Title: Chief Complaint, Brain Tumor
Author: John Kerastas
Publisher: Sunstone Press
Purchase a copy here
At 57 years old, John Kerastas thought he was the poster child for fifty-year old healthiness: he competed in triathlons, rode in 100 mile biking events and ate a healthy diet chock full of organic vegetables. Then he discovered that he had a brain tumor the size of his wife’s fist. His memoir chronicles the first year he spent addressing tumor-related health issues: preparing for his first operation, discovering a dangerous skull infection, having the infected portion of his skull surgically removed, learning about his substantial vision and cognitive losses, undergoing rehab and radiation treatments, and learning to live with his “new normal.” According to Kerastas, the phrase “new normal” is the medical community’s code words for “You’re alive, so quit complaining.” As his health changed, so did his sense of humor. He writes that his humor started out superficially light-hearted prior to the first operation; transmogrified into gallows humor after several subsequent operations; and leveled out as somewhat wry-ish after radiation and rehab. This is a surprisingly upbeat and inspiring book for anybody interested in memoirs about people dealing with personal crises, for patients trudging through rehab, for caretakers helping victims of serious illnesses, or for anybody looking for an unexpected chuckle from an unlikely subject. JOHN KERASTAS has worked at a global advertising agency, at several technology start-up companies and as a free-lance writer. Now, in addition to non-profit and charitable work, he spends his time blogging, speaking and writing about brain health, brain tumors and rehab.
You can follow his blog or view his presentations schedule at www.johnstumor.blogspot.com.
My Brief and Unsuccessful Career in Telemarketing
“Remember, don’t let anyone off the phone until they’ve said ‘no’ at least 3 times.”
Thus began my job as a telemarketer during the summer after my freshman year of college. I was chronically couch surfing at the time and had finally found a friend willing to lease me a semi-permanent spot on his sleeper sofa for $125 a month which, of course, I didn’t have. Besides that, I was driving a decrepit 1986 Mitsubishi Gallant, purchased for $800 cash off a sketchy used car lot from a guy named Lou, who did a masterful job of distracting me with the merits of the power sunroof so I wouldn’t notice its complete lack of shocks or tire treads or the bluish clouds of burning oil belching from the tailpipe. Predictably, I think it took less than a week for it to break down, which it would continue to do with great regularity until finally bursting into flames on the freeway several months later – a fact to which I was frantically alerted by numerous wildly gesturing passengers in the cars around me.
In any case, between my shaky living situation and my junk heap of a car, I needed to find a job. Since the entirety of my resume at the time looked something like this:
Previous Work Experience:
- Cook, Hardees Restaurant.
It certainly wasn’t going to be anything spectacular. Really not spectacular, as it turned out. I was going to be a telemarketer.
When Mark or Mike or Mmm…some name beginning with an M hired me, he gave me an uncomfortably enthusiastic pep talk about the vast amounts of money I could make if I could learn to heed the golden rule of telemarketing.
“Remember,” he said, “don’t let anyone off the phone until they’ve said ‘no’ at least 3 times.”
It could have been worse. I wasn’t going to be hawking herbal breast enlargement or natural male enhancement products or miraculous, revolutionary, life-changing home cleaning solutions. I was going to be raising money for some kind of benevolent police officers’ association, which seemed noble enough on the face of it. My task was to sell people on one of three memberships packages (the names of which I cannot recall, but I’m sure they were something unbearably cheesy like “Rookie,” “Sergeant,” and “Chief of Police).” The strategy was to start people with the most expensive package and then to “walk them down the ladder” each time they refused, plying them with alluring incentives like, “You can STILL get the window decal at this level, but for twenty dollars less!” Keeping them on the phone until they either bit on one of the packages or refused all three was the yardstick by which our performance was measured by (Max? Mort?), who hawkishly observed each word out of our mouths, hunting for mistakes to publicly correct.
My first few days on the phones were disastrous. For some reason, most likely out of extreme discomfort, I adopted a bizarre phone demeanor that made me sound like a pubescent middle-schooler trying to keep his voice from cracking (think: that kid who works at Krusty Burger on the Simpsons). By week two, however, I started to get into the rhythm of it, casually sloughing off the “no’s” and the hang-ups, and tactfully wrangling a respectable number of new memberships each night. By week three I was one of the top sellers on the floor, walking people down the ladder with ease, selling with self-assured confidence and style. Micky? was thoroughly pleased with me.
After grinding out thousands of phone calls, you start to develop the ability to identify “types” of people on the other end of the line, and to adjust your sales pitch accordingly. I quickly learned what messages appealed to parents, to hunters, to angry white men, to suburbanites, to farmers. In community organizing terms, I’ve since learned that this process is called “finding people’s self-interest.” At the time, though, it was much less about building people’s power and much more about removing hard-earned money from their pockets. And I was good at it.
Of all the people I encountered on the phones, none were more reliable customers than the senior citizens, though. They would listen intently and reply interestedly with endearingly old-fashioned exclamations like, “Ya don’t say!” They would interrupt me to ask me where I was calling from, where did I grow up, was I married, did I have kids. Despite these efforts to sidetrack the conversation, I would doggedly return to the script and they would, more often than not, end up buying. They were my bread and butter, comprising the lion’s share of my sales.
At times, they would end up telling me their stories, too. Some of them, of course, were classic septuagenarian tales of grandkids and gardens and good ol’ days, but others were darker and more melancholic, about fixed incomes and absent families and partners who had passed away. It was startling how honest they would be with me on the phone; how openly they would reveal their deepest regrets and closest-held memories. It seemed the saddest ones would always buy the most from me.
It took me awhile to understand they didn’t care what I was selling. The truth was they didn’t give a damn about the police officers’ association. They were paying just to have someone to talk to. Tucked away in assisted living facilities, stubbornly clinging to their lifelong homes, scraping by on meager Social Security and Medicare payments, they might be handing me a quarter of their total monthly income, not to become proud supporters of the police, but just to have someone listen to them for a little while. There weren’t just a few of them on my call lists each night, but A LOT of them.
I realized, that summer after my freshman year in college, that there are so many truly lonely people in the world. You could spend your whole life just listening to them.
It was, at that point, that my career as a telemarketer took a sudden and irrevocable turn. I simply stopped trying to sell anything at all. I would ask people about their lives and their families. I would listen to their stories and answer all of their questions about my life and my plans for the future. I sat in the middle of my sweltering, overcrowded call center and laughed and cried and shared dreams and experiences with dozens of people, and not all of them senior citizens either – dozens of lonely people, so excited to have someone to talk to that they would show their hearts to a complete stranger.
In the back of the call center, Matt? would sit at a computer that monitored all of our call rates for the night. From there, he could see how many calls we were making, how long each lasted, and how many sales we were banking per hour. For the past couple of weeks, I had always been at the top of the leader board, and he would constantly use me as an example of the “kind of drive and productivity we need.” Now, I had plummeted to the bottom of the pile, even behind Kyle, who spent the majority of his five-minute breaks smoking pot in his car and obsessively calling his ex-girlfriend. There was actually one 4-hour shift during which the computer recorded that I had talked to a total of 5 people for an average of 45 minutes each with no sales. I’m-pretty-sure-his-name-was-Mark had finally had enough and pulled me aside.
“What happened? How could you talk to FIVE people in a 4-HOUR shift and make NO sales?”
“I don’t know what to tell you, Mark. I guess I lost my touch.”
“Well, you’ve got one more chance to get it back or I’m going to have to get rid of you.”
“You don’t need to get rid of me, man. I don’t think this is the job for me anyway.”
Thus ended my brief and unsuccessful career in telemarketing.