You and I are both parents, and both have parents (the same ones, in fact). I have three kids. As we speak, your wife is pregnant with your fifth (!) child, your first boy. So we’ve been parented. We parent. And so many of the other topics that Michael Chabon addresses in his collection of essays, Pops, are ones that one or both of us have talked at length to each other about—writing, reading, being a man in a world pervaded by toxic patriarchy.
Pops is anchored by a piece that he first wrote for GQ about attending Paris Fashion Week with his dandyish son Abraham, who asked for the trip as a bar mitzvah present. When the essay ran in GQ, you texted me (and I apologize for outing you like this, since it’s going to put you in a structurally difficult position) that you found the character of his son, Abe, “unbearable.”
You didn’t elaborate, but I can guess as to why. Abe says things like “It was fire,” and “It was totally lit.” He saved money to buy $250 Raf Simons Adidas sneakers (reduced from $400) and a “pale gray-green” Maison Margiela shirt, “cleanly tailored, with a narrow collar and covered buttons that gave it a minimalist sleekness.” When called up to the stage by one particularly chic designer, in Paris, and asked where he was from, Abe says Oakland when the truth is Berkeley, because Oaktown is more authentic-seeming, blacker, cooler.
It’s not too hard for a reader to construct Abe as quite affected, or extraordinarily privileged, or something in the vicinity of those two concepts. In understanding why I didn’t react to him that way, it matters, I think, that I didn’t read the essay where it originally appeared in GQ, with those striking photos of Abe on the boulevard in Paris, Abe standing next to those models at the Virgil Abloh show, Abe with his dad. In them, he is always dressed just so, with his hair just so, and without the visible insecurity we find reassuring in a 13-year-old, particularly one as well put together as Abe. I didn’t see those photos until after reading the piece in the book. All I had was Chabon’s voice on the page.
And I was persuaded by that voice, by his proud and concerned and loving paternal gaze. I was in there with Michael Chabon, father of a young, vulnerable child (his Little Man) whom he loves, even though he doesn’t totally understand him, and about whom he worries, in part because Abe is so different from most kids his age, and also because we know that however hard we work to make sure that our kids will be OK, we can’t guarantee it. Being human is too hard. The world is too good at wounding people, and derailing them, to ever attain more than a provisional confidence that our children will flourish.
Abe, in this sense, is just a kid whose difference and vulnerability and inscrutability happen to be flamboyantly visible. Chabon is doing what we all hope to do as parents faced with our children. He’s packing as much love into him as he can, as fast as he can, in the hope that when he eventually has to let Abe go, Abe will be strong enough, and the world kind enough, for him to be OK. What Chabon sees, as Abe navigates fashion week, is some evidence that this alignment of internal strength and social receptivity will happen. And it’s a profound relief to him, though of course tinged with ineradicable uncertainty.
You are born into a family and those are your people, and they know you and they love you, and if you are lucky they even on occasion manage to understand you. And that ought to be enough. But it is never enough. Abe had not been dressing up, styling himself, for all these years because he was trying to prove how different he was from everyone else. He did it in the hope of attracting the attention of somebody else—somewhere, someday—who was the same. He was not flying his freak flag; he was sending up a flare, hoping for rescue, for company in the solitude of his passion.
“You were with your people. You found them,” I said.
He nodded. “That’s good,” I said. “You’re early.”
The whole thing is pretty moving to me. Obviously not to you, since you have a heart of ice and hate children.
You know, looking back, I am not sure why I sent that text demeaning Abe Chabon (and no, I’m not just, or at least not only, trying to dial back a slur on the son of one of my favorite writers). Something about Chabon’s description of his son Abe did bother me—or to be more precise, and frank, something about Abe bothered me. So what was it?
There are, as you note, the obvious answers, including the rank materialism of his passion, high fashion: People like us, writer people, might do clothes, but we don’t do clothes people. When I have brushed up against that world, the people there have usually led me to throw my hands up, and quickly. Fashionistas wield their knowledge with more than a touch of condescending hermeticism. So I can imagine Abe growing up into somebody who is pretty impatient with khaki’d men like me.
But is that it? Maybe I resented Abe because he feels more comfortable being him (“doing him,” as I think the kids say now), than I did being me at his age, or perhaps than I do being me now? Maybe it’s envy. Or maybe I was unnerved by the fear that I would not respond to a child-like Abe with the bountiful understanding that Michael Chabon—already good at so much that I wish I were good at—provides. Maybe Abe irks me because he is evidence of Chabon’s unending gifts, which include extreme solicitude for a son who isn’t performing son-ness as most dads probably think their sons will. Is this latent homophobia, a fear—perhaps reanimated by the coming arrival of my own first son—of how I would handle being father to a boy with dandyish tendencies? In Love, Simon terms: I know I’d be a terrific dad to Simon, but what about his more fabulous schoolmate, Ethan?
