Monday, May 10, 2010

Rejection

When Joy was born, my wife Rene and I had no health insurance. We were both 22 living in a little garden apartment by the railroad tracks in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. When it was time to bring Rene and Joy home, I took all the money we had in the world (in cash) to Geneva hospital to pay the bill.

The lady behind the counter ran some calculations and then presented the total--about double what I had in my hands. I told her that all I had was so much in cash and that I didn't have any credit cards nor health insurance. She seemed certain that I must have a least some form of coverage and pursued several lines of inquiry. Finally satisfied that I indeed had no health care, she prompted, "So, is that all you have?"

I told her that it was and proposed that I could give her what I had now and then pay so much a month until I'd covered the rest. She stood up, turned around and disappeared through some doors into a back room. Time passed as I wondered what might be going on. Were they calling the police? Would they let me take Rene and Joy home? It's amazing what occurs to you when you're 22 and clueless.

After what seemed like hours, she reemerged from the back room and presented me a printed invoice for hospital services that totaled just a bit under what I had with me. I looked at the bill and then looked at her and then at the bill and then at her. She was smiling.

She mentioned that they had a special discount for uninsured mothers of newborn children, and that, as they say, was that. I handed her the specified amount and walked back to Rene's room with a couple of hundred dollars left over.

Forgetting What You Can't Do
To make ends meet while caring for Joy, I would work during the day (I had a string of jobs from working on a garbage truck to driving interstate deliveries of fund-raising products to repairing bicycles) and Rene would work at night waiting tables at the Glen Oak Restaurant. After a while, it occurred to me that, unless something significant changed, Rene and I were destined to see each other only as we passed one another on our ways to and from work. So, I applied for a student loan and started taking classes a few miles away at Elmhurst College.

Without much aptitude for anything technical, I decided to pursue a general liberal arts degree which required just one math course and just one science course. The science course I ended up taking was physics for pre-med students. What made the course "pre-med" was twofold. First, most of the problems and examples employed anatomy and physiology. Second, the work required no calculus, everything was done using trig and algebra.

I still approached the course with trepidation. Although the counselor had told me that it was a "very easy" physics course, I'd never been able to understand anything to do with science. Further, it was filled with pre-med students and I knew that pre-med students were all 'smart'. Nonetheless, over the previous couple of years at Berklee, in addition to music, I'd learned how to work, really work. I would apply the diligence I'd learned in music to physics and see what came of it.

Each night, I would sit rocking Joy to sleep while reading to her from my physics book. After laying her in her crib, I would start working the problems on paper, running the same exercises over and over until I felt I could "see" the process. The whole process felt like standing at the base of a sheer rock-face that oozed slime and oil, and trying to figure out how to climb the thing. Slowly, I would find a dry hand grip here, a toe hold there, and I would inch my way up.

The first test came and I did alright. Not great, but not bad. Each test, I did better. Occasionally, I found myself explaining some of the concepts to the much smarter pre-med students and it occurred to me that maybe I wasn't as dumb as I'd thought I was.

One day, the professor began talking about trains moving at light-speed or thereabouts, people riding in the trains, outsiders observing the trains and so on. We'd come to the chapter on special relativity. I was simultaneously fascinated and confounded as I tried to grok what he presented; I couldn't let it go. Something flipped and I forgot about not being able to do science or math. It's not that I decided I could do science and math; I just forgot that I couldn't.

I ended up getting an A in physics, doing better than my smarter "pre-med" colleagues.

A Change of Plan
Talking on the phone with my bass playing friend, Rick Stone, who was majoring in math at MIT, I explained how surprised I was that I could actually do math and science. He seemed not surprised at all and said, "Well, if there's any truth to this genetics stuff, it would seem that you'd be predisposed to doing math and science. Maybe you just do them differently?"

I thought about this and pondered out loud, "So, do you think I could get a 'technical' job? You, know, like installing telephones or running wires or testing equipment?"

Rick seemed to think so and that was good enough for me.

I called my dad who was an executive at Bell Labs and asked him if he knew anyone at Illinois Bell who might interview me to get a job installing telephones or the like. He told me he'd make a couple of calls and let me know.

The next day, he called me with the name and address of the person to whom I should send a cover letter along with my resume. They had an entry level position at Western Electric (the manufacturing arm of AT&T) that he thought I'd be able to get. The position paid better than any job I'd ever had and it came with health care.

I knew that this was it! I'd be able to get a job that would allow me and Rene to spend time at home together. We'd be able to take Joy to the doctor. We'd be able to have more kids!

I spent hours and hours typing and retyping my letter and resume. I'd put them into an envelope, seal it up, and head out the door to mail it. And then, I'd stop, reopen it, reread it, and start again. Finally, after countless iterations, I walked down to the post office to deposit my prize (in the mailbox inside the building because I didn't want my letter to somehow get lost due to the wind picking it up as the mailman emptied the mailbox down the block).

Waiting
And then I waited. I was so excited that I might get a job with health care and a future. Each day I'd rifle through the mail looking for a response. Weeks passed and then one day, I spotted the return address I'd been waiting to see. I dropped the rest of the mail, and ripped open the letter that held my path through, my way out, my future!

I stood in the hallway outside our apartment, reading words that made no sense to me. I couldn't find the address of the place where I was to go for the interview. I didn't see a phone number to call. I just saw phrases like "we regret to inform you" and "after careful consideration" and "it would appear that your aptitude lies in areas other than technology" and "we would suggest that you pursue areas better suited" and so on.

My heart sank. I didn't have words. I just stood there. I could have cried, except for that would have required me to breathe.

Finally, I walked into the apartment, sat down and stared at the letter. Hoping that I hadn't understood it.Hoping that it was a mistake. Hoping that it was a joke. Refusing to believe it was what it was.

But, it was what it was.

You Never Know
Years later, I wish that I'd kept that letter. I'd definitely have had it framed by now. I eventually ended up getting a clerical job at Bell Labs and then getting a technical job and then doing basic research in computer science.

Every once in a while, I like reminding myself of how hopeless I felt sitting and staring at that letter. How I almost bought into the beliefs of the person who wrote it. How I almost gave up.

It's amazing how certain and absolute something can appear in one moment, and then vanish as though it never existed in the next.

Here's hoping that your biggest challenges melt before your eyes.

Happy Monday,
Teflon

3 comments:

  1. This post would fit into the category of blindingly wonderful except for its clarity and vision. Thank you.

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  2. Thanks Tef, this was great. I giggled thinking about you waiting weeks for a response....snail mail indeed.

    I laughed loudly (because I so relate) reading: "I spent hours and hours typing and retyping my letter and resume. I'd put them into an envelope, seal it up, and head out the door to mail it. And then, I'd stop, reopen it, reread it, and start again. Finally, after countless iterations,
    Especially at this part: I walked down to the post office to deposit my prize (in the mailbox inside the building because I didn't want my letter to somehow get lost due to the wind picking it up as the mailman emptied the mailbox down the block).

    It's inspiring to read about where and how you started out

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  3. oh and the cutest pics...i love your daughter's expressions...in the first one she looks unsure and then I love that she copies you in the last two...or were you copying her?

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