let the great world spin (colum mccann)*
CHALLENGER: manhood for amateurs (michael chabon)

childless readers of so-called parenting blogs and lit, particularly childless readers who intend to stay that way, are a strange bunch. on the web side of things, for some of us, the mommy and daddy blogs are species-specific versions of cute overload; for others, they're reassurance that we've chosen the right adventure (oh man, if i'd turned to page 25 after college we'd be mopping up vomit instead of jumping around at a concert right now!). me, i'm just a design and storytelling groupie; i discovered sweet juniper ("just two more yuppies raising their kids" - ha!), for example, when jim and wood's beautiful detroit home popped up at design*sponge a few years ago, and i kept reading because their writing and projects are amazing (and, okay, their son and daughter are goddamn adorable). i have a professional interest, in turn, in the lit, given that i work with parenting content; i've also read and liked a number of michael chabon's novels (the mysteries of pittsburgh, the amazing adventures of kavalier & clay, the final solution, and the yiddish policemen's union), and i'll at least audition almost any book on my desk as a personal read if it happens to land there when i'm at the wrong end of a long subway ride.

so here we are, me and chabon's manhood for amateurs: the pleasures and regrets of a husband, father, and son. it's thirty-nine short essays, most of which were originally published in details (a handful appeared in other magazines; "the wilderness of childhood," of which many reviewers are especially fond, debuts in the book). i've read a hell of a lot of first-person parenting and relationship essays, and i'm a fairly tough audience; most of the parenting pieces feel like especially deft versions of old saws. "the wilderness of childhood" does include a few eloquent observations about overprotected children and the future of imagination (that link above will take you to the whole essay, and it's worth a read); many of its fellows, on watching a daughter come of age, talking to your children about pot, losing one's soul to hermetic pixar movies - are kind of forgettable.

on relationships, now: there's that fresh feeling. it could be that ayelet waldman's notorious "modern love" essay on how she loves chabon more than she loves her children** has made his love life much more interesting to me than it would naturally be, but i quite liked how he spoke of his first wife:
She had an eye for furniture and flowers, a rich history of weird sex, weird jobs, and weird scenes, an ear for quirky pop tunes. I found that you could make her intensely happy for a little while with a handful of sweet peas or by putting her in a dinghy and handing her a pair of good binoculars and sending her out very early to row softly among the coots and the buffleheads. Most important for me, she had expectations of how a man ought to act and speak and shoulder his obligations, and in the three years of our marriage, I learned how to be a husband.
what a surprisingly pleasant way to be remembered. chabon also makes me feel better about having had a facial piercing in my wedding photos:
If we are conducting our lives in the usual fashion, each of us serves as a constant source of embarrassment to his or her future self, and by the same formula, all "eras" can be made to look ridiculous in retrospect. But the seventies have always been more prone to more ridicule than their twentieth century cousin-decades, without anyone giving sufficient notice to the fact that it was the seventies themselves that originated the teasing (Annie Hall, Nashville, "You're So Vain").
what i like best, though, is how he speaks of eternity (and growing out of being "a little shit").
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. You bring your little story to the workshop, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't; and then you're gone, and it's time for somebody else to have the floor.
and he learned these things from wiser older women in his graduate work at UCI! who doesn't love a guy who tips his hat to women who return to writing?

i am not a fan of nuggets of writing - even while using public transportation, i prefer to lug great, ponderous stories about with me - but i liked many of these nuggets. borrow this book with gusto, internets.

VICTOR: let the great world spin, for it never asks me to think about chabon, waldman, and cunnilingus.

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 do you read parenting blogs and/or literature? why or why not?

02 would your romantic background yield an interesting "modern love" column? would you be willing to have it fact checked with your current or former loved ones?

03 does it weird you out that chabon and waldman's children will one day read that mom loves dad more than she loves them?

*previous battle here.

**we know it's true, for "modern love" pieces are fact checked rather rigorously. a woman i know wrote one a few years ago, and the verification process involved contacting an ex-lover she'd deceived, which changed the post-script of the narrative itself in a rather interesting way.


Rachel (heart of light) said...

I'd seen a few of these quotes floating around - they make me love Chabon even more (and Mysteries of Pittsburgh set the bar pretty high). And I agree  - that is a pretty amazing tribute to his first wife.

1. Only by accident. So, I would say I read blogs of people who are parents, but not blogs all about parenting.
2. Sadly, no. Unless you consider meeting your SO at age 11 to be interesting. We considering separating for at least a few years to make our love lives more interesting but ultimately decided that the strategy might be a bit backwards.
3. I think kids might be better off if they knew the weren't the entire center of the universe. I'm always interested to hear about people who openly admit that they love their partners more than their children. As long as you can commit to loving your children more than your dog, I don't think anyone has a reason to be traumatized.

valya said...