Well, I think I would do fine. I surely hope so, since what I bemoan most about the undergraduates I teach is how same they can all seem, how unlikely any of them are to display eccentricity: in fashion, in political views, in artistic tastes. What I’d give to teach a cross-dressing monarchist lightweight rower with a passionate love for spaghetti Westerns.
Instead: sweatshirts and Beats headphones. The world needs more Abe Chabons.
Pops—while slimmer and not as satisfying as Chabon’s last man-ifesto, Manhood for Amateurs, a real bible of mine—raises all sorts of intriguing man-full questions. For me, the most interesting essay was “Against Dickitude,” in which Chabon puzzles out what to say when one of his sons is inadvertently toying with the emotions of a girl with whom he has a texting relationship. “My son’s response,” Chabon writes, “to the proffered attention of an attractive young female is, systematically, I would say almost with devotion, to keep his distance. To frost her.” He worries that now, “along with everything else—the rules of consent, the imperatives of sexual reciprocity, the fundamental principle of equality—I have to teach him not to be a dick to girls.”
But does he? I feel like most of the dads I grew up around, ours included, taught their sons not to be dicks simply by modeling non-dickishness. They were nice to each other and to strangers. And I think they steered us mostly clear of bad masculinity (cf. the intersection of sports fandom and misogyny; fraternities; drunkenness; demeaning sexist humor), although I don’t know if they were thoughtful or just lucky. Chabon clearly believes, and here a lot of current thinking is with him, that dads have to have a special message for sons, else the boys will grow into Bad Men. I have my doubts. But then again, I don’t (yet) have any sons. What do you think?
It is daunting how good a father Michael Chabon seems to be, along with how good a writer he most certainly is. He just seems to get it. And not just to get it, conceptually, but be able to do it, intuitively. He used his own status as a writer to secure a dream trip to Paris for his son, but once there he receded lovingly into the background, allowing Abe to step out into the spotlight. In another essay, he walks his daughter carefully and winningly through complex ideas of difference, alienation, and existential solitude while waiting for coffee at a local Peet’s. Snuggling on the couch with his daughter (not sure if it’s the same one), who was “employing me as furniture in a way that I never would have dreamed of attempting with my father,” he introduces her to the mysteries of baseball. And so on. He’s strong when he needs to be, backs off when the kids need to stand on their own, is weak when he can’t help but be, and is loving always. Also, and this is harder than it should be for all of us, he seems to really see them as who they are (with maybe one exception, which I’ll get to in a second) rather than as extensions or reflections of him.
He isn’t perfect, at all, but does genuinely seem to be a whole human being for his children, which is what his own father wasn’t for him (as we know from the title essay). That kind of wholeness is also what he is hoping to cultivate in his own kids.
“Against Dickitude,” which I’m glad you brought up, was the only essay in which I thought Chabon seemed off in his paternal judgement. With Abe and his effeminacy, Chabon is all patience. Let Abe be who he will be. Trust in Abe’s inner goodness, his desire to grow and connect. Give him love and support and hope that he will be whole. With his older son, who is worrisomely dude-ish, Chabon can’t stay so grounded, can’t trust in the same way. He seems too captive to his own fears of raising a certain kind of man—a man like his father, maybe, a man of the sort that feminism (broadly speaking) has done such a good job of theorizing and deconstructing. Emotionally inaccessible. Rejecting of female need and affection. A froster. Frosty.
I get this. I worry about it, too, with my sons. In some ways I probably worry about it more than Chabon does because I think I understand it better from the inside. I’m pretty sure I’m frostier than Chabon is, in that deep sense. I’m uncomfortable with too much intimacy, afraid of female need, quicker to anger than sadness, apt to cerebrate rather than experience my emotions. I’m some version of the kind of man I think Chabon fears his son may grow up to be.
When I look at my older son, who is almost 8, what I see is that I haven’t obviously fucked it up yet. He is more open than I am, more able to feel sadness, more spontaneously joyful, less formed but more whole. So far so good. But I also suspect that I was like that at that age too. Then the world had its way with me. It boarded up my tear ducts, implanted in my head a chip that instantly converts sadness and hurt into anger, etc.
