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‘Typically Speaking, Men Are Very Limited Creatures’

Michael Chabon, the novelist behind a new book of essays on fatherhood, talks #MeToo, feminism, and forgiveness. 

Michael Chabon.

This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by
San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Name: Michael Chabon
Occupation: Writer
Age: 54
Residence: Berkeley

San Francisco: Your new essay collection, Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, is all about raising kids. How does this moment, the #MeToo era, change how you think of fatherhood, and particularly how you raise boys?
Michael Chabon: I’ve been wrestling with this my whole life. Growing up with a single, divorced mom, I came out of that with a consciousness about as raised as a boy’s could be in the 1970s. But I still had to grapple with my own sexist assumptions and misogyny. Having sons and seeing them come of age and enter their sexual identities and relationships with women, I’m very alert to trying to be thoughtful of and anticipate all that traditional sexist crap. It’s a constant struggle. And that’s OK—what you’re talking about is a big change, and obviously what’s happened since Trump’s election has really dragged this hideous monster into the light.

Do you try to imagine what kind of adults you want your kids to be? Or is that too presumptuous?
That’s the only way to do it. If you don’t have those goals, I think it’s malpractice, actually. Obviously we won’t all agree on what the ideal adult is. But for me and my wife, it’s always been really important that they be kind to each other and to their friends. So we set kindness as a primary virtue. Empathy. Trying to imagine what’s going on in another person’s head.

So do you blame yourself when they’re unkind?
You’re always looking for signs that they’re getting the message. But then there’s a setback, and you question whether they’ve been paying attention to you at all. The other thing is that you’re a hypocrite—all parents are. And kids are super smart about that. They see you’re not living up to the standards you’ve set out for them.

Do you sense that your boys, especially, are internalizing the feminist messages you’d like them to?
If you’re a boy coming of age, at 12 or 13, there’s stuff going on in you that’s biochemical. No matter how raised your consciousness has been, you still enact all kinds of behaviors toward girls that are just disrespectful. Not like violence or abuse, but disrespect. There’s this homosocial period, where boys’ key relationships are all male to male—whether it’s a gang of friends or a rock band or whatever. Another purpose of it is to exclude girls, and not just exclude them but diminish them. My son, who’s 20 now, and I have talked about this. When he looks back at 14, 15, 16, there are similar examples of disrespect and belittling. Treating them like shit—being a dick, basically.

The heart of the book is your 2016 GQ story about taking your youngest son, a fashion obsessive, to Fashion Week in Paris. Is there a lesson in there about indulging your kids’ passions, even if they’re not ones you share with them?
Well, obviously I was really lucky that I could call up a major Condé Nast magazine and say, “Hey, I’d like to do this.” I mean, I still see some parents where they—lovingly—will impose some cultural or artistic value on their kids. Maybe playing sports, like if the father was a big sports player himself. That still happens. And there are things I love and care about—like rock ’n’ roll or hip-hop or old movies—and I’d like it for those to be important to my kids. But there’s a pleasure in discovering that your kid is into something that you’re not that into, or that you don’t really understand. So you do want to encourage them and indulge them, within the limits of your family budget.

You write a bit about your own father, whom you have a complicated relationship with. Has fatherhood changed your feelings toward him?
My father was doing the best he could. The fact is that when he became a father, in the 1960s, the standard was very low. If you were a good provider, you were 92 percent of the way to being considered a good father. The other 8 percent was, I don’t know, taking your kid to a ballgame once in a while. So in that sense it isn’t fair to judge a father from 50 years ago against the standards of today. And I don’t. Even now, it’s still a pretty low standard. A completely engaged effort on the part of a well-intentioned man is still going to fall short of what a woman puts into being a mother—and gets very little credit for. Nobody comes up to her in the grocery store when she’s holding the kids and says, “Wow, what a great mom”—the way people did to me when the kids were young. I still fail so much and miss the mark so frequently that I can look back at my dad and be much more forgiving than when I started out. Typically speaking, men are very limited creatures. So maybe his best wasn’t that great. But it’s not like he wasn’t trying.


Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco 

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