Guest columnist Jonathan Kahane: Real Truth — Failure is indeed an option


Published: 09-11-2023 6:29 PM

Aging can be a relentless and stern master who often rewards his students with wisdom, that is if the students are willing and eager to put their minds to the task. Unfortunately, more often than not, the opportunity to acquire this understanding is squandered and lost.

In order to help save the world from drowning, sweltering, suffocating, and being vaporized in its own ignorance, this 78-year-old has unselfishly chosen to share some of his “pearls” with the undiscriminating who abound among us — witness some of the recent submissions on the Gazette opinion page.

I’ve chosen to discuss just a couple of the myriad naked truths that have become clear to me lately.

WARNING: If you’re 20 years old or younger, I suggest you refrain from reading on. I do not want to be held responsible for bursting anyone’s bubble or shattering anybody’s dream.

From as early as my memory serves me, from a very tender age, my loving parents, with the best of intentions, raised me to believe that “I could do anything I wanted to in life as long as I truly put my mind to it.” “Study hard,” “practice,” and “if at first you don’t succeed,” along with countless other motivational mantras, were fed to me. I believed them, that is until just recently at the very tender age of 78. I’m a slow learner.

I always wanted to learn how to play a musical instrument. At age 8, I went to “music school.” I played the recorder with the rest of the band. When I was 12, I was subjected to piano lessons. I wanted to play the guitar. Piano lessons lasted nine months. Then it was the clarinet — three months. Finally it was the trumpet. My parents made me quit that after three weeks.

I took an extended hiatus, furthered my education and got a Ph.D. in psychology, played soccer and tennis at the collegiate level and beyond, but I still couldn’t play the guitar. When I was 28 and teaching I tried again. I stole my sister’s guitar (she had given up), bought some instructional books and began trying to learn chords with tablature and diagrams.

Sixty years later, I can fake my way through a G, C, D progression. The guitar is now in the corner of my room laughing at me. I have just now accepted my failure. I can, however, now greatly admire and respect those virtuosos of any musical instrument. I can appreciate how much work it took, how much talent they possess, and how lucky they are.

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The second epiphany I wish to share was the ambition I had to become fluent in a foreign language. In seventh grade my dad suggested I start with Latin. That was the “initium finis.” Look it up. I had no idea at that time of my life why I should even learn a foreign language. After all, everyone in my Bronx schoolyard “tawked” English.

I switched from Latin to French. It might as well have been Swahili. I never received a grade above a C-minus. I did try in some years. I was required to pass a foreign language in college. I passed because my professor loved tennis, and I was captain of the tennis team. In order to get my doctorate I had to be able to read and comprehend two foreign languages. That was back in the 1970s. I passed the French test on the third try. Mercifully, they allowed statistics to be considered a “language” for this requirement.

One year, I even decided to spend a couple of months in France to gain some fluency. The stumbling block was every time I initiated a conversation in French, my counterpart gave me a little smile and answered in English.

Among the other hurdles I faced was that nouns are considered masculine or feminine. Adjectives, pronouns and verbs had to “agree.” Explain this to me, please. The word for “bra” in French is masculine: le soutien-gorge. The word for moon in French is feminine: la lune. The word for “sun” in French is masculine: le soleil. In German it’s the opposite — moon is masculine and sun is feminine.

The rules for choice of verb tense are also incomprehensible; for example, when to use the imperfect or the subjunctive. The legend goes that an MIT grad student started driving a cab at night to support himself. He picked up a fare at Logan who asked, “This is my first time in Boston. Could you tell me where I can get scrod?” The grad student replied, “Sure, but that’s the first time I’ve heard it asked for in the pluperfect subjunctive.”

So here is the pearl (admittedly cultured) of wisdom for you to consider, and here is why I issued the “warning” to the “young-uns.” Most of us will be mediocre at many things. We’ll be failures at others. If we’re lucky, we’ll also become accomplished at some of our endeavors. If your stars are aligned correctly, you’ll be one of the very few who is a genius in your goal in life.

One of my favorite quotes was uttered by Vic Sexias, one of the top tennis players in the U.S. and in the world in the 1950s. It can be found on his plaque in the Tennis Hall Of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island.

It reads: “I consider myself a frustrated baseball player.”

Jonathan Kahane lives in Westhampton.