Gene and Dan Weingarten, drawn together by their comic strip, 'Barney & Clyde'
Sunday, June 20, 2010
As she was doing laundry one day 12 years ago, my wife found a crumpled detention slip in the pocket of our son's jeans. Dan was in middle school. A teacher had written: "Daniel Meltzer to the office. Disruptive behavior, disobeying instructions! Giving Adam Cohen's name instead of his own when asked!"
This indignant document was a forensic gold mine, damning evidence of an audacious, multitiered crime: Clearly, there had been a substitute teacher. Dan Weingarten, 13, had flagrantly misbehaved, and when reprimanded, had given a false name. Caught at this, he brazenly surrendered another name, also a lie, but delivered with sufficiently convincing aplomb. His small, smug, pseudonymous self was then dispatched to the principal's office, where he never arrived -- as evidenced by the very existence of this piece of paper. Instead, he became a hallway fugitive until his next class.
The insubordination -- the casual insolence of it all, the jubilant contempt for authority -- was jaw-dropping.
As a father, I knew exactly what to do. I took that slip of paper, framed it, and hung it on the wall of my home office, where it remains today.
* * *
Two weeks ago, my reprobate son and I launched "Barney & Clyde," a syndicated daily comic strip that appears in The Washington Post and other newspapers. Dan is now 25; we've been working on the strip together for the last five years. The story behind this collaboration is complicated, as father-and-son things often are. A good place to start might be the day he punched me in the face.
Dan was 16, a junior in high school. By then, his joyful iconoclasm had transformed into something dark and sullen. He so loathed school that on many mornings he simply refused to get out of bed; he would remain inert, ostensibly asleep, infuriatingly unresponsive to any alarm, entreaty, poke or prod.
Because she was the softer one, my wife owned these bad mornings. She would cajole, hector, reason, beg and bargain until Dan would will himself upright and slouch off to his high school, a public school for the overachieving sons and daughters of privilege in an upscale suburban neighborhood, a fine school that was strangling the life out of him.
But on this particular morning, Mom was not at home, and Dad was fed up with the narcolepsy shtick. I ordered Dan awake. When he didn't budge, I grabbed his wrist and dragged him out of bed and onto the floor. He bounced up, sputtering with anger, his eyes flashing rage.
"What are you going to do," I asked, "hit me?"
When it came to understanding my troubled and vulnerable teenage son, this turned out to be one of the few times that I actually got it right.
* * *