Saturday, June 29, 2013

Finding the silver lining.

Bad stuff happens to you in this life. It's inevitable. The secret to life is snatching something good away from the bad, finding the silver lining in the dark cloud. Almost thirty years ago I was sitting in the office of my pre-medical dean when he delivered the bad news: he wasn't going to write my letter of recommendation for admission to medical school. At first, I didn't think I'd heard him properly. (Of course I must have misheard him--my grades were good, my MCAT scores were even better, and the dean and I had always gotten along nicely, even when he trounced me in raquetball, which he did routinely.) But I had heard him correctly, there would be no letter forthcoming. And, at Holy Cross College, that meant you couldn't apply, because every application had to have a letter from the person in his position, and he wasn't going to write one--just then.

I naturally asked him why, and to this day I remember the gist of his response. I had potential, Dr. Mc Grath said, but it was unrefined, raw. I would make an excellent doctor some day, he said, but I would never survive medical school in my current condition, (making me wonder if I had some kind of disease he wasn't telling me about.) And then he put his long arm over my shoulders and ushered me out of the office, after extolling the virtues of making my own path. "Come back in a few years, Peter, and I will write that letter for you."

I have to be honest: I wasn't seeing a lot of sliver linings on my walk back to my dorm. I was, however, thinking about the reaction I was going to get from my parents when I told them that, after all the money they had spent on college, I wasn't going to medical school after all. Fortunately, my father answered the phone, and my father (who is dead, by the way, but I like to talk about him in the present tense, because I prefer to believe he is still with me, bringing me the guidance I sorely need) is a patient and thoughtful man. "He's right, Peter," my dad said, "you've got to grow up first."

And so, one year later, rather than truck off to medical school, I packed all my belongings into two brown LL Bean canvas duffels (I still own them!) and boarded a flight for Germany. I had landed a job as a chemistry teacher at an international high school in Salzburg, Austria, a job which--yup, you guessed it--Dr. McGrath had helped me obtain. I will never forget the feeling of landing in Frankfurt, collecting my duffels from baggage claim, and then thinking, "Ok, now what?" My first thought was to get a luggage cart, because my bags were heavy, but an old lady grabbed the last one to carry her 3 pound handbag as I trudged around with 150 pounds in two glorified grocery bags with shoulder straps that had been designed to cut as deeply as possible into your trapezius muscle. So I carried my bags to the light rail and eventually found the train station (by eventually I man after taking two consecutive wrong trains). By the time I was on the train to Salzburg I was exhausted, and so you will not be surprised to hear I slept through my stop only to be awakened by the conductor and forced off the train at Klagenfurt. (Where is that silver lining?)

You should be aware that my father had recommended I learn German that previous summer, and I had, per usual, not listened to him. (Perhaps you can see where Dr. McGrath was coming from?) My only preparation for my new life had been to listen to the first side of a Berlitz audiotape on introductory German on the flight to Frankfurt. {Alles ist gruen here!} Such was my state of mind back in those days that I thought I would be fluent in three hours of listening. I was not!

The next three years that followed are still etched into mind like commandments onto a stone tablet. I won't bore you with all the grisly details, but suffice it to say that I a) will bore you with the grisly details b) met a lot of incredible people c) enjoyed a lifetime of adventure d) drank a lot of Stiegl and e) learned a lot about myself.

When I returned to the states after three years I went back to see Dr. McGrath. And, true to his word, he wrote that letter for me, and off I went to medical school. It took about three days for me to realize he had been so right about so many things. Medical school would have chewed me up and spit me out should have I have gone straight after college--not that it didn't try those three years later. I honestly can't imagine what my life would be like had I never gone to Salzburg (my former students--you know who you are--are undoubtedly saying something similar, such as "maybe it wouldn't have taken me six years to get through college if Hogenkamp hadn't been my Chemistry teacher.") I might have turned out to be a... gasp.. surgeon or (dare I say it) a radiologist instead of a family doctor.

All kidding aside, bad stuff is in store for you and the ones you love. That's life. But I can tell you this, the bad stuff will all be lined with silver. Your task is to find the lining and decorate your life with it.

cheers, peter

Peter Hogenkamp is a physician and author living in Rutland, Vermont. Peter's writing credits include ABSOLUTION, the first book of The Jesuit thriller series; THE LAZARUS MANUSCRIPT, a stand-alone medical thriller; and The Intern, a serialized novel based loosely on Peter's internship, published bi-weekly on #Wattpad. Peter can be found on his Author Website as well as his personal blog, PeterHogenkampWrites, where he writes about most anything. Peter is the founder and editor of Prose&Cons; a frequent contributor and reviewer at ReadWave; the founder and moderator of groups on Facebook (The Library), Google+ (Fiction Writers Anonymous); and a Beta-reader at StoryShelter. Peter tweets--against the wishes of his wife and four children--at @phogenkampvt and @theprosecons. He can be reached at or through his literary agent (Liz Kracht of Kimberely Cameron & Associates) at