cartoon

Gary On My Wayward Son

It came in a text message so short it could have been a tweet. It read: I love you and mom. Gary. And there it was, my son’s first genuine attempt at saying he loves me, sent to us via his older brother’s iPod Touch.

Now, if you’ve read my blog, then you probably know that I have two sons, neither of whom is named Gary. The Gary in question would be my eight year old, Hayden. And if you keep reading, I promise you’ll find out why we call him Gary.

When it comes to Hayden, I struggle with finding the right words to describe him, probably because he is such a dichotomy. The second born, he can be loving and kind one minute, angry and cruel the next. He is moody, he is temperamental, he is high maintenance, he is–dare I say it–me.

Hayden and I are a lot alike, and that’s why we tend to butt heads. When we’re not fighting, we get along famously. He’s the one whose more inclined to run errands with me, to walk the dogs, to go watch a high school basketball game.

But, I have a saying I use on him sometimes when he has tried my patience. I say, “And one day, Hayden, you will have a son of your own. And he will do these things to you, and you will call me on the phone and say ‘Dad, do you believe what he just did? I was never like that, was I?’ And I’ll say, ‘Oh, Hayden, you have no idea. No idea!'”

Our love for each other manifests itself in small ways. He’ll hold my hand when we’re walking in a crowded parking lot or the quiet fields near our house. He’ll rest his head on my shoulder as we sit and watch TV. He lets me kiss him goodnight. He even wants me to lie with him til he falls asleep. Yet, in the eight and a half years I have known him, he has never been able to say “I love you.”

When he was a toddler, I forced a few mumbles out of him, but never a clear expression.

The lack of “I love you, toos” used to bother me. I told myself to just keep saying it, and it would sink in for him to respond. But sometimes, my annoyance with his silence made me petulant. One night last year, I remember putting him to bed. Like every night, I tucked him in, kissed him and said:

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And in return, I got this:

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To which I said in an annoyed tone:

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To which Hayden responded:

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“SORT OF!?” I shouted, echoing him.

“Yeah,” he replied, “it means a little.”

So I gave up. I no longer cajoled. I never begged. I just kept saying it and meaning it. And in the past year, I’ve noticed him get more thoughtful about it. I see the smile on his face when we say those words to him. I see his eyes beam when we tell him how much he means to us. The other night, I tucked him in and did my routine of tickling/stealing kisses from him. When our game ended, and I went to give him his “official” goodnight kiss, I heard him whisper “fifteen.” “Fifteen what?” I asked. “Kisses. You gave me fifteen kisses.” I had two thoughts–well three: One–that’s a bit excessive. Two–how cute that he counted. And three–how much longer will he let me kiss him goodnight?

I do not know the answer to that. What I do know is that this boy understands he is loved. And I know it is reciprocated. A week ago, Hayden became sullen (for the tenth time that day). “What’s wrong, sweetie?” my wife asked him. He shared with her how he does love us, but he is not comfortable saying it. “Do you want me to tell dad?” she asked. He nodded yes. She obliged.

“No problem, buddy,” I said.  “We know you do. People show their love through their actions.” (My little passive aggressive/reverse psychology attempt at getting him to be nicer).

Then a few days after sharing his hesitation with us, we get the text. From our son…Gary. Hayden’s nickname came about as a coping mechanism. As a toddler, when he would pitch a fit, I’d say, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists.” This seemed a little extreme. Besides, I didn’t want to be blamed for giving him the idea if he became one, so I had to change my approach. When we thought of Hayden’s temper, Pam and I would joke about the boy in the movie Parenthood with Steve Martin. Dianne Wiest’s character had a son named Gary (played by a young Joaquin “Leaf” Phoenix). He was so angry and anti-social, yet she killed him with kindness. “Hi, Gaaaaaaarrrrrry,” she’d say with her sweet smile and kind voice. Gary was batshit crazy, but his mom was going to love him sane.

Pam and I took to saying “Hi, Gaaaarrrrrry” when Hayden became especially inconsolable.  As good parents, we tried to do it behind his back, or when he was out of earshot, and it was surprisingly therapeutic. “Hi, Gaaarrrrrrry” had the effect of a deep, relaxing breath. And as we slowly let our Gaaarrryyyy comments creep into our dealings with him, it became a way for us to try to kill Hayden with kindness. “What’s wrong, Gaaarrry?” “Awww, are you mad, Gaaarrry?” Our Gaaarrrrys would be extra long, an octave too high, and more sugary than a powdered donut.

As the years passed, the name found its way into more of our everyday lives. Now, it’s not uncommon to greet Hayden as Gary when he comes in the house from school or play. At first, Pam told me not to, but he piped in with, “No, I like it!” Oh, we still whip out our Gaaarrrry when he starts to act up, but Hayden has taken to the name–he has never seen Parenthood, although we did tell him about Dianne Wiest’s devil child.  Truth is, the more the name sticks, the less like Gary our Gary  Hayden is. How’s that for irony?

