When our 16-year-old son is feeling down, you can tell immediately.
Normally he is high-energy. Happy. Smiling.
But when something heavy is on his mind, his shoulders drop, his smile disappears and he dives deeply into his phone -- for Gen Z, screen diving is like throwing the covers over your head.
"What's up, buddy?" I asked while sitting beside him on the couch in the family room. "You don't seem yourself tonight."
"I don't know what to do about my truck," he said. "Maybe I should sell it. It's got scratches on the sides from the tool box, and used truck prices are going down, too. Soon it won't be worth anything."
"You just got it paid off," I said. "Why don't you hold onto it through the summer, at least, and save some money. Then maybe we can talk about a replacement. Those scratches are nothing. We can fix scratches with touch-up paint."
I could tell my pep talk had little effect on his mood.
"Can I tell you a story that might help?" I said.
"Sure," he said, without much conviction.
When I was in my late 20s and early 30s, I lived in a little apartment in East Ridge. It was a little one-bedroom, mother-in-law unit.
But it was my home, and I decided to spruce it up. I didn't have much going on in my life -- no wife, no kids -- and this gave me something to do.
I got interested in Southwestern design, which was popular in the early 1990s. I started using my spare money on decorations: a Native American art print, a bleached cow skull to hang on the wall, a woven area rug.
Then, one day I was in an art store on Frazier Avenue when I spotted a glass vase that seemed to match my apartment. It was decorated with what looked a little like a desert scene. If you used your imagination, you could see a blue sky, clouds and mesas rising from a desert. It was on sale, too, which sweetened the deal. I think I paid $180.
Later, I bought a wooden pedestal and a glass dome for my vase and set it on a side table in my apartment. I treated it like a museum piece.
Then one day, while I was dusting, I noticed a little scratch on the lip of the vase. I tried using Pledge and a soft cloth to buff out the scratch, but I could still see the imperfection no matter how much I polished.
It's hard to put into words how oversized my reaction was to this scratch. I looked for a glass expert in the Yellow Pages. I went to a glass exhibit at a local mall seeking help. Nobody seemed to have a solution.
I realize now that the experts were saying, "Relax, kid. There's really nothing wrong with your vase." The "scratch" was so tiny that no clear thinking could assign it any consequence.
Over time, I simply forgot about it. I bought a house and eventually started a family. And the vase moved down, down, down on my list of prized possessions.
"The point is that those little scratches were nothing," I told my son. "Everything has imperfections if you look hard enough. It's up to us whether we let little things like that bother us.
"I don't even know where that vase is now," I said
"I do," he said, pointing to the hutch in the kitchen.
A week later, I took the vase down from the hutch and carried it over to the window to look for the scratch -- just for old times' sake.
Over the years, the vase -- once protected under glass -- had become a container for junk. Inside it were a paisley COVID-19 mask, an old Apple gift card, a pocket-size flashlight and a tin of putty, among other things.
I turned it around and around in in the sunlight, looking for the blemish.
My heart sank.
"Oh my," I thought to myself. "I can't see a scratch anymore."
Immediately, my heart started to ache for my younger self. Perfectionism, when used as a substitute for important things, can murder your happiness.
The next time I hugged my son, I held him for an extra beat. Growing up is hard, whether you are 16 or 30.
Or even when you are 64 and still learning about yourself.
Contact Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6645.