I drove back to my apartment in silence. That may not sound strange given that I was by myself, but usually I’ve got the music cranked up—a little Stevie Ray or John Hiatt, maybe—and I’m yowling along like an auditioning American Idol contestant. I was thinking about Cam, of course, and trying to come to terms with the whole deal. Who knows? Maybe there was still hope for him.
As I crossed over the bridge to Mission Beach and saw the roller coaster lit up in all its urban glory, my thoughts, for some reason, turned to my daughter, Angelica. She was just about Cam’s age, I realized with a start. When she was younger she, too, was leading a life of quiet desperation, as do many young teenagers who haven’t yet discovered their own frequency.
In some ways, my daughter was different from her peers. Instead of fighting to get out of the house, as most teenagers do, Angelica preferred to stay in the family nest and take care of her younger brothers. At 14, she was a domestic, maternal, and an altogether lovely child—and, I have to admit, it was great having a built-in babysitter under the same roof. As she approached her seventeenth birthday, however, she was still a homebody.
I know that many parents would kill to have their teenagers stay at home, but what troubled her mother and me was why Angelica stayed home. She was a paradox of confidence: at home she was queen of the roost and a paragon of responsibility to her brothers. Away from home, however, she was fearful as a finch outside its cage. We came to realize that we had far more confidence in Angelica’s abilities than she had in her own, and that we needed to create a situation where Angelica could prove herself to herself.
So in the summer of Angelica’s seventeenth year, we sent her away—far away. We sent her to Italy, by herself, for six weeks. On one level, she desperately wanted to take this trip; on another, she was terrified.
We found her a room in Florence and enrolled her in Italian language and fine art classes. Before she left, Angelica and her mother planned every minute of her travel schedule down to the finest detail: she would fly from San Francisco to New York’s Kennedy airport, switch planes, and fly on to Milan. At the Milan airport, she would catch a bus to the station in central Milan, get on a train, and ride another seven hours to her cousin’s house. She would stay there and decompress for a few days before traveling up to Florence where her Italian living and studying adventure would finally begin.
You may think it extreme of us to send our daughter on such a potentially perilous journey. You’d be right in the conventional, suburban sense, I suppose, but we knew she could handle it. She only suspected she could.
On the day of her departure, watching her walk down the Jetway at SFO, I had a vicarious jolt of joy and liberation. I remembered the first time I’d gotten away from my father and set out on my own.
“She’s going to have the time of her life,” I whispered to her mother. Before she stepped through the airplane door, Angelica turned and, with a tremulous half-smile on her face, waved goodbye.
She’s going to have the time of her life, I said to myself. I didn’t fully realize, however, that I would never see the same little girl again.
Several hours later, Angelica arrived in New York and, embracing the power of the phone card—remember those from the pre-cell days?—called home.
“I’m in New York and you didn’t tell me I was going to have to switch terminals.—I had to take a bus!—and the flight to Milan is delayed and I’m at the gate and I’m okay and I’m ready to come home now!”
We calmed her down and reassured her that she really was okay, and that everything would be fine as soon as she got on the plane. The flight was delayed for five hours—we got the hourly update—and we gratefully breathed a sigh of relief when Angelica was finally winging her way to Milan. She landed several hours later, got off the plane and went directly to the nearest phone.
“I’m in Italy now and I’m going to catch the bus and I couldn’t figure out how to use the phone and I think I know where the bus is and I’m ready to come home now!”
Again, we calmed her down. She found the bus, took it to the train station and again, one hour later, she called home:
“I’m at the train station now!”
Her mother and I, standing in our kitchen back in Marin County, California, felt like we were in the war room, like we should be moving a pin on a giant wall map and shouting she’s made it to the train station! into the radio.
“And the schedules are different from what we thought and nobody speaks English and I found the right platform and I’m ready to come home now!”
I’m not exaggerating; I am quoting verbatim. We calmed her once again and seven hours later, from her cousin’s house, guess what? She called.
