I became impatient with the few Michael Chabon books I’ve tried, never finished one. And historically I have had little patience with memoir. So what do I do? I go pick up Michael Chabon’s new memoir, Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son. Good decision, it turns out.
On the title page there’s a spinner-type illustration like you’d see on a game board, with possible landing spots marked Hypocrisy, Sexuality, Innocence, Regret, Sincerity, Nostalgia, Experience, and Play. If I could oversimplify, it’s about the awesomeness and awkwardness of being a guy. Not “awesome” as in “cool” but “awesome” in the sense of actual awe, realizing as you grow older that you are part of a tradition that our entire half of the population all experiences. Luckily he’s not too cliché with the whole thing, in one section even going so far as to meditate on the clichédness of feeling like a cliché and turn it into something worthwhile.
Cup size, wires, padding, straps, clasps, the little flowers between the cups: You need a degree, a spec sheet. You need breasts. I don’t know what you need to truly understand brassieres, and what’s more, I don’t want to know. I’m sorry. Go ask your mother.
There you have it: the most flagrant cliché imaginable. As I utter it, I might as well reach for a trout lure, a socket wrench, the switch on my model train transformer. This may be the fundamental truth of parenthood: No matter how enlightened or well prepared you are by theory, principle, and the imperative not to repeat the mistakes of your own parents, you are no better a father or mother than the set of your own limitations permits you to be.
The essays cover things like being a brother, cooking, the man-purse, faking it when you’re in over your head, best friends, Jose Canseco, first love, failed love, fatherhood and more. Here’s a bit on marriage, from the excellent story The Hand on My Shoulder (which link takes you to Chabon reading it on NPR):
The meaning of divorce will elude us as long as we are blind to the meaning of marriage, as I think at the start we must all be. Marriage seems—at least it seemed to an absurdly young man in the summer of 1987, standing on the sun-drenched patio of an elegant house on Lake Washington—to be an activity, like chess or tennis or a rumba contest, that we embark upon in tandem while everyone who loves us stands around and hopes for the best. We have no inkling of the fervor of their hope, nor of the ways in which our marriage, that collective endeavor, will be constructed from and burdened with their love.
We have this idea of armchair traveling, of the reader who seeks in the pages of a ripping yarn or a memoir of polar exploration the kind of heroism and danger, in unknown, half-legendary lands, that he or she could never hope to find in life.
This is a mistaken notion, in my view. People read stories of adventure—and write them—because they have themselves been adventurers. Childhood is, or has been, or ought to be, the great original adventure, a tale of privation, courage, constant vigilance, danger, and sometimes calamity.
In “Cosmodemonic” he talks about being a “little shit” and basically, growing up:
We are accustomed to repeating the cliché, and to believing, that “our most precious resource is our children.” But we have plenty of children to go around, God knows, and as with Doritos, we can always make more. The true scarcity we face is of practicing adults, of people who know how marginal, how fragile, how finite their lives and their stories and their ambitions really are but who find value in this knowledge, even a sense of strange comfort, because they know their condition is universal, is shared.
Tyler Cowen said “This supposed paean to family life collapses quickly into narcissism, but that’s in fact what makes it work.” Much better than I’d expected.