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The Luxury of Encouragement: An Essay for my Father

When I was kid, Dad was juggling two jobs. He had his own business called A Captured Moment Video, with which he would film people’s weddings and edit the footage into romantic montages: 80’s power ballads playing over clips of drunk people dancing and eating cake. But he was also a machinist at Pratt & Whitney. At some point, I can’t remember when, he gave up A Captured Moment Video, and worked exclusively at Pratt & Whitney. But he hated that job. It was of no interest to him. He was never interested in operating machines, or building jet engine parts. He preferred much simpler things in life: nacho chips, whoopee pies, and napping with socks on.

In his last few years at Pratt & Whitney, they managed to reel him into a graveyard shift. I thought he was crazy to accept a job working through his REM cycles, but he told me he couldn’t turn down the subsequent raise. Also, he said, “A job is a job is a job.” I remember thinking that isn’t true. A lion tamer isn’t a secretary and a secretary isn’t a CEO. I also remember calling him Willy Loman when he told me emphatically how much money he would be making.

“Who?” he asked.

“Willy Loman.”

He stared blankly.

“Never mind,” I said.

At first, the added income was nice for our family, since my older brother Jeff was attending St. Joseph’s College, and in a year, I would be attending college as well. But as time moseyed on, the overnight shift seemed to negatively affect Dad’s physical health. Dark circles bloomed under his eyes. His gut grew outward and hung over the waistline of his jeans. His hairline rose high like the tide. The job also took a toll on his social wellbeing. He made Oscar the Grouch look like the first guy you invite to a party.

But it all changed during the summer of 2009, when my parents broke the news to me about Dad’s getting laid off. I had just finished my weekend as a Dirigo Boy’s State delegate at Thomas College in Waterville, Maine, where I got a taste of how what I imagined college life to be: conversations about Salinger over cappuccinos, uncomfortable dorm beds, sleeplessness, and of course, an abundance of parties. I was high with excitement when my parents picked me up, but on the ride home, as my parents admitted that Dad lost his job, the mood in the car shifted.

“So, um, what are you gonna do?” I asked.

“Mom and I decided that I won’t work for a while,” Dad said. “I’ll look for another job down the road.”

I tried to rid the anxious thoughts from my mind. How are they gonna pay for me to go to college? I had big aspirations for myself. Becoming the next Hemingway, interviews with Oprah, Pulitzer Prize(s), etc.

The car ride was mostly quiet until we stopped at a 99 Restaurant for a pee break and a burger. Mom talked of the politics of the country, and how George Bush and the Republican leaders were largely to blame.

“Those damn republicans,” Mom said, pausing to sip her Diet Coke. “They never consider hard working people.”

After the waiter handed us our food, my parents talked about things other than Dad’s unemployment and politics. They talked about my brother Jeff and my sister Katie, but I couldn’t pay attention to what they were saying. I swirled a french fry in my puddle of ketchup, considering the next step in our lives.

*

In the fall of 2009, I entered my senior year at Biddeford High, the school at which, thirty-one years prior, my Dad was a senior. I imagined we were quite different in high school. Older men in town constantly reminded me that my Dad was once an excellent football player. They would tell me about the fumble he recovered against Chevrus in ’78. Yes, I would say, I remember the story, right down to the weather. Dad was someone in high school.

I was a nobody in high school. Behind my floppy hair and flat-brimmed skater hats, I read weird fiction stories by Poe and Miranda July, and I wrote awful minimalist poetry. I thought I was a straight-edge Charles Bukowski in skinny jeans. But no one saw me as such. I was a fag or a tool: a faggy-tool. I had friends, sure, but they were also daringly themselves. High school is a terribly dangerous place to be yourself.

So, by senior year, I looked for any opportunity to spend as much time outside of 20 Maplewood Avenue as possible. The devil on my shoulder said, “Play hooky.” The angel on my shoulder said, “You could do an independent study off campus.”

I took the latter suggestion and ran with it.

At the time, my plan was to teach and write in the summers, so for the fall semester, I shadowed a fifth grade classroom with a man named Mr. Anonymous, an owlish-looking guy who really liked Mickey Mouse. His classroom was like a gift shop in Walt Disney World: Mickey Mouse clock, Mickey Mouse figurines lining the edge of his desk. I sat by his desk with all the Mickeys, stapling papers, grading spelling tests, etc.

The gig was boring, but of the perks was that I was able to drive home after the shift and eat lunch. Those days, Dad was always home. He played the unemployed part well: half asleep, watching game shows. I’d walk in, and from the living room, he’d yell over the T.V.

“How was the internship thing?”

“Eh,” I’s say. “It’s so boring. I don’t know if I could really see myself teaching.”

“A job is a job is a–“

“Yeah yeah yeah,” I would say. “A job is a job is a job.”

Then we would eat lunch. Sometimes he would have food prepared: mixed tuna fish with toasted wheat bread, tuna melts and tater tots, a crockpot of chill, Kraft mac and cheese, etc. Sometimes he’d say, “Hey Greg, I didn’t prepare anything, sorry,” and I’d resort to whatever I felt like making: Ramen or PB & J. Sometimes we’d grab a pizza from one of Biddeford’s many pizza joints. Though the meals we ate changed week to week, the show we watched, however, did not. We always watched The Price is Right, the early episodes of the post-Barker era hosted by Drew Carey.

Dad is the kind of guy who always wanted to be on a game show. He plays the lottery. He buys us scratch tickets for Christmas. He wants to strike big and win millions. Often, after buying a megabucks ticket, I’d ask, “What are you gonna do if you ever win?” There was never a new car, a trip to Barbados, or even season tickets to the Red Sox. It was always the same answer.

“Honestly,” he would say, releasing a breath. “I’d quit my job, and never work again.”

It’s easy to think that by this, Dad was saying all he ever wanted from life was complete, hedonistic luxury: a life of maximized pleasure. This is not the case. Dad simply was never given the encouragement to explore his options. He grew up in that post-mill town mentality that men are built for manual labor, and to do anything that requires higher learning is simply frivolous. But Dad never passed that notion down to me. He has always taken me to bookstores and read my poetry and listened to my rants about how Jack Kerouac is overrated. He has always done anything in his power as a father to make sure I become a writer. He never won the lottery, or made loads of dough on a game show, but he always worked anywhere—a job is a job is a job—to make his kids happy.

So what would I do if I won the lottery? I would give him the luxury of encouragement, the kind he always worked tirelessly to give to me.

By Greg Letellier

Posted by on February 8, 2014. Filed under The Week's End. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.