“Now, look,” she said to her mother. “I made it to New York, I made it to Milan, I made it to the train, and now I’m here. And now I am ready to come home.”
So I got on the phone and I said to her, “Listen, honey, I gotta tell you something: You’re having the time of your life. You just don’t know it yet.”
To say that the person who came home six weeks later had had the time of her life would be a gross understatement. What she’d done, in fact, was created a new life entirely.
The next summer Angelica backpacked around Europe, and the summer after that she and her mother volunteered in a Guatemalan orphanage. She did her junior year of college in Madrid, Spain, and years later, when she was 23, she took a summer internship with the U.S. State Department at the American consulate in—who says life is random—Milan.
She was one of four interns accepted out of 5,000 applicants. And even though the Foreign Service was not, she was to discover, her cup of tea, she is now a bona fide woman of the world with a global perspective on life and the human condition.
To this day, I feel great about having helped her to discover more of her own capability. The truth of the matter is, though, all I did was give her a nudge; a nudge that she would have fought with her every fiber if she hadn’t wanted it in the first place.
Cam was going to stay right where he was, I figured, because he didn’t want it any other way.
Mission Boulevard was teeming with pedestrian traffic as I turned onto my street and pulled around back to the garage. I clicked the door opener and pulled in. The garage had been empty when I left, it always is, but there was something sitting right in the middle of the floor. I slammed on the brakes and jumped out to take a look.
It was a skateboard, and it wasn’t mine, I knew, because I’ve never owned one. I always figured that it would be a lot easier simply to smash my knees with a sledgehammer. I picked it up and gave one of the scuffed wheels a spin. The decal on the underside of the board was a cartoon of a skateboarder doing a handstand of sorts. His right hand was planted on the ground and his left held the skateboard to his feet, which were sticking up in the air. The trick was called a handplant, and I’d always enjoyed watching skaters who could pull it off. Two things made this picture different, however: he was handplanting on the edge of a steep cliff and, scarier yet, he was wearing a suit and tie.
I tucked the board under my arm and walked up the back stairs to the patio outside the kitchen, fished for my key, and opened the door. I made a quick call to Rich Delacroix’s office and left him a message that we needed to talk first thing in the morning. I didn’t want to leave the gory details on his voice mail and, more important, I wasn’t yet sure what, exactly, I was going to tell him.
I walked into the living room and kicked off my shoes. Mary Ellen’s pad, my WUP, lay on the end table where I’d left it, but it looked different.
Someone had doodled in it.
I tore into my WUP that night, trying to capture as much as I could of what I’d learned from that evening’s discussions and events. I wrote my freedom list; I scribbled some thoughts about Cam and Agnes and Mary Ellen. I just let it roll, trying not to judge my observations, as per Smitty’s explicit instructions. Several hours later, still reflecting on my daughter’s Italy experience, I called and left a goodnight message on Angelica’s cell phone, bolted all the doors from the inside, for obvious reasons, and threw myself into bed.
Falling asleep is usually the least of my challenges, but that night I tossed like the surf had rolled up under my bed. I chalked up the skateboard and WUP doodles to Smitty’s eccentric glee in invading my apartment, so that didn’t bother me too much. The day’s conversations and the blowup with Cam, however, gave me a lot to think about, and my mind just wouldn’t stop boiling. The morning couldn’t come soon enough.
I didn’t need the alarm, but I waited for it anyway. I jumped up, showered, dressed, scooped up the skateboard, and drove down to the address in Ocean Beach that Agnes had given me before I’d left her house.
There was going to be a meeting, she’d told me, that I wouldn’t want to miss. “A network of extraordinary people,” she’d said, who get together once a month to encourage, inspire, and cajole each other to keep on keepin’ on, as we geezers used to say. A skate park seemed like an odd place for that kind of meeting, but that’s where the address led me.
