Michael Chabon Essays


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Michael Chabon, is best known for his novels "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" - which won a Pulitzer Prize - "Wonder Boys" and "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh." But he's also written personal essays, and some of them are collected in his new book, "Manhood For Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son."

Chabon writes that he derives a sense of strength and confidence from writing and from his life as a husband and father, but those pursuits are subject to endless setbacks and a steady exposure of shortcomings, weakness and insufficiency - in particular in the raising of children.

Chabon is married to the novelist Ayelet Waldman, who wrote a memoir earlier this year about her life as a mother. Chabon and Waldman have four children: two boys and two girls.

Michael Chabon, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like you to read the opening of one of the chapters from your new book, "Manhood for Amateurs."

Mr. MICHAEL CHABON (Author, "Manhood For Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son"): Great, I'd love to. This is "William and I."

(Reading) The handy thing about being a father is that the historic standard is so pitifully low. One day a few years back, I took my youngest son to the market around the corner from our house in Berkeley, California, a town where, in my estimation, fathers generally do a passable job, with some fathers having been known to go a little overboard.

I was holding my 20-month-old in one arm and unloading the shopping cart onto the check-out counter with the other. I don't remember what I was thinking about at the time, but it is as likely to have been the original 1979 jingle for Honey Nut Cheerios, or nothing at all, as it was the needs, demands or ineffable wonder of my son.

I wasn't quite sure why the woman in line behind us, when I became aware of her, kept beaming so fondly in our direction. She had on rainbow leggings, and I thought she might be a little bit crazy and therefore fond of everyone. You are such a good dad, she said finally. I can tell.

GROSS: What struck you as odd or baffling about the praise you were getting for being such a good dad in the supermarket?

Mr. CHABON: Well, because I wasn't doing anything. I mean, I was literally doing nothing, but, you know - and then in fact, as I go on to say in the piece, I think if you stepped back and looked at me critically, I was probably making a few errors in parenting at that point. Like, my kid was chewing on one of the twist ties for the fruit - for the produce bags, and, you know, his face was dirty and his hair was a mess.

I mean, objectively speaking, even by my own standards, I was doing kind of a lousy job at that moment. I certainly wasn't doing a good job, and yet there I was being given this gift of praise and so much credit, and it was clearly, and is often - as always the case - or often the case, anyway. It's just because the mere fact somehow that I'm just there, you know, holding onto my kid. That's, like, enough. That's all it takes to qualify sometimes.

GROSS: Were you brought up with a specific idea of what manhood was?

Mr. CHABON: Oh, I think unquestionably - maybe more than one idea, but I kind of just came out the way I came out. I mean, I was raised through my early teen and teen years by a single mom who went back to work, first went back to college, then went back to work, you know, who told me when I was 14 years old that if I wanted to eat a hot meal every night, I was going to have to cook it myself. And then so then I became responsible for cooking for the family every night, and so I had to take over that burden.

So, you know, some things just, I had to deal with. I had to become a man however I could. My dad was out of the house, and there were these sort of competing models of how to be.

GROSS: What did your mother teach you about gender differences?

Mr. CHABON: I suppose I'd have to say she - my mother was a - and is to this day - a very level-headed, sensible, determined, focused, quiet person who kind of decides what she's going to do and then goes about doing whatever needs to be done to make that happen. And, you know, there - I think there was a very strong illustration for me in the fact that she decided to go back to college, which she hadn't finished because she had had me, then went on to law school, then got a job as a lawyer, worked for the government and kind of remade herself and reinvented herself.

You know, I think more than anything else I ever heard from the culture about what women could do or be or how women, you know, were equal to men or could do just what a man did for the same amount of money, I had this very powerful object lesson in my home.

GROSS: You tell a great story in the beginning of your book about trying to start a comic book club and how your mother rented, like a multi-purpose room in the Wilde Lake Village Center for $25, and you put an ad in the local paper. And your mother got a conference table and folding chairs in the room and left you there while she ran errands. And then what happened?

Mr. CHABON: And then nobody showed up. I was sitting there with this - I had this very carefully typed, this newsletter for the comic book club, and, you know, it was insane trying to type, to do page layout on a typewriter. I'm sure you remember with columns - and it was so, such a painful moment for me to realize that nobody was coming. And then finally, this one kid showed up with his mom, and, you know, they kind of took one look at me sitting there with my glasses behind this table and this big stack of newsletters and an empty room and nobody there. It was - you know, I just must have stank of failure, and they fled as quickly as they could.

And then my mom came back, and, you know, I don't really remember what she would have said to console me at that moment or how she handled it, but, you know, we packed everything back up and we left.

GROSS: I should mention, one of your novels is "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," which is about comic book creators. So people who read you know how into comic books you've always been. But I love this story. And you say: in my heart, to this day, I'm always sitting at a big table in a room full of chairs, watching an empty doorway.

