Tag Archives: Neil Gaiman




(Yep, I did it. The uncool Dad thing of saying the current slang that was added to the urban dictionary. Deal with it!)

When’s the last time you did something amazing, spectacular, jaw-dropped speechless for your kids?

I don’t mean “I am (insert butler/maid/launderer/chef) for my kids” kind of thing. We all do incredible amounts of work for our kids. I don’t mean the daily grind. I also don’t include soccer practice, baseball, sports competitions, swim meets, school plays . . . none of that. I’m talking about something totally unexpected, off-the-map, hard to do, hard to find, hard to accomplish kind of thing?

I actually managed that this week. I have my share of real life. Guitar lessons on Saturdays. School clubs, student council, field trips, all of that. My daughter had an adventure for Homecoming that had me playing chauffeur for two days.

This weekend I loaded the four smaller Manoucheris into the car and drove up to Portland, Oregon. It’s not because I like rain or the show Portlandia. (Okay, I like Portlandia, but I digress)

You need some back story here. Not Disney Phineas and Ferb backstory. There’s no “stand outside and be a lawn gnome” business going on here. (There’s actually a Wikipedia page of Heinz Doofenshmirtz’s backstories. Amazing! Google the lawn gnome, it’s worth the digression. We’ll wait here for you!)


(Okay you’re back…)

My son has a soft spot for what is called stop-frame animation. He grew fascinated when I was watching a documentary one day on the director Ray Harryhausen. He is the man behind Clash of the Titans and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts. My son sat, at age 10, and watched two full hours of the history of Ray Harryhausen. He has a scale model of the Jason skeleton as well as a t-shirt bearing homage to the late director.


The technique is called stop-frame because you make a model, or puppet, or what have you and you move the model a fraction. You shoot a still frame of film. You move it a little more . . . and a little more. It takes 24 of those pictures to make one single second of a film.

My son decided to start doing this himself. Last Christmas I got him software that came with a web-camera that lets him shoot stop-frame cartoons. I do believe in all sincerity that making these little movies was a boon to my son’s mental health. He was having a really hard time dealing with the grief of losing his mom. The meticulous nature and attention to detail funneled his creativity and helped I am sure of it.

Some amazing movies are made with this system. One of the biggest studios now, a studio my son knows and loves, is called Laika. They have made the movies Coraline as well as The Boxtrolls, and ParaNorman. My kids love and have seen all these films.

Coraline, courtesy Laika Films.
Coraline, courtesy Laika Films.

I reached out to the folks at Laika and told them exactly what their films and what this kind of animation has meant to my son, and to all of us. I simply wanted to have my son meet an animator or talk to one or see the inside of their building, anything would be great. To my astonishment and utter delight they told me I could come up and see them and they’d give us a full tour.

Thus the trip to Portland, the city where Laika has their headquarters.

I kept why we were going a secret, other than telling them we were visiting their older sister. When we pulled up there was no indication where we even had arrived.

“Dad, this looks like an insurance company,” they told me, knowing full well it couldn’t be.

I cannot tell you what we saw. That’s part of the deal. No photos, no phones, non-dicslosure all around is the theme of the day. None of us cared a lick. We were happy to sign it.

My son asked a million questions, enthusiastically and almost giddy. The answers he got had the same level of enthusiasm and imagination. The fact that this little 12-year-old was on the same wavelength seems to have connected with the employees who took us around.

There is nothing to compare with that starry-eyed look of astonishment and excitement when your kids are truly youthful and imaginative and seeing something they’d never thought in their wildest dreams they’d experience.

So why do I tell you this? Am I looking for the “Coolest Dad Ever” award or something? No. This is my lesson to every parent because I learned it well: our kids work really hard not just for themselves but for us, too. When my son was grieving he tried to keep it from me or he tried to work it out even though he was terrified to face it and didn’t want to deal with it. It caused him terrible problems which hurt him and made me hurt as well. I couldn’t fix this problem. Some are just too big for a dad to tackle.  Yet he found this amazing thing that let him work out his frustration and grief and he worked it out as much for all of us as for himself.