So, when I get a text from a kid named Gary who claims his love for me, I know I’m making progress. And when I get that phone call from him years from now about his own son’s behavior, I’ll say, “Put Gary on the phone, I want to talk to him.”

Cartoons by the talented artist Aidan Murphy.

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XOXO

The following comic was inspired by a previous post of the same title.

Whenever my wife travels for work, she peppers the house with little post-it notes of affection for all. And she likes to put them everywhere.

A note like this will greet me when I come downstairs for my morning coffee.

xoxoxo

And there will be notes for the boys on their cereal bowls.

xoxo

We come across them in familiar spots throughout the day–from beginning to end.

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Last year, as I was putting the boys to bed, they finally became intrigued about the ubiquitous XOXO that adorns all of her messages.

At bedtime, I usually sit in the hall while the boys settle into sleep. I had just opened a book when Hayden (then 6) called out from his room, “What does XOXO mean?”

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“Or is it kisses and hugs? X is for kisses and O is for hugs,” I clarify.

“Okay,” says Hayden. Their rooms grow quiet. I continue reading by the glow of the nightlight.

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It’s strange, but I actually enjoy this time, sitting on the hard floor in the drafty hallway. The boys are safely tucked in for the night and I get lost in a book. I am just that when Owen pipes in from his room.

“Dad, what’s sex?”

My eyes shoot up from my book, panic-stricken.

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Why is he asking about sex? What the hell have they been watching? What should I do? Pam’s away!

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I think back to how goofy and innocent these two are. Like the time I thought they were coloring when they were really doing this with all of their crayons:

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I can handle telling them how to properly use their crayons. But this is another matter altogether.

I take a breath, about to say, “Sex is something that mommies and daddies do when…” Just then, Hayden yells from his bedroom.

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I exhale a sigh of relief. He was asking about X! X is a kiss. X is a kiss. “Goodnight you two!” I say, relieved. “Goodnight!” they reply, innocently.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Post Script:

As I reflect on this incident over a year later, two things stand out. One, my mind really has gone to shit since having kids. I was not capable of recalling the conversation the boys and I were having minutes ago–I actually thought he was asking about sex, not X! That quickly, the thought is gone.

Second, in hindsight, I understand why I became so panicky in this situation. It’s not that I’m afraid for my boys to have such knowledge. Pam and I have always wanted to be open and honest with them–from the start, we’ve called things by their anatomical names in this house. No “noodle” or “woohoo”–two terms I’ve heard other parents use for penis and vagina. And I do think I would have begun the conversation as I did in my head: “Sex is something that mommies and daddies do to show they love each other…” And in time, that conversation would have developed into “Sex is something that two people do when they love each other…” It’s not the topic, per se, but the realization that I must be prepared at any time to confront questions my sons will have, and to answer them in an honest and respectful way.

I don’t think my panic arose from them knowing about sex, but just that it came out of nowhere. Even though it wasn’t even the question they had, I was reminded about the fact that, like all things in life, we cannot be prepared–we never know when something will occur. We cannot schedule the conversation, block off a half hour of our time for discussion, then cross it off our to-do list. Kids remind us that life is unpredictable, and we must try to be ready for anything.  ANYTHING!

XOXO,

Dadicus

To see how I handled a similar situation this year, click here .

MEET THE CARTOONIST: Jimmy Murphy
When he’s not performing Shakespearean Sonnets at The Great Wall of China, Jimmy Murphy draws everything from the creatures that haunt his imagination, to the ones that haunt his 9th grade reading curriculum, to the squishy noseless people like those seen on this website [figure1]. Although not yet at the peak of his popularity, artistically or high schoolistically, this fourteen year-old has been drawing since he could hold a crayon–the first recorded drawing being a rainbow–[figure 2]. Jimmy’s artistic influences include Shawn CossGris Grimly, and himself. He enjoys reading a good book, ranting about things he hates, raving about things he likes, sleeping, and can be endlessly entertained with a label-maker [figure 3].
[1] Jimmy.1 (1)      [2] Jimmy.2        [3] Jimmy.3 (1)

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Swimming in Loch Ness

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I try to be very calm in my approach to life–at peace with the world, aware of the positive forces in my presence, appreciative of the beauty and joy that surround me. But try as I may, the anger seems to dwell just below the surface. On the outside I am tranquil, but on the inside, I am one negative encounter away from reeling. Emotionally, I feel like I am floating along on a raft in the warm water on a sunny day–on Loch Ness. The surface is smooth, it beckons me to relax, but the prehistoric monster lurks just beneath, waiting to rear its long neck and swallow me whole. Curse you Nessie!

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The reminders of this struggle bombard me daily.

