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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  1. Pesha said

    Without screw-ups we would all be a lot poorer for the loss of great stories. So, keep the material coming!

  2. David Harrison said

    Another thoughtful piece from the emerging Montaigne of the Internet! I understand the plea for pity, given in our ineffaceable humanity, but of course we cannot expect it and it is best, within our limits, to clean up our act. At some level mistakes simply are not rectifiable and we have to pay the price, with no reduction or reversal. I tried to explain this to my daughter who, although a strong student, was not strong enough to go to the boarding school she wanted to attend. She partied a lot during a critical semester; we told her that she would not get good enough grades if she did (and we did not attempt to force her to stop; we felt she had to see this for herself); and sure enough, both events happened. The school, of course, did not let her do over the crucial semester. The decision was final and now, for better or worse, she has to live with the consequences. The lesson was good for her, as it is for anyone, the earlier the better. Some actions are irreversible, as are their consequences.

    • modestine said

      David, what astonishes me the most about your comment is that Olivia is old enough to attend boarding school. Can that be possible?

  3. Diane said

    Glad I’m not the only one who does things like this, more often than I care to admit. I bet when you’re not actively looking for your mother’s poems, they’ll turn up. That seems to work for me!

    • modestine said

      I really hope you’re right!

  4. Mirel said

    I’ve certainly had my share of screw-ups, both personal and professional. I usually console myself by comparing MY screw-up du jour with the mistake made by the NASA engineers who let the Challenger go up despite those cold brittle O-rings. “At least it wasn’t the O-rings!” I say to myself — “Nobody died!” Then I feel compelled to add, “Kineh horah.”

    • modestine said

      What you say is true, Mirel. All we end up having to live with is a great sense of remorse and shame!

  5. Andrea Rabinovitch said

    Thanks Babs,
    I enjoyed this simple little life lesson. As for screw-ups. “I did them my way!”

  6. A screw up, or failure, was once regarded as simply part of life and work, just like success. Either way, you learn something and get it better the next time.

  7. I love your stories.

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