Paths of Desire (Part II)

(continued, first part in archives from last week)

This same summer I volunteered as an intern for a neurologist at a rehabilitation center in town which specialized in work with people who had suffered traumatic brain injuries. How the mind works fascinated me and I thought this would be a great way to learn more about the mind first-hand. Actually the idea to volunteer came to me from a relatively new friend and mentor who I had met the previous fall named Professor Reynolds.

Everyone called him Monti. He was a retired professor of microbiology who had taught at Harvard and then chaired the department at UC Davis for many years; he also held a patent on a common antibiotic. He was one of the first larger than life kind of people I’ve been fortunate to meet in my life and he used his charismatic skills and personality to serve others in ways that inspired me.  Following my trip to South Africa the local paper had done an article on my time there and through this article Monti found me and called my home one evening. He introduced himself to my mom and asked to speak with me. He said he had been impressed with the article and by my motivation, empathy and courage to learn and build bridges with others. He asked that I come meet him, that he intended to help me in my education, and if I intended to pursue international relations of some kind he would pull strings for me to get into a good program, preferably at Harvard he suggested. This obviously intrigued me, so with my mom, I went to visit him.

I was completely unprepared for what he was doing at his home in his retirement. He lived not far from us, in a modest one-story home in an older development on a quiet residential street. However, as my mom and I approached there was a steady stream of USPS trucks coming and going from his home, and his driveway was lined on both sides with pallets of boxes. As we walked up the driveway, this opened onto a large parking area and backyard also practically filled with pallets of boxes. His garage doors were opened and we could see that his garage was also filled with boxes of all sizes, many opened, and books were strewn all over the garage, on every possible surface. This didn’t look like a home, but rather, it looked like a distribution center of some kind. From the dark of the garage came a bellowing welcome and a moment later Professor Reynolds emerged. He was probably in his late-sixties or early-seventies, a little overweight but in good and vigorous health, fairly tall but slightly hunched over. He wore very thick glasses and his head was covered in very short gray stubble.

He introduced himself with the charm and manners of a diplomat and had us sit down with him in the garage amongst the books and packing materials. We exchanged pleasantries and then he got to business, reiterating his offer to help me. He gave us his full attention and responded appropriately to everything we said. I could clearly see that his mind was able to do this while simultaneously doing quite a lot else as well. While we conversed he continued to sort books, and open letters, of which he had a table full as well as bags filled with more letters at his feet near the small table that seemed to serve as his mission control center. He clearly had some grand mission going on here but I couldn’t tell yet what exactly the mission was. If I believed in Santa I guess I would have to say he must be Santa Claus, since this seemed to fit with the observable data.

It turned out he wasn’t Santa but something even better. Rather than giving toys to good little boys and girls around the globe, he was packing and sending braille books to blind people in nearly every nation throughout the world. The US postal service will deliver braille books and equipment for the blind free of charge anywhere in the world. So Monti started what he called, The World Blind Foundation, and became the distribution point for used braille materials to one hundred forty eight countries at that time by his count. He created relationships with schools for the blind throughout the United States and arranged to have all of their old books, braille machines, canes etc that they would otherwise discard, sent for free to his home, where he would repackage and send, again for free, all over the world to schools and individuals who needed them. This is what all the letters were; requests for braille books, hundreds, perhaps thousands of requests flooding in asking him to please send them this particular book, or that series, or a braille making machine, or canes or a set of encyclopedias. Often he couldn’t find the exact book requested and would have to send whatever he could, but in a surprising number of instances, after reading a letter, often addressed to “Uncle Monti” or some other endearing epithet, he would recall seeing that specific book in some area of the garage, or out in the yard someplace, so he would amble off to find it, eventually returning with it in his hands and a big smile on his face.

This enterprise of his was a great deal of work and he worked tirelessly at it, putting in very long hours, working almost entirely alone, with some help from volunteers. I became one of his volunteers and over the next couple years I would often drop by his house after school or over vacations, to help box books, sort newly dropped off pallets, and read or organize request letters with him. During our time together I learned a great deal from him, about almost any topic, which his mind seemed to have a full grasp of and could explain in detail and accurately, but mainly I saw how he used his gifts, his talents and abilities almost exclusively in service to others and I took this as vital inspiration. He embodied selflessness to a large degree, using a lot of his own money for things the USPS didn’t provide, he lived very frugally, and dedicated nearly all of his time to this venture. It was inspiring but it was also a lot of fun to be with him, he told funny and interesting stories about all sorts of things including his classmate George HW Bush, who happened to be president at the time and who attended Phillips Academy with Monti as a youth. He said George wasn’t a very good student and would try to copy Monti’s homework.