The sign over the small building said SKATE! in all caps and italics. I pushed through the doors and walked up to the counter. The back of the room had a giant arched doorway leading out to a large outdoor lot built up with a series of concrete and wooden ramps, rails, stairs, and small empty swimming pools. Large block letters etched on the archway formed two words that I could only assume expressed the personality and purpose of the establishment and its extreme customers: NO POSERS
There were a couple of skaters crisscrossing each other on a giant half-pipe, a large, U-shaped ramp popular with the more accomplished skaters. I could hear the gravelly grind of wheels. They made no sounds, whoops, or yelps at all as the skaters focused to master their stunts.
I walked through the archway to get a closer look—I love to watch that stuff—but a young man with a hoop in his nose and a pin through his lip stopped me in my tracks. He wore a T-shirt with a complex, colorful pattern of dragons and knights coiled up together like intricate, braided strands.
“’Scuse me, sir,” he said gently. “Are you Mr. Farber?”
“I am,” I said. “But you can drop the Mr.” The label makes me shudder, especially since the second I turned 40.
“Farber or Steve will do just fine,” I reached out my hand and he took it in a firm grip.
“Well you can call me Mr. Garcia, then,” he laughed. “Agnes asked me to watch for you and bring you back to the meeting room. C’mon with me. Everyone’s already here. There’s plenty of coffee and some munchies back there, if you’re interested.”
“Always,” I said and followed him through a door on the left side of the counter and into a large, modest room set with card tables and folding chairs. The seating was arranged in a large square so everyone could see each other. There were 25, maybe 30, people already sitting and listening intently to one of their peers. A few heads turned toward the door as we walked in and a man in a crisp blue suit and crimson tie motioned me over to the seat on his left.
“Thanks, Mr. Garcia,” I whispered to my escort, for some reason expecting that he’d be leaving, but he sat down in an empty chair and shuffled through a notebook on the table in front of him. I walked over, sat down next to Mr. Brooks Brothers, and took a quick inventory of the faces around the room.
There was no consistent theme or pattern here. Agnes, whom I saw as soon as I came in, was by far the oldest of the gaggle, and the good-natured Mr. Garcia—I’d put him at 18 or 19—was clearly the youngest.
Black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Indian, male and female, young and old, sharp clothing, shorts, and sweats—this crowd was a diverse and lively mix of people who were clearly engaged and happy to be in the same room together. I was suddenly aware that a silence had settled over the gathering.
“Steve?” Agnes was asking, apparently for the second time, at least.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “Hi, Agnes, everybody.”
I did a little embarrassed wave around the room.
“Glad you could join us,” said Agnes. “I asked you to come a little bit late so I could tell the group about you before you got here, which I’ve already done.”
Several people nodded and smiled; a few mouthed hi, hello, good morning, and the like.
“I’m afraid I’m at a bit of a disadvantage, folks.” I talk to groups for a living, so I’m perfectly comfortable having all eyes on me. Some would even say I prefer it. However, usually I know why I’m talking in the first place. “I’m not really sure what’s… what’s going on here.”
Several sympathy laughs broke out around the room. I always take that as an encouraging signal.
“That didn’t come out right. What I mean is, Agnes told me a little about how some folks get together to support each other and all that. That’s pretty much all I know. So… Agnes?”
“So… Steve?” She was playing with me.
“Mind telling me what happens now?”
“Certainly, baby, happy to. Now you get to hear from the experts about the third element of the Radical Edge. You know what I’m talkin’ about.”
“Yes, I do. Change the world.”
“Now that,” Agnes laughed, “is a mighty fine idea.”
[Note: I’m excited to share my second book, The Radical Edge, in serial fashion here on SteveFarber.com! We’ll post one installment a week until the very end of the book. You can go back and read from the beginning here. If you ever get impatient and want to scarf the whole thing down at once, you can always just pop over to Amazon and satiate yourself.]