Savvy Pick: Michael Chabon's Manhood for Amateurs

Eliza Clark
January 1, 2010

It seems to be a feature of contemporary parenting that we are endlessly curious about other parents. We see families with children of a similar age as ours at the park, at birthday parties, at school; we watch our old friends become parents -- and we wonder, how do they do it? 

Some call this kind of curiosity "competitive parenting," the product of insecurity and isolation. Certainly, there is some truth to that. But this curiosity also betrays a hopefulness, a faith that some mother or father out there, not so different from us, knows what he or she is doing, in one realm or another. One parent might be able to tell you the best way to cope with an attack of the stomach flu. Another might be able to suggest a fantastic neighborhood music class. Another might be able to make you laugh, commiserating about potty training and other abject aspects of raising young children. And another might find the words to articulate what all of the mundane tasks that we daily perform amount to, what thoughts they inspire, what meanings they impart. 

Listening to their stories, reading their blogs or memoirs, we hope to escape the narrow vantage point of our own minds, particularly when the repetitive sameness of parenting each day seeps into the mind to create a repetitive loop of thoughts about our kids, our daily tasks, ourselves.  Picking up a book about someone else's family life can jolt us, momentarily and sometimes lastingly, out of that particular kind of unhelpful cycle. 

When the author of such a book is Michael Chabon, the gifted, prolific Pullitzer-prize winning novelist and prose stylist, we're all the more curious.  He's pretty famous, after all; his family life is already fairly well-examined, not to say notorious, thanks to his wife Ayelet Waldman's almost equally copious output of personal essays, most recently in the form of her book Bad Mother; and finally, he's a dad. We don't hear from fathers nearly as often as we do from the mothers who have created this whole genre of parenting memoir and blogging. And with a title like Manhood for Amateurs? Yes, we're interested. What does a father, a highly articulate and thoughtful father, really think about the whole enterprise of present-day parenting?

Ironically, very early on in this selection of essays, Chabon examines the double standard by which fathers who are doing even just a minimum of child care are labeled "good dads." "The handy thing about being a father," he writes, "is that the historic standard is so pitifully low." The same probably goes for "dad lit." Even so, and mindful that we may be more inclined to give credit here than is rightfully due, this book is an excellent read. It serves well that so necessary purpose of taking us out of our routine thinking and holding up this familial enterprise in which we are all engaged, twirling it around, bouncing it up and down, and giving us a new spin on what generally seems like an all-too-familiar scenario.

It helps that Chabon actually shares the minding of his four children more-or-less equally with his wife, one of the possibilities open to a self-employed author.  He is engaged in the intimate and messy business on a daily basis, and calls himself lucky for it.  Even more, it helps that he is willing to look critically at what being a father or a "family man" means -- among other things, the "luxury of choosing to find the intimacy inherent in this work that is thrust upon so many women."  He admits, memorably, that an "essential element in the business of being a man" is to "behave as if you have everything firmly under control even when you have just sailed your boat over the falls." And that "a father is man who fails every day." For his exploration of these ideas alone, we say, read this book and then pass it on to the men in your life.

These essays are also replete with poignant, wry and offbeat insights about the state of contemporary childhood.  Chabon's take on the lost "Wilderness of Childhood" echoes a lot of other warnings out there about over-parenting or the "nature deficit," with a passionate, personal angle.  Childhood, Chabon writes, "is, or has been, or ought to be the great original adventure, a tale of privation, courage, constant vigilance, danger, and sometimes calamity."  Does that sound much like anything we would allow our kids these days? Not so much. But Chabon argues, convincingly, that it should be, all the while honestly admitting that he is as fearful and unwilling as the next parent to let his kids roam free in the neighborhood. His worry about what this lack of freedom does to children's imagination is provocative: "Art is a form of exploration, or sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted-not taught-to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventures, or stories, or literature itself?" 

On the other hand, Chabon also gives children, and their imaginations, more credit than that. Have you given a lot of thought to your child's Legos? Chabon has, and rails against developments in the "Legosphere" that have changed the purpose of the iconic toy. Whereas Legos once existed for the purpose of abstract, open-ended construction, they now come in pirate or zoo or airplane sets with a pre-ordained form and solution. But watching how his children actually do with all their Lego blocks and contraptions, Chabon realizes, "I should have had more faith in my children, and in the saving power of the lawless imagination." We all know that it's rare for children, especially the small ones, to play with toys according to the instructions provided. Chabon celebrates the mess in the toy bin, the chaos of the Lego drawer from which kids take the bits and pieces they need and put together a kind of creation and a kind play that "no one has ever seen or imagined before."

For this insight (no need to lose one's mind sorting out the toy pieces for the millionth time) and many more (too numerous and complex to summarize) on what it means to be a father as well as a husband, son, brother and friend, we are grateful for Michael Chabon's book. Sure, we may be cutting him too much slack just for being a dad who takes time to think about what fatherhood is all about. But Chabon doesn't cut himself any slack when it comes to living an intensely examined, passionately engaged family life -- nor when it comes to sweeping his readers up into that current through his vivid, candid prose. For the way he elucidates the stakes of what we do every day in our homes and with these kids of ours, we are willing forgive a lot, of him and ourselves too.

From the Parents

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