Bestowing a Legacy Better Than His Own
“Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces”
A book by Michael Chabon
What impresses me most about Michael Chabon is not his Pulitzer Prize or the literary accolades that accompanied it. Nor is it that he once spent seven years on a novel and impulsively threw it out. Or the chutzpah he demonstrated by writing an entire chapter that was one sentence long in his recent novel, “Telegraph Avenue,” from the perspective of a parrot flying over his beleaguered characters. Or even the mystical and melancholy Jewish-flavored genius that laces all of his masterworks: “Moonglow,” “The Adventures of Cavalier & Clay,” and “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.” Or the provocative things he says about the aggressiveness of the Israeli military.
All of this amazes me, but what really moves me about Chabon is his attempt to be the best possible father he can be, one who is present and consistently available in his children’s lives. Chabon’s own father left him when he was only 11, an abandonment that scarred him forever. Chabon found his father’s desertion unbearable and unforgivable; he still does. It became the permanent lens through which he still sees the world; a sort of before and after that still haunts his dreams. He is obsessed by the fragility that hovers over every family. He has written barely disguised autobiographical stories about his father, a physician.
But Chabon did not want his emotionally distraught legacy to become his children’s, and in his new book of essays, “Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces,” we listen to him struggle to become something different for them, someone better. It is not always a smooth ride. Chabon is a disciplined writer who works for hours, late into the night after his four children go to sleep, and still tries to be up early in the morning to see them at breakfast. His wife, Ayelet Waldman, also a writer, suffers from bipolar disorder and severe mood swings which she has written candidly about. One senses that Chabon feels additional pressure to be available to his children due to his wife’s recurring states of anguish.
Click here to read long excerpts from “Pops” at Google Books.
In one of the stories in “Pops,” “The Old Ball Game,” Chabon writes about his resistance to having his then 9-year-old son play Little League. Chabon hated the conformity of the entire enterprise—the uniforms, the competitiveness, the overzealous parents. But his son wanted to play. When his son winds up hating the game and wanting to quit, Chabon insists he finish out the season in respect to his fellow teammates. But he is conflicted about his own sternness. He remembers the euphoria of his own youth when a baseball game ignited by itself on the street unsupervised by adults of any kind:
“My son doesn’t have a sandlot to repair to on a Sunday afternoon. Nobody ever comes by with a glove and a Wiffle ball to see if he wants to hit some, at least not without complicated arrangements having been made beforehand by his parents. He has no idea that a baseball game is something that can just happen to a kid, spontaneous as a fever, that it can be disorganized, random, open-ended, played according to quirky and variant rules, with manhole covers and car fenders for bases and a mean old lady for a color commentator.”
In “Against Dictitude,” Chabon is incensed by his son’s coldhearted dismissal of a young lady who is pursuing him via text messages. He begins to reflect upon his own youthful agonies, particularly how repressed he felt among other young men with whom he felt the need to always keep up his guard. When he was with a girl amid his buddies, he was careful not to show her too much tenderness. Alone with her later, he could relax and be more expressive. Chabon credits the demands of his first wife for teaching him what it really took to respond empathetically to a woman. He writes movingly:
“…and I grew up and got married to a woman who was older than I was and had certain expectations of how she ought and ought not to be treated. It was not just a matter of calling, keeping promises, maintaining the proper form. Even being nice, whatever that means, was insufficient. What loving a grown-up woman required, it turns out, was a kind of fundamental metaphysical shift akin to the move from Jewish to Christian law, from outward obedience and conformity with the commandments, as it were, to the cultivation and maintenance of a righteous soul. I was expected to reach outside myself, beyond the dome and eyeholes of my own skull, imagine the life that was going on inside the head of another human—her fears, wishes, needs, likes and dislikes, longings—and then take these into consideration before I acted. In order to be a man—a real man—by her lights—I must try to imagine what it was like to be a woman. I did my best.”
Their marriage did not last, but Chabon took what he learned from her and let it become a part of him.
He tells an incredibly moving anecdote about accompanying his adolescent daughter for a haircut and losing himself in a book while she is being tended to by the stylist. When she asks him what he thinks, he at first does not hear her, and she repeats her plea, already distressed by his distractedness. He assures her she looks beautiful but notices the wounded look in her eyes and knows that he has failed her. There would be no second chances for them on that particular day. It is hard for me to imagine too many other men having the emotional radar to understand the psychological cost of his delayed response, but Chabon does, and we marvel at his ability to sense what other men can’t see.
In the book’s star piece, Chabon takes his 13-year-old son to Fashion Week in Paris to indulge his son’s passion for clothing and design. Abraham Chabon always loved dressing up. He would spend hours each evening laying out his outfits on the bed, often making last minute adjustments by adding a certain hat or scarf to perfect the look. Chabon would watch him fiddling for hours, mystified and somewhat disturbed by his son’s interest in clothing—an interest he did not share. This obsession got Abraham teased in junior high school but it never stopped him from pursuing his passion. The clothes, Chabon comes to realize, were not simply garments for Abraham, but an essential part of his evolving sense of self. But Chabon still worried. He finds himself strangely relieved when he watches his son effortlessly mingle with designers, models and fellow fashionistas in Paris. He feels invigorated and almost envious at his son’s early immersion in an intense passion. He writes about his growing confidence in Abe’s ability to endure the ensuing years in high school:
“As before—even worse than before–Abe suffered taunts and teasing for his style of dress and his love of style. But he did not back down; he doubled down. He flew the freak flag of his Tigran Avetisyan shirt high. And though I couldn’t fathom the impulse driving my kid to expose himself to mockery and verbal abuse at school, I admired him for not surrendering, and in time came to understand the nature of my job as the father of this sartorial wild child: I didn’t need to fathom Abe or his stylistic impulses; I needed only to let him go where they took him and, for as long as he needed me, to follow along behind.”
Chabon’s personal essays are filled with the same enchantment, sadness and intuition as in his extraordinary novels. But there are sparkles of hope here nestling beneath his turbulent prose. Without making overt declarations of any kind, Chabon takes us on the journey of a man who has decided that his own emotional legacy need not be the one he bestows upon his beloved children.