GROSS: And then you say: My story and my stories are all, in one way or another, the same: tales of solitude and the grand pursuit of connection, of success and the inevitability of defeat.

Mr. CHABON: Yeah.

GROSS: Is that the way you feel?

Mr. CHABON: Yeah, definitely. And, you know, I mean, that longing for a sense of connection is so powerful, and, you know, to have - the fact that it's a longing implies a certain inability to connect to or sort of a feeling somehow in prison or wanting to get out of the box that you're in, into another, bigger world.

I think that's a very - in writing that piece, I came to see what a present motif that is in my fiction. And, you know, to be a fan, to be a part of a fandom like that is an expression of that same kind of longing for connection, that you want to be with people that will understand you, that will get you in some way. And, you know, for me, having a family, being married to my wife and having our children together is, in a sense, it was a kind of a creation of a kind of a fandom in the sense that, you know, my wife and I are the sort of - the central texts.

We're the "Star Trek." We're the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." And then the kids are the sort of the fans that create this shared world together that is somehow predicated on the original world that my wife and I created, but in another way becomes this much richer, denser, multiply foliating thing that takes on a total life of its own.

And, you know, I was an only child for the first five and a half years of my life, and I think that sort of fundamental sense of aloneness, of solitude, even though my brother came along and we're extremely close and, you know, I think of myself as having grown up in a family with a sibling, there is still this original experience of being alone that I think, you know, has both always been a source of comfort to me, and it's the reason I love to write because writing is something that you always do alone. But it's also been a source of, you know, of wistfulness, of longing, of regret, and I've always had that experience of sort of feeling like, you know, everybody else was off having fun together and they forgot to invite me. It's self-pitying. There's no doubt about that. I'll be the first person to say that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: You know, there's that moment in "Stardust Memories," the Woody Allen movie, where he's riding that train, and that other train goes by with Sharon Stone and all kinds of other beautiful people having a good time on it. And, you know, no matter - I mean, that isn't the reality by any means, and I have lots of friends, and I am not this sort of lonely boy sitting behind the table all alone in the big, empty room. I know that. And yet that boy is still so strongly present in me, and, you know, I don't want to get rid of him because I think he's also the source of a lot of - you know, I'm not sure what I would write about otherwise.

GROSS: My guest is Michael Chabon. His new book is a collection of personal essays called "Manhood For Amateurs." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Michael Chabon, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" and the bestseller "The Yiddish Policeman's Union." His new memoir is a collection of personal essays called "Manhood For Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son."

You and your wife are both writers, and I'm always so interested when writers are couples, in part because there's an element of writing that includes a certain amount of betrayal because whether you're writing a memoir or fiction, there's something you're going to be revealing about people you're close to -you know, whether it's transformed through fiction or whether it's, you know, straightforward through personal essay or memoir. And when you're both in that position, it's something that I assume you really understand about what each other needs to do.

I don't know if it makes it any easier, though. And most of your writing has been fiction. Most of your wife's writing has been fiction, although her previous book was personal essays, as is yours. And so I wonder what it's like for you when she writes really personal things that include things like how you decided to terminate a pregnancy after amniocentesis or that she had considered suicide for a moment. I mean, there are so personal things that, you know - is it hard for you to read that? Is it hard for - are there reverberations in your life that are unexpected from things like that?

Mr. CHABON: Well, yes. I mean, you know, it's not like, you know, a scene in a movie where, like, you know, the guy, Spencer Tracy, like picks up his morning newspaper and there's this, like, thing his wife has written about them - and, you know, and like what?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: You know, I mean, we share work with each other as it's coming out of the printer, you know. So if she's written a piece or I've written a piece that is in some way personal or in which one of us says something about the other, you know, we're each other's first reader.

So, you know, let's use her as an example. So say she's writing something, you know, the piece about the genetic termination. You know, I mean, she was sharing - first of all, she was sharing it with me as she was writing it, and she was - she - I knew she was going to write it. And then she wrote it, and I read it. And, you know, at that point for her or for me, I think each of us implicitly feels that he or she has the right to, you know, to say I'm not comfortable with that, or I wish you wouldn't write about that.

In practice, it doesn't really happen that often. I think, you know, it's - that's where - we do have a recognition - a fundamental recognition that that's where writing comes from, whether it's fiction or nonfiction. So I try to be philosophical about it. And, you know, but there's still - there are unforeseen consequences, and there are things, you know, she wrote that now kind of infamous piece that was published in the New York Times, and it had initially just been written for this little anthology. So...

GROSS: I'm going to stop you and quote it so everybody knows what you're talking about.

Mr. CHABON: Okay. Oh, God.

GROSS: She said that she loved her husband more than her children, and then she said if I were to lose one of my children, God forbid, even if I lost all my children, God forbid, I would still have my husband. But my imagination simply fails when I try to picture a future beyond my husband's death. So that was, like, the real controversial thing that she wrote.

