Freddie Mercury can sing a mean tune. I listened to “Don’t Stop Me Now” in my car last week as I transitioned from the 101 to the 405. Boy, he sure sounds energized in that song. Before too long, my imagination transported me to an early 80’s video – not any actual Queen video – but a mini-musical of my own making, with me as the star, naturally, followed by thousands of people running out of their houses to join me - everyone with crazy-eye smiles and dressed in obnoxious 80’s workout clothes - as I skyrocket through the town headed who-knows-where. Then, as I laughed at myself, I suddenly found myself on the other side of Sepulveda pass, seconds away from my exit.
I don’t want to be stopped. Yet, people do stop me. Sometimes, people tell me I should be stopped, but I don’t listen. And other times, I realize I probably should have been stopped, but it’s too late. And finally, there are those times when I stop on my own, usually because of a lack of confidence. I avoid a risk, but where’s the fun in that?
Back in the 80’s, I was still developing my confidence and personality in a soup of my budding teen hormones. One night, driving down Lake Avenue in Morton Grove, I sat in the back seat rambling to my parents about my ridiculous teachers, and how I refuse to bow down to their unauthorized authority. My mother, being very wise to the ways of the world, set me straight – it was clear I developed an overblown ego. Naturally, she wanted to protect me from mouthing off to my teachers, or making some embarrassing scene. Besides it’s always better to cause a “scene” when you’re alone with your family than out in public. So, I cried like a little baby, while I protested and refused to admit I had become… obnoxious. By the end of the evening, I somehow heard my own tantrum, and I was convinced. I had become too big for my britches.
So, I called all my friends individually, and apologized to them for my attitude. Surprisingly, many of them agreed that I had an ego problem, so – way to have your finger on the pulse, mom - good catch! Unfortunately, I went the complete opposite direction for the next couple of years. I worried constantly about what everyone else thought was important before considering my own thoughts. While the adjustment helped me keep my friends, I lost my ability to grasp the subtle differences between challenging your teacher to a fistfight, and speaking up to let your grilling friend know you prefer cheese on your burger.
Looking back, the same series of events repeated often throughout my life. A moment of skyrocketing confidence and pride would lead to a shocking lesson in how unhelpful the ego can be. It happened when I insisted on playing the lead during our jazz band trip to Arizona, only to flub the ending to our closer “In the Mood.” It happened when Andersen Consulting sent me to Europe, and then reprimanded me on my return for my out of control expense report. And it happened when I complained about helping Kevin James’ fiancé move on a Saturday, which encouraged his manager to encourage me to quit.
Looking back, I see that I probably would’ve benefited from a little humility in those cases. On the other hand, a little ego can drive healthy risks that lead to a happier future. By letting go of my need to be lead trumpet all the time, I settled into the more creative and fun position of 2nd trumpet, the part that gets all the improvised solos. And leaving The King of Queens lead to a whole bunch of more rewarding jobs, including my current fabulous job at Landmark Theatres. Although, I’m not sure anything positive resulted from taking a couple of unapproved cabs in Madrid and Milan.
So, I know I can turn setbacks into comebacks, but is the ego necessary to the process, or does it make more trouble than it’s worth? And, do I need to fall into a tailspin at every disaster? Well, luckily for me, I had plenty of opportunities to explore this question in the past few weeks, when I faced several major challenges in a row, throwing my confidence into zero-gravity drops.
Our story begins on March 12, when I run into multiple issues at work for several days in a row that require groveling with my bosses and clients – including an indie comedy screening I booked that turns out to be a XXX premiere, and last minute technical issues that almost turn Warner Bros’ digital restoration of THE COLOR PURPLE into to a special screening of Steven Spielberg’s THE COLOR GREEN*.
In each case, I solve the issue, and restore my ego to its full glory, until the next embarrassment shoves that ego back in its hole. After four days of several ego beatings, I scream “Lego my ego!” and I head home for the weekend, frazzled and shell-shocked. I reflect on the week and give my confidence some air. After all, I’ll need some of it to interview Will Ferrell for CASA DE MI PADRE.
Then on March 18, I meet Will Ferrell, and he thinks he recognizes me. Hello, ego. Welcome back. Then I moderate a discussion with him to a sold-out house. The interview shows all the signs of success. I prompt him to talk about his role as producer, and speaking Spanish for the whole movie. He’s charming and entertaining. I’m feeling so confident, that I even make fun of myself for a slip of the tongue. Apparently, my joke is too risky, because the audience gasps. Then, Will makes an even bigger joke at my expense, and the crowd loves it. Later, the studio rep tells me I shouldn’t feel embarrassed about my mistake, because it was a great moment. I go home and brag to my wife how I helped Will Ferrell get one of the biggest laughs of the night, and how I knocked it out of the park.**
I strut into work on Monday for a victory lap, and I discover my company has received a nasty complaint letter about the horrible, racist moderator.