I don’t want to be an accomplice to the world doing that to my sons. I’d rather be their ally in remaining whole. In that effort, though, Chabon’s prescription in “Against Dickitude” feels wrong. His experience of learning from women, about how to be a man in relation to women, is fascinating and persuasive, but I don’t think you can reverse engineer that experience backward into a set of straightforward prescriptions for parenting your own sons. Humans don’t work that way. We don’t develop that way, as programmable recipients of clear instructions for how to be. That doesn’t mean we can’t do anything to help our kids become more humane and feminist, or even that we shouldn’t give those clear instructions. But I do think there are severe limitations to what that kind of instruction can accomplish.
Also, and I want to make sure I say this, I’m not so sure it’s fair to frame Chabon’s son as a dick in the making. What if he’s just a kid who’s dealing with the imminent and terrifying arrival of romance, sex, and relationships into his life in his own awkward way? Why so willing to give Abe the space to be his 13-year-old self but so quick to assume that the more traditional masculinity of this son needs to be pruned, shaped, closely cultivated? I mean, I understand why he feels that way in light of his critique of traditional masculinity (which I mostly share), but the kind of parenting that Chabon is otherwise modeling in this book, I think, would show more humility toward, and faith in, the kind of man his son is going to become.
I was in Cambridge a couple days ago, browsing in Harvard Bookstore, and there was a whole shelf dedicated to relatively new books about motherhood by eminences like Jacqueline Rose and Sheila Heti. I haven’t read any of those books yet, but I have read reviews of them (as we writers do), and I know that they are all pretty heavy, just like recent books by Rachel Cusk, Elisa Albert, and others, all wrestling with issues of identity, purpose, shame, and judgment. And it occurred to me that if a bookstore were to assemble a similar shelf of dad books, it would include books by Neal Pollack, Michael Lewis, Drew Magary, and Chabon, all of them fairly brisk, cheery, even funny. In the dad books, even when there is poop, there is pep. (Note that I am talking about books about being a dad; books about being a son—by Philip Roth, Benjamin Cheever, Carl Bernstein, and others—can really bleak out.)
Why? Why does the current culture license women to really interrogate motherhood, wrestle it to the ground and listen to it moan, while dads are expected to sit in the bleachers, take some cursory notes, and chuckle a little on the page? I think it has something to do with our relatively high expectations, and fierce judgments, of mothers. Most even marginally engaged dads have had the experience of taking a young child into public—on a plane, say—and knowing that everyone is cooing at you, whereas moms in that situation face the worried frowns of others, including other moms, petrified that they’ll have to sit next to a screaming infant. For dads, the bar is so, so low.
And that’s as it should be, I think. Rather than demand more of dads, we need to demand way less of moms. Mothers could do with a bit more of the leeway that dads get coming and going. Which leads me to agree with you that Chabon should let up on his older “dickish” son—that his easy hands-offiness with the younger Abe is the right template for us all.
Ultimately, we just don’t control much. You and I had a recent conversation about the trend for parents to try to control more and more, not just TV and soda consumption, like in the good old ’70s, but now their children’s juice consumption, what material their sippy cups and thermoses are made from, cane sugar versus corn syrup, and so on. Chabon seems to let his kids have boffo overpriced sneakers and trips to Paris, and probably artisanal Berkeley ice cream, but he’s still in their business, trying to make sure they text kindly (and raising the stakes really high if they don’t). In his way, he’s as panicked as some of the mom writers, but whereas they are worried that in motherhood they will lose their selves, he is worried that inattentive fatherhood will cost his son’s soul.
And of course he is Exhibit A that the father doesn’t predict the son, or at least not in any ways we can tell. His own dad was distant and inattentive, but Chabon didn’t inherit those traits, not at all. Instead, he seems to have learned from his father a passion for craft and the necessary patience. “My father has fitted the earpieces of his stethoscope to his ears,” Chabon writes, in the title essay, “Pops,” remembering house calls with his M.D. dad. “He slides its diaphragm under the blood pressure cuff. One eyebrow arched, he listens to the patient’s pulse with an expression of calm intensity that to this day remains the badge, in my imagination, of an engaged and curious mind.” I have memories of our dad hard at work like that, bent over the just-cleared dinner table, yellow legal pads spread out alongside law books, scrawling with this liquid-ink pens. The work looked boring, and all four of his children have chosen fields far from his, but that evening scene remains my fastest image of manhood. There he was, working, providing, his children nearby, so that we might someday go far away.
Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces by Michael Chabon. Harper.