Were someone to page through the delicate cellophane sleeves of any photo album from my youth without my Director’s Cut voice-over that would normally narrate the sequence of faded pictures it would be impossible for that someone to not to make certain assumptions about me as a child.
Based on a hairstyle that has been described as a Chia Head fertilized with the razor clippings from a toy poodle at the Westminster Dog Show one might assume that my family either didn’t own so much as a hairbrush or that I regularly covered my grooved terra cotta head with a gelatinous seed coating. The truth is that although I did have access to an oversized comb I chose to use it as a fashion accessory by flagging it from my back pocket or tucking it into the top of my tube sock depending on my mood instead of as the grooming tool it was intended to be. (Incidentally, my hairdo is universally referred to by stylists as the “Best in Show”)
One might also come to the conclusion that for a period of time in the late 70’s my scalp had been surgically replaced with a Levis’ Brand denim flat cap; for a visual of the cap just imagine the head of The Village People’s Leather-Clad Biker Glenn Hughes wrapped in jean shorts. (If you want to see an actually photo of Glenn Hughes’ head wrapped in jean shorts one need look no further than the liner notes of their 1978 single, Y.M.C.A.) The truth is that even though it was completely removable I consciously chose to wear the hat equivalent of a pair of Daisy Dukes on my head for a good portion of the fourth grade.
However, perhaps the most common and accurate assumption that is made when perusing the photographic documentation and Kodak moments of my pre-pubescence and adolescence is that I never stopped crying. A picture of me after a carnival with my face painted like a Jaguar. I think I asked for a Cheetah. Who could tell the difference? I could and that’s why I’m crying. A picture of me sitting on the picnic table at my Grandfather’s hunting camp impatiently waiting for my turn on the riding lawnmower. I knew just how to pass the time; crying. A picture of me in the topiary maze at Busch Gardens in Virginia. Not only was I the one kid who didn’t finish the maze, but I also got lost in it. They eventually found me, by following the crying.
Despite being the only child in history who did not use crying as a form of manipulation to get what I wanted, nearly every memory I have from childhood, even those not captured on film, at some point involve me sobbing, weeping, bawling, sniveling or tearing up; My brother got one more Christmas present than I did on Christmas morning, we were having scallop potatoes for dinner, construction workers whistled suggestively at my denim hat again, the only hairdresser who could give me a proper “Best in Show” turned out to be Jaye Davidson. You could say that in some ways I knew all there was to know about the crying game, but that did not stop my father from regularly using what I believe to be his favorite “Dadage” with me which was, “Do you want me to give you something to cry about?”
Even though I always felt like my reasons for crying were warranted my father was not always like-minded and in spite of the benevolent tone of the question his intention was to not actually provide me with a legitimate reason to continue crying but ironically as motivation to stop crying. It may have been his stern tone, his disciplinarian stare, his intimidating presence or just that whenever he asked the question he was wrapping the end of his leather belt around his hand but it was years before I accepted my father’s generous offer; an offer I had until that moment always refused.
I was 10 years old and like usual I was crying about something. My mother told me in a sympathetic tone that I should go play outside before my father saw me crying. As this was sound advice I walked down the stairs to the hallway that led to our garage and was met by my father who predictably inquired whether or not I wanted him to give me something to cry about. In a rare moment of defiance I postulated what exactly this mysterious “something” was that my father had up his sleeve that would not only make me cry but also met my father’s minimum requirements for things worth crying over; and then I heard myself utter a single word, “Yes.”
It was an answer my father probably never thought he would hear and it hung in the air between us. For a moment he stared at me expressionless and in that moment I was certain I had called his bluff. However, it wasn’t until the next moment that I realized he wasn’t bluffing as he was now squishing me between the door to the garage and the wall so tightly that a Han Solo in carbonite outline of my body formed on the other side. It may have been the betrayal by my old friend Lando Calrissian, the gelatinous poodle seeds running down my forehead, the bent brim of my denim flat cap or an immense pressure capable of forcing a man’s small intestine into his coccyx (An image also featured in the liner notes of the 1978 single, Y.M.C.A.) but my father was right; this was something to cry about.
And though the coup de grâce only lasted for a second it was enough time for me to pledge to my unborn children that when they were crying I would never ask them if they wanted me to give them something to cry about. It was also enough time for me to stop crying and answer “No” when my father’s face peeked around the edge of the door and again asked, “Do you want me to give you something to cry about?”
So, it has been five and half years now since Jack was born and true to my vow 27 years ago I have approached Jack’s crying with compassion, understanding and sympathy for whatever it was that was upsetting him regardless of how trivial it seemed. “Pick up your toys, clean up your room, finish your scallop potatoes, groom this poodle, put these jean shorts on your head, run through this topiary maze…” statements that have all at one time or another resulted in tears and tears that have always been met by me with a gentle hand and a soothing voice and not with an ominous proposal to give him something to cry about.
That is until last week.
When Jack came home from school on Thursday he discovered that the regularly scheduled airing of his favorite show Ben10 had been pre-empted for that day to free up a time slot for a bonus George of the Jungle. His reaction was predictable and one that I was prepared to handle from years of experience. A melodramatic and Olympic quality Fosbury Flop onto the couch followed by a high pitch screech that bloodied the ears of any dog within a 3 mile radius of the house and all topped off with the most important ingredient of any good tantrum; the tears.
On any other day I would have sat next to him and said, “Young man, there’s no need to feel down. I said, young man, pick yourself off the ground. There’s no need to be unhappy.” I’d have placated him by either offering to let him play the Ben10 game on our computer or to play with his Ben10 action figures with him and that was what I intended to do as I walked across the living room towards him; but then something happened.
Something deep inside me awakened. A dormant gene, a recessive allele, a hereditary abnormality, an ancient evil, a tapeworm, I don’t know but whatever it was it had been passed on to me from my father who had inherited it from his father who was himself merely a recipient of this genetic trait. As I leaned towards Jack, who was now in full hysterics on the couch, to offer my customary comfort I found myself instead speaking with the voice of my ancestors, “Do you want me to give you something to cry about?” He immediately stopped crying and sniffed a “No.” It was only when he got up off the couch and went into the toy room that I realized I had instinctively wrapped my belt around my hand. Granted it was a reversible braided cotton elastic stretch belt but the leather trim is still somewhat intimidating.
Now, it isn’t that I broke a promise to myself that bothers me so much as it’s I know that someday Jack will muster the courage to answer my new favorite “Dadage” with a resounding “Yes” and when that day comes I’m really not sure what I’m going to do.