So when the thought hit me that if I took the family up to visit their sister, we could stop in Portland maybe they’d let us say “hello.” Instead, this wonderful group of people at a major studio told me to come in and we’d get a tour. We’d not only get to see someone who works for this company . . . we’d see them in action.  I got an event that all four kids will remember for a lifetime. We saw magic – not film magic, though that is there. We saw imagination turned technical turned artistic turned . . . beautiful.


“This would be the coolest place to work . . . ever,” my son whispered to me during the tour. I can’t disagree.

The folks at Laika told us “we need box office results in order to get the money to keep making these so we’ll need you to go see this film. Maybe see it twice!” It was a joke . . . but little do they know we were at Boxtrolls on opening day and we’ll be seeing Kubo and the Two Strings, their new film (I am allowed to tell you the title) next year, too.

Poster for Kubo and the Two Strings, Laika films, coming out next year
Poster for Kubo and the Two Strings, Laika films, coming out next year

Amazement. Sure my kids showed their amazement, slack-jawed, eyes glistening and floored at the imagination.

I’m not amazed at that. I’m amazed that a group of people who had no need to show us around simply said “come on in!”  I’m amazed at how lively and excited they were with us and the others getting a tour that day.

I’m amazed at the love and humanity of other human beings. That is truly wonderful.

(Yes…I resisted the urge to say “that was truly amazeballs!)

Somebody Looking Out for Us

Noah and Sam at their Aunt's house for their 9th Birthday

This wasn’t an easy weekend.  Not by a long shot.  We had the twins’ birthday, which isn’t a particularly easy event to begin with.  I knew they wanted a big party or something to do with all their friends.  They only asked once or twice for it, but they didn’t keep asking.  I mean, I realize that the majority of it is the anticipation of getting presents and the cake and the ice-cream.  Hell, the fact that I limit the sugar and preservative intake that the boys get is reason enough to believe that they actually eagerly anticipate the cake and ice-cream for sure.  But they had gotten used to their lives before they lost their Mom.  I know that last year’s birthday was an anomaly.  They were just so happy that they got a birthday at all, along with the fact that they’d gotten it with both sets of grandparents and their sisters I think they were surprised we even pulled it off.  It wasn’t even 3 weeks after they’d lost their Mom.

This year was better, sure.  It wasn’t facing the spectre of their Mom’s loss like last year.  But remove the veil of grief that shrouded everything in those first few months and the expectation still stands, much like it was before.  Their Mom always wanted to ensure that they had an amazing birthday and holiday.  Often it came at the expense of many other things, including some overdue bills, but that never stopped their Mom from telling them that they’d have the party, renting out the laser tag place or miniature golf, and being the hero of their birthday.  We overdid it on presents.  We bought a pre-made bakery cake.

This year I could see the effect that our lives has had on those boys this week.  The boys both wanted bigger presents but neither of them asked for them.  Not a one.  In fact, both asked simply for new books they can read – ones that would interest them – and some small Lego sets that would build a car and spaceship, pieces that only cost a few dollars each.  That’s all they asked for.  It was fortunate as we only had a little to our name this week.  It’s been particularly heavy  on our finances so far.  I am due a tax refund and I was waiting for that check, one the IRS website had said was coming in the next 72 hours.  Unfortunately, they changed their minds and decided that it would be ten days after the boys’ birthday that it arrived.

My sister-in-law in her kindness held the party at her house.  I did make their cake, decorated with some letters and stars and made from scratch.  It wasn’t that I minded, I liked it quite a bit.  Baking has never been difficult or arduous for me.  I don’t mind it, it’s just finding the time that’s the biggest problem.  That and the money.  I managed to get a handful of new books, including one Muppet book Noah’d been dying for and a 39 Clues book that Sam had been begging for.  I also managed a great book by Neil Gaiman for Sam and one called “Al Capone Cleans my Shirts” for Noah.  Andrea’s family acted as it was no problem at all that they took on the party but I do know better.  I’m sure they were happy to do it, but I’m also sure that it was a bit of a burden, one that I feel awful I was unable to carry and not smart enough to fix our finances so I had saved enough to get it going.  Awful enough that I gave them cards promising a bigger present – something they’d wanted but wouldn’t ask for – when the refund check came in the mail.  They said they weren’t expecting it, but they were thrilled.

