Tuesday, November 15, 2011

That's All There Is to It?

I turn my 69' Buick Skylark into the visitor's lot, roll into a vacant parking space, turn off the ignition and say a silent prayer as I wait for the engine to stop coughing. I get out and turn to lock the door but realize that the relative value of the surrounding cars makes locking my doors superfluous.

I walk toward the main entrance. The glass-walled building seems one with the strangely quiet Illinois sky. My blue-corduroy sports jacket and pants don't quite make a suit, but their the closest thing I've got and they're pretty much the same color. I never noticed the swishing sound the pants make when I walk. Do they do that all the time?

My friend who set up the interview told me, "Look, it's just a clerical position, but it comes with full benefits and opportunity for advancement. You could really turn this into something if you put your mind to it."

I take a deep breath and push through the revolving door.

The past couple of years have been tough. Trying to pay the bills, trying to take care of Joy, trying to be an adult. Rene waits tables at night; I work days. We spend about a half-hour together in the transition mostly talking about Joy.

My career attention span isn't great. I've been a short-order cook, a trash collector, a house painter, a landscaper, a long-haul truck driver, a shoe salesman, a waiter and bicycle mechanic. Each month I hold my breath waiting to see which checks clear first, the deposits or the bill payments. The landlord's started to ask for cash and we still don't have any healthcare. I wonder if it's always going to be like this.

I make different attempts to get ahead applying for jobs that advertise training and growth potential, but I never manage to get an interview let alone hired. My resume fits on a postcard, my education is unmarketable, my string of jobs unimpressive and my GPA, well...

I decide that I need to complete a degree, any degree.

I take out a student loan and register at Elmhurst College a local four-year liberal arts school.

When the counselor asks me about my major I say, "Whatever degree I can get fastest."

She stops chuckling when she sees that I am serious.

"I understand that you have financial pressures and that you want to move quickly, but perhaps you should still give some consideration as to what type of degree you want?"

"OK, I want the fastest degree that can get me a job with healthcare benefits."

"How about we begin without declaring a degree. There are many required courses that you'll need to take regardless of your degree. Let's start with those. Perhaps a degree choice will become clearer as you go."


Two required courses are English and science. I register for Writing for Business and Physics of Anatomy. I figure business writing is good if I want to get a job and the physics course is a watered down version designed for pre-meds who don't do calculus.

Up to this point my understanding of writing has been: create something that sounds smart by using as many multisyllabic words as possible. My English professor sets me straight the first day. He starts the class by asking us each to write a paragraph on what we hope to get out of the class. He then reads aloud each paragraph and comments.

As he finishes reading mine, he gets up from desk, walks to mine, sets down the paper, looks me in the eye and says, "First of all, be clear. This will require you to understand what you're trying to say. Second, get to the point. This will ensure that you have to know what your point is. Third, don't use any words with more than three syllables (your last name excepted)."

I look down at my paper as proceeds to the next author. No one ever told me that writing was just about communicating clearly and succinctly. That makes it much easier.

Physics is taught by this guy Earl Swallow who talks about it as if it were part of everyday life. He walks into the classroom pointing to a couple file cabinets that line the wall and asks, "If you had to move those file cabinet across the room, how would you do it with the least amount of effort using only what's available in the room?"

He spins toward the class, sits on his desk and says, "You're driving up a winding mountain road in your Fiat Spider. How fast can you make it to the top? When do you brake? When do you hit the gas?"

He focuses on a particularly unathletic-looking guy at the front of the room and says, "You want to show off for your girlfriend by free lifting some heavy weights. How do you maximize the amount you can lift without working out?"

I spend the first five weeks wondering when we Earl's going to start teaching us physics. Instead, we learn how to build a sound structural framework with minimal materials, or why accelerating through a curve provides more control than braking, or how to make impossible billards shots.

I don't know any math beyond basic algebra but it doesn't matter; Earl's examples are ones that I can picture in my mind and Earl doesn't care how we get the answers as long as we understand how we got the answers.

Earl tosses us a problem and while others whip out their HP 31E's, I pull out a sheet of paper and draw. Eventually, I reduce the problem to series of squares and right-triangles, geometrical objects that I understand and can compute. I roll it all up and I get an answer.

One day, I turn to see Earl looking over my shoulder, smiling. He says, "You know you're doing trig, right?"

"I can't do trig."

"Well you're doing it nonetheless."

"What do you mean?"

"That calculation there, the one where you've divided the far side of the triangle over the long side. That's the calculation for sine. And this one here, where you've divided the far side over the short side. That's the calculation for tangent."

"You're kidding me. That's all trigonometry is?"

"Yup, that's about it. Except that with trigonometry you could save yourself some time. All you'd have to do is plug that angle into a calculator and you get the same answer."

"That's it?"

"That's it."

Pretty much anything that mystifies you can be translated into something that elicits the response, "That's all there is to it?"

Happy Tuesday,

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