Albert Einstein and The Definition of Wishful Thinking

by C.F. Pierce

“You've got to check out the new video I just posted on wish-I-had-a-job dot com,” said Melissa in an email.  “And then I want your honest opinion.” 

 I was on delicate turf.  Whenever I engaged Melissa on any topic—I mean anything except the latest heat wave--that was her cue to go into attack mode.  Offhand remarks that normal people would not find contentious were cause for debate and met with belligerence.   I needed to be real careful. 

 I knew there was something different about Melissa the first time I took her out to dinner.  We had met on a cheesy website for professional singles.  She had long blond hair that went past her shoulders down her back, bright blue eyes, and a big toothy smile.  When I picked her up in her barely-furnished studio apartment, she wore tight blue jeans and a low-cut T-shirt that showed off enticing curves.  

“Do you like Italian?”  I asked.

“Si, señor,” she replied.

I drove her up the coast to Malibu until we found the place.  It was a cottage overlooking the ocean, red-checkered tablecloths, candlelight, mahogany walls and bookshelves, scent of tomatoes and garlic brewing from the kitchen. We were sipping Chianti and forking down cannoli after a huge portion of linguini in olive oil.  Sinatra sang Summer Wind in the background. 

Conversation veered to how hard it is to make time for the gym, and I smiled and gently said “working out even fifteen minutes a day is better than not working out at all.”

She snapped back “How do you know?” Exasperated tone of voice, hostile expression.  “Are you an expert on fitness?”  

That was Melissa. She lived near the 405 freeway, about a minute by foot from the Nuart Theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard.  She slept on a mattress on the floor.   My jaw dropped when I observed her strap on a purple helmet, straddle a mountain bike and get ready to peddle to her temp job in Venice.  “I save a ton of money on gas and parking and also get good exercise,” she laughed. I bit my lip. Still I found her set up back then kind of cool in an offbeat bohemian way.

We dated for a couple of months until one Sunday morning, while having oatmeal and instant coffee on a tiny wooden table that hadn't been varnished in years, she looked at me and told me in a deadpan tone of voice “you're not the one, but I hope we can remain friends.” 

“Sure,” I said, speechless, hoping she would change her mind.  I suppose I had been there to fill in during a lonely spell.  She didn't know much about me except the basics—I worked for a tech company in Culver City, I drove a black Toyota--and if I volunteered anything, she never probed or asked any questions.  One of us took it way too seriously and it wasn't her.

Since the day we met, she was looking for a job. She had a decent resume—bachelor's in psychology from Boston University. But no graduate degree and apparently no skills for anything in demand by Fortune 500 companies or even lesser known establishments.  She had a history of part-time stopgap gigs like perfume demonstrator at Bloomingdale's, barista at Starbucks, telephone sales for the L. A. Opera--all for no more than 6 months at a time.  Her true career, her actual occupation—if she were honest about it—was job seeker. That was what she did. 

I once asked her “if you could have any job in the world, what would it be?”

She smiled and said “that's a toughie.”

I had a pretty good idea about the video she wanted me to watch.   I knew she would talk more about herself than the supposed topic of the video, which would be somehow job related.

This one was entitled The Benefits of Being Unconventional in Corporate America.  Melissa was seated behind a long shiny black desk that was clear except for a miniature American flag planted in a brass base.  “The Star-Spangled Banner" faded into "God Bless America" as she began to speak.  She was dressed for the occasion: a red and white striped sweater and a blue fedora hat.

 "Hey all you hiring managers out there.  Are you tired of employees approaching tasks in predictable ways?  If so, you'll want to hear this." Serious expression, voice resonating conviction. "When I was in college, I was assigned a paper for my freshman class in American history.  The topic was open-ended:  The White House in the 20th Century.  While most of my fellow students wrote on what you would expect, I compared and contrasted the hair styles of all the first ladies from Eleanor Roosevelt to Nancy Reagan."  She smiled with pride and said "I called it 'American Coif.'  The professor was blown away. And I don't mean his hair." She laughed out loud.  "He said it was the first term paper he had ever seen with glossy photos.”  

The background music stopped as Melissa looked straight into the camera. “If your company could benefit from someone who has a unique approach to problem solving," she nodded and chuckled as if to say you know what I'm talking about, "you might want to give me a call."  

The last time I saw her, she was still in California.  Much time had passed.  I was surprised to hear from her.  She called me after surviving a near-death head-on collision that left her on her back for several weeks.  

“Some geezer who had been told not to drive after he crashed into his own garage.  He kept saying 'I've been driving for 75 years, I can drive as long as I remember to wear my glasses and take my meds.'  When the police arrived and saw the smoke and twisted metal, they said ‘consider yourself lucky.'  For the love of God!  As if I didn't have enough on my plate.”

“Wow,” I said, “Really sorry to hear that.   Anything I can do to help?” I'm thinking why not remind her of what a nice guy I am?   What harm could it do?

 “As a matter of fact, there is.  I'm wondering if you could get my mail.   It's in a PO Box.  I can leave the key under my door.  There are some job applications I'm waiting to hear back on.”

 “Of course,”  I said.  Then in a moment of weakness and like a sentimental sap, I delivered her mail and also included the one and only photograph I had taken of her from that surreal summer.

“Can't believe you kept it,” she said.  “Hope it brought back good memories.”  It didn't.  Not that she wasn't cute in that photo in her gym shorts and white bikini top. Photo triggered a longing for more encounters like the too few we had in her apartment where I persuaded her to pose for the snapshot. Because of the accident, I let my guard down and gave her the damn picture. And regretted it as soon as I got that kick-in-the-face response about good memories.   (Heaven forbid she'd say ‘oh wow cool pic thanks.')