But like their Mother, I did what she would have done.  I spent what I had on their birthday, figuring we’d sort the rest out as necessary.  I filled up the car best I could.  I bought a loaf of bread, a gallon of milk.  I had meats and meals planned for the week.  I had the staples.  I take the train into work and have a monthly pass.  I bought the four books, the legos, and made the cake.  I figured if things got any tighter I had a guitar we could sell to make ends meet.  In fact, I’d planned it all along.  The boys had some gift cards and cash from their birthdays.  I had no desire and too much pride to ask them for any of that.  I figured I need only get to Friday, payday, before things would get better.  I needed only a few things to get through the next days.  My biggest worry was gas for Abbi and myself and getting through the rest of the week for other unexpected expenses.  I figured I’d get a few hundred at best for the guitar by Monday or Tuesday and all would go well by that point.

The boys begged me to take them to Target, where they had gift cards and the expectation that they’d be able to buy the Legos and other things they wanted.  Before we went I told the boys to get the mail from yesterday, which we’d forgotten.  I hadn’t thought too much about what we needed to do the rest of the day, just always weighed down by the finances.  Rarely did I go to bed and not talk to my wife, which may sound strange, but the reality is that she and I talked all the time.  To not have that conversation after a certain point in the evening just, even today, feels . . . wrong.  Empty.  It’s not that I just want company, it’s that I don’t have her company.

When the mail came into the house, spilling out of Sam’s hands as he brought it in, there was the typical junk mail, a couple cards for the boys’ birthdays, and a letter I didn’t quite understand.  It was a legal envelope, saying there was a settlement inside, but I was fairly certain it had to be one of those massive number of junk mail pieces, lots of junk, one of dozens I get every week.  But opening the envelope, inside was a check, a class action settlement.  No, it’s no massive change in financial status, but it’s enough money – just enough – to get us through the week.  I don’t always believe in all those stories people tell of loved ones watching.  I have relatives of Andrea’s, her friends, hell even random acquaintances that she didn’t particularly like telling me that they’ve seen her spirit or she came to them in a dream or that in a moment of need she brought help or hope.  I have been a year in and I have to say, it’s not something I’d experienced.  In fact, the reality that others either believed it to be so or the mere fact that she’d helped others when we’ve struggled to get by without her actually weighed on me, even angered me.

But this . . . this was just a fix that I was never expecting.  I honestly Never would have believed that this could have been coming.  I get it, this is a possibly random set of circumstances.  A lawsuit in the works for years, probably.  The settlement really amounting to chump change to most people and that’s about it.  Others got this on the same day, I’m sure, and it’s no big deal to them.  A happy chance.  But for us, this was cause to celebrate.  I bought groceries.  I filled up the car.  I felt like someone was looking out for us.

I worry about making the claim my wife, Andrea, is responsible.  The settlement is partly from her decisions and life as well, so she is in reality.  But do I sit here and believe she’s dropped everything and saved us from the edge?  I’m not sure.  It’s the kind of thing she was good at, helping find a miracle at the last minute.  But this . . . I would love to hope she had a hand in on it.  I can breathe again, just for the few days.  I can pay to live the rest of the week, until I get paid, social security checks come, the tax refund, all of it.  I can get caught up.

But she’s not here.  Not every day, maybe not at all.  I don’t know.  I still talk to her, sure, but I’m never certain there’s a receiver of that conversation.  Most nights I feel like the words strike the air and blow away.  I think they very well may.

One thing, though, that I know for sure.  We are looking out for each other.  Two years ago my sons would have asked for the world on a platter forged from pure silver.  Today, they wouldn’t even ask for what they truly wanted.  They wanted only to open something.  The fact I promised them that big present isn’t what made them smile and go to be with a delightful exhaustion.  It’s that they had a good birthday and I was there, along with their sisters.  In the end, be it divine intervention or pure, unadulterated dumb luck, we still managed to get by.

We’re looking out for each other.  We’re far better together than we ever are apart.