Mr. CHABON: Yes, right. And, you know, so from my point of view, reading that piece, first of all, that's just Ayelet. That's what she says. She's been saying that for years.

You know, I - by the time she got around to writing that down, I had been living with that kind of expression of her feeling for a long time. It just didn't even - it just really kind of blew over me without my even paying that much attention or thinking, like...

GROSS: Yes, whereas a lot of readers though, like, what kind of mother is she?

Mr. CHABON: Exactly.

GROSS: She loves her husband more than her children. How can any mother say that? So that's what made it so controversial.

Mr. CHABON: Right.

GROSS: So anyways, go ahead. I interrupted you.

Mr. CHABON: Yes, and I mean, I didn't even - you know, I'm just, like, yup, that's how you feel, honey. I know that. Thank you. You know, it's sweet that you're so devoted to me, and I love you, too. I mean, it was just sort of a -you know, to me, what caught my attention more in that piece was that she was writing about sex and not only, you know, our sex life - not that she was really going into detail, but she was at least acknowledging the fact that we do have a sex life, and then, you know, talking about her - you know, women she knows and their sex lives.

I mean, to me that was what I thought the piece was about, and that's where I thought the sort of buzz in it might come from. But then it was just going to be in this little anthology and nobody was going to read it, and by circuitous means, it ended up being in the New York Times. And, you know, that was one of the moments, maybe the single greatest moment where suddenly, you know, I had not really anticipated what the reaction would be or what the response would be or how that might play out.

So I was getting, you know, emails from people saying hey, sex god, and, you know, and just - and it was not - you know, I wasn't ready. I had not been prepared in that sense, even though I knew, as I said, I already knew what was in it and had approved it, you know, tacitly.

GROSS: Does that make you think twice about revealing personal things in your writing or saying yes, go ahead and publish it when your wife shows you something personal that she's about to publish?

Mr. CHABON: Not really. I mean, it's - look, that's the stuff that you make writing out of, whether you fictionalize it or whether you present as nonfiction. That's the stuff that you make good writing out of. And the stuff that you know for sure is working, is going to connect, is going to make somebody want to keep reading it, is the stuff that makes you feel uncomfortable as you're writing it, always. And that's - the ultimate sign to me that I'm on to something is if I'm squirming a little bit as I'm writing about it. If it's making me feel uncomfortable, if I feel like I'm verging on things that make me nervous. And I know I'm...

GROSS: Give me an example of something that made you squirm that you wrote.

Mr. CHABON: Well, they tell a story - I tell a story in this book about a woman who was a friend of my mother's who I had sex with when I was 15 years old. And that's a story - until I wrote it down, that was a story that I had told very few people, two maybe, or three in my whole life. And so, you know - and it had been suggested to me that I might - I'd never tried writing about, you know, my first sexual experience, and I decided that my first sexual experience wasn't that interesting, but my second. There was a story there, and I knew it, and I had lived with it for all of these years without ever telling it in any really detailed way. So, you know, I started writing this piece, and I got that sense right away, of like wow, am I really going to do this? Am I really going to write about this, you know, partly - not because it's really that shocking or controversial. It was almost just the fact that I had held onto it so tightly for so long that it felt strange to kind of open up that jar finally and let it out.

But, you know, that was - as soon as I had that sense of unease or hesitation or a feeling of, like, maybe I should come up with something else, that was the moment I said to myself: Keep going, because this is where stuff comes from.

GROSS: Okay, the story about having sex with your mother's friend, so you felt, you know, that squirmy feeling as you wrote it.

Mr. CHABON: Yeah. And right now sitting here in my chair, I'm having it all over again, as you're preparing to ask me the question.

GROSS: I can understand that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But I guess I'm wondering...

Mr. CHABON: I brought it up.

GROSS: I guess I'm wondering what the value you see in it as a story is. I mean, we've established it makes you uncomfortable. It's something you'd held onto for a long time. It was kind of a secret, except for a few people. But now that it's out there, now that you've found the words to tell it, now that you've been able to make this event in your life into a story, what does it mean to you as a story?

Mr. CHABON: I guess ultimately, it says something to me - it helped, if that's the right word, create, in part, the template for sex in my life so that, you know, there was something - there was a difficulty there. You know, the first experience was sort of a much more typical kind of teenage first experience. The second experience was this brush with the adult world, a kind of premature brush with the adult world, with an adult, with an adult life, you know. And I think it sort of - it pushed me up against the seriousness and the actual kind of emotional power of sex.

GROSS: And complications.

Mr. CHABON: Yeah, in a way that I wasn't - you know, I just hadn't ever - I was 15 years old. I mean, you know, it was Meatloaf's "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" was, you know, kind of what I thought the sum total of sex would be, you know, avoid getting the girl pregnant and enjoy yourself.

