Sunday, June 19, 2005


In Which Father and Son Find Jules of Wisdom...

My son's name is Thomas. As in "Doubting Thomas."

I don't write about him a lot, certainly not compared to the press his sister gets here at the Masthead. Which is ironic, actually, because I spend tons more time with him than I do with The Brownie, but the stuff we do together tends to be pretty ordinary guy stuff. Whereas my interactions with The Brownie always seem to border on being An Event, and so therefore worth a blog.

But I think about Thomas a lot. Worry about him. Maybe even more than his sister. When I was younger I remember accusing my mom of favoring my brother over me, because he always seemed to get loads more attention. There was always something going on with him that she had to see to, and it probably skinned my nose a bit. I expected my mom to tell me I was being stupid and that she loved us both equally, but what she ended up saying was something to the effect that, yes, it probably seemed like she didn't pay as much attention to me because she didn't have to worry about me as much as my brother. That she trusted me more. That she knew I was going to be just fine, no matter what. Quite a thing for a younger brother to hear, even if I didn't quite understand what she meant.

Now I'm starting to. The Brownie is just a fount of confidence and self-possession. The other day, I asked her if there was anything she was scared of. She thought a moment, then said, "Bears. But that's a good thing to be scared of because there are none around here."

"But what if there were?" I asked. "What if they had a cave in our back yard?"

She thought a moment, then shrugged. "Well," she said. "We'd just have to live with it, Dad." This from a 4-year-old.

My son, who is 6 and a big, smart, strong kid, is full of self-doubt and scared of everything. Loud noises. Empty rooms. The basement. Being in the bathroom by himself. He's a very intense, anxious kid. Much like my brother. He's very hard on himself and has almost no self-confidence. Much like Her Lovely Self. He also has a hard time focusing, and probably has inherited some of those ADHD genes which my brother has in spades (and which I have in smaller measure). Sometimes he gets so wound up, he's like a poodle, just sitting there at the table, or in bed, trembling and worrying. About nothing. About everything. Some days, I fear that he got all the worst tendencies both sides of our family have to offer. And then I feel enormous guilt, which is always a surprise. Before I became a dad, I had always assumed guilt flowed one way: from the parent to the child. But now I've come to realize whatever guilt trips we may lay on our kids (or had laid on us) are nothing compared to what parents feel just in the normal course of a day.

I spend a lot of time with my son, not because I feel this guilt. I just find that he's at an age where I CAN do a lot of things with him that I can't do with his sister. And it seems that the more time I spend with him, whether it's reading Dick and Jane books, or drawing pictures together, it helps him. When he was littler, he would get so frustrated if a drawing didn't turn out like he saw it in his head, he'd rip it to shreds. Now, at least, he gets that he needs to practice and he sees how he's improved. He's an amazing artist for 6, and will draw all day if left alone. It seems like a good thing to encourage, so I do.

And every so often, it seems to pay off. I see some glimmer of a stronger, more confident nature.

Case in point: We were noodling around the Web a while back and we came upon the Web site of Jules Feiffer. The guy has pretty much done everything. He started in comics, working with one of the masters, Will Eisner. He's won an Oscar for animation, a Pulitzer for cartooning. His stuff is shown in the galleries and museums like the MOMA. And the guy also writes and draws children's books. Two of Thomas' favorites are Bark, George (about a dog who meows and clucks and moos, but can't bark) and Some Things Are Scary, a book that my son naturally gravitated to.

At Mr. Feiffer's Web site, you can send an email. When Thomas saw this, he begged me to help him write a letter. "I can tell him about my drawings and maybe send him some," he said. Well, we couldn't upload images of his drawings, and I was pretty sure the email would just go to a Web administrator, but I didn't want to discourage him. And after all, I had done something similar with Carlton Fisk, so who knew? Maybe he'd answer.

So we wrote a formal letter, complete with our address. Thomas said how much he liked Some Things Are Scary and how much he admired Mr. Feiffer's drawings and how he hoped to draw books like Mr. Feiffer some day. It was a nice little letter from a 6-year-old. I added a little postscript as the dad, we hit "send" and didn't think anything more about it.

Til this came in the mail four weeks later:


"I'm glad you don't find writing letters scary -- and since you don't and your Dad says you draw every day, I'd love to see something by you."

That weekend was a flurry of activity for Thomas. You'd have thought he was preparing for his own gallery showing. He couldn't decide what to send him (and my God, he's got a lot of drawings to choose from). In the end, we settled on a picture of a dinosaur fleeing an exploding volcano (dinosaurs are a favorite subject), and a watercolor of a wolf in a field of flowers.

Thomas dictated another letter, in which he explained he didn't do many paintings because his mom thought it was messy, and did Mr. Feiffer's mom bug him about getting the kitchen table messy?

