Archive for September, 2009

A plea to tolerate the screw-up

Every day brings new opportunities to screw up.

Every day brings new opportunities to screw up.

Not long ago, Yo Yo Ma famously left his $2.5 million Stradivarius cello behind in the trunk of a taxicab. With the help of the New York police and an alert taxi driver, Ma was able to retrieve what arguably is his most prized personal possession. He was lucky. As we know, life promises nothing and the story could have had a much less happy ending.

How can a human being lose the very thing his life depends on for his personal well-being? Actually, it’s a pretty easy thing to do.

A couple of years ago, my mother gave me thirty or forty poems she had written out longhand in Yiddish. She had had a creative period about thirty-five years ago when her first grandchild was born, and for a few months, she wrote a short poem almost every day. Despite her limited education — her formal schooling ended in May 1942 when the Nazi Einsatzgruppen rolled into town and killed most of her family — my mother’s poems showed real evidence of craft. She addressed most of the poems to her granddaughter, very much as Horace wrote his satires to his patron Maecenas. Mostly, she wrote about the animals on our old chicken farm and about taking walks in the field with my father.

Whatever else my mother wrote in her European hand appears to be forever lost to me because I don’t know what I did with the poems. I have looked in my file cabinet and scoured the closets and cabinets where I have stored my graduate school notebooks and my son’s elementary and high school homework. Did I put them on my “newspaper chair,” where I keep my New Yorkers, Economists and New York Times until I carry them to the compactor room in the hallway? I am sick every time I think that I may have dumped my mother’s poems and may never see them again.

You would think that, in light of this tendency to lose what is most precious to me, I would take pains not to get sloppy in other areas of my life. But no.

Earlier this summer, I interviewed a wonderful novelist for my Backlist series. When I put my headphones on to begin our podcast recording, I heard a strong buzz in my ears. Instead of taking the time to figure out what was causing the noise, I complained that there was something wrong with the headphones. I promptly took them off and went on to do a forty-five minute interview. Not surprisingly, a buzz runs through the entire recording.

Thanks to the various noise reduction features in GarageBand, I was able to scrub some of the buzz out of my recording. But the mp3 file I created is at best like an older woman who gets plastic surgery: Despite the cuts and tucks, the face just doesn’t look good.

I e-mailed my interviewee and apologized to her. I requested that we have the conversation again by phone and focus only on the comments I used in the final mp3. I didn’t hear back from her. I suppose she will forever see me as the blithering idiot who wasted most of her morning one summer day in 2009.

I know I have just beat myself up for losing what should be preserved, and for botching the kind of interview I should be able to do in my sleep by now. But the truth is that every day brings a new opportunity to screw up. The question is, how should we respond to people who, despite training, education and common sense, simply flub it?

Oriana Falacci, the late Italian journalist, once wrote about interviewing Israel’s Golda Meir. At the time, Falacci was highly critical of Israel, yet she couldn’t help but like Meir. When Falacci got back to her hotel room, she discovered that she had lost her tape recording (or that she had nothing on tape; I can’t remember which). Mortified by her klutziness, but desperate for the interview, Falacci got back in touch with Meir and requested that they do the interview again. Meir was gracious. She invited Falacci back and the two revisited the conversation.

So, the next time somebody screws up big-time at work or in your personal life, I beg you: Be gracious. Give ’em another chance. You never know. The next big screw-up could be yours.

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