So, you know, it was - it was a strange thing to do at that age, and to suddenly be presented with a sense that, like, there was a lot of weight and power and sort of sadness, even, that kind of lurks in the sexual relationships between people. And, you know, what my reaction to that was was to kind of close that door and say, you know, I'm just not ready for that yet. I can't handle that. I don't want to know that now. But it - you know, I think that did shift my perspective on the subject thereafter.

GROSS: Yeah, that's really interesting. I could see how that would definitely, you know, complicate things for you. Did your mother know before you wrote the book?

Mr. CHABON: No, no. She didn't. She didn't know until, you know, she read the piece as it was published. And we had a relatively brief and sort of emotionally neutral exchange of information about the piece. You know, I satisfied her curiosity, and in her kind of characteristic way, she shrugged it off, and, you know, it didn't seem to - I don't know. I honestly don't know what she thought when she read it or how she felt when she read it, and I didn't ask.

GROSS: Michael Chabon will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "Manhood For Amateurs." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Michael Chabon, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" and the bestseller "The Yiddish Policemen's Union." His new book is a collection of personal essays called "Manhood For Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son." In his essay "Getting Out," Chabon reflects on the attempt to escape from the pain of life, which is one of the themes of his fiction.

David Foster Wallace, the writer who was a friend of yours, committed suicide and...

Mr. CHABON: Yeah. I should say, we weren't - I didn't know him very well. I mean I wish he had been a friend of mine. I always kind of wanted to be his friend but I only met him once.

GROSS: Oh, okay. And, you know, your wife had, you know, mentioned in her writing that she came close to suicide once.

Mr. CHABON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So you think about that.

Mr. CHABON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You reflect on that in your book and you write: The world, like our heads, was meant to be escaped from. They are prison, the world and head alike. And then you quote David Foster Wallace as saying: I guess a big part of serious fiction's purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in their own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves.

Mr. CHABON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: I think it's a really beautiful description...

Mr. CHABON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...of both the human condition and the - why we respond so well to, you know, to books and movies and music, too. But I'm thinking like, when you're a writer, it's maybe more of being trapped in your skull than being released from it as you're in the process of writing.

Mr. CHABON: Not when it's going well. No. I mean when it's - when my writing's going well, when I'm writing, you know, a work of fiction, when I'm writing a novel, I'm there. Wherever I'm - whatever I'm writing about, whoever's head I'm in, I'm not in my head anymore. I'm in the head of the character. Or if it's sort of an omniscient third-person narrator, I'm in the head of the narrator who's not me, who is this much more intelligent, precise, open-souled, open-hearted being than I am. And that in itself, just being a narrator is - there's a sense of release in that.

And then, to imagine the world you're describing, the physical world, the place, the house, the buildings, whatever it might be, it you know, it's all so vivid in my imagination that, you know, it's very much like the experience of getting lost as a reader in a book. I'm sort of having a double experience of both sort of almost being in the actual reality I'm trying to create and then a millisecond afterwards reading about it. And, you know, I think that's part of the reason I love doing it so much is because it does provide me with that sense, that same sense of escape and also connectedness because you're writing to, you're always addressing someone.

You're writing to a reader. You know, you have an ideal reader, an imagined reader out there that is the person who will just understand all of your references and who will understand the emotions that you're trying to, you know, bring forth and who will appreciate your every joke and, you know, who will see the care that went into crafting this three-part metaphor that takes place over five pages. And, you know, you're creating - that's a part of the imaginative act itself is to create that reader and address the work to that reader. And that again, it gives you that same illusion of connection that is, you know, I think another thing that keeps me doing it - that made me want to do it in the first place.

GROSS: Did you have that imagination and that ability to get lost in somebody else's narration before you were actually a writer and before you could, you know, use it as a novelist?

Mr. CHABON: I think I must have. I mean I think we all do. I think it's a fundamental human - both a human talent and a human need, the talent to imagine a connection and the need for that connection in the first place. And you know, I mean I really do think things like fandom, you know, I think fandom is kind of the ultimate metaphor for what we all are trying to do, not just me. Not just that lonely kid sitting in the big conference room in front of, in an empty room, but all of us are looking for people who will get us and who will love the same things that we love.

And, you know, I think reading, getting lost in a book provides you with a - as soon as you were able to do that as a child, it provides you with this immediate fulfillment of that longing and that desire, because you get the sense of connectedness to the author and you have that sense, you know, the books that you love best as a child, you have that sense of that this book was just written for you, just for you, and that you're engaged in a kind of dialogue with its author, even if that author's been dead for a hundred years.

And then, at the same time, you have that urge to share it. You know, you want to talk about it. You want to be with other people who also love it, and that's part of being a reader too. So yeah, I mean I think just learning how to read and learning how to love books and stories sort of, it primed me to want to then turn and try to make them myself, which is also a fan impulse and that's where fan fiction comes from. It's like well, I love this stuff so much I want to make more of it.