What? Yes, it’s true. This customer didn’t catch my sarcasm, and interpreted my joke as a straight-forward statement of hatred.
This happens all the time with my wife. If she misses the connotation, the situation can get ugly fast. I’ve even developed an automatic reaction to say I was kidding, even when I wasn’t. It’s become such a knee-jerk instinct, that sometimes I don’t even realize myself that I was serious. I need a few minutes to reflect and figure out what I was really thinking.
In this case, though, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect, and I know I was joking. Here’s more of a breakdown of the offending incident. I mistakenly referred to the Mexican actors as “Spanish.” I knew they were Mexican. It was even written in my notes. I know that not knowing the difference is ignorant. But, we were just talking for five minutes about Will speaking Spanish, so I slipped with the word “Spanish.” And, I was hyper aware that some Mexican people do get offended when they are referred to as Spanish, so I felt particularly bad about my slip of the tongue. But, regrettably, I didn’t stop there.
Instead, like a “rocket ship about to whoa-oh-oh-explode,” I made a joke to make fun of myself. I wanted everyone to know that I was wrong to make the mistake. My intention was to show the abhorrent nature of ignorant people. And by using sarcasm (which was supposed to show the audience that I really didn’t believe what I was saying), I was emphasizing how ridiculous and horrible those ignorant people are. But, it didn’t work. After Will Ferrell made fun of my gaffe, I promised not to try to be funny any more. So, upon further review, I didn’t help Will that night – he helped me.
Luckily, my bosses and colleagues reassured me all week not to worry – they don’t think I’m racist. Well, that’s a relief (please read in a sarcastic tone). But, I’m too mortified to let it all go. I could reason that some people are just too sensitive, and particularly with the climate in this country right now, everyone is closer to the edge. I suppose for that reason alone, I simply need to be more careful when speaking as a representative of my company. Besides, any good intentions are irrelevant if the joke doesn’t work. If it’s not funny, it’s not funny.
Most of my friends who saw the incident agree that by knowing me, they understood my intentions. But, many also agreed that if they didn’t know me, they might draw a different conclusion. In fact, by looking at my white skin, they might make the same assumption that I could be racist instead of a satirist – judging me for the way I looked instead of getting to know me and judging me as an individual.
Most importantly, I don’t like my words hurting other people. I do feel regret. But, there’s nothing I can really do to personally address that person. If the customer comes to the theatre to find me, I would be more than happy to apologize and grovel about my insensitivity. Short of that, all I can do is plan to be more careful and thoughtful next time.
Multiple people have told me that my full week of troubles should be blamed on Mercury in retrograde. I don’t believe in astrology. But, I did a little Google search, and I discovered that Mercury Retrograde started March 12. Wait, my troubles started on March 12! The first website I found gave this advice about Mercury Retrograde: “Do not venture into unknown areas taking risks. Be sure to back up your resources, double check all details, and prepare for delays or misunderstandings in life.” Yep. So, that happened.
I’m not ready to buy crystals, but I do have to wonder the coincidence of this stress cluster. Is my ego to blame? Or did my ego just hide the approaching storm? I go from huge success with one of my comedy heroes to wearing the label of racist. Maybe it’s Mercury in retrograde. But, for me, it just feels like Mercury has gone retro – back to the early 80s – sending me into a regressive teen tantrum - kicking and screaming – I’m not a racist! I’m not a racist!
After some time, I’ve been able to forgive myself, and move on. But, what about the bigger question that I addressed back in the 80’s? Would I benefit from stuffing my ego down again for years to come? My ego can be deceiving and unhelpful. However, I recognize that I need my confidence. I need a strong enough sense of self to take some risks and pursue the important goals in life.
So, looking a little further on the trusty internet, I found, “The first Mercury retrograde, which takes place in April/March, 2012 will bring major events of challenge, transition and transformation.” Sounds good. I’m ready to take responsibility for my actions. I surrender my ego – but not my confidence. And I await my transformation in April.
* Thanks to my coworker Shelly Bridges for that wonderful joke!
** For obvious reason, I can’t post the footage of the offending moment, but if you’re curious about the interview, here’s the official online version, as shot and edited by our theatre staff.