One of the pleasures of my long vacation has been the discovery, purchase, and rapid completion of Michael Chabon's essay collection Manhood for Amateurs. Chabon and his wife Ayelet Waldman are guests on West Coast Live this Saturday, and if I were home I'd definitely be there to see them.
Chabon is best known for his richly layered and genre-defying fiction. As well as a writer, he is a husband, father, son and brother. Considerations of gender infuse these essays, most of which first appeared in Details magazine. Like me, Chabon often finds himself annoyed with the limitations of maleness. But he also notes the constraints society places on the meaning and roles of manhood.
Here's Chabon on the limitations of maleness, as they affect fatherhood: "I admired the girls' work [his two daughter's artwork] vocally. But I knew that I didn't fully understand their reasons for wanting to draw what they were drawing and not what we boys [Chabon and his two sons] all wanted to draw." "At one time or other, if not on a daily basis, each one of us fathers is the biggest asshole in the world."
Chabon on the constraints society places on men: "This is an essential element of the business of being a man: to flood everyone around you in a great radiant arc of bullshit...To behave as if you have everything firmly under control even when you have just sailed your boat over the falls." In this essay Chabon relates a dangerous drive with his family through an Idaho blizzard, which he undertook without a moment's hesitation. Waldman later told him that she had misgivings about the trip, but didn't express them because she was comforted by the authoritative tone in Chabon's voice. "What manly power!" I thought, before thinking "Yikes, that's way too much power."
Women fairly lament that society expects them to fulfill many roles at once, and with style and grace--doting mother, loyal wife, fabulous friend. But men should protest more against the unreasonable expectation that they are not allowed to express any fears or hesitations.
One of Chabon's recurring themes is of the domestication of childhood. His own children aren't exempt; they shuffle between various organized activities, with nary a minute for the unstructured time that dominated his own childhood. When the family vacations in Maine, Chabon and Waldman want their children to rush outside and play freely. Instead the kids stand put in the doorway, not sure what to do. Chabon regrets that things have come to this pass, and feels complicit due to his own parenting decisions. But it's a vise that's hard to escape, since the modern way of parenting is rife with overprotection.
Chabon is a self-proclaimed sci-fi geek, the founder of a wildly unsuccessful comic book club as a child, and a boy who at 15 slept with a friend of his mother's. He's also someone who attended an MFA program as a young man, through which he gained respect for the insights and perspective of middle-aged women. Sometimes that young's man brashness still surfaces, in a turn of phrase that seems needlessly macho or crude. But for the most part, this 47 year old man writes so candidly and lyrically that I just wanted to keep on reading.