About a year ago, I saw her post about moving back east.  I picked up the phone.     

"So where is your new place?"  I asked.

"Why do you need to know that?"  She replied 

I had to question her like a reporter until she revealed that she was living in the basement of her mother's house in Queens. “It's not ideal, but it's only for the time being,” she said with some hesitation. 

“I almost tripped on the icy pavement last week when I went out in the freezing cold to get the mail.   You know what was in the box?”

“No, what?” 

“An invite to my 30 year high school reunion.   Can you believe it?”

It's been said the scoreboard doesn't lie.  By that measure, she didn't have much to boast about.  No job.  No money.  No husband.  No kid.  She could spin it any way she liked.  Her life was not great.

So here I am looking at the computer screen two thousand miles away from her and a bit uneasy. How to deal with her not-unreasonable request?  

Also, not sure how to handle the temptation to have a candid—albeit electronic--tête-à-tête.

I would love to reach my arms through the circuits of cyberspace, grab her by the shoulders and say, “Melissa, what is it with you? What is your problem?  Why can't you get your act together?”

If I had my head handed to me for casually pointing out that some exercise is better than none, I can only imagine the fury that would be unleashed if I dared confront her on her train wreck of a professional life.  Still the temptation was there.

What would I tell her if she wanted my advice?  That's a toughie. What are her options? She could keep doing what she's been doing for the last twenty years and hope it finally pays off.  Blowing up the internet with posts, videos, and chutzpah-redefining articles like What to do at a job interview when you are smarter and better looking than the interviewer?  And her efforts were not limited to the web.  

My eyes opened wide when she mentioned one morning she was about to go out for her monthly Manhattan walka-joba-thon. 

“What is that Melissa?”  I asked, unable to resist.

“The first of every month, weather permitting, I put on my black business suit and strap my black leather briefcase to my shoulder. I pick a New York city skyscraper and go to just about every floor and every suite and if someone opens, I hand them my resume and cover letter asking for an interview.  If they don't open, I slide it under the door.  Sometimes, the security guards kick me out before I can get to every floor. I'm usually able to stop by quite a few suites before that happens. Hasn't led to anything yet, but what have I got to lose, right?”

Didn't Einstein have something to say about doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for different results?  What was it?  I picture myself standing at the foot of Einstein's laboratory. The white and wild-haired haired genius is surrounded by test tubes and flasks, vapors and gases rising from the table in front of him. My throat starts to burn from the intense scent of rubbing alcohol and hydrochloric acid.  Behind him is a giant black chalkboard completely filled with equations in green chalk. I see fractions, “x's, equal signs and some weird symbols that look like crossed out letters in a foreign language I don't recognize.

“Professor Einstein,” I say.  “Sorry to intrude.  I want to ask you about someone I know. For many years now, she has been looking for a job.  She has flooded the internet with images and messages.  Has even gone door to door handing out resumes.  It hasn't worked.  Yet she keeps at it with the same approach. Is there a word for that kind of behavior?

He looks up, shakes his head and utters in a thick German accent, “I believe you are asking a question to which you already know the answer. Now if you vill excuse me…..”  At that, he turns his back to me and glues his eyes to the formula-filled blackboard.  

Point taken.  But what else could she do?   I suppose she could go back to school and get a teaching degree or some vocational certificate that would lead to a steady job. But that would require effort and discipline and having to read dry books and attend uninspiring classes.  Scratch that idea. 

Or she could go to a reputable career counselor and get down and kneel before the Great One as if he (or she) were the Messiah.   And whatever the Lord of the Job Seeker commands, at this point, just do it!  No questions asked.  On the other hand, that might take her out of her comfort zone and land her in a career for which she is ill-suited.

Hmmm.  Could there be an argument for option one?   Could a case be made in favor of insanity?   Granted, the guy who figured out that E equals MC squared was no dummy. But even Einstein didn't have all the answers.  Wasn't his expertise limited to physics?   What the hell did Albert Einstein know about going out and trying to get a job?

I look up at the computer screen, scroll down to the comment section of her post. I type “Melissa, That's what I call the American way.  Great story. Your perseverance and resilience are truly inspiring.  Your unique approach would be an asset to any company.”   Then I click share.

A few moments later, my computer emits an alert that sounds like a referee whistle.  New message from Melissa.

“Thanks!!!,” she writes, followed by a long row of smiley face emojis.

I'm thinking, Good one Jer. Well played.   Maybe this'll score some points with her.   She might even have some second thoughts about me.   It's not that I'd want to restart anything serious with a nut job like that.  But I wouldn't mind hearing her express a little regret.  And if she ever invited me--hell, I might consider flying out to New York some weekend and striking up the band with her for old time's sakes.

Is it possible she could come around? Stop acting so crazy? Maybe even to the point where we could have a meaningful two-way conversation, where I could tell her about an NPR piece on an interesting political issue and not have her cut me off with bimbo drivel about some realty TV show.

It's quiet and dark in my living room.  The only light is the one coming from my thin silver computer monitor.   I sit up in my swivel chair and move away from the gray metal workstation and turn toward the open window and dark blue evening sky.   

Am I dreaming?  Could it never happen?

It's not beyond the realm of possibility.  The universe is not static. Things change, people evolve. Life can be surprising. The unexpected occurs every day. You never know. You never know.