By Gene Weingarten
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 17, 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.
* * *
Which of your children do you love the most?
Yes, I know, it's a rude question. Impermissible, really. Plus, it's unanswerable because, of course, you love and have always loved each of your children exactly, precisely, mathematically, the same identical amount.
What a liar you are.
In all families there are affinities and dissonances, personality clashes, affronts that linger, phases of adolescence involving emotional bullying, strategic petulance, temperamental manipulation. All of these leave marks, some deeper than others. There are commonalities of interest that create alliances with one child and distance from another. There are objective truths: Some children are kinder than others, some are smarter, some jerkier. Families may be composed of people of different ages and different levels of maturity, with complicated responsibilities toward one another, but everyone is a person, and it is the nature of people to have preferences. If you're unwilling to define the resulting landscape as a disparity in love, let's just assign it the accepted euphemism of "closeness." I was always closer to Molly, Dan's big sister. My wife was always closer to Dan. That's just the way it was.
In the early years, my wife and I shared child-rearing duties proportionate to our parenting skills, meaning she did most of the work. My comparatively few responsibilities included supervision of bedtimes, which were shrewdly disguised reading lessons. With Molly, our evenings with books were lively and laughing, filled with the ebullience of discovery. When Molly started kindergarten she was reading on a third-grade level.
Bedtime with Dan was a testy, joyless plod. My son didn't want to sound out words. He didn't care how they fit together into narratives. I considered myself a modern, sensitive father; I knew enough to offer encouragement and not criticism, and to lavishly praise his small successes. But Dan was smart and intuitive, and even at age 5 he could sense the condescension. It made him more recalcitrant, which made me more impatient and frustrated. He must have seen my disappointment in him. It must have been crushing.
Years later, when his dyslexia was finally diagnosed, I was overcome with shame. It haunts me still. Today, Dan cannot remember these painful bedtimes; I cannot forget them.
* * *
I'd always hoped for a boy, for the usual hackneyed and sexist reasons: I wanted someone I could play catch with in the back yard, someone I could transform into a rabid Yankees fan who would share with me a lifelong lunacy, and a lexicon.
As it turns out, I got my wish: Hours and hours of glorious backyard fling-and-catch with a committed Yankees fanatic who could launch a baseball on a frozen rope with plenty of mustard. That was Molly. Dan never gave a crap about sports.
There was one powerful lexicon that my son and I always shared. As Molly sailed through school and into the Ivy League, and Dan barely survived academically, bombing out of college in a spectacular freshman-year flameout -- all that time, he remained the savant of the dinner table. Practically from infancy, Dan was the funny one, and as he grew, his sense of humor matured in ways the rest of him never seemed to. He could make us all laugh. In this particular home, that gave him agency.
At its heart, humor is a Darwinian tool, an adaptation of attitude that helps us tame the terrors of life. Dan and I have always shared a love of stand-up comedy, of animated cartoons on TV, and of newspaper comic strips -- particularly newspaper comic strips.
For years, I critiqued the comics as part of my job; Dan read them for fun, but with the same analytical eye. And in the most difficult times, when distances between us kept us mute about many things, we could talk at length and in depth about the silly stuff in the back of the Style section, stuff we both took seriously. We respected some comic strips but disdained others for their intellectual lassitude; we agreed that too many successful cartoonists seem to run out of ideas or of fire in their bellies; too many of them have been sleepwalking for too long.
I work at home, in a dungeon -- a windowless room in the basement of my old rowhouse in Capitol Hill. The walls are covered by original comic strips given to me over the years by cartoonists whom I have befriended. Among these is an autographed copy of a 20-year-old "Mister Boffo," by the great Joe Martin. It's a single panel that shows a landscaping truck parked on the edge of a field. A man has just begun his yardwork, and you can see that he is deliberately mowing the letter "F" into the overgrown grass. Two of his co-workers are watching him. One says to the other: "I think Carlos is quitting."
