I’ve written about Gabie on this blog many times. But believe me when I say I have failed to do justice to his single most defining characteristic: his intensity. By intensity I mean an abundant mix of stubbornness, obsessiveness and pathos. When Gabie puts his mind to something, he’s a bulldog who has latched on and will not let go. He’s the one-noted cricket. He’s a cow with its cud. He’s a horsefly who…well, you get the idea. And it doesn’t sound nice when I put it in those terms, but seriously, you have no idea how far he can take things. His persistence makes you want to pull your hair out and laugh with exhaustion at the same time.
The hard part is that I never know what’s going to set him off. Will it be the bear he saw at Yellowstone that will spark a month of obsessive ramblings about bears? (No) Or will it be the wolf he did not see at Yellowstone that launches a holy crusade against the endangerment of wolves, heartbreaking cries all the way home from Yellowstone about how we have to go back next week to see the wolves (and if not Yellowstone, then—once he has read cover to cover the book about wolves we bought to pacify him—Alaska, Montana, and various Canadian provinces), rants against cattle ranchers, and eternal enmity for all authors who have unjustly vilified wolves for centuries (Yes, oh save us, yes).
This week, he has moved on to chickens. Monday morning, I suggested that since we had eggs for breakfast, we should visit our neighbors’ chickens for a field trip. (I’ve been homeschooling Gabie; a short fieldtrip seemed like a great writing prompt for his journal-writing time.) And I’ll confess here that I have been wanting to see our neighbors’ chickens for a long time. And also I would really like to have chickens of our own. And, okay, I’ve begged Ken to let me get chickens for years. But we got a dog instead, which is nowhere near a chicken, but that’s another story.
For the next three days, every time I have turned around, Gabie has been on my computer with sixteen different tabs open to mypetchicken.com. As of this morning, he has 1) selected the chicks we will order (two Barred Plymouth Rocks and an Easter Egg Bantam), 2) surveyed every member of the household numerous times about their preferences on egg colors, 3) calculated the price of 4 chicks ($23.25) and all the equipment (heating lamps, etc) we will need to raise them (all written up on a sticky note which he affixed to my desk), 4) planned the chicken coop structure in detail, begged his father numerous times to build it and even offered to build it himself, and most importantly 5) talked of NOTHING ELSE for the past 72 hours. You may think I exaggerate, but I have witnesses. Go ahead. Ask Gabie’s siblings or father when we will be getting our chickens and you’ll see their heads explode.
To say Gabie has a one-track mind is putting it mildly. In the course of a day, while the world is spinning around him and every other person in his life has passed from one task to another and had handfuls of conversations regarding a myriad of topics, Gabie has suspended these chickens—and nothing else—on a rotating pedestal in his head. He’ll pop into any conversation with a chicken-related remark. Actual examples of dialogue:
“Gabie, find your socks. We have to go.”
“What do you think we should make the fence out of?”
“Gabie, do you want jam or honey with the peanut butter?”
“On Easter, can we give them extra food since it’s like their holiday? I heard if chickens are happy, they’ll be more likely to lay eggs.”
And when I’m working at my computer:
Heavy sigh. “Yes, Gabriel?”
“We’ll need to get the red heat lamp because the baby chicks will be able to sleep better… And if you notice they are huddled in a pile, that means they are too cold and if they’re spread all over, they are too hot.”
Plus random interjections at the dinner table like: “Would October 6 be good day for us to have the chickens arrive?”
Or, when I told him that *in the distant future, when we might possibly, if we’re lucky, get around to ordering chickens* we’d only get three and he wanted to know what we’d do with the fourth chick since the minimum order at mypetchicken.com was four and I told him maybe my friend Meg could use another chicken, I got questions for the next hour like: “How good of a friend is this Meg?...Could you call her today?”
And this one today while I’m driving McKay to his clarinet lesson:
“Hey mom? One thing I’ve noticed is their combs function on the same principle as a canid’s pointy ears. They shed heat. They’ve have adapted this way.”
I could type dozens of such non sequiturs and still fall short of the Gabie effect. His is the persistence of those rivers that wear down mountains or plateaus over the course of centuries. He’s the Grand Canyon of chicken lovers. It got so bad Monday night that Ken banned him from saying the word chicken for the rest of the day. (That evening during family night, Gabie played the martyr: “Yeah, I have something to say for family council, but I’m not allowed to say the “c” word anymore, so I can’t tell you.”) The next morning he picked up again talking about nothing but kickens, which he explained started with a “k” so it didn’t count.
Now before you conclude that I lack sympathy for the poor child, I have to clarify that I would like nothing more than to make Gabie happy 24/7. He’s an amazing child and I adore him. I even want chickens. But the problem is that we don’t have the money right now to buy them or the time to build the fence to accommodate them. This is where the pathos comes in. As excited as Gabie gets about his latest obsession, he gets equally devastated when he cannot realize it immediately. Last night he was moping around tossing out phrases like, “Do you ever feel that your life is not worth living?” And, when he heard for the tenth time that we weren’t going to build a chicken coup and order chicks right this second, he says, “You know what this is like? It’s like getting news that you’ve gotten a $2,000 payment, and then an hour later, you get a message saying, “Oh, we made a miscalculation. It’s only $2. Sorry.” Or maybe it’s like you’ve been looking for a job for a long time and someone says, we like you, we’d like to hire you and then they say, we changed our minds…we like this other guy better!”
So I worry that he’s on the brink of serious damage to his poor 9-year-old psyche from the depths of his emotional swings. I worry that when he grows up he’ll hurt himself while steering his Greenpeace boat between the harpoon and the whale. I worry that someday he’ll fall in love hard and do irrational things (I once had a coworker in Pennsylvania who fell for a con-woman; nothing we could say to him about how she was obviously lying to him with her various stories of being kidnapped in New York and needing ransom money swayed his affections; by the time he woke up, he had lost his entire life savings, his home and finally his job). I worry simply that Gabie is sad more than any child should be because he takes things so personally and we (meaning I) don’t have the patience to give him all that he needs.
The paintings running through my mind as I worry about the psychology of obsession (and try not to think about chickens anymore) are the Monomaniac series by Gericault. This was the 19th century and doctors were, for the first time, exploring different types of insanity. Gericault’s friend, Dr. Georget did studies in madhouses of people with certain acute sensitivities, people who had fixated on one thing to the point of total meltdown. Gericault painted these patients with honesty, but also with an aim for showing how their psychoses were supposedly written in their features and expressions. You decide if he succeeded.
This is his Portrait of a Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy.
It seems to me that these patients are all staring off the edge of the canvas; they never look directly at us. They’ve been frozen forever in time in the midst the exact kind of intense focus that has destroyed all their periphery vision or logic or sanity.
Not that Gabie has gone this far or needs a shrink yet. I’m just saying he has this scary personality trait. I even hope that his tenacity (from tenere, “to hold” and related to “tenet,” a thing held to be true) will serve him well someday. He’ll be the teenager who refuses to go with the flow. He’ll be the ultra-loyal husband. If he does end up as a doctor (and lately he wants to be a doctor AND work for the National Park Service as a wolf specialist AND own a bunch of chickens) he’ll be an intensely focused doctor, which sounds like a good thing. My goal is to help him see the value of balance. And help him understand that life rarely delivers instant gratification and it wouldn’t hurt to develop some patience.
And then I need to work on my own tendency to obsess about my children and hover over them and worry about their every move like a mother hen.