Monday, October 26, 2009

Manhood for Amateurs

Because I was going to my second weekend chess tournament requiring an overnight stay and at the first one I had read Ayelet Waldman's Bad Mother, I decided to read Michael Chabon's new collection of essays entitled Manhood for Amateurs this weekend. I find that parenthood memoirs are always good reading over a weekend you're dedicating to your child's enjoyment, and since I've already read Fred Waitzken's memoir of being a chess parent, it was on to more general topics.

The tournament went extraordinarily well. Walker played to the best of his considerable ability, winning all five of his games in the under-1600 division and walking away with first prize, which is a check for a thousand dollars (just to mislead him about how lucrative the world of chess really is).

And Chabon's book was just right for dipping into between people-watching and paper-grading. I found the first essay rather discouraging, however. He talks about how writing is like sitting in a room full of empty chairs waiting for someone to come and join your club, and says that, basically, a mother's encouragement doesn't count, that a person feels like a failure until other people come and fill up the chairs. Concluding that "a father is a man who fails every day, " Chabon's first essay sets up the idea that a father's encouragement actually can count.

His second one, though, reveals his experience with what counts about mothering:
"the daily work you put into rearing your children is a kind of intimacy, tedious and invisible as mothering itself. There is another kind of intimacy in the conversations you may have with your children as they grow older, in which you confess to failings, reveal anxieties, share your bouts of creative struggle, regret, frustration. There is intimacy in your quarrels, your negotiations and running jokes. But above all, there is intimacy in your contact with their bodies, with their shit and piss, sweat and vomit, with their stubbled kneecaps and dimpled knuckles, with the rips in their underpants as you fold them, with their hair against your lips as you kiss the tops of their heads, with the bones of their shoulders and with the horror of their breath in the morning as they pursue the ancient art of forgetting to brush."
Personally, I've never been horrified by a child's breath, but think that snot should not have been omitted. Currently, my favorite billboard on the way to the next big city is one that reads "WE KNOW SNOT" and in smaller letters advertises an urgent care clinic.

The rest of the essays meander through various topics, from Chabon's entire family's love for the new Dr. Who series to how legos have changed to how hard it is to keep your kid reasonably safe while encouraging him to explore the outdoors. I particularly like his description of taking his four children on vacation and waiting "for them to fly out into the grass and sunshine....and they stand there on the doorstep eyeing one another, shuffling from foot to foot" like the "free-range" chickens described by Michael Pollan who are raised in confinement and so are afraid to venture outdoors.

I enjoyed his definition of a rogue, couched as part of a passing observation on why Jose Canseco, a baseball player who got caught using steroids, is admired:
"It's not enough to flout the law, to be a rogue--break promises, shirk responsibilities, cheat--you must also, at least some of the time, and with the same abandon, do your best, play by the rules, keep faith with your creditors and dependents, obey orders throw out the runner at home plate with a dead strike from deep right field. Above all, you must do these things, as you do their opposites, for no particular reason, because you feel like it or do not, because nothing matters, and everything's a joke, and nobody knows anything, and most of all, as Rhett Butler once codified for rogues everywhere, because you do not give a damn."

Because Chabon is such a good writer, there are beautiful little phrases in these essays. My favorite is "the life I was stuck inside felt like a house on a rainy day." He also talks about writing and how he turned from a self-consciously literary admirer of Henry Miller, a "callow", "misogynistic" "little shit", into a real writer. And at the end of that essay, entitled Cosmodemonic, he says:
"We are accustomed to repeating the cliche, 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."

So yeah, this is a book worth reading, and not only for men. It's for any contemplative person who wants some ideas presented in short bits, like little pieces of brain candy to pop in and suck on from time to time.


Harriet said...

Chabon's Mysteries of PIttsburgh was one of my favorite books in that early post-college period and I've been a fan ever since. I've read a version of the wilderness of childhood essay and am really looking forward to seeing the rest of this book. Actually, there are a lot of new books out that I want to read. Jonathan Lethem's and Padgett Powell's new books also look good. Should be a good winter for reading!

lemming said...

You'll have to show me the Doctor Who essay...

PAJ said...

Congrats to Walker!!!
Loved the quote about the world needing more "practicing adults."

readersguide said...

Congrats to Walker! And I'll put the Chabon book on my list.

Ana S. said...

I love Chabon, and I LOVE that final quote.

Florinda said...

I broke my "I don't buy hardcovers" rule for this one. Michael Chabon is my biggest literary crush, no question. I'm so glad you liked the book!

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

I love Chabon, but haven't read as much as I should. I wasn't sure about this book because I feel like I'll appreciate books on parenting more when I'm older. But I love Legos, and that last quote is really beautiful. Things to contemplate!

And congrats to Walker, that is awesome!

Jeanne said...

Harriet, I haven't gotten through Mysteries of Pittsburgh yet. My favorites are Summerland, Wonder Boys, and his recent book of essays, Maps and Legends.

Lemming, I mentioned the Dr. Who essay just for you.

PAJ, as opposed to lapsed adults.

Readersguide, even though his children are younger, and I know you get tired of that a little bit now, I still think there are enough parts that aren't about parenting a young family that will make it worth your while.

Kim, along those lines, there are a number of essays about his life as a swingin' seventies single guy...

Nymeth and Florinda, I don't think you'll be disappointed in this one.

Care said...

"I want to play chess for a living, cuz that's where the money is." LOVE IT! congrats to the winner - I'm very impressed.