GROSS: I want to quote something else that you write in your book and this is in describing your wife, Ayelet Waldman, and you say: This woman has dragged, nudged, coaxed, led, stirred, seduced, finagled, or carried me into every instance of delight or sorrow, every debacle, every success, every brilliant call, every terrible mistake that I have known or made. I'm grateful for that, because if it were not for her, I would never go anywhere, never see anything, never meet anyone.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Mr. CHABON: I'm just - and I have a kind of inertia, you know? I like being where I am. You know, it's not always a bad thing, and I adjust to circumstances quickly. So if you do dislodge me and you put me in a new environment, I will accommodate and adjust and begin to enjoy it very quickly. You know, I think I've fallen in love with every hometown I've ever had. You know, every place I've ever lived in my life, and I've lived in a lot of places, I've found a way to fall in love with it.

But on the other hand, it does mean once I get into a place, or a way of being or a mode of life, it is hard to dislodge me. And a lot of times that does not serve me well at all and I'm missing out on things. And I can often be acutely aware that I'm missing out on things and just not know how to get out and how to move.

And my whole life I've, you know, I've sought out people who would help me in that way - the people I have chosen to become friends with, the people that I've, you know, fallen in love with often tended to be, you know, straws that stir the drink, you know, people who kind of make things happen, who cause chaos or who get expeditions up, you know, because I'm not that way myself and you know, I wish I were. I'm attracted to that. I would like to be a kind of a troublemaker. I'd like to be a person - I'd love to be, you know, Gene Simmons with you, Terry, or Bill O'Reilly...

GROSS: Oh, I hope not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: ...and you know, just like, but, you know, to cause trouble in that way, to have that, sort of, that ability to sort of just, I don't know, stick your stick in the blades of the fan and make a big noise is just something I've never been able to do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I'm just trying to think of you as being that person.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: I don't really want to be either of those two gentlemen, I have to quickly add. But there's a kind of a, I don't know. I guess I'm a more orderly person and therefore, chaos has its appeal.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Chabon who's best known for such novels as "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," and "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh." His new book is a collection of personal essays, which is called "Manhood For Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son."

Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Michael Chabon who's known for such novels as "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" and "The Yiddish Policemen's Union." His new book is a collection of personal essays called "Manhood For Amateurs."

Well, we've been talking about some pretty heavy things so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...I thought we could end with a story that I found like really, really entertaining and funny, and it has to do with your diaper bag.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: Oh yes. The murse.

GROSS: The murse, which is what, for male purse?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: Yeah. Exactly.

GROSS: Or man bag, as some people call it.

Mr. CHABON: Right. We're struggling to come up with anything we can say that's not actually the word purse - is what we're looking for.

GROSS: Yes. Uh-huh, or pocketbook.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: Yeah. Oh, pocketbook. That's a good one. I haven't thought of that in a long time.

GROSS: Yeah. So, you know, as you point out, a lot of men feel like everything that they have to carry, and that's a lot, the wallet and all the other stuff has to be in pockets.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: Yes.

GROSS: And so you had these overstuffed pockets until you started carrying the diaper bag, and then what?

Mr. CHABON: And then, well then, you know, just out of convenience I started putting more things into the diaper bag; I always had this diaper bag with me, you know. And I struggled with the diaper bag too and it took me a while to find the right diaper bag that wasn't you know, too girlie, that wasn't too babyish, that, you know, so I found this sort of functional black vinyl, or some kind of synthetic material diaper bag and little by little, you know, I'm carrying The New York Review of Books around under my arm, why don't I just stick in the diaper bag?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: You know, and then I might as well put my keys in the diaper bag too. And then, the next thing you know, and this is the big step, this is when you're really cutting the tether is when you put your wallet in the diaper bag. Because taking your wallet, if you're a guy, taking your wallet out of your pocket and putting it anywhere else, you know, whether it's your hip pocket or your vest pocket or your jacket or wherever you keep it, to put it into a something - a bag, and not have it on your body, it's a scary moment.

You know, your wallet is you when you're a man. I don't know. Maybe it's true for women too, but it kind of, it's like in those fairy tales where the wizard puts his soul into, you know, like a tree or...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: ...or a chair or something like that. It's like your wallet kind of holds your soul in it and to then just take it off your body and put it in a bag was a scary moment. But I did it, and you know, because having kids is basically an endless series of breaking you down and getting you to do all the things you never, you know, you thought your dignity would preserve you from ever having to do. And once I didn't need a diaper bag anymore, I didn't want to put all that stuff back in my pockets. It's stupid to carry stuff around in your pants pocket. It hurts. You sit down, you can give yourself a condition. It's called fat wallet syndrome. It's a back condition from sitting on your wallet and...

GROSS: Really?

Mr. CHABON: Then it's...

GROSS: What's the condition?

