Thursday, July 7, 2011

Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon

Rating: 3 Stars

In some ways, Chabon’s essays are the antithesis of the qualities lauded in Rudyard Kipling’s celebrated poem on manhood – ‘If’. Man, not as a compendium of noble ideals, but rather as an occasional loser, screw-up, and jerk. It should probably be added that Chabon's mostly talking of himself rather than anyone else.

At his best, as in ‘Getting Out’, his writing is lucid, sensitive and subtle. In others, he simply misses the mark, rambling aimlessly, taking the reader on a trip that has us whining, ‘Are we there yet?’ One or two come off as rants, as in ‘The Splendors of Crap’. Sure, the entertainment peddled to our kids is often inane, treacly, or deplorable. But here’s the thing - the kids lap up this sludge. If parents want to influence their children's tastes, that’s best achieved by getting involved and staying actively engaged in their recreational pursuits.

Chabon also riffs with varying degrees of persuasion on other time-honored ‘manly’ isues – carpentry involving power tools, brotherly bonds, baseball, comics, and science fiction T.V. shows. There are a couple where he self-consciously sets himself apart from the rest of his tribe, as in his stated indifference to public opinion when it comes to carrying a 'man-purse', his protest at gender-assigned colors, and his pride in his cooking abilities. Here again, America is a step behind the rest of the world. As I see it, men the world over do not feel their masculinity challenged merely by wearing pink or violet, having a handy tote, or at feeling at home in the kitchen.

Having weathered a difficult and fractured childhood, Chabon seems to bear commendably little hostility towards his own parents. He doesn’t seem to hold it against them that they divorced; split siblings apart; either faded away from his life; or, busied themselves in pursuing the lifestyles of the Groovy 60’s and Swinging 70’s.

Books are meant to be critiqued; courtesy and self-doubt should restrain us from doing the same to the parenting techniques of other adults. Except of course, in those cases, where said parents hang placards with concentric red circles around their necks and invite us to try our marksmanship, as in perhaps, writing a book about their child-management. One interesting example was the conversation that Chabon has with his four children, ranging in ages from 13 to 4, about drug use. He seems to have spent more time agonizing over the decision to circumcise his sons. 

Having chosen earlier with his wife to be completely honest and transparent about their own pharmaceutical experiments, he then proceeds to inform the kids about the enticements of getting high on marijuana, and concludes by informing them that that’s not something they’re ‘ready to do.’ How much honesty can children handle? Are their needs served better by a full confessional, or do we hold back on the whole troubling truth, respecting their innocence and (sometimes wholly unfounded) trust in the better judgment of their parents? Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

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