My iPhone has a pre-programmed filter that a subversive Foxconn employee in China installed. It ensures that stress-inducing emails and texts only arrive during those few moments a day when I’m trying to escape technology’s clutches. This results in a barrage of blood pressure-escalating communiques when I’m eating lunch and at 4:57 PM. It also seems to save the most profoundly life-altering messages for Friday afternoons.
So when my phone vibrated while I was eating lunch last Wednesday, I felt my stomach sink. I had, after all, waited until 2 PM to go to the pizzeria, convinced that the filter couldn’t determine the actual time that I decided to take my food break. But Mr. Foxconn was apparently more clever than I had imagined.
I looked at the screen and grimaced in annoyance. The message was from my son, Max, who was in school. This Christmas, my wife and I had reversed our decision to deny Max a smartphone with a full-blown data plan. We had handed him this portal to peer acceptance on the condition that he not use it while in class.
But he’s 13, so our clear instructions had, like so many edicts given to a 13-year-old, fallen into the vast gulf that separates hearing a parental directive from complying with it. A virtually endless list of “important” or “emergency” situations in Max’s head apparently trumped our rule.
I chewed my pizza slice while trying to read Max’s message, wondering if the person I was speaking to could hear the sound of me eating. She seemed to be understanding what I was saying and the pizza crust was soft, not crispy. I concluded that I was the chewing equivalent of a stealth bomber.
Max’s text read, “Hey, I’m not gonna audition bc I hate the pressure and stuff.”
He quickly followed it with a second message: “And I have math and Spanish quiz tomorrow.”
I glanced at my watch and confirmed that the school day didn’t end for another 30 minutes, at which time he was supposed to audition for the middle school play. I wondered why he suddenly wanted to punt on this event.
For Max to skip an audition so that he could study math and Spanish would be akin to him passing up an in-person meeting with Dave Grohl because the lawn needed mowing. This is a kid who once convinced us to drive him into Manhattan for an open audition at Radio City Music hall for a dancing part before he had taken any dance lessons. I needed to piece together this mystery.
My phone conversation ended and I turned my attention to punching out a response, my greasy fingertips smearing the pristine Gorilla glass.
“Why wouldn’t you try out?”
The response came back seconds later: “Bc I’m prob gonna not get it and be upset.”
I heard an alarm going off in my head. I knew that answer. Staring at the words, a jolt shook me as I realized that I could have written them. I’ve undoubtedly thought them hundreds of times over the last three decades.
Trying to separate Max’s issues from mine, I carefully typed in my reply.
“I am not a big fan of you not trying things because u r afraid you might fail.”
I hit “send”, wondering why I use text shorthand and full words interchangeably, often within the same message. I concluded that it has to do with the fact that I’m an old guy playing with young people’s technology, and I have an unconscious resistance to progress that manifests as a half-assed effort to use lingo that strikes me as simultaneously convenient and dumb. While I turn this profound thought about my lameness over in my head, my phone vibrates again.
“But I don’t wanna get excited and not get it. If I want a lead I rele need [voice] lessons.”
As I read it, I heard countless echoes of the same sentiment rattle inside my head. “I don’t want to learn to ride a bike with one leg – too much customization of the bike and the prosthesis.” “I don’t want to relearn how to ski – lift tickets are too much and it’s a drag to get to a decent mountain.” “I don’t want to offer this solution to the business problem – there are people in the room who are smarter than me who will gun it down.” All excuses to avoid doing something for one simple reason: fear.
I suddenly saw Max’s future laid out before him. He would never take that risk, make that leap that depends on equal parts faith and passion. He would end up working in a cubicle under omnipresent flourescent lights, wearing a short sleeve button-down shirt and brown tie that ends four inches above his belt. He would return home at night and heat a microwaveable dinner while watching reality TV to drown out the crushing reality that he had always done what was “right” and “safe” because it protected him from the psychic trauma of failure.
Convinced that my son’s entire future hung in the balance, I typed my answer.
“I really think u should try out max. You r good! And u sing better than most guys your age.”
A few minutes passed. I started at the blank phone screen, waiting for it to signal to me whether I would be forever judged a failure or success as a father. I wondered if the Foxconn worker had also maliciously planted a parental-success-monitoring app that would magically give me a passing or failing grade after I received Max’s answer.
I breathed a sigh of relief when the screen lit up and Max said he’d go through with the audition. But relief quickly reverted to crisis containment when Max called home an hour later to let us know that he was done and needed to be picked up. The disappointment dripped from his voice when I asked him how he did: “I don’t wanna talk about it.”
He returned home and went straight upstairs to the bedroom, the door closing with a finality that convinced me he was going to don the too-short brown tie he didn’t yet own that very night and never take it off again. In hushed tones I spoke with Cara, trying to glean what had happened at the audition.
I stayed out of Max’s way until that night, at which time I tried to impart fatherly wisdom in a manner that wouldn’t become the subject of a mocking documentary 20 years later.
“Max – you know I’m proud of you, right?”
[Sullen look in response]
“Look, even if you did blow the audition, you did something that takes tons of courage. If you hadn’t done this, you would have been kicking yourself the rest of the year. At least you had the guts to stand up and give it a shot.”
[Sullen goes to sadness]
“And besides, it doesn’t sound like it went nearly as badly as you thought it did. When we walk out of these things, we only focus on what it is that we messed up. But remember that how you did is less important than the fact that you tried it in the first place.”
Max remained silent and I imagined him writing all of these pathetic platitudes down in a notebook for future analysis by the psychotherapist who would try to reconstruct the shattered pieces of his youth into a patchwork sufficient to allow him to survive adulthood. I started again.
“I don’t know that I have an experience that I can directly compare to what you’re going through, Max. But I have done stuff and failed.”
[Looks up.] “Like what?”
I took him through my most crushing failures, those instances where I had to risk something and crashed to earth with cataclysmic results. I shared with him my fairly simple and clichéd view of life – in particular, the value of persevering through adversity to learn who you really are. (I could see the self-help book with catch-phrase title in the discount bin of the bookstore as I offered Max this banality.)
By the end of my recitation, Max had moved out of his catatonic state, and we each went to bed feeling slightly less miserable than we had at the beginning of the conversation.
* * *
At 2:30 the next afternoon, I was again on the phone with a business associate when Max called. I clicked over to him to hear him say, “Dad, hang on a second, I’m getting on the school bus.”
With the other caller still waiting on me and hearing nothing other than the noise of middle school students in the background, my frustration quickly rose. Why would Max call me only to make me wait while he announced his mode of transportation home?
“Max, c’mon man,” I said. “I’ve got someone else waiting on the line on a business call.” And then the words came pouring out, Max announcing that he had scored a great role that he hadn’t anticipated getting. His voice raced with excitement and pride.
My first thought was, “I told you so!”, but I checked myself. This was his victory, not mine.
* * *
Two weeks ago I wrote about my own unwillingness to do certain things because of my fear of failure. Last week, I talked about how much fun I had playing (badly) in a softball game, something I hadn’t done since my accident. This week, I got to see the same situation from yet another vantage point.
It was easy for me to tell Max to risk the audition – it wasn’t me who would fail if it went badly. He stepped up and, I hope, learned a valuable lesson.
In 2012, I’ve made a point of trying to walk the walk myself, both personally and professionally. Some of the choices I’ve made already this year have scared the hell out of me because failure lurks in the background, visible if I focus on it. But now when my resolve falters, when I think about backing off, I’ll remind myself of a simple truth: like Max, I need to go through with the audition.