I enjoyed these stories but I also was fascinated to watch Monti in action; he seemed to be able to talk anyone into helping his cause, he was very persuasive. One afternoon he called a businessman in Texas, a very wealthy man who owned businesses around the country. Monti was in need of a new forklift to help load and unload pallets and he had done some research and found a business in New York that had bought several new forklifts and were getting rid of their old ones. This business was owned by the man in Texas so Monti called him up to ask him to donate the old forklifts. He was having difficulty getting through to actually talk with the man since he had multiple levels of security and assistants protecting his time.

Monti finally traced his location to the country club where the man was playing golf. He called the club and asked to speak with this businessman and as you would suspect the club staff weren’t going to bother his golf game.

So Monti told the person on the other line, “Now you tell so and so that his parole officer is fed up with all this monkey business and I’m not going to wait any longer. You get him on the line right now or you let him know I will be sending a squad car out this minute to bring him in, and I don’t think he is going to want a scene.”

Within a few minutes a very irate Texan was on the other line, swearing and demanding to know who the … was calling and why the … are they saying they are his parole officer

Immediately Monti struck a conciliatory tone and humbly asked his forgiveness; on a dime Monti was able to change tone and play the part needed to calm the man down, and then actually make him laugh, and finally ask how he could be of help.

Monti told him about the company in New York, which the man owned, that was giving away the old forklifts, and could he find it in his heart to donate them to help the blind children of the world, he would be doing such a great service to help others in need, and it would help so much. Within a few minutes the Texan had called his company in New York and made the arrangements to ship the forklifts to Monti. A week or so later they arrived at Monti’s house and were immediately put to use helping the blind children of the world, just as Monti had said.

Over the course of our time together I explained to Monti that my career interests weren’t really in international relations but more along the lines of neurology or writing. It turned out he still had quite a few friends and connections at Harvard and he could get me into the neurology program if that is what I wanted. I didn’t doubt it, after seeing how masterfully he could manipulate people and pull strings, but as our talk turned more serious about the matter and the plan began to take shape, with action items and tasks to make it happen, I grew nervous. I couldn’t imagine leaving home, leaving my mom, to go to school on the east coast. The idea was wonderful, but frightening, and I felt lonely again just thinking about it.

One of the action items was to intern with a neurologist over the summer after high school and this is what I began doing, as planned. Mainly I did filing, and flirted a bit with his cute assistant. But I did also get to join him on his rounds with patients and get a feeling for the work. I really enjoyed the people in the rehab center, particularly one young man, my own age, who had a serious motorcycle accident the previous year which left him with some lasting and likely permanent brain damage. By the time we met he had recovered most of his motor skills and also was able to walk again and use his hands, but he had difficulty with speech and, as he told me, his mental processes in some ways were like those of a young child. He had to relearn many things and it was difficult and frustrating sometimes but he said that he was so happy that he had his accident and it changed his life entirely for the better.

I was so surprised to hear that and asked him why, and in what way did he mean this; because he had lost so much mentally and may never recover much of it, and he knew this was a fact. He explained that before his accident he was an angry person, and he couldn’t control his anger; he would explode at people and act in a mean way and hurt people that he cared about. But after the accident all of that went away, he wasn’t angry anymore and he felt happy most of the time. He loved life now whereas before he hated life. Now he loved people and could share that with them whereas before he couldn’t express love much at all. He had been given a new life in the accident and while he couldn’t do or understand things the way he had before, he had a much better life and was much happier in it now.

If I learned nothing else from that summer internship, this conversation with the young man was everything I needed to gain from my time there. Knowing things doesn’t necessarily make us happy; being smart is helpful, and being intelligent can help us get ahead in the world, but more important than this, is knowing ourselves and finding the way to inner peace, joy and love. I determined at that time that my goal in life wouldn’t be to be smart, or to get ahead in the world, but would be to find how to be joyful, to live with peace inside and to do it intentionally; and to understand myself so I wouldn’t require an accident to bring me to this state of mind.


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