Hi! It's R. Eric Thomas. From the internet?
This is going to be a different sort of newsletter this week. So, I have this story about going to see the Ryan Gosling movie First Man with my father-in-law, Rick, that I like to tell. I know I've told it in this newsletter before so I went looking for it but since this site doesn't have a good search function, whenever I'm trying to find something I wrote in the past I just google a random selection of words along with "rericthomas" like a megalomaniac. So, I googled "First man gosling rericthomas" (like I do every Sunday) because I like the story and it's a funny story and I wanted to reshare it as I try to thread a strange, terrible needle. On Monday, Rick, the father of my beloved husband, died very unexpectedly. It was one of those things where at 3:30pm on Monday I was sitting in the front yard mulching because that's a thing I do now and wondering what was for dinner. And then at 7pm we were on a plane heading to Oregon. And that's where we've been ever since. It's, as you may know, a totally overwhelming situation and a strange mix of the pain of the moment with the joy of being able to see David's mom for the first time in probably two years and being able to tell stories and be together.
I've learned so much from David over the course of our marriage about the power and importance of showing up and being present. It's one of the things I've been hungriest for as the effects of the pandemic start to recede. And I've been recommitting myself to being there, face-to-face, for the people I care about. I, personally, don't feel like technology--Zoom, Facetime, text--are satisfactory substitutes and I've been clamoring for the real thing.
And what is the real thing now anyway? It's peculiar to clear my schedule of virtual meetings and appointments with the explanation that I can't be here in front of my laptop at this time because I am... here... often in front of my laptop. The beauty (and perhaps the danger) of our modern times is that it doesn't matter where you are. But--not to put too fine a poetic point on it--for those we love, for the important parts of life, it matters very much where you are. And so we're here. One of the things I forgot during this last year, I think, was the intensity of presence.
When I thought about how to be here as I normally am in this newsletter where I tell jokes and seriously consider JLo's relationship status, the only way I could figure to do it was to think about the funny stories I have about Rick. And my favorite is the one about going to see First Man with him--a real shocker of a movie; did you know they landed on the moon?!--and at the climax, turning to him and finding him... not there. So, I googled it to link to it or maybe to post a rerun in this issue like a Golden Girls "eating cheesecake and remembering episode" and I found this newsletter, #95, from 2018. And I read it, and I laughed, but I was very confused because I remembered telling it differently and I wondered where all that stuff was. So, I went back to google and looked at the second result which was this newsletter, #196, from 2020. Unbeknownst to me, I told the same dang story two years and two weeks after the first time I told it. I never repeat stories in the newsletter (at least I don't think I do but now who knows?) That's how much I was tickled by Rick's nonchalant reaction to Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon. (Well, Ryan Gosling setting foot on the moon, which is, arguably, not as impressive. No shade to Ryan Gosling but let's be honest.)
Rick was a real character and, as a professional Dramatic Person, I love characters. I was intimidated by him for much of my relationship with David--a big, tall guy with strong opinions who had a love of Father-in-Law subjects (fishing, Doing Business, cars, probably James Bond films) and a propensity to take us out to expensive steak dinners during the period when David and I didn't have two nickels to rub together. Oh! Dinner reminds me of another Rick story; stop me if you've heard this one (you haven't; I googled it). There was a time, early in our relationship, when I'd been in the process of applying for a job I really, really wanted for months. I'd applied, submitted secondary materials, interviewed. I made the final two and then... nothing. They were still deciding, they said. For weeks. Then months. This was a non-profit, not, like, the Pentagon, so this was outrageous behavior. It had gotten to the point where I was getting deeply discouraged because the lack of decision had started to feel personal. Why wasn't I good enough to say yes to? What about me inspired such indifference? Why couldn't I seem to move ahead in my career?
Rick came to Philly and took us out to lunch. Like a witness in an interrogation room, I started just spilling my guts to him out of nerves while David was in the bathroom. I always feel like father figures want to hear about your professional momentum and I, completely misunderstanding this, decided to entertain my then-boyfriend's father with stories of my various failings in the field of General Capitalism. By all accounts, Rick had a brilliant mind for business, which I sort of knew but didn't really understand the extent of until later. I honestly don't know what anyone does for work and I don't think I ever will. If I had known how skilled he was at business, I like to believe that I would have been more restrained or gussied up my lackluster resumé, but you and I both know that I wouldn't have. Rick worked in direct mail marketing and telemarketing and did very well at it. It feels like such a fascinatingly 80s and 90s job--mailing things to people and figuring out how to get them to respond; calling them on a landline back when people still answered the phone. It feels, in my creative estimation, like an exciting confluence of old technology with new ways of living and communicating and reaching people. He was such a whiz at it, for instance, that one year an envelope company gave him an award. The award was, like, Most Envelopes. It came with a plaque! As someone who deeply enjoys just hanging out at Office Depot, I would love to be worthy enough to get an award from an envelope company. This is one of my chief goals.
Anyway, I told Rick about all of my issues just trying to get this one simple job that I was sure I was perfect for but simply wouldn't reply to me. And Rick looked at me appraisingly and then said "You need to write them a letter and give them an ultimatum." I nodded obediently but then I said, "Yeah, I don't know if that's a great idea for me." He apparently wasn't looking for feedback at this time because he continued, "You need to tell them that they're not going to find anyone better than you, they're crazy to be jerking you around like this, and that if they don't hire you they're going to regret it. Then tell them that they need to respond to you by next week." I had been nodding vigorously this entire time. He stopped talking and I realized that I should probably speak now and perhaps revise my earlier sentiment. "Okay, I will!" I said. "Can we get dessert?"
Of course, what I really wanted to say was "That is very interesting Rick but haranguing a job into hiring me does seem a little bit like white nonsense. But thanks for paying for this burger; it is very expensive and I absolutely have no money."
After we'd parted ways, however, I thought about his advice and I realized I had nothing to lose by being more assertive. I remembered that he did something very important with Business and Associates and Accounts Receivable and such and so maybe there were worse strategies than sending an epistolary wig-snatching to a local board of directors. I wrote what I felt at the time was the craziest, most audacious letter ever composed. I wrote a letter that was like "Don't make me come down there and give you a piece of my mind. Maybe I please have insurance and vacation days, dammit?!" I sent it. The non-profit replied the next day. They offered me the job three days later. I couldn't believe that Rick was right. It's taken me these last 6 years to realize that not only was he giving me Businessman Father-in-Law advice, but he was also telling me to do direct marketing of a sort. Send a letter, get a response. Remind them who the hell you are, even if you don't know yet. Reach out, show up. Use an envelope.
did you know they landed on the moon?!,