He wrapped up his letter with this sentence:

"Hope you like my pictures. Now it's your turn. I would love to see you draw a dinosaur."

I sighed and stopped typing. I tried to explain to Thomas just how important Jules Feiffer was. That the man's sketches sold for hundreds of dollars at exhibits and shows. That it might be inappropriate to ask such a man for a sketch of a dinosaur.

And Thomas had this look on his face that I can only describe as pure confidence. "Why not?" he asked. "We're both drawers. He'll trade with me, I bet." So I included the line, along with more copious thanks for his attention, and we sent the drawings off.

Three weeks later, the reply came back. It was a large package.

Inside was a signed copy of Bark, George, and this letter:


Thomas was walking on air for days, and a copy of the letter is on his bulletin board. So is this, the last item in the envelope:


It's hard to know who to be more impressed with: Jules Feiffer, for his kindness and encouragement to a young boy who really needed it, or my son, who for a brief, wonderful moment, abandoned all doubt, and saw himself as a peer with one of the greatest of modern cartoonists.

I'm very proud of my son. But I'm also grateful to him. Because he's allowed me to experience these moments. Because there are so many more to come.

Because he made me a father.

It was an occupation I wasn't at all sure I was ready for when it happened, but once it did, I couldn't--and still can't--imagine doing anything else as fulfilling. And that includes writing.

This is the sort of thing I think about on Father's Day.

"You can be very neat or you can be an artist, but it's hard to be both...Anyhow, life is often messy. So go figure."

Something we would all do well to remember, no?

From Somewhere on the Masthead

This post brought tears to my eyes.

I totally relate to your Mother, ADHD boys are high maintenance.

The Brownie is 4 going on 40! Out of the mouths of babes.

Kudos to Jules Feiffer, I'm sure his responses will have as great an impact on your son as Carlton Fisk's had on you. Who knows, maybe he'll even blog about it someday.

I wouldn't worry too much about your son. He's going to be just fine. He's got a great Dad.

Happy Father's Day!
I am usually not this teary ... but your son bring a kind of emotion that just wont stop.

Plus, HLS looks as beutiful as I imagined (not that I imagine about her a lot, just some).

Jules Feiffer just made it to my top ten list.
waaaay cool. --b
That is a wonderful post! Thank you for sharing it. Your son sounds like a sweet little man.
Cool post, and what a guy!

Some of us may not be Jules Feiffer, but would like to see some drawings by Thomas too... or is he saving them for publication? :)
So I guess I am going to have to work a lot harder on finding a wife so I too can have a family and have those kind of moments...
Like sharfa, I read half of this post through blurry eyes, but I enjoyed the emotion it evoked in me. There is something about those moments of pure delight that children (and adults) experience, every once in a while, that are so moving.

And absolutely, can Thomas post a picture or two?
I'm sitting here at work with tears streaming down my face. Sometimes I wonder whether I ever want to willingly take on the responsibility of bringing life into the world, and then I read words like these and there is no doubt in my mind that, yes, I do want that.

If only more dads could be like you, the world would be a much better place... it's a hard job to do, and kudos for being so great at it - ever since I read about the hidey-hole you built for the Brownie and Thomas, you have had my utmost respect and admiration!

(and HLS is definitely lovely :)
And P.S., I can definitely relate to these sentences:

Sometimes he gets so wound up, he's like a poodle, just sitting there at the table, or in bed, trembling and worrying. About nothing. About everything.

I still find myself in that worry-mode - except I liken it more to a chihuaha's shivering than a poodle's :)
To Carol:
In my most sarcastic voice:
Babies are like kittens, so cute when they are young. Then they grow up into snarling hissing felines that will scratch your eyes out if you do not obey their commands. (I am living with a 15 year old boy at the moment, hence my sarcasm).
In all honesty, it's only the memory of those fleeting younger moments that keep me hanging on. Once they are possessed by the puberty demon, it's all you have until they come out of the hormone fog and become human again. It's the toughest and most rewarding job you will ever both love and hate. I'll get back to you in 3 or 4 years to let you know if it was worth it.
You are dead on about the importance of having a good Dad in the picture.
Someone once told me, "Have sex with whomever you want to, but breed with the utmost care". Unfortunately, it was one marriage and pregnancy too late.
I'm catching up on posts. That one was fucking awesome! I like to hear stories like that. It helps you get through the mundane activites in life!
That is so cool that Jules Feiffer replied in his own handwriting. :D I've never had someone do that for me, and I doubt I ever will. I'm not as skilled at writing letters as yourself.

This is the type of encouragement that will set your son on the path to greatness. I can't wait to own some of his artwork as an adult. ^^ Thomas is one lucky kid.
Wow! I don't know that I can say anything that hasn't already been said so I'll just add,

Jules - what a guy
Thomas - what a son
and you, what a dad.

Write on.
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