01 i sometimes glance at svmoms.com, since i suppose i'd qualify as one, and they occasionally cover interesting issues. but it usually serves to remind me that i don't have a whole lot in common with silicon valley moms... or at least the ones who blog there.

03 no more than many other parenting bloggers weird me out with the details they share about their families.  with full names and sometimes photos, they immortalize details about children who have no knowledge or control of what the public is reading about them.  and we have yet to see the impact on them as adults (or, worse, middle schoolers).

kidchamp said...

rachel, i knew a couple who sort of did that (re: 2) - he went off to college when she was only a sophomore, so they dated other people for several years with (each other's blessing and) the intention of eventually reconvening and settling down together. i thought the arrangement was insane at the time; last i heard, they had a mess of children and were positively merry. shows what i know. that you and D met each other so young and complement each other now is a really lovely thing - how excellent to have a shared past with such depth!

valerie, the way chabon handles details about his children is one of the really nice things about this collection. he makes a point of saying he asked his son's permission, for example, before writing about an obsessive-compulsive tendency the son once had; i thought it was really respectful.

Amanda said...

01 Clearly. I cannot help myself.
02 Whether or not it would be interesting, I would submit to fact-checking--perhaps we all should. I cannot help but think that love as facts would help me make sense of these things.
03 They probably already know. My mother loves my father more than she has ever loved us, and it has always been clear that that is the case. That essay line about the hooked nose on her daughter, however? That's going to sting.
04 I don't particularly enjoy the way he describes his first wife. That bit about sweet peas, "putting her in a dingy and handing her a pair of good binoculars and sending her out" stunk to me of what happens when one grown-up--aware of what kind of skull he wants to have or not--treats another like a child. I would have clenched my teeth mightily, were it me.

kidchamp said...

that's a fair cop, A; i'll admit to giving the patronizing elements of that recollection a perhaps undeserved pass after being dazzled by 1) "buffleheads," a lovely word to have in the mouth and 2) a positive description of a troublesome ex.

tanthalas said...

2. my romantic background would probably yield an "emo love" column. not sure if emo is considered modern anymore!

3. I can't remember where I read this, but your question triggered a distinct memory of a quote from a book or movie or blog or even blog comment where someone says, "I would prefer that we love each other more than our children, so that we could teach them by example how to love."  I think I share that viewpoint, though it's unclear whether it's the actual reason or simply a justification of my preference.

wabes said...

1: only sweet juniper, for detroiter reasons.  i find that i like the blogs of my friends, and friends-of-friends, more than other folks, and the other folks that interest me are generally foodies. but i only stick with my friends.

2: interesting...maybe.  but typical...also maybe.  and fact-checking?  yikes!

3: not particularly.  i love my parents wonderfully, and felt loved as a kid, but as i see them now, they love each other more than me or my sibs, and i don't blame them.  from the perspective of the adult child, i am content with that.  how mothers feel ranking love among their families is secondary to the need to talk about it, as an issue for me -- one would not actually tell one's husband that one loved one's child more than him, nor would one tell one's child that one loved it more than one's husband.  doing so would be, again, creepy.  waldman is talking about the distribution of love, no?  but i wouldn't lump together love and "in love" any more than maternal affection and sex.

buffleheads are lovely in both word and bird. canvasbacks are also nice.  i get the feeling chabon liked the combo of buffleheads and coots, which is totally fair.

per above, i had heard about the waldman column, but never read it, and sweet jesus, did she annoy me.  the premise, i'm fine with, but i can't help feeling that there's the headlong pleasure of being in love, and then the headlong-over-something-else pleasure of telling people just. how. in. love. you. are.

@ amanda: agreed, and i also think kids should have time to grow into their noses.  not that all babies have to be cute (or are, really), but that one should, at the very least, reserve comment somewhat.

LPC said...

01. I read blogs by mothers if they speak the psychedelic truth of motherhood.
02. Oddly, my sister told me just Sunday that I ought to submit to Modern Love. However, unless they are OK with love for children, or love for slate tile, it's unlikely that I ever will. The man part makes a fantastical story, if I say so myself. If you include all the decades that is. In any given 10 year slice it was regular. Perhaps I will tell you one day.
03. I have never been a child or a spouse in a relationship where the children weren't loved most of all, so I couldn't say. I imagine it's comforting. Love for children is far more wicked than love for partners.