenient guise of religion. Even today, a skeptic might draw the same conclusion, especially after a recent revelation that Noyes once suggested that the Perfectionists could "conquer shame" by having sex onstage in front of an audience. The scandalous tales of spouse swapping and Noyes's unapologetic defense of complex marriage were enough to work the locals into a lather, and on October 25, 1847, a county court in Putney issued a writ for Noyes's arrest on two counts of adultery and "adulterous fornication." His arrest was preceded by dark threats and loose talk about lynch mobs in this life and eternal damnation in the next, and the controversy eventually prompted Noyes and his followers to flee Vermont for New York State, where they joined with another group of Perfectionists on land along Oneida Creek in Madison County to build what outsiders imagined was a 19th-century version of Plato's Retreat.

In fact, what came to be known as the Oneida Community was a much more complicated endeavor -- one that lasted for a remarkable thirty-two years but which ultimately proved unsustainable. That's not to say it was a complete failure; in fact, Noyes's experiment succeeded on many levels. The group gradually built a magnificent mansion complex in which to -house a population that at one point swelled to more than 250 people. The members fused into a community in the purest sense of the word, with an admirable and lively spirituality at its center. Smoking, drinking alcohol, and the consumption of coffee and tea were discouraged long before the health risks were known. The businesses the Perfectionists created to support themselves were quite successful, and often were run using the kind of enlightened labor practices -- safe working conditions, free transportation, generous wages -- that later became hallmarks of the nation's most dynamic 20th-century employers. The corporate manifestation of the original community, Oneida Ltd., remains one of the world's largest manufacturers of stainless steel and silver-plated flatware. Even critics at the time conceded that the Perfectionists seemed well-adjusted and upstanding, striving constantly for both self-improvement and selflessness.

But anyone tempted by craven lust to pursue Noyes's Perfectionist ideals was in for a rude surprise. Noyes and his free-loving followers didn't just approach the practice of sex with sacramental zeal; they applied such a dizzying array of arcane rules to its practice that it's not hard to imagine bewildered new recruits to Perfectionism as first-time car buyers, dazzled by a shiny new toy on the showroom floor, but suddenly sobered by their loan documents and wondering, "Just what have I gotten myself into -here?"

What from the outside may have seemed like a nonstop orgy was, in fact, something quite different. Membership in Noyes's group involved one of the most mind-boggling social contracts ever imagined, and potential "joiners" lured by leering fantasies of a varied and unlimited sex life at Oneida were well-advised to read its fine print. The devil, it turns out, was in the details.

In the Beginning . . .

The spiritual seeking that took place in pre-Civil War America was a lot like the New Age movement of the 1980s, minus the crystals and sensory-deprivation tanks. Noyes and his Perfectionists were an extreme expression of the great American idea of the 1840s that New Worlders could transcend the ancestral European model, devise their own indigenous philosophy, and create their own perfect society -- if they could just come up with the right rules and stick to them. The idea still flourishes in American culture, as demonstrated by any Anthony Robbins infomercial or Dr. Phil television special.

But the movements that flourished during the 1830s and 1840s were efforts to create something new from the nation's religious and social diversity, and New York State became the same kind of magnet for utopian kookiness and alternative lifestyles that California did a century later.


Excerpted from Oops by Martin Smith Copyright © 2006 by Martin Smith. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Martin J. Smith is an award-winning journalist and magazine editor. He is a senior editor at the Los Angeles Times Magazine and lives with his family in southern California.

Patrick J. Kiger is a journalist whose articles have appeared in GQ, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, and other publications. He lives near Washington, D.C.

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