After school, I happily make the boys a snack, glad to have this time to unwind with them at the kitchen counter. THEN, I spy some jerk out the window speeding down our street. I immediately seethe, envisioning myself chasing down the car, climbing on the hood, stomping in the roof, and yelling:

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At a recent basketball game for my 9 year-old, I try to be supportive of all the kids–even cheering when the other team sinks a great shot. But there, on the bleachers, is one dad–only one–who keeps barking at his son for all the wrong things he is doing. I try to ignore him, but his negativity gets the best of me. I fantasize about walking over to him and screaming: 

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Ahhhh. The rage subsides, but it leaves a sting.

These dream-like confrontations make me feel better momentarily, but then deflated in the long run. I cannot be so confrontational in life–even if only in my mind. Too often, I feel like I got my approach to parenting not from Dr. Spock or Dr. Phil, but from Dr. Banner–you know, David Banner, aka The Incredible Hulk (Mr. McGee, don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.)

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But, every so often, the world teaches me a valuable lesson about this struggle. Such a reminder occurred the other day when my boys were sledding in the fields behind our house.

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I wait for a groan, but I’m met with  enthusiasm.

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It was idyllic. The dogs frolicked through the white, powdery trails, and I could hear the boys’ shouts of delight as they raced down the hill. The air was crisp and the sun danced through the barren branches. I became more elated with every step.

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As I made my way out of the woods, I saw that more kids had joined my two–about seven in all.

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I wanted the dogs to remain off leash, so I continued to watch the sledding action from afar. Owen (9), was now attempting to ride his snowboard–something he has adapted to quite nicely. As he came down the slope, I noticed he fell right after he passed two older boys–middle schoolers, perhaps.

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No parent likes to see his kid fall, but I was proud he got up right away to try again. My radar was raised, though: “Who are those kids? I don’t recognize them.” I watched him trudge up the hill for another attempt. The same thing occurred–he cruised down the trail effortlessly, only to fall immediately after he passed the two boys, who erupted into some kind of shout when he tumbled. My mind raced: Those #@!@##$$#@%! They’re making Owen fall. They’re teasing him and making him self-conscious, and then laughing when he hits the ground. JERKS!

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I decide I will get closer and yell at them. Something like, “Yo, knock it off! At least he’s trying. I don’t see you two making any attempts! Leave him alone!”

I rehearse my diatribe in my head, reminding myself not to call them any names, and then I get distracted by one of the dogs–it seems Huck has chased after a deer.

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By the time Huck comes back, Owen has switched to the sled again, and seems content. I call over to them, trying to detect any stress in his voice. “You guys ready?”

“No, Dad! Can’t we stay–just a few more runs?”

“Okay!” I am relieved–and those two punks should be, too. Lucky to be spared of my wrath.

On the walk home, the boys are cold and snow-caked. They each hold a dog leash while I carry the sled and snow board. I try to get a sense of what happened with the other boys.

“Did you know any of those kids?”

“No,” they reply.

“Were they all nice?”

“Yeah,” they say.

As if I just thought of it, I say, “Hey, I saw you fall a couple of times when you were on your snowboard after you made it all the way down the hill.”

“I know. Those guys were trying to teach me how to stop,” Owen replies.

“How. To. Stop?”

“Uh-huh.”

“They were helping you?”

“Yeah, but it’s really hard to learn how to stop. Every time I tried, I’d slide out of control, and we’d just all crack up.”

“Oh. Well, that’s cool. I’m glad they could give you some tips.”

They were trying to help. They were teaching him. They were laughing WITH him.

SIGH.

Water splashes me from Nessie’s tail as he swims back under the surface–I’ve spared you THIS time, it seems to say. But what about next time? I think.

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**************

Why do I constantly see the conflict in everything?

When it comes to parenting, there is a fine line between protecting and over-protecting our children. I am aware that I must teach my sons to address their own conflicts in life. I cannot fight their battles for them. But more importantly, I want to instill in them a sense of awareness: not to view the conflict in everything, not to feel constantly embattled.

The best way to teach this is by example. If I continue to allow anger to thrive, I will never be able to fully enjoy where life is leading me.

I want this sledding incident to serve as a reminder for me. I want to recall it the next time I am quick to judge a situation.

 But most importantly, I want to find a new lake to rest on–one that doesn’t house monsters–real or imaginary.

Take that, Nessie!

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MEET THE CARTOONIST: Jimmy Murphy
When he’s not performing Shakespearean Sonnets at The Great Wall of China, Jimmy Murphy draws everything from the creatures that haunt his imagination, to the ones that haunt his 9th grade reading curriculum, to the squishy noseless people like those seen on this website [figure1]. Although not yet at the peak of his popularity, artistically or high schoolistically, this fourteen year-old has been drawing since he could hold a crayon–the first recorded drawing being a rainbow–[figure 2]. Jimmy’s artistic influences include Shawn Coss, Gris Grimly, and himself. He enjoys reading a good book, ranting about things he hates, raving about things he likes, sleeping, and can be endlessly entertained with a label-maker [figure 3].
[1] Jimmy.1 (1)      [2] Jimmy.2        [3] Jimmy.3 (1)