Mr. CHABON: That's what it's called, fat wallet syndrome. It's - the piriformis nerve of your back gets irritated because you're always sitting on your wallet and, you know, your spine is crooked I guess or something, and it causes this painful condition.

So I had to find a bag and then the quest, you know, began for like the same thing. But even more intense, it's like what is this going to say? Am I going to look like, you know, Sven from Norway and the next thing I'll be wearing clogs and, you know, because we see guys with man bags, they always seemed to be these European guys with - who are really tall and they have those little svelte bags they carry things around in, and - or what? Like what? And, you know, then there's the backpack and the satchel and they're all these sort of options out there but what everyone's really avoiding is the fact that what you need is, you know, is a purse.

GROSS: So what'd you get?

Mr. CHABON: A friend - finally I was, you know, talking to this friend of mine about this whole question and she sympathized with me. And we tried to sort of, you know, figure out what the needs were that needed to be met in terms of the visual appearance. We didn't want to look like, you know, a Jamaican bike messenger and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: You know, and then a couple weeks later, this bag showed up that she had found. She lives in New York and she found this bag and it was small, but not too small. It would hold plenty of things and it was, you know, it was not overtly feminine looking. It had a kind of masculine styling to it. It was, however, a purse. I mean there was just no two ways about it. I started carrying it and, you know, now - I just realized very quickly that I don't actually care. I don't care what people think about me. I don't care what - if they think it looks goofy or weird or effeminate or that I look like I come from Berkeley, California, or whatever it is people might think, or that I imagine they might think of me because it's probably mostly in my head and probably people don't really even...

GROSS: Care? Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: ...look at me in the way that I'm imagining? No, they don't care. I'm not the center of their world. I'm only the center of my world. So, you know, I just got over it and. And now - I call it a purse now, because my kids, that's what they called it, your purse. Daddy, you forgot your purse, so that's how I refer to it now and it's sitting right here on the floor.

GROSS: So what do you carry in your purse now?

Mr. CHABON: Oh, let's see, I have some - you know, the usual, keys and wallet and I have an iPod and my glasses, but I also have a couple of little plastic pet shop pal toys and three different flavors of sugarless gum. I have a first aid kit in there that I'm very proud of...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: …and which I've actually, you know, I've been called upon to use for total strangers a couple of times and that was - I felt very - then that gives you that sort of masculine cover that you need.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: Like here I am with my medic bag.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: Do not worry, stranger.

GROSS: You probably have a book in there, too, something to read.

Mr. CHABON: Today I don't have a book. Normally that's another great thing - I brought, you know, my book with me, so I don't have...

GROSS: Because you knew I was going to ask you to read from it.

Mr. CHABON: Yes, exactly. But, yeah - no and that's the great thing and I can remember reading, you know, Stephen King, years ago, said something about how it's just crucial, you cannot get through life if you don't have a book with you. And I was not in the habit of taking books with me places, which I thought was kind of strange since I love to read and it, in fact, does make almost any experience more bearable if you have a book. And then, you know, well, the problem was where would I carry a book?

You know, I was not going to walk around holding it all the time. So, now that problem has been solved, too. And, yes, I usually do have something to read. I tend - I keep a book in my bag, usually that's something that I don't - it's not what I'm currently reading so much as a book that I will be happy to pull out at any time and dip into and enjoy even if it's just for like five minutes while waiting in line.

GROSS: Okay, my final purse question: Does your purse have a separate compartment for your cell phone...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...that's easy to grab?

Mr. CHABON: No, it's just swimming around in there with the, you know, everything else. But I have - to further demolish any tattered shreds of masculinity that might still be clinging to me, I have a pink rubber cover on my cell phone so that it stands out. I can see it very easily because of the pink cover so I can always find it in the maw.

GROSS: That's your cover for having pink, that's your explanation?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: Right. It's not that I love the color pink.

GROSS: Michael Chabon, it's great to talk with you again. Thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR.

Mr. CHABON: Oh, thank you, Terry, I really enjoyed it, too. Thank you.

GROSS: Michael Chabon's new collection of personal essays is called "Manhood For Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son." You can read an excerpt of the book and hear a recording of Chabon reading from it on our Web site, fresh.npr.org.

There's a new father-son kind of recording by Ricky Skaggs called "Songs My Dad Loved." Let's hear a track from it. This is the Ralph Stanley song, "Little Maggie."

(Soundbite of song "Little Maggie")

Mr. RICKY SKAGGS (Singer): (Singing) Over yonder stands little Maggie, with a dram glass in her hand. She's drinking away her troubles, while courting another man. Oh, how can I ever stand it to see them two blue eyes a-shining in the moonlight like two diamonds in the sky. Pretty flowers were made for blooming. Pretty stars were made to shine. Pretty women were made for loving. Little Maggie was made for mine. Last time I saw little Maggie, she was sitting on the banks of the sea with a forty-four around her and a badger on her knee.


Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

When I was growing up, our house backed onto woods, a thin two-acre remnant of a once-mighty wilderness. This was in a Maryland city where the enlightened planners had provided a number of such lingering swaths of green. They were tame as can be, our woods, and yet at night they still filled with unfathomable shadows. In the winter they lay deep in snow and seemed to absorb, to swallow whole, all the ordinary noises of your body and your world. Scary things could still be imagined to take place in those woods. It was the place into which the bad boys fled after they egged your windows on Halloween and left your pumpkins pulped in the driveway. There were no Indians in those woods, but there had been once. We learned about them in school. Patuxent Indians, they’d been called. Swift, straight-shooting, silent as deer. Gone but for their lovely place names: Patapsco, Wicomico, Patuxent.

A minor but undeniable aura of romance was attached to the history of Maryland, my home state: refugee Catholic Englishmen, cavaliers in ringlets and ruffs, pirates, battles, the sack of Washington, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Harriet Tubman, Antietam. And when you went out into those woods behind our house, you could feel all that history, those battles and dramas and romances, those stories. You could work it into your games, your imaginings, your lonely flights from the turmoil or torpor of your life at home. My friends and I spent hours there, braves, crusaders, commandos, blues and grays.

But the Wilderness of Childhood, as any kid could attest who grew up, like my father, on the streets of Flatbush in the Forties, had nothing to do with trees or nature. I could lose myself on vacant lots and playgrounds, in the alleyway behind the Wawa, in the neighbors’ yards, on the sidewalks. Anywhere, in short, I could reach on my bicycle, a 1970 Schwinn Typhoon, Coke-can red with a banana seat, a sissy bar, and ape-hanger handlebars. On it I covered the neighborhood in a regular route for half a mile in every direction. I knew the locations of all my classmates’ houses, the number of pets and siblings they had, the brand of popsicle they served, the potential dangerousness of their fathers.

Matt Groening once did a great Life in Hell strip that took the form of a map of Bongo’s neighborhood. At one end of a street that wound among yards and houses stood Bongo, the little one-eared rabbit boy. At the other stood his mother, about to blow her stack—Bongo was late for dinner again. Between mother and son lay the hazards —labeled angry dogs, roving gang of hooligans, girl with a crush on bongo—of any journey through the Wilderness: deadly animals, antagonistic humans, lures and snares. It captured perfectly the mental maps of their worlds that children endlessly revise and refine. Childhood is a branch of cartography.

Most great stories of adventure, from The Hobbit to Seven Pillars of Wisdom, come furnished with a map. That’s because every story of adventure is in part the story of a landscape, of the interrelationship between human beings (or Hobbits, as the case may be) and topography. Every adventure story is conceivable only with reference to the particular set of geographical features that in each case sets the course, literally, of the tale. But I think there is another, deeper reason for the reliable presence of maps in the pages, or on the endpapers, of an adventure story, whether that story is imaginatively or factually true. We have this idea of armchair traveling, of the reader who seeks in the pages of a ripping yarn or a memoir of polar exploration the kind of heroism and danger, in unknown, half-legendary lands, that he or she could never hope to find in life.

This is a mistaken notion, in my view. People read stories of adventure—and write them—because they have themselves been adventurers. Childhood is, or has been, or ought to be, the great original adventure, a tale of privation, courage, constant vigilance, danger, and sometimes calamity. For the most part the young adventurer sets forth equipped only with the fragmentary map—marked here there be tygers and mean kid with air rifle—that he or she has been able to construct out of a patchwork of personal misfortune, bedtime reading, and the accumulated local lore of the neighborhood children.

A striking feature of literature for children is the number of stories, many of them classics of the genre, that feature the adventures of a child, more often a group of children, acting in a world where adults, particularly parents, are completely or effectively out of the picture. Think of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Railway Children, or Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy presents a chilling version of this world in its depiction of Cittàgazze, a city whose adults have all been stolen away. Then there is the very rich vein of children’s literature featuring ordinary contemporary children navigating and adventuring through a contemporary, nonfantastical world that is nonetheless beyond the direct influence of adults, at least some of the time. I’m thinking of the Encyclopedia Brown books, the Great Brain books, the Henry Reed and Homer Price books, the stories of the Mad Scientists’ Club, a fair share of the early works of Beverly Cleary.

As a kid, I was extremely fond of a series of biographies, largely fictional, I’m sure, that dramatized the lives of famous Americans—Washington, Jefferson, Kit Carson, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Daniel Boone—when they were children. (Boys, for the most part, though I do remember reading one about Clara Barton.) One element that was almost universal in these stories was the vast amounts of time the famous historical boys were alleged to have spent wandering with bosom companions, with friendly Indian boys or a devoted slave, through the once-mighty wilderness, the Wilderness of Childhood, entirely free of adult supervision.

