Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Getting Past No!

The down of my ten-year-old Geri jacket was matted and wet as I stood in the little foyer outside our garden apartment and jammed my key in the mailbox door. Knowing that the stench of me was likely to motivate any passing neighbors to quicken their paces on the way out or up to their apartment, I flipped nervously through the stack of bills and circulars looking for it.

It had all started four weeks earlier. I'd been on the phone with Rick Stone, my high school buddy who'd played bass in all my bands, but for reasons that were a mystery to me had decided to study math at MIT rather than music at Juilliard. Rene and I had moved back to Wheaton nine months ago, just before Joy was born; Rick was still in Cambridge at MIT.

I'd been telling Rick about the physics class I was taking at night school at Elmhurst College, Physics for Premeds. The class had been modified from your standard physics course to make it more meaningful and accessible to would-be doctors. First, all the examples and problems involved physiology, the application of forces in the context of human anatomy. Second, it had all been dumbed down to require trigonometry rather than calculus. I couldn't have told you what Calculus was except that you need it to do physics; trig would be a stretch.

I'd taken the course because I needed a science course to get a degree, any degree, and it was the one that was open. To my surprise, when presented in the context of human physiology, physics became interesting and alive for me. I know it sounds silly, but when I'd read about a concept and I could "feel" its application, it all made sense. To my greater surprise, I grasped concepts much better than my pre-med classmates. After the first exam where Professor Swallow announced each person's score to the class, I'd found myself surrounded by fellow students seeking a tutor.

Not being someone that anyone would ever have sought for help with anything mathematical or scientific, I had started to question my own sense of what I could or couldn't do. As I shared my newfound skills and musings with Rick, I wondered aloud, "Hey, do you think I could get a 'technical' job somewhere? You know, like working for the telephone company installing phones? Maybe I could do technical stuff?"

Rick blandly responded, "Why not? It's probably in your genes."

After hanging up the phone, I called my dad who'd spent his whole career at the phone company and asked if he knew anyone at Illinois Bell that could help me get an entry level position as a phone installer or the like. Dad made a few calls to friends and one mentioned an entry-level opening at a Western Electric manufacturing facility in Lisle. The pay was better than my garbage truck gig and the job came with healthcare benefits. I dug out my Smith-Corona, typed-up a cover letter along with what little resume I had, and sent it to the hiring manager.

I'd been checking mail several times a day since.

As I made my way towards the bottom of the stack, I saw it, a return address with the Western Electric logo. I stuffed the rest of the mail back into the box, unlocked the apartment door and sat down at the kitchen table, stink and all. Rene was out with Joy, so it was just me and the letter.

After waiting so impatiently for weeks, I suddenly found myself incapable of opening the envelope. I don't know how long I sat there staring at it. Then with the impulsiveness and fear of someone exiting an airplane with a chute that "should" open, I ripped through the envelope and unfolded its contents.

I flew past the commensurate niceties looking for the words that would amount to either "yes" or "no". When I found them, I read them about ten times just to make sure I'd not misunderstood the bureaucratic gobbledygook. But they were pretty clear:

Mr. Tuomenoksa, based upon our review of your skills and experience, we believe that you are not suited to technical work and that you would fair better in some other field of endeavor, perhaps music. As such, we are sorry to inform you that we will not be offering you a position with the Western Electric Company. We wish you well in your career pursuits.

My heart dropped through my stomach as it exited my body, slowly grinding to a halt on the kitchen linoleum. I became suddenly aware of the stench that accompanied me every day, that permeated and emanated from my hair even after washing it. I noticed that I'd stopped breathing and that my hand holding the letter was trembling.

Then something inside me welled up like a dormant volcano, the word "No" erupting from my mouth I shot up from my chair. I walked over to the cabinet and pulled out my typewriter and some paper. Rolling the paper into place, I began banging on the keyboard. This was not the end; it was just the beginning.

Happy Tuesday,

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