It is my favorite one-panel cartoon, ever; Dan loves it, too. It's just wonderfully, audaciously, succinctly outrageous.
One day a few years ago, I got a package of comics from the same Joe Martin. Joe never got lazy or tired; he was still noodling with new ideas, and wanted my opinion of a prototype strip.
I didn't love it. When I showed it to Dan, he agreed with me, and then some. He tore into it mercilessly, deriding the concept, the characters, the drawing, the pacing, the integrity of the story line.
The more I listened, the angrier I got at my son -- an all too familiar state of mind. He was pretty damned opinionated for a guy who had never himself created anything of lasting value; who, at 20, was living in my basement, a college dropout working as a clerk in a hardware store. I informed him, coldly, that coming up with a good idea for a comic strip is not easy, that Joe Martin was a giant and that he was a pipsqueak, and that his hubris was unearned and unbecoming.
Dan shrugged -- whatever -- and shambled back into his room. I returned to my work. Five minutes later, he was back.
He said: "You know what would be a good idea for a comic strip? A friendship between a billionaire and a homeless guy." Then he walked back to his room.
I just sat there, staring at the wall, for exactly how long I can't say. Then I got up, moved past that framed, crumpled detention slip from middle school, and over to a calendar on the wall. I circled that day's date: Thursday, April 28, 2005. It was a new beginning, and a second chance, for both of us.
* * *
Dan draws like a cross-eyed third-grader, but compared with me, he is Édouard Manet. So we knew we needed an artist, and we spent weeks in search of one. We finally found him in David Clark, a book illustrator who'd never drawn a daily comic strip and didn't even read the comics pages. We loved that: He'd have no bad habits to overcome.
I then solemnly informed Amy Lago, the comics editor of The Washington Post Writers Group, that we'd have a strip for her in a few weeks, ready for syndication. That was the first of many, many times that Amy laughed at us, not with us.
It turns out that creating a comic strip is arduous work, particularly when it arises from the collaboration of two people who are congenitally at odds and not at all bashful about showing it. Dan and I decided right away that we would be equal creative partners, meaning, in effect, that each of us held absolute veto power over the other's ideas. No governor or president ever wielded this nuclear option with greater gusto, or malice.
But we had a comic strip to create, so we learned compromise, and in time we learned something more valuable, a corollary to a basic law of physics that governs all sorts of forward motion: Friction can be useful, if properly harnessed.
Over the past five years, Barney the billionaire and Clyde the bum turned into nuanced, three-dimensional characters: two men with nothing in common but a sense of humor, an awareness of the absurdity of their situation, and a willingness to engage each other honestly.
Over time, other things changed, too. Dan moved out of my basement and in with a girlfriend. He quit his job at the hardware store to work for a construction company, thus becoming the first Weingarten male, probably since the shtetls of 19th-century Russia, who actually knows how to fix stuff. And finally, he went back to college, where he is getting straight A's in computer science courses I cannot begin to understand.
And always, on the weekends, there is "Barney & Clyde." We have already finished a year's worth of episodes. Our writing sessions are argumentative, exhausting, infuriating and exhilarating. At times, we think of ourselves less like collaborators and more like conspirators.
Not long ago, we were working on a story line where Clyde's hobo friend, Dabney, decides to start a newspaper with other street people. Clyde asks whether the paper has a name, and Dabney says he's thinking of calling it "The Rag," a joke about the clothing of the homeless.
Dan and I were trying to figure out where to go with this, but failing. Ten minutes of silence. Finally:
Dan: Okay, what if Clyde asks, "So you'll call it The Daily Rag?" And Dabney says, "Actually, it's going to be a monthly."
Me: Hahaha! And then Clyde just says, "No!"
Dan: And then Dabney asks, "Why not?" And Clyde says: "Just trust me."
Dan: Amy will never let us do it.
Me: Sure, she . . . might.
Dan: No way.
Me: We just need to double-team her. We have to hang together.
And we did. We do.