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 twenty-month old in one arm and unloading the shopping cart onto the checkout counter with the other. I don’t remember what I was thinking about at the time, but it is likely to have been the original 1979 jingle for Honey Nut Cheerios or nothing at all as 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.”
I looked at my son. He was chewing on the paper coating of a wire twist tie. A choking hazard, without a doubt; the wire could have pierced his lip or tongue. His hairstyle tended to the cartoonier pole of the Woodstock-Einstein continuum. His face was probably a tad on the smudgy side. Dirty even. One might have been tempted to employ the word crust.
“Oh, this isn’t my child,” I told her. “I found him in the back.”
Actually, I thanked her. I went off with my boy in one arm and a bag of groceries in the other, and when we got home I put a plastic bowl filled with Honey Nut Cheerios in front of him and checked my e-mail. I was a really good dad.
I don’t know what a woman needs to do to impel a perfect stranger to inform her in the grocery story that she is a really good mom. Perhaps perform an emergency tracheotomy with a Bic pen on her eldest child while simultaneously nursing her infant and buying two weeks’ worth of healthy but appealing break-time snacks for the entire cast of Lion King Jr. (p 12)
I stole this book right off my father’s shelf and I don’t plan to give it back. He doesn’t need it anyway; he’s already placed well in his roles of Husband, Father, and Son, and I don’t want him getting any new ideas at this stage of the game. Frankly, even if he changed the parts of himself that drove me crazy – and tangled within my absolute love and loyalty to him, there certainly are such things – I would be…concerned? Confused? Off-put, perhaps, by any extreme changes to his nature.
Possibly, that is because those parts of him are also deeply parts of me – the stubbornness, the curmudgeonly grumbling, the anxious and overprotecting love for the people closest to us. The traits that frustrate me in him are the same ones that drive people crazy when dealing with me, and it’s comforting to know that I have in him both an ally and an example of how deeply cherished a person with such quirks can be.
Where my mother and I negotiated, my father and I argued. We availed ourselves of the age-old stereotypes of fathers and daughters while remaining dear companions and confidantes. I can wholly imagine him in the situation Chabon writes of above, preening while simultaneously recognizing the patent absurdity of the situations inherent in fatherhood. I’m sure this familiarity is part of the reason why I loved this book so much. Chabon feels, not only like my own father, but like my brother, and my husband, and all the men I know who are well-intentioned but occasionally good-naturedly clueless.
Chabon manages to poke a little fun at himself while remaining just as wise as one might want such a man to be. He has his insights, his disasters, and flaws. He writes gorgeously, as I have come to expect him to, but his talent doesn’t overshadow the spectrum of human emotion he’s excavating. Instead, his mastery of language enriches the (at times excruciating) honesty of his own story. The book is as brutal and hilarious and heartbreaking as each of our stories would be if we had the ability to cast them out as he has, and because of that, the experience of reading it is one of precious, undisguised kinship.
For more about Michael Chabon, go here.