Though the wilderness available to me had shrunk to a mere green scrap of its former enormousness, though so much about childhood had changed in the years between the days of young George Washington’s adventuring on his side of the Potomac and my own suburban exploits on mine, there was still a connectedness there, a continuum of childhood. Eighteenth-century Virginia, twentieth-century Maryland, tenth-century Britain, Narnia, Neverland, Prydain—it was all the same Wilderness. Those legendary wanderings of Boone and Carson and young Daniel Beard (the father of the Boy Scouts of America), those games of war and exploration I read about, those frightening encounters with genuine menace, far from the help or interference of mother and father, seemed to me at the time—and I think this is my key point—absolutely familiar to me.

The thing that strikes me now when I think about the Wilderness of Childhood is the incredible degree of freedom my parents gave me to adventure there. A very grave, very significant shift in our idea of childhood has occurred since then. The Wilderness of Childhood is gone; the days of adventure are past. The land ruled by children, to which a kid might exile himself for at least some portion of every day from the neighboring kingdom of adulthood, has in large part been taken over, co-opted, colonized, and finally absorbed by the neighbors.

The traveler soon learns that the only way to come to know a city, to form a mental map of it, however provisional, and begin to find his or her own way around it is to visit it alone, preferably on foot, and then become as lost as one possibly can. I have been to Chicago maybe a half-dozen times in my life, on book tours, and yet I still don’t know my North Shore from my North Side, because every time I’ve visited, I have been picked up and driven around, and taken to see the sights by someone far more versed than I in the city’s wonders and hazards. State Street, Halsted Street, the Loop—to me it’s all a vast jumbled lot of stage sets and backdrops passing by the window of a car.

This is the kind of door-to-door, all-encompassing escort service that we adults have contrived to provide for our children. We schedule their encounters for them, driving them to and from one another’s houses so they never get a chance to discover the unexplored lands between. If they are lucky, we send them out to play in the backyard, where they can be safely fenced in and even, in extreme cases, monitored with security cameras. When my family and I moved onto our street in Berkeley, the family next door included a nine-year-old girl; in the house two doors down the other way, there was a nine-year-old boy, her exact contemporary and, like her, a lifelong resident of the street. They had never met.

The sandlots and creek beds, the alleys and woodlands have been aban- doned in favor of a system of reservations—Chuck E. Cheese, the Jungle, the Discovery Zone: jolly internment centers mapped and planned by adults with no blank spots aside from doors marked staff only. When children roller-skate or ride their bikes, they go forth armored as for battle, and their parents typically stand nearby.

There are reasons for all of this. The helmeting and monitoring, the corralling of children into certified zones of safety, is in part the product of the Consumer Reports mentality, the generally increased consciousness, in America, of safety and danger. To this one might add the growing demands of insurance actuarials and the national pastime of torts. But the primary reason for this curtailing of adventure, this closing off of Wilderness, is the increased anxiety we all feel over the abduction of children by strangers; we fear the wolves in the Wilderness. This is not a rational fear; in 1999, for example, according to the Justice Department, the number of abductions by strangers in the United States was 115. Such crimes have always occurred at about the same rate; being a child is exactly no more and no less dangerous than it ever was. What has changed is that the horror is so much better known. At times it seems as if parents are being deliberately encouraged to fear for their children’s lives, though only a cynic would suggest there was money to be made in doing so.

The endangerment of children—that persistent theme of our lives, arts, and literature over the past twenty years—resonates so strongly because, as parents, as members of preceding generations, we look at the poisoned legacy of modern industrial society and its ills, at the world of strife and radioactivity, climatological disaster, overpopulation, and commodification, and feel guilty. As the national feeling of guilt over the extermination of the Indians led to the creation of a kind of cult of the Indian, so our children have become cult objects to us, too precious to be risked. At the same time they have become fetishes, the objects of an unhealthy and diseased fixation. And once something is fetishized, capitalism steps in and finds a way to sell it.

What is the impact of the closing down of the Wilderness on the development of children’s imaginations? This is what I worry about the most. I grew up with a freedom, a liberty that now seems breathtaking and almost impossible. Recently, my younger daughter, after the usual struggle and exhilaration, learned to ride her bicycle. Her joy at her achievement was rapidly followed by a creeping sense of puzzlement and disappointment as it became clear to both of us that there was nowhere for her to ride it—nowhere that I was willing to let her go. Should I send my children out to play?

There is a small grocery store around the corner, not over two hundred yards from our front door. Can I let her ride there alone to experience the singular pleasure of buying herself an ice cream on a hot summer day and eating it on the sidewalk, alone with her thoughts? Soon after she learned to ride, we went out together after dinner, she on her bike, with me following along at a safe distance behind. What struck me at once on that lovely summer evening, as we wandered the streets of our lovely residential neighborhood at that after-dinner hour that had once represented the peak moment, the magic hour of my own childhood, was that we didn’t encounter a single other child.

Even if I do send them out, will there be anyone to play